Stoicism and Rational Psychotherapy

Charles Baudouin and Stoicism

Copyright © Donald Robertson, 2012.  All rights reserved.

The French academic, Charles Baudouin was actually one of the first modern authors to integrate Stoic philosophy with psychotherapy, several decades before CBT or even its precursor REBT. Baudouin explored the relationship between psychotherapy and various religions and philosophies, including Christianity, Buddhism, and Stoicism in his book entitled The Inner Discipline (Baudouin & Lestchinsky, 1924).

Baudouin was a follower of the father of modern self-help Émile Coué, who developed hypnotism into his immensely popular “conscious autosuggestion” method. He was also influenced by the Swiss psychiatrist, Paul Dubois, who had earlier drawn on elements of Stoicism, particularly Seneca, in expounding his “rational persuasion” psychotherapy, an early precursor of CBT. However, Baudouin dedicated a whole chapter of The Inner Discipline to Stoicism and its use in modern therapy and self-help. He wrote that “one of the most original characteristics of Stoicism was the stress it laid upon a vigorous discipline, upon the education of the character”, and for this reason he considered it the branch of classical philosophy most relevant to modern therapy. Baudouin stressed the need for regular daily practice in therapy and self-help, which he found also emphasised in Stoicism. He provides a particularly good account of the morning and evening meditation practices, which he recommends to his readers and patients.

Baudouin says that self-mastery, of the kind espoused by the Stoics, can only be acquired by daily training. He agreed that one of the first philosophical precepts we must master is the distinction between things that are in our power and those that are not. In particular, the first hour of every day demands our attention as a time for mental preparation and rehearsal of philosophical precepts “for the attitude we adopt at this time sets our course for the day”. Baudouin cites the fact that the Pythagoreans “recommended silence and meditation during the first hour after waking”, quoting Marcus Aurelius’ remark about them having us lift our eyes to the heavens at dawn (Meditations, 11.27). Baudouin suggests we follow Marcus’ advice that good resolutions can be made with the best effect at the start of the day, and that we should take this opportunity to counter slothful tendencies: “This initial victory will pave the way for the victories of subsequent hours.” Baudouin advises us that we can acquire good habits of living through daily practice in this way, becoming watchful of our thoughts and actions, and continually exercising our minds in a healthy direction: “Thanks to the suppleness acquired by this course of moral gymnastics, the mind will be enabled to overcome all obstacles.”

Like Dubois before him, Baudouin agreed with the Stoic view that a “scientific” belief in universal determinism is of profound psychotherapeutic importance. He found that contemplating this helped to remind him how many things are beyond our direct control, and of the ultimate worthlessness of the countless things our passions crave. With regard to things not within our power, he employed Epictetus’ maxim, “endure and renounce”, which he calls the principle of “economy of effort”. We must do nothing without a purpose and must not waste our energies by running our heads against a brick wall: “We must not wish for the impossible, or try to do what is impossible.” He quotes Phocylides, a poet from the 6th century BC, who wrote “Do not let past evils disturb you, for what is done cannot be undone.” Baudouin compares this Stoic attitude to a modern adage: “If we can’t get what we like, we must like what we have”, adding, “instead of lamenting because we cannot change our lot, let us learn to love it.”


Stoic Infographic by Michel Daw

Source: Uploaded by user via Michel on Pinterest


See www.livingthestoiclife.org


Review of Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy (2009)

A response to James Warren’s review in Polis, 26, 1, 2009

William Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life: the Ancient Art of Stoic Joy (2009) is a best-selling popular introduction to Stoic philosophy.  It’s a good book and one I frequently recommend to people who are new to the subject and interested in learning about Stoicism, but who lack a background in academic philosophy.  It’s written in a very readable and accessible style and has many good ideas and interesting personal observations.  However, since I first read the book, I’ve had a few reservations about the way it portrays Stoicism.  Recently, I was sent a copy of James Warren’s review of A Guide to the Good Life, which shares broadly similar concerns, and also a few points that I’m probably well-positioned to comment on as a cognitive-behavioural therapist – CBT is a modern form of “psychotherapy” that originated in ideas derived from Stoic philosophy.  (Thanks to John Sellars for pointing me in the direction of the article.)  While I basically agree with Warren’s review, I feel that there is scope for a more philosophically-consistent and yet “popular” account of modern Stoicism, one which addresses most of these concerns.

Irvine explicitly acknowledges that his version of “Stoicism” departs significantly from any existing form of Stoicism.  For example, he writes:

The resulting version of Stoicism, although derived from the ancient Stoics, is therefore unlike the Stoicism advocated by any particular Stoic. It is also likely that the version of Stoicism I have developed is in various respects unlike the Stoicism one would have been taught to practice in an ancient Stoic school. (Irvine, 2009, p. 244)

The initial draft of this article caused some controversy so let me pause here to emphasise Irvine’s own words above.  At the very least, it’s perfectly reasonable to respond to his claim that his version of “Stoicism” is unlike any previous version by asking “Are you sure it makes sense to call it by the same name then?”  Ancient philosophers, particularly Socrates and the Stoics, placed great importance on the role of accurate definition in philosophical debate because this is the foundation on which our reasoning is necessarily based.

So Irvine describes this as his own version of “Stoicism”, and different from any preceding version.  Crucially, it involves replacing the supreme Stoic goal of “living in accord with virtue” (aka “living in agreement with nature”) with the goal of attaining “tranquillity” or freedom from emotional suffering.  He says that he’s doing this because he believes it is “unusual, after all, for modern individuals to have an interest in becoming more virtuous, in the ancient sense of the word” (2009, p. 42).  That’s odd because the Stoic concept of virtue is essentially a form of practical wisdom and I would have said that people today place as much value on practical wisdom, or “the art of living”, as they did in the ancient world.  In fact, I think it would make just as much, if not more, sense to the majority of people as the alternative goal of “tranquillity”.

Irvine says that “although the Stoics thought they could prove that theirs was the correct philosophy of life, I don’t think such a proof is possible” (p. 28).  This position perhaps has less in common with the ancient Stoics than with Academic Skeptics like Cicero, who appropriated some of the concepts and techniques of Stoicism, while rejecting its philosophical arguments.  What Irvine therefore describes is Stoicism as a therapy of the passions, but without any of its philosophical foundations– a kind of Stoicism-lite.  In particular, Irvine rejects the Stoic ethical argument that virtue is the goal of life and the highest good.  However, this is arguably not a trivial aspect of Stoicism but its core doctrine, which distinguished Stoics from philosophers of opposing schools.  As Warren concludes, what Irvine’s left with is “something which an Epicurean, for example, no less than a Stoic, might endorse without much concern.”  I’d go further and say that ancient Stoics would have found acceptance of this definition of their philosophy deeply problematic, and that, paradoxically, Irvine’s version of “Stoicism” may be more like Epicureanism in some respects.  The supreme goal of life is the most important concept in any school of ancient philosophy, particularly Stoicism.  For example, Cicero’s De Finibus, one of our major sources for ancient Stoic views, systematically distinguishes the different schools of philosophy from one another primarily in terms of their different definitions of the goal of  life.  The most important thing in life is pursued “at all costs”, by definition, so it makes a very big practical difference whether we pursue tranquillity or practical wisdom (virtue) “at all costs”, as the supreme goal in life.

In response to a previous draft of this article, I was asked to include more information on my own background…  I’ve written three books which touch on Stoicism to some degree, particularly in relation to cognitive-behavioural therapy.   Like Irvine, I’m interested in modern approaches to Stoicism, for the purposes of self-help and personal improvement, but I’m a registered psychotherapist by profession whereas he is a professor of philosophy, at Wright State University in the USA, so we’re, perhaps inevitably, approaching the subject from slightly different perspectives.  Nevertheless, most of the doubts I have about Irvine’s book relate to its philosophical basis, its fundamental interpretation of Stoicism, which is also the focus of the criticisms in Warren’s review.  As this is just a brief blog post, I won’t have space to go into the philosophy very thoroughly.  (I’ve already enlarged it considerably to clarify certain points and add quotations, in response to online comments and emails.)  For simplicity, I’ve broken down the key points into several headings below…

The Goal of Stoicism

Irvine clearly states that his book replaces the traditional goal of life in Stoicism, “living in accord with virtue”, with the goal of attaining emotional tranquillity. He claims that this is the central focus of the Roman Imperial Stoics. I would dispute this interpretation of the late Roman Stoics and I see it as a fundamental departure from Stoic philosophy in general. As Warren writes: “this interest in tranquillity rather than virtue is the first sign of what I take to be the major fault of the book.”  As Warren notes, at times Irvine’s account of Stoicism is so far removed from what’s traditionally understood by that term that it bears more resemblance to those opposing schools of ancient philosophy such as Epicureanism (or possibly Skepticism) which did define the highest good as tranquillity (ataraxia), or freedom from pain and suffering.  Ancient critics observed that the Epicurean goal of tranquillity is obviously more passive, whereas the Stoic goal of virtue is more active.  We achieve virtue only by acting in accord with reason but we can achieve tranquillity, the absence of distress, by simple avoidance or not doing certain things.  Hence, Epicurus advised his followers to confine their concerns to a close-knit circle of friends, to live fairly reclusive lives, and to avoid marrying and having children, in order to achieve tranquillity.  In sharp contrast, the Stoics advise us actively to engage with life, through our relationships, and to extend our concern to all of mankind, philanthropically.

The supreme virtue in Stoic Ethics is practical or moral wisdom and traditional Stoic “philosophy” is literally the love of wisdom therefore, not the love of tranquillity. All Stoicism is unquestionably concerned with tranquillity but I don’t think any ancient Stoics made this the supreme goal of their philosophy. Practical wisdom is the highest virtue, according to the Stoics, and indeed the basis of all other virtues, which are all one, being special forms of (moral) knowledge about what is good, bad or indifferent, across various aspects of life, e.g., wisdom takes the form of justice in the social sphere, and the form of courage and self-discipline when one’s irrational “passions” arise as an obstacle to appropriate action. The Stoics are clear that feelings of tranquillity are necessarily attributes of the ideal Sage, because otherwise he would struggle to maintain a life in accord with reason and wisdom.  However, these feelings are the consequence of virtue in the form of self-mastery, or courage and self-discipline.  Virtue leads to tranquillity, but tranquillity alone does not necessarily lead to virtue.  Julia Annas sums up the Stoic attitude toward virtue and tranquillity in her scholarly analysis of Hellenistic philosophies, The Morality of Happiness,

If we are tempted to seek virtue because it will make us tranquil and secure, we are missing the point about virtue that is most important [according to the Stoics]; it is virtue itself that matters, not its results. (Annas, p. 410)

The Stoics clearly considered tranquillity to be important but, for several reasons, it is not as important as virtue. For example, the highest good is synonymous with what is praiseworthy according to the Stoics but we do not normally praise people merely for being tranquil unless they are also virtuous – a serial killer may experience tranquillity while chopping his victims’ bodies up. The Stoics argue that the highest good must be both “instrumentally” good and good-in-itself and that only virtue meets these criteria. Tranquillity may be good-in-itself but it is not (inherently) instrumentally good, it’s something of a dead end as the chief goal in life, compared to practical wisdom and virtuous action. Its precise status in Stoic philosophy isn’t entirely clear, and Stoics may have disagreed over it. However, it seems to me that the early Stoics typically believed that feelings of tranquillity (and joy) naturally supervene upon perfect virtue and are only “good” insofar as they are the product of wisdom and honour. One problem with making tranquillity the supreme goal of life is that it potentially justifies actions that are unwise and unhealthy. For example, if we could achieve lasting tranquillity by having a lobotomy and taking tranquillisers every day would someone not be justified in doing so if their supreme goal is tranquillity at all costs? However, if tranquillity is only valued insofar as it is consistent with our long-term mental health or ability to act wisely and honourably, that implies that virtue is after all being regarded as the chief good in life.

