Why not Stoicism?

Stoa of Attalosby Massimo Pigliucci

Stoicism has been in the back of my mind since I was very young, initially for the obviously parochial reason that it was the prevalent philosophy among the ancient Romans, i.e., part of my broadly construed cultural heritage. (Then again it is for the same reason that Buddhism is very popular in India, Confucianism in China, and Shinto in Japan.)

Lately, however, Stoicism has slowly moved to the forefront of my cognitive field of view, for a number of reasons. To begin with, I’ve been interested in philosophical counseling [1], to the point of having taken the American Philosophical Practice Association course [2], and having set up what is turning out to be a surprisingly successful and enjoyable practice [3]. The more I see clients, the more I gravitate toward ancient Greek philosophy, and particularly Stoicism (with a sprinkling of virtue ethics and Epicureanism) as my preferred approach to “therapy for the sane.”

Moreover, last year’s vacation with my family touring Greece — paying specific (though certainly not exclusive) attention to important historical or philosophical sites — rekindled my passion for all things Greco-Roman (the photo accompanying this essay was taken by me at the Stoa, the open market in Athens where the first Stoic, Zeno of Citium, taught, and from which the school gets its name).

Meanwhile, I had also heard of “Stoic Week” an annual event (and associated sociological study) organized by the University of Exeter. My initial reaction to it was somewhat skeptical, but I’ve now become a regular follower of their Twitter stream and blog [4].

Finally — and I don’t mean to sound morbid here — but, I need to start preparing for my own death. I just turned 50, and though I fully expect (fate permitting, as the Stoics would say) to live a few more decades, death has always been on my mind, as it should be according to the followers of Zeno of Citium. So I have been searching for an approach that would help me in that direction, while at the same time also allowing me to improve my eudaimonic quest [5] in the meantime.

Now of course I’m not as naive as to think that one can rely on a single philosophical system as guidance to life, the universe and everything. Nor do I think that one can simply import ancient Stoicism in our technological, scientifically informed world and be done with it. So what I’m trying to develop is what others interested in the subject have been after for a while: a type of neo-Stoicism that maintains as much of value of the original idea as possible, but takes on board the best that humankind has been able to achieve and discover in the intervening 23 centuries. It’s an ongoing project, but I’d like to share a few components of it in this post, and likely others that will follow now and then [6].

The general theory of Stoicism is that we can, and indeed, ought to live our lives with structure and coherence, and that life is like an ongoing project aiming at an ideal (though likely unachievable) set of targets or aspirations. What matters, for the Stoics, is the way we go about achieving our goals, not so much what those goals are. This is done through the pursuit of virtue and excellence (arete, in Greek). The Stoics thought that the virtues express the fundamental qualities of a human life, and — like most other ancient Greeks — acknowledged the existence of four (so called “cardinal”) virtues: Courage, Justice, Self-discipline, and Wisdom.

For the Stoics, human beings are naturally social beings, and a good, eudaimonic life requires the development of an expanding circle of concern that starts with the Self (both mind and body) [7], easily and naturally includes family and friends, and one should practice its expansion to fellow citizens, humankind at large, and eventually nature as a whole. The Stoics referred to this concept as “philanthropy,” or love of humanity.

By and large, Stoicism is a philosophy that emphasizes good emotions and works toward controlling negative ones. In a sense, it is a philosophy of love and concern. Curiously, the most famous fictional Stoic is Spock from Star Trek. Gene Roddenberry said that he created Spock on the Stoic model, although he also added that he “took the perfect person and divided him into three, the administrative courageous part in the Captain (Kirk), the logical part in the Science Officer (Spock) and the humanist part in the Doctor (McCoy)” [8].

A foundational Stoic precept is to make the distinction between what we can affect (our own attitudes and actions) and what we cannot (external events). Happiness then is available to the person who focuses on what s/he can control. This is achieved by way of the general practice to “follow nature,” by which the Stoics didn’t mean anything like tree hugging or the Paleo diet, but rather both developing the natural human propensity for reason, and accepting that whatever happens is in accord with the way the world works, and it is therefore irrational to oppose it or to become upset by it.

Stoic doctrine had a number of practical goals, including the overcoming of irrational fears and desires, the absence of distress (ataraxia), and the achievement of a smooth flow of life. All of it while always keeping in mind the famous Stoic reserve clause, “fate permitting.”

Stoicism, as I mentioned earlier, was a complete philosophical system, as much as it was focused mostly on practical wisdom (phronesis [9]). As such, it comprised three distinct, and yet interconnected, areas of inquiry:

Ethics, which was conceived as the study of the nature of the good and how to achieve a eudaimonic life.

Logic, which included the study of formal logic, dialectics (the art of discourse), and a theory of knowledge.

Physics, which comprised both what we today would call the natural sciences and metaphysics.

Let me say a little bit about each of these, especially in terms of bringing Stoicism up to date while attempting to remain close to the spirit of the original insight.

The Stoic conception of ethics was, of course, mainstream in ancient Greece and Rome, and significantly different from what modern philosophy means by that term. However, I think the ancients had it right (or better) in this respect. While we think of ethics as the business of figuring out what is the right (or wrong) thing to do, the ancient Greco-Romans understood it to be the quest for guidance on how we should live a meaningful existence, and for them this was absolutely coupled with being moral, cultivating the virtues, and pursuing excellence. The latter seems a bit elitist, and it partly was in the Greek world, but it can also be conceived as trying to do best what one is good at or inclined toward. You like music, philosophy, sports? Then strive to become the best musician, philosopher or athlete you can. Becoming the best mass murderer or tyrant, however, is not an option, because that would not be a virtuous and moral life.

In terms of logic — which they understood much more broadly than the modern academic discipline — the Stoics thought it was important because of their belief that the defining characteristic of humanity is reason, and that only reason (most definitely, by the way, not conceived as opposed to emotions, but only to destructive emotions) can get us on the eudaimonic track. As such, it then becomes important to study and practice logic, as well as to develop a theory of knowledge. Incidentally, the Stoics were very successful in this.

