Courses Stoicism

Enrolling on How to Think Like a Roman Emperor

Enrolment has now opened for my new How to Think Like a Roman Emperor online course and you can find out more by clicking the button below:

I’ll be hosting a YouTube Live webinar on Tuesday 15th August at 2pm Eastern Time, to chat about the course and hopefully answer some of your questions.

To make sure nobody misses out because the time, I’ll also be doing a Facebook Live broadcast on the same day at the later time of 7pm Eastern Time.  If you’re interested in attending either, go there now and set up a reminder notification for yourself.


Stoics Should Avoid Trivial Debates

Monkey SymposiumOne of the recurring themes in the Stoic literature is the notion that doing philosophy exposes us to the risk of becoming preoccupied with trivial digressions and being distracted from the true goal of life.

For example, one of the most frequently quoted passages in The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius says:

Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one. (10.16)


Be not a man of superfluous words or superfluous deeds. (3.5)

Elsewhere he even says:

Away with your books!  Be no longer drawn aside by them: it is not allowed. (2.2)

And again, “But away with your thirst for books, that you may die not murmuring but with good grace” (2.3).

Do the external things which befall you distract you? Give yourself leisure to learn something new and good, and cease to be whirled around. But then you must also avoid being carried about the other way. For those too are triflers who have wearied themselves in life by their activity, and yet have no object to which to direct every movement, and, in a word, all their thoughts. (2.7)

The Stoics believed that philosophy should aspire to be clear and simple, where possible, and focused on the most important practical questions in relation to ethics.

In the ancient world a sharp contrast was often made between Diogenes the Cynic and Plato, to illustrate two very different attitudes toward philosophy after the death of Socrates.  Diogenes sneered at Plato for being too “Academic”, in the modern sense – too concerned with abstract or long-winded arguments and not enough with practical training in virtue.  In return, Plato called Diogenes “Socrates gone mad”.  Cynics apparently rejected the study of Physics and Logic, and bookishness in general, as intellectual vanity, not unlike Sophistry, and as diversions from practical philosophy.

Zeno of Citium, who was originally a Cynic and later studied in the Platonic Academy, appears to have adopted a middle ground.  He did encourage his Stoic followers to study Physics and Logic but the Stoics also appear to warn us that we should not become lost in these subjects but should be careful to keep the goal of virtue in mind.  Philosophical debate of the kind practised at Plato’s Academy, in other words, is good if it actually enhances our practical wisdom and virtue but can also be bad, a vice, if it doesn’t, and just indulges our vanity or wastes our time with trivialities.  We shouldn’t indulge in arguments like the proverbial “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin” or become so engrossed in philosophical wordplay that we “disappear up our own backsides”, as it’s crudely put today.

Marcus Aurelius was apparently introduced to philosophy by his painting master, Diognetus, aged around twelve, who seems to have been influenced by Cynicism.  He says that one of the first things he learned was “not to busy myself about trifling things”.  He repeatedly counts his blessings that he’s been lucky in his education to avoid getting sidetracked by scholastic trivialities.

[I’m grateful to the gods…] that when I had my heart set on philosophy, I did not fall into the hands of a sophist nor sat alone writing, nor untangled syllogisms nor preoccupied myself with celestial phenomena. (Meditations, 1.17)

Epictetus taught that we should constantly remind ourselves that reading books is a means to an end, for attaining eudaimonia, and avoid getting sidetracked by frivolous subjects.

For what purpose do you choose to read? Tell me. For if you only direct your purpose to being amused or learning something, you are a silly fellow and incapable of enduring labour. But if you refer reading to the proper end, what else is this than a tranquil and happy life? But if reading does not secure for you a happy and tranquil life, what is the use of it? (Discourses, 4.4)

Although the Stoic curriculum covered Logic and Physics, the Stoics consistently attach the caveat that these subjects should be approached with caution by students.  They should serve Stoic Ethics, and not become a diversion from it.  We shouldn’t get caught in hairsplitting arguments about logic or become absorbed in idle speculation about metaphysics or theology.  To do so would be the opposite of Stoicism.

What does it matter to me, says Epictetus, whether the universe is composed of atoms or uncompounded substances, or of fire and earth? Is it not sufficient to know the true nature of good and evil, and the proper bounds of our desires and aversions, and also of our impulses to act and not to act; and by making use of these as rules to order the affairs of our life, to bid those things that are beyond us farewell? It may very well be that these latter things are not to be comprehended by the human mind, and even if one assumes that they are perfectly comprehensible, well what profit comes from comprehending them? And ought we not to say that those men trouble in vain who assign all this as necessary to the philosopher’s system of thought? […] What Nature is, and how she administers the universe, and whether she really exists or not, these are questions about which there is no need to go on to bother ourselves.  (Epictetus, Fragment)

Marcus Aurelius likewise warns himself to remember, with humility, that many philosophical subjects remained obscure even to the greatest Stoic thinkers.

Things are in a sense so wrapped up in mystery that quite a few philosophers, even the exceptional ones, have concluded that they are wholly beyond our comprehension.  Even to the Stoics themselves they seem difficult to understand.  Indeed, every assent we give to the impressions of our senses is liable to error, for where is the man who never errs? (5.10)

Marcus even describes those as “wretched” or “struggling” in life, who preoccupy themselves with things that cannot be known with any certainty.

Nothing is more wretched than a man who goes all around and “pries into the things beneath the earth”, as the poet [Pindar] says, and speculates about what is in the minds of his neighbours…  (2.13)

Elsewhere Marcus says that not only Stoicism and Epicureanism, but indeed all other schools of philosophy, were in agreement that nothing should divert us from the pursuit of wisdom, especially “not chatter with the ignorant and those who have no understanding of nature” (9.41).  We should not cast our pearls before swine, if you like.

