Athens Day One: The Stoa Poikile

Stoa Poikile my PhotoI arrived in Athens last night so this morning I decided to head straight for the Stoa Poikile, the home of Stoicism.  A Greek stoa is a colonnade: basically a row of columns supporting a roof.  The Stoa Poikile had a wall on one side giving shade, so it’s described as a portico or a plain old “porch”.  It’s also a bit like the ancient equivalent of what we might call a covered “arcade” today.  Stoa Poikile literally just means “painted porch” therefore.  It was so called because of the highly-regarded paintings that adorned the wall.  It was originally called the Porch of Peisianax, after the Athenian statesman who commissioned it in the 5th century BC.  (That’s my Photo of the Stoa Poikile in Athens, the other photos in this post are from the web.)

Poikile Stoa CafeThe part of the Athenian agora where it was located is now an archeological site in the middle of the city, although there’s not a whole lot to see there except the rubble walls of lots of ancient Athenian shops and many ruined wells, descending into the river that runs below.  There’s a bar situated beside and above the ruins, the Poikile Stoa, which is named after the ancient Stoa Poikile.  There wasn’t a lot of philosophy going on inside, though.  There was an assortment of classical paintings.

Stoa Poikile RuinsI asked the barman where exactly the ruined foundations of the Stoa Poikile were among the rubble below.  His version of the story was that the archeologists originally believed they’d found it but it turned out just to be the wall of another shop.  So they don’t know exactly where it is.  He said they know it must be somewhere nearby so they want to tear down his bar and “keep dig, dig, dig” underneath.  He was a bit annoyed about this and, pointing down toward the rubble, he ruefully observed: “Where you gonna drink beer?  You can’t drink beer in this, eh?”  Another young Greek at a table nearby having a drink with a young woman added: “We’re Greeks but we don’t know anything about history anymore; nobody cares”, shrugging and shaking his head sadly.  Someone else told me that the Stoa Poikile is there alright but they heard only a third of its ruined foundations remain.  (By some accounts the picture here shows what’s left of the Stoa Poikile beside the ruins of some nearby shops.)

Stoa of AttalusAnyway, there’s not much to see down there anymore.  Although the nearby reconstruction of the Stoa of Attalus, another colonnade, probably looked fairly similar to the one we’re after. (It’s shown in this picture.) Perhaps so little remaining of the Stoa Poikile is a reminder that nothing lasts forever, and that even great architecture eventually crumbles, disappears, and is forgotten.

Anyway, we know that Zeno chose this as the home of his school, who were at first called Zenonians and later became known simply as the Stoics after the stoa where they gathered.  There are a few notable things about that…

Stories about the Stoa

The Stoa Poikile was a public building, a sort of porch offering protection from the sun.  The Cynics reputedly slept on such porches and it’s at least possible that Zeno, who had been a Cynic himself for many years, may have slept here at some point in his life, perhaps before founding his school there.  It’s very public and situated among the shops on the edge of the Athenian agora, precisely where Socrates used to mingle with craftsmen discussing philosophy.  Zeno was undoubtedly aware of that similarity and perhaps saw himself as teaching in public as Socrates had done before him.  By contrast, other schools of philosophy were typically located in gymnasia, or public spaces set aside for exercise and training, away from the hubbub of the marketplace.  Some have even seen the name “Stoic” as implying something like “philosophy of the street”.

Moreover, whereas other schools were named after their founders, such as Pythagoreanism or Epicureanism, the Stoics rejected this notion.  I think that’s because the Stoics insisted that none of them, not even Zeno, were perfectly wise.  Unlike the Pythagoreans and Epicureans, who did consider their founders to be perfect sages, the Stoics didn’t memorize Zeno’s teachings by rote learning.  Instead they were encouraged to employ the Socratic method and think for themselves, something we tend to think of now as a hallmark of true philosophy.  Zeno, incidentally, used to pace rapidly up and down the length of the Stoa Poikile while discoursing on philosophy, according to Diogenes Laertius, “his object being to keep the spot clear of a concourse of idlers”.

The Stoa Poikile was, in a sense, a sort of Athenian art gallery.  Its wall was decorated with four large plates painted by Micon of Athens, Polygnotos of Thasos, and perhaps others.  They depict:

  1. The mythic battle between Theseus and the Amazons, a scene which may have been in Cleanthes’ mind, the second head of the Stoa, when he wrote that virtue is the same in men and women
  2. The legendary fall of Troy to the Greeks led by Agamemnon, after its defences had been breached by the Stoic hero Odysseus using the “Trojan Horse” trick
  3. The real, historical Battle of Oenoe where the Athenians defeated the Spartans, although the Stoics appear to have admired the Spartans for their self-discipline
  4. The historical Battle of Marathon (490 BC) where the Athenians won a great victory against the Persian army, during the reign of King Darius I

So Zeno lectured in front of these four huge paintings depicting various real and imaginary battles.  Possibly Epictetus was influenced by something the early Greek Stoics had said about the Amazonomachy scene dominating the location of their school, for instance, in Discourse 2.16.  He tells his own Stoic students “nor yet are you Theseus, able to purge away the evil things of Attica” but that instead of defeating monsters and barbarians to clear the region around Athens, they should clear away the evil things within themselves, such as sadness, fear, desire, envy, and intemperance, etc.  Epictetus also brings up the Trojan War several times, such as at Discourses 1.28 when he says:

When was Achilles ruined? Was it when Patroclus died? Not so. But it happened when he began to be angry, when he wept for a girl, when he forgot that he was at Troy not to get mistresses, but to fight. These things are the ruin of men, this is being besieged, this is the destruction of cities, when right opinions are destroyed, when they are corrupted.

Were scenes such as these, which he discusses with his Stoic students, also discussed by the early Greek Stoics while they paced up and  down before Polygnotus’ famous painting, which actually depicted the fall of Troy?

Given this visual backdrop to the Athenian Stoic school, it’s perhaps no surprise, indeed, that a range of both artistic and military metaphors find their way into Stoic writings  I like to imagine, for instance, that Zeno might have told his students that although the scenes of battle depicted looked realistic and showed graphic violence, no sane person was afraid of them, because they realize they’re just pictures (impressions) and not the things they represent, to borrow a phrase used centuries later by Epictetus.  That’s just speculation, of course.  Although, Marcus Aurelius, who painted himself and was actually first introduced to philosophy by his painting master, appears to be referring to visual aesthetics in the following remarkable passage:

And ears of corn bending towards the earth, and the wrinkled brows of a lion, and the foam dripping from the jaws of a wild boar, and many other things are far from beautiful if one views them in isolation, but nevertheless, the fact that they follow from natural processes gives them an added beauty and makes them attractive to us. So if a person is endowed with sensibility and has a deep enough insight into the workings of the universe, he will find scarcely anything which fails to please him in some way by its presence, even among those that arise as secondary effects. Such a person will view the gaping jaws of wild beasts in their physical reality with no less pleasure than the portrayals of them displayed by painters and sculptors, and he will be able to see in an old woman or old man a special kind of mature beauty, and to look on the youthful charms of his slave boys with chaste eyes. And one could cite many similar examples, which will not seem persuasive to everyone, but will only strike home with those who are genuinely familiar with nature and all her works. (Meditations, 3.2)

Note: Marcus says here that the Stoic wise man will regard the gaping jaws of ferocious beasts such as lions and wild boars with the same indifference that he views their depiction by artists and sculptors.  Could this remarkable idea go back to something Zeno may have said about the paintings on the porch  Marcus, of course, also says that “life is warfare”, a theme that may have occurred to Zeno and his students as they met each day to discuss philosophy before a backdrop depicting the carnage of ancient warfare.

Finally, Diogenes Laertius adds a shocking historical detail: “It was the spot where in the time of the Thirty 1,400 Athenian citizens had been put to death.”  If this is true, Zeno would have also known about it, and it therefore perhaps inspired some of the Stoic thoughts about the theme of death.  The Thirty Tyrants were basically a puppet oligarchic regime or junta installed over Athens at the end of the Peloponnesian War by the victorious Spartans.  They were vastly unpopular because they soon turned to into brutal tyrants, rounding up and executing foreign residents (metics, immigrants) and democrats.  They carried out summary executions of the wealthy in order to line their own pockets by seizing their assets.  Zeno would have known that Critias, the head of the Thirty Tyrants, and a former pupil of Socrates, allegedly tried to pass a law banning his old teacher from discussing politics or philosophy, because he was criticizing the regime indirectly.  Socrates said that a good shepherd does not diminish thus the size of his flock, which Critias rightly took to be a criticism of the mass executions being carried out by him.   Socrates seems to have ignored this ban.  Critias then employed a tactic used on others and ordered Socrates to join a small posse to arrest and summarily execute an innocent man called Leon of Salamis, another foreign resident, perhaps with democrat sympathies.  Socrates simply refused.  Critias had hoped either to implicate him in his crimes or, if he refused, to be provided with a pretext for executing him, for disobeying a direct order.  However, the oligarchy was overthrown by a democrat uprising before they could have Socrates executed, so he got away by the skin of his teeth.

Anyway, Zeno was probably also aware that Socrates had risked his own life defying the orders of Critias and the Thirty Tyrants in this way.  This famous example of courage in the face of injustice, demonstrated by Socrates, was likely also in his mind as he lectured every day at the Stoa Poikile, the scene where such executions were carried out.  I was tempted to tell my barman friend that 1,400 ancient Athenians were summarily executed on the ruined porch underneath his establishment, probably by strangulation rather than hemlock like Socrates, but I’m not sure he would have wanted to know that.

Stoic Book Review: Antifragile by Nassim Taleb

AntifragilePeople have been telling me to read Antifragile: Things that Gain From Disorder (2014) by Nassim Taleb since the book came out because  he’s into Stoicism. I’ve finally had a chance to read it so here’s my latest quasi-review. I say that because rather than talk about the whole book I’m just going to write a bit more informally about my impressions, mainly regarding what he says about Stoicism.

First of all, though, a caveat. Taleb’s writing has a reputation for being hard to review.  His style (it seems to me) is idiosyncratic, disorganized, bombastic, refreshing, confrontational, iconoclastic, etc.  Arguably that makes the book more engaging, although it can also be frustrating at times.  Maybe in smaller doses. (Likewise, I don’t mind the occasional song by Björk but I don’t know if I could sit through a whole album.)

