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 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 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 appears to confirm that the school tolerated diverse opinions and wasn’t 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, there’s 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 believed in God but not the pantheistic Zeus of the early Stoics.  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.  That’s probably just story that people made up but nevertheless, you get the point.  (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 arguments could easily be used to challenge traditional arguments for 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.

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

Roman Histories MockupFree download available for one week only!

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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What do the Stoic Virtues Mean?

Stoic Virtue Infographic by Rocio de TorresThe Stoics often refer to the four cardinal virtues of Greek philosophy: prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance.  (Or if you prefer: wisdom, morality, courage, and moderation.)

We don’t know where this classification originated.  It appears to go back as far as Plato or Socrates, although probably even further.  This was a very ancient, conventional schema for understanding virtue.  The Stoics don’t appear to have assumed it was the only or the best way to conceptualize the virtues.  They often prefer to think of virtue, from a slightly different perspective, as living in harmony with Nature at three different levels.  In some ways these models overlap.

However, the cardinal virtues have remained popular as a way of interpreting ancient philosophical ethics throughout the ages.  One of my hesitations about introducing newcomers to Stoicism through this model is that the Greek words are difficult to translate into modern English and the meanings were probably also somewhat stretched by the Stoics to fit their philosophy.  It’s a slightly ill-fitting classification, although it’s simple and appealing, so we shouldn’t get to hung up on taking it literally, as if these words provide the only way to describe virtue.

People often wrangle over the definitions of Greek philosophical terms, which can lead to some rather speculative translations.  Believe it or not, though, we actually have a Greek philosophical dictionary that survives from the time of Plato.  It’s called Definitions, and is believed to have probably been written by one of Plato’s followers at the Academy.  So there’s are not Stoic definitions of the virtues but knowing how Platonists defined them certainly helps us a lot.  For instance, this is how the Academy defined the word “virtue” itself:

aretê (virtue/excellence).  The best disposition; the state of a mortal creature which is in itself praiseworthy; the state on account of which its possessor is said to be good; the just observance of the laws; the disposition on account of which he who is so disposed is said to be perfectly excellent; the state which produces faithfulness to law.

It’s also worth mentioning the notoriously tricky eudaimonia, which is conventionally rendered as “happiness”, although most scholars agree that’s a misleading translation.  Its meaning is closer to the archaic sense of the word “happiness”, which was the opposite of hapless, wretched or unfortunate.  A better translation would be “fulfillment” or “flourishing”, as you can see from the Academic definition.

eudaimonia (happiness/fulfilment).  The good composed of all goods; an ability which suffices for living well; perfection in respect of virtue; resources sufficient for a living creature.

This will be a slightly more scholarly blog post than some.  I’ve listed the four cardinal virtues below with the definitions from the Academy and also some notes on what the early Stoic fragments say in Diogenes Laertius, Stobaeus, etc.  I’ve not referenced everything extensively here, though, for the sake of brevity.  (It’s just a quick blog post.)  You’ll find most of this information in the Stoic fragments from Diogenes Laertius and Stobaeus, though, and in Pierre Hadot’s Inner Citadel and A.A. Long’s Epictetus.

The Cardinal Virtues

phronêsis (prudence/practical wisdom)

The ability which by itself is productive of human happiness; the knowledge of what is good and bad; the knowledge that produces happiness; the disposition by which we judge what is to be done and what is not to be done.

In a sense, all of the virtues can be understood as wisdom applied to our actions, or moral wisdom.  Prudence is the most important and most general of the Stoic virtues because it refers, as here, to the firmly-grasped knowledge of what is good, bad, and indifferent in life.  In other words, understanding the most important things in life or grasping the value of things rationally.  It’s opposite is the vice of ignorance.  Most crucially for Stoics it means firmly grasping the nature of the good: understanding that virtue or wisdom itself is the only true good, and living accordingly.  Prudence is therefore closely related to the very meaning of the word “philosophy”: love of wisdom.

However, it can also refer to our ability to discern the value (axia) of different external things rationally, i.e., distinguishing wisely between different “preferred indifferents”.  (A point discussed in detail by the Stoic Cato of Utica in Cicero’s De Finibus.)  Marcus refers to this as acting and responding to things “in accord with value”.  Stobaeus likewise says the early Stoics defined it as knowing the nature of the good and bad, understanding indifferent things, and knowing what would be “appropriate action” under different circumstances.  Diogenes Laertius says that Chrysippus and others sub-divided prudence into good counsel (euboulia) and understanding (sunesis).  That’s intriguing because it links prudence to Stoic Rhetoric, and the ability to communicate the truth appropriately to other people, honestly but tactfully, such as the way Marcus described his wise Stoic teachers expressing their doctrines.  It’s also clear that the Stoics believed the wise man is able to offer himself good counsel.