Moreover, in addition to avoiding pointless hairsplitting debates and idle chit-chat, Epictetus advised his students to speak less in general:

Be mostly silent; or speak merely what is needful, and in few words. (Enchiridion, 33)

Today, Epictetus’ warnings about associating with uneducated people in a way that leads us to become swept along with their habits and conversation could be applied to social media networks such as Facebook.

If a man frequently interacts with others for talk, or drinking together, or generally for social purposes, he must either become like them, or change them to his own fashion. For if a man places a piece of quenched charcoal close to a piece that is burning, either the quenched charcoal will put out the other, or the burning charcoal will light that which is quenched.  Since the danger is therefore so great, we must cautiously enter into such intimacies with people of the common sort, and remember that it is impossible that a man can keep company with one who is covered with soot without getting soot upon himself. For what will you do if a man speaks about gladiators, about horses, about athletes, or what is worse about men?  “This person is bad, this person is good; this was done well, this was done badly.”  Further, what if he scoff, or ridicule, or show an ill-natured disposition?  (Discourses, 3.16)

This is reminiscent of the old saying: “If you lay down with dogs you get up with fleas.”  I don’t think Epictetus means to be dismissive of all common people.  He also thinks Stoics should debate in public, and should marry, have children, and engage with public life, if nothing prevents them.  However, he’s warning his students to avoid bad company, and being drawn into time-wasting activities, particularly joining in with badmouthing other people, etc.

The Stoics in general were wary of gambling and spectator sports, which became an obsession for many in the ancient world.  For example, Lucius Verus, the co-emperor and adoptive brother of Marcus Aurelius, was obsessed with supporting his favourite chariot racing team and criticized for neglecting his duties as emperor.  Marcus says he’s thankful he was taught early in life not to get too into supporting one team or another, or to waste his time in pursuits like gambling.  He also repeatedly warns himself not to be overly concerned with what other people say or think unless it actually contributes to the common good.

Fritter not away what is left of your life in thoughts about others, unless you can bring these thoughts into relation with some common good. (3.4)

Many of these aspects of Stoicism seem to be ignored by modern readers.  Inevitably, we make excuses for our vices.  For instance, if someone posts an article about Stoicism on Facebook, they’ll probably get a mixture of helpful comments and unhelpful ones, such as lame jokes, or pedantic arguments, etc.  We all know these things can waste our time.  They also tend, in many cases, to derail conversations and actually inhibit or sidetrack more constructive debates.  It would be like the difference between having a serious debate about Stoicism in a philosophy seminar versus trying to talk to a room full of drunk people about it.  It might be good to speak to a wider audience but not if the conversation is effectively spoiled by too many interruptions and digressions from people who don’t understand or don’t really care about the philosophy.  We can reach a far wider audience using social media but it’s somewhere in-between in terms of the type of responses we get to articles on Stoicism.  Sometimes we have to be careful to prevent the background noise from drowning out the philosophy.  I think one way of doing that is by gently reminding people who are just becoming acquainted with Stoicism why teachers like Epictetus warned their students to be wary of wasting their own and other people’s time with trivial, unproductive, conversations.  It’s not the Stoic way to derail a philosophical debate by making lame jokes, for instance, although even the Stoics could enjoy humour when used appropriately.

Courses Stoicism

Coming Soon: How to Think Like a Roman Emperor!

“The mind, unconquered by violent passions, is a citadel, for a man has no fortress more impregnable in which to find refuge and remain safe forever.” – Marcus Aurelius

Thanks for following my blog. I just wanted to let you know that I’ve got a big announcement coming up. For the last six months I’ve been busy doing research for a new online course, which I will be making public in a few days. It’s been a real labour of love for me.

It’s a new sort of training in applying Stoic philosophy to daily life, for a more meaningful existence, using Stoic psychology to build emotional resilience. There are a lot of resources in it that I wouldn’t be able to put into a book, like audio and video recordings, discussions, quizzes, graphics, and even some of the written content. It’s based around the example of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, the most famous Stoic of all. It’s called How to Think Like a Roman Emperor. The course is four weeks long, and each week includes reading, videos, quizzes, discussion, and also live webinars you can choose to attend. You can view the main page already. However, enrolment won’t open for another couple of days…

I’m looking for people who want to join the first group to take the course and to provide feedback on ways it could possibly be made even better. So stay tuned for more information over the next few days. And thanks for being a part of this…


Marcus Aurelius, Politics, and Freedom

Just a few quotes worth putting side-by-side…

In the first, Marcus gives thanks that he learned to love his family, truth, and justice from the Aristotelian Claudius Severus.  He learned from him the concept of a republic in which the same law applies to all, administered with equal rights and freedom of speech, where the sovereign’s primary value is the freedom of his subjects.

From my “brother” [Claudius] Severus, to love my kin, and to love truth, and to love justice; and through him I learned to know Thrasea, Helvidius, Cato, Dio, Brutus; and from him I received the idea of a polity in which there is the same law for all, a polity administered with regard to equal rights and equal freedom of speech, and the idea of a kingly government which respects most of all the freedom of the governed; I learned from him also consistency and undeviating steadiness in my regard for philosophy; and a disposition to do good, and to give to others readily, and to cherish good hopes, and to believe that I am loved by my friends; and in him I observed no concealment of his opinions with respect to those whom he condemned, and that his friends had no need to conjecture what he wished or did not wish, but it was quite plain. (Meditations, 1.14)

Marcus Aurelius

Surprisingly, from an Aristotelian, Marcus learned of the Stoic opposition to Nero, two of the leading figures being Thrasea and Helvidius.  (Notably Marcus mentions these famous Stoics but not Seneca, whose collaboration with Nero they criticized.)  The other figures he has in mind are thought to be as follows…  Cato of Utica, the famous Stoic who opposed Julius Caesar, and tried unsuccessfully to prevent him turning the Roman Republic into a dictatorship.  Brutus, his nephew, influenced by Stoicism and Platonism, who was the leading assassin of Caesar.  And the Dio he mentions is most likely Dio Chrysostom, a student of Epictetus, who opposed the Emperor Domitian, and was influenced by a mixture of Cynicism, Platonism, and Stoicism.  The overall theme is one of political opposition by philosophers against the tyrannical Roman emperors Nero and Domitian, and the dictator Julius Caesar.  Marcus employed similar language in an imperial rescript quoted by C.R. Haines: “Let those who have charge of our interests know that the cause of liberty is to be set before any pecuniary advantage to ourselves.”

