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Stoicism

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.

Categories
Excerpts Philosophy of CBT Stoicism

Stoic Fatalism, Determinism, and Acceptance

Stoic Fatalism, Determinism & Acceptance

The Practice of Cognitive-Behavioural TherapyExcerpt from The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT): Stoic Philosophy as Rational & Cognitive Psychotherapy (2010) by Donald J. Robertson.

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.

Categories
Stoicism

Script for a Stoic Mindfulness Exercise

Stoic Mindfulness Exercise

Script for Audio Recording of Mindfulness-Based Stoic Exercise

Zeno-Poster-British-MuseumText copyright © Donald Robertson, 2012-2013. All rights reserved.  Image incorporates Stoic jewellery depicting Zeno of Citium, from photo copyright © Trustees of the British Museum.

[This is a draft, still being edited and updated.  I’ve put it up so that others can provide feedback.  It’s a mindfulness-based CBT exercise, involving imaginal exposure, that I’ve modified so that centres on the use of Stoic dogmas, based on the classical exercise called praemeditatio malorum.  Stoicism is a complex system, however the Enchiridion of Epictetus provides simplified guidance on psychological exercises, which he specifically describes as being for use in the first instance, presumably by novices.  So the Stoic maxims employed here are based as closely as possible on my reading of the original Greek Enchiridion, although they need to be phrased slightly differently for our purposes here, of course.]

[Induction]

Make yourself comfortable, close your eyes, and allow yourself to pause for a while and become more mindful, self-aware, and centred in the present moment… Take time to settle down and get comfortable before we begin.  Notice what’s going on in your body and mind, right now, in the present moment…  Your goal in this exercise is to learn to face troubling situations patiently in your imagination, rehearsing and strengthening a Stoic or “philosophical” attitude toward apparent adversities… You’re going to do so longer and more carefully than normal to develop greater mindfulness, or awareness of the role of your own thoughts and judgements…  viewing them with calm, rational, detachment…   You’re not trying to control or eliminate any of your feelings but simply to stay with them for a while, letting go of any struggle against them. You may find by doing this exercise that anger, anxiety or other unpleasant feelings tend to reduce naturally over time, but that’s not your immediate purpose, and initially you may even find that you actually become more conscious of uncomfortable feelings. Your goal in this exercise is simply to learn how to observe your own thoughts and separate them from external events…

For now, with your eyes still closed, just be aware of what you’re currently experiencing, from moment to moment, without evaluating it, analysing it, or interpreting it any further… If your mind wanders, that’s fine, just acknowledge the fact and bring your awareness patiently back to the exercise you’re doing… You’re going to choose a scene to picture throughout this exercise… You can start by working through a mildly upsetting event and then, in later sessions, progressively working on more challenging ones… So pick a situation to imagine yourself in, if you haven’t already… Employing all of your senses, as if it’s actually happening right now, and you’re seeing things through your own eyes… Make it as realistic as possible and pay close attention to the most upsetting parts of the scene rather than trying to avoid them… Turn it into a brief sequence of events, like a video clip, and imagine going through it as realistically as possible… Beginning…  middle… and end…  Don’t try to change anything… Just observe things in a detached way and allow yourself to accept and fully experience your internal reactions so that any novelty or surprise gradually wears off and events begin to seem more and more familiar as you get used to contemplating them…

Keep imagining yourself in that situation, right now…  but throughout this exercise, also have the following advice from the ancient Stoics constantly in mind…  “People are not upset by events but by their opinions about events”, especially their value-judgements…  Keep reminding yourself, as you picture that scene before you…  There are many alternative ways to view external events and so different people feel differently about them…  Your attitude toward events is the most important thing in life rather than the events themselves…  Keep guard constantly, therefore, over your judgements and intentions, and watch them closely.  When automatic thoughts or feelings cross your mind, you always have the freedom to suspend your response…  withholding your agreement from your initial impressions, rather than allowing yourself to be carried away by them…  so pause for a moment and observe your thoughts…  Say to yourself in response to them: “You are just an impression, a mental representation, and not at all the thing you claim to represent.”  Take a step back from your initial impressions, rather than allowing yourself to be swept along by them…  Instead, silently examine whether they’re about things that are “up to you”, under your direct control, or not…  Remember that sovereign precept of Stoicism: That only things that are “up to us” are intrinsically good or bad, and that bodily and external things are “indifferent” with regard to our ultimate wellbeing… neither helping nor harming our character in themselves, but only through the use we make of them…