Nassim Taleb

Although you can kind of get a rough sense of what he’s talking about fairly easily, on close inspection it’s often surprisingly difficult to pin down exactly what he means.  (Maybe that explains why he seems to think most other people are stupid.)   I don’t think I’m the only one, though, because other reviewers seem to have the same problem. Also when I spoke to some fans of his work about bits that seemed confusing it turned out they couldn’t make any more sense out of it than me. Having read the book fairly closely, it seems to me that Taleb is often quite unclear about key concepts and sometimes he does appear to use arguments that are incomplete or not entirely convincing.  He doesn’t seem to like copy editors because their “interventionist” approach stifles his creativity, which is fair comment.  Although like most things in life there are pros and cons to that strategy, and in a few places an editor’s corrections might potentially have been helpful to the reader.  Then again, that’s the guy’s writing style so take it or leave it.

I think it’s fair to say that Taleb has become notorious for his rather scathing attacks on people (e.g., “Fragilistas”) who he thinks are idiots.  (Or who happen not to agree with him, depending on how you look at it.)  Well, you know, call me old fashioned but, whatever he thinks, that doesn’t really seem to me to be the healthiest attitude for an author to adopt.  I’m pretty sure it just stifles discussion and proper evaluation of his writing.  Don’t get me wrong, there are lots of people out there, including plenty of academics, who say things so stupid it barely seems worth anyone’s effort to respond.  However, there’s got to be a better way of dealing with people who get on your goat.  Anyway, that actually leads into the first thing I wanted to say about Antifragile…

Taleb’s basic concept is that although we all know roughly what it means for something to be fragile we don’t have a word for its opposite. We say that something that isn’t fragile is “robust” or “resilient” but that’s just the absence of fragility, says Taleb, not its opposite. Something fragile is easily broken by knocks, something robust is impervious to knocks. Something that’s the opposite of fragile, though, would actually benefit from knocks and grow stronger. So he coins the term “antifragile” to denote this new concept – voila! 

(I’m still undecided about whether this basic premise actually makes sense, to be honest, because, to cut a long story short, whereas Taleb talks about something going from being “fragile” to “antifragile”, I wonder whether we’d not find it more natural, at least in some of these cases, to relabel the stimuli that we were formerly fragile toward as having gone from being “harmful” to “beneficial” – it’s a two-term relationship after all that we’re describing and yet Taleb is focusing on how we label one side but not really how we might shift our way of labelling the other instead.  A normal serpent is fragile with regard to having its head chopped off but the mythical Hydra, to borrow an example from his book, is antifragile because it grows two heads for each decapitation, and just gets stronger.  Fair enough, but wouldn’t it be just as easy, if not easier, to say that whereas decapitation is harmful for most creatures it’s actually quite beneficial for the Hydra, who, paradoxically, gains strength as a result?  That doesn’t require a neologism: it’s just the way we label the stimulus that’s changed not the way we label the subject.  Like I said, though, I’m still mulling this over…)

Anyway, that’s really the main theme that runs through the entire book, with a lot of interesting digressions, anecdotes, and other bits and pieces of advice: from weight-lifting to holiday itineraries and beyond.

Now, Taleb says repeatedly that nature herself is the best example of something antifragile. Presumably, in part, because species adapt to adversity and grow stronger as a result. So although he doesn’t say this himself, or explain why he doesn’t say it, a number of reviewers seem to have noticed that “antifragility” resembles the concept of evolution or survival of the fittest through natural selection. The difference is that antifragility is being used more broadly as a way of understanding life and society in general, on many different levels. So it’s surprising that Taleb never touches on “Social Darwinism”, if only to clarify the distinction between his new concept of “antifragility” and the various philosophical ideas that fall under that heading.  (Note: I should mention that Taleb has an ethic that says it’s wrong to maintain your own antifragility at someone else’s expense.)

Throughout the book Taleb marvels at how others have completely failed to grasp the concept underlying his neologism even though it’s been staring them in the face all along. That’s fair enough in a way. However, from the outset, as someone who’s worked and written in this area, I couldn’t help but think that the concept of emotional resilience and the closely-related idea of posttraumatic growth (PTG) in modern psychology are surely kind of similar to what he’s talking about. In psychology the concept of “resilience” sometimes covers both what Taleb means by it and what he calls being antifragile.  We also talk about the concept of “thriving”, which seems akin to what he has in mind.  Eventually, Taleb says he discovered the concept of posttraumatic growth (when someone grows stronger following a trauma) and he concedes that this at least constitutes one example, in psychology, of what he meant by antifragility.

However, he never really returns to the subject and basically ignores all of the scientific research on posttraumatic growth, and related findings in psychology. Surely some of his readers must be left thinking: “Huh? So if this is what you’re talking about, what do all the scientific studies actually tell us about it?” A quick search of PubMed, incidentally, shows that there are currently 843 books and scientific journal articles listed that mention posttraumatic growth.

Now, I understand that Taleb has an ambivalent relationship with empirical research – sometimes he uses it, sometimes he criticizes the whole idea.  However, I still think we’ve a right to expect more than a fleeting mention of the fact that there’s a whole field of research already dealing with this subject. It seems to me that overall the findings don’t really correspond very closely with what he’s written about it. For example, one of the most consistent findings both from studies on resilience and posttraumatic growth is that the presence of strong social support is a predictor of good mental health and wellbeing following trauma, either through resilience or growth. However, Taleb barely mentions the role of social support in his discussion of antifragility. Perhaps he would happily dispute the relevance of psychological studies in this area or challenge their findings but then he should probably be more explicit about that, for the sake of his readers.

Anyway, what I really wanted to talk about is his use of Stoic philosophy. First, though, another (minor) digression. As I was reading Antifragile, although it contains many interesting examples, it struck me that there seemed to be other obvious examples of the central concept that I was surprised Taleb didn’t mention. The main one is this. For most of my adult life I’ve been a trainer of sorts, in various different contexts. I’ve always gathered very detailed feedback from students and read it very closely. When running a new course, I’ll gather quantitative and qualitative feedback mid-course so that I have the opportunity to make changes on the fly. Some of my colleagues (and competitors) don’t do that.  I’ve always felt that by avoiding the (perceived) harm (to one’s fragile ego) of reading negative comments they’re basically paying a huge price by missing out on the opportunity to grow and improve as a trainer. It prevents their teaching style and their course content from evolving. Put another way: inviting criticism is antifragile. (It seems to me anyway.)  It can be painful but it makes you stronger.  Avoiding exposure to criticism or attacking your critics to shut them down would, by contrast, be fragile – indeed, we often say someone like that has a fragile ego.

As I read Taleb’s Antifragile I noticed that I kept thinking of the following maxim from Epicurus: In a philosophical dispute, he gains most who is defeated, since he learns the most. It seems to me that someone who lives by that philosophy will be antifragile, at least in one important respect. He actually turns what looks like failure into victory and considers himself to have benefited every time he’s defeated in an argument.  He turns chicken shit into chicken soup, to borrow an expression from, of all people, Roger Stone.  Or as Epictetus put it, like the magical wand, the caduceus, of Hermes, through his philosophy he touches misfortune and turns it into good fortune.

Let’s repeat that: “In a philosophical dispute, he gains most who is defeated, since he learns the most.”  I think we’d all be able to admire that guy.  Who would deny that genuinely being able to look at things that way would demonstrate tremendous strength of character, humility, and wisdom? For an Epicurean who really assimilated that maxim, in Taleb-speak, there would be no downside to being proven wrong and losing an argument, only an upside: learning. I was half-expecting Taleb to mention that quote, as it’s reasonably well-known. Here’s the question, though.  Does Taleb’s own fairly aggressive style of debate, his way of forcefully putting-down “Fragilistas” and idiots that he disagrees with, run contrary to that nugget of philosophy?  I’ll leave it to others to decide. I do think it would be a very interesting quote for him to get his teeth into, though.  It seems to be the sort of thing he likes.

Addendum in the Middle

I’m just going to arbitrarily inject this sort of addendum or footnote that occured to me after I finished…  Bear with me because this might seem like an odd question but: Why is this a noun?  (“Antifragility”, “the antifragile”, or an adjective, “antifragile”?)  I’d rather it was a verb, to be honest.  Maybe Taleb’s book reminded me slightly of Alfred Korzybski’s Science and Sanity (yes, we’re going back a bit now!).  I’m constitutionally suspicious of nouns, and adjectives are just as bad.  I’d rather talk about what someone is doing than what they are.  We tend to find in psychotherapy that makes a crucial difference: “I am tense” versus “I tense my…”    (What are you tensing?  How?  Where and when?  Why don’t you stop?)

“Verbification” or “verbing”, we call it.  The most famous example is probably the way therapists teach clients to say they’re actively “catastrophizing” a situation or “decatastrophizing” it rather than just “this is a catastrophe!”  If I was going to coin a new term for the opposite of fragile, I’d start by verbing it somehow.  This guy is fragilizing himself… at these times, in this way, etc.  Now he’s beginning to antifragilize his investments or his relationships or whatever…  (I know people hate that but I’m not sorry because I find it actually works quite well as a way of clarifying our thinking, like Korzybski’s General Semantics claims.)

Come to think of it, insofar as decatastrophizing in cognitive therapy goes beyond reduction of threat appraisal and into constructive re-appraisal of our coping ability, it probably already transgresses into what Taleb calls being antifragile.  People start to see situations they worried about excessively not only as bearable but also as potentially having some positive aspects or opportunities for them.  That reminds me of another little-known Stoic technique.  Epictetus said that one of his political heroes, Paconius Agrippinus, a member of the Stoic Opposition against Nero, used to write “eulogies” to himself actually praising the misfortunes that befell him, such as being exiled from Rome.  He not only moderated the downside of adversity but actively sought out an upside, even in the face of extreme situations, and he did it in the form of a semi-formal exercise, like writing a Stoic “consolation” letter to himself re-appraising both the downside and upside.