In the following passage Marcus refers to the fact that it’s rational to know one’s limits and accept help from others who are more knowledgeable or skilled.  Compare this to what’s said below, in the histories, about his willingness to share power with the Senate and take advice from experts.

Is my understanding equal to this or not? If it is, I apply it to the task in hand as an instrument granted to me by universal nature; but if it is not, I either relinquish the task to someone who is better able to accomplish it, if that accords with my duty in every other respect, or else I perform it myself as best I can, calling on the assistance of one who is able, with the aid of my own ruling centre, to effect what is presently opportune and advantageous to the community. For all that I do, whether on my own or assisted by another, should be directed to this single end, the common benefit and harmony. (7.5)

Marcus also mentions, also surprisingly, that his Latin rhetoric tutor Fronto mainly taught him: “to have some conception of the malice, caprice, and hypocrisy that accompany absolute rule; and that, on the whole, those whom we rank as patricians are somewhat lacking in natural affection” (Meditations, 1.11).  This arguably shows how important it was to Marcus that he should take pains to avoid the malice, caprice and hypocrisy of absolute rule himself, as emperor.

The Historia Augusta

The following come from the Historia Augusta and describe Marcus’ rule in terms that echo his remarks about freedom in The Meditations.  First of all, it was at the insistence of the Senate that he assumed power although he insisted that, for the first time in Rome’s history, there should be two emperors, and he would rule jointly with his adopted brother Lucius Verus.  Marcus, though, was clearly the senior party in this joint rule.

Being forced by the senate to assume the government of the state after the death of the Deified Pius, Marcus made his brother his colleague in the empire, giving him the name Lucius Aurelius Verus Commodus and bestowing on him the titles Caesar and Augustus. Then they began to rule the state on equal terms, and then it was that the Roman Empire first had two emperors, when Marcus shared with another the empire he had inherited.

Marcus often confirmed appointments and ratified important decisions through the Senate.  For example, at the very start of his reign, we’re told Marcus sought Senate approval before placing Lucius in command of the Parthian war.

But to the Parthian war, with the consent of the senate, Marcus despatched his brother Verus, while he himself remained at Rome, where conditions demanded the presence of an emperor.

Indeed, the Historia Augusta states quite bluntly that Marcus extended the powers of the Senate and even allocated to them many matters previously under his own jurisdiction as emperor.  It then proceeds to give several specific examples in the ways in which Marcus extended the powers of the Senate:

He made the senate the judge in many inquiries and even in those which belonged to his own jurisdiction. With regard to the status of deceased persons, he ordered that any investigations must be made [by the Senate?] within five years. Nor did any of the emperors show more respect to the senate than he. To do the senate honour, moreover, he entrusted the settling of disputes to many men of praetorian and consular rank [high-ranking senators] who then held no magistracy, in order that their prestige might be enhanced through their administration of law. He enrolled in the senate many of his friends, giving them the rank of aedile or praetor; and on a number of poor but honest senators he bestowed the rank of tribune or aedile. Nor did he ever appoint anyone to senatorial rank whom he did not know well personally. He granted senators the further privilege that whenever any of them was to be tried on a capital charge, he would examine the evidence behind closed doors and only after so doing would bring the case to public trial; nor would he allow members of the equestrian order [i.e., ranking lower than senators] to attend such investigations. He always attended the meetings of the senate if he was in Rome, even though no measure was to be proposed, and if he wished to propose anything himself, he came in person even from Campania. More than this, when elections were held he often remained even until night, never leaving the senate-chamber until the consul announced, “We detain you no longer, Conscript Fathers”. Further, he appointed the senate judge in appeals made from the consul.

We’re also told:

In the matter of public expenditures he was exceedingly careful, and he forbade all libels on the part of false informers, putting the mark of infamy on such as made false accusations. He scorned such accusations as would swell the privy-purse. He devised many wise measures for the support of the state-poor, and, that he might give a wider range to the senatorial functions, he appointed supervisors for many communities from the senate.

Following these and other measures, six years into his reign, at the end of the Parthian War, the Senate honoured Marcus for his good conduct toward them and the citizens of Rome:

After his brother had returned victorious from Syria, the title “Father of his Country” was decreed to both, inasmuch as Marcus in the absence of Verus had conducted himself with great consideration toward both senators and commons.   Furthermore, the civic crown was offered to both…

It’s implied that Marcus then sought approval from the Senate for both himself and Lucius to leave Rome for the northern frontier at the start of the First Marcomannic War:

While the Parthian war was still in progress, the Marcomannic war broke out, after having been postponed for a long time by the diplomacy of the men who were in charge there, in order that the Marcomannic war might not be waged until Rome was done with the war in the East. Even at the time of the famine the Emperor had hinted at this war to the people, and when his brother returned after five years’ service, he brought the matter up in the senate, saying that both emperors were needed for the German war.