[Repeated Premeditation of Adversity]

You’re going to review that whole sequence of events very patiently, a few more times, from beginning to end… Start at the beginning right now… going through things slowly and with mindfulness… Remind yourself that it’s not events that upset you but your opinions about events, especially your value judgements…  So don’t try to change anything…  Instead, as you go through events, practice taking a step back from your thoughts and actively accepting your feelings as harmless and indifferent… As you continue to go through those events slowly, allow your mind to become more absorbed in the scene, using your senses, as if it’s happening right now… Notice what you see… Notice any sounds you hear… Notice what you’re saying or doing, and how you experience that… Notice any thoughts, images, or associations that go through your mind… Notice your feelings and the sensations in your body… Just allow yourself to acknowledge each experience as it arises… not trying to get rid of or change anything…  Patiently going through the whole event, using all of your senses, as if it’s happening right now… Stay with your feelings for a while, as if you’re creating a space around them, giving them the freedom to come and go naturally… Now gradually draw the scene to a close in your mind, and rate the level of discomfort you felt… From 0-100% how distressing was it to imagine? Just make a mental note of that number. [Pause]

Okay, now patiently go through the whole experience once again… from just before you noticed the earliest signs… through the peak or middle… to the end, once the scene is over… Remind yourself: it’s not events that upset you but your opinions and value-judgements about events…  Again, patiently watching your thoughts from a distance… while you radically accept your feelings… Don’t try to change anything; don’t try to stop anything from changing… Just take your time… Notice any sounds you hear… Notice what you’re saying or doing, and how you experience that… Notice any thoughts, images, or impressions that go through your mind… Notice your feelings and the sensations in your body… Just allow yourself to acknowledge each experience as it arises… Notice your automatic thoughts and feelings but don’t allow yourself to be carried away by them, pause and take a step back from them instead… Patiently going through the whole event, using all of your senses, as if it’s happening right now… [Pause] Now gradually draw the scene to a close… Make a mental note of your how distressing it was this time, from 0-100%. [Pause]

You will probably find it helpful to repeat this exercise daily, reviewing the same situation in detail in your imagination, several times, and visualising things more vividly and for longer than you normally would… You can use this time as an opportunity to practice both distancing from your thoughts and actively accepting your feelings… It will often help if you carefully observe and note down what effect the exercise has upon your problem, both immediately and over time… As your distress reduces, and you begin to feel more confident, you can also consider how you might solve problems and cope differently with similar situations in the future… However, the most important thing for a Stoic is to calmly evaluate whether the thoughts and feelings that you experience in response to apparent “adversity” refer to things that are “up to” you or not.  If they’re about external things, the Stoic practice is to remind yourself that these are neither good nor bad, but ultimately indifferent with regard to your moral character and wellbeing.  Over time, begin to ask yourself how a perfectly wise and just person, with complete self-control, would respond when faced with the same situation you’re imagining.  What would the Stoic Sage do under these circumstances?  Let that be your role-model and guide in this and similar situations…

[Emerging]

Now let go even of the scene you were imagining… and gradually begin to expand your awareness throughout your whole body… and into your current environment… Continue to be aware of your breathing and any internal experiences that you’ve been attending to but, in addition, allow your awareness to begin spreading through the rest of your body… throughout the trunk of your body… your arms… your legs… your neck and head… your hands…  your feet… your face and eyes…  Become aware of your whole body as one… Now gradually spread your awareness out further beyond your body and into the environment around you, where you are and what you’re doing right now, in the real world… Continue to notice how you’re using your body and mind as you slowly open your eyelids and look around you… As you finish the exercise and begin interacting with the external world or other people, continue to be mindful of the way you’re using your body and your mind… and aware of how you relate to environment and any tasks at hand… becoming more focused on the real world around you and the way you’re interacting with life, right now, in the present moment, as you move forward into action…

Categories
Stoicism

Marcus Aurelius on Overcoming Anger and Developing Empathy

Marcus Quote

Men have come into being for one another; so either educate them or put up with them. (Meditations, 8.59)

Here are my attempts to (partially) retranslate, from ancient Greek into more contemporary English, some key passages from The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius dealing with Stoic strategies for overcoming anger and cultivating empathy.  Marcus wrote two elaborate lists of Stoic formulas intended as remedies for interpersonal conflict, the first is in a more polished style, the second presents a slightly more technical philosophical response to the same sort of problems.