The Stoics divided their curriculum into three: Logic, Ethics, and Physics.  They may have linked Prudence with the topic of Stoic Logic, which encompassed epistemology and psychology, and appears related to the practices that Epictetus called the Discipline of Assent.

dikaiosunê (justice/morality)

The unanimity of the soul with itself, and the good discipline of the parts of the soul with respect to each other and concerning each other; the state that distributes to each person according to what is deserved; the state on account of which its possessor chooses what appears to him to be just; the state underlying a law-abiding way of life; social equality; the state of obedience to the laws.

This is perhaps the most problematic translation.  Our modern word “justice” seems too formal or narrow for what the Stoics meant.  The Stoics don’t just mean what’s just in the legal sense but what would be moral in our dealings with others more generally.  For instance, they take it to encompass a mother’s attitude toward her children or our sense of piety toward the gods.  In the past it was therefore often translated more broadly as “righteousness”, or some modern authors simply refer to it as social virtue or morality.  It’s opposing vice occurs when we are unjust or do wrong by another person morally.

We’re told that it was composed mainly of the subordinate virtues of kindness and fairness.  So although it may not be apparent from the word “justice” this is a much broader concept of social virtue, which encompasses the numerous references to kindness, benevolence, or goodwill toward others found in Stoic writings, particularly throughout The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.   Indeed, Marcus actually says that justice is the most important of the virtues.

You can view justice largely as moral wisdom applied to our actions, particularly in relation to other people individually or society as a whole.  Stobaeus says that it is the knowledge of the distribution of proper value to each person or fair “distributions”, i.e., in relation to preferred indifferents (external things).  Diogenes Laertius says the Stoics divided justice mainly into impartiality (isotês) and kindness/courtesy (eugnômosunê).  It may have correlated with the Stoic topic of Ethics, including politics, and what Epictetus calls the applied Discipline of Action (or Impulse to Act, referring to our voluntary intentions).

sôphrosunê (temperance/moderation)

Moderation of the soul concerning the desires and pleasures that normally occur in it; harmony and good discipline in the soul in respect of normal pleasures and pains; concord of the soul in respect of ruling and being ruled; normal personal independence; good discipline in the soul; rational agreement within the soul about what is admirable and contemptible; the state by which its possessor chooses and is cautious about what he should.

This is also a slightly difficult term in some ways.  It refers to moderation or self-discipline/self-control but also to self-awareness or being self-possessed.  We could even view it as closely related to what many people today mean by “mindfulness”.    It’s the opposite of the vice called “wantonness” or “licentiousness”.  The many references to appropriate feelings of “shame” in Epictetus are related to this virtue and we could view it as (very) loosely related to the Christian idea of moral conscience.  Stobaeus says that it entails knowledge of “what is to be chosen, avoided, and neither” in the domain of “impulses”, i.e., it guides our intentions to act on certain desires.   Diogenes Laertius says the Stoics defined moderation mainly as good self-discipline (eutaxia) and propriety/decorum (kosmistês).

Surprisingly, some academics, most notably Pierre Hadot, view this and fortitude as being the virtues corresponding with the topic of Stoic Physics and Epictetus’ applied Discipline of Fear and Desire, which we could also call the Stoic Therapy of the Passions.  That’s easier to understand when we observe many of the Stoic exercises related to Physics and cosmology.  By viewing events in a detached manner, like a natural philosopher or a physician, the Stoics aimed to achieve an “Objective Representation” of them, suspending any judgements of good or bad, and therefore eliminating fear and desire.  Think of the modern notion of scientific detachment and objectivity.   Likewise, Hadot refers to the Stoic practice of imagining the whole of space and time as the View from Above or cosmic perspective.  This is obviously related to cosmology and Physics but the Stoics employed it to rise above their fears and desires and achieve apatheia or freedom from unhealthy passions and attachment to external things.

andreia (fortitude/courage)

The state of the soul which is unmoved by fear; military confidence; knowledge of the facts of warfare; self-restraint in the soul about what is fearful and terrible; boldness in obedience to wisdom; being intrepid in the face of death; the state which stands on guard over correct thinking in dangerous situations; force which counterbalances danger; force of fortitude in respect of virtue; calm in the soul about what correct thinking takes to be frightening or encouraging things; the preservation of fearless beliefs about the terrors and experiences of warfare; the state which cleaves to the law.