Regarding the nature of his politics, we’re also told that from the outset he ruled in a democratic and lenient manner:

And now, after they had assumed the imperial power, the two emperors [Marcus and Lucius] acted in so democratic a manner that no one missed the lenient ways of [Antononius] Pius; for though Marullus, a writer of farces of the time, irritated them by his jests, he yet went unpunished. (Historia Augusta)

The following is particularly striking when compared to Marcus’ remarks above:

Toward the people he [Marcus] acted just as one acts in a free state.  He was at all times exceedingly reasonable both in restraining men from evil and in urging them to good, generous in rewarding and quick to forgive, thus making bad men good, and good men very good, and he even bore with unruffled temper the insolence of not a few.

When Marcus died, we’re told that for the first time the Senate and the public mourned and deified him together:

Finally, before his funeral was held, so many say, the senate and people, not in separate places but sitting together, as was never done before or after, hailed him as a gracious god.

Elsewhere we’re told that during the civil war of Avidius Cassius, Marcus repeated his vow that no Senators should be executed during his reign, even those who apparently sided with the rebellion.

Marcus then forbade the senate to impose any heavy punishment upon those who had conspired in this revolt; and at the same time, in order that his reign might escape such a stain, he requested that during his rule no senator should be executed. Those who had been exiled, moreover, he ordered to be recalled; and there were only a very few of the centurions who suffered the death-penalty.

Likewise, after Avidius Cassius was assassinated by his own officers:

And further than this, he grieved at Cassius’ death, saying that he had wished to complete his reign without shedding the blood of a single senator.

We’re also told:

Previous to his death, and before he returned to the Marcomannic war, he swore in the Capitol that no senator had been executed with his knowledge and consent, and said that had he known he would have spared even the insurgents.

Again, in another chapter we’re told:

[Marcus Aurelius] Antoninus himself, moreover, asked the senate to refrain from inflicting severe punishment on those men who were implicated in the rebellion [of Avidius Cassius]; he made this request at the very same time in which he requested that during his reign no senator be punished with capital punishment – an act which won him the greatest affection. Finally, after he had punished a very few centurions, he gave orders that those who had been exiled should be recalled.

Cassius Dio

Cassius Dio echoes many of these general sentiments.  In a remarkable speech, Marcus Aurelius is portrayed as suggesting to his troops that he would be willing to testify before a Senate hearing alongside Avidius Cassius and allow the Senate to decide whether he should continue as Emperor or stand down:

Now if the danger [of the civil war] were mine alone, I should have regarded the matter as of no moment (for I presume I was not born to be immortal!), but since there has been a public secession, or rather rebellion, and the war touches us all alike, I could have wished, had it been possible, to invite Cassius here and to argue before you or the senate the matter at issue between us; and I would gladly have yielded the supreme power to him without a struggle, if this had seemed to be for the good of the State.

Cassius Dio, like the Historia Augusta, states:

This same emperor neither slew nor imprisoned nor put under guard at all any of the senators who had been associated with Cassius. Indeed, he did not so much as bring them before his own court, but merely sent them before the senate, as though charged with some other offence, and set a definite day for their trial.


In his great grief over the death of Faustina he wrote to the senate asking that no one of those who had co-operated with Cassius should be put to death, as if in this fact alone he could find some consolation for her loss. “May it never happen,” he continued, “that any one of you should be slain during my reign either by my vote or by yours.” And in concluding he said, “If I do not obtain this request, I shall hasten to my death.” So pure and excellent and god-fearing did he show himself from first to last; and nothing could force him to do anything inconsistent with his character, neither the wickedness of their rash course nor the expectation of similar uprisings as the result of his pardoning these rebels. So far, indeed, was he from inventing any imaginary conspiracy or concocting any tragedy that had not really occurred, that he actually released those who had in the most open manner risen against him and taken up arms both against him and against his son, whether they were generals or heads of states or kings; and he put none of them to death either by his own action or by that of the senate or on any other pretext whatever. Hence I verily believe that if he had captured Cassius himself alive, he would certainly have spared his life. For he actually conferred benefits upon many who had been the murderers, so far as lay in their power, of both himself and his son.

At the start of the Second Marcomannic War we’re told he requested funds from the Senate, and that he typically did this because he regarded the public treasury as belonging to the people not the emperor:

Marcus also asked the senate for money from the public treasury, not because such funds were not already at the emperor’s disposal, but because he was wont to declare that all the funds, both these and others, belonged to the senate and to the people. “As for us,” he said, in addressing the senate, “we are so far from possessing anything of our own that even the house in which we live is yours.”


To these we can add the voice of Herodian who writes:

He [Marcus] was concerned with all aspects of excellence, and in his love of ancient literature he was second to no man, Roman or Greek; this is evident from all his sayings and writings which have come down to us. To his subjects he revealed himself as a mild and moderate emperor; he gave audience to those who asked for it and forbade his bodyguard to drive off those who happened to meet him. Alone of the emperors, he gave proof of his learning not by mere words or knowledge of philosophical doctrines but by his blameless character and temperate way of life. His reign thus produced a very large number of intelligent men, for subjects like to imitate the example set by their ruler.

We’re told Marcus was concerned about the future reign of Commodus but in terms that make it clear he viewed the reigns of Nero and Domitian as despotic:

Marcus was even more distressed when he recalled events of recent date. Nero had capped his crimes by murdering his mother and had made himself ridiculous in the eyes of the people. The exploits of Domitian, as well, were marked by excessive savagery. When he recalled such spectacles of despotism as these, he was apprehensive and anticipated evil events.

Herodian depicts him giving the following political advice on his deathbed:

The ruler who emplants in the hearts of his subjects not fear resulting from cruelty, but love occasioned by kindness, is most likely to complete his reign safely. For it is not those who submit from necessity but those who are persuaded to obedience who continue to serve and to suffer without suspicion and without pretense of flattery. And they never rebel unless they are driven to it by violence and arrogance.

