This is a selection of videos on Youtube about Stoic philosophy. Please feel free to suggest changes or additions.
This is a selection of videos on Youtube about Stoic philosophy. Please feel free to suggest changes or additions.
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Video of Prof. Chris Gill discussing Marcus Aurelius’ Stoicism…
A discussion between Christopher Gill, Professor of Ancient Thought at the University of Exeter, and Patrick Ussher, PhD Student at the University of Exeter. Topics covered include: what we can learn from the last Stoic Week, what we hope to do for the next Stoic Week, and what the project should aim for long-term.
By Camden Gaspar
One of the most common questions that newcomers to Stoicism have is, “What pleasures should I avoid?” They want to know, specifically, if things like alcohol, video games, gambling, and the like, should be avoided in pursuit of a happy life. This is a fair question, but it’s ultimately the wrong one. Stoicism, contrary to what some may say, is not about depriving yourself of everything you enjoy. It’s not about seeing a beautiful painting or sculpture as a colorless mass, or eating a delicious meal and tasting nothing, or refusing to go out with friends.
No, the Stoics didn’t look at pleasure as something to be avoided. If the goal is a happy life, then we must understand where and how pleasure, certainly a big part of happiness, fits into the big picture. The role that pleasure plays in life according to the Stoic conception is that it must follow virtue. Without virtue, life’s pleasures are hollow traps. They can enslave you and make you dependent on their constant presence. Without these pleasures, life becomes unbearable, leaving you weak and despondent.
What Stoicism is about is giving you the emotional and mental armor to steel yourself against the ups and downs that life inevitably puts you through. It gives you the means by which you can experience pain and pleasure and weather both, because both can lead to ruin if you haven’t trained yourself to handle them properly. In the case of pleasure, a well-trained mind would be able to see the pleasure as an “indifferent” in the words of Diogenes Laertius. That’s part of the work of the Stoic practitioner: to understand that pleasure (and pain) are ephemeral. What you love can be taken away, or even turn on you.
Fortune is Fickle
Stoicism gives you the means by which you can experience pain and pleasure and weather both, because both can lead to ruin if you haven’t trained yourself to handle them properly. In the case of pleasure, a well-trained mind would be able to see the pleasure as an “indifferent” in the words of Diogenes Laertius. That’s part of the work of the Stoic practitioner: to understand that pleasure (and pain) are ephemeral. What you love can be taken away, or even turn on you. For this reason, we “must be attentive to all the advantages that adorn life, but with over-much love for none — the user, but not the slave, of the gifts of Fortune.”
Seneca reminds us that we can enjoy the pleasures that come to us as a result of good fortune, but that we should always view them with suspicion and a willingness to part with them if needed. As Diogenes says, we must be indifferent – enjoying the pleasures when we have them and not allowing their absence to break us.
Virtue as the Leader
The Stoics saw areté or virtue as being the highest good. According to Robin Campbell, this supreme ideal “is usually summarized in ancient philosophy as a combination of four qualities: wisdom (or moral insight), courage, self-control, and justice (or upright dealing).” The Roman Stoic, Seneca, in his essay “On the Happy Life” argues that virtue is like the leader in a battle. Real virtue, like any good leader, must lead from the front. Everything else is subordinate.
We can only experience pleasure and happiness if we make virtue the ultimate pursuit in our lives. Seneca states that by pursuing virtue, happiness and pleasure will naturally ensue as a by-product. It doesn’t work the other way around, pursuing pleasure before virtue. Virtue is the vital tool that allows pleasure to be a rejuvenating force in our lives by ensuring that it doesn’t take over everything else.
Additionally, practicing virtue in a haphazard or fake way will not work. Virtue cannot be faked. It’s something you have to cultivate by actually practicing it in the real world. Stoicism and virtue can only exist where failure and ruin are a possibility. Seneca points out that pleasure is like the flowers that sprout in a field that a farmer has tilled. They are pleasant – a welcome addition to the scenery, but they aren’t why the field was plowed in the first place. According to Seneca: “Just so pleasure is neither the cause nor the reward of virtue, but its by-product, and we do not accept virtue because she delights us, but if we accept her, she also delights us.”
