The Hymn to Zeus by Cleanthes

Excerpts from the famous Hymn to Zeus by the Stoic philosopher Cleanthes.

The Hymn to Zeus by Cleanthes

Brief excerpt quoted in Epictetus’ Enchiridion and the Epistles of Seneca:

Lead me on, O Zeus, and thou Destiny,
To that goal long ago to me assigned.
I’ll follow readily but if my will prove weak;
Wretched as I am, I must follow still.
Fate guides the willing, but drags the unwilling.

The longer version found in the Anthology of Stobaeus begins:

Most glorious of the  immortals, called by many names, ever almighty
Zeus, leader of nature, guiding everything with law,
Hail!  For it is right that all mortals should address you,
since all are descended from you and imitate your voice,
alone of all the mortals which live and creep upon the earth.
So I will sing your praises and hymn your might always.

Contented with Little by Robert Burns

The poem “Contented with Little”, by Robert Burns, which arguably exhibits Stoic and Epicurean themes.

Contented with Little

[My translation into Standard English from The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy.  Burns’ poem arguably exhibits the influence of Stoic and Epicurean themes.]

Contented with little and joyous with more,
Whenever I meet with Sorrow and Care,
I gave them a slap, as they’re creeping along,
With a cup o’ good ale and an auld Scottish song.

I oft’ scratch the elbow o’ troublesome Thought;
But Man is a soldier, and Life must be fought.
My mirth and good humour are coin in my pouch,
And my Freedom’s my Lairdship no monarch dare touch.

A twelve-month o’ trouble, should my fortune fall,
A night o’ good fellowship fixes it all:
When at the blithe end of our journey at last,
Who the Hell ever thinks o’ the road he has passed?

Blind Chance, let her stumble and stagger on her way,
Be it to me, or from me, even, let the slut stray!
Come Ease, or come Travail, come Pleasure or Pain,
My worst words are:– “Welcome, and welcome again!”

– Robert Burns, 1794.

The Old Stoic by Emily Brontë

The short poem “The Old Stoic” by Emily Brontë.

The Old Stoic

Riches I hold in light esteem,
And love I laugh to scorn,
And lust of fame was but a dream
That vanished with the morn.

And if I pray, the only prayer
That moves my lips for me
Is, “Leave the heart that now I bear,
And give me liberty!”

Yes, as my swift days near their goal,
‘Tis all that I implore –
In life and death, a chainless soul,
With courage to endure.

From Poems of Solitude by Emily Brontë

Animal Metaphors in Stoicism (Part 1): The Bull and the Lion

This article (part 1) explores some of the animal metaphors found in Stoic literature, particularly the analogy of the “bull and the lion”, mentioned in Tom Wolfe’s novel A Man in Full (1998).

Zeus carrying Europa

Copyright © Donald Robertson, 2012.  All rights reserved.

Although this notion is seldom discussed in detail, readers of Stoic literature may notice frequent references to animals, often being employed as metaphors for different character types.  For example, in A Man in Full (1998), the novel by Tom Wolfe, two of the leading characters become enthusiastic followers of Epictetus’ form of Stoicism.  They are particularly inspired by his references to the image of a strong bull who naturally steps forward to protect the weaker members of the herd from attack by a lion.  Indeed, one of the chapters entitled “The Bull and the Lion”, contains the following exchange:

“That’s fine,” said Charlie, “but how do you know what your character is?  Let’s say there’s a crisis you’ve got to deal with.  How do you know what you’re really made of?”

“Epictetus talks about that,” said Conrad, “He says, how does a bull, when a lion’s coming after him, and he has to protect the whole herd – how does he know what powers he’s got?  He knows because it has taken him a long time to become powerful.  Like the bull, a man doesn’t become heroic all of a sudden, either.  Epictetus says, ‘He must train through the winter and make ready.'”

In part 2 of this article, I describe how the Stoics made a division between rational animals (humans and gods) and non-rational animals, further subdivided into wild animals, like wolves and lions, and domestic animals, like cattle and sheep.

Even among non-rational animals, though, some excel in terms of their nature and this is something Epictetus frequently refers to, particularly using the metaphor of the strong bull who protects the rest of the herd.  Seneca briefly alludes to this in the play Phaedra, when he writes: “Goaded on by love, the bold bull undertakes battle for the whole herd.”

The Stoics worshipped Zeus and refer to him frequently throughout their writings.  Epictetus does not explicitly state that the image of the bull is linked to Zeus and so we cannot assume he has that in mind.  However, it’s likely that most of his students would have easily connected the two ideas as Zeus was often symbolised as a white bull, as in the image shown here in which Zeus is carrying Europa.  Although cattle in general are sometimes looked down upon in Epictetus’ Discourses, the bull is several times praised as a metaphor for an exceptional or good man, i.e., the ideal Stoic Sage:

It was asked, How shall each of us perceive what belongs to his character? Whence, replied Epictetus, does a bull, when the lion approaches, alone recognize his own qualifications, and expose himself alone for the whole herd? It is evident that with the qualifications occurs, at the same time, the consciousness of being imbued with them. And in the same manner, whoever of us hath such qualifications will not be ignorant of them. But neither is a bull nor a gallant-spirited man formed all at once. We are to exercise, and qualify ourselves, and not to run rashly upon what doth not concern us. (Discourses, 1)