He concludes:

When the news of his death was made public, the whole army in Pannonia and the common people as well were grief-stricken; indeed, no one in the Roman empire received the report without weeping. All cried out in a swelling chorus, calling him “Kind Father,” “Noble Emperor,” “Brave General,” and “Wise, Moderate Ruler,” and every man spoke the truth.

News Stoicism

New Elearning Site for Stoicism

Hi everyone,

You may notice some slight changes over the next few weeks.  I’ve migrated all users from this site to a Teachable elearning site, which is on the subdomain:

That performs much better, is more secure, and looks much nicer than our old WordPress elearning.  If you go there now, you should be able to log in.  Otherwise, just create a new account.  Please feel free to email me if you need any help.

You’ll find some new courses appearing there.  It’s already hosting our Crash Course in Stoicism, which over 1,200 people have already done.  It’s a free mini-course that is designed to take under ten minutes.  Also the Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT) course for 2017, in which a whopping 1,850 people are taking part this year. Soon the new How to Think Like a Roman Emperor course will be open for enrolment.

Those of you who were following have now been migrated over to followers of this site, which is replacing the old one.  That domain is in the process of being diverted here.  Just in case you wonder what’s going on.

If you’re not already following this blog, you can do so by submitting your email below, and WordPress will notify you each time a new article is added:

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Anyway, as always, thanks for your support!


Donald Robertson


How to Think Like a Roman Emperor

I’m pleased to announce that my brand new e-learning course, How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, will finally begin enrolling in a few weeks time.

I’ve been developing this course for the past six months and now it’s nearly ready for publication.  It’s been a labour of love.  For many years I’ve wanted to run a course about the Stoicism of Marcus Aurelius and I think the time is right now.

You can visit the main course page below although you won’t be able to enrol until the course is published in a few weeks’ time:

I’ve been delivering online courses for over a decade, including the huge Stoic Week and Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training courses, in which about ten thousand people from around the world have participated so far.  This will be the first time that I’ve actually created a paid course, though.  I made the decision to charge for Roman Emperor for the simple reason that it allows me to be able to put enough time into research and course design to make sure I’m completely satisfied with the end result.

If you want to receive updates on the course and be notified when it’s available just enter your details below:

I believe that the best way to teach Stoicism is by focusing on a specific example of a real Stoic. Marcus Aurelius is, today, by far the most famous of the Stoics, and we know more about him than any of the others. So this course will explore Stoicism and its relevance today by taking Marcus as our role model, and looking at examples from his life. It lasts four weeks and is divided into four broad phases of Marcus’ life, and four broad areas of Stoic philosophy. We’re particularly going to look at the psychological practices found in Stoicism and what we can learn from Marcus about applying these in daily life, to improve our character, find meaning in life, and become more emotionally resilient.

I’m not going to go into too much detail right now because I’ll be announcing more later.  If you’re interested, though, stay tuned, as I’ll soon have a lot more to say about How to Think Like a Roman Emperor.  

Please make sure you add your email address to the list above, though, so that you don’t miss out on the announcements.  Thanks once again for your support!


LinkedIn Stoicism Group

I’ve just created a new LinkedIn group for discussing Stoicism. Everyone is welcome to join…

Stoicism LinkedIn Group

SMRT Stoicism

Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training 2017

Just a quick note to say that Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training SMRT will be starting around the middle of July, and you can enrol in advance now.  It’s completely free and thousands of people have done it since 2014.  Click the link below to visit the site.  More details to follow shortly…


Stoic Arguments Against Hedonism

AristippusNB: This is a draft.  I’ll add more detail over time and in response to comments.

Hellenistic schools of philosophy were often distinguished from each other in terms of their definition of the supreme good.  The Stoics defined the goal of life as the attainment of wisdom and virtue.  They frequently contrasted this with the common notion that pleasure (hedone) is the most important thing in life.  Indeed, Chrysippus wrote one book entitled Proofs that Pleasure is not the End-in-chief of Action and another on Proofs that Pleasure is not a Good, i.e., pleasure is not intrinsically good at all let alone the supreme goal of life.

Hedonistic philosophies of life can actually take different forms.

  1. The naive assumption that pleasure, and avoidance of pain, is the most important thing in life, which is commonly taken for granted by non-philosophers.
  2. The Cyrenaic philosophy, founded in the early 4th century BC, which proposed an ethical system based on the premise that the goal of life is to experience bodily pleasure in the present moment.
  3. The Epicurean philosophy, founded in the late 4th century BC, which developed a more subtle ethical system, also claiming that pleasure is the goal of life, but distinguishing between different types of pleasure and placing most value on the absence of emotional suffering (ataraxia).

However, the writings of Epicurus and his followers are notoriously ambiguous in this regard and different people tend to interpret his meaning in different ways.  Cicero, for example, insists that Epicureanism endorses the pursuit both of ataraxia and of bodily pleasures of the Cyrenaic kind, citing Epicurus’ own writings in support of this interpretation.

The Stoics mainly focused their criticisms on naive hedonism, which they believed was a common vice.  However, they also frequently attacked the more philosophical doctrines of their rivals, the Epicurean school.  You can read detailed accounts of the various Stoic criticisms of Epicureanism in Seneca, Epictetus, and Cicero’s De Finibus.

This article will explore the basic criticisms of hedonism found in the Stoic literature.  The Stoics typically attacked hedonism using the Socratic method, by exposing contradictions in their opponent’s position through questioning.  For example, there are often apparent conflicts between the claim that pleasure is the goal of life and some of their actions, or other moral assumptions held by them.