Anyway, back to the quasi-review…

Taleb on Stoicism

Taleb is quite into Stoicism, or at least Seneca’s Stoicism. He doesn’t mention Marcus Aurelius or Epictetus. Some people have even told me that they were introduced to Stoicism by reading his books. Antifragile has references to Stoicism scattered throughout but Chapter 10, which is entitled “Seneca’s Upside and Downside”, is largely dedicated to Taleb’s interpretation of Stoicism.

Antifragile features a (fictional) Italian-American character called Fat Tony. Taleb opens his chapter on Seneca by stating that “A couple of millennia before Fat Tony, another child of the Italian peninsula solved the problem of antifragility.” That’s one for the editor: Seneca wasn’t born on the Italian peninsula. He was actually a child of Cordoba, in the Roman province of Hispania, or modern-day Spain. Anyway, that’s trivial.  What matters is that Taleb makes it clear that, in his view, Seneca exemplifies antifragility. Indeed, he says that Seneca “solved the problem of antifragility […] using Stoic philosophy”.

Taleb thinks that academics have generally dismissed Seneca as “not theoretical or philosophical enough” because of his practical focus. Not a single commentator, he says, has noticed that Seneca articulated the concept of “asymmetry”, which is the key both to robustness and antifragility.  Taleb thinks that most other philosophers begin with theory and then try to apply it to practice. However, he’s a big fan of Seneca because he believes that he did the opposite and started with practice before developing his theory. “To become a successful philosopher king”, Taleb says, “it is much better to start as a king than as a philosopher”, which is quite a nice way of putting it.

I think most people would find that a reasonable, and not entirely novel, point. However, I’m not really convinced that it describes Seneca any more than any number of other philosophers, especially his fellow Stoics. Taleb doesn’t really provide any explanation for why he believes Seneca stood apart from the rest in this regard, except that he was very wealthy.

Much of Seneca’s wealth, perhaps most of it, was given to him by Nero, and if you were cynical you might say it took the form of massive bribes in exchange for Seneca writing propaganda speeches, etc., in support of an oppressive and tyrannical political regime. Seneca later panicked when Nero began killing more people and tried to give the money back – the most obvious explanation being that he was worried Nero was about to have him killed in order to seize it back anyway. That’s presumably always a threat that hangs over your head when you’re paid millions by a dictator who’s carrying out summary executions of his political enemies – he may be tempted to claw back the money later by having you put to death.  Are there other interpretations of Seneca’s actions?  Sure but the point is that Taleb’s maybe a bit hasty to class him as a pragmatic hero.

Taleb describes the “traditional” understanding of Stoicism as being about “indifference to fate – among other ideas of harmony with the cosmos”, which is true. He sets that aside, though, to focus more on what the philosophy says about handling our material possessions.

It is about continuously degrading the value of earthly possessions. When Zeno of Kition [or Citium], the founder of the school of Stoicism, suffered a shipwreck […] he declared himself lucky to be unburdened so he could now do philosophy.

Zeno had several famous teachers before he founded the Stoic school. One was Stilpo the Megarian. (Taleb calls him Stilbo, which is just an alternate spelling used by Seneca.) When Stilpo was told that his city had been sacked, his property seized, and his wife and children killed, he reputedly said “I have lost nothing”, nihil perditi, “I have all my goods with me.” Like the Stoics, He also believed that virtue is the only true good. Taleb says that this “I lost nothing” reverberates through Seneca’s writings as though it’s the cornerstone of his whole philosophy.

That’s partially true but not entirely so.  For Stoics in general, wealth is “nothing” in one sense, in terms of the supreme goal of life, but in another sense it has an inferior sort of value, for practical purposes.

Zeno introduced this distinction between two types of value, which formed the basis of Stoicism and distinguishes it from the Cynic school that preceded it, and probably also from the Megarians like Stilpo. Only virtue and vice, qualities of our own character and voluntary actions, can be intrinsically good or bad, in the strong sense of the word. Everything else is “indifferent” in that regard. However, said Zeno, it is reasonable to prefer life over death, friends over enemies, wealth over poverty, within certain bounds, as long as we never sacrifice wisdom or virtue for the sake of these “external” things.

He therefore described them as having an inferior sort of “value” (axia), incommensurate with our supreme good in life. I don’t think Taleb’s aware of this, although it’s arguably the central doctrine of Stoicism, and so he perhaps misinterprets Seneca and the Stoics slightly as a consequence of this omission. As Cicero points out in De Finibus, Stoic Ethics without any distinction between the value of different externals would effectively just be a rehash of Cynicism. What made Stoicism what it is, a distinct school of philosophy that went by a new name, was Zeno’s introduction of this doctrine of “preferred indifferents” or “selective value”.

For example, one of our most important sources for information on the early Stoic school is Diogenes Laertius, who explains the doctrine of “preferred indifferents” as follows:

Of things indifferent, as they express it, some are “preferred,” others “rejected.” Such as have value, they say, are “preferred,” while such as have negative, instead of positive, value are “rejected.” Value they define as, first, any contribution to harmonious living, such as attaches to every good; secondly, some faculty or use which indirectly contributes to the life according to nature: which is as much as to say “any assistance brought by [NB:] wealth or health towards living a natural life”; thirdly, value is the full equivalent of an appraiser, as fixed by an expert acquainted with the facts – as when it is said that wheat exchanges for so much barley with a mule thrown in.

Diogenes gives the following examples of things (including wealth) classed as having value or being preferred by the founders of Stoicism:

Thus things of the preferred class are those which have positive value, e.g. amongst mental qualities, natural ability, skill, moral improvement, and the like; among bodily qualities, life, health, strength, good condition, soundness of organs, beauty, and so forth; and in the sphere of external things, [NB:] wealth, fame, noble birth, and the like. To the class of things “rejected” belong, of mental qualities, lack of ability, want of skill, and the like; among bodily qualities, death, disease, weakness, being out of condition, mutilation, ugliness, and the like; in the sphere of external things, [NB:] poverty, ignominy, low birth, and so forth. But again there are things belonging to neither class; such are not preferred, neither are they rejected.

Cicero confirms that it was Zeno himself, the founder of Stoicism, who coined the term “preferred things” (ta proegmena) for use in this technical sense, although later generations of Stoics seem to have been free to argue over the fine details of which things were classed as “preferred” and the precise hierarchy of their value.

Taleb quotes Seneca as saying of a man who lived lavishly “He is in debt, whether he borrowed from another person or from fortune.” According to Taleb, this aspect of Stoicism, that discourages us from becoming too enslaved to wealth and luxury, is the key to maintaining resilience in the face of adversity.

Stoicism, seen this way, becomes pure robustness – for the attainment of a state of immunity from one’s external circumstances, good or bad, and an absence of fragility to decisions made by fate, is robustness.

Random events don’t affect someone who is robust, according to Taleb’s definition, one way or the other. They are too strong to suffer from the losses incurred by misfortune. However, they are also not greedy for the rewards of good fortune. They remain impassive with regard to the ups and downs of fate.

Whereas the Stoics describe many techniques to help attain this state of mind, though, Taleb is more interested in advocating the outlook on life, and doesn’t actually say as much about how to actually get into that frame of mind. He mainly describes a method favoured by Seneca, which is usually known as the praemediation malorum or premeditation of adversity.  We could say “premediation of bad things” but that’s slightly misleading, as the whole point for Stoics is that we should train ourselves to realize the’re not really intrinsically bad at all but things indifferent, in their technical sense of the word mentioned above.

Seneca on Premeditation

Taleb says that we should first learn robustness from “the great master” Seneca, or “how he advocated the mitigation of downside” and “protection against harm from emotions”. Then we can proceed to learn how Seneca teaches us to go beyond robustness and actually achieve antifragility.

Taleb says that success brings a kind of asymmetry in the sense that you have more to lose than to gain, which constitutes an important form of fragility.

There is no good news in store, just plenty of bad news in the pipeline. When you become rich, the pain of losing your fortune exceeds the emotional gain of getting additional wealth, so you start living under continuous emotional threat.

Rich people, he says, are trapped by their wealth, which causes them emotional stress.

Seneca fathomed that possessions make us worry about downside, thus acting as punishment as we depend on them. All upside, no downside. [sic, surely he intended to write this the other way around?]

Taleb adds that our dependence on external circumstances, or rather the emotions arising from this dependence, constitutes a form of slavery.

He quotes the Roman poet Livy to illustrate this asymmetry: “Men feel the good less intensely than the bad.” Suppose you’re a millionaire. The potential benefit of gaining another half a million dollars would now be small compared to the pain caused by losing exactly the same amount. That’s a negative asymmetry, which Taleb says makes your situation fragile.

Seneca’s practical method to counter such fragility was to go through mental exercises to write off possessions, so when losses occurred he would not feel the sting—a way to wrest one’s freedom from circumstances. It is similar to buying an insurance contract against losses. For instance, Seneca often started his journeys with almost the same belongings he would have if he were shipwrecked, which included a blanket to sleep on the ground, as inns were sparse at the time (though I need to qualify, to set things in the context of the day, that he had accompanying him “only one or two slaves”).

Taleb says that before starting his last job he wrote a resignation letter and kept it locked in his drawer, which allowed him to feel a sense of psychological freedom. He also says that as a trader, each morning he would assume that the worst possible thing had happened, so that he could view the rest of the day as a bonus, something he describes as the “discipline of mental write-off”. He reckons that an “intelligent life” entails emotional positioning through exercises like these in order to remove the sting of pain caused by losses. That’s the secret of being emotionally robust in the face of “volatility”, i.e., uncertainty and risk.

Seen this way, Stoicism is about the domestication, not necessarily the elimination, of emotions. It is not about turning humans into vegetables. My idea of the modern Stoic sage is someone who transforms fear into prudence, pain into information, mistakes into initiation, and desire into undertaking.

That’s the quote from Taleb on Stoicism that people seem to cite most often, incidentally.  He’s right that Stoicism is not actually about the elimination or “extirpation” of all emotions but rather the transformation of irrational and unhealthy emotions into rational and healthy ones. You could call that their “domestication”, as he does.

He mentions two more Stoic psychological strategies in passing:

Seneca proposes a complete training program to handle life and use emotions properly—thanks to small but effective tricks. One trick, for instance, that a Roman Stoic would use to separate anger from rightful action and avoid committing harm he would regret later would be to wait at least a day before beating up a servant who committed a violation. We moderns might not see this as particularly righteous, but just compare it to the otherwise thoughtful Emperor Hadrian’s act of stabbing a slave in the eye during an episode of uncontrolled anger. When Hadrian’s anger abated, and he felt the grip of remorse, the damage was irreversible.