This is one of the simpler virtues.  It clearly means courage, although the Stoics also extend it to include endurance of pain and discomfort more generally.  It’s the opposite of the vice of “cowardice”.  It appears to form a pair with the virtue of moderation.  Both refer to the master of passions: moderation to desires and courage to fears.  Hence, they probably correlate also with Epictetus’ famous slogan: endure and renounce.  The virtue of courage allows us to endure fear and the virtue of moderation to renounce unhealthy desires.

As Seneca observed, paradoxically, these virtues cannot exist without at least some trace of fear and desire for us to master, and the Stoics insist that even the perfect Sage requires moderation and courage because he is still subject to the first movements of passion or “proto-passions” (propatheiai).  Seneca explains this in detail in On Anger and elsewhere but it’s also very vividly described by Epictetus, as recounted by Aulus Gellius’ story of the Stoic teacher caught in a storm at sea.

Stobaeus says the Stoics defined courage as knowledge of what is terrible, what is not terrible, and what is neither or “standing firm”, i.e., endurance guided by wisdom.  Diogenes Laertius says they divided courage primarily into constancy/determination (aparallaxia) and tension/vigour (eutonia).  This final virtue may correspond, alongside courage, with Stoic Physics, as described above, and also with Epictetus’ applied Discipline of Fear and Desire.

Free Mini-Course on Stoicism

Donald! This is a wonderful and wonderfully compact introduction to Stoic philosophy… Thank you for making this available to people free of charge. I will be recommending this to friends of mine who are curious to see what this is all about. – Ronald William Brady

If you’re interested in learning more about Stoicism, check out my my free Crash Course in Stoicism.  I specifically designed it for newcomers to the subject.  It will  teach you everything you need to know to get started learning about Stoic philosophy, in less then ten minutes.  I’ve tried to answer the most common questions people ask.  Update: Over, 2,800 people have already enrolled on this course so far. Just click the button below…

Enlightening, lucid, to the point and life affirming. – Lorne Stormont Darling

Rocio Epictetus Wallpaper

You’ll also find my current blog posts here and an archive of the old ones.

Warm regards,

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Facebook Live Webinar on Stoicism and Anger

Facebook Live Webinar on Thursday.  Free of charge.  Everyone welcome.  I’ll be talking about Stoic remedies for anger, drawing mainly on The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.

Hit the Get Reminder button below to receive notification. You should see the time displayed in your current timezone but it’s 8pm Atlantic Time.

Video: Introduction to Stoicism

You can now watch my fifteen minute Introduction to Stoicism talk here:

Introduction to Stoicism

This talk was the opening presentation at the recent Stoicon 2017 Modern Stoicism conference in Toronto. It covers who the Stoics were and what they believed, and is intended to bring complete newcomers up to speed so they’re ready to learn more about the subject.

In addition to the video of the presentation, I’ve also included a complete transcript of the talk and an embedded version of my slideshow.

Online Introduction Stoicon

Stoicism, Insults, and Political Correctness

A bit of a ramble about insults and political correctness, in relation to Stoicism.

Recently I’ve been thinking more about insults and what Stoicism might tell us about how to view them.  That’s been prompted by some articles by William Irvine and Eric O. Scott about insults, social justice, and political correctness, following Irvine’s recent publication of the book A Slap in the Face: Why Insults Hurt and Why They Shouldn’t.  Their discussion does a good job of applying Stoic philosophy to a specific dilemma that’s very topical at the moment.  There’s been a lot of reference in the media recently to “microaggression”, “safe spaces”, and “trigger warnings”, particularly on US college campuses.

I’m not attempting in this post to provide a comprehensive overview of these issues.  So apologies if I’ve neglected an important topic.  I merely want to contribute a few meandering notes, including some observations on passages in the ancient Stoic literature that I feel may perhaps have been overlooked.