Socrates was the original source for criticisms of hedonism found in the Cynic-Stoic tradition.  His student Antisthenes reputedly said that pleasure is bad, and that he would rather go insane than experience pleasure.  However, the Stoics adopted a more moderate position, arguing that pain and pleasure are neither good nor bad, but indifferent, with regard to the good life.  It’s important to bear in mind, therefore, that unlike Antisthenes, the Stoics were not saying that pleasure is bad.  However, they did believe that hedonism, the assumption that “pleasure is (intrinsically) good”, was a  vice, and the basis of an irrational passion.

1. Self-Defeating

One of the most important arguments found in the ancient philosophical literature is the claim that treating pleasure (and the avoidance of pain) as the goal of life is self-defeating.  There’s now a large body of scientific research from the field of psychology, which supports this view and it has become a staple of modern (third wave) cognitive-behavioural therapy.  We tend to refer to this concept under different names, e.g., “experiential avoidance” is the tendency to try to avoid unpleasant feelings, such as pain, depression, or anxiety.  The more strongly we judge subjective feelings to be bad, the more passionately we will try to suppress or avoid them.  This has been repeatedly shown to backfire in psychological studies, e.g., because when we judge something to be extremely bad we automatically tend to focus more attention on it.  In the case of subjective experiences, such as feelings, this backfires because it actually tends to evoke and amplifies the very thing we’re trying to avoid.  One study specifically found that people who strongly endorse the belief “anxiety is bad” are more predisposed to developing mental health problems in the future.  That’s strikingly similar to the Epicurean doctrine that pain (which would include anxiety) is bad – it’s virtually direct evidence that holding that value judgement tends to be psychologically harmful.  It’s important to realize that the belief that judging pleasure (and avoidance of pain) to be the supreme goal of life is so directly in conflict with modern psychological research in general.

The Cynics, in particular, were known for arguing that the best way to overcome pain and suffering is, paradoxically, by “voluntary hardship“, or training ourselves to accept unpleasant feelings.  They use a variety of analogies to express this notion.  Someone being chased by wild dogs who tries to run in panic will probably be taken down and savaged by them but if he is brave enough to turn and face them with confidence, they will often back away.  Someone who tentatively grabs a snake by the tail or the middle will get bitten, but someone who firmly grasps it behind the head will be safer.  Someone who hesitantly tries to stamp out a blazing fire may be more likely to get burned than someone who tramples it confidently.  A boxer who keeps backing down and nervously tries to protect himself too fearfully is more likely to be overwhelmed than one who faces his opponent unafraid of taking blows.  Today it’s become a cliche to speak of “grasping the nettle” because someone who grasps a nettle quickly and firmly is less likely to be stung than someone who does it hesitantly.

All of these analogies refer to the paradox of acceptance, which has become a staple of modern chronic pain management and increasingly central to modern behaviour therapy for anxiety and depression.  The more we try to control or suppress unpleasant feelings, the worse they tend to get over the long term.  Whereas the more we can train ourselves to relax into and actively accept unpleasant feelings, as indifferent, the more they tend to naturally abate, to some extent, and the fewer secondary problems are associated with experiencing them.  That presupposes the attitude that painful or unpleasant feelings are totally “indifferent” (Stoicism) as opposed to the view that they are bad (hedonism).


So much for judging unpleasant feelings too negatively (“pain is bad”).    What about judging pleasant feelings too positively (“pleasure is good”)?  There’s less research on the negative effect of placing too much value on  positive subjective feelings.  However, many philosophers and psychologists in the past have observed that trying too hard to feel happy is often a surefire way to make life miserable.  Feelings of pleasure and happiness seem to occur most reliably, over the long-term, when we do healthy and fulfilling things in life, without being too directly preoccupied with our feelings.  For example, it’s long been established that introspection is associated with anxiety and depression.  People who are happy and fulfilled tend to be more focused on outward things, on other people, on activity, rather than morbidly preoccupied with their own inner world.  Feelings of happiness are best achieved by an indirect approach, that allows them to arise as a byproduct of healthy and constructive activity, rather than by trying to exert too much direct control over our inner thoughts and feelings.  However, as modern behaviour therapists have consistently noted, when we place too much value on feelings of pleasure and happiness, it’s difficult not to end up being preoccupied with exerting internal control in this way because our attention automatically tends to follow our value judgments in this way.  Placing more value on the character of our actions (Stoicism), and focusing attention on them, is more likely to generate positive feelings, ironically, than placing supreme value on the feelings themselves.

2. Not Natural

Some ancient hedonists, starting with the Cyrenaics, tried to argue that it is natural for animals, and human infants, to seek pleasure and avoid pain.  Those are the instincts adult humans inherit, they argued, and we should develop an ethic on that basis.  It tended to be assumed by ancient philosophers that what is natural, or instinctive, is also good and healthy.

However, the Stoics directly attacked this claim.  They argued that animals frequently expose themselves voluntarily to pain or discomfort, and also forego pleasure, under certain circumstances.  That appears to prove that the natural instincts, even of certain species of animals, do not posit pleasure as the supreme goal of life.  For example, many animals will instinctively endure danger and painful injury for the sake of protecting their own offspring from attack.  The Stoics like to refer to the example of a bull who will risk being clawed and bitten by a lion while defending the weaker members of his herd, an example probably drawn from Zeno’s Republic.  Incidentally, I think it’s irrelevant here to question the Stoics’ claims about specific examples of animal behaviour, what matters is that their general point is correct: many animals will definitely risk death or injury to protect their offspring.  (In fact, certain species of cattle are quite skilled at taking down a lion just as they described.)

Sometimes people assume that modern behavioural psychology endorses this assumption about animals and humans being primarily motivated to seek pleasure and avoid pain.  However, this is not the case.  B.F. Skinner the leading pioneer of American behavioural analysis stressed that sensations of pain and pleasure are merely common side-effects of reinforcement.