In modern psychotherapy, it’s widely-recognised now that the desire primarily to avoid unpleasant or painful feelings tends to backfire.  A simple illustration of this: People who express strong agreement with the statement “Anxiety is bad” tend to be more vulnerable to developing subsequent psychiatric disorders.  The desire primarily to avoid unpleasant feelings, or to attain emotional tranquillity, is-often called “experiential avoidance”.  There’s a consensus now, based on research, that excessive experiential avoidance is highly toxic in terms of long-term mental health.  For a number of reasons, people whose lives revolve around the goal of emotional tranquillity, or avoidance of unpleasant feelings, tend to achieve the opposite in many cases.  The Stoics, throughout their history, consistently objected to the misinterpretation of their philosophy as endorsing the “absence of feelings”.  Rather, they describe the ideal Sage as someone who engages emotionally with life rather than retreating from it, as the Epicureans sometimes did.  He feels physical and emotional pain but overcomes it, and acts virtuously, with wisdom and justice.

Stoic Determinism

Warren notes that Irvine rejects Stoic determinism and remarks that although this is probably not palatable to many modern readers, it is nevertheless an important Stoic commitment.  He writes: “In its absence, it is unclear to me in what sense it is right to call what is left Stoicism at all.”  That perhaps overstates the objection.  Determinism is an important part of Stoic philosophy but it’s not clear that it’s completely indispensible.  It seems to me that ancient authors, such as Cicero, regard the ethical theory that virtue is the only true good as the core of Stoic philosophy, and the feature which distinguished it from rival schools of thought.  Someone who completely adheres to the Stoic ethical theory might reasonably be called a Stoic, even if they struggle to accept their determinism, or other aspects of Stoic “physics” such as their pagan theology.  Neither can I see any reason to argue that belief in determinism is a necessary presupposition if one is to justify belief in the Stoic ethics of virtue.

However, from my perspective as a psychotherapist, I would also respond to Warren’s review by saying that belief in determinism is probably not as objectionable to ordinary people in the modern world as he assumes.  In The Philosophy of CBT (2010), I wrote at length about an early 20th century psychotherapist called Paul Dubois.  Dubois is largely forgotten now but he was an important precursor of modern cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT).  He was also heavily-influenced by the Stoics, not only referring to them frequently in his own writings but also assigning reading Seneca’s letters, for example,  to his patients as therapeutic homework assignments.  In particular, though, Dubois was thoroughly committed to Stoic determinism and felt it was important to educate patients in this view of life because of its potential therapeutic value.  Subsequently, some of the founders of behaviour therapy in the 1950s, Wolpe and Lazarus, also taught their patients a deterministic outlook on life for its therapeutic value.  I would agree with this.  I’ve found that my own clients are able to benefit from a deterministic perspective, in a similar manner.  For example, it helps to moderate feelings of guilt or anger if we can view our own actions and those of other people as the inevitable consequence of our hereditary characteristics and learning experiences during life.

Stoic Theology

For modern readers of Stoicism, who wish to become followers of the philosophy, Stoic theology is probably the most problematic aspect of their philosophical system.  The Stoics were pantheists who believed that the cosmos is a single living organism, an immortal animal called Zeus, who possesses perfect reason and wisdom.  Zeus is the father of mankind and creator of the physical universe.  He  is provident, having created the universe according to a prudent divine plan; he cares for the wellbeing of his creation and children.  It’s true that the ancient Stoics seem very committed to this view, particularly Epictetus.

However, although it is a controversial area, there are some indications that the ancient Stoics considered their ethics, the core of their philosophy, to stand independently of their theological beliefs.  Marcus Aurelius expresses this many times to himself by referring to the dichotomous slogan: “God or atoms”.  Whether the universe is created by a provident God or by the random collision of atoms, either way virtue is still the only true good and Stoicism as a way of life still remains viable.  There are several other indications in the ancient literature that suggest the Stoics may have been able to entertain a more agnostic or even atheistic worldview as consistent with the core of their philosophy, which I’ve surveyed in my article on God or Atoms.  Their predecessors, the Cynics, were considered examplars of virtue by the Stoics, although they did not share their theological beliefs or interest in philosophical “physics”.  It’s true that belief in a provident God makes it easier for Stoics to judge the universe as whole as good, and to accept their fate with equanimity and even joy or affection.  However, even agnostic or atheistic Stoics can view individual external events with the detachment (“indifference”) required by Stoic Ethics.  It also seems plausible to me that a modern atheist might judge the universe conceived in its totality as good, with an attitude of gratitude or even “piety” toward life as a whole, without having to adopt any theological assumptions at all –  certainly without becoming a worshipper of Zeus!

“Negative Visualisation” & Hedonic Adaptation

The Stoics recommend an important psychological technique that involves repeatedly imagining future catastrophes as if they are happening now and viewing them with detached indifference.  Seneca, who refers to this particularly often, calls is praemeditatio malorum, or the premeditation of adversity.  Warren says he has “no sense of the potential efficacy of this manoeuvre.”  That’s something I’m in a position to comment upon.  The most robustly-established technique in the whole field of research on modern psychotherapy is “exposure” to feared event, a behaviour therapy technique for anxiety developed in the 1950s.  This is ideally done in vivo, in the real world.  However, it is also done in imagination, called “imaginal exposure”.  There are many variations of the technique and it activates several different mechanisms of change.  It is also employed differently for different forms of anxiety.  However, in essence, when someone visualises an event that provokes anxiety in a controlled manner and for a prolonged amount of time, usually 15-30 minutes, their anxiety will naturally tend to decline (“habituate”), and when this is repeated every day for several weeks, the reduction tends to become lasting and to spread (“generalise”) to related situations.

The ancient references to this technique can be read as recognising the phenomenon of habituation, e.g., when they refer to anticipation of feared events as a way to blunt their terrors.  The Stoics also make it requirement of irrational passions, such as anxiety, that the impression evoking them is “fresh”.  It’s unclear what they meant by this except that they clearly imply that when impressions (including mental images of feared events) cease to be “fresh” they should no longer evoke the same level of anxious “passion” – that can perhaps be seen as a reference to the process psychologists now call anxiety “habituation”.  However, this natural reduction in anxiety, although seemingly acknowledged by the Stoics, is clearly secondary to the emphasis they place on rehearsing Stoic principles in the face of anticipated adversity, such as the dogma that the good must be under our control and external events cannot be judged “bad”, either in the sense of being “evil” or “harmful”.  Irvine departs from traditional Stoicism, though, in portraying Stoic premeditation of adversity, which he calls “negative visualisation”, as a means of reversing “hedonic adaptation”.  To cut a long story short, this is clearly a means of enhancing sensory pleasure in the present by mentally rehearsing the privation of pleasurable experiences.  As such, it’s not the main rationale for the traditional Stoic technique and would fit much more naturally with the goals of Epicurean philosophy.

Warren objects that “negative visualisation” or rehearsing indifference to anticipated misfortunes might preserve the “status quo” in a way that conflicts with widespread ethical assumptions.  He’s concerned that Irvine’s account of accepting insults, when applied to things like sexist or racist abuse, might be the wrong course of action.  “This is surely wrong, or at best, tells only half the story”, he says.  “I can see why tranquillity might be won by caring less if one is insulted; but why not set out also to prevent or discourage insults?”  I think Warren recognises, though, that this is only a problem for Irvine and not for Stoicism proper.  Traditional Stoics are able to judge insults as fundamentally harmless while, nevertheless, preferring to have the offending person as a friend rather than enemy.  This requires a delicate balance between emotional detachment and commitment to acting appropriately to resolve interpersonal conflict, as Stoics seek to live in harmony with other people and spread friendship and virtue as widely as possible.

The “Trichotomy” of Control

Irvine seeks to replace the Stoic dichotomy between things under our control (or “up to us”) and things not, with a “trichotomy” that classifies most events in a third category, consisting of things “partially” under our control.  Again, this is not a trivial aspect of Stoicism.  It’s an integral element of the whole philosophical system.  Attempting to replace it with a threefold classification introduces many problems.  Are we not thereby committed to the view that things “partially under our control” are “partially good”?  However, this would seem to wreck the conceptual framework of Stoic Ethics.  For example, it would mean that some aspects of Happiness and fulfilment (eudaimonia) are partially in the hands of fate, which would fundamentally doom the Stoic Sage to the experience of frustrated desire and emotional suffering.  In any case, it seems to me that the Stoic dichotomy is more accurate.  To say that something is “partially” under our control is surely just to say that some parts of it are under our control and some are not.  It would be better to spell out which parts or aspects of a situation are within our control and which are not, and that inevitably brings us back to the traditional Stoic dichotomy.

Irvine then reintroduces the simple dichotomy found in Stoicism, perhaps unintentionally, in the form of his distinction between internal and external goals in life.  Strangely, he says he can find no evidence of this doctrine in ancient Stoicism, although I think most modern readers of Stoicism would recognise it immediately as one of the central doctrines of the whole philosophy, famously illustrated by Cicero in the metaphor of the archer whose internal goal (telos) is to shoot straight, to the best of his ability, while his external goal or “target” (skopos) is to actually hit the bullseye.  The former is under his direct control, whereas the latter is not.  In life in general, only our voluntary intentions to act and judgements are under our direct control, and the consequences or outcome of our actions are not.  This is really the essence of all Stoic Ethics, which is the core of their philosophy.


How Spartan were the Stoics?

Leonidas Spartan Painting

[This is still a draft.  I’m aware of a few more references, I’ve yet to incorporate but please let me know of any other relevant information.]