Let’s start with microaggressions.  I was a psychotherapist for many years, so this dilemma is pretty familiar to me because it frequently comes up in therapy sessions, particularly in the context of treating social anxiety and providing what therapists call social-skills training.  Psychological literature on dealing with insults, or put-downs, goes back, in particular, to the 1970s, the heyday of what used to be called “assertiveness training”.  So I feel that when considering some of these issues it’s helpful to bring in elements of that perspective, as well as some of the insights Stoic philosophy has to offer.  Psychotherapy, of course, speaks mainly to the psychological issues at stake in these debates, but it also has something to say about the ethical and political dimension because those are dilemmas that any therapist working in this area, over the last forty or fifty years, will have had to wrestle with in discussions with their clients, as well as in clinical supervision.

William Irvine’s article cites a recent article, which quotes, Sheree Marlowe, the chief diversity officer at Clark University, giving the following advice to incoming students in her presentation on microaggressions:

Don’t ask an Asian student you don’t know for help on your math homework or randomly ask a black student if he plays basketball. Both questions make assumptions based on stereotypes. And don’t say “you guys.” It could be interpreted as leaving out women, said Ms. Marlowe, who realized it was offensive only when someone confronted her for saying it during a presentation.

Irvine claims that much of this advice is further sensitizing students to insults, whereas the ancient Stoics would have recommended that they be desensitized to them, i.e., that they learn to “shrug off insults”.

The Stoics, after devoting considerable thought to how best to respond to insults, concluded that we would do well to become insult pacifists. When insulted, we should not insult back in return; we should instead carry on as if nothing had happened. It is, I have found, a very effective way to deal with many insults. On failing to provoke a rise in his target, an insulter is likely to feel foolish.

In relation to some of the most serious kinds of insults, “hate speech”, Irvine’s advice is as follows:

What about hate speech, though? Should we remain silent in the face of a racist insult? It depends on the situation. But the one thing we should not do is take the insult personally. We should instead dismiss hate speech, in much the same way as we should dismiss the barking of an angry dog. We should keep in mind that the dog, not being fully rational, cannot help itself. The Stoics would add that if we let ourselves get angered or upset by a barking dog, we have only ourselves to blame.

Eric O. Scott’s response to William Irvine’s book, and his presentation on this subject at Stoicon, raises the concern that Stoicism might be misinterpreted by some as advocating an overly-passive attitude toward social injustices, because of the the emphasis it places on acceptance.  He writes:

If people find modern Stoicism’s advice for victims of injustice off-putting, it may have more to do with the choices we make about how to go about presenting that advice than with what the ancients have said. Being resilient to insults and being an active agent for Justice are not inimical objectives, and while I accept Irvine’s call to the former, I would caution him that he has gone too far in his neglect of the latter.

Many people today appear to read the Stoics as advising that we should be in some sense indifferent to the suffering of others.  I think Scott does a good job of forcefully arguing against this, putting forward the case that Stoicism has always emphasised the virtue of justice, and an ethical concern for the common welfare of mankind.  Irvine then replied to this article, as follows:

But besides being concerned with their own well being, Stoics felt a social duty to make their world a better place. This could be done, they knew, by introducing other people to Stoicism, but it could also involve helping extract non-Stoics from the trouble they got themselves into as a result of their misguided views regarding what in life is valuable. Marcus Aurelius is a prime example of a Stoic who took his social duty very seriously, but despite being the emperor, he failed to bring about a just society. The Rome that he ruled still allowed or even encouraged slavery and acts of human cruelty.

As an aside, we do know that Marcus passed several laws that improved the situation for slaves under his rule.  I’ll discuss the notion that he and other Stoics are to blame for failing to openly oppose the institution of slavery in a separate section below.  In any case, Irvine agrees with Scott here that Stoics do have a social duty to help others, which must be reconciled with their emotional acceptance of external events.

I believe there’s a crucial, and actually fairly well-known passage, that may help clarify the psychological aspect of the Stoic position.  In the Encheiridion, Epictetus is quoted as teaching his students:

When you see a man shedding tears in sorrow for a child abroad or dead, or for loss of property, beware that you are not carried away by the impression that it is outward ills that make him miserable. Keep this thought by you: ‘What distresses him is not the event, for that does not distress another, but his judgement on the event.’ Therefore do not hesitate to sympathize with him so far as words go, and if it so chance, even to groan with him; but take heed that you do not also groan in your inner being. (Handbook, 17)

Does Epictetus advise his students to ignore the man in distress?  Does he suggest that they should simply challenge him for being overly-sensitive or tell him to “suck it up, buttercup”?  No.  Does he suggest delivering a lecture on Stoic Ethics to the person in distress?  No.  What Epictetus actually advised his students was that they should express outward sympathy, without hesitation.  And to groan along with him, in certain situations, showing commiseration.  His only caveat is that we should not ourselves become upset at the same external things: groan along outwardly, by all means, but not inwardly.