3. Contradicts Common Moral Intuitions

The ancient philosophers provide many examples of situations in which seeking pleasure or avoiding pain as the supreme good would potentially lead us to act in ways that conflict with common moral intuitions, about what is right and wrong.  Some hedonists argue that it’s the fear of punishment or being reprimanded that ensures that they will not break the law, harm others, etc.  However, it turns out that’s a very weak argument because it’s easy to think of situations in which it becomes problematic.

For example, Cicero gives the example of someone who notices that an enemy or rival is about to sit on a woodpile in which a poisonous snake is concealed.  The observer could simply say nothing and nobody would know that he’d allowed his rival to do something dangerous, and possibly die as a result.  With no risk of being caught or punished, arguably the hedonist has no reason to act in a way we’d normally consider ethical.

Hedonists will tend to respond by arguing that their moral conscience would cause them pain even if they were to harm others, etc., under cover of darkness, without any risk of being caught.  However, that’s also a weak argument.  Feelings of conscience are variable and it’s possible to suppress them, e.g., by using certain drugs or suppressing feelings of guilt.  Moreover, it’s well-established that many individuals simply do not experience the painful sting of conscience to a significant degree, e.g., people who suffer from antisocial personality disorder, or even sociopaths.  So feelings of conscience are not a reliable guide to action in general, and in some cases they’re negligible or even completely absent.

As always, it may be that some people would accept the conclusion that as hedonists they can justify acting in ways most people would consider unethical, as long as there’s no risk of being caught and their conscience does not disturb them.  However, for the majority of people this will create a conflict with their other moral intuitions, which potentially constitutes a reductio ad absurdum.

4. Not Up to Us

Sensations like pain and pleasure are not under our direct control.  The most that we could do is will certain actions that appear likely to have pleasurable consequences.  The Stoics believe, however, that this is contradictory.  To judge something supremely “good”, good in the strong sense, is to desire to bring it about, and to judge something strongly “bad” is to desire to avoid it.  However, it’s arguably irrational to strongly desire something that it is not within our power to attain.  Strictly, speaking we can only wish to do what it is within our power to do, without endorsing two mutually incompatible opinions.  This line of reasoning, that good = desirable = attainable, appears similar to Kant’s principle that “Ought implies can.”  The majority of us certainly do typically desire many things that are unattainable in life, but the Stoics argue that this is contradictory and therefore irrational.

The Stoics argue that it’s more consistent and rational for adult humans to transfer supreme value to our own ability to make value judgments, i.e., reason.  (The Stoics call this our “ruling faculty” or hegemonikon.)   To reason well is to become wise, so moral wisdom (virtue) itself becomes the supreme good.

5. Double-Standard

The Stoics also employed what cognitive therapists today call the “double standards” strategy to highlight contradictions in their interlocutors’ position.  They ask us to consider what qualities we most admire in others and compare those to the values we set for our own life and actions.  The majority of people don’t tend to praise or admire others who make pleasure their supreme goal in life.  In fact, we actually praise people more when they act virtuously in the face of pain and suffering.  However, it is arguably hypocritical to value different qualities in other people than we aspire to for ourselves.  This can be seen as yet another form of self-contradiction, that comes to light through careful reflection on our values.

Of course, as always, some people may accept this but deny that it’s problematic.  I’ve occasionally met people who say they feel strongly that it makes sense for them to want other people to have different values from their own.  Nevertheless, most people are sensitive to the notion that this is a form of hypocrisy and that tends to be something that provokes the to reconsider their position.  Another way of framing this criticism, employed by the Stoics, is to ask whether the hedonist would wish to live in a society of hedonists, to be surrounded by a community of other people whose supreme goal in life is to maximize their own pleasure.  Many people find this, at first glance, an appealing goal for themselves but they often feel uncomfortable about the idea that other people might hold those values because, e.g., they notice that their own life, and rights, would potentially be of questionable value in the eyes of other hedonists.  For instance, it’s often been pointed out that hedonists, especially in the ancient world, might plausibly conclude that they best way to maximize their own pleasure would be to own slaves.  However, if you happened to be one of those unfortunate enough to be enslaved you might start to wish that your owners had placed more value on human dignity and freedom than on their own experience of pleasure and freedom from pain.  The Stoics thought it was contradictory and irrational, though, for someone to endorse a set of values for themselves that they would potentially find objectionable if followed by other people.

Related to this are discussions of the hedonist view of friendship, which  appear to reduce all friendships to “fairweather” ones, as Seneca puts it.  The Stoics and other Socratics argue that we must treat our friends and loved ones as ends in themselves, in some sense, otherwise that falls short of anything we could call authentic friendship.  Ancient hedonists, by contrast, typically argued that friendship was a kind of social contract in which both parties show affection for each other only insofar as they believe its in their interest to do so, because it offers more opportunity for pleasure, or protection from pain.  However, that obviously makes friendship, or love for ones partner or children, problematic when it becomes a source of pain or distress.  A hedonist may feel motivated to completely abandon a relationship (“cut someone off”) if they believe it’s no longer pleasurable but to the majority of people that can appear selfish.  Again, it’s easier to see that as a tempting motive for one’s own actions but would you want your parents to love you, or your friends to care for you, only as long as they feel enough pleasure from doing so, and to potentially abandon you if the relationship caused them difficulty or pain.  Would a hedonist abandon a spouse dying of a terminal illness, for example?  For many people that would, at least prima facie, create a conflict with other moral intuitions.

6. Brain in Vat

If we assume that the most important thing in life is pleasure then try to imagine a situation in which that could be maximized, it often highlights the conflict with other common moral intuitions.  Suppose, for example, that your brain could be removed from your body and preserved indefinitely, with complete safety, in a vat, fed by nutrient fluids and chemicals that were carefully maintained to maximize your sense of pleasure.