The Meditations, Book 11 §18

[When offended by other people’s actions:]

  1. Remember the close bond between yourself and the rest of mankind and that we came into the world for the sake of one another; and taking another point of view, that I have come into it [as Emperor] to be set over men, as a ram over a flock or a bull over a herd.  Start at the beginning from this premise: If not atoms, then an all-controlling Nature.  If the latter, then the lower [animals] are for the sake of the higher and the higher [i.e., human beings] for one another.
  2. Think of the characters of those who offend you at the table, in their beds, and so on. In particular, remember the effect their negative way of thinking has on them, and the misplaced confidence it gives them in their actions.
  3. If what they’re doing is right, you’ve no reason to complain; and if it’s not right, then it must have been involuntary and unintentional. Because just as “no-one ever deliberately denies the truth,” according to Socrates, so nobody ever intentionally treats another person badly. That’s why these negative people are themselves insulted if anyone accuses them of injustice, ingratitude, meanness, or any other sort of offence against their neighbours -they just don’t realise they’re doing wrong.
  4. You yourself, are no different from them, and upset people in various ways. You might avoid making some mistakes, but the thought and inclination is still there, even if cowardice or egotism or some other negative motive has held you back you from copying their mistakes.
  5. Remember, you’ve got no guarantee they’re doing the wrong thing anyway, people’s motives aren’t always what they seem. There’s usually a lot to learn before any sure-footed moral judgements can be made about other people’s actions.
  6. Tell yourself, when you feel upset and fed up, that human life is transient and only lasts a moment; it won’t be long before we’ll all have been laid to rest.
  7. Get rid of this, make a decision to quit thinking of things as insulting, and your anger immediately disappears. How do you get rid of these thoughts? By realising that you’ve not really been harmed by their actions. Moreover, unless genuine harm to your soul is all that worries you, you’ll wind up being guilty of all sorts of offences against other people yourself.
  8. Anger and frustration hurt us more than the things we’re annoyed about hurt us.
  9. Kindness is an irresistible force, so long as it’s genuine and without any fake smiles or two-facedness. Even the most stubborn bad attitude is nothing, if you just keep being nice to the person concerned. Politely comment on his behaviour when you get the chance and, just when he’s about to have another go at you, gently make him self-conscious by saying “No, my son; we’re not meant for this. I’ll not be hurt; you’re just hurting yourself.” Subtly draw his attention to this general fact; even bees and other animals that live in groups don’t act like he does. Do it without any hint of sarcasm or nit-picking, though; do it with real affection and with your heart free from resentment. Don’t talk to him harshly like a school teacher or try to impress bystanders but, even though other people may be around, talk as if you’re alone together in private.

Keep these nine pieces of advice in mind, like nine gifts from the Muses; and while there’s still life in you, begin at last to be a man. While guarding yourself against being angry with others, though, be just as careful to avoid the opposite extreme, of toadying. One’s just as bad as the other, and both cause problems. With bouts of rage, always remind yourself that losing your temper is no sign of manhood. On the contrary, there’s more strength, as well as more natural humanity, in someone capable of remaining calm and gentle. He proves he’s got strength and nerve and guts, unlike his angry, complaining friend. Anger’s just as much a sign of weakness as bubbling with tears; in both cases we’re giving in to suffering. Finally, a tenth idea, this time from the very leader of the Muses, Apollo himself. To expect bad men never to do bad things is just madness; it’s asking the impossible. And to let them abuse other people, and expect them to leave you alone, that is arrogance.

The Meditations, Book 9 § 42

When you are offended by anyone’s shameless lack of conscience, put this question at once to yourself: “Can it therefore be possible that men without conscience do not exist in the world?”  No, it is not possible.  Therefore do not ask for the impossible.  For the individual in question is just one of the conscienceless people that necessarily exist in the world.  Have the same reflection ready-to-hand for the rogue, the deceiver, or any other wrongdoer whatsoever.  For the recollection that this sort of man cannot but exist will bring kindlier feelings towards individuals of this sort.  It’s also very useful to immediately think this to yourself: “What virtue has Nature given humanity as a counter-measure to the wrong-doing in question?”  For as an antidote against the unfeeling man she has given gentleness, and against another person some other resource.