Seneca also provides us a catalogue of social deeds: invest in good actions. Things can be taken away from us—not good deeds and acts of virtue.

That’s how Taleb believes Stoics in general “domesticate emotion” and achieve robustness. So how does he think Seneca goes beyond that to “domesticate risk” and achieve antifragility?

Seneca’s Money

Taleb claims that psychologists and intellectuals in general have a mental block that prevents them from recognizing the concept of antifragility: “I don’t know what it is, but they don’t like it.” (Apart from the hundreds of scientific texts in the field of psychology that refer to posttraumatic growth?) The same mental block, he says, prevents them from considering that Seneca “wanted the upside from fate”, and that there is nothing wrong with that.

As we’ve seen, though, Taleb is arguably overestating the difference between Seneca and other Stoics in this regard.  More or less every academic text on Stoicism (that I’ve ever read) acknowledges that the Stoics assigned value (axia) to externals, and considered wealth preferable to poverty. So it’s not really that every academic is stubbornly denying or overlooking that Seneca saw some value in wealth.  It’s just that Taleb, as far as I can tell, seems to be unaware of the aspect of Stoic Ethics that, from Zeno on, assigned an, albeit inferior, sort of value to money, and preferred it to poverty, within reason.

It’s true that the Stoics did sometimes embrace “voluntary hardship”, like the Cynics before them, and lived like beggars.  They describe this more ascetic way of life as a “shortcut to virtue”, though, not suited for everyone.  (Much as Christians thought of monasticism as suited only for some.)  If that seems paradoxical, it’s not really.  Just remember that although most people don’t like pain and discomfort, we generally accept that learning to endure it within reason can potentially toughen us up.  That’s what most physical exercise is about, to some extent.  It improves our fitness but also teaches us to endure pain and fatigue. Indeed, Taleb does note that Stoicism can make you actually desire catastrophes, which you can embrace as a challenge in life.  (“Bring it on!”)

So if the Stoics renounced wealth, sometimes, it wasn’t because they thought it was “bad” but because they thought that doing so could potentially strengthen their character.  Wealth, in general, is viewed by them as potentially useful in life.

Taleb is more interested in Seneca than the other Stoics partly because he was one of the super-rich.  He says that Seneca speaks to him because he “walked the walk” and focuses on the practical aspects of Stoicism such as how to take a trip, how to handle committing suicide, and how to cope with adversity in life such as poverty.  Taleb recommends reading Seneca to his friends because he’s an eminently practical philosopher. (Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, of course, also deal with very similar practical advice.)

However, Taleb says that “even more critically” Seneca speaks to him, and his friends, because he describes how to handle immense wealth. That’s perhaps a fair comment, although it’s probably not the reason most ordinary people give for reading Seneca.  Indeed, Taleb says that although “on paper” Seneca followed the Stoic tradition, in practice he did something slightly different, which, Taleb claims, “commentators have completely missed”.

If wealth is so much of a burden, while unnecessary, what’s the point of having it? Why did Seneca keep it?

Taleb says that Seneca called wealth the slave of the wise man and master of the fool. That’s something most of the other Stoics could have just as easily said, as we’ve seen. However, Taleb assumes that Seneca is unique among Stoics in holding the view that wealth can potentially be an advantage.

Thus he broke a bit with the purported Stoic habit: he kept the upside. In my opinion, if previous Stoics claimed to prefer poverty to wealth, we need to be suspicious of their attitude, as it may be just all talk. Since most were poor, they might have fit a narrative to the circumstances […]. Seneca was all deeds, and we cannot ignore the fact that he kept the wealth. It is central that he showed his preference of wealth without harm from wealth to poverty.

As I noted earlier, I think this idea that Seneca was unique in preferring wealth to poverty stems from something Taleb seems to have missed.  He’s right that Zeno and more or less all Stoics taught that wealth isn’t necessary, and is ultimately indifferent with regard to the supreme goal of life.  Nevertheless, more or less all Stoics agreed that in another sense wealth is “preferable” to poverty, and therefore has value (axia), just not comparable to that of our supreme good.  Seneca isn’t unique in this regard, in other words.

Taleb says in the passage quoted above that “most [Stoics] were poor”.  Sometimes he even appears to believe that Seneca was exceptional among them for being very wealthy.  That’s not quite right, though. Zeno was a wealthy Phoenician merchant who lost his fortune at sea, by some accounts. However, by other accounts he was later quite wealthy. One explanation for that apparent contradiction is that we know one of Zeno’s most devoted students, later in life, was King Antigonus II Gonatas of Macedonia. He’s reputed to have donated a huge sum of money to the school after Zeno’s death, when his successor Cleanthes was the head. So Zeno had an extremely wealthy and powerful friend.

King Antigonus was seemingly very devoted to Zeno, whom he admired above all other philosophers, but he played the following trick on one of his favourite Stoic students, Persaeus:

And Antigonus once, wishing to make trial of [Persaeus] caused some false news to be brought to him that his estate had been ravaged by the enemy, and as his countenance fell, “Do you see,” said he, “that wealth is not a matter of indifference ?”

Whether or not Zeno accepted patronage from Antigonus we’re told Cleanthes later did. Later Stoics were not all poor. Many subsequent Roman Stoics came from the elite equestrian and senatorial classes, most of whom were comparable to modern millionaires or billionaires. Marcus Aurelius, of course, was emperor of Rome, and therefore not short of a bob or two.

In any case, Taleb notes that Seneca was (allegedly) the wealthiest person in the Roman Empire. Seneca’s net worth of 300 million sesterces was equivalent to the annual salary of about 330,000 legionaries. At a very rough estimate, that would be maybe nine billion US dollars today.  Perhaps much more depending on how we try to convert it into modern currency.  Of all the famous Stoics, Seneca has the most mixed reputation because of his perceived love of money and luxury, his adultery, and his involvement with Emperor Nero’s violent and oppressive regime.

He was criticized for being a hypocrite by the historian Cassius Dio, for example. Seneca has been banished for alleged adultery with Julia, the sister of the Emperor Claudius. Dio says he didn’t learn his lesson or show much wisdom on his return as he later had an affair with Agrippina, the mother of Nero, “in spite of the kind of woman she was and the kind of son she had.” He adds:

Nor was this the only instance in which his conduct was seen to be diametrically opposed to the teachings of his philosophy. For while denouncing tyranny, he was making himself the teacher of a tyrant; while inveighing against the associates of the powerful, he did not hold aloof from the palace itself; and though he had nothing good to say of flatterers, he himself had constantly fawned upon Messalina and the freedmen of Claudius, to such an extent, in fact, as actually to send them from the island of his exile a book containing their praises — a book that he afterwards suppressed out of shame. Though finding fault with the rich, he himself acquired a fortune of 300,000,000 sesterces; and though he censured the extravagances of others, he had five hundred tables of citrus wood with legs of ivory, all identically alike, and he served banquets on them. In stating thus much I have also made clear what naturally went with it — the licentiousness in which he indulged at the very time that he contracted a most brilliant marriage, and the delight that he took in boys past their prime, a practice which he also taught Nero to follow. And yet earlier he had been of such austere habits that he had asked his pupil to excuse him from kissing him or eating at the same table with him.

So Taleb introduces his discussion of Seneca as follows:

We start with the following conflict. We introduced Seneca as the wealthiest person in the Roman Empire. His fortune was three hundred million denarii [sic] (for a sense of its equivalence, at about the same period in time, Judas got thirty denarii, the equivalent of a month’s salary, to betray Jesus). Admittedly it is certainly not very convincing to read denigrations of material wealth from a fellow writing the lines on one of his several hundred tables (with ivory legs).

Again, one for the copy editor. A denarius was a silver coin worth about four sesterces, which were minted from brass during Nero’s reign. According to Cassius Dio, Seneca was already super-rich but Taleb’s just quadrupled his wealth. That seems to be another mistake, albeit a trivial one.

Taleb also says that the following passage from Seneca’s On Benefits shows that he was engaged in a cost-benefit analysis:

The bookkeeping of benefits is simple: it is all expenditure; if any one returns it, that is clear gain; if he does not return it, it is not lost, I gave it for the sake of giving.

So, according to Taleb who highlights the expression “clear gain”, Seneca adopted an attitude of disregarding the pain of the downside while retaining enjoyment of the upside.

So he played a trick on fate: kept the good and ditched the bad; cut the downside and kept the upside. Self-servingly, that is, by eliminating the harm from fate and un-philosophically keeping the upside. This cost-benefit analysis is not quite Stoicism in the way people understand the meaning of Stoicism (people who study Stoicism seem to want Seneca and other Stoics to think like those who study Stoicism). There is an upside-downside asymmetry. That’s antifragility in its purest form.

On the contrary, though, it sounds very typically Stoic to me. As we’ve seen, right from the outset, Zeno and other Stoics considered wealth preferable to poverty, within reason. Wealth typically (but not always) gives us more control over other externals, so it’s natural and reasonable to prefer that as a means of exercising wisdom and justice in life. However, if we happen to lose our wealth, like Zeno, that’s not worth getting upset about because all that ultimately matters is that we do the best we can in life, whatever our circumstances.

Overall, Taleb interprets Seneca as meaning something that he sums up in a single rule called “Seneca’s asymmetry”. If you have more to lose than to gain from volatility, the ups and downs of the proverbial Wheel of Fortune, that’s a negative or bad asymmetry, and you are fragile, according to Taleb. However, if you have nothing to lose and only things to gain then you have a positive or good asymmetry and you are antifragile.

This is expressed in Taleb-speak as follows:

Fragility implies more to lose than to gain, equals more downside than upside, equals (unfavorable) asymmetry.


Antifragility implies more to gain than to lose, equals more upside than downside, equals (favorable) asymmetry.

In his glossary at the end of the book, Taleb specifies that he calls this both the “Fundamental Asymmetry” and “Seneca’s Asymmetry”, and defines it as follows:

When someone has more upside than downside in a certain situation, he is antifragile and tends to gain from (a) volatility, (b) randomness, (c) errors, (d) uncertainty, (e) stressors, (f) time. And the reverse.