In fact, the Stoics, such as Chrysippus of Soli, seem to have endorsed a type of deflationary view of truth, and were particularly interested in the “sayables” — i.e., in whatever underlies the meaning of everything we think. A subset of sayables is constituted by the so-called assertibles, which are characterized by truth values. The assertibles in turn are the smallest expressions in a deductive system, so including them in one’s logic gives origin to a system of propositional logic in which arguments are composed of assertibles. The Stoics also developed a system of syllogisms, and they recognized that not all valid arguments are syllogisms. Their syllogistics, however, is different from Aristotle’s, and has more in common with modern day relevance logic. These two traditions in Greek logic, the so-called “Peripatetic” (i.e., largely Aristotelian) and Stoic were brought together by Galen in the 2nd Century, who made a first (and largely incomplete) attempt at synthesizing them. After Galen, Stoic logic pretty much disappeared from view by the 6th century CE, to eventually re-emerge once again during the 20th century because of renewed interest in propositional logic [10].

What about metaphysics? At first glance, Stoic metaphysics seems hopelessly out of date. While one shouldn’t pay too much attention to talk of Zeus as the father of mankind (since the Stoics pretty much thought of Zeus as equivalent not just to God in general, but more broadly to Nature itself), it is unquestionable that Stoicism is steeped in teleology, or the idea that final causes operate in nature [11].

The Stoics believed in something they called logos, or fate, or universal reason. Here is Chrysippus, quoted by Cicero in his De Rerum Natura:

“The universe itself is god and the universal outpouring of its soul; it is this same world’s guiding principle, operating in mind and reason, together with the common nature of things and the totality that embraces all existence; then the foreordained might and necessity of the future; then fire and the principle of aether; then those elements whose natural state is one of flux and transition, such as water, earth, and air; then the sun, the moon, the stars; and the universal existence in which all things are contained.”

And here is Marcus Aurelius the famous Roman emperor and author of the Meditations:

“Constantly regard the universe as one living being, having one substance and one soul; and observe how all things have reference to one perception, the perception of this one living being; and how all things act with one movement; and how all things are the cooperating causes of all things that exist; observe too the continuous spinning of the thread and the structure of the web.”

Now, try for a minute to set aside your skeptical, secular 21st-century attitude and see how this idea can be translated into modern terms without incurring in all too easy a posteriori rationalization. Indeed, notice that what I’m about to suggest is most definitely not what I think the ancient Greco-Romans thought, but rather a reasonable update of their thinking given modern science and philosophy.

So, at bottom, and very crudely, the stripped down version of Stoic metaphysics may be said to consist (I’m not a Stoic scholar, so take it with a grain of salt [12]) of the following ideas:

a) The universe is organized according to rational principles (logos);

b) The world works in a deterministic way (fate);

c) There is a fundamental unity, or interconnectedness, of all things.

A modern rendition of the above would say that the universe is understandable in logics-mathematical terms (a), that it works according to general exceptionless laws (b), and that it is described by a single wavefunction, to use quantum mechanical terms (c).

More speculatively, of course, one could even say that Stoicism is compatible with (but doesn’t depend on) stronger ontological notions, such as mathematical Platonism [13]; more radical metaphysics, such as ontic structural realism [14]; and even highly speculative philosophical ideas like the simulation hypothesis [15] — about all of which, as readers of SciSal know, I maintain various degrees of skepticism coupled with an open interest.

Regardless, Stoicism is mostly about ethics and practical wisdom, and both logic and “physics” were seen by the Stoics as necessary contributors to our understanding of eudaimonia. Let me therefore conclude with a quick list of Stoic “spiritual” exercises (for a lack of a better term), which I fully intend to practice in the near future, as an experiment on myself [16]:

1) Early morning meditation: take 5-10 minutes to rehearse the day ahead, repeat a philosophical precept (see #4 below), focus on a specific virtue. Pick a quiet spot for doing this, if possible while walking outside.

2) Contemplation of the ideal Sage: make a list of people you admire, pick a role model and ask yourself what s/he would do in specific trying circumstances.

3) The stripping method: bring to mind a situation of interest, break it down into its bare components to see clearly what it actually consists of, stripping away the unimportant details that may cloud your judgment. Ask yourself what’s the ethical core of the situation and which qualities (virtues) are required to deal with it.

4) Retreat into oneself: find a place where you are not likely to be disturbed for 5-10 minutes; chose a Stoic maxim to focus on, such as “Some things are under our control and others are not.” Become aware of your surroundings and close your eyes. Focus on your breadths and mentally repeat your maxim.

5) Concentric circles: close your eyes and imagine a circle of light surrounding yourself. Slowly expand the circle to include your family and friends, your fellow citizens, and eventually the whole of humankind.

6) The view from above: visualize the big picture, your place in the cosmos.

7) The philosophical journal: write ethically-focused diary entries to try to relate what is going on in your life to your overall ethical framework.

8) Bedtime reflection: take 5-10 minutes before going to bed to review the day and its main events. It helps to keep a written journal for this exercise (see #7 above). Ask yourself what you did badly, what rightly, and what you omitted. Think about how you could do better, and praise yourself for what you did well.

The above list sounds eminently practical, and most definitely neither mystical nor “new agey,” to me. If you are not convinced, just keep in mind that Stoicism directly inspired Albert Ellis, the founder of Rational-Emotional Behavior Therapy [17], as well as its successor, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy [18]. The latter, incidentally, is one of the few forms of psychotherapy for which there is strong empirical evidence that it actually works in modifying people’s behaviors, attitudes, and emotional responses [19].

Now if you will excuse me, I need to do my bedtime meditation.

_____

Massimo Pigliucci is a biologist and philosopher at the City University of New York. His main interests are in the philosophy of science and pseudoscience. He is the editor-in-chief of Scientia Salon, and his latest book (co-edited with Maarten Boudry) is Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem (Chicago Press).

[1] Rationally Speaking podcast #48, Philosophical counseling.

[2] American Philosophical Practitioners Association.

[3] If you know of anyone who is interested in my version of philosophical counseling, feel free to refer them to me. I offer both in-person and remote sessions.

[4] Here are the details for the 2014 edition of Stoic Week, to be held in London. This is the Stoicism Today blog from the University of Exeter, and here is their Twitter handle.

[5] Wiki entry for eudaimonia.

[6] Meanwhile, if you’d like the capsule version of both the theory and practice of Stoicism, download my Stoicism, the very basics.

[7] Although there are many similarities between Stoics and Buddhists, a major difference is that the former, very much unlike the latter, thought that there was a self that defines every human being.