In any case, it is in your power to teach the man that has gone astray the error of his ways.  For everyone that errs misses his true mark and has gone astray.  But what harm have you suffered?  You will find that not one of the persons against whom you are exasperated has done anything capable of making your mind worse; but it is there in your mind that what is evil for you and harmful have their whole existence.

What is harmful or strange about the uneducated man acting like an uneducated man?  Look and see whether you aren’t more to blame yourself for not expecting that he would act wrongly in this way.  For your own faculty of reason too could have given you means for concluding that this would most likely be the case.  Nevertheless all this is forgotten, and you are surprised at his wrongdoing.

But above all, when you find fault with a man for untrustworthiness and ingratitude, turn your thoughts to yourself.  For the fault is evidently your own, whether you trusted that a man with such a character would be trustworthy, or if in granting a kindness you did not bestow it absolutely and so that from the very act of doing it you immediately had the reward in full.

For when you had performed a kindness, what more do you want?  Is it not enough that you have done something in accord with your nature?  Do you seek compensation for it?  As though the eye should claim a payment for seeing, or the feet for walking!  For just as these latter were made for their special work, and by carrying this out according to their individual constitution they come fully into their own, so also man, formed as he is by nature for benefiting others, when he has acted as benefactor or as collaborator in any other way for the common welfare, has done what he was constituted for, and has what is his.

Categories
Stoicism

Introduction to Stoicism: The Three Disciplines

An Introduction to Stoic Practice:
The Three Disciplines of Stoicism

[Copyright © Donald Robertson, 2013.  All rights reserved. Based on material from the forthcoming book Teach yourself Stoicism (Hodder, 2013).  See also A Simplified Approach to Modern Stoicism for a brief introduction to Stoic daily exercises.]

From its origin Stoicism placed considerable emphasis on the division of philosophical discourse into three topics called “Ethics”, “Physics” and “Logic”.  Philosophy itself was unified but theoretical discussions could be broadly distinguished in this way and the Stoics were particularly known for their threefold curriculum.  Epictetus is the only Stoic teacher whose work survives in significant amounts, we have four volumes of his Discourses, recorded from his public lectures by his student Arrian, although another four volumes have apparently been lost.  We also have a condensed version of his teachings compiled in the famous Stoic “Handbook” or Enchiridion.  Although Epictetus lived about four centuries after Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, and by his time the formal institution of the Stoic school had apparently ceased to exist, he appears to have been particularly faithful to the early teachings of the school’s main founders: Zeno and Chrysippus.

However, Epictetus also describes a threefold division between aspects of lived philosophical practice, which scholars can find no trace of in previous Stoic literature.  (Hence, another famous Roman Stoic, Seneca, won’t come into this discussion because he basically lived before Epictetus and never mentioned these three disciplines.)

  1. “The Discipline of Desire”, which has to do with acceptance of our fate
  2. “The Discipline of Action”, which has to do with philanthropy or love of mankind
  3. “The Discipline of Assent”, which has to do with mindfulness of our judgements

The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, the Stoic best-known to modern readers, was taught by philosophers who possibly studied with Epictetus, although he never met him himself.  One of Marcus’ teachers gave him a copy of notes from Epictetus’ lectures, almost certainly the Discourses recorded by Arrian.  Indeed, Marcus refers to the teachings of Epictetus repeatedly throughout The Meditations and it’s clear that he’s primarily influenced by this particular form of Stoicism.  He also makes extensive use of the Three Disciplines described in the Discourses, which provide one of the main “keys” to interpreting his own writings.

So how are we to interpret these Stoic practical disciplines?  The French scholar Pierre Hadot wrote a very thorough analysis of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations called The Inner Citadel (1998), in which he explores the Three Disciplines in detail, employing them as a framework for his exposition.  If we follow Hadot’s interpretation, it actually provides a fairly clear and simple model for understanding the teachings of Stoicism.  The way of Stoic philosophy was traditionally described as “living according to nature” or “living harmoniously” and Hadot suggests that all three disciplines are intended to help us live in harmony in different regards, and that they combine together to provide the secret to a serene and harmonious way of life, practical philosophy as the art of living wisely.