Socrates: “If they [the Athenians] rediscovered their ancestors’ way of life and followed it no worse than they did, they would prove to be just as good men as they were.  Alternatively, if they took as their model the present leaders of the Greek world [the Spartans] and followed the same way of life, then with similar application to the same activities they would become no worse than their models, and with closer application they would actually surpass them.” (Xenophon, Memorabilia of Socrates, 3.5)

Several modern scholars have argued that the Stoics were influenced by Spartan society.  However, the evidence in this area is sparse and interpretation sometimes requires a degree of speculation.  The sources upon which we must draw are also not 100% reliable.  Nevertheless, there are a handful of quite striking references to the influence of Sparta on Stoic thought, which are worth considering…

The Spartans were famous for the fearsome training regime (agôgê) that they put all of their citizens through.  From age seven until about thirty, Spartans were rigorously trained to become ideal citizens and soldiers. The boys slept in a mess hall, on crude straw mats, and were given only a single garment, a cloak, to wear. They were taught to tolerate hunger and to endure pain and physical discomfort, including being ritually beaten.  They also undertook rigorous physical exercise and learned the ancient martial arts.  This notoriously severe “education”, or training in the virtues of self-discipline and courage, was emulated in certain respects by the Cynic philosophers, and subsequently by the Stoics, as we’ll see below.  You may have seen the highly-stylised (fantasy) portrayal of the agôgê in the opening scenes of the Hollywood film 300, about the famous Spartan battle of Thermopylae.  When the Stoics met to debate philosophy at the Stoa Poikile, as it happens, they did so in view of a painting of the Battle of Oenoe, between Athenian and Spartan warriors, which decorated the porch.

The Stoics’ typically concise way of talking may have been inspired, in part, by the Spartans.  The region surrounding the ancient city of Sparta was also known as Lacedaemon, or Laconia, from which comes the adjective “laconic”, still used today to mean an artfully terse manner of speech.  Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, was particularly renowned for his abrupt style of speech, and notoriously compressed syllogistic arguments.

The Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero thought that the Stoics looked and sounded like Spartans.  During a legal speech, Cicero explicitly attributed his friend and courtroom opponent Cato’s Stoic practices to “the Spartans, the originators of that way of living and that sort of language” (Pro Murena, 74).  Cicero appears to take it for granted that his audience, including Cato, the “complete Stoic”, will accept as uncontroversial his claim that Stoicism originated in the Spartan way of life and style of speech.  It’s notable, that the early Stoics appear to have written fairly extensively about Spartan society.  By comparison, there’s no record of any books about Aristotle, although his philosophy was well-established in Athens by the time the Stoa was founded.  So the founders of Stoicism appear to have been much more interested in discussing Sparta than in discussing Aristotle’s philosophy.

The Spartan Constitution

Socrates was notorious for his sympathy toward Sparta.  For example, Plato’s Crito, which depicts the scene in the Athenian prison as Socrates awaits execution, mentions his great admiration for the laws of Sparta and Crete, which he was “always saying are well-governed”.  In The Republic Plato likewise portrays Socrates claiming that the constitutions of Crete and Sparta represent the best forms of government, superior to that of Athens.  The Stoics appear to have inherited what Aristophanes parodied as the Socratic “mania” for Spartan society.  One of his most influential students, Xenophon, fled from Athens to Sparta and spent the rest of his life there.  He wrote a treatise On the Lacedaemonian Constitution.

Zeno was a Phoenician from the town of Citium who arrived in Athens and, after training in several other forms of philosophy, eventually founded the Stoic school there. The neighbouring city-state of Sparta was at that time an enemy of the Athenian state. However, the Stoics appear to have admired the Spartans and Zeno’s account of the ideal Stoic Republic is thought by modern scholars to have been modelled primarily on ancient Sparta (Schofield, 1999).   After being shipwrecked near Athens, Zeno read about Socrates in Xenophon’s Memorabilia and was converted to the life of a philosopher.  He became a follower of the famous Cynic Crates, although he later studied also in the Platonic Academy under the scholarch Polemo.  Zeno lived as a Cynic and embraced voluntary hardship and poverty, something which he seemingly continued after founding the Stoa some twenty years from the time when his own training in philosophy had commenced.  Later, the Roman Stoic Epictetus would sum this aspect of Stoicism up neatly in his famous slogan: “Endure and renounce.”

Plato, Xenophon, and the Cynics also appear to have admired many aspects of Spartan society.  Indeed, Diogenes the Cynic was known so much for praising the Spartan way of life that it’s said an Athenian once asked him sarcastically why he didn’t go and live among them instead, to which he replied that a doctor doesn’t carry out his role among the healthy (Stobaeus, 3.13).  We’re likewise told that when asked where in Greece he had found good men, Diogenes answered “Men nowhere at all, but boys in Sparta”, which may be an allusion to the Spartan education system (agôgê) discussed below (Diogenes Laertius, 6.27).  Again, when returning from a trip to Sparta, someone asked him where he was going, and Diogenes answered: “From the men’s quarters to the women’s.” (Diogenes Laertius, 6.59).  There are also several anecdotes about notable verbal exchanges between Diogenes and unnamed Spartans.

These important precursors may have influenced the Stoic interest in Sparta.  According to the scholar P.A. Brunt, in his Studies in Stoicism (2013), “Old Sparta apparently evoked Stoic admiration, because of the strict and simple life prescribed by Lycurgus” (p. 287).  He writes:

Chrysippus referred to men “who had reached a certain stage of progress and had come to this stage in certain disciplines (agôgai) and habits”.  Agôgê  was the subject of a work by Cleanthes (SVF I 481).  The use of the term naturally brings to mind the Spartan agôgê, which Sphaerus in one at least of two books on Sparta, and which he helped to revive under Cleomenes III.  Persaeus too wrote about Sparta, discoursing on their common meals.  It seems probable that both of them shared, very probably with similar reservations, in Plato’s approval of the Spartan system of training the young for virtue. (p. 25, references omitted)

In his book, The Stoic Idea of the City (1999) Malcolm Schofield argues in a similar manner that Zeno’s Republic appears to have been heavily influenced by Cynic ideas about the simplicity and harmony of the ideal human community, and that Stoics may have looked to idealised accounts of Spartan society as an inspiration in this regard.  Schofield concludes that Zeno’s Republic was a somewhat more Spartan-influenced response to Plato’s famous dialogue of the same name.  In the ideal Stoic Republic, men and women wore similar clothing, and there would be no need for money, temples, or law courts.  However, there’s also some evidence that Zeno, following the Cynics, envisaged the ideal society as having no need for weapons, which seems remarkably un-Spartan.

The Stoics appear to have believed that the ideal Republic was based on mutual love between wise friends, living in complete harmony with one another.  However, perhaps more controversially, Schofield suggests that the early Stoics looked favourably on Spartan pederasty, something which may have contributed to the suppression of Zeno’s Republic and other writings by later generations of Stoics.

Zeno, like the Spartans, makes love a distinctive element in his political system.  But it is a radically sublimated form of love (as in Plato); it is homosexual, but probably it can equally be heterosexual; and it has no connection with war. (Schofield, 1999, p. 56)

Although this perhaps involved some kind of intimate relationship between older and younger males, as in Sparta, it’s not clear whether it involved sex or not.  The Spartans appear to have believed that intimate relationships between young men encouraged them to become greater warriors, although several ancient sources concur that this relationship was non-sexual and Zeno’s “dream” of the ideal Stoic Republic may likewise have entailed a form of “Platonic” love between older and younger males, perhaps like the relationship between Socrates and Alcibiades.

The Stoics, like many Hellenistic philosophers, particularly admired Lycurgus (820 – 730 BC) the semi-mythical founder of the Spartan constitution and the agôgê.  The Academic philosopher Plutarch wrote a biographical account of Lycurgus in which he mentions the high regard Antisthenes had for the Spartans.  He also claimed Lycurgus had seen very clearly that the welfare of any individual depends upon the concord and virtue in his city, which inspired him to develop the Spartan laws and constitution (Lycurgus, 31).  Plutarch adds that this was the basis of various philosophical accounts of the ideal state, such as Plato’s Republic.  However, he also says that Lycurgus’ Spartan constitution was the inspiration for the ideal republics described by Diogenes the Cynic and in Zeno’s Republic, the founding text of Stoicism.  Persaeus and Sphaerus, two of Zeno’s most important students, both wrote books called On the Spartan Constitution.  Sphaerus also wrote three volumes entitled On Lycurgus and Socrates.  Moreover, Sphaerus was the tutor of King Cleomenes III of Sparta, in his youth.  He apparently assisted Cleomenes’ attempts to restore the agôgê after it had perhaps fallen into some sort of decline (Brunt, p. 91).

It is said too, that Cleomenes was instructed in philosophy, at a very early period of life, by Sphaerus of Borysthenes, who came to Lacedaemon, and taught the youth with great diligence and success. Sphaerus was one of the principal disciples of Zenon of Citium; and it seems that he admired that strength of genius he found in Cleomenes, and added fresh incentives to his love of glory. We are informed that, when Leonidas of old was asked, “What he thought of the poetry of Tyrtaeus?” he said, ” I think it well calculated to excite the courage of our youth; for the enthusiasm with which it inspires them makes them fear no danger in battle.” So the Stoic philosophy may put persons of great and fiery spirits upon enterprises that are too desperate; but, in those of a grave and mild disposition, it will produce all the good effects for which it was designed. (Plutarch: Life of Cleomenes)

The Spartan agôgê

Curiously, Plutarch describes how Alcibiades, one of Socrates’ most famous although wayward students, readily adopted the Spartan lifestyle after fleeing there from Athens.  He says that in Sparta, Alcibiades “was all for bodily training, simplicity of life, and severity of countenance”.

At Sparta, he was held in high repute publicly, and privately was no less admired. The multitude was brought under his influence, and was actually bewitched, by his assumption of the Spartan mode of life. When they saw him with his hair untrimmed, taking cold baths, on terms of intimacy with their coarse bread, and supping on black porridge, they could scarcely trust their eyes, and doubted whether such a man as he now was had ever had a cook in his own house, had even so much as looked upon a perfumer, or endured the touch of Milesian wool. (Life of Alcibiades)

It’s not clear exactly why this is so but there are obvious similarities between the Spartan agôgê and the Cynic way of life, which influenced Zeno and subsequent Stoics.  As Hadot writes:

In his life of the Spartan legislator Lycurgus, Plutarch describes the way in which Spartan children were brought up: once they reached the age of twelve, they lived without any tunic, received only one cloak for the whole year, and slept on mattresses which they themselves had made out of reeds.  The model of this style of life was strongly idealised by the philosophers, especially the Cynics and Stoics. (Hadot, 1988, p. 7).