Why does Epictetus say this?  Well, first of all, it’s clearly an important passage.  Arrian selected it for the Handbook, which is a highly condensed summary of Epictetus’ Stoic teachings.  So it’s not a throwaway remark.  It’s presumably a central component of his teaching, and something it was considered important for all of his students to remember in daily life, hence its inclusion in the Encheiridion.  Epictetus must have encountered similar misinterpretations of Stoicism to the ones we hear today: that it encourages us to be callous toward the suffering of others.  That’s not consistent with Stoic Ethics, though.  We have a duty to care for other rational beings, and to wish them well, Fate permitting.  We should desire to alleviate the suffering of others, where possible, although doing so is outside of our direct control and must therefore be pursued “lightly” as Epictetus put it.  That doesn’t mean abandoning the goal of helping other people altogether, though.  It means balancing the desire to help others overcome their suffering with acceptance of the fact that they have minds of their own.  You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.  We can and should try to help others, nevertheless.

Sometimes people rightly detect that the Stoics think the best thing we can do for others is to educate them if we believe they’re mistaken, which would include with regard to the things that upset them.  Sure.  But what people sometimes miss is that the Stoics also recognise that when someone is in the grip of a passion they’re not thinking straight so it’s not the best time to reason with them.  Seneca says that if you tell someone who is in the grip of anger to calm down, it will just make them worse.  That tends to apply to anxiety and other emotions as well.  The Stoics knew that over 2,000 years ago.  Cognitive therapists arrived at the same conclusion, based on their experience.  People find it difficult to think objectively when they’re upset so there’s no point trying to lecture them.  We should treat them with kindness and empathy, wait for their passions to naturally abate, and then perhaps talk to them about things if the opportunity arises, but in a sensitive manner rather than in a hectoring or condescending way.

I think it’s extremely helpful to dwell on the passage above for a moment and consider how it would apply to some of the modern examples being discussed.  One of the typical examples of a microaggression given on university campuses is asking foreign students “Where are you from?”  It’s considered to be potentially offensive to pose this question.  I’m Scottish but I live in Nova Scotia, in Canada.  About once a month, I reckon, someone asks me what part of Ireland I’m from – it’s mainly taxi drivers.  (I’m totally serious.)  Is that a microaggression?  I don’t know.  It would probably offend some people.  It just makes me laugh.  I think my Canadian girlfriend gets more annoyed about it than I do.  Several British people in Canada have told me that they actually felt quite offended by similar remarks, though.

What advice should a Stoic give to people genuinely offended by these sort of comments?  Should we say: “It’s not events that upset us, but our judgement about events.”  Should I tell them to cultivate indifference toward external things?  No.  That would obviously be flippant and insensitive.  It wouldn’t normally be very helpful.  Why?  Precisely because their passions, being external to my volition, are not under my direct control.  In other words, merely telling them “what not to think” is unlikely to transform them into Stoic Sages.  That’s something that seems trivial when it’s said to me but at which other people do sometimes take offence.

Here’s a more sensitive example…  The bars in North America often sell a cocktail called an “Irish car bomb”.  The first time I noticed that my jaw hit the floor because it seemed to be making light of atrocities such as the 1998 Omagh bombing, which killed 29 civilians, including several young children and a pregnant woman.  It’s a pretty common drink, though.  Would a typical Canadian bar serve a cocktail called an “Iraqi car bomb” or one (hypothetically) called an “Ottawa shooter“?  Probably not.  So that’s technically a double-standard and morally hypocritical, right?  Although, notice that some of these are empirical questions…  For all I know there are bars in Ontario that do a roaring trade in Ottawa shooters.

What if someone’s maiden aunt lost a close friend in the Omagh bombing and then walked into a bar in Canada to be greeted by a massive blackboard on the wall saying “Irish car bombs half-price on St. Paddy’s Day”?  Is it offensive?  Yes.  Is it worth being upset about.  No.  Should we be surprised if some people are upset by it?  No.  Should we tell them to “get over themselves” and not take things so personally.  No.  What would Epictetus and the other Stoics actually advise us to do?  Well, as we’ve just seen, according to Arrian, they’d say that if someone is genuinely upset we should express outward sympathy, and act sensitively.  They’d say that we should be more concerned, though, about remaining inwardly detached ourselves and not joining in their distress – not allowing ourselves to be triggered.  We should also behave sympathetically, though.