Well we made it!  Sorry if that was hard going in places, gentle traveller.  I’ve included more quotes than normal because I thought they were necessary.  I’d rather let Taleb speak for himself than risk putting words in his mouth and being accused of getting it wrong.  So you can see what he says above.

Overall, I quite liked Antifragile.  I do enjoy reading an author with a distinctive voice.  It’s impossible surely to read Taleb, though, without thinking from time to time “Surely this doesn’t make sense!”, closely followed by “Oh shit, I can already imagine him shooting me down in flames and calling me an idiot and a Fragilista for disagreeing with him!”

Well tough luck because he deserves to have people disagreeing with him, in my opinion.  He’s definitely not always right.  His acerbic style probably isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.  His interpretation of Stoicism, though, is unusual and interesting.  It also seems to me to be incorrect.  He’s  got a lot to say, nevertheless, and he’s worth reading, and that’s probably what matters most at the end of the day.

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Book Review: How to be a Stoic (2017) by Massimo Pigliucci

How to be a StoicNB: See my video below for a discussion of the twelve practical techniques listed at the end of this book.

Massimo Pigliucci is an important voice in the modern Stoicism movement. Instead of lecturing readers on academic philosophy he’s chosen to provide them with a practical guide to living like a Stoic in the real world. He shows that Stoicism can provide a philosophy of life consistent with a modern scientific worldview, and with atheism or agnosticism as well as different forms of religion. He provides many vivid examples of everyday situations in which Stoic philosophy was found helpful in his own life. He also draws upon many examples from the lives of other individuals to make his point that adopting Stoic attitudes and behaviours can contribute to a more fulfilled and emotionally resilient way of living. For that reason, I think that both newcomers and people who are familiar with the philosophy will potentially obtain something of value from reading this book.

The main part is divided into three sections.  These deal respectively with training in mastering our desires and emotions, organizing our actions around a coherent moral goal, and learning to withhold our assent from initial misleading impressions.  Pigliucci concludes by describing a list of a dozen Stoic exercises:

  1. Examine your impressions, checking whether they place too much value on external things outside your direct control.
  2. Remind yourself of the impermanence of things.
  3. The reserve clause, which means adding the caveat “fate permitting” to every planned action.
  4. How can I use virtue here and now?
  5. Pause and take a deep breath, waiting for strong emotions to abate naturally rather than acting rashly when we’re upset.
  6. Other-ize, getting beyond personalization by considering how we’d feel about our misfortunes if they befell another person.
  7. Speak little and well – the Stoics were known for speaking “laconically”, like Spartans.
  8. Choose your company well.
  9. Respond to insults with humour.
  10. Don’t speak too much about yourself.
  11. Speak without judging, just stick to the facts and remain objective.
  12. Reflect on your day, by reviewing events each evening in a constructive and dispassionate manner, looking for areas in which you can improve.

I would suggest some people might actually benefit from reading these first.

The Stoics believed that the wise man is naturally drawn to writing books that help other people and they would surely see How to be a Stoic as a fitting attempt to reprise their timeless wisdom for the 21st century.

Why I don’t allow Trolling in my Stoicism Group

Stoic AwardEvery few weeks someone will post a comment in my Stoicism Facebook group that goes something along the lines of “If you guys are into Stoicism then I don’t see why you should censor posts just because they’re offensive.”  Or they might just say “Suck it up” or  “You guys aren’t real Stoics, you’re all just f*** snowflakes” or words to that effect.

Sometimes they’re just messing around and being facetious – or just plain trolling the group.  Sometimes, though, I think people actually do mean this sincerely, although on closer inspection the reasoning behind this obviously doesn’t make any sense at all.  I’ve responded to this a few times in detail, explaining why I think they’re mistaken but I think the time has come to write a short blog post so I can just share the link rather than reinvent the wheel and explain the following points every time this idea comes up.

The beautiful and good person neither fights with anyone nor, as much as they are able, permits others to fight… – Epictetus, Discourses 4.5

So here are my reasons for not allowing people to be verbally abusive or insulting toward other group members in my Stoicism forum:

  1. Not everyone in the group is a Stoic.  As I write there are over 40,000 people in my group.  They’re all ages (from 13 up), different genders, nationalities, and from different cultures and religions.  And they’re not all Stoics.  Some are Epicureans, or Buddhists, or existentialists or Nietzscheans or whatever.  Some of them are just people vaguely interested in Stoicism who want to learn a bit more.  So the premise of the argument above that everyone in the group is Stoic is obviously false.
  2. No Stoics are perfect Sages.  The Stoics said that the Sage is as rare as the Ethiopian Phoenix, which according to legend was born every 500 years.   So there probably aren’t any in our group.  The Stoics admitted they were all imperfect and fallible, even the founders of the school.  So all Stoics sometimes falter and get upset about things because they’re human beings and not perfect Sages.  That doesn’t stop them aspiring to inch closer to that ideal, though.
  3. Even Sages have feelings.  It’s a popular misconception that Stoicism is unemotional and that the ideal is to have no feelings or never to get upset.  The Stoics actually had a sophisticated psychological theory that clearly distinguishes between voluntary and involuntary emotional reactions to events.  So even if we did have a perfect Sage in the group they would still potentially experience propatheiai or automatic flashes of emotional in response to certain things being said or done.   It’s natural that they’d prefer not to have to expose themselves to that repeatedly when they’re trying to have a discussion if it potentially gets in the way.
  4. It’s not about hurting feelings.  The main reason for preventing verbal abuse isn’t to protect someone’s feelings, actually.  As moderator, it’s more about the fact it disrupts the group and prevents people from being able to discuss things rationally.  It would be as if we were trying to have a philosophy seminar and someone ran into the room, jumped on the table and started screaming random insults.  You say “Um, can you maybe stop, or leave?”  And they say “Ha!  You bunch of snowflakes, I thought you were meant to be Stoics – see how I’ve managed to upset you all, frauds!” or whatever.  Well, nobody is actually crying.  The most upset person in the room is probably the crazy person standing screaming on the table.  Everyone else is too busy thinking “What a nutcase!” to take it personally.   It’s the same with trolling.  Nobody really cares.  The irony is that trolls get upset really easily themselves and that’s probably why they assume everyone else is a “Snowflake”.  It’s classic psychological projection.   The real reason for banning them or asking them to leave is just so that everyone else can get on with what they’re trying to discuss without distraction.
  5. It’s not ethical.  Stoicism is a virtue ethic.  The goal of life is to be virtuous and that includes acting with justice, fairness, and kindness toward others, regardless of their race or gender or religion.  (Stoics are ethical cosmopolitans.)  So screaming abuse at people online flies completely in the face of Stoic ethics.  It’s definitely not the sort of behaviour ancient Stoics were talking about when they said that people should act honourably and with affection toward other human beings.  So it’s part of Stoic ethics that we would both avoid acting like this ourselves and, within reason and where nothing prevents us, politely discourage other people from behaving in a vicious and aggressive manner, although whether they do or not is ultimately outside of our control.  (It’s what Stoics call a “preferred indifferent”, something they don’t get upset about but would gently attempt to prevent or change.)

So there you go, if you’ve got to the end of this hopefully it’s at least given you something to think about.  The ground rules of my forum prohibit verbal abuse against other group members and these are the reasons for that policy.  Hope you understand and please treat other people with respect.  Thank you.

Stoicism and Parenting (Stoic Mums and Dads)


I have a seven year old daughter and since she was born I’ve been interested in how Stoicism relates to parenting.  People sometimes ask me if there’s anything “out there” on Stoicism for parents.  There are a growing number of resources online so I thought it was time to do a blog post listing some of them in one place, for convenience.  Please let me know of any articles or other resources that I’ve missed and I’ll try to add them to this post!

First, though, I thought I’d say a little bit about kids’ books…  Poppy is only seven but we discuss philosophy a lot.  She loves the Percy Jackson movies and so I’ve told her lots of stories about Greek mythology.  There are lots of great kids’ books available.  She particularly likes the Early Myths series by Simon Spence.   Her favourite Greek legends are about Hercules and she’s heard them hundreds of times!

Talking about Greek myths led to stories about Greek philosophers.  Most of the best anecdotes are about Diogenes the Cynic (not all suitable for kids!) and Socrates.  There are some great kids books available on Diogenes (Poppy calls him “the Dog”) and Socrates by M.D. Usher.  There’s also a great series of books for small children called Little Stoics.  Poppy watches Kids YouTube and she told me one day that she wanted to make her own videos.  So we started doing some book reviews.  She’s done videos on Diogenes by M.D. Usher and the Little Stoics series.  We’re hoping to do another soon on M.D. Usher’s Wise Guy, about Socrates.

Articles / Video / Podcasts

Here are some article from the Modern Stoicism blog Stoicism Today:

Some more articles from the web:

One of Xenophon’s Socratic dialogues has Socrates talking to his eldest son Lamprocles about his relationship with his mother.  I wrote an article analyzing the philosophical content from a Stoic perspective.

Parenting: What Socrates Said

People often ask about Marcus Aurelius’ relationship with his son Commodus, so I wrote a fairly detailed article discussing this from a historical perspective.

Why did Marcus Aurelius Allow Commodus to Succeed Him?

Groups and Blogs

Three Ideas the Stoics Learned from Socrates

Life of Socrates CoverSocrates was a hugely important precursor of ancient Stoicism. We’re told that Zeno, the founder of the Stoic school, was inspired to become a philosopher after a chance reading of Book Two from Xenophon’s Memorabilia of Socrates. Emulation of Socrates as a role model was clearly central to later Stoicism and perhaps goes right back to Zeno himself. Epictetus makes far more references to Socrates than to any other philosopher.  We’re even told that the Stoics referred to themselves as a Socratic sect.

In this article, I’ll look at three key ways in which Socrates inspired Stoicism.  See my longer article on Socrates in Stoicism for more information, and lots more examples, though.