[8] Stoicism & Star Trek: Think like Spock – Act like Kirk, by Jen Farren.

[9] Wiki entry on phronesis.

[10] The ancient logic entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

[11] The Wiki entry on teleology.

[12] For better scholarship on Stoicism, see the appropriate SEP entry.

[13] Platonism in the philosophy of mathematics, SEP.

[14] Ontic structural realism, according to James Ladyman and Don Ross.

[15] Nick Bostrom’s simulation argument.

[16] You will find these exercises, a guide to a typical Stoic day, and more at the Exeter site, in a small handbook entitled “Living like a Roman emperor: the Stoic life.”

[17] On REBT check out the Albert Ellis Institute.

[18] The Mayo Clinic on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.

[19] Looking for evidence that therapy works, by Harriet Brown, The New York Times, 25 March 2013.

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76 thoughts on “Why not Stoicism?

  1. For #5, don’t stop at humankind. Keep expanding that circle to all of life over evolutionary timelines. As far as we know, that’s as big as it gets, we should be grateful for it all, and we *ought* to act for its continuance.

    Good luck with the counselling! I found Love’s Executioner by existential psychotherapist Irvin Yalom and Philosophy for Life by Jules Evans to be excellent books for my thinking about that field. Much better than Plato Not Prozac! by Marinoff. Do you have any other recommendations after your course?

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  2. Thank you very much for this essay. It extends, gives intellectual heft, and puts in practice what I recently proposed in a recent blog post suggesting a reinvented rite of passage for adulthood: Being Human – Our Past, Present, And Future In Nature http://jameselassiter.blogspot.com/2014/10/a-rite-of-passage-and-school-of-life.html?m=1.

    I look forward to learning more about your philosophical counseling practice. The need for such in this increasingly secular world is palpable. It is an approach that effectively addresses personal “becoming” in a way that modern families, communities, schools, prisons, psychotherapy and Abrahamic religions do not.

    You remain preeminent among the great contemporary thinkers I learn from. Informed and supported by your insights, I have not given up trying to discourage religion bashing and strong scientism among my fellow freethinkers and friends here in Fayette County, Georgia, a venue you visited and spoke at some years back. I regrettably missed your talk.

    My efforts at promoting pluralism, tolerance, and engagement in relating to believers, and advocacy of a complexity/levels of analysis versus an exclusively materialistic/reductionistic approach to the scientific study of human behavior are on my blog and on the “Fayette Freethinkers” FB page. Please join (Like) our page.

    We freethinking secular humanists of north-central Georgia are coping well as a minority here in a deeply red state of widespread religious fundamentalism and conservatism. But do visit and inspire us again, soon.

    With admiration and gratitude.

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  3. I would immediately question the need to adopt a whole system in the first place. A great many people seem to be on the search for a ready-made philosophy, religion or ideology that they can just jump into – instead of thinking things through themselves. Of course you are thinking carefully, of course you qualify what you are doing, and I will also admit that certain ideas go together, that one cannot simply pick and choose incompatible ideas from opposing schools of thought, but really would it not be best to maintain a healthy scepticism of any package and construct one’s own philosophy?

    What goes for the school of thought likewise goes for the “ideal sage” that is mentioned later; nobody is perfect.

    A foundational Stoic precept is to make the distinction between what we can affect (our own attitudes and actions) and what we cannot (external events). Happiness then is available to the person who focuses on what s/he can control.

    The immediate problem here is that it seems somewhat fatalistic and self-centred. Of course we have some influence on external events. One can, for example, accept being poor and oppressed and try desperately to be happy nonetheless, or one can try to fight poverty and oppression. And sometimes the latter actually works, but only if one makes the attempt. Some of these ancient eudaemonia-oriented philosophies seem like good recipes for maintaining unjust societies…

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  4. As a fan of stoicism, which some would call mysticism, the ‘perennial’ philosophy or simply ‘woo’, I am excited to see such an article appear here. Good luck with your practice Massimo.

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  5. Spinoza also comes to mind as a historically important attempt to update key aspects of Stoicism.

    I can also highly recommend Pierre Hadot’s Philosophy as a Way of Life for its excellent treatments of ‘spiritual exercise’ (askesis) in Stoic and Epicurean thought, and for the legacy of that tradition in Spinoza, Goethe, Nietzsche, and Foucault.

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  6. >>A foundational Stoic precept is to make the distinction between what we can affect (our own attitudes and actions) and what we cannot (external events).

    But of course our actions *can* affect external events, so this distinction doesn’t make much sense. Now, perhaps you’ll say, “I didn’t mean that ALL external events are outside of our control. I was just referring to the events that we have no control over.” But of course, that just amounts to an empty tautology – we can’t control what we can’t control.

    >>Stoics didn’t mean anything like tree hugging or the Paleo diet, but rather both developing the natural human propensity for reason, and accepting that whatever happens is in accord with the way the world works, and it is therefore irrational to oppose it or to become upset by it.

    This sounds like a philosophy that would be very agreeable to a ruling class or anybody who benefits from oppression or injustice (as Alexander mentioned). “Hey guys, slavery and racism and sexism and extreme inequality and perpetual war are just the way the world works – it’s irrational to oppose it or become upset by it!” Again, I imagine Massimo will object that Stoicism conflicts with all those bad things (because Stoicism promotes love of humanity and all that), but as before, this maneuver seems to suck any meaningfulness out of the original claim. Now the claim seems to be reduced to, “Accept that whatever happens is in accord with the way the world works…except for the stuff that isn’t?”

    This is why the presentation of Stoicism in this article seems “new age-y” to me. It’s not because of the metaphysical commitments or the focus on positive emotions, but because of the empty platitudes.

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  7. Back when I did lots of programming, I came to see Stoicism fitting my lifestyle. So perhaps programmers are among those naturally inclined to Stoicism.

    Instead of “the universe is understandable in logics-mathematical terms” I say “the universe is understandable in programmatic terms” (which might be paraconsistent), and though I’ve rejected mathematical platonism since junior high school, I think that there might be hypercomputers. (And I am on the Paleo diet!)