Goals and Purpose
A corollary to the pursuit of virtue is that you actually have to be striving for something meaningful in your life. Working toward a chosen task or goal where you are challenged along the way – in your career, family, relationships – will naturally lead to setbacks and disappointment. This is where the Stoic begins to practice what he preaches.
Seneca, in his letters, reminds that we should always be working toward something greater than ourselves. This gives us direction and keeps us grounded. Where pleasure comes into the picture is when we need to take a break from our work for sanity’s sake. “I’m not telling you to always be bent over some book or writing tablets,” says Seneca, “The mind has to be given some time off, but in such a way that it may be refreshed, not relaxed until it falls to pieces.”
Ask yourself: “Am I using my leisure time to refresh myself, or am I running away from my responsibilities?” Very often, people use pleasure, whether it’s video games, drugs, travel, etc, to run away from the difficulties of life and the expectations placed upon them as members of society. “If one accomplishes some good though with toil, the toil passes, but the good remains; if one does something dishonorable with pleasure, the pleasure passes, but the dishonor remains,” says Musonius Rufus. If you are at a point where you neglect the more nourishing parts of life: family, friends, career, hobbies, etc. in order to tend to your pleasures, you will find that when the pleasure fades, it leaves nothing worthwhile behind.
Living with Pleasure
The great preservers and transmitters of Stoic philosophy, to my knowledge, never strictly forbade their listeners from engaging in a specific pleasure. And even if they did, so what? They weren’t deities or prophets. Stoicism isn’t a religion, where salvation is promised to devoted followers and damnation to those who ignore the teachings. You don’t have to follow any of it if you don’t want to. But, speaking from personal experience and the experiences of others, your life will improve if you do.
Stoicism takes into account that we will fail, and often, we will fail repeatedly. We will get too attached to something that doesn’t really belong to us and be distraught when we lose it, we will get overly emotional when something unpleasant happens. That’s okay, as long as you can reflect and recognize what you can do better next time and constantly be striving for improvement.
When you read the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, you might notice that Marcus tends to go over the same themes and ideas over and over again. This isn’t by accident. Each day, when Marcus sat down to write what was essentially his journal/diary, he would reflect on the situations and problems he had during the day and how he dealt with them or should have dealt with them. When we see the same issues cropping up, such as dealing with praise, we know that he was probably not as gracious and stoic as he would have liked and had to give himself a reminder.
Marcus wrote of his adoptive father: “One might say of him what we’re told [by Xenophon] of Socrates, that he could abstain from or enjoy those things that many people are not strong enough to refrain from and too much inclined to enjoy. But to have the strength to persist in the one case and to abstain in the other is typical of a man with a perfect and indomitable mind.” For Marcus, his adoptive father was the living model of Stoic indifference – to avoid being trapped by the pleasures that other men allowed to take over their lives and instead to view them with indifference.
Stoicism doesn’t ask us to live without pleasure. It teaches us how to live with it. To be able to have the things that make us happy, whether they are just little pleasures like a glass of wine before bed, or the bigger things like a vacation, and understand that they are transient, temporary, and not fully belonging to us, but rather a gift a fortune.
Copyright © Donald Robertson, 2013. All rights reserved. An excerpt from Teach yourself Stoicism. Image of Zeno, copyright the trustees of the British Museum.
The followers of Epicurus placed importance on possessing portraits or rings bearing his likeness, which may perhaps have helped them imagine his salutary presence accompanying them in life (Hadot, 2002, p. 124). The British Museum actually possess an ornate gem from the Roman imperial period depicting Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, which possibly served a similar purpose. Seneca likewise says that Stoics should keep likenesses of great men and even celebrate their birthdays (Letters, 64). He lists his favourite philosophical role-models as:
There are some notable things about this list:
Elsewhere, he gives a beautiful account of this practice, drawing on Epicurean teachings:
‘We need to set our affections on some good man and keep him constantly before our eyes, so that we may live as if he were watching us and do everything as if he saw what we were doing.’ This, my dear Lucilius, is Epicurus’ advice, and in giving it he has given us a guardian and a moral tutor – and not without reason, either: misdeeds are greatly diminished if a witness is always standing near intending doers. The personality should be provided with someone it can revere, someone whose influence can make even its private, inner life more pure. Happy the man who improves other people not merely when he is in their presence but even when he is in their thoughts! And happy, too, is the person who can so revere another as to adjust and shape his own personality in the light of recollections, even, of that other. (Letters, 11)
The image of this exemplary person should therefore be recalled frequently “either as your guardian or as your model”, as someone observing us, and perhaps offering guidance, or as an ideal to emulate. Seneca puts it nicely when he says that we need the concept of a genuinely “wise and good” person as a standard against which to measure ourselves because “Without a ruler to do it against you won’t make the crooked straight.”