You may also be interested in my new Crash Course on Socrates. It’s completely free of charge and only takes about twenty minutes to complete:

1. It’s not things that upset us but our judgements about them

Men are disturbed not by the things which happen, but by the opinions about the things: for example, death is nothing terrible, for if it were, it would have seemed so to Socrates; for the opinion about death, that it is terrible, is the terrible thing. (Encheiridion, 5)

This is probably Epictetus’ most famous quote.  It was often taught to clients in Albert Ellis’ Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT) and early Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT).  Many people think of it as distinctly Stoic.  However, it’s a recurring theme in the Socratic dialogues.  As it’s found both in the dialogues of Plato and Xenophon, it’s likely to have come from Socrates himself.  Indeed, as you can see, Epictetus immediately follows this by using Socrates as an example.  Epictetus notes that death cannot be intrinsically frightening because Socrates, and others, are not afraid of death.

Socrates employed the same simple little argument himself.  If everyone doesn’t have the same emotional reaction to an event then the way we feel is probably determined by the way we think about it.  For example, in Book One of The Republic, Plato portrays Socrates discussing old age with his elderly friend Cephalus.  Cephalus notes that most people tend to complain about old age being a cause for misery but he disagrees, and he quotes a famous saying from Sophocles to show he disagreed as well.  So Socrates and Cephalus jointly conclude that what matters is how we think about it, as those who approach old age with a positive attitude live with greater calm and happiness, like Cephalus.

Socrates himself was remarkably indifferent to the notorious temper tantrums of his young wife, Xanthippe.  In one of Xenophon’s dialogues, he’s shown giving his eldest son, Lamprocles, advice about how to remain calm when his mother is being difficult.  Socrates refers to the fact that actors aren’t upset when, on stage, other actors scream and yell abuse at them.  Although Xanthippe has a sharp tongue, Lamprocles has no doubt that she loves him, and Socrates draws his attention to the fact he’s responding to the superficial impression her behaviour creates rather than to his knowledge of her good intentions.  It’s not the other person’s behaviour that upsets us, he explains, but the way we think about it.

2. Model the behaviour of wise men

When you are going to meet with any person, and particularly one of those who are considered to be in a superior condition, place before yourself what Socrates or Zeno would have done in such circumstances, and you will have no difficulty in making a proper use of the occasion. (Encheiridion, 33)

Epictetus often advises his students to contemplate the behaviour of role models and to emulate them, particularly that of Socrates.  However, this practice also comes from Socrates himself.  Xenophon, for example, places great emphasis on the way that Socrates improved the character of others by the example he set in his own life.  He even goes so far as to say that the memory of Socrates continued to help improve others after his death:

Indeed, even to recall him now that he is gone is no small help to those who were his habitual companions and who accept his views. (Memorabilia, 4.1)

Socrates frequently advises his students to seek out wise and virtuous individuals as friends.  He clearly believes that good friends are far more important in life than possessions or money.  That’s because he believed that we can learn most by sharing the company of good people and observing their behaviour.  Socrates usually claimed to lack knowledge of virtue himself, and his attempts to arrive at verbal definitions of the virtues often end inconclusively.  Nevertheless, he believed that virtue could be acquired by emulating the example set by others:

As for his views about what is right, so far from concealing them, he demonstrated them by his actions. (Memorabilia, 4.4)

3. The unexamined life is not worth living

Socrates in this way became perfect, in all things improving himself, attending to nothing except to reason. But you, though you are not yet a Socrates, ought to live as one who wishes to be a Socrates. (Encheiridion, 51)

The Stoics believed that we should live mindfully, paying continual attention (prosoche) to our ruling faculty (hegemonikon).  This is also derived from their interpretation of Socrates.  The Stoics place considerable emphasis on our ability to admit our weaknesses and fallibility, by reflecting on and criticizing our own character, in a constructive manner, in order to continually improve ourselves.

This then is the beginning of philosophy, a man’s perception of the state of his ruling faculty; for when a man knows that it is weak, then he will not employ it on things of the greatest difficulty. […] But Socrates advised us not to live a life which is not subjected to examination. (Discourses, 1.28)

Epictetus relates this to what he called The Discipline of Assent, through which Stoics train themselves to question their initial impressions of things, and to suspend strong value judgements of the kind that cause emotional distress.

The third topic concerns the assents, which is related to the things which are persuasive and attractive. For as Socrates said, we ought not to live a life without examination, so we ought not to accept an appearance without examination, but we should say, Wait, let me see what you are and whence you come; like the watch at night (who says) Show me the pass (the Roman tessera). Have you the signal from nature which the appearance that may be accepted ought to have? (Discourses, 3.12)

The signal from nature that he’s talking about is what the Stoics call an “Objective Representation” (phantasia kataleptike).  They basically meant that we should ensure we’re viewing events in an objective and matter-of-fact way, without projecting our (strong) value judgements onto them.  In particular, they sought to avoid confusing external things –such as health, wealth, and reputation – with the highest good, and goal of life, which the Stoics, and apparently also Socrates, identified with virtue (arete).

It is his duty then to be able with a loud voice, if the occasion should arise, and appearing on the tragic stage to say like Socrates: Men, whither are you hurrying, what are you doing, wretches? like blind people you are wandering up and down: you are going by another road, and have left the true road: you seek for prosperity and happiness where they are not, and if another shows you where they are, you do not believe him. Why do you seek it without? (Discourses, 3.22)

We can only live wisely, though, by continually reflecting on the way we’re employing reason in daily life, from moment to moment.

Why I am a Stoic and an Agnostic

Six years ago I wrote an article entitled “God or Atoms” about the question as to whether a modern follower of Stoicism can be an agnostic or an atheist.  At the start I emphasized the following:

None of these Stoics appear to have been agnostics themselves but others may have been. What matters is whether they, and other Stoics, would have accepted that someone else could potentially be both an agnostic (or atheist) and a Stoic.

Stoic Zeus MemeWell, little did I know how much uproar that would cause!  Since I published it I’ve been periodically bombarded with comments, emails, and messages online from some surprisingly angry people who feel very strongly aggrieved because they claim I erred by (allegedly) saying that the ancient Stoics were atheists or agnostics.  That, of course, is not what I said.  We’re all familiar with religious fundamentalism in Christianity, Islam, and other world religions but it turns out that some individuals also want to approach Stoicism in pretty dogmatic (modern sense of the word) manner.  I was somewhat taken aback by the ferocity of the backlash against my (imagined) transgressions, especially coming from other Stoics as we’re all meant to be pretty chill about these things, basically.  Among other things, I was apparently a liar, a fraud, a bigot, and a charlatan, because of my views.  Here’s a typical example of one email (from a barrage of seven sent in one day) that I received from one particular aggrieved individual who somehow perceived my personal agnosticism as “bullying” and aggressively “arguing down” his own “theistic” conception of Stoicism:

The funny part is that when I first came across you my impression was that you were a self serving egotistical person who had no real interest in Stoicism other than to promote your own business by using [Stoic Week] to give yourself some credibility. But I decided that as I did not really know you I would set such ideas aside and address you according to what you said. And what you, together with a number of other people, said came across as an attempt to argue down (bully?) any person that questioned the limitations of the Stoicism being presented, especially any person who addressed the theistic nature of Stoicism.

(For what it’s worth, my previous businesses, which were a CBT clinic in Harley Street and a psychotherapist training school in South London, had virtually nothing to do with my work on Stoicism, which I’ve now been studying for well over twenty years.  And Stoic Week is a registered non-profit project run by volunteers.  I can easily just ignore comments like these, and far worse that I’ve received, but I am concerned about other people, especially newcomers to Stoicism, being hounded and bullied online by some of the same individuals.  That’s something that moderators, where possible, should step in to prevent. )

Over the past six years, I’ve received quite a lot of emails, PMs, and other comments like that, from various strangers on the Internet.  (By the way, it never ceases to  amaze me how well some people think they can read your mind and judge your character without ever having actually met you.)  According to some of these (pretty angry) “religious” Stoics, I was being dishonest, and  misrepresenting things on purpose, and refusing to answer questions or back up my claims.  In fact, I spent many hours answering their questions about this topic online, probably far too many hours, trying to explain that my position was not what they seemed to believe!  I have a policy, though, of politely withdrawing from conversations when people begin introducing personal attacks, like calling me a liar and stuff, which is what tended to happen when things got heated.  One of the criticisms repeated many times by one of my most vocal critics was that my previous article didn’t include any references to modern scholars.  I heard that a lot.  Well, the article was actually intended to provide my own commentary on the primary sources.  It contains dozens of references to passages in ancient texts, and it’s pretty big already, so I didn’t want to turn it into something the size of a doctoral thesis by adding more and more commentary from modern academic authors.  It was just meant to be a short blog post!  Nevertheless, he was wrong.  It does, in fact, contain references to about six or seven modern authors/scholars who have written on Stoicism including Pierre Hadot, Frank McLynn, C.R. Haines, and John Sellars.

I got bombarded with angry comments about this again yesterday, though.  So as it keeps coming up periodically I decided to sit down and write a statement explaining as clearly as possible my attitude toward religion, in relation to Stoicism.  That way I can hopefully just send this to the people who want to argue about it rather than getting drawn into endless heated debates.  (So if you want to find me, I’ll be in the garden listening to the radio and eating watermelon.)  Anyway, once and for all, here are my personal opinions on this…

I do not hate religion.  I’ve always been fascinated by it, in fact.  I am an agnostic, leaning toward atheism, but I’m also very interested in and place great value upon all world religions.  As a teenager I read the Bible, the Apocrypha, the Gnostic corpus from Nag Hammadi, which I studied very closely, and many Christian mystical texts such as The Cloud of Unknowing, The Imitation of Christ, Pseudo-Dionysus the Areopagite, St. John of the Cross, and so on.   It was actually my interest in Neoplatonism, Christian mysticism and Gnosticism that led me to study Stoicism.  However, I was also particularly interested in Buddhism.  As a student, I meditated daily, attended Buddhist retreats, and was secretary to the university Buddhist society.  (I even have a Buddhist tattoo!)  I practised yoga and read many yogic texts.  Over the years, I also studied the Dhammapada, Bhagavad Gita, Upanishads, Tao Te Ching, Chaung Tzu, and even the I Ching, and countless other Oriental scriptures.  In fact, although my first degree is in philosophy, I also took courses in cultural anthropology, because I was interested in shamanism and animism.  In addition, in the History of Religions department, I studied Buddhism and Hinduism, mainly focusing on the Gita and Dhammapada.