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  8. Great article! 🙂

    I wouldn’t want to rough any feathers, but there are lots of parallels with Stoicism (as described in the article) and Christianity. In theological circles Stoicism is often considered as a philosophical precursor to Christianity (though I cannot find any citable references atm). Most of the eight “spiritual” exercises coincide with what Christians actually practice (and probably other religions as well). For example, steps (1) and (8) correspond to morning and evening prayers, (2) corresponds to looking up to idealistic behavior of saints and Jesus Christ, (3) and (7) correspond to critical self-reflection and confessions (note that most people throughout history were illiterate and couldn’t actually write journals), (5) and (6) correspond to actively loving the world around oneself (even including ones enemies!), etc.

    As for (4), not only that it is present in Christianity, but it is even upgraded into a famous prayer: “God, give me strength to change the things I can change, peace to accept things I cannot change, and wisdom to be able to distinguish between the two.”. Note that the lack of the “wisdom” part in the Stoic version gives rise to various criticisms by other commenters. 🙂

    That said, there are also certain (huge) differences between Stoicism and Christianity — after all, one is philosophy while the other is religion. In particular, Stoicism does not assume the existence of any concept of “god”, so I don’t see how it deals with absolution of person’s sins, but that is probably off-topic here. My point is that — to my surprise, the actual exercises (1)-(8) for practicing of Stoicism are not at all that different from practicing Christianity. I wasn’t aware of that until now.

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  9. @Iqrvy,

    You cited and wrote:

    >>Stoics didn’t mean anything like tree hugging or the Paleo diet, but rather both developing the natural human propensity for reason, and accepting that whatever happens is in accord with the way the world works, and it is therefore irrational to oppose it or to become upset by it.

    This sounds like a philosophy that would be very agreeable to a ruling class or anybody who benefits from oppression or injustice (as Alexander mentioned). “Hey guys, slavery and racism and sexism and extreme inequality and perpetual war are just the way the world works – it’s irrational to oppose it or become upset by it!” Again, I imagine Massimo will object that Stoicism conflicts with all those bad things (because Stoicism promotes love of humanity and all that), but as before, this maneuver seems to suck any meaningfulness out of the original claim. Now the claim seems to be reduced to, “Accept that whatever happens is in accord with the way the world works…except for the stuff that isn’t?”

    You cited a section from the description portion of the essay. I don’t think Massimo is claiming anything other than that is what Stoics believed. I do, however, see in your comment a need for him to clarify, and maybe he will.

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  10. I’m slightly surprised to see a philosophical-devotional piece on Scientia Salon. I enjoyed it.

    “A foundational Stoic precept is to make the distinction between what we can affect (our own attitudes and actions) and what we cannot (external events). Happiness then is available to the person who focuses on what s/he can control.”

    I think this is a useful rule of thumb as long as it is kept in perspective. Where I think several commenters are getting hung up with this one hinges on two words, “affect” and “control”. I can act (control my actions) to affect an effect in the world though I can’t absolutely control what that effect will be. (I speak *generally* since I know we can always come up with particulars that are exceptions to the rule.) Rephrased differently, this precept asks us not to get too attached to the expected outcome one is trying to affect.

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  11. Marko Vojinovic (@vvmarko):

    I think Augustine of Hippo gets attributed for weaving Stoic ideas and Platonic ideas and Christian ideas together. As a side note, it takes more work to describe the incompatibility of Platonic ideas with the Christian ideas like the “God man” for example, but the people of his time accepted melding. The Stoic ideas came along for the ride.

    The idea of “moderation”, although key in Stoicism and Augustine’s Christianity, doesn’t get discussed in this article. I think the “all things in moderation” idea also doesn’t square with the unconditional love idea of Christianity.

    Dr. Pigliucci made no attempt to explain the Stoic understanding of Zeus to westerners of 2014 because it sounds so weird and incomprehensible. Would the other Stoic ideas be just as weird and inaccessible to us if it weren’t for Augustine?

    Augustine (354—430 C.E.) [http://goo.gl/MF1Hgi]

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  12. All we animals have to be stoic, at one point or another, whether we like it, or not, whether human, or not. At some point we have to decide that, whatever it is, will be, and that’s fine. This maximizes happiness. It’s all the eudemonia the abyss offers.

    Stoicism is evolutionary given. It would not help to sustain ecology if animals systematically fought beyond any hope of surviving, as it would hurt predators (thus kill them). Without predators around, there is no more ecology.

    Thus animals come complete with endorphins. When the fighting is hopeless, endorphins permeate the prey, and it accepts calmly to be eaten alive, often a very long process.

    Hence evolution itself has selected stoicism as a strategy to reach an optimal ecology.
    Experiments in human ethology have shown moral monism is a no-go. Instead, human beings travel a moral manifold, as the opportunity and necessity arise. Thus the attached philosophies are to vary accordingly. Stoicism will always be a part of the mix.

    But one has to be careful to use stoicism, amor fati, and gross selfishness. Marcus Aurelius, Roman emperor and author of the Meditations is a case in point:

    “Constantly regard the universe as one living being, having one substance and one soul; and observe how all things have reference to one perception, the perception of this one living being; and how all things act with one movement; and how all things are the cooperating causes of all things that exist; observe too the continuous spinning of the thread and the structure of the web.”

    Strange mumbo-jumbo.

    Although it partly anticipates ecological balance theory, the emperor’s motivation, according to all appearances, was most base.

    And this is a warning to all those who get carried away with Stoicism, Buddhism, Zen, and the closely related Confucianism and “Inch Allah” religion.

    If it’s all one movement, one may as well leave it alone, and go along with the flow. Thus Marcus Aurelius opted to not go into a complicated process to select the next best future emperor, as had been the tradition under the Antonine emperors (and how he himself became Princeps, Imperator, Augustus and what not).

    It was simpler, more craftily stoic, to make his son Commodus Caesar at the age of 5, the youngest Consul ever at the age of 15. Then Marcus made Commodus co-emperor at the precocious age of 16. That teenager became perhaps the worst emperor ever.

    Why? First, out of apparent stoicism, not to say epicureanism, Commodus gave up territory dearly gained on the Marcomanni, and that it was crucial for Rome to keep (as history showed within a generation).

    Stoicism is the acceptance of what cannot be avoided, surrender. It has its place, but only as a mean to not hurt higher values which a disorganized frenzy could compromise.

    Progress is a more human value strategy than stoicism. All animals are prone to stoicism. Only humans wish to rise well above Prometheus, and smash fate into a better world.