Here one ought nobly to say, “I am he who ought to take care of mankind.” For it is not every little paltry heifer that dares resist the lion; but if the bull should come up, and resist him, would you say to him, “Who are you? What business is it of yours?” In every species, man, there is some one quality which by nature excels, – in oxen, in dogs, in bees, in horses. Do not say to whatever excels, “Who are you?” If you do, it will, somehow or other, find a voice to tell you, “I am like the purple thread in a garment. Do not expect me to be like the rest; nor find fault with my nature, which has distinguished me from others.” (Discourses, 3)

You are a calf; when the lion appears, act accordingly, or you will suffer for it. You are a bull; come and fight; for that is incumbent on you and becomes you, and you can do it. (Discourses, 3)

The bull is clearly equated with the “good man” below, a synonym for the Sage, and the metaphor of a hunting dog is employed in a similar manner:

For who that is charged with such principles, but must perceive, too, his own powers, and strive to put them in practice. Not even a bull is ignorant of his own powers, when any wild beast approaches the herd, nor waits he for any one to encourage him; nor does a dog when he spies any game. And if I have the powers of a good man, shall I wait for you to qualify me for my own proper actions? (Discourses, 4)

In another passage he employs a similar metaphor, equating the role of the bull with that of the queen bee:

But what have you to do with the concerns of others? For what are you? Are you the bull in the herd, or the queen of the bees? Show me such ensigns of empire as she has from nature. But if you are a drone, and arrogate to yourself the kingdom of the bees, do you not think that your fellow-citizens will drive you out, just as the bees do the drones? (Discourses, 3)

Marcus Aurelius, who had almost certainly read the Discourses, perhaps even the four books lost today, mentions a similar metaphor, which he extends to the ram who guards the flock of sheep:

If any have offended against thee, consider first: What is my relation to men, and that we are made for one another; and in another respect, I was made to be set over them, as a ram over the flock or a bull over the herd. (Meditations)

Curiously, Seneca also says something quite similar, perhaps shedding some light on the original meaning of the metaphor in Stoicism:

But the earliest mortals and those of their descendants who pursued nature without being spoiled shared the same guide and law, being entrusted to the decisions of a superiors, since it is natural for inferior things to give way to more powerful ones.  Take herds of dumb animals: either the biggest or the strongest creatures have command.  It is not the bull inferior to his breeding but the one who surpasses the other males in size and muscle who goes before the herds; it is the tallest elephant who leads the troupe; among men, “the best” replaces “the biggest”.  So the ruler used to be chosen for his intellect, and the greatest happiness among nations was enjoyed by those among whom only the superior man could be more powerful.  A man can safely enjoy as much power as he wishes if he believes he only has power to act as he should. (Seneca, Letters, 90)

The presence of a similar metaphor in Seneca suggests that he and Epictetus, and perhaps Marcus, are alluding to a common Stoic source from an earlier period.

Likewise, Cicero portrays the Stoic Cato employing the same trope in his account of Stoic Ethics:

Nature has given bulls the instinct to defend their calves against lions with immense passion and force.  In the same way, those with great talent and the capacity for achievement, as is said of Hercules and Liber, have a natural inclination to help the human race. (De Finibus, Book III)

However, intriguingly, there is some evidence that Zeno employed the metaphor of a herd of cattle to describe the ideal Stoic community in The Republic, which was quite possibly the founding text of Stoicism.  For example, according to Plutarch:

It is true indeed that the so much admired Republic of Zeno, first author of the Stoic sect, aims singly at this, that neither in cities nor in towns we should live under laws distinct one from another, but that we should look upon all people in general to be our fellow-countryfolk and citizens, observing one manner of living and one kind of order, like a flock [or herd of cattle] feeding together with equal right in one common pasture. This Zeno wrote, fancying to himself, as in a dream, a certain scheme of civil order, and the image of a philosophical commonwealth. (Plutarch, On the Fortune of Alexander, 329A-C)

This suggests that Zeno may have introduced the metaphor of the ideal Stoic Republic as consisting of a herd of cattle led by a bull.  Indeed, the early Stoic school itself was a small community perhaps intended to be modelled on this ideal to some extent, so Zeno himself, or the subsequent scholarchs of the school, may have been seen as analogous to the bull in this imagery.

Review – Stoic Serenity: A Practical Course on Finding Inner Peace (2006) by Keith Seddon

Brief review of Stoic Serenity: A Practical Course on Finding Inner Peace (2006) by Keith Seddon.

Stoic Serenity:
A Practical Course on Finding Inner Peace (2006)

Keith Seddon

Find Stoic Serenity: A Practical Course on Finding Inner Peace (2006) on Amazon UK and Google Books.

Stoic Serenity is a practical guide to Stoicism as a way of life.  The author, Keith Seddon, describes himself as a freelance academic and author.  It is actually based on a correspondence course, first published in 2000, by an organisation called The Stoic Foundation.  The course focuses mainly on the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius and the Letters of Seneca, probably the two most relevant sources for novice students of Stoicism.  These are “set texts”, which the reader should also have access to, in order to follow the coursework in Stoic Serenity.  Each chapter concludes with some written exercises and at the back of the book examples of answers provided by previous students are given along with tutor feedback.

I thought this was a good introduction to the challenge of applying Stoicism in the modern world, in one’s daily life.  It’s probably going to be more accessible than most other books on Stoicism and provides clearly-described advice and exercises that anyone should be able to engage with.  The whole point of Stoicism is that we should apply it in our own lives and this course gives the reader a good framework for beginning to do that.  It’s also written in a style that encourages critical thinking and self-reflection, rather than merely teaching the theory and practice of Stoicism didactically.  This book doesn’t engage with the comparison between Stoicism and the techniques of modern psychotherapy, which may reveal a wider repertoire of Stoic “exercises”, but it does a good job of helping the student to learn the core principles of Stoicism as a way of life and, as such, it would probably be the best thing for many newcomers to the subject to read first.