You see, what Stoicism has to say about this is actually very insightful, complex, and interesting…  because it asks us to strike a careful balance.  Often people in these debates about political correctness, and so on, go to one extreme or the other.  They focus either on the notion that people are emotionally overreacting to things that others see as trivial (“liberal snowflakes”).  Or they focus on the fact that people are being insensitive to the inevitable distress caused by certain triggers (“right-wing bigots”).  I like to say that Stoicism is all about striking a delicate balance between “acceptance and action” or between emotional indifference and ethical concern.  That’s the whole point of the philosophy really.

We all know the Stoic Sage is unperturbed by Irish car bomb cocktails and “sticks and stones may break his bones but words will never hurt him.”  Sure but the Sage is a hypothetical ideal: the individual equivalent of a Utopian society.  Or at least, he’s as “rare as the Ethiopian phoenix” as the Stoics put it – and that was born every 500 years, according to legend.  Most of us – including Zeno, Chrysippus, and Epictetus – are classed as fools by the Stoics.  Everyone is flawed.  We’re all FINE – fucked up, insecure, neurotic, and emotional.  It’s unrealistic, un-Stoic, and unphilosophical, to act surprised when other people are upset by external events.  It would also be morally vicious to completely disregard their distress.

What do therapists who work with clients on a daily basis, dealing with these issues, actually do?  Well, they have the whole “armamentarium” of psychological techniques at their disposal.  For example, clients may learn to employ cognitive distancing strategies to moderate the distress caused by certain insults.  Alternatively, they may employ “fogging“, from assertiveness training, the subtle art of agreeing with someone without really agreeing with them.  Or they might employ repeated imaginal exposure to the upsetting event until their anxiety has naturally abated.

But should the therapist be shocked if their client is initially offended by insults?  Or should they join with the client in their judgement that the events are “awful”, or offensive enough to be upsetting?  Well, modern cognitive therapists face this dilemma every day.  They all know that they have to walk a thin line between empathy and agreement.  It’s understandable that the client is upset by insults but it’s also true that they don’t really need to feel deeply hurt by words – they could learn to view them in a more detached way.

What about trigger warnings?  Massimo Pigliucci has written an excellent article on “trigger warnings” in academia.  These are warnings given to students in advance that a lecture may contain material that could be upsetting, especially to sufferers of PTSD. Now, the concern you’ll hear most therapists express about this issue is that the main treatment for anxiety, including PTSD, is repeated exposure to the feared event, and that avoidance is symptomatic and a maintaining factor in anxiety disorders.  So the very idea of giving trigger warnings seems to fly completely in the face of what psychological research tells us about best practice in the treatment of PTSD.

If I am “triggered” by conversations about sex then avoiding those conversations is probably not going to help me in the long-term, it will potentially backfire by maintaining or even increasing my sensitivity.  That said, exposure in therapy is usually following a graduated hierarchy, prolonged sufficiently for habituation to occur, and carried out in a safe environment under controlled conditions.  It may be unhelpful for people to be caught off guard by experiences that trigger their anxiety.  However, if we simply eliminated these exposure experiences, by never mentioning sex or whatever triggers are a concern, that would definitely reduce the chances of natural habituation taking place, and the anxiety or distress abating naturally – the vulnerable students would potentially get worse rather than better in the long-run.

For example, in an article entitled “HAZARDS AHEAD: The Problem with Trigger Warnings, According to the Research”, Richard J. McNally, a Professor of Psychology at Harvard, writes:

Trigger warnings are designed to help survivors avoid reminders of their trauma, thereby preventing emotional discomfort. Yet avoidance reinforces PTSD. Conversely, systematic exposure to triggers and the memories they provoke is the most effective means of overcoming the disorder.

Also, warning a group of students about quite specific triggers carries the risk of unintentional disclosure by alerting some students to the fact that others have a specific form of anxiety.  The lecturer says, “Oh, by the way, we’re going to be talking about alien abductions today, in case anyone’s concerned by that…”  Student x gets up and leaves the room, looking flustered.  So everyone else in the class now basically knows that student x has anxiety that’s triggered by discussions of alien abductions.  The cat is out of the bag.  So that can now be spread around as gossip, etc.  (The lecturer could warn students beforehand by email, etc., but the mere absence of particular students would still potentially lead to unintentional disclosure in this way.)