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  13. First off, I still have a fair degree of interest in Stoicism myself. I had even more in the past, having read Marcus Aurelius twice, and both the Discourses of Epictetus and Arrian’s Enchiridion, among other things.

    That said, per our discussion about Aristotle, and Gettier problems before that, I can’t accept the 100 percent rational, ordered, Logos-driven nature of our universe. I certainly reject physical determinism. And, the fundamental unity goes out the door with rejecting a Logos. That then said, per Massimo:
    A modern rendition of the above would say that the universe is understandable in logics-mathematical terms.
    I would agree indeed, and wait to see Coel’s take.

    Metaphysically denatured totally, I see Stoicism as somewhat akin to Zen, but using different methodology for a similar result. Zen, even within Buddhism, seems to strive for something akin to ataxaria. Massimo notes that at footnote 7, of course.

    With all the denaturing aside, I think Stoicism does have some value for today. Reminding us what is in our control, and what is not, is always good.

    The morning meditation? Massimo, that reminds me of Ben Franklin’s list of virtues and his practice on it. So, no, not mystical or New Agey. That said, Stoicism arguably sounds a goodly amount like early Enlightenment Deism.

    Except for that ataxaria part.

    Stoicism, especially later Stoicism, sounds at least as world-denying, as Zen, and more sadly and wearily so. Epictetus’ “Break my leg? That’s OK, I still have the other,” or Marcus’ resignation in the face of trying to hold the Rhine against German tribes come immediately to mind. On the other hand, part of that claim comes from early Christianity, which had no problems with expropriating some elements from Stoicism, like Paul’s use of the Stoic diatribe, while kicking the rest to the curb.

    But, ataxaria IS world-denying. The Stoics proclaimed “the brotherhood of man” but did little to make that a reality. The same is true of Paul, who is clearly riffing on Stoicism in Galatians with his “neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, no male or female,” while he and other Christians did little to enhance the status of women or end slavery. Indeed, in Philemon, Paul tells the runaway slave Onesimus to return to his master and be a better slave. (The Colossians passage is derivative, from a later generation.)

    As far as the derivativeness of Paul, he even concludes by noting “you are all one in Christ Jesus,” substituting him for the unitary power of the Logos.

    Side note: CBT and its kin have a number of other positive uses, including in secular alternatives to 12-step support.

    Side note two: Sorry, Patrice, but evolution has not “selected” Stoicism (or any philosophical school) as a strategy. That’s at least close to imputing teleology to evolution. Small-s “stoic”? Perhaps. However, since endorphins existed long before Zeno, why call such pain management “stoic” if we can think better?

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  14. It’s a categorical mistake to believe that the Stoics did not believe in political change. Quite the contrary, one key aspect of Stoic thought was the belief that people had a central duty to improve the lives of their fellow people. It’s no accident that Stoicism has a body of teaching about what to do if you’re exiled – many of the prominent Stoics were exiled, executed, or forced to commit suicide for speaking out against unjust policies.

    Cato is one prominent example of this, having fought against the usurpation of the Republic by Julius Caesar.

    The Stoics were also frequently involved in reformist social proposals and had a much more egalitarian ethos than their fellow Greeks and Romans.

    If anything, practicing Stoicism makes one well-equipped to fight political battles, as it provides a person with methods to help them achieve their goals as well as methods for emotionally coping with the inevitable setbacks and failures that will occur in the pursuit of those goals.

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  15. Hi Massimo, this was a very cool essay. Many many years back (ahem… decades) the idea of philosophical counseling seemed to be emerging, and I toyed with the idea (given my degree in philosophy) of trying to set up a practice. Like most toys played with in youth it got set aside. So I am very excited to hear you actually did pursue it and managed to make it work!

    Like you I also gravitated to the more “pagan” or “ancient” systems, particularly virtue ethics bound within an Epicurean and Epictetian (stoic) framework. Though I have to admit I found Taoism and to a lesser extent Buddhism (at least their practices) more useful or pertinent than stoicism (which seemed devoid of practices). You have certainly reawakened my interests in stoicism.

    Regarding your experiment, I am curious/skeptical about #5 (the concentric circles of light). Where did this come from and what is it meant to achieve? Out of all of the steps this seems the most “new agey”… which is not necessarily a criticism, just something I might not add myself and so requires further input.

    Also, do you have any opinions regarding Taoism (or other non-Western philosophies) which might dove-tail with stoicism (theory or practice)?

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  16. Ed,

    “don’t stop at humankind. Keep expanding that circle to all of life over evolutionary timelines”

    Well, the Stoics expanded the circle to eventually include the whole of Nature, so that ought to do it! As for recommendations about counseling, there aren’t really that many books out there, and few are good. Will keep looking…

    James,

    Thanks for the kind words, and sorry to have missed you during my last visit. As it happens, I’m in Georgia now, giving a talk in the Ecology department at UGA in Athens!

    Alexander,

    I think you pretty much answered your own question. Yes, I too am skeptical of all encompassing philosophical systems, and I said so in the article. However, as you point out, things do have to “hang together,” so to speak, so one does want a more or less coherent whole. It just happens that there are several components of Stoicism that seem to work for me, and the others can be adjusted and modified into what I call neo-Stoicism. But I’m not married to it…

    On the ideal Sage, however, I think there is a bit of a misunderstanding. While the Stoics did suggest to pick one or more role models – imperfect as they are – the ideal Sage was meant to be just that, an ideal, which the Stoics wee perfectly cognizant was not actually reachable, but which nonetheless offered an idea model to strive for.

    “The immediate problem here is that it seems somewhat fatalistic and self-centred. Of course we have some influence on external events”

    Right, but fatalism and self-centeredness really don’t describe Stoicism at all. Stoics were very much into influence external events, if they could. As others have mentioned, many prominent Stoics were politicians or military leaders, very much men of action. And Stoicism is a philosophy of love for humankind and Nature, so hardly self-centered.

    “Some of these ancient eudaemonia-oriented philosophies seem like good recipes for maintaining unjust societies”

    True, for instance Epicureanism, from which the Stoics distanced themselves. But the problem is not limited to the Greco-Roman world, I think of Buddhism as suffering from the same problem.