Seddon quite rightly observes that for Stoics, “Our responsibility is primarily to ourselves… The idea that the Stoic should promote justice (or any virtue) in others is hard to come by in the literature” (p. 166-167).  However, of course, the many books written by ancient Stoics, and the fact that Stoics lectured and tutored others, suggest that they did seek to promote virtue in others, through education and training.  Further, that seems to be precisely what Seddon’s course is meant to accomplish.  Indeed, according to Stobaeus, the ancient Stoics believed that the Wise Man would naturally write books intended to help others.  Stoic Serenity is such a book and I’m sure that many  people will find it an excellent introduction to practical philosophy, as well as to the classic texts of Stoicism with which it deals.

Table of Contents of Stoic Serenity (2006)

  1. Good, bad and indifferent
  2. What is in our power
  3. “Live simply” and “Live according to nature”
  4. Universal nature, God and fate
  5. Living in society
  6. Impermanence, loss and death
  • Appendix 1: The Stoics on Determinism
  • Appendix 2: Striving to be Free of the Passions
  • Supplement 1: Sample Responses to Assignments
  • Supplement 2: Key to the Stoic Philosophy of Epictetus
  • Supplement 3: Conflict between Stoics and Epicurus

Teach yourself Stoicism: Love & Friendship in Stoicism

Brief excerpt from the chapter on love and friendship in Stoicism from the forthcoming book “Teach yourself Stoicism”, due for publicaiton in 2013 by Hodder.

Teach Yourself Stoicism

Love & Friendship in Stoicism

Copyright (c) Donald Robertson 2012.  All rights reserved.

New book, due out next year from Hodder…  Sneak preview of the contents of the chapter on love and friendship in Stoicism…

In this chapter you will learn:

  • That, far from being completely unemotional, Stoicism can be viewed as a philosophy that emphasises the concept of love or “natural affection”.
  • That the Stoics were apparently one of the first major Western philosophical schools to encourage women to become philosophers as well as men and that they taught both men and women how to maintain a philosophical attitude toward their family and children.
  • That they encourage us to develop our own natural instinct for self-preservation into a more profound love of flourishing, in terms of our essential nature as rational animals, “love of wisdom” being the original meaning of the word “philosophy”.
  • That they also encourage us to expand our natural affection for ourselves into a kind of family affection and affinity or kinship with all mankind, aspiring to be true “philanthropists”, or lovers of mankind.
  • That Stoicism involves learning to love Nature as a whole – or God, if you’re religiously inclined – by serenely accepting events outside our control as causally determined by Nature, or fated by the Will of God.
  • That the Stoics taught one can only truly love others, rather than being irrationally and unnaturally attached to them, by accepting the fact that everyone and everything we love is inevitably transient and subject to changes beyond our control.
  • That, according to this view, to love others is more valuable than to be loved ourselves; and to show friendship is better than to receive it, because the strength and wisdom that resides in our own character is more intrinsically important than how other people happen to treat us.

The Stoic loves other people in a very free, giving way.  His love is not at all conditional upon its being reciprocated by the person loved.  The Stoic does not compromise his own moral integrity or mental serenity in his love for others, nor is his love impaired by his knowledge of the mortality of his loved ones.  Rather, the Stoic’s love and natural affection are tempered by reason.  His love and affection serve only to enrich his humanity, never to subject him to psychic torment.  (Stephens, 1996)

How, then, shall I become loving and affectionate? – As a man who is noble and fortunate; for it is against all reason to be abject, or broken in spirit, or to depend on something other than yourself, or even to blame either God or man.  I would have you become affectionate in such a way as to maintain at the same time all these rules [of Stoicism]; if, however, by virtue of this natural affection [philostorgos], whatever it is you call by that name, you are going to be a slave and miserable, it does not profit you to be affectionate.  And what keeps you from loving someone as mortal, as one who may leave you?  Did not Socrates love his own children?  Yes, but as a free man, as one who remembers that it was necessary first to be a friend to [or love] the gods. (Epictetus, Discourses, 3.24)

In what way, therefore, shall I love my children or relations?  As strongly and affectionately as is possible for me to love them, but so as that nature may [not] be accused; so as that whatever happens, I may still adhere to nature and accept and embrace whatsoever nature sends.  This is the foundation.  This is all.  Consider this and it will be easy to find the true measure of all affection, and what discipline and rules must be followed to reduce our affection to nature and to affect [i.e., to love] as becomes a rational creature. (Shaftesbury, The Philosophical Regimen)

A Crash Course in Stoicism

Short article outlining a basic three-step psychological and philosophical strategy described by the Stoic philosopher Epictetus for coping with misfortune or adversity.

A Crash Course in Stoicism

In his discourse entitled “we ought not to yearn for things that are not under our control” (Discourses, 3.24), the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, described three steps used to cope with apparent misfortunes.  He intended that these should be rigorously rehearsed until they become habitual…

Have thoughts like these ready at hand by night and by day; write them, read them, make your conversation about them, communing with yourself, or saying to another, “Can you give me some help in this matter?”

Later he says:

If you have these thoughts always at hand and go over them again and again in your own mind, and keep them in readiness, you will never need another person to console you, or strengthen you.

Speaking to a group of aspiring Stoic students, he outlines the recommended steps to be memorised and rehearsed as follows.

Step One: Tell yourself it was to be expected.