Hadot says that this idealisation was something of a “mirage” because Sparta was such a warlike, totalitarian state, where all citizens were trained to serve the state, whereas the Cynics and Stoics considered personal morality the goal of life.

From Spartan education, they retained only its training for perseverance, its return to a natural life, and its contempt for social conventions. (Hadot, 1988, p. 8)

According to Diogenes Laertius, Cleanthes, the second head of the Stoa, wrote a book entitled Περὶ ἀγωγῆς, or On Agôgê, as Brunt mentioned.  Unfortunately, it’s lost but we might conjecture that it contained an early Stoic appraisal of the Spartan education system, which may have influenced later Stoics.

“The Spartan staff and cloak”

Following Socrates, philosophers of the Cynic and Stoic schools, which some ancient authors place in the same “succession” or lineage, dressed in a similar manner, wearing the famous rough, grey, “philosopher’s cloak”, a shawl wrapped around the body, which Hadot believed was Spartan in origin.

One might add that the philosophers’ cloak (Greek tribôn, Latin pallium) worn by the young Marcus Aurelius was none other than the Spartan cloak, made of coarse cloth, that had been adopted by Socrates, Antisthenes, Diogenes, and the philosophers of the Cynic and Stoic tradition. (Hadot, 1988, p. 8).

Because this was traditionally the sole garment of a philosopher, with no shirt worn underneath, their shoulders would typically be exposed.

Hadot doesn’t mention this but according to Plutarch the symbols of a Spartan officer were twofold, the “Spartan staff and cloak”, and philosophers who wore the tribôn were also known for carrying a staff, called a bakteria.  This is the same word, meaning a staff or wand of office, was consistently used by ancient authors to describe the Spartan staff used by officers to discipline their subordinates and beat helot slaves.  In his comedy The Birds, Aristophanes, a contemporary of Socrates, portrays some of the Athenian youth as having a mania for Sparta (Laconia), emulating the Spartan way of life, like Socrates.

[…] Laconian-mad; they went long-haired, half-starved, unwashed, Socratified with scytales in their hands. (Birds, 1282)

He describes them carrying the sort of wooden baton (skutale; scytale) used by Spartans to transport messages, which were wrapped around them, during military campaigns.  However, this word was sometimes used to refer more broadly to a wooden club or staff in general.  Aristophanes may mean this literally or he may be parodying their use of the Spartan bakteria, which was later associated with philosophers in the Socratic and Cynic tradition.  Indeed, the only philosophers Diogenes Laertius refers to as using one were: Socrates, Antisthenes, and the Cynics.  However, he says of Diogenes the Cynic:

He did not lean upon a staff [bakteria] until he grew infirm; but afterwards he would carry it everywhere, not indeed in the city, but when walking along the road with it and with his wallet.

He mentions that Diogenes’ bakteria was made of ash wood, and it was used for support, self-defence, and sometimes beating bystanders to make a point.  Indeed, the following story is probably apocryphal but Diogenes Laertius claims that Antisthenes used the bakteria to repel students, accepting only the most persistent ones.

On reaching Athens he fell in with Antisthenes. Being repulsed by him, because he never welcomed pupils, by sheer persistence Diogenes wore him out. Once when he stretched out his staff against him, the pupil offered his head with the words, “Strike, for you will find no wood hard enough to keep me away from you, so long as I think you’ve something to say.”

When Crates of Thebes, the Cynic, asked his student Zeno of Citium to carry a clay pot of lentil soup through the streets, and he hid it under his cloak out of embarrassment, Crates used his bakteria to smash it, spraying the contents over Zeno.

In other words, Socrates, Antisthenes, and subsequently the Cynics, appear to have borne the Spartan staff and cloak, or something closely resembling them.  This interest in Sparta may span the whole history of Stoicism, enduring for five centuries, from Zeno its founder to the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, the last famous Stoic, who even dressed in a similar manner, perhaps in emulation of the Spartans.

The Roman Stoics

The most highly-regarded Stoic teacher of the Roman imperial period, Musonius Rufus, says that a youth brought up “in a somewhat Spartan manner”, who is not accustomed to soft living, will be more able to absorb the Stoic teachings that death, pain, and poverty are not evils and their opposites are not good (Lectures, 1).  He links this to an anecdote about Cleanthes, the second head of the Stoa, and a Spartan boy, who had been trained well for virtue and therefore easily grasped Stoic philosophy at a practical level.  Elsewhere he tells his students that Spartan boys who are whipped in public without shame or feelings of injury set a good example for Stoics, insofar as philosophers must be able to scorn blows and jeering, and ultimately even death (Lectures, 10).

He called the ancient Spartans the very best of the Greeks and praised Lycurgus as one of the greatest of all law-makers, because of the austere lifestyle he instigated for Spartan youths, which he encourages his own students to emulate, particularly noting those aspects most akin to the tough Cynic lifestyle, often admired by Stoics.

Consider the greatest of the law-givers.  Lycurgus, one of the foremost among them, drove extravagance out of Sparta and introduced thriftiness.  In order to make Spartans brave, he promoted scarcity rather than excess in their lifestyle.  He rejected luxurious living as a scourge and promoted a willingness to endure pain as a blessing.  That Lycurgus was right is shown by the toughness of the young Spartan boys who were trained to endure hunger, thirst, cold, beatings, and other hardships.  Raised in a strict environment, the ancient Spartans were thought to be and in fact were the best of the Greeks, and they made their very poverty more enviable than the king of Persia’s wealth. (Musonius Rufus, Lectures, 20)

Musonius’ most famous student was Epictetus, who became an influential Stoic teacher in his own right.  Indeed, Epictetus is the only Stoic teacher whose teachings survive today in book-length, although half of the Discourses recorded by his student Arrian are lost.  We have a fragment from the anthologist Stobaeus in which either Epictetus or Musonius Rufus – the attribution is unclear – is seen also to praise the personal example set by Lycurgus:

Who among us is not amazed at the action of Lycurgus the Spartan?  When a young man who had injured Lycurgus’ eye was sent by the people to be punished in whatever way Lycurgus wanted, he did not punish him.  He instead both educated him and made him a good man, after which he led him to the theatre.  While the Spartans looked on in amazement, he said: “This person I received from you as an unruly and violent individual.  I give him back to you as a good man and proper citizen.” (Stobaeus, 3.19.13)

The last famous Stoic, the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, was largely influenced by the teachings of Epictetus in his practice of Stoicism.  At the start of the Meditations, Marcus praises his painting teacher Diognetus for teaching him,

[…] to set my heart on a pallet-bed and an animal pelt and whatever else tallied with the Greek regimen. (Meditations, 1.6)

He seems to be referring to the military-style camp bed used by some philosophers to sleep on the ground.  Strikingly, he refers to the Hellenic agôgê, by which Hadot takes him to mean the “Spartan” training.  Again, this appears to suggest that, as a Stoic, he sought to emulate certain aspects of the Spartan regime and lifestyle, presumably as a means of training himself in the virtues of courage (or endurance) and self-discipline.  Curiously, the author of the 10th century Byzantine dictionary, the Suda, quotes thirty passages from The Meditations, which he refers to as the agôgê of Marcus Aurelius.

Likewise, in the Historia Augusta, which contains a brief biography of Marcus Aurelius, we’re told that from early childhood his education was handed over to notable philosophers.

He studied philosophy intensely, even when he was still a boy.  When he was twelve years old he embraced the dress of a philosopher, and later, the endurance – studying in a Greek cloak and sleeping on the ground.  However, (with some difficulty) his mother persuaded him to sleep on a couch spread with skins.  He was also tutored by Apollonius of Chalcedon, the Stoic philosopher […]


New Stoa: Interview with Donald Robertson about Stoicism and Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT)

New Stoa: Interview with Donald Robertson about Stoicism and Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT)

This is an interview I did for the New Stoa about Stoic philosophy and modern psychological therapy, etc.


New Video on Ancient Philosophy & Health Research from University of Exeter

Stoicism Today Video

New video clip about research on ancient philosophy and healthcare from the University of Exeter, featuring Professor Christopher Gill.


Zeno meets King Antigonus (Excerpt from Teach Yourself Stoicism)

Zeno of Citium Poster

Copyright © Donald Robertson, 2013.  All rights reserved.

Excerpt from Teach Yourself Stoicism and the Art of Happiness (2013).

Following on from his example of a musician, a cithara-player, with stage fright, anxiety about impressing his audience, Epictetus refers to the contrasting example of Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism. Zeno had some intensive training in overcoming social anxiety when he first began to study philosophy, and attached himself to the great Cynic philosopher Crates of Thebes. We’re told, after his shipwreck, as he wandered Athens penniless, at first he felt overly-concerned about what others would think of him. So one day Crates asked him to carry a clay pot full of lentil soup through the busy crowds in the potters’ district in Athens. This sort of thing was actually a common Cynic exercise in developing “shamelessness”. Zeno was worried looking foolish and tried to conceal the pot under his cloak. When Crates spotted this he smashed it with his staff, splattering the soup all over Zeno’s body, so it ran down his legs. “Courage my little Phoenician”, said Crates, “it’s nothing terrible, only soup!” In modern CBT deliberate “shame-attacking” exercises, such as walking around a shopping centre with a banana on a leash, are sometimes used to help people progressively overcome their sense of shame about looking foolish in public.

Anyway, repeated exercises like these eventually seem to have cured Zeno of his self-consciousness, as Epictetus advises us to contemplate his exemplary lack of anxiety when meeting the powerful Macedonian king Antigonus II Gonatas, several decades later. Antigonus was the ruler of many lands, and a powerful military leader, who sought the company of intellectuals and philosophers, including some Cynics. He travelled to Athens several times to listen to Zeno teach at the Stoa Poikilê. According to the story, Zeno was completely unconcerned when first meeting him because Antigonus had power over absolutely nothing that Zeno saw as important in life, and Zeno desired nothing that Antigonus possessed. Antigonus was more anxious about meeting Zeno, because he desired to make a good impression on the philosopher, although that was beyond his direct control. There’s a famous legend, almost certainly a myth, that Alexander the Great once visited Diogenes the Cynic, whom he greatly admired, and asked if he could do anything for him. Notoriously, Diogenes was said to have replied: “Yes, could you step aside, you’re blocking the sunlight right now.” In both these stories, a great king, despite his material wealth and power, is suddenly reduced in status when faced with a penniless philosopher who’s completely “indifferent” to external things.