And not much has changed.  I’ve had a lifelong fascination with comparative religion, which endures to this very day.  It was first inspired by reading Rudolph Otto’s The Idea of the Holy.  The only major tradition about which I have to confess my ignorance is Islam because my studies in philosophy meant I didn’t have time to attend classes on it at university.  As I noted earlier it was my interest in Neoplatonism and Gnosticism that led me to become interested in Stoicism, around the time I finished my philosophy degree, in 1996, and I’ve been lucky enough to be able to immerse myself in studying the Stoic literature to this day.

However, I’m agnostic.  I don’t know for certain whether God exists, whichever god that might mean.  I think he probably doesn’t, because I don’t see much evidence of it, so I lean toward atheism.  I don’t, however, hold that view strongly, because I might be wrong.  I don’t believe that anyone can know with certainty that God exists and so I view it as ultimately an indifferent question with regard to the goal of life, because it seems to me to requires speculation or a judgement based on probability.  And so I don’t really mind whether anyone agrees with me or not in that regard.  It’s a matter of indifference to me.  (So I’ll be glad when I’ve finished writing this piece if it means I don’t have to keep arguing with angry people on the Internet about it!)  😉

With regard to Stoicism.  I have always accepted (like everyone else) that most of the ancient Stoics believed in a provident God called Zeus.  Cleanthes, of course, wrote a famous Hymn to Zeus, in which he literally instructed his Stoic students to sing hymns of praise to Zeus, their divine father, creator, and benefactor:

Most glorious of Immortals, mighty God,
Invoked by many a name, O sovran King
Of universal Nature, piloting
This world in harmony with Law,—all hail!

Now, I cannot honestly say with certainty that “all of the ancient Stoics” believed in this for the simple reason that only about 1% of the Stoic literature survives, and there were loads of Stoics, with different beliefs, in different countries, spanning a period of half a millennium.  Stoicism was, and still is, a philosophy not a religion.  Perhaps others will disagree with my definition of the word “religion”, which is fine, but by that I mean that Stoicism encouraged its followers to question their assumptions very deeply, using the Socratic method, which inevitably meant that the school tolerated considerable disagreement about stuff like theology.  (Sorry but the fact is it did.)  Traditionally Stoicism also believed in divination, because it followed from their conception of Zeus as provident, organizing and planning the world in a causally determined manner, that the future could be predicted by priests who knew how to read the entrails of sacrificial animals and whatnot.  (Like tea-leaf reading but a bit messier.)

What is more, they say that divination in all its forms is a real and substantial fact, if there is really Providence. And they prove it to be actually a science on the evidence of certain results: so Zeno, Chrysippus in the second book of his De divinatione, Athenodorus, and Posidonius in the second book of his Physical Discourse and the fifth book of his De divinatione. But Panaetius denies that divination has any real existence. (Diogenes Laertius)

Strangely, though, even the most ardent proponents of “traditional Stoicism” today don’t seem to go so far as to employ ancient divination.  Ancient Stoics were also free to reject the whole concept of divination, though, because philosophical beliefs are based on reason and subject to constant questioning, whereas religious beliefs, according to my definition at least, tend to be based primarily on faith, divine revelation, or cultural traditions.  For what it’s worth, that would mean that some types of Buddhism might be better described as a philosophy rather than a religion, although there are other forms of Buddhism that appear to me more like the Judaeo-Christian religions.  (Buddhism is a huge and very diverse tradition, of course.)

There were certainly Greek philosophers who rejected or at least radically questioned belief in the gods.  (No, seriously there were; such as Theodorus the Atheist for a start, who was a contemporary of Zeno of Citium.)  So given the paucity of evidence to the contrary I would say it’s possible that at least one or two guys out of the thousands of ancient Stoics may not have been 100% sure that God exists but, again, whether they did or not is basically indifferent to me.   We know that most Stoics were pantheists who believed the whole universe was a single, perfectly rational, living organism called Zeus who cared providentially for humankind.  I don’t believe that.  We do also know that some famous ancient Stoics didn’t believe that either and substituted other theological beliefs instead, which happens to confirm that the school tolerated diverse opinions and was not rigidly doctrinaire in this regard.

Example #1: Aristo of Chios rejected the importance of theology completely and was considered a renegade or “heterodox Stoic“.  Cicero says he was “in a state of complete uncertainty” about whether or not God was alive (“animate”), because he denied God could have sensation (presumably because he has no eyes or ears, etc.) and Aristo also couldn’t conceive of his form.   However, although he was considered a “heterodox Stoic” he was still labelled a “Stoic”.  There is no reference to Aristo actually leaving the school or joining another school.  (Indeed, Marcus Aurelius was inspired centuries later to commit his life to Stoicism after reading Aristo’s books.)

Example #2: Boethus of Sidon was a famous Stoic best known for having totally rejected Stoic pantheism but, again, there’s no indication that he was booted out of the school for that.  He wrote several books on Stoic theology and philosophy of nature.  We know he believed in provident God but not the pantheistic Zeus of the early Stoics.  He believed that instead of permeating the whole cosmos, God dwells far away from us in the sphere of the fixed stars.  That was okay because Stoicism was always a philosophy and encouraged Socratic questioning and not a religion based primarily on faith or tradition, or if you prefer it wasn’t a rigidly orthodox and doctrinaire type of religion.

So can you be a Stoic and be an agnostic or even an atheist?  The short answer is that I think it’s an indifferent question.  If someone managed to persuade me that I couldn’t call myself a “Stoic” if I happen to be agnostic then I’d probably say “Sure, fine, I’ll just call myself something else” and it wouldn’t really ruin my day too much, to be honest.   (I’m still waiting to be persuaded.)  However, as it happens, I believe that the ancient Stoics considered the central doctrine of their philosophy, as we’re repeatedly told, to be their definition of the nature of the good: virtue is the only true good.   It seems to me that as long as you believe that then you’re pretty much a Stoic, whatever else you believe, within reason.  It’s all good!  It’s crystal clear from the ancient Stoic texts that the definition of the supreme good as virtue was the central doctrine of their school.  Cicero calls it the cornerstone of their whole philosophy, for example.

Suppose, hypothetically, that there were such a thing as a modern-day agnostic Sage, someone exceptionally wise, just, courageous, and temperate, who called himself a “Stoic” but who happened to feel it’s impossible to be certain whether or not God exists.   He believes that Darwinism and modern scientific cosmology provide a sufficiently plausible explanation for why things around us look almost as though they were designed by an invisible craftsman to work the way they do.   So he rejects Zeno’s use of the Argument from Design, in other words, and doesn’t accept that it conclusively proves a provident God exists, called Zeus, who planned everything and cares about humankind.  (How many people today do actually believe in the Argument from Design apart from Christian fundamentalists?)

Let’s suppose we had a time machine and could send our perfect “Stoic” back in time to meet Marcus Aurelius.  So he’s perfectly wise and just, courageous and temperate, but he’s not sure about the whole Zeus thing.  Would Marcus Aurelius say: “Get out of here you fake, you’re not a real Stoic!”  I don’t know.  Neither do you.  I’d guess probably not, though.   Why?  Because he was a philosopher, first and foremost, and not a religious fundamentalist.  Marcus, like other Stoics, believed that virtue is the only true good, and that someone virtuous is therefore good, and could be a Sage, perhaps even if they happen to be uncertain whether Zeus is real or not, or to agree with Zeno and Cleanthes on the theological details.

As most people who have actually read The Meditations tend to notice, Marcus refers to “God or atoms”, or a similar trope, about ten times.  (C.R. Haines, his translator, says nine but I’m pretty sure I spotted another one he missed.)  Example: “Recall once again this alternative: if not a wise Providence [God], then a mere jumble of atoms…” (4.3).  Similar figures of speech are also found in Seneca and Epictetus, all three of our major surviving sources for Stoicism, so personally I take that to suggest this was most likely a very well-known Stoic argument and probably came from an earlier source all three share in common.  (As the other two don’t appear to have read Seneca’s philosophical writings, I doubt they were just deriving it from him.)  I appreciate other people may believe these passages could be interpreted differently but my belief is that Marcus is saying to himself that even if he didn’t believe that the whole universe was being planned and organized by a provident God called Zeus, who cares about humankind, even if it was all just the chance product of the random collision of atoms, like many people believe today, Stoic Ethics would still be rational and justified in that world.   In his “God or atoms” passages, Marcus says that even if we live in a godless world just the random aimless collision of atoms, it doesn’t matter, as long as we are not aimless ourselves but have virtue as our goal (9.28), because we have our ruling faculty (hegemonikon) to guide us using reason (12.14), and we can still view ourselves as part of the whole and akin, like a brother, to all other rational beings (10.6), therefore we would still have no reason to complain or feel harassed (8.17; 9.39).  The people who want to argue that Stoic Ethics is inconceivable without belief in God either just completely ignore these and other related passages or they tie themselves in knots trying to interpret Marcus as meaning the opposite of what he actually said, ten times.

How on earth, you may ask, could Marcus possibly believe that Stoic Ethics might be plausible without reference to God?  (Or at least people who are really religious sometimes say that.)  Well, blow me down if the Cynic philosophy, from which Stoicism itself emerged, didn’t consist of a fundamentally similar ethical doctrine, that virtue is the only true good, without any reference to theology.  (As did other ancient philosophies.)  Diogenes the Cynic is variously portrayed as saying that the gods don’t exist, that they do exist, or that he’s not sure.  He didn’t care, basically.  The Cynics, funnily enough, had a notoriously cynical (small c) attitude toward all forms of religion, which they sneered at in all sorts of ways.  Diogenes thought it was hilarious, for example, that people would pray for good health rather than just adopting a healthy way of living.  He reputedly used a wooden statue of the god Hercules as firewood to cook his lentils.  (Hercules was originally a Greek hero and demi-god, incidentally, but according to some versions of the myth Zeus granted him an apotheosis, making him a god in his own right.)  The Cynics, the legendary forerunners of Stoicism, were generally perceived as thumbing their noses at all forms of religion and as regarding the question of God’s existence with fundamental indifference, because it was totally irrelevant to their conception of virtue and their philosophical way of life.