Your initial response when something apparently “undesirable” happens should be to tell yourself that it was “not unexpected”, and this “will be the first thing to lighten the burden”, according to Epictetus.  This is made easier by regularly anticipating potential setbacks that can happen in life, imagining what it would be like to face typical misfortunes philosophically.  This is sometimes called premeditatio malorum by Stoics, or the technique of contemplating potential misfortunes in advance.  In particular, the Stoics frequently remind themselves that both they and their loved ones are mortal, and bound to die one day, and that life is inevitably transient.  Here Epictetus simply says, however, that when adversity comes we should greet it by reminding ourselves not to be surprised but to recognise that we knew all along that this sort of thing can potentially happen in life.

Step Two: Tell yourself that it is indifferent to your wellbeing.

This is sometimes described as the “Sovereign precept” of ancient Stoicism: Some things are under our control and some things are not.  Only things under our control reflect on our character and therefore constitute our wellbeing, i.e., our judgements and acts of will are our own business and when they are done well we may be described as being wise and good.  Things outside of our control, such as health, wealth and reputation are indifferent with regard to our own character and therefore our happiness and wellbeing.  Epictetus says you should consider where the misfortune comes from, and if it is an external event, tell yourself:

It comes from the quarter of the things that are outside the sphere of volition, that are not my own; what, then, is it to me?

The typical answer Stoics give to that rhetorical question is: “It is nothing to me.”  In fact, one of Epictetus’ basic maxims is that things beyond our volition, outside of our control, are “nothing to us.”  Epictetus also advised his students, perhaps literally, to say very concisely to themselves either “avolitional, not bad!” (aproaireton, ou kakon), to apparent external misfortunes, or “volitional, good!” (proairetikon, agathon), to virtuous responses, and so on.

For Stoics, the ultimate good in life is to possess wisdom, justice, and other virtues, and to act according to them.  The vicissitudes of fate, external events, the wheel of fortune that sometimes raises us up and at other times casts us down, is “indifferent” with regard to our own character and virtue and, in that sense, of no concern with regard to our true wellbeing as rational agents.

Step Three: Remind yourself that it was determined by the whole.

Epictetus describes the third and last stage of the Stoics response as “the most decisive consideration”.  We should ask ourselves who has ordained that this should happen: “Who was it that has sent the order?”  The answer is that it was sent by God, or, if you like, it should be viewed as having been determined by the “string of causes” that constitute the universe as a whole, which Stoics call “Nature”.  The Stoic therefore tells himself: “Give it to me, then, for I must always obey the law in every particular.”  In other words, he sees events outside of his control as necessary, determined by the whole of Nature, or fated by the Will of God, and he actively accepts them as such.  This may simply be another way of stating the importance that philosophical “determinism” has for Stoics, the belief that all things happen of necessity and are caused by the totality of the universe.  When we tell ourselves that events come as no surprise, that they lie outside the domain of our concern, and that they could not have been otherwise, and form part of the unfolding pattern of universal Nature, we may achieve the wisdom and serenity in the face of adversity that Stoics aspire to, and call a “smooth flow of life.”

Epictetus on Natural or Family Affection

A short account of Epictetus’ discussion of natural affection (philostorgia) in Stoicism, in relation to a magistrate who flees when overwhelmed by distress over his young daughter’s ill health and the risk of her dying, based on notes for the forthcoming book Teach yourself Stoicism.

Epictetus on Natural or Family Affection

This is a story recorded in the Discourses of Epictetus, in the chapter on philostorgia, meaning “natural affection” or “family affection” (Discourses, 1.11).  A magistrate came to see Epictetus one day and mentioned that his experience of married life had been miserable.  Epictetus replied that we marry and have children to flourish and be happy (eudaimon) rather than to be miserable, and so he was curious what had gone wrong.  The man said that recently when his young daughter was dangerously ill, he found it so unbearable that he ran from her bedside in distress, only to return when someone brought word that she had recovered.  He also said he believed being overwhelmed with distress was a natural response and that this was the right thing to do because “this is the way most fathers would feel” if their beloved child were dying.  Epictetus maintained the Stoic view that what is done according to nature is right but he questioned whether this man’s response was genuinely the most natural one, despite the fact that it might be what most fathers, in that period, would feel like doing.  Epictetus notes that although to err is common, and that physical tumours are common, we don’t assume that these occur for our own good or that they’re what our natures intended.  Being common and being natural are two different things.  When Epictetus then asks the man what criterion he would use to determine whether some action is natural and rightly done, or not, he says he has no idea.  Epictetus sees this lack of a criterion for the good, for what is natural, as the greatest harm that can befall someone, and he therefore beseeches the magistrate to discover this criterion and to then use it to decide each individual case that confronts him in life.

However, in the meantime, Epictetus gave him the following advice about the case of his child.  He first asks whether family affection (philostorgia) seems to the magistrate both to accord with nature and to be good or noble, which it does, without question.  This is a premise they can both agree upon for the time being: that family affection is both natural and morally good.  Epictetus also established that he takes for granted the view that what is rational with regard to life is good.  He adds that if both family affection and living rationally are genuinely morally good then they should not contradict each other.  Moreover, if they were in conflict, at least one of them would have to be unnatural but living rationally and loving one’s family are both assumed to be natural by the magistrate.  Family affection and living rationally are therefore both agreed to be morally good and consistent with each other.  However, the magistrate admits that fleeing his child’s bedside is not rational, although he feels it may have been an expression of his love and affection for her.