As Chrysippus reputedly said, the famous Stoic paradox would have it that “Besides being free the wise are also kings, since kingship is rule that is answerable to no one” (Laertius, Lives, 7.122). Zeno was the true “king” here, because he needed nothing except virtue, which was entirely under his own rule; whereas Antigonus was a king only over “indifferent” external things, and perhaps, like most people, still a slave with regard to his own passions. According to Plutarch, Antigonus became particularly attached to the teachings of Zeno, and he may well have considered himself an aspiring Stoic. We’re told he later wrote to Zeno pleading him to travel to Macedonia and become his personal tutor. By that time Zeno was too old and frail to make the journey himself so he sent Persaeus instead, one of his best students (Laertius, Lives, 7.6). Antigonus reputedly wrote him a letter saying: “While in fortune and fame I deem myself your superior, in reason and education I own myself inferior, as well as in the perfect Happiness [eudaimonia] which you have attained.”


The Choice of Hercules in Stoicism

Copyright © Donald Robertson, 2013.  All rights reserved.

Zeno was reputedly inspired to study philosophy after reading the second book of Xenophon’s Memorablia of Socrates. This actually begins with a chapter in which Socrates recounts a story known as “The Choice of Hercules” (or “Heracles” to the Greeks), attributed to the highly-regarded ancient sophist Prodicus (Memorabilia, 2.1). Antisthenes, the Cynics, and the Stoics apparently all agreed that Hercules, the greatest of Zeus’ sons, provided an ideal example of the self-discipline and endurance required to be a true philosopher. The story symbolises the great challenge of deciding whom we actually want to be in life, what type of life we want to live, the promise of philosophy, and the temptation of vice. Zeno himself was perhaps compared to Hercules by his followers and we know that his successor Cleanthes was dubbed “a second Hercules”, on account of his self-mastery.

The story goes that Hercules, when a young man, found himself at an isolated fork in the road, where he sat to contemplate his future. Uncertain which path to take in life he found himself confronted by two goddesses. One, a very beautiful and alluring woman, was called Kakia, although she claimed that her friends call her “Happiness” (Eudaimonia). She charged in front to ensure she spoke first, promising him that her path was “easiest and pleasantest”, and that it provided a shortcut to “Happiness”. She claimed he would avoid hardship and enjoy luxury beyond most men’s wildest dreams, produced by the labour of others. After hearing this, Hercules was approached by the second goddess, called Aretê, a plain-dressed and humble woman, though naturally beautiful. To his surprise, she told him that her path would require hard work from him and it would be “long and difficult”. In fact the path Hercules chose would be dangerous beyond belief, he would be tested by many hardships, perhaps more than any man who had lived before, and have to endure great loss and suffering along the way. “Nothing that is really good and admirable”, said Aretê, “is granted by the gods to men without some effort and application.” However, Hercules would have the opportunity to face each adversity with courage and self-discipline, and of showing wisdom and justice despite great danger. He would earn true Happiness by reflecting on his own praiseworthy and honourable deeds.

Hercules, of course, chose the path of Aretê or “Virtue” and was not seduced by Kakia or “Vice”. He faced continual persecution, from the goddess Hera and her minions, and was forced to undertake the legendary Twelve Labours, including slaying the Hydra and ultimately entering Hades, the Underworld itself, to capture Cerberus with his bare hands. He died in the most extreme agony, poisoned by clothing soaked in the Hydra’s blood. However, Zeus was so impressed by his greatness of soul that he elevated him to the status of a God in his own right. Of course, the Stoics took this all as a kind of metaphor for the good life: that it’s better to face hardships, rise above them, and thereby excel, than to embrace easy-living and idleness, and allow your soul to shrink and deteriorate as a result. It would therefore make sense if Socrates retelling of “The Choice of Hercules” was indeed the part of the Memorabilia that inspired Zeno’s conversion to the life of a philosopher. However, it may certainly have served this purpose for later generations of Stoics.


The Philosophers of the Stoic School

Copyright © Donald Robertson, 2013-2018.  All rights reserved.

Cynic-Stoic-SuccessionIn the third century AD, Diogenes Laertius described an ancient philosophical “succession” that began with Socrates and led through the major figures in the Cynic tradition down to the Stoic school, ending with Chrysippus.  The diagram on this page illustrates his account of this philosophical lineage.  Below are a list of some of the most important figures in the Stoic tradition, including the major Cynic precursors.  I’ve indented less well-known or minor figures.  Links are to pages on Wikipedia but you can also find a Wikipedia navigation menu for Stoicism.  The precise chronological order is difficult to determine in some cases and so I’ve followed a rough chronology, placing the names of historically-related figures together.

The Cynic Succession

Socrates, c. 469 BC – 399 BC, the pre-eminent Greek philosopher.  He introduced the application of dialectic to ethical questions, especially the definition of the cardinal virtues, and the philosophical way of life.  There’s some evidence that certain Stoics considered themselves to be ultimately followers of Socrates.  Likewise, Epictetus mentions him twice as often as Zeno, the founder of the Stoa.

Antisthenes, 445 – 365 BC, the friend and student of Socrates, who founded a small sect after his death, and (perhaps doubtfully) was claimed to have been the ultimate founder of the Cynic school.

Diogenes of Sinope, 412/404 – 323 BC, founder of the Cynic philosophical tradition; he probably never met Antisthenes, although he may have been inspired by his writings.

Crates of Thebes, 365 – 285 BC, Diogenes’ most famous follower, and the most important teacher of Zeno of Citium.

Zeno of Citium, c. 334 BC – c. 262 BC, began his philosophical career as a follower of Crates, and clearly adopted the Cynic lifestyle, apparently for twenty years, before founding his own school, the Stoa.

Diogenes Laertius claims that the Stoics were part of a wider Ionian philosophical tradition, stretching back to the pre-Socratic philosophers Thales and Anaximander.  They were clearly influenced by Heraclitus, who stands in this tradition, although, curiously, Diogenes Laertius does not mention him as a major precursor of Stoicism for some reason.  Zeno reputedly wrote a book entitled On Pythagoreanism and the influence of many Neopythagorean ideas can be seen in the works of Epictetus and Seneca, in the Roman Imperial period.  However, the most important precursor of Stoicism was probably Socrates.  We’re told it was the desire to emulate his example, which he read about in Xenophon’s Memorabilia, that inspired Zeno to begin studying philosophy.  Zeno then spent twenty years studying philosophy at Athens, attaching himself to three major Socratic sects:

  • The Cynics, whose philosophy was his first and most important influence, after he became a follower of Crates of Thebes.
  • The Megarian school, who specialised in logic and dialectic, but held a moral philosophy similar in some ways to the Cynics; Zeno studied under Stilpo the head of the school, probably the most popular philosophical teacher of his day, but also under members of the “Dialectician” sect associated with this school, particularly Diodorus Cronus.
  • The Academy of Plato, where Zeno studied under the scholarchs Xenocrates and later his successor Polemo; Xenocrates had been a student of Plato, the founder of the school.

Athens at this time was full of thinkers influenced by Socrates.  Zeno was steeped in this Socratic atmosphere.  He was exposed to the teachings of Socrates through these three major schools, which Diogenes Laertius places in a lineage going back to the immediate circle of students surrounding Socrates.  The Cynic succession, he claims, was founded by Antisthenes, whereas the Megarian school being founded by Euclid and the Academy by Plato, that would mean these schools derive from three associates of Socrates himself.  The suggestion may be that different schools developed different aspects of Socrates’ original teaching, which were later re-united by the Stoic school.

A fourth Socratic influence was Xenophon, another friend of Socrates.  Although his small school had ceased to exist by this time, Zeno was inspired by his writings portraying Socrates as a pre-eminent sage.  It should also be noted that the Stoics appear to show more interest in poetry and drama than the other philosophical schools.  They frequently quote Homer and Euripides in particular, and such writings clearly had some influence on them, perhaps mainly in providing examples of tragic figures who they would see as pathologically attached to wealth or reputation, although also sometimes they were a source of positive sayings and examples.  Incidentally, a well-known tradition held that some of Euripides’ plays were co-authored by Socrates so the obvious interest of the Stoics in them could perhaps be more evidence of their dedication to the Socratic tradition.

The Early Stoa (Athens)

Zeno of Citium, c. 334 BC – c. 262 BC, was the founder of the Stoa, as we’ve seen.  These are some of his most notable followers, including several who appear to have broken away from the Stoic school, to some extent.

Philonides of Thebes, named by Diogenes Laertius as a student of Zeno.  Zeno sent him along with Persaeus to be an advisor at the court of King Antigonus.

Callippus of Corinth, named by Diogenes Laertius as a student of Zeno.  Nothing more is known about him.

Posidonius of Alexandria, named by Diogenes Laertius as a student of Zeno.  Nothing more is known about him.

Athenodorus of Soli, named by Diogenes Laertius as a student of Zeno.  He was the brother of the poet Aratus of Soli.  They share their home city with Chrysippus.

Zeno of Sidon, named by Diogenes Laertius as a student of Zeno.

Aristo of Chios, c. 320 – 250 BC, the most important “heterodox” Stoic mentioned by Diogenes Laertius, was an associate of Zeno who insisted on an ethical philosophy resembling Cynicism, and rejected the importance of studying logic and physics.  Diogenes Laertius said Aristo introduced the Stoic doctrine of indifferent things.

Herillus of Carthage, fl. 260 BC, an important “heterodox” Stoic mentioned by Diogenes Laertius, apparently a student of Zeno, who became critical of him, he defined the goal of life as knowledge and everything between virtue and vice as “indifferent”.

Dionysius of Heraclea, dubbed “the Renegade”, 330 – 250 BC, another important “heterodox” Stoic mentioned by Diogenes Laertius, who abandoned Stoicism in favour of the Cyrenaic school, who viewed pleasure as the chief good in life.

Aratus, 315/310 – 340 BC, an ancient poet-philosopher who studied under Zeno, his Stoic-influenced didactic poem on natural philosophy  Phaenomena survives today and was quoted by St. Paul in Acts of the Apostles, speaking to an audience of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers in Greece.

Persaeus of Citium, 307/306 – 243 BC, a favoured student of Zeno, who was sent in his place to become court advisor to King Antigonus II Gonatas of Macedonia, and became tutor to his son, Halcyoneus.

King Antigonus II Gonatas, ruler of Macedonia, who was interested in philosophy, particularly Cynicism, reputedly attended the lectures of Zeno, and was later had his student Persaeus as a court advisor.  He appears to have greatly admired Zeno, although it’s not clear if he considered himself a Stoic.

Cleanthes of Assos, c. 330 BC – c. 230 BC, was the second scholarch.  He was not renowned as a great intellectual.  Passages from his Hymn to Zeus have survived, and these perhaps suggest an emphasis on fatalism and piety.