Marcus quite possibly, at least in my reading of the evidence, started off as a Cynic before becoming a Stoic.  He certainly knew Cynics and had read about Cynic philosophy, which he mentioned in The Meditations.  So the notion that you could believe in virtue ethics without bringing God into the equation would hardly have come as a massive surprise to him, contrary to what some people might want to tell you.  He knew fine well that lots of philosophers, throughout the centuries, held broadly similar ethical views to his own but didn’t use the existence of Providence as justification for them.  As mentioned above, his private letters appear to state that he was finally convinced to dedicate his life to philosophy after reading Aristo of Chios, a Stoic who totally rejected the study of theology.  So these observations probably explain why Marcus keeps banging on about “God or atoms” in his private notes: he’s reminding himself that even if doubts do creep into his mind about religion, it shouldn’t cause his Stoicism to waver.  He knows, from the example of countless other philosophers, that he still has sufficient reason to live virtuously with or without Providence looking over his shoulder.

Moreover, Marcus and the other Stoics didn’t live in a bubble.  They knew about  other philosophies.  Marcus had also studied Platonism and Aristotelianism under private tutors in the imperial household for years and he’d read Cicero and Lucretius the Epicurean, and presumably a load of other stuff we’ve never even heard of because he was a highly-educated and intelligent man, with a lot of books at his disposal.  He wasn’t a dunce.  He knew that Skeptical counter-arguments could easily be used to challenge traditional  arguments for belief in the existence of God, like the Argument for Design.  (“Everything looks like it must have been designed by someone, therefore it was.” – really?)  He clearly believed in God but he also realized some people didn’t and that Skeptical arguments had been widely circulated for many centuries that could challenge or refute the traditional Stoic reasons for believing in Providence.  So, presumably like many Stoics before him, he bolstered his Stoicism by providing himself with the argument that even if someone logically persuaded him that Providence doesn’t exist and the world is just the pretty side-effect of a load of atoms bouncing around, like the Epicureans and other atomists said, it doesn’t really matter because he could still carry on being virtuous and a Stoic anyway, as long as he follows his own nature, by living in accord with reason.

Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems fairly obvious to me that’s what he meant when he says repeatedly that whether “God or atoms” explain the universe, either way he should follow Stoic Ethics .   (See my previous article by the way for all the references to these passages, and everything else I’ve mentioned.)  I think that’s why the Stoics were able to consider individuals like Socrates, Pythagoras, and Diogenes the Cynic to be wise and virtuous even though they didn’t share the same theological beliefs as the Stoic school.  If Socrates or Diogenes the Cynic walked into Epictetus’ school and said “Hey can I be a Stoic?” would Epictetus boot them out saying “No because you’re not certain that Zeus exists and is provident, get lost!”  I don’t know.  Neither do you.  I’d guess probably not, though.  In fact, the Stoics believed Cynicism offered a “shortcut” to virtue, compared with ordinary Stoicism.  It’s pretty tricky, though, for anyone who wants to portray the assimilation of Stoic theological doctrines as mandatory to explain how a way of life that completely ignores those doctrines came to be be held up as a shortcut to Stoic virtue.

The ancient Stoics believed that virtue is the only true good, and that’s the central doctrine or cornerstone of their whole philosophy.  I think virtually all of them must have believed in a provident God called Zeus but there might have been one or two, over the 500 year period we’re talking about, who weren’t sure because they were doing philosophy and using the Socratic method of questioning rather than just indoctrinating their students into religious dogmas based on the teacher’s say-so.  None of the Stoics claimed to have that kind of absolute authority.  None of them claimed to be wise: that’s why it’s called the Stoic school and wasn’t (except for a short spell) named Zenonism after Zeno (Zenon in Greek), its founder.  There is no Stoic pope.  You do philosophy and if you arrive at the same conclusions as them then you might as well call yourself a Stoic.  I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news but if you want to be a Stoic you’re going to have to actually do philosophy.  Turns out Stoicism is not a personality cult like Epicureanism or Pythagoreanism were (sorry guys!) and you might actually have to think for yourself rather than just rote learn the sayings of the founders and repeat them like a parrot.

What then? Shall I not follow in the footsteps of my predecessors? I shall indeed use the old road, but if I find one that makes a shorter cut and is smoother to travel, I shall open the new road. Men who have made these discoveries before us are not our masters, but our guides. Truth lies open for all; it has not yet been monopolized. And there is plenty of it left even for posterity to discover. (Seneca, Letter 33)

Epictetus is even more emphatic.  He repeatedly warns his students that reading the books of famous Stoics such as Chrysippus and committing their teachings to memory is just another vice, a sort of intellectual vanity, unless they actually learn to think for themselves and apply philosophical reasoning in daily life.  He says that the real evidence of having learned Stoicism should be visible in someone’s ability to master his fears and desires, like the physique of an athlete is evidence of their training.  We should judge him by the signs of virtue he exhibits in life, not by his ability to recite a catechism of “orthodox” Stoic dogmas – indeed, that would be absurd.

In any case, by the time Marcus Aurelius was around the whole Stoic movement was pretty loosely defined and leaderless but he was still famous, even in his own lifetime as a “Stoic” philosopher.   If Marcus  Aurelius woke up one day and said “Hmmmm…  God or atoms?  You know, I’m not 100% sure about that bit anymore but I still agree with the rest of it” would people have stopped calling him a Stoic?   Probably not, right?  As long as he still lived like a Stoic, exhibited the Stoic virtues, and was committed to the belief that virtue is the only true good.  To hear some people talk these days, you’d think there were “Stoic police” going around making sure of everyone’s Stoic orthodoxy but, guess what, there weren’t!  In Marcus Aurelius’ day there wasn’t even a leader of the Stoic school so there was nobody with the authority to enforce any sort of rigid orthodoxy any more than there is today – thank goodness.  The last Stoic scholarch (head of the school) was Panaetius and he’s been pushing up daisies, six feet under, since the second century BC, nearly three hundred years before the time of Marcus Aurelius.

At the end of the day, though, it’s fundamentally indifferent whether you call yourself a “Stoic” or not.  The only advantage is that you can more easily hang out with other fascinating people who like to call themselves “Stoic”, most of whom happen to be agnostics or atheists anyway, whether the fundamentalist-types like that or not.  By contrast, if you said “I’m totally into everything Marcus Aurelius said and I try to live my life by it but I’m not actually a real Stoic because I don’t worship Zeus” most people would probably look at you like you were crazy.   By the way, people who are really into religion and Stoicism nevertheless vary tremendously in their level of commitment to the ancient traditions.  One guy got really annoyed with me for using the phrase “worship Zeus” although that’s literally what the ancient Stoics were talking about.  I pointed out to him that another guy I’d been arguing with online actually had a profile picture of himself dressed in the robes of an ancient Greek priest and that he did literally worship the Greek gods.  (Over the years I’ve met quite a few modern-day individuals who combine Stoicism with Hellenistic religious practices.)  At the other end of the scale someone who was arguing with me about how all Stoics absolutely must believe in divine Providence suddenly changed his tune after admitting that he didn’t know what the word “Providencemeans (pronoia in Greek) and I showed him a dictionary definition.   “Oh, if that’s what it means then, no, I don’t actually believe in it; sorry for bothering you.”   Often, I find that the more determined someone is to  argue to the death about something on the Internet the more likely it is that they probably haven’t got a clue what they’re talking about.  There are plenty of people online who will argue with you about Stoicism until they’re blue in the face and call you all sorts of idiots if you don’t agree with them.  Then, a few hours, or days, later they’ll casually admit they’ve not actually got round to reading any books on the subject yet.   That’s life, folks:  welcome to the Internet!

So, anyway, if you’ve got to the end of this and you’re a super-religious Stoic who’s still really angry with me for not being sure whether God exists or not then, well, thanks at least for your patience.  I really don’t hate you or anything you believe.  I’m just not 100% sure you’re right.  I also think that, especially as Stoics, we should all be more tolerant of others who happen to disagree with our beliefs.  In any case, being so angry and sending me these emails and messages calling me names probably just does you more harm than good, my friend.  If you ever want to talk about it in a sort of friendly dispassionate way feel free to get in touch, though.  Thanks! 😉


Just out of curiosity, I polled my Facebook group for Stoicism to find out their religious views.  Surprisingly, most of those who responded (n=663) are atheists, and agnostics like me are not the majority.

  • 50% – I’m an atheist.
  • 29% – I’m an agnostic.
  • 14% – I believe God exists but I don’t believe he resembles the Stoic conception of Zeus or Providence.
  • 8% – I believe God exists and he resembles the Stoic conception of Zeus or Providence.

So 78% are either atheists or agnostics, although they’re “into” Stoicism, and only 22% believe in God, either Stoic-style Zeus or some other definition.

Free E-book: Marcus Aurelius in the Roman Histories

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Marcus Aurelius in the Roman Histories is a new e-book that I created, which contains the main excerpts from historical sources describing the life of Marcus Aurelius and his reign as emperor of Rome. This mini-course contains download links that you can use to obtain copies of the EPUB, Kindle (MOBI) or PDF versions of the book. This text has been carefully edited and proofread to make it more accessible to modern readers.

There are several excellent modern biographies of Marcus Aurelius available. However, most of the material they draw upon can be found in a handful of ancient histories, which are relatively brief and fairly easy to read. This e-book brings together the main sources for the life of Marcus Aurelius in a new edition, specially designed to be read online or on mobile devices. The chapters included are small excerpts, containing the passages most relevant to the reign of Marcus Aurelius, from the following three histories.

The History of the Empire from the Death of Marcus by Herodian of Antioch, a minor Roman official who witnessed the reign of Commodus first-hand.

The Roman History (Historia Romana) of Cassius Dio, who served as a senator under Commodus. I’ve also included Cassius Dio’s chapter on the life of Commodus as an appendix, as it provides a valuable addition to the writings that more directly address the reign of his father, Marcus Aurelius.

The Augustan History (Historia Augusta) is a collection of biographical chapters, attributed to four different authors. In addition to the chapters on Marcus Aurelius I’ve also included those on his co-emperor Lucius Verus and the usurper Avidius Cassius as they pertain directly to the relationship between these men and Marcus.

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