So are philosophers clouding the issue by speaking outside their sphere of competence and trespassing on the professional domain of psychologists?  One of the things I notice about these debates is that they often turn on questions that are empirical rather than purely ethical.  For example, whether or not we warn students in advance about a possible trigger word is probably going to depend on our appraisal of the probability and severity of the distress caused.  That’s not really an ethical question, though.  If I was talking to vulnerable group of female refugees from a war-torn country where sexual abuse is common, I might think that it’s tactless to bring up the subject of rape without some kind of preliminary remark.  Most of us would probably agree on that, probably even Epictetus.  At the other end of the scale, some people have clown or belly-button phobias but they’re not so common that you’d expect to find one in every lecture room, and they’re not usually severe enough that they induce full-blown panic attacks at the mere mention of the word.  (Although there’s always the exception that proves the rule.)

So if the majority of us, even the Stoics, agree that sometimes it makes sense to warn people in advance then the disagreement seems mainly to be over where to draw the line.  Again, that seems to be an empirical question for psychology, not a purely philosophical question.  We might want to consider what the actual prevalence of sexual trauma or other potential issues is among the population we’re addressing, for example.  We should also distinguish between different forms of anxiety.  Phobic anxiety can be severe but isn’t usually overwhelming or traumatising unless it’s accompanied by what psychologists technically refer to as “panic attacks”, a term that has a very specific meaning in psychopathology.  PTSD, by contrast, is often more severe and frequently accompanied by panic attacks, in which anxiety feels completely overwhelming.  That can lead to a phenomenon called re-traumatisation, in which anxiety being triggered can cause a relapse into PTSD symptoms, especially if experienced in a public setting, such as a lecture theatre.  Once again, though, these are empirical questions about psychopathology.

We all agree (or most of us do) that we shouldn’t knowingly harm other people, which is the ethical component.  The disagreements often turn on where the line should be drawn dividing acceptable from unacceptable levels of risk.  Perhaps that’s really a question for psychologists, though, which would help explain why philosophers have struggled to agree on an answer, especially if they’re just engaged in armchair speculation without reference to scientific data.  Perhaps they’re simply not the best people to answer the question.

Some Comments on Stoicism and Slavery

Perhaps this is a little bit of a digression but I think it may be of interest…  In his article, Scott writes:

Moreover, there are well-founded reasons for being concerned that the ancients themselves failed to emphasize Justice as much as they should have. “About the institution of slavery,” say the authors of the introduction to the Chicago University Press’s series of Seneca translations, “there is silence, and worse than silence: Seneca argues that true freedom is internal freedom, so the external sort does not really matter.”

I agree with the fundamental point he is making here.  However, I feel that the quote about Seneca is perhaps slightly misleading, if it implies that Stoicism in general didn’t question the institution of slavery.

For a while, I did assume that the Stoics said virtually nothing about the institution slavery.  In many ways, it would be unrealistic to have expected them to condemn it very forcefully or openly.  It may even be that they simply thought it would be unrealistic to try to oppose it.  Marcus Aurelius’ armies, for example, probably captured hundreds of thousands of barbarians during the major wars of his reign.  Should they have been executed?  Released to regroup and attack again?  In fact, Marcus tried to resettle many inside the empire, in Italy, although I think some then engaged in an uprising.  So apart from the fact that the Roman economy was entirely dependant on slavery, in the ancient world abolition perhaps posed other problems, such as what else could be done with hundreds of thousands of hostile foreign captives.  That’s not a “justification” of slavery, just an attempt to explain why the Stoics may not have been in a position to speak out effectively against the entire institution.

However, I feel it’s only fair to say that, contrary to the book cited above, Seneca did go a little further than mere silence on the matter.  In fact, he dedicated the whole of letter 47 to the topic of a master’s relationship with his slaves.  There he argues that a master has a duty to treat his slaves with respect and affection, as fellow human beings, and friends.  Although he certainly doesn’t question the institution of slavery as a whole, Seneca does forcefully argue that slaves should be treated with equal respect to free men: “Kindly remember that he whom you call your slave sprang from the same stock, is smiled upon by the same skies, and on equal terms with yourself breathes, lives, and dies.”  He condemns those who abuse their slaves or see them as inferiors.  The kernel of his advice, as he puts it, is this: “Treat your inferiors as you would be treated by your betters.”