Sphaerus of Borysthenes, c. 285 BC – c. 210 BC, was an important student of both Zeno and Cleanthes.  At some point he lived in Sparta and acted as advisor to King Cleomenes III.  Later, after Chrysippus refused, Cleanthes sent Sphaerus to live at the court of the Egyptian king  Ptolemy IV Philopater, whom he would tutor in Stoic philosophy.

Apollophanes of Antioch, fl. 250 BC, a Stoic philosopher, who was a student and friend of Aristo of Chios, although he later wrote a book criticising his love of pleasure.

Chrysippus of Soli, c. 279 BC – c. 206 BC, was the third scholarch.  He was typically contrasted with Cleanthes because he was renowned as one of the greatest intellectuals of the ancient world.  He reputedly wrote over 700 books and was greatly preoccupied with the theoretical development of Stoicism.

Aristocreon, fl. 200 BC, was the nephew of Chrysippus and his student.

Zeno of Tarsus, fl. 200 BC, was the fourth scholarch.

Diogenes of Babylon, c. 230-150/140 BC, the fifth scholarch, visited Rome as part of an important ambassadorial delegation, in 155 BC, along with the Academic Skeptic Carneades and the Aristotelian Critolaus.  He was the teacher of Antipater.  This sparked Roman interest in philosophy, particularly Stoicism.

Apollodorus of Seleucia, fl. 150 BC, an important student of Diogenes of Babylon, who may have been influential in promoting the Cynic-Stoic succession reported by Diogenes Laertius (see above).  He said that the Cynic way of life is a short-cut to virtue.

Archedemus of Tarsus, fl. 140 BC, an important Stoic mentioned by Cicero, Seneca, and Epictetus, who reputedly left Athens to found a Stoic school in Babylon.  Epictetus mentions him in connection with Antipater as one of the main authors his students apparently read.

Crinis, c. 2nd century BC, Stoic teacher mentioned by Diogenes Laertius and Epictetus.  We don’t know when he lived, although it’s believed Epictetus implies he lived at the same time or not long after Archedemus.

Diotimus, fl. c. 100 BC, Stoic who was found guilty of forging letters alleged to be by Epicurus in an attempt to discredit him.

Boethus of Sidon, student of Diogenes of Babylon, who denied that the cosmos was an animate being, and wrote four volumes of commentary on Aratus.

Crates of Mallus, fl. 2nd century BC, Stoic natural philosopher who created the first known globe of the Earth.

Basilides, fl. 2nd century BC, about whom we know little.

Antipater of Tarsus, d. 130/129 BC, was the sixth scholarch, a pupil of Diogenes of Babylon, and teacher of Panaetius.  Frequently mentioned by Epictetus in the same breath as Archedemus, also of Tarsus.

Heraclides of Tarsus, fl. 2nd century BC, was a friend and student of Antipater, he knew Athenodorus Canaanites and both argued that moral offences are not equal but have degrees.

The Middle Stoa (Roman Republic)

During this transitional and politically-chaotic period, the scholarch Panaetius travelled to Rome to lecture and Stoicism started to become increasingly popular outside of Greece, particularly among important statesman and cultural figures in the Roman Republic.  At the same time, key Stoics began to assimilate elements of Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy, which may have contributed to the eventual disappearance of the formal institution of the Stoa and the dispersal of its remaining students and teachers.

Panaetius of Rhodes, c. 185 – c. 110/09 BC, was the seventh and  last scholarch of the Athenian Stoa, after his death the formal institution of the Stoa apparently fragmented, and eventually disappeared.  He did a great deal to spread interest in Stoicism among the Roman elite, through his lectures at Rhodes and membership of the Scipionic Circle.

Dardanus of Athens, c. 160 BC – c. 85 BC, was a pupil of Diogenes of Babylon and Antipater of Tarsus, mentioned by Cicero as one of the heads of the remaining Stoic school at Athens (95 BC), along with Mnesarchus, after the main school had apparently moved to Rhodes.  By this time the school had possibly fragmented, following the death of Panaetius.

Mnesarchus of Athens, c. 160 – c. 85 BC, was a student of Antipater of Tarsus, who was apparently one of the leaders of the residual Stoic school at Athens after the death of Panaetius.

Hecato of Rhodes, fl. 100 BC, an important Stoic philosopher and student of Panaetius.

Gaius Blossius of Cumae, fl. 2nd century BC, Italian student of Antipater of Tarsus, who counselled Tiberius Gracchus.

The Scipionic Circle, a group of intellectuals gathered around Scipio Aemilianus, including the Stoic philosopher Panaetius.

Scipio the Younger, Scipio Aemilianus Africanus, 185 – 129 BC, influential Roman statesman and general, who led the final destruction of Carthage, formed the Scipionic Circle, including the Stoic scholarch Panaetius.

Gaius Laelius Sapiens, b. c. 188 BC, called “the Wise”, Roman statesman who studied Stoic philosophy, close friend of Scipio the Younger; Cicero wrote a dialogue in his name about Stoic view on friendship.

Quintus Aelius Tubero, fl. 2nd century BC, a member of the Scipionic Circle, Stoic philosopher, and student of Panaetius.  He was Scipio’s nephew and also the brother-in-law of the Stoic Cato of Utica.

Publius Rutilius Rufus, fl. 2nd century BC, Roman statesman, orator, and historian, who became a Stoic, studying under Panaetius, and a member of the Scipionic Circle.

Quintus Mucius Scaevola Augur, Roman politician and member of the Scipionic Circle, who studied Stoicism under Panaetius.

Gaius Fannius, fl. 2nd century BC, Roman statesman who studied Stoicism under Panaetius at Rhodes, and became a member of the Scipionic Circle.

Lucius Aelius Stilo Praeconinus, c 154 BC – 74 BC, Roman equestrian who was a Stoic and teacher of Cicero and Varro.

Posidionius of Rhodes, c. 135 BCE – 51 BC, was Panaetius’ most famous student, and may have led a Stoic school relocated to Rhodes, although he may eventually have abandoned Stoicism altogether.

Jason of Nysa, 1st century BC, grandson of Posidonius and Stoic philosopher.  Succeeded Posidonius as head of the Stoic school at Rhodes.

Asclepiodotus Tacitus, 1st century BC, students of Posidonius quoted by Seneca in Natural Questions. He wrote a work entitled Quaestionum Naturalium Causae, and a short work by him on military tactics survives today.

In 87 BC, during the period when Posidonius apparently led the Stoa, the Roman dictator Sulla sacked Athens and most of the formal philosophical schools closed down, perhaps fleeing to preserve their precious founding texts, transporting them to the safety of other locations.

A couple of years after the death of Posidonius, from 49-45 BC the Great Roman Civil War took place, in which the tyrant Julius Caesar overthrew the Roman Republic and established himself as dictator.  Cato (a Stoic) and Cicero (an Academic) were major political opponents of Caesar.  Cato ended up leading the remnants of the Republican army in their last stand against Caesar at Utica in North Africa.  Seneca’s nephew, the Stoic poet Lucan would later describe the events of the Civil War in his epic poem Pharsalia, which (paradoxically) portrays Cato the Younger as the real (moral) victor, though defeated by Caesar, and as the supreme Stoic hero of the Roman world.

Marcus Tullius Cicero, 106 BC – 43 BC, Roman statesman and philosopher, not a Stoic but an Academic who was greatly influenced by Stoicism and one of our main sources for discussion of Stoic ideas, friend and rival of Cato; he was particularly influenced by the more eclectic Stoicism of Panaetius.

Diodotus the Stoic, died 59 BC, was a Stoic philosopher and friend of Cicero, who lived in his house and instructed Cicero in Stoic doctrines, especially logic.

Cato the Younger, 95 – 46 BC, Roman statesman, philosopher, and military leader, who gave his life at the end of the Civil War in defiance of Julius Caesar, did not write or teach but Cicero calls him the “complete Stoic”, and he was revered by subsequent generations as a Stoic hero.

Porcia Catonis, c. 70 BC – 43 BC, the daughter of Cato the Younger and wife of Brutus, may have been a Stoic like her father.  Plutarch appears to strongly imply that she was a Stoic.

Antipater of Tyre, d. c. 45 BC, Stoic philosopher and friend of Cato the Younger, who introduced him to Stoic philosophy.

Athenodorus Cordylion, of Tarsus, fl. 1st century BC, Stoic philosopher and keeper of the library at Pergamon, where he allegedly expunged passages from Zeno’s texts, seemingly those alluding to the more controversial aspects of Cynicism; he was persuaded by Cato to become his resident philosopher and relocated to Rome.

A series of civil wars followed during the post-Republic period and the Roman Empire was eventually founded when Octavian was made the first Roman emperor, and named Augustus, in 27 BC.  The Roman Imperial period therefore follows.

The Late Stoa (Roman Empire)

By the Roman Imperial period, the formal institution of the Stoa appears to have come to an end, but Stoic lecturers still exist for at least another two centuries, and Marcus Aurelius is the last famous Stoic we know about.  Three of the most important Stoics of this period can be seen as aligned to the same branch of Stoicism: Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius.  During this period, Stoicism lacked an orthodox centre of teaching and became somewhat fragmented, although there also seems to have been some desire to return to the orthodox teachings of the schools founders, through close study of the texts of Chrysippus in particular.

Athenodorus Canaanites, c. 74 BC – 7 AD, Stoic philosopher, student of Posidonius, and the first Stoicism tutor of Octavian, who became Augustus, the first Emperor and founder of the Roman Empire.

Arius Didymus of Alexandria, fl. end of 1st century BC – start of 1st century AD, Stoic tutor of Octavian (later the emperor Augustus).

Nestor of Tarsus, fl. 1st century AD, said (by Lucian) to have been a Stoic and tutor to the Emperor Tiberius.

Marcus Antistius Labeo, d. 10-11 AD, influential Stoic-influenced Roman jurist.

Thrasyllus of Mendes, or of Alexandria, fl. 1st century BC, friend and tutor to the Emperor Tiberius, who acquired an interest in Stoicism from him, according to the orations of Themistius.  He served as Court Astrologer but was a literary commentator by profession and edited the works of Plato and Democritus.  Not known to be himself a Stoic but seems to have introduced Tiberius to Stoicism.

Strabo, 64 or 63 BC – c. 24 AD, was a Greek geographer, historian, and philosopher, who was a friend and student of the Stoic teacher Athenodorus Canaanites.  By some accounts Athenodorus had considerable influence over his thought.  However, he would be best described as an eclectic thinker, influenced by Stoicism, perhaps, rather than a Stoic philosopher per se.

Horace, 65 – 8 BC, the leading Roman lyric poet during the reign of Augustus, was influenced by Epicureanism but increasingly by Stoicism in his later writings.