    Iqrvy,

    “But of course our actions *can* affect external events, so this distinction doesn’t make much sense”

    You are interpreted internal and external in a different sense. As I mentioned above, Stoics were very much aware of the fact that their action could alter external events. “External” in the Stoic sense refers to events one cannot possibly affect, as it is made clear by a number of concrete examples in the Stoic literature.

    “that just amounts to an empty tautology – we can’t control what we can’t control.”

    You really need to read the thing more charitably. The Stoics were not making a logical point, but an existential one. Plenty of people waste a lot of energy, especially emotional, worrying about things that they cannot possibly change, like their own past, for instance. Stoicism was about overcoming that tendency, as much as it is possible for a human being.

    “This sounds like a philosophy that would be very agreeable to a ruling class or anybody who benefits from oppression or injustice”

    Again, historically incorrect. One of the greatest Stoic heroes was Cato, who was celebrated for taking the last stand against the tyranny of Julius Caesar.

    “This is why the presentation of Stoicism in this article seems “new age-y” to me. It’s not because of the metaphysical commitments or the focus on positive emotions, but because of the empty platitudes.”

    Sorry to hear that. Guess it’s not your cup of tea.

    Marko,

    No feathers ruffled! Several people have pointed out the similarities between Stoicism and Christianity, and the latter certainly absorbed quite a bit from the former. However, in an important sense the similarities are more about for than substance. Take, for instance, your parallel between Stoic meditation and Christian prayer: they are entirely different type of cognitive activity, one aiming at rationally examining one’s actions and evaluating them ethically, the other wanting to communicate with a supernatural entity that one hopes will forgive our inept actions. Or look at the different role models: the Christian saints embody Christian virtues, of course, and these are very different from the eudaimonic virtues sought by the Greco-Romans. And yes, the Serenity Prayer is very clearly a modern rendition of the Stoic creed. But I’m inclined to give more credit to the original than to the recent copy – not to mention the all important difference that the Stoics invoked reason, not God. Still, as you point out, the similarities are uncanny, and I have argued in the past also extend to Epicureanism and Buddhism. Nice, no?

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  17. Mike,

    “Rephrased differently, this precept asks us not to get too attached to the expected outcome one is trying to affect.”

    Correct. But also, remember that for the Stoics the only thing worth worrying about was one’s character. Externalities were “indifferent” to one’s eudaimonia, though some were preferred to others as a matter of practicality. For instance, Stoics would prefer not to be in pain, other things considered, but pain would not affect their character and would not therefore diminish their eudaimonia – at the least ideally.

    Donald,

    “Dr. Pigliucci made no attempt to explain the Stoic understanding of Zeus to westerners of 2014 because it sounds so weird and incomprehensibl”

    That’s a good point. I ignored the whole Zeus thing because what the Stoics describe is nothing like the familiar, capricious, and not at all benevolent God that we get from the standard Greco-Roman myths. Instead, the Stoic Zeus is often equated to Logos – the rational principle behind the universe – or more simply with Nature itself. In this sense I think neo-Stoicism can safely ignore Zeus.

    Patrice,

    “All we animals have to be stoic”

    I’m not sure whether that makes sense for a Stoic, since being a Stoic means exercising reason to develop virtue and control negative passions. If an animal cannot reason philosophically (and as far as we know that is the case for all non human animals) then the concept simply does not apply.

    “Stoicism is evolutionary given”

    Hmm, I’m a philosopher and an evolutionary biologist, and I don’t know what that means.

    “Strange mumbo-jumbo”

    I said very clearly that of course one cannot simply take on board a system of thought that predates modern science and much else. Hence the need for upgrading to a type of neo-Stoicism.

    As for Marcus Aurelius and Commodus, you are making the very same mistake you made previously about Aristotle: confusing the failures of a man with the soundness of a general philosophy. By that standard, no human idea is worth much, since they are all put forth by very much fallible human beings. Einstein didn’t treat his wife well. Should we therefore reject his science? His humanistic vision?

    Socratic,

    “I see Stoicism as somewhat akin to Zen, but using different methodology for a similar result”

    Yes and no. You are right that there are similarities, and a number of people have noted that. But I have practiced both Buddhist and Stoic meditation, and the methods couldn’t be more different, nor the results, at the least those I experienced.

    “Marcus’ resignation in the face of trying to hold the Rhine against German tribes come immediately to mind”

    But maybe that was the sensible thing for Marcus. As I said above, Stoics were very much into action, Even social action, and in this their approach seems to Me very different from (and more interesting to me than) both Epicureanism and Buddhism.

    brandholm,

    The expanding circle comes from Hierocles, a 2nd century CE Stoic. I don’t find it new agey, I guess. It seems to me a logical consequence of Stoicism being a philosophy of love for reason (all human beings have reason, and so the potential to cultivate virtue) and nature.

    I don’t know much about Taoism, to be frank. See above for comments about Buddhism. And of course there is Confucianism, which has a number of similarities with virtue ethics. I guess I find it interesting that so many ancient doctrines had so many points of inter-cultural similarity, and that they are all more useful than anything a Kantian deontologist or a utilitarian might have to say, in my opinion.

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  18. Bravo, Massimo!

    You even look like another writer in this essay, quite the sort of disciple Epictetus would accept in his circle. And it seems that you’re entering it through the only door at our disposal: the practical solution of suffering – which, obviously, wouldn’t go anywhere without a good theory. Yours is more or less my own way of understanding Stoicism, a philosophical school plenty of contrasts, that started with a stranger whose possessions were lost during his last trip, who wasn’t accepted in the Academy, and who developed, so, a system to cope with and resolve not just his own frustrations, but those of whoever looked for him at the Stoa. From this ‘humble’ beginning into becoming main-stream ethics of Roman Patricians, this seems to be the most remarkable path any philosophy has ever made, having among its masters great Latin writers, one emperor and a slave!

    I’d not fully agree with the vision that stoics embraced some sort of theism. I’d rather interpret the presence of deities in their writings as a forcible one, once assuming one’s own atheism would mean to have own work burned (Protagoras) or own life threatened. Notwithstanding, stoic theism is but a system of signs used to build stoic teleology (which descends from Aristotle’s reluctant acceptance of his). In fact any concept of god is the same, and what’s wrong with it is its use by religions.