1. The Discipline of Desire (Stoic Acceptance)

According to Hadot, the discipline of “desire” (orexis) is the application to daily living of the Stoic theoretical topic of “physics”, which includes the Stoic study of natural philosophy, cosmology, and theology.  The discipline of desire, according to this view, is the virtue of living in harmony with the Nature of the universe as a whole, or in the language of Stoic theology, with Zeus or God.  This entails having a “philosophical attitude” toward a life and acceptance of our Fate as necessary and inevitable.  It’s tempting to see this discipline as particularly entailing the cardinal virtues associated with self-control over the irrational passions, which are “courage”, or endurance in the face of fear and suffering, and “self-discipline” (temperance), or the ability to renounce desire and abstain from false or unhealthy pleasures.  (Hence, Epictetus’ famous slogan: “endure and renounce”.)  Hadot calls the goal of this discipline “amor fati” or the loving acceptance of one’s fate.  This discipline is summed up in one of the most striking passages from the Enchiridion: “Seek not for events to happen as you wish but wish events to happen as they do and your life will go smoothly and serenely.”  But Stoics are not “doormats”.  The Stoic hero Cato of Utica famously marched the shattered remnants of the Republican army through the deserts of Africa to make a desperate last stand against the tyrant Julius Caesar, who sought to overthrow the Republic and declare himself dictator of Rome.  Although he lost the civil war, he became a Roman legend and the Stoics dubbed him “the invincible Cato” because his will was completely unconquered – he tore his own guts out with his bare hands rather than submit to Caesar and be exploited by the dictator for his propaganda.  Centuries later, the Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius, despite a devastating plague and countless misfortunes beyond his control, led his weakened army repeatedly into battle to defend Rome against invading barbarian hordes.  He prevailed despite the many obstacles to victory.  If he’d failed, Rome would have been destroyed.  As we’ll see, the discipline of action explains this strange paradox: how can the Stoics combine acceptance with such famous endurance and courageous action in the name of justice?  I’ve described this discipline simply as “Stoic Acceptance”, meaning amor fati.

2. The Discipline of Action (Stoic Philanthropy)

According to Hadot, the discipline of “action” (hormê, which really means the inception or initial “impulse” to action) is the application to daily living of the Stoic theoretical topic of “ethics”.  Stoic “ethics” which includes the definition of what is good, bad, and indifferent.  It also deals with the goal of life as “happiness” or fulfilment (eudaimonia).  It includes the definition of the cardinal Stoic virtues (wisdom, justice, courage, and self-discipline).  According to the central doctrine of Stoicism, virtue is the only true good and sufficient by itself for the good life and fulfilment (eudaimonia).  Likewise, Stoic ethics covers the vices, opposing virtue, and the irrational and unhealthy “passions”, classified as: fear, craving, emotional pain, and false or unhealthy pleasures.  The discipline of action, according to Hadot’s view, is the essentially virtue of living in harmony with the community of all mankind, which means benevolently wishing all of mankind to flourish and achieve “happiness” (eudaimonia) the goal of life.  However, as other people’s wellbeing is outside of our direct control, we must always wish them well in accord with the Stoic “reserve clause” (hupexairesis), which basically means adding the caveat: “Fate permitting” or “God willing.”  (This is one way in which the philosophical attitude toward life reconciles vigorous action with emotional acceptance.)  In other words, Stoics do their best to act with virtue while accepting the outcome of their actions in a somewhat detached manner, whether success or failure.  Moreover, Stoics must act according to their rational appraisal of which external outcomes are naturally to be preferred.  Hence, Marcus Aurelius appears to refer to three clauses that Stoics should be continually mindful to attach to all of their actions:

  1. That they are undertaken “with a reserve clause” (hupexairesis)
  2. That they are “for the common welfare” of mankind (koinônikai)
  3. That they “accord with value” (kat’ axian)

It’s tempting to see this discipline as particularly associated with the cardinal virtue of “justice”, which the Stoics defined as including both fairness to others and benevolence.  Hadot calls this discipline “action in the service of mankind”, because it involves extending the same natural affection or care that we are born feeling for our own body and physical wellbeing to include the physical and mental wellbeing of all mankind, through a process known as “appropriation” (oikeiosis) or widening the circle of our natural “self-love” to include all mankind.  I’ve described this as “Stoic Philanthropy”, or love of mankind, a term they employed themselves.