Quintus Sextius the Elder, fl. 50 BC, Roman philosopher who combined Stoicism, Cynicism, and Neopythagoreanism, much admired by Seneca, who studied with his follower Sotion.  Founded the first Roman school of philosophy called The School of the Sextii, which Seneca said did not like to call itself “Stoic” but in his estimation was basically Stoic.

Sotion, fl. 1st century AD, philosopher who combined Neopythagoreanism and Stoicism, a teacher in the School of the Sextii, who taught Seneca.

Marcus Manilius, fl. 1st century AD, author of the Astronomica, which survives today, generally believed to be mainly influenced by Stoicism, but also Pythagoreanism and Platonism.

Attalus, fl. 25 AD, Stoic philosopher and teacher of Seneca, whom he much admired and frequently quotes.

Seneca the Younger, c. 4 BC – AD 65, was not a Stoic teacher but probably the focus of a small informal circle of Stoic friends, and tutor to the Emperor Nero.

Lucan, 39 – 65 AD, the nephew of Seneca, a Stoic-influenced poet, and author of the Pharsalia, which portrays Cato as a Stoic sage

Persius, 34 – 62 AD, a Stoic poet, and friend of Lucan, several of whose Stoic-influenced Satires survive

Cornutus, fl. 60 AD, a Stoic philosopher and teacher, his Compendium of Greek Theology survives today.

Chaeremon of Alexandria, fl. 1st century AD, superintendent over part of the Alexandrian library.  Travelled to Rome to tutor the young Nero.  Wrote a text on Egyptian religion, interpreting it as a series of metaphors for the worship of nature.

Gaius Valerius Flaccus, died 90 AD, Roman poet who wrote a Latin Argonautica, generally considered to be influenced by Stoicism, particularly the first book.  It only survives in incomplete form today.

Rubellius Plautus, 33 – 62 AD, political rival of Nero, descended from Mark Antony.  His critics claimed he was a follower of Stoicism. In 60 AD, Nero banished Plautus and his family to his estate in Asia, and he was accompanied by the Stoic teacher Musonius Rufus.  After further rumours began to spread that Plautus was planning a rebellion against Nero, he was beheaded.  Rubellius Plautus, Barea Soranus, and Thrasea Paetus are sometimes known as the Stoic Martyrs.

Publius Clodius Thrasea, d. 66 AD, Roman senator and Stoic martyr known for his principled opposition to Emperor Nero.  He was related by marriage to Persius.  He was put on trial alongside Helvidius and Agrippinus and executed by Nero, the others were given lesser penalties.  Marcus Aurelius refers to him with admiration.

Barea Soranus, died 65 or 66 AD.  Roman senator and Stoic martyr, was a friend of Rubellius Plautus and was accused of inciting a rebellion against Nero in Asia.  Egnatius Celer, his Stoic teacher, turned informer against him after being bribed by Nero.  He was condemned to death and committed suicide.  He was distantly related to Marcus Aurelius.

Helvidius Priscus, fl. 1st century AD, Roman senator and Stoic philosopher and son-in-law of Thrasea.  He admired Brutus, the assassin of Caesar.  Executed by Emperor Vespasian.  Epictetus and Marcus held him in high regard.

Fannia, fl. 100 AD, was the wife of Helvidius Priscus and a notable Roman woman.  It’s uncertain if she was a Stoic, like her husband, but she appears to act like one.  She was part of the political opposition to Nero.

Herennius Senecio, died 93 AD, was part of the Stoic opposition to Domitian, under whose rule he was executed.  He wrote a biography celebrating the life of Helvidius Priscus.

Paconius Agrippinus, fl. 1st century AD, Roman senator and Stoic philosopher, accused alongside Thrasea and sent into exile.  He was held in very high regard by Epictetus.

Arulenus Rusticus, c. 35 – 95 AD, another Roman Senator and follower of Thrasea.  Ancestor of Junius Rusticus, the tutor of Marcus Aurelius.  Executed by Domitian for writing a public speech praising Thrasea.

Publius Egnatius Celer, fl. c. 60 AD, Stoic teacher of Barea Soranus, later accused by another Stoic, Musonius Rufus.

Musonius Rufus, c. 20/30 AD – 79/101 AD, was the pre-eminent Stoic teacher of the Roman Imperial period, the head of an important school, but not an official scholarch of the Stoa.  Fronto wrote in a letter to Marcus Aurelius: “What in our own recollection of Euphrates, Dio, Timocrates, Athenodotus? What of their master Musonius?”, suggesting that all of the above were students of Musonius Rufus.

Dio Chrysostom, c. 40 – 115 AD, eclectic philosopher who combined elements of Stoicism, Platonism and Cynicism, mainly known as a rhetorician.  However, there’s a possible reference to him in Marcus’ Meditations and Fronto appears to refer to him as a student of Musonius.  He was friends with Euphrates of Tyre.

Euphrates, c. 35 – 118 AD, Stoic philosopher and friend of Emperor Hadrian, there are several conflicting claims about his place of birth.  Pliny the Younger met him in Syria.  Marcus appears to mention him in passing (Meditations, 10.31), as does Epictetus.  Fronto appears to allude to him as a student of Musonius Rufus.

Epictetus, AD 55 – 135, was Musonius’ most influential student, and began lecturing at his own Stoic school during the same period as his teacher.

Arrian of Nicomedia, AD c. 86 – c. 160, student of Epictetus who recorded the Discourses and Handbook.  Promoted under Hadrian to consul and governor of Cappadocia.  Themistius calls him a “philosopher” and Lucian calls him a “disciple” of Epictetus.

Athenodotus, fl. 2nd century AD, Stoic philosopher and rhetorician, who studied under Musonius Rufus, is mentioned by Marcus Aurelius in passing in The Meditations, and was a friend and teacher of Fronto, mentioned in his letters.

Timocrates of Heraclea, fl. 2nd century AD, Stoic philosopher and rhetorician, mentioned by Lucian as a teacher of Demonax the Cynic, and apparently mentioned by Fronto as a student of Musonius Rufus.

Hierocles, fl. 2nd century AD, Stoic philosopher, author of Elements of Ethics

Demonax, c. 70 – 170 AD, a celebrated Cynic philosopher (rather than a Stoic per se).  However, he was both a student of Epictetus and a contemporary of Marcus Aurelius, and was highly-regarded by the Athenians, and praised by his student Lucian.

Apollonius of Chalcedon, fl. 2nd century AD, was Stoic tutor to the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, during his youth.  Also taught in Athens before being recalled to Rome to tutor Marcus.

Sextus of Chaerona, fl. 160 AD, Stoic lecturer who taught Marcus Aurelius, and was the nephew of Plutarch.

Junius Rusticus, c. 100 – 170 AD, highly-distinguished Stoic philosopher and personal tutor of Marcus Aurelius, who provided Marcus with his copy of the lectures (probably the Discourses) of Epictetus.  He was a descendant of Arulenus Rusticus, a prominent member of Thrasea’s Stoic circle.

Claudius Maximus, fl. 2nd century AD, was tutor to Marcus Aurelius. He was appointed legate under Hadrian then proconsul of Africa under Antoninus Pius. Apuleius, author of The Golden Ass, mentions his austere (Stoic) creed and extensive military service.  He probably died around 158 AD.

Cinna Catulus, fl. 2nd century AD, unknown outside of The Meditations and The Historia Augusta, where we’re told he was a Stoic tutor to Marcus Aurelius.

Marcus Aurelius, 121 – 180 AD, was Roman Emperor and a student of Stoicism, who attended lectures by Stoic teachers, but seems most influenced by his reading of Epictetus’ Discourses, although they did not meet.  Marcus was distantly related to Barea Soranus, one of the members of the Stoic Opposition martyred under Nero.

Marcus, Epictetus, and Musonius may perhaps be seen as representing one tradition in Roman Stoicism, perhaps different to that represented by Seneca, their predecessor, whom none of them mention in the surviving literature.  The lectures of Musonius and Epictetus were transcribed in Greek, the language used by Marcus in composing The Meditations.  Seneca, however, like Cicero, his predecessor, wrote only in Latin.

We don’t hear much about the Stoics after the death of Marcus Aurelius.  Hence, Stoicism was gradually superseded by Neoplatonism, whose main pioneer was Plotinus, 205 – 270 AD, which was, in turn, ultimately eclipsed by Christianity.  Several early Christian and Gnostic authors appear to be influenced to varying degrees by Stoicism.

Tertullian, c. 155 – 240 AD, was a church father, born in Carthage, who explicitly drew on certain aspects of Stoic metaphysics, although he was also very critical of Stoicism and philosophy in general.  He may have studied Stoicism earlier in his life.  Tertullian also claimed that the Gnostic Marcion was heavily indebted to Stoicism.

Excerpts Philosophy of CBT

Stoic Fatalism, Determinism, and Acceptance

This is a brief excerpt from my book, The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy, published by Routledge and available to order online from Amazon, and everywhere they sell books.

Whatever sorrow the fate of the Gods may here send us
Bear, whatever may strike you, with patience unmurmuring;
To relieve it, so far as you can, is permitted,
But reflect that not much misfortune has Fate given to the good. – The Golden Verses of Pythagoras

Paul Dubois was perhaps the first modern “rational” psychotherapist to explicitly argue that emotional problems could be made worse by certain, often unspoken, philosophical assumptions about freewill and determinism which prevail in modern society.

Patience towards unavoidable events, depending neither upon us nor upon others, is synonymous with fatalism; it is a virtue, and it is the only stand to take in face of the inevitable. […] The idea of necessity is enough for the philosopher. We are all in the same situation towards things as they are, and towards things that we cannot change. The advantage will always lie with him who, for some reason or other, knows how to resign himself tranquilly. (Dubois, 1909, pp. 240-241)

This notion is equally prominent in Stoic literature. In the Handbook, Epictetus boldly asserts that if we merely train ourselves in wishing things to happen as they do, instead of expecting them to happen as we wish, then our lives will go smoothly (Enchiridion, 8). In the Discourses, he actually defines the practice of philosophy in terms of such acceptance, when he writes, ‘Being educated [in Stoic philosophy] is precisely learning to will each thing just as it happens’ (Discourses, 1.12.15). In an extant fragment from his other teachings, he says that the man who refuses to accept his fortune is a “layman in the art of life” (Fragment 2).

The conceptual and metaphysical problem of freewill has been a central theoretical concern throughout the entire history of Western philosophy. However, Dubois, the Stoics, and others, have seen confusion over precisely this issue as a central psychotherapeutic concern. Dubois dedicates a whole chapter of his textbook on psychotherapy to the issue of determinism in which he asserts, ‘My convictions on this subject have been of such help to me in the practise of psychotherapy that I can not pass this question by in silence’ (Dubois, 1904, p. 47). However, in modern society we take certain metaphysical views regarding freewill for granted, and seldom examine whether they are well-founded, or even logically consistent.