We’re nearing 300 members already on the new Stoicism discussion forum on Facebook. It’s very active and is proving an excellent resource for meeting other students of Stoicism and exchanging ideas!
Excerpt from Teach yourself Stoicism and the Art of Happiness (2013), copyright © Donald Robertson.
Xenophon wrote that his friend and teacher, Socrates, faced the death-sentence with absolute serenity and fortitude, and that it was “generally agreed that no one in the memory of man has ever met his death more nobly” (Memorabilia, 4.8). We’ve already mentioned the events surrounding the trial and execution of Socrates. The Stoics undoubtedly treat this as the example par excellence of a “good death”. In reading about Socrates’ preparing to meet his death, in a sense, we accompany him and prepare ourselves for our own deaths.
Plato wasn’t there himself but, in an eponymous dialogue, portrays Socrates’ friend Phaedo recounting his astonishment at the philosopher’s composure during his final hours. “Although I was witnessing the death of one who was my friend, I had no feeling of pity, for the man appeared happy both in manner and words as he died nobly and without fear” (Phaedo, 58e). So what did Socrates do? Well, he acted normally. He saw his persecutors, the men responsible for his death, as simply misguided rather than hateful. The Enchiridion of Epictetus makes a point of concluding with a remarkable quotation attributed to him: “Anytus and Meletus [who brought the charges] can kill me, but they cannot harm me.” (Obi-wan Kenobi echoes this in the movie Star Wars!)
In prison, awaiting execution, Socrates spent his final hours debating amiably with his friends about philosophy. Given the proximity of his own demise, he chose to explore the question of what happens to the soul after death, coolly examining several possibilities while keeping an open mind, tolerant of uncertainty. More importantly, he explains his view that philosophy is essentially a lifelong “meditation on death” (melete thanatou), as the reason for his surprising indifference. He says that those who practice philosophy in the right way are constantly training for death, and true philosophers fear dying least of all men (Phaedo, 67e). The “contemplation of death” therefore emerged right at the most dramatic moment in the birth of Western philosophy, spoken at the heart of what Socrates called his philosophical swansong. When the time came, he calmly drank the poison and waited to die, something he’d clearly reconciled himself to, and faced with supreme equanimity and an attitude of philosophical curiosity.
Why, they [the Stoics] maintain that one wise man is friendly to another even when he does not know him. There is, in truth, nothing more lovable than virtue, and the man who has attained to that will possess our affection in whatever part of the world he is.Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods
The misconception that Stoics are unemotional like robots, or like the Vulcan “Mister Spock” in Star Trek, is so widespread that I’ve decided to put together some brief notes to summarise the opposing view, taken with modifications from my book Teach yourself Stoicism and the Art of Happiness (2013).
The founder of Greek Skepticism, Pyrrho of Elis, was jokingly said to be so apathetic, or indifferent to the world, that his followers had to chase around after him to prevent him walking off cliffs or into the path of speeding horse-drawn wagons. That joke was never made about the Stoics because, by contrast, they were well-known for their active engagement in family life and politics. Likewise, the Epicureans made the attainment of tranquillity, or the avoidance of pain, the goal of life, and saw no intrinsic value in fellowship with other human beings. This often led them to withdraw from politics or family life, and even to live in relative seclusion.
By contrast, the Stoics, for whom tranquillity is only good when it accompanies the virtues of wisdom and justice, believed that fellowship with the rest of mankind is natural and fundamental to the goal of life, which entails “living in agreement” with reason, the Nature of the universe, and the rest of mankind. In fact, the founding text of Stoicism, Zeno’s Republic, centred on his “dream” of an ideal Stoic society, consisting of enlightened and benevolent friends, living in harmony together, under the patronage of Eros, the god of love.