In this thought experiment, more or less everything else is sacrificed from a “normal” life, for the sake of achieving maximum ongoing pleasure, and avoidance of pain or suffering.  This should be the naive hedonist’s ideal.  However, most people feel there’s something unappealing about this as a goal in life.  It clashes too much with their other moral intuitions, which potentially constitutes a reductio ad absurdum.  In conversations with modern Epicureans, I’ve often found that this thought-experiment appears problematic to them as well.  Although, as always, there may be some individuals who would say they’re perfectly happy to accept this sort of hedonistic “brain in vat” situation as the goal of life.

Another version of this criticism would be to imagine that a drug or neurosurgical procedure might become available that would guarantee our long-term pleasure and freedom from pain, but would reduce our IQ to the level of a dumb animal.  For the sake of argument, we can assume that for a fee our safety is ensured by caretakers.  Perhaps this is an expensive form of retirement available only to the super-rich.  For a fee, you can live out the rest of your life in total bliss, but you’d be rendered stupid at the same time.  A happy pig rather than an unhappy wise man.  Again, this tends to clash with people’s moral intuitions.  The Stoics were aware that most people, on reflection, are not willing to sacrifice their sanity or intelligence, for virtually any price.  They took this as support for their own claim that wisdom is the highest good, and goal of life.

7. Long-Term Hedonism

A common response from hedonists is to argue that some of those objections can be countered by qualifying the claim that pleasure is the goal of life by specifying that it’s about maximizing long-term pleasure, and minimizing pain or discomfort.  However, the Stoics and other ancient critics of hedonism realized that this was a weak defence.  It actually does nothing to answer any of the lines of criticism mentioned above, with the possible exception of the general point about hedonism being in conflict with other moral intuitions.  A hedonist might argue that if we were pursuing short-term pleasure then we might be led to do things that are typically considered unethical but that the pursuit of long-term pleasure means we’re more likely to act in an ethically praiseworthy manner.

Seneca and others point out, first of all, that this way of qualifying hedonism appears to make absolutely no difference if we specifically consider situations where there simply is no “long-term” subjective experience for us to care about, i.e., where our death is imminent.  A soldier fighting to protect the welfare of his wife and children, his friends and fellow countrymen, could not use his own “long-term” pleasure as a motive for acting courageously because if he dies then he’ll obviously be incapable of experiencing it.  For the Stoics, and other Socratic philosophers, virtue is its own reward, so courage in such situations would not depend on some consequence, which is thrown into question precisely because of the risk of death involved.  A Stoic should be motivated to act virtuously whether or not he faces death, whereas for most hedonists this situation is ethically problematic and would potentially cause him to reconsider his values.

8. Qualified Hedonism

The other typical defence of hedonism is to offer some qualification to the definition of pleasure as the supreme goal of life as a workaround.  For example, we might want to add the caveat that pleasure is the highest good, as long as it’s healthy, or as long as it’s compatible with the welfare of other people, etc.  That seems like an easy way to sidestep conflicts with other deep-seated moral convictions.

However, this solution is not quite so easy, on reflection.  If I say that pleasure is only the highest good insofar as it’s healthy, doesn’t it imply that I actually value health more highly than pleasure?  That pleasure isn’t really the highest good at all?  If I had to choose between them, which one would I sacrifice?  Once we qualify the definition of the supreme good in this way, it opens a whole can of worms.  We have to begin carefully reconsidering our values to identify where the highest good actually lies.  Again, different individuals will arrive at different conclusions but the point remains that this way of shoring up hedonism is problematic, and requires additional arguments to clarify and defend the revised position being proposed.

Stoic Week Stoicism

Announcing Stoicon-x Toronto 2017


Stoicon-x events are smaller conferences organized around the world to complement the main Stoicon 2017 conference in Toronto and Stoic Week 2017. The goal of Stoicon-x is for local Stoic groups to put on their own mini-conferences in their own areas. You can read our [tips and guidelines] for putting on your own events.

Stoicon-x Toronto will be held on October 15th, the day after Stoicon 2017. You don’t need to be attending the main Stoicon 2017 conference to come to this. It’s a completely separate event, organized by some of the same people. In addition to a few fixed keynote talks, there will be slots for lightning talks of 5-10 minutes. Any attendee (that means you!) can sign up to present a lightning talk on a topic related to Stoicism of their choosing, time permitting. Networking will follow. So if you have something to say about Stoicism or just can’t get enough of Stoicism come along to Stoicon-x Toronto!

Book tickets online now.

Full Schedule

9.30am – 10am Registration and coffee

10am Introduction: The Popularity and Relevance of Stoicism Today
Donald Robertson, author of Teach Yourself Stoicism

10.15 am Keynote 1: Achieving Personal Freedom Through Stoic Principles
Dr. Chuck Chakrapani, author of Unshakable Freedom: Ancient Stoic Secrets Applied to Modern Life

10.45am Morning break (15 min.)

11am Lightning Presentations on Modern Stoicism

12pm Afternoon break (15 min.)

12.15pm Keynote 2: ‘People Learn while they Teach’: The Whys and Hows of Building a Local Stoic Community Greg Lopez, Founder of NYC Stoics and Director of Membership for The Stoic Fellowship

12.45pm Closing Donald Robertson (15 min.)

1pm – 1.30pm Networking

NB: Please note that the details of this event may be subject to change.

The main conference venue for Stoicon is the Holiday Inn Toronto-Yorkdale hotel, who will provide accommodation at a discounted rate if you’re attending Stoicon 2017. We cannot guarantee that rooms for all delegates will be available at the Holiday Inn. However, there are several other hotels nearby where you can stay.

What were previous Stoicon conferences like?

You can watch this YouTube video about one of our previous conferences, and some of the previous talks are available online.