Epictetus invokes what modern cognitive therapists call the “double-standards” strategy by asking the magistrate whether he would consider it loving and affectionate of others, such as the child’s mother or nurse, to act as he had done and flee her bedside.  Would it make sense to say that those who love his daughter the most should, because of their great love for her, leave her potentially to die in the arms of others who do not love her as much?  Likewise, the magistrate admits that if he had been dying himself, he would not want those who love him the most, including his wife and children, to express their affection by running from his bedside and abandoning him to die alone.  Epictetus points out that if this is how love manifests itself, it would make more sense to wish that one’s enemies loved one more than one’s friends, and that they would keep their distance as a result.  This is what philosophers call a reductio ad absurdum, the favoured debating technique of Socrates, in which careful questioning leads an individual to recognise that their position is inherently contradictory and nonsensical.  It leads to the revised conclusion that the magistrate’s flight from his daughter’s bedside was not really an act of love or family affection at all but rather something else.    The act of running away was a form of avoidance, like covering your eyes, and the result of a fundamental decision to concludethat escape is preferable to endurance of the painful situation.  As Epictetus put it, “the cause of your running away was just that you wanted to do so; and another time, if you stay with her, it will be because you wanted to stay.”  It is not external events that cause our actions but our own opinions and decisions, otherwise everyone would respond in the same way to the same events.  Therefore, Epictetus concludes, the magistrate should attribute his actions not to external events, like the illness of his child, which are outside his direct control, but rather to his own voluntary decisions, and that it should become his priority in life to study these closely and patiently and determine whether they are natural and morally good or  not.

The System of Stoic Philosophy

This article attempts to summarise some of the structured elements of the early Stoic philosophical system, such as the tripartite division of the topics of philosophy, the virtues, the passions, their subdivisions, etc.

The System of Stoic Philosophy


Copyright (c) Donald Robertson, 2012.  All rights reserved.

This article attempts to summarise some of the structured elements of the early Stoic philosophical system, such as the tripartite classification of the topics of philosophy, the virtues, the passions, and their subdivisions, etc., as reputedly described by the primary sources.  It’s still a work in progress, see please feel free to post comments or corrections.

The Parts of Philosophy

From Diogenes Laertius (7.38-41)

Zeno introduced the tripartite division of philosophy in his book On Rational Discourse.  Whereas some Stoics say the three parts of philosophy are mixed and taught together, Zeno, Chrysippus, and others, put them in the following order:

  1. Logic
  2. Physics
  3. Ethics

However, Plutarch says that Chrysippus thought the parts should be studied as follows (Early Stoics, p. 9):

  1. Logic
  2. Ethics
  3. Physics (and theology)

(Later, Epictetus said that the Discipline of Assent, which is linked to logic, should be studied last, as it is important to master the other aspects of Stoicism first.)

Cleanthes divided philosophy into six parts, however.

  1. Dialectic
  2. Rhetoric
  3. Ethics
  4. Politics
  5. Physics
  6. Theology

Several metaphors are used in conjunction with this tripartite division of philosophy.  They appear to differ in terms of whether physics or logic is made central, but logic is perhaps consistently described as providing stability and structure.  For example, philosophy is like an animal:

  • Logic = The bones and sinews
  • Ethics = The fleshier parts
  • Physics = The soul

Philosophy is like an egg:

  • Logic = The shell
  • Ethics = The egg white
  • Physics = The yolk

Philosophy is like a productive field:

  • Logic = The surrounding wall
  • Ethics = The fruit
  • Physics = The land and trees

Philosophy is also like a city “which is beautifully fortified and administered according to reason.”  According to Sextus Empiricus, Posidonius compared philosophy to an animal, as follows (Stoic Reader, p. 9):

  • Physics = The flesh and blood
  • Logic = The bones and sinews
  • Ethics = The soul

Ethics & The Virtues

From Diogenes Laertius (7.84-131).

The early Stoics define “the good” as encompassing three senses:

  1. The most fundamental sense is that through which it is possible to be benefitted, which corresponds mainly to the virtues
  2. In addition, the good includes that according to which being benefitted is a typical result, which refers both to the virtues and to specific virtuous actions
  3. Finally, the good includes that which is such as to benefit, namely the Wise man himself, true friends, and the gods, who engage in virtuous actions and possess the virtues

Praiseworthy men are often referred to as “good and honourable” in ancient Greek literature.  Hence, the good in Stoicism is described as being synonymous with what is both beneficial and honourable (or praiseworthy).  Alternatively, Diogenes Laertius gives the following list of synonyms for the perfect good, according to the early Stoics all good (agathon) is inherently:

  • Advantageous or expedient (sumpheron), “because it brings [instrumentally] such things as we are benefitted by when they occur”
  • Morally binding, a duty (deon), “because it holds together in cases where this is needed”
  • Profitable, repaying more than was expended (lusiteles), “because it pays back what is expended on it, so that it exceeds in benefit a mere repayment of the effort”
  • Useful for things (chreisimon), “because it makes available the use of a benefit”
  • Well-used or artfully-used (euchrêston), “because it renders the use of it praiseworthy” (by contrast, the indifferents can be used either well or badly)
  • Honourable or beautiful (kalon), “because it is symmetrical with its own use” also “because it has all the features sought by nature or because it is perfectly symmetrical” and “the honourable uniquely means that which makes those who possess it praiseworthy”
  • Beneficial (ôphelimon), “because it is such as to benefit”
  • Worth choosing or to be chosen (haireton), “because it is such that it is reasonable to choose it”
  • Just (dikaion), “because it is consonant with law and instrumental to a sense of community”

Some of these terms are central to Stoic ethical theory.