Epictetus therefore said that it’s the Stoic concept of “appropriate action”, in our family and civil relationships, and of the “discipline of action” through which Stoics train themselves to act justly and philanthropically, which lay to rest the misconception that they are aloof and unemotional like certain other ancient philosophers (Discourses, 3.2). The Stoics believed that we are essentially rational and social animals who experience a feeling of “natural affection” for those closest to us, which it is natural and rational to extend to the rest of mankind, forming the basis of an attitude sometimes called Stoic “philanthropy”. However, arguably, by placing value on others, even in a somewhat detached manner, Stoics also open themselves up to a variety of naturally-occurring emotional reactions, including distress when valued things appear to be threatened.
For how can a vine be moved not [i.e., grow] in the manner of a vine, but in the manner of an olive tree? or on the other hand how can an olive tree be moved not in the manner of an olive tree, but in the manner of a vine? It is impossible: it cannot be conceived. Neither then is it possible for a man completely to lose the movements [i.e., feelings] of a man; and even those [eunuchs] who are deprived of their genital members are not able to deprive themselves of man’s desires. (Epictetus, Discourses, 2.20)
According to the ancient Stoics, even the perfect Sage feels natural affection, or love for other human beings, and is not completely insensitive to other feelings that naturally follow from maintaining these affectionate social relationships. For example, Marcus Aurelius surely loved his notoriously wayward son Commodus (shown above dressed as Hercules), while accepting that it was ultimately beyond his control completely to remedy his heir’s folly and vicious character. Indeed, Marcus described the ideal Stoic character, as exemplified by his own teacher, Sextus of Chaeronea, as being “full of love and yet free from passion” (Meditations, 1.6). The Greek word for love that he uses can also be translated as “natural affection” or “family affection” – it’s the kind of love parents have for their children.
The Stoics, indeed, sought to emulate Zeus, the father of mankind, by extending their natural affection to the whole of mankind. This dilutes the emotion and prevents it from becoming an infatuation with any individual, or an irrational “passion” of the kind they sought to free themselves from. Hence the word he joins this expression with, apatheia, means absence of irrational, unhealthy, or excessive “passions”. As we’ll see, the Stoics repeatedly emphasised that by this they did not mean “apathy” or complete lack of feeling for other people. Later, Marcus wonders when he will ever attain such a state of affection and contentment himself (Meditations, 10.1). Scholars have noted, however, that various Roman authors of the period, specifically portrayed Marcus as being renowned for his “philanthropic” attitude, or love of mankind.
As this is a common misconception about ancient Stoicism, it’s worth briefly reviewing some of their own comments. For example, after describing the Stoic theory of irrational passions, Diogenes Laertius wrote of the founders of Stoicism, probably meaning either Zeno or Chrysippus:
They say the wise man is also without passions [apathê, whence our word “apathy”], because he is not vulnerable to them. But the bad man is called “without passions” in a different sense, which means the same as “hard-hearted” and “insensitive”. (Lives, 7.117)
Epictetus says something quite similar, that Stoics ought not to be free from passions (apathê) in the sense of being unfeeling “like a statue”, and that this has to do with “appropriate action” and maintaining one’s natural and acquired relationships, as a family member and a citizen (Discourses, 3.2).
Cicero portrays the Stoic Laelius as saying that it would be the greatest possible mistake to try to eliminate feelings of friendship, because even animals experience natural affection for their offspring, which Stoics viewed as the foundation of human love and friendship (Laelius, 13). We would not only be dehumanising ourselves by eliminating natural affection between friends, he says, but reducing ourselves below animal nature to something more like a mere tree-trunk or a stone and we should turn a deaf ear to anyone who foolishly suggests that the good life entails having “the hardness of iron” in terms of our emotions. Seneca, likewise, says:
There are misfortunes which strike the sage – without incapacitating him, of course – such as physical pain, infirmity, the loss of friends or children, or the catastrophes of his country when it is devastated by war. I grant that he is sensitive to these things, for we do not impute to him the hardness of a rock or of iron. There is no virtue in putting up with that which one does not feel. (On the Constancy of the Sage, 10.4)
There’s a problem, as Seneca points out, with the notion that the Stoic Sage is completely devoid of emotion. It recalls a story about Diogenes the Cynic, who was asked by a Spartan if he was feeling cold, when training himself by stripping naked and embracing a bronze statue in winter. Diogenes said he was not, and the Spartan replied: “What’s so impressive about what you’re doing then?” (Plutarch, Spartan Sayings, 233a).