Nevertheless, Seneca does not go so far as to say that people should cease to own other people, as their slaves.  I used to think that’s as far as the Stoic critique of slavery went but then I noticed the following passage in Diogenes Laertius’ overview of early Stoic philosophy, part of his chapter on Zeno of Citium:

They [the Stoics] declare that he [the Sage] alone is free and bad men are slaves, freedom being power of independent action, whereas slavery is privation of the same; though indeed there is also a second form of slavery consisting in subordination, and a third which implies possession of the slave as well as his subordination; the correlative of such servitude being slave-ownership; and this too is evil.

According to Diogenes Laertius, therefore, it appears that the early Stoics did indeed condemn the institution of slavery as evil.  I suspect he is probably referring either to Zeno’s Republic or to one of the many writings of Chrysippus.  It’s not surprising that the Stoics may have said this, of course, because as many people today note their concept of brotherly-love for the rest of mankind on the basis of us all being citizens of the same cosmos, appears very much at odds with the notion of slave-ownership.  Moreover, Zeno’s Republic, perhaps the founding text of Stoicism, apparently portrayed a Utopian vision of the ideal Stoic society, in which all men and women were wise and equal.  It’s therefore difficult to imagine how the institution of slavery could possibly be part of the ideal Stoic society- a sage would have to own another sage but, in any case, we’re told all property is to be held in common.  So slavery must surely have also been abolished, along with law-courts, property, currency, etc., in Zeno’s Republic.

Themistius on Roman Stoics

Excerpt on Stoicism from the Orations of Themistius.

Junius Rusticus
Junius Rusticus

There’s a little-known passage about Stoics and other philosophers in Roman political history in the 34th Oration of Themistius, from the 4th century AD, entitled In Reply to Those who Found Fault with him for Accepting Public Office:

The emperor [Theodosius] has shown those who are now alive something they no longer expected to see: philosophy passing judgment in union with the highest power, philosophy broadcasting inspired and action-oriented precepts that up to now she has merely been proposing in her writings. Future generations will sing the praises of Theodosius for his summoning of philosophy to the public sphere, just as they will praise Hadrian, Marcus [Aurelius], and Antoninus [Pius], who are his ancestors, his fellow citizens, founders of his line. Theodosius was not content merely to inherit the purple from them; he also brought them back into the palace as exemplars after a long lapse of time and set philosophy by his side, just as they had done.

Neither the Persian Cyrus nor Alexander the Great could reach this level of distinction. Alexander deemed his guide Aristotle worthy of many great honors and peopled Stagira for him, but he did not give the philosopher a role in the exercise of that massive power of his. Neither did Augustus give Arius such a role, nor Scipio Panaetius, nor Tiberius Thrasyllus. In these individuals the three statesmen had only observers of their private struggles: even though they might have greatly desired to drag them into the stadium’s dust, they were unable to do so. But this was not the experience of our current emperor’s fathers and the founders of his line [Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius], whose names are great. They pulled Arrian and [Junius] Rusticus away from their books, refusing to let them be mere pen-and-ink philosophers. They did not let them write about courage and stay at home, or compose legal treatises while avoiding the public domain that is law’s concern, or decide what form of government is best while abstaining from any participation in government. The emperors to whom I am now alluding consequently escorted these men to the general’s tent as well as to the speaker’s platform. In their role as Roman generals, these men passed through the Caspian Gates, drove the Alani out of Armenia, and established boundaries for the Iberians and the Albani. For all these accomplishments, they reaped the fruits of the eponymous consulship, governed the great city [of Rome], and presided over the ancient senate. For the emperors [who thus employed them] knew that it is proper that public office, like the body, be cleansed, and that the greater and more noble the office is, the more cleansing it needs. These emperors understood that opinion was held by the ancient Romans, who saw the learned Cato hold the quaestorship, Brutus the praetorship, Favonius the plebeian tribunate, Varro the office with six axes and Rutilius the consulship. I pass over Priscus, Thrasea, and others of the same sort; writers will sate you with them if you should choose to consult their accounts. Nor was Marcus [Aurelius] himself anything but a philosopher in the purple. The same can be said for Hadrian, Antoninus [Pius], and, of course, for our current ruler Theodosius.

If you should look at his belt and cloak, you will number him with the vast majority of emperors; but if you cast your eyes on his soul and his intellect, you will class him with that famous triad [of philosophical emperors]. For surely he should be placed among those who are similarly minded, not among those who are similarly garbed.