Although Zeno and Cleanthes did not divide things in such detail, the followers of Chrysippus and others Stoics classify the sub-divisions of ethics as follows:

  1. On impulse
  2. On good and bad things
  3. On passions
  4. On virtue
  5. On the goal
  6. On primary value
  7. On actions
  8. On appropriate actions
  9. On encouragements and discouragements to action

Diogenes Laertius says that whereas Panaetius divided virtues into two kinds (theoretical and practical), other Stoics divided the virtues into logical, ethical and physical.  According to Aetius also, there are three categories of virtue, which correspond with the three divisions of philosophy: physics, ethics, and logic (Stoic Reader, p. 9).  He doesn’t say what these virtues are, but we might speculate:

  1. Physics = Self-Control (Courage & Moderation, two of the cardinal virtues)
  2. Ethics = Justice
  3. Logics = Wisdom (or Prudence)

Panaetius, anyway, says that there are two [kinds of] virtues, theoretical and practical; others [divide virtue into] logical, physical, and ethical.  Posidonious’ followers [say there are] four, and those of Cleanthes and Chrysippus and Antipater [say there are even] more.  But Apollophanes says there is one virtue, namely, prudence. (Diogenes Laertius, in Early Stoics, p. 115)

Although Chryssipus and other Stoics claimed that all virtues are essentially one, most Stoics appear to have agreed that there are four “primary” virtues, common to other ancient schools of philosophy:

  1. Prudence or Practical Wisdom (Phronesis), sometimes just called Wisdom (Sophia), which opposes the vice of “ignorance”
  2. Justice or Integrity (Dikaiosune), which opposes the vice of “injustice”
  3. Fortitude or Courage (Andreia), which opposes the vice of “cowardice”
  4. Temperance or Moderation (Sophrosune), which opposes the vice of “wantonness”

These are defined as forms of knowledge (q.v., Stobaeus in Early Stoics, p. 125-130):

  1. Prudence is knowledge of which things are good, bad, and neither; or “appropriate acts”.
  2. Temperance is knowledge of which things are to be chosen, avoided, and neither; or stable “human impulses”.
  3. Justice is the knowledge of the distribution of proper value to each person; or fair “distributions”.
  4. Courage is knowledge of what is terrible, what is not terrible, and what is neither; or “standing firm”.

The cardinal virtues are also sub-divided as follows:

  1. Prudence takes the form of deliberative excellence, good calculation, quick-wittedness, good sense, good sense of purpose, and resourcefulness.
  2. Temperance takes the form of organisation, orderliness, modesty, and self-control.
  3. Justice takes the form of piety, good-heartedness, public spiritedness, and fair dealing.
  4. Courage takes the form of endurance, confidence, great-heartedness, stout-heartedness, and love of work.

Diogenes Laertius also says that Chrysippus and others sub-divide the virtues as follows:

  1. Prudence primarily takes the form of good counsel (euboulia) and understanding (sunesis)
  2. Temperance primarily takes the form of good self-discipline (eutaxia) and propriety/decorum (kosmistês)
  3. Justice primarily takes the form of impartiality/fairness (isotês) and kindness (eugnômosunê)
  4. Courage primarily takes the form of constancy/determination (aparallaxia) and tension/vigour (eutonia)

A famous slogan of Epictetus, anechou kai apechou, is usually translated as “bear and forbear” or “endure and renounce”.  According to Gellius:

The same Epictetus […] was in the habit of saying that there were two vices which are far more severe and atrocious than all others, want of endurance and want of self-control, when we do not endure or bear the wrongs which we have to bear, or do not abstain from, or forbear, those matters and pleasures which we out to forbear.  “And so,” he says, “if a man should take to heart these two words and observe them in controlling and keeping watch over himself, he will, for the most part, be free from wrongdoing, and will live a highly peaceful life.”  These two words, he used to say, were anechou and apechou.

This can perhaps be seen to correlate with the two virtues relating to self-control in the broad sense: courage and temperance.  It’s possible that these two complementary virtues both correspond somehow with the discipline of Stoic physics and with the passions, as follows:

  1. Endure (bear), through the virtue of courage, whatever irrational pain or suffering would otherwise be feared and avoided
  2. Renounce (forbear), through the virtue of temperance (or moderation), whatever irrational pleasures would otherwise be desired and pursued

Diogenes Laertius also mentions several additional Stoic virtues: magnanimity (megalopsuchia), self-control (enkrateia), patience/endurance (karteria), presence of mind (anchinoia), and good counsel (euboulia).

According to Chrysippus and other Stoics, the main examples of indifferent things, being neither good nor bad, are listed as pairs of opposites (Diogenes Laertius, 7.102):

  1. Life and death
  2. Health and disease
  3. Pleasure and pain
  4. Beauty and ugliness
  5. Strength and weakness
  6. Wealth and poverty
  7. Good reputation and bad reputation
  8. Noble birth and low birth
  9. …and other such things.