As Seneca implies, the virtues of courage and self-discipline appear to require that the Stoic Sage must actually experience something akin to fear and desire – otherwise he has no feelings to overcome. A brave man isn’t someone who doesn’t experience any trace of fear whatsoever but someone who acts courageously despite feeling anxiety. A man who has great self-discipline or restraint isn’t someone who feels no inkling of desire but someone who overcomes his cravings, by abstaining from acting upon them. The Sage conquers his passions by becoming stronger than them not by eliminating all emotion from his life. The Stoic ideal is therefore not to be “passionless” (apathê) in the sense of being “apathetic”, “hard-hearted”, “insensitive” or “like a statue” of stone or iron. Rather, it is to experience natural affection for ourselves, our loved-ones, and other human beings, and to value our lives in accord with nature, which arguably opens us up to experiencing emotional reactions to loss or frustration. Seneca elsewhere explains that whereas the Epicureans mean “a mind immune to feeling” when they speak of apatheia, this “unfeelingness” is actually the opposite of what the Stoics intended (Letters, 9). “This is the difference between us Stoics and the Epicureans; our wise man overcomes every discomfort but feels it, theirs does not even feel it.” The virtue of the Sage consists in his ability to endure painful feelings and rise above them, with magnanimity, while continuing to maintain his relationships and interaction with the world.
Elsewhere Seneca wrote:
I do not withdraw the wise man from the category of man, nor do I deny to him the sense of pain as though he were a rock that has no feelings at all. I remember that he is made up of two parts: the one part is irrational, — it is this that may be bitten, burned, or hurt; the other part is rational, — it is this which holds resolutely to opinions, is courageous, and unconquerable. […] You must not think that our human virtue transcends nature; the wise man will tremble, will feel pain, will turn pale, for all these are sensations of the body. (Seneca, Letters 71)
Since I wrote this article, Brad Inwood’s excellent Stoicism: A Very Brief Introduction has been published, in which the author makes essentially the same point:
There is a stereotype of Stoicism familiar to everyone, the claim that Stoicism involves being relentlessly rational, but without a trace of emotion—Mr Spock from Star Trek, only more so. That this isn’t the right view of Stoicism is now generally understood, and specialists will even point out that the passions (pathē) from which the Stoic wise person is said to be free are not what we mean by emotions but a more narrowly defined group of states of mind that are by definition pathological. The wise person may well be perfectly rational, but that doesn’t deprive him or her of all affective or emotional experience.
Brad Inwood is one of the leading academic scholars of Stoicism, and a professor of philosophy and classics at Yale.
And following that, another excellent introduction to Stoicism by a leading academic scholar in this field was published: Lessons in Stoicism by John Sellars.
In modern English the word ‘stoic’ has come to mean unfeeling and without emotion, and this is usually seen as a negative trait. […] When the ancient Stoics recommended that people ought to avoid emotions, it was these negative emotions [such as anger] that they primarily had in mind.
Contrary to the popular image, the Stoics do not suggest that people can or should become unfeeling blocks of stone. All humans will experience what Seneca calls ‘first movements’. These are when we are moved by some experience, and we might feel nervous, shocked, excited or scared, or we might even cry. All these are quite natural reactions; they are physiological responses of the body, but not emotions in the Stoic sense of the word. Someone who is upset and momentarily contemplates vengeance, but does not act on it, is not angry according to Seneca, because he remains in control.
And he concludes,
The Stoics certainly do not envisage turning people into unfeeling blocks of stone. So, we’ll still have the usual reactions to events – we’ll jump, flinch, get momentarily frightened or embarrassed, cry – and we’ll still have strong caring relationships with those close to us. What we won’t do, however, is develop the negative emotions of anger, resentment, bitterness, jealousy, obsession, perpetual fear or excessive attachment. These are the things that can ruin a life and that the Stoics think are best avoided.