3. The Discipline of Assent (Stoic Mindfulness)

According to Hadot, the discipline of “assent” (sunkatathesis) is the application to daily living of the Stoic theoretical topic of “logic”.  Stoic “logic” actually includes elements of what we would now call “psychology” or “epistemology”.  The discipline of assent, according to this view, is the virtue of living in harmony with our own essential nature as rational beings, which means living in accord with reason and truthfulness in both our thoughts and speech.  It’s tempting to see this discipline as particularly associated with the cardinal Stoic virtue of “wisdom” or truthfulness.  Hadot calls the goal of this discipline the “inner citadel” because it involves continual awareness of the true self, the faculty of the mind responsible for judgement and action, where our freedom and virtue reside, the chief good in life.  According to Hadot’s analysis, although the Stoics refer to “judgement” in general (hypolêpsis), they’re primarily interested in monitoring and evaluating their own implicit value-judgements.  These form the basis of our actions, desires, and emotions, especially the irrational passions and vices which the Stoics sought to overcome.  By continually monitoring their judgements, Stoics are to notice the early-warning signs of upsetting or unhealthy impressions and take a step back from them, withholding their “assent” or agreement, rather than being “carried away” into irrational and unhealthy passions and the vices.  The Stoics call this prosochê or “attention” to the ruling faculty of the mind, to our judgements and actions.   I’ve described this as “Stoic Mindfulness”, a term that can be taken to translate prosochê.

The Goal of Life (Follow Nature)

As you can probably see, these three disciplines overlap considerably and are intertwined, just like the three traditional topics of Stoic philosophy, which Hadot claims they’re based upon: Logic, Ethics, and Physics.  However, in unison, they allow the Stoic to work toward a harmonious and consistent way of life, in accord with nature.  By this, the Stoics meant a life in the service of the natural goal of human nature, the attainment of fulfilment “eudaimonia”, the good life, achieved by perfecting moral reasoning and excelling in terms of the cardinal virtues: wisdom, justice, courage, and self-discipline.

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Stoicism

A Simplified Modern Approach to Stoicism

A Simplified Modern Approach to Stoicism

Copyright © Donald Robertson, 2013.  All rights reserved.

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NEW: If you’re looking for more guidance on daily practices, download my Stoic Therapy Toolkit (PDF).

Marcus GraffitiThis article is designed to provide a very concise introduction to Stoicism as a way of life, through a simplified set of Stoic psychological practices.  The first few passages of Epictetus’ Handbook (Enchiridion) actually provide an account of some fundamental practices that can form the basis of a simplified approach to Stoicism and this account is closely based on those.  We’d recommend you treat it as an introduction to the wider Stoic literature.  However, starting with a set of basic practices can help people studying Stoic philosophy to get to grips with things before proceeding to assimilate some of the more diverse or complex aspects found in the ancient texts.  Both Seneca and Epictetus refer to the Golden Verses of Pythagoras, which happens to provide a good framework for developing a daily routine, bookended by morning and evening contemplative practices.

Zeno of Citium, who founded Stoicism in 301 BC, expressed his doctrines in notoriously terse arguments and concise maxims.  However, Chrysippus, the third head of the Stoic school, wrote over 700 books fleshing these ideas out and adding complex arguments to support them.  Let’s focus here on the concise version but bearing in mind there’s a more complex philosophy lurking in the background.  For example, Epictetus, the only Stoic teacher whose works survive in any significant quantity, described the central precept of Stoicism to his students as follows:

And to become educated [in Stoic philosophy] means just this, to learn what things are our own, and what are not. (Discourses, 4.5.7)

The practical consequence of this distinction is essentially quite simple:

What, then, is to be done?  To make the best of what is in our power, and take the rest as it naturally happens. (Discourses, 1.1.17)

The routine below is designed to provide an introduction to Stoic practice for the 21st Century, which can lead naturally into a wider appreciation of Stoic philosophy as a way of life.  The instructions are designed to be as straightforward and concise as possible, while still remaining reasonably faithful to classical Stoicism.  The most popular book for people to read who are new to Stoicism is The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, so we recommend that you also consider reading a modern translation of that text during the first few weeks of your Stoic practice.