The Irrational Passions

According to Zeno, the passions are defined as essentially voluntary responses, which can be described as (Diogenes Laertius, 7.109):

  1. Irrational (alogos) judgements
  2. Unnatural (para phusin) movements of the soul
  3. Excessive impulses (hormê pleonazousa)

According to Zeno, the most general division of these irrational passions is into four categories:

  1. Pain or suffering (lupê), an “irrational contraction” of the soul, over the failure to avoid something judged bad or to obtain something judged good
  2. Fear (phobos), the (irrational) “expectation of something bad”
  3. Craving (epithumia), an “irrational striving” for something judged to be good
  4. Pleasure (hêdonê), an “irrational elation over what seems to be worth choosing”, i.e., what is judged good

These can be subdivided as follows (following Diogenes Laertius but also Stobaeus, in Stoic Reader, pp. 138-139):

  1. Pain can take the form of pity, grudging, envy, resentment, heavyheartedness, congestion, sorrow, anguish, or confusion.  Or according to Stobaeus, envy, grudging, resentment, pity, grief, heavyheartedness, distress, sorrow, anguish, and vexation.
  2. Fear can take the form of dread, hesitation, shame, shock, panic, or agony.  Or according to Stobaeus, hesitation, agony, shock, shame, panic, superstition, fright, and dread.
  3. Craving can take the form of want, hatred, quarrelsomeness, anger, sexual love, wrath, or spiritedness.  Or according to Stobaeus, anger (e.g., spiritedness, irascibility, wrath, rancor, bitterness, etc.), vehement sexual desire, longings and yearnings, love of pleasure, love of wealth, love of reputation, etc.
  4. Pleasure can take the form of enchantment, mean-spirited satisfaction, enjoyment, or rapture.  Or according to Stobaeus, mean-spirited satisfaction, contentment, charms, etc.

The Good Passions

In addition to the irrational, excessive or unnatural (unhealthy) passions, there are also corresponding “good passions”.  Diogenes Laertius says that good passions such as joy (chara) and cheerfulness (euphrosunos) are not strictly-speaking virtues but that they “supervene” on the virtues, and he also describes them as being more transitory than virtues.  These fall into three categories, because no good state corresponds with emotional pain (suffering) or contraction of the soul (Diogenes Laertius, 7.116).

  1. Joy or delight (chara), a rational elation over the good, which is the alternative to irrational pleasure
  2. Caution or discretion (eulabeia), a rational avoidance of the bad, which is the alternative to irrational fear
  3. Wishing or willing (boulêsis), a rational striving for the good, which is the alternative to irrational desire

A.A. Long actually translates boulêsis as “well-wishing”, which perhaps suggests a connection with “natural affection” (philostorgia).  It’s sometimes unclear whether these healthy passions are directed toward externals or virtues.  Marcus Aurelius refers to discerning which indifferent things are in accord with nature and taking delight in them (chara), while they last, but also to taking delight in his friend’s virtues.  It’s possible that they are intended to refer both to virtues and also to the rational desire for preferred indifferents and avoidance of dispreferred ones, pursued lightly.

The good passions can be subdivided as follows:

  1. Joy can take the form of enjoyment/delight (terpsis), good spirits/cheer (euphrosunos), or tranquility/contentment (euthumia)
    • Translated as enjoyment, delight, and contentment by Inwood and Gerson; as delight, sociability, and cheerfulness by Long and Sedley.
  2. Caution can take the form of self-respect/modesty/dignity (aidô) or sanctity/purity/chastity (agneia)
    • Translated as respect and sanctity by Inwood and Gerson; as respect and cleanliness by Long and Sedley.
  3. Wishing can take the form of goodwill/benevolence (eunoia), kindness/graciousness (eumeneia, or sometimes eumenês), acceptance/welcoming (aspasmos) or contentment/affection (agapêsis)
    • Translated as goodwill, kindliness, acceptance, and contentment by Inwood and Gerson; as kindness, generosity, warmth, and affection by Long and Sedley.

These are clearly important concepts in Stoicism.  The Sage is cheerful even in adversity, and contented in life.  However, the form of caution that seems most often mentioned is a kind of decency or modesty that makes the Sage averse to engaging in folly and vice.  (Perhaps also making him mildly averse to the company of bad men.)  The concept of wishing or willing seems focused mainly on goodwill toward other people, although it could also mean wishing oneself well, a kind of rational self-love.

The  distinction can be made between rational and irrational passions as follows:

  1. Elation (eparsis) can take the form of rational joy (chara) or irrational pleasure (hêdonê)
  2. Aversion (ekklisis), or the impulse to avoid something judged to be bad, can take the form of rational discretion (eulabeia) or irrational fear (phobos)
  3. Desire (orexis), or the impulse to get something judged to be good can take the form of rational willing (boulêsis) or irrational craving (epithumia)
  4. There is no rational form of pain or suffering (lupê), in the Stoic sense

The healthy passion of caution (or discretion) concerning the bad, and its subordinate passions of self-respect and chastity, appears to particularly resemble the virtue of temperance.  The healthy passion of wishing (or willing) the good appears to mainly encompass love (agapêsis), and related affects, such as goodwill, kindness, acceptance and affection.  This is the rational alternative to anger and sexual lust, or irrational desire.  It may be particularly related to the most obviously “social” virtue: justice.  (A passage in Stobaeus appears to claim that for the Stoics, philia, love or friendship, was actually a species of the virtue justice.)

The Three Disciplines of Epictetus

In addition to the distinctions made in earlier Stoic writings, Epictetus seems to describe a tripartite distinction between three practical disciplines also called topoi, the same term used for the “parts” or “themes” of philosophical discourse.  Pierre Hadot, in The Inner Citadel, concludes that these probably correlate with the traditional Stoic parts of philosophical discourse, based on his careful analysis of the texts of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius.  These are the three “lived” versions of the more theoretical discourses found in Stoic logic, ethics, and physics.