    Another point: after Epictetus (Manual and Discourses), the only thing that matters as a start for becoming a Stoic is to know what’s 100% under one’s control, which is nothing else except one’s own thoughts. And for this aim Stoicism is sometimes viewed as a kind of self-delusional technique for leaving things the way they are, for not intervening with the world’s course and, consequently for not changing it, for while science is both possible and needed in the formation of a Stoic, it seems that technology is not, at least the unnecessary one This seems to me a good and fruitful point to investigate in Stoicism.

    Finally, I’m sure that Stoic philosophy still plays a big role in Christian ethics, introduced not just (but perhaps mainly) by Augustine, and that a sort of its revival during the second part of XVI century in Holland (Lipsius) is supposed to have inspired Descartes’ philosophy of science as a whole.

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  19. I guess I find it interesting that so many ancient doctrines had so many points of inter-cultural similarity, and that they are all more useful than anything a Kantian deontologist or a utilitarian might have to say, in my opinion.
    ——————-

    I think that eudaimonist ethics and moral philosophies like Utilitarianism and Deontology play fundamentally different roles, both of which are necessary for a complete ethical outlook. The error is in thinking that one or the other can play all the relevant roles, one, admittedly, that moral philosophies are more likely to commit than Eudaimonism.

    One dimension of the ethical life lies in one’s conduct towards others — there are ways in which one ought and ought not to treat people, and it is these that moral philosophy describes and explains.

    But one can know how one ought and ought not to treat others, without being inclined one way or the other. In order to choose to treat people as one ought, one has to care, and this is a matter of one’s character — of one’s feelings and sentiments and inclinations — the sort of person that one is and is inclined to be — and this represents another dimension of ethical life — one that the eudaimonist describes and explains.

    Aristotle speaks to these two dimensions, when, in the course of discussing moral education, he emphasizes that *both* teaching *and* habituation are required, if a person is to successfully develop into an ethical being.

    Both moral philosophy and eudaimonist ethics would seem necessary, then, for the ethical life.

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  20. Philosophy Is About Moods, Not Just Thoughts

    Science creates extremely precise systems of thoughts. This is why it is obsessed with equations, which are, first of all, rigid structures.

    Philosophy is the domain of guess work. That makes it crucial to all new fields of enquiry: they all start have to start somewhere, with guesswork.

    As it is rich with possibility, rather than been just tied to precise logic, philosophy is more about vague emotion, per force, than the new science, or the new law, it gives rise to.
    If philosophy cannot teach precise things, such as Einstein’s gravitational equation, what does it teach?

    On second thought, Einstein’s equation is not that precise: as Einstein himself admitted, the right hand side of the equation is junk. (Quantum Field Theory has confirmed this.)

    But Einstein’s equation is at least very precise in a very restricted domain (say Earth’s orbit).

    Not so with philosophy.

    Instead of building systems of thoughts with extremely pointed relevance, philosophies are more general: they build systems of mood. Perhaps, instead of neuronal networks, philosophy will be tied to more vague emotional structures: organs such as amygdala, or glial networks.

    That’s how Heidegger helped to generate Nazism: in conjunction with the respect he was endowed with, as the young rector of his university, and his aura as master thinker, by extolling the Führerprinzip. Thus he made many clear statements supporting Nazism before a major referendum in Fall 1933.

    Similarly Aristotle celebrated what he celebrated as the “first and most divine”, and… “straightest” regime, kingship.

    Unbelievably, some philosophers assert that these political positions of Aristotle have nothing to do, and did not help the man closest to Aristotle, and also the worst king ever, Antipater, the single handed destroyer of all Greek civilization.

    Aristotle had clearly asserted that democracy was the least bad of the deviant regimes. Certainly that generated a mood of admiration for kings such as Aristotle’s closest souls, or aristocracy in general, (“straight” regimes), while heaping contempt on “devious” democracy.

    While Aristotle’s closest associates established “aristocracy”, and plutocracy, all over, Zeno was born.

    Zeno was born in an age when stoicism was as far as one could disagree with the “Hellenistic” regimes. The mood was definitively to let kings and aristocrats rule.

    “Stoicism is a school of Hellenistic philosophy founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium in the early 3rd century BC. (It’s named after the portico from which he taught.) The Stoics taught that destructive emotions resulted from errors in judgment, and that a sage, or person of “moral and intellectual perfection”, would not suffer such emotions.” (Per Wikipedia.)

    What is a “destructive emotion”? Is anger a destructive emotion? Is anger towards a lion destructive? Is that bad? Shall we go on our four and bleat peacefully instead? Notice the naivety: persons of moral and intellectual perfection do not suffer destructive emotions.

    So if you want to destroy Xerxes’ fleet at Salamis, are you imperfect?

    The Roman Republic wiped out Aristotle’s insufferable children of greed.

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  21. @Alexander

    One can, for example, accept being poor and oppressed and try desperately to be happy nonetheless, or one can try to fight poverty and oppression. And sometimes the latter actually works, but only if one makes the attempt. Some of these ancient eudaemonia-oriented philosophies seem like good recipes for maintaining unjust societies…

    One feature of arete is the realization of one’s potential — to use and develop what we are gifted with for good. Excellence as a policy maker can combat poverty and oppression. Excellence as a community organizer, a labor leader, a counselor at a halfway house, a middle-school teacher, a novelist – even a software engineer – can have causal effects on poverty and oppression. It’s not necessarily “on” the poor or oppressed person to fight poverty and oppression, but it’s on those who can have whatever causal effect they can have if they develop their abilities.

    This is one of the best things I believe stoicism has to offer a modern world filled with so many people and so many unseen and seemingly distant causal effects that feeling small, ineffectual and disconnected is practically its defining psychological feature. I receive a political or humanitarian e-mail at least once a day that tells me that what I have to offer – my causal efficacy – is a monetary donation. From this view, I’m essentially fungible. Stoicism has what I think is a better approach: to pursue what I specifically have to offer in accordance with my own nature.

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  22. Terrific post that resonates on so many levels.
    Some commentators have confused Stoicism with fatalism and indifference. Nothing could be further from the truth. Every virtue ethics system needs one or more organising principles. In Christianity that organising principle is love/service, in the Roman Republic it was honour and the Stoicism that followed the collapse of the Roman Republic was characterised by self control/discipline. To see why this was so one needs to realize that Imperial Rome was a place of great hazard. If you betrayed your thoughts or feelings you could pay with your life. Stoicism gave the public players the iron self control to navigate this dangerous world.