The Basic Philosophical Regime

Stage 1: Morning Preparation

Plan your day ahead with the Stoic “reserve clause” in mind.  Decide what goals you want to achieve in advance and make a decision to try to achieve them but with the caveat: “Fate permitting.”  In other words, aim for success and pursue it wholeheartedly while also being prepared to accept setbacks or failure with equanimity, insofar as they lie outside of your direct control.  Try to choose your goals wisely, picking things that are rational and healthy for you to pursue.  Your primary goal throughout these three stages should be to protect and improve your fundamental wellbeing, particularly in terms of your character and ability to think clearly about your life.   You’re going to try to do this by cultivating greater self-awareness and practical wisdom, which requires setting goals for yourself that are healthy, while pursuing them in a sort of “detached” way, without being particularly attached to the outcome.

Stage 2: Stoic Mindfulness (Prosochê) Throughout the Day

Throughout the day, continually pay attention to the way you make value-judgements and respond to your thoughts.  Be mindful, in particular of the way you respond to strong emotions or desires.  When you experience a distressing or problematic thought, pause, and tell yourself: “This is just a thought and not at all the thing it claims to represent.”  Remind yourself that it is not things that upset you but your judgements about things.  Where appropriate, rather than being carried away by your initial impressions, try to postpone responding to them for at least an hour, waiting until your feelings have settled down and you are able to view things more calmly and objectively before deciding what action to take.

Once you have achieved greater self-awareness of your stream of consciousness and the ability to take a step back from your thoughts in this way, begin to also apply a simple standard of evaluation to your thoughts and impressions as follows.  Having paused to view your thoughts from a distance, ask yourself whether they are about things that are directly under your control or things that are not.  This has been called the general precept or strategy of ancient Stoic practice.  If you notice that your feelings are about something that’s outside of your direct control then respond by trying to accept the fact that it’s out of your hands, saying to yourself: “This is nothing to me.”  Focus your attention instead on doing what is within your sphere of control with wisdom and to the best of your ability, regardless of the actual outcome.  In other words, remind yourself to apply the reserve clause described above to each situation.  Look for ways to remind yourself of this.  For example, the Serenity Prayer is a well-known version of this idea, which you might want to memorise or write down somewhere and contemplate each day.

Give me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

The Courage to change the things I can,

And the Wisdom to know the difference.

You may find that knowing you are going to review these events and evaluate them in more detail before you sleep (see below) actually helps you to become more mindful of how you respond to your thoughts and feelings throughout the day.

Stage 3: Night-time Review

Review your whole day, three times, if possible, before going to sleep.  Focus on the key events and the order in which they happened, e.g., the order in which you undertook different tasks or interacted with different people during the day.

  1. What did you do that was good for your fundamental wellbeing?  (What went well?)
  2. What did you do that harmed your fundamental wellbeing?  (What went badly?)
  3. What opportunities did you miss to do something good for your fundamental wellbeing?  (What was omitted?)

Counsel yourself as if you were advising a close friend or loved one.  What can you learn from the day and, where appropriate, how can you do better in the future?  Praise yourself for what went well and allow yourself to reflect on it with satisfaction.  You may also find it helps to give yourself a simple subjective rating (from 0-10) to measure how consistently you followed the instructions here or how good you were at pursuing rational and healthy goals while remaining detached from things outside of your direct control.  However, also try to be concise in your evaluation of things and to arrive at conclusions without ruminating over things for too long.

If you’re interested, you can complete The Stoic Attitudes Scale and rate how strong your belief is in different aspects of Stoic theory.

Appendix: Some Additional Stoic Practices

There’s a lot more to Stoicism, in terms of both the theory and practice.  You might want to begin with a simple approach but you should probably broaden your perspective eventually to include the other parts of Stoicism.  Reading The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius and other books can provide you with a better idea of the theoretical breadth of Stoic philosophy.  Here are three examples of other Stoic practices, followed by a link to a longer and more detailed article on this site…

  1. Contemplation of the Sage: Imagine the ideal Sage or exemplary historical figures (Socrates, Diogenes, Cato) and ask yourself: “What would he do?”, or imagine being observed by them and how they would comment on your actions.
  2. Contemplating the Whole Cosmos: Imagine the whole universe as if it were one thing and yourself as part of the whole, or the View from Above: Picture events unfolding below as if observed from Mount Olympus or a high  watchtower.
  3. Premeditation of Adversity: Mentally rehearse potential losses or misfortunes and view them as “indifferent” (decatastrophising), also view them as natural and inevitable to remove any sense of shock or surprise.

Follow this link for a much more detailed account of Stoic practices with a wider range of techniques…

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