  1. The Discipline of Assent (sunkatathesis).  The ability to assent to true impressions, dissent from false ones, and suspend judgement toward uncertain ones.  This appears to be linked to the Stoic topic of logic, and perhaps also with the virtue of wisdom.
  2. The Discipline of Desire (orexis).  To have desire for and attain the good, to have aversion toward and avoid the bad, and to feel indifference toward indifferent things.  The good is to be defined as  being solely in the domain of things under one’s control, one’s volitions or actions, making wisdom and other virtues the highest good.  This is the discipline of the passions and, perhaps surprisingly, may be linked to the Stoic topic of physics, as this encompasses the study of human nature and the passions, which are themselves primarily forms of desire and aversion, and it may also correspond with the virtues of courage and temperance, which relate to self-control over irrational desire (craving) and aversion (fear).  The study of Nature, and theology, are linked to the virtue of piety, and acceptance of the Cosmic order, which appears to be central to the discipline of desire: we must understand Nature and bring our desires and aversions into conformity with it.
  3. The Discipline of Action (hormê).  To seek to act or not act, always in accord with one’s appropriate actions (kathêkonta) or duties, in terms primarily of natural and acquired social relationships.  This appears to perhaps be linked to the Stoic topic of ethics, and perhaps also with the virtue of justice.

Were Hand Gestures a Technique of Stoicism?

Short article describing the potential use of a series of symbolic hand gestures described by Zeno, as a psychological exercise or coping strategy in modern Stoicism.

The early Stoics reputedly said that “knowledge is the leading part of the soul in a certain state, just as the hand in a certain state is a fist” (Sextus in Inwood & Gerson, 2008, The Stoic Reader, p. 27).  This analogy between secure knowledge, having a firm grasp on an idea, and the physical act of clenching the fist seems to be a recurring theme in Stoic literature.

And Zeno used to make this point by using a gesture.  When he held out his hand with open fingers, he would say, “This is what a presentation is like.”  Then when he had closed his fingers a bit, he said, “Assent is like this.”  And when he had compressed it completely and made a fist, he said that this was grasping (and on the basis o f this comparison he even gave it the name ‘katalepsis’ [grasp], which had not previously existed).  But when he put his left hand over it and compressed it tightly and powerfully, he said that knowledge was this sort of thing and that no one except the wise man possessed it.  (Cicero in Inwood & Gerson, 2008, p. 47)

Chrysippus Seated

The sculpture of Chrysippus in the picture here, from the 3rd century BC, shows him holding his hand out with open fingers, in a similar posture.  So we have a series of four hand gestures:

  1. The hand is held open, at a distance, with palm upwards, to symbolise a superficial impression or “presentation”, prior to assent being given.
  2. The hand is closed loosely, to symbolise initial “assent” or agreement with the idea.
  3. The hand is squeezed tightly into a fist to symbolise a firm grasp (katalepsis) or sense of certainty, assent has been given to it as an “Objective Representation” or phantasia kataleptike.
  4. The fist is enclosed tightly in the other hand, to symbolise the perfect “knowledge” of true ideas attained by the ideal Sage, which is elsewhere described as an interconnection of firmly-grasped principles and ideas, forming the excellent character of the wise.

Marcus Aurelius explicitly refers to the Stoic clenching his fist as a metaphor for arming himself with his philosophical precepts or dogmata:

In our use of [Stoic] precepts [dogmata] we should imitate the boxer [pancratiast] not the swordsman [gladiator].  For the swordsman’s weapon is picked up and put down again.  However, the boxer always has his hands available.  All he has to do is clench his fist. (Meditations, 12.9)

For the Stoics it was important to memorise the precepts and integrate them completely with one’s character in order to have them always “ready-to-hand” in the face of adversity.  It’s possible that the physical act of literally clenching the fist, like a boxer, was used as a mnemonic to recall principles required in difficult situations.

It could be that the Stoics used the gesture of the open hand to symbolize withholding assent from impressions, which is one of the most important techniques of Stoic psychology.  Epictetus told his students that when they spot a troubling impression they should apostrophize (speak to) it as follows: “You are just an impression and not at all the thing you claim to represent.”  (More literally: You are just an appearance and not entirely the thing appearing.)  This is what modern psychotherapists call Cognitive Distancing and it would make sense to recall it by using an open-handed gesture as a trigger or aide memoire.

It’s possible perhaps to construct a modern Stoic psychological exercise out of this symbolic set of hand gestures.  First, while repeating a precept of Stoicism (“the only good is moral good”, “pain is not an evil”) the Stoic student might initially hold his hand open as if toying with the idea and then progressively close it more tightly, while imagining accepting it more deeply, until he finally clenches his fist tightly to symbolise having a firm grasp of the idea, and closes his other hand around it, to symbolise integrating it more deeply with his character, and contemplating how the Sage might hold this belief.  This might be compared to the use of “autosuggestions” or rehearsing “rational coping statements” in modern psychological therapies.

There may also be an additional use, in relation to false or irrational ideas as mentioned above.  A modern Stoic might make the open-handed gesture shown in Chrysippus’ statue when he notices an unhelpful or irrational thought occurring spontaneously, and entertain it a while longer, as if holding it loosely in an open hand, at a distance, while repeating “This is just an automatic thought, and not at all the thing it claims to represent” or “This is just a thought, not a fact”, etc.  He might also begin with his hand loosely closed, if he’s already given his assent to an impression, and slowly relax his fingers, metaphorically “letting go” of attachment (assent) to the troubling impression.

We don’t know whether the set of symbolic hand gestures described by Zeno was meant originally as a psychological technique of this kind.  However, the quote from Marcus Aurelius above could perhaps be read, if taken very literally, as a description of an actual physical practice employed by Stoic students: clenching their fists to arm themselves, like a boxer, with their philosophical precepts (dogmata) in the face of adversity.