There are some conclusions which we easily arrive at by using the most elementary logic, and which we dare not express. They seem to be in such flagrant contradiction to public opinion that we fear we should be stoned, morally speaking, and we prudently keep our light under a bushel. The problem of liberty is one of those noli me tangere [“do not touch me”] questions.

If you submit it to a single individual in a theoretical discussion, in the absence of all elementary passion, he will have no difficulty in following your syllogisms; he will himself furnish you with arguments in favour of determinism. But address yourself to the masses, or to the individual when he is under the sway of emotion caused by a revolting crime, and you will call forth clamours of indignation, – you will be put under the ban of public opinion. (Dubois, 1904, p. 47)

The philosophical debate concerning “freewill versus determinism” in modern academic philosophy is incredibly complex. Dubois only engages with it at a very superficial level. However, one aspect of the debate can perhaps be made explicit by means of a very crude syllogism of the kind Dubois had in mind.

Most people seem to assume that we generally act on the basis of freewill, which is constrained to varying degrees by obstacles in their environment. So a man is free from extrinsic restrictions or limitations, and therefore completely responsible for his actions, unless he is held at gunpoint, or brainwashed, etc. However, this popular way of looking at things seems to confuse two different concepts of “freedom”, that of freedom from the effects of preceding causal factors, and that of freedom to pursue future goals without obstruction. By contrast, the simple determinist position of Dubois can be outlined as follows,

  1. All physical activity of the brain is wholly determined by antecedent causal factors.
  2. All mental activity is wholly determined by physical activity in the brain.
  3. Therefore, all mental activity is wholly determined by antecedent causal factors.

There are many variations of this argument, exhibiting different degrees of philosophical complexity and sophistication. However, this simple “premise-conclusion” format should at least be sufficient to expose the basic controversy. As Dubois observes, if we accept the physiological basis of the mind, ‘all thought being necessarily bound to the physical or the chemical phenomena of which the brain is the seat’, we are ultimately forced to abandon the metaphysical theory of freewill (Dubois & Gallatin, 1908, p. 9).

Doing so does not logically entail apathy and inertia, as many people falsely assume. Indeed, a man may be causally determined to respond to the perception of universal determinism with a sense of renewed commitment to his ideals, and to vigorous action.

At the exact moment that a man puts forth any volition whatever his action is an effect. It could not either not be or be otherwise. Given the sensory motor state, or the state of the intellect of the subject, it is the product of his real mentality. […] But it is nowhere written that the individual is going to persist henceforward in a downward course, that he is fatally committed to evil. But the fault having been committed, it should now be the time for some educative influence to be brought to bear, to bring together in his soul all the favourable motor tendencies and intellectual incentives, to arouse pity and goodness, or found on reason the sentiment of moral duty. (Dubois, 1904, pp. 55-56)

To a large extent, the defence of freewill has been a central concern of medieval Christian ethics and traditionally depends upon making a sharp metaphysical division between the body and the mind, such that our will can be considered the unfettered activity of a soul which exists independently of the body, a “ghost in the machine”, as Gilbert Ryle famously put it (Ryle, 1949).

However, if we accept the argument for determinism at face value it has radical implications for our attitudes toward ourselves and other people. It forces us to see other people as the product of genetics and environment and therefore acting in a manner which they cannot be “blamed” for in the ordinary sense of the word, i.e., in an absolute, metaphysical sense. We are all, to a large extent, victims of circumstance, insofar as we do what we do with the brains and the upbringing that nature has given us. Dubois puts this quite eloquently,

I know of no idea more fertile in happy suggestion than that which consists in taking people as they are, and admitting at the time when one observes them that they are never otherwise than what they can be.

This idea alone leads us logically to true indulgence, to that which forgives, and, while shutting our eyes to the past, looks forward to the future. When one has succeeded in fixing this enlightening idea in one’s mind, one is no more irritated by the whims of an hysterical patient than by the meanness of a selfish person.

Without doubt one does not attain such healthy stoicism with very great ease, for it is not, we must understand, merely the toleration of the presence of evil, but a stoicism in the presence of the culprit. We react, first of all, under the influence of our sensibility; it is that which determines the first movement, it is that which makes our blood boil and calls forth a noble rage.

But one ought to calm one’s emotion and stop to reflect. This does not mean that we are to sink back into indifference, but, with a better knowledge of the mental mechanism of the will, we can get back to a state of calmness. We see the threads which pull the human puppets, and we can consider the only possible plan of useful action – that of cutting off the possibility of any renewal of wrong deeds, and of sheltering those who might suffer from them, and making the future more certain by the uplifting of the wrong-doer. (Dubois, 1904, p. 56)

In other words, contemplation of determinism, the idea that human actions are definitely caused by a complex network of multiple preceding factors, mitigates our anger toward other people, and leads us closed to a healthy sense of understanding and forgiveness. We are also more enlightened regarding our practical responses and more inclined to reform rather than punish wrongdoers. When Socrates argued in The Republic that the Sage wishes to do good even to his enemies, he meant that the Sage sought to educate and enlighten others, seeing that as their highest good. That harmonious attitude is the polar opposite of the one which seeks revenge through moralising punishment. It leads to a sense of generosity and equanimity, and resolves anger, resentment, and contempt.

The Paradox of Freewill versus Determinism

Like Dubois after them, the Stoics were determinists, who believed that all events in life, including our own actions, are predetermined to happen as they do. However, paradoxically, they were also passionately in favour of increased personal responsibility and belief in one’s freedom to act and make decisions in accord with reason. Hence, Epictetus constantly reminds his students that no matter what happens to them they still have the opportunity to make of life what they will.

Sickness is an impediment to the body, but not to the faculty of choice, unless that faculty itself wishes it to be one. Lameness is an impediment to one’s leg, but not to the faculty of choice. And say the same to yourself with regard to everything that befalls you; for you will find it to be an impediment to something else, but not to yourself. (Enchiridion, 9)

Epictetus himself was famously lame, reputedly after being brutally crippled by his master when enslaved, so these remarks must have carried an extra poignancy, given his obvious physical disability.

To many people this seems confusing and contradictory. How can the Stoics emphasise both freedom and determinism? However, as often proves the case in philosophy, it is not the answer which is confused but the question. The Stoics evidently believe that the concepts of freedom and determinism are compatible.

It is virtually certain that Epictetus’ concept of a free will, far from requiring the will’s freedom from fate (i.e., a completely open future or set of alternative possibilities or choices), presupposes people’s willingness to comply with their predestined allotment. The issue that concerns him is neither the will’s freedom from antecedent causation nor the attribution to persons of a completely open future and indeterminate power of choice. Rather, it is freedom from being constrained by (as distinct from going along with) external contingencies, and freedom from being constrained by the errors and passions consequential on believing that such contingencies must influence or inhibit one’s volition. (Long, 2002, p. 221)

Confusion is caused because of a well-known and long-standing ambiguity in the popular notion of “freewill”. Metaphysical “freedom” refers to the freedom of the soul to act independently of antecedent causal factors. However, by contrast, “freedom” in common parlance merely refers to the ability of something to perform its prescribed function without external impediment or obstruction. A wheel turns freely unless, for instance, it is buckled or stopped by a rock. People act freely unless, for instance, other people restrain them physically or mentally. ‘For he is free for whom all things happen in accordance with his choice, and whom no one can restrain’ (Discourses, 1.12.8).

The great Stoic academic, Chrysippus explained the Stoic theory of freewill and determinism by means of his famous “cylinder analogy”. In this example, it is argued that if we roll a cylinder along the ground, the initial impetus to move is given by someone pushing it, but the direction in which the cylinder moves, in a straight line, is determined by its own shape. The push is an example of what Stoics call an “external cause” coming from without, whereas the shape of the cylinder is the “internal cause” of the direction it takes, its own constitution. External causes impinge upon the human mind through the senses, and through other effects upon the body. However, the constitution, or character, of our mind determines how we will respond, acting as an “internal cause” of our response.

The mind is therefore autonomous to the extent that it can determine the direction in which it acts on the basis of its own character, however, external events impinge upon it and trigger its responses. Our actions are like the movement of the cylinder, insofar as both are due to a combination of “internal” and “external” factors. The cylinder is free to move according to its own nature so long as no further external causes obstruct it.

Whatever happens to you has been waiting to happen since the beginning of time. The twining strands of fate wove both of them together: your own existence and the things that happen to you. (Meditations, 10.5)

In this sense of the word “freedom”, which we should remind ourselves happens to be the normal sense, there is no incompatibility whatsoever with the notion of determinism because there is no reference made to the preceding causes which make the wheel turn, or the person act, in the first place. The cylinder rolls freely, its movement determined by antecedent events.

The notion of being free from preceding causes, by comparison, is a much more unusual and problematic concept. As Skinner argues at length in Beyond Freedom & Dignity, as our scientific understanding advances with regard to human behaviour, the notion that we were somehow exempt from universal determinism is very much eroded (1971, p. 21). He adds, ‘Although people object when a scientific analysis traces their behaviour to external conditions and thus deprives them of credit and the chance to be admired, they seldom object when the same analysis absolves them of blame’ (Skinner, 1971, p. 75).

But what of the inner feeling of freewill? Whatever sensations or impressions we might feel of “effort”, the idea that our actions are free is simply a sign that we are ignorant of their causes.

We do not think enough about the yoke inside, the result of ideas so thoroughly adopted that they seem like our own. That is what Spinoza meant when he said, “Men think themselves free only because they get a clear view of their actions, they do not think of the motives that determined them.” (Dubois, 1909, p. 53)

My freedom toward the future is a different matter and down to my specific circumstances in each situation, i.e., whether I am obstructed by external events or not.

When people are told that things happen because they have been determined by the preceding chain of causes they usually respond, at first, by complaining that there’s no point trying to change anything in that case. The Stoics and other ancient philosophers knew this as the “lazy argument”, and considered an obvious fallacy. The theory of determinism does not hold, as this fallacy requires, that all events are completely determined only by external causes, i.e., that people are completely passive in relation to the world. Rather, it holds that events are co-determined by the interaction of internal and external causes. My actions are part of the causal network, and therefore have an effect upon the things which happen. Nevertheless, accepting those things which are genuinely beyond my control, with philosophical resignation, is a key rational therapeutic strategy, and employed extensively by Stoics in the face of adversity.

This is a brief excerpt from my book, The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy, published by Routledge and available to order online from Amazon, and everywhere they sell books.

Philosophy of CBT Cover 2nd Edition