    Seneca asserts. “The blows of the powerful must be borne not patiently merely, but even with a cheerful face. The powerful strike again, if they think that they have once struck home”. “First of all, I want to see a clearer expression on your face when you talk to me; it is stupidity for you to scowl at one who is more powerful than you are” (Plautus, Casina).

    Carlin Barton said “When Tacitus’s Nero poisoned his rival Britannicus, the stricken Octavia, having learned to hide her every emotion (omnes adfectus abscondere) looked upon the death throes of her brother and all her hopes with a brazen face (Annales .)“.

    Romans were not fatalists, they were men of action who needed iron self control in a very dangerous world. You might reply, so what, we live in a rather different world. That is true, but it is a world that needs even more self control because the threats(of a very different kind) permeate every moment of our lives. Ross Douthat describes the dominant Western culture(after Robert Bellah) as “expressive individualism — the view that the key to the good life lies almost exclusively in self-discovery, self-actualization, the cultivation of the unique and holy You“. Robert Bellah said of expressive individualism: “But there is another problem, a very big problem, and its solution is hard to envision. Just when we are moving to an ever greater validation of the sacredness of the individual person, our capacity to imagine a social fabric that would hold individuals together is vanishing.

    This social fabric is being dissolved by the combination of freedom and celebrity driven consumerism which emphasises the rights of the individual to consume as much as s/he wishes and to behave pretty much as s/he wishes. It is a world of great abundance and great temptations. It is no accident that the US has become the most obese nation on earth, the biggest consumer of narcotic drugs and with an enormous trade deficit.

    How should we respond to this surfeit of goods, opportunity and temptation in a secular world? The best available answer is with self control and discipline as the organising principle of a system of virtue ethics. That is Stoicism. Failing that, we may be condemned to watch our tattered social fabric rot away while the modern Genghis Khans gather on our horizon..

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  23. Massimo, it seems to me that any serious version of Stoicism or neo-Stoicism is predicated on a certain general view of the natural world, and it will not work for those who do not have this particular intuition. I am talking about a sense that there is something essentially ‘good’ about the natural world. This general outlook parallels and historically fed into sophisticated versions of the Christian notion of providence.

    The Stoic idea of embracing ‘fate’ or whatever you want to call it includes, as I understand it, an element of something approaching joyfulness. But you can really only achieve this if you believe that there is some deep goodness or rightness in or behind nature. And this (don’t you agree?) renders any serious form of neo-Stoicism impossible for those who have a darker view of nature.

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  24. Hi Patrice Ayme,

    Stoicism is evolutionary given. It would not help to sustain ecology if animals systematically fought beyond any hope of surviving, as it would hurt predators (thus kill them). Without predators around, there is no more ecology.

    […] Hence evolution itself has selected stoicism as a strategy to reach an optimal ecology.

    This is a misconception about how evolution works. It does not select at the ecosystem level, nor does it act to achieve any particular ecosystem. Thus it will not be programming prey to submit to predators for the “good of” the ecosystem — it has no way of “knowing about” or “acting for” the latter.

    Any ecosystem will be an emergent phenomenon resulting from lower-level competition, not a goal that evolution aims for.

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  25. Just a thought. It would be great to have a follow-up article giving the metaphysical/experiential basis for Stoicism, thus exploring its origin and explaining its close consistency with Buddhist, Taoist and (esoteric) Christian teachings. It would be to underestimate all of them, I would say, to think that this consistency is coincidence or mere plagiarism. This would give Stoicism a wider philosophical import.

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  26. Massimo,

    I want to follow up Brandholm’s request for what you think is the *purpose* of Concentric Circles? Your answer seemed more a response to Brandholm’s impression that it was new-agey.

    I’m interested to know what you think a person should expect to get from practicing it?

    I’ve been studying Buddhist meditative practices and an approach like Metta and Tonglen are designed to cultivate compassion and empathy towards oneself and others. Is that its purpose, to culivate a certain emotion to internalize a virtue?

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  27. @Mark:

    Massimo, it seems to me that any serious version of Stoicism or neo-Stoicism is predicated on a certain general view of the natural world, and it will not work for those who do not have this particular intuition. I am talking about a sense that there is something essentially ‘good’ about the natural world. This general outlook parallels and historically fed into sophisticated versions of the Christian notion of providence.

    I don’t think this is accurate. The Stoic focus is about not overly concerning yourself with things outside of one’s control and instead focusing on those aspects of your life you can control. Whether ‘fate,’ broadly speaking, is good or bad is beside the primary point about it – namely, that you can’t change it; you can only change how you respond to it.

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  28. Perhaps because you personally don’t believe in God or religious metaphysics (fine by me), you left it out of your “modern” version of Stoicism. That’s okay, but as I read M. Aurelius, and as a Stoic Christian Religious Pluralist myself, it seems to be an important part of Stoicism and not “outdated” in the least. It helps to accept tragedy, to believe that the author of nature is fundamentally good and that we don’t have to worry about things beyond our control (because God is in control). Nice post.

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  29. This social fabric is being dissolved by the combination of freedom and celebrity driven consumerism which emphasises the rights of the individual to consume as much as s/he wishes and to behave pretty much as s/he wishes. It is a world of great abundance and great temptations. It is no accident that the US has become the most obese nation on earth, the biggest consumer of narcotic drugs and with an enormous trade deficit.
    _________________________

    This is starting to sound a bit like Right Wing talking points on the culture war.

    The claim that the problems of obesity, drug use, and trade deficits are the result of the “combination of freedom and celebrity driven consumerism which emphasizes the rights of the individual to consume as much as s/he wishes and to behave pretty much as s/he wishes” is an empirical one. I’d like to see the evidence. (For what it’s worth, I think it’s largely nonsense.)

    Indeed, your last paragraph makes me glad to be an Epicurean.

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  30. Massimo, thanks for writing on this – it looks interesting. I am adding some books on Stoicism to my reading list.

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  31. Reblogged this on SocraticGadfly and commented:
    Stoicism. It seems a bit like the western answer to Zen, but it’s not. It’s more than that, different than that, and older than that. Plus, as a guide to meditation, it’s the basis of the Serenity Prayer beloved by 12-step groups and others.

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  32. Most of what I would have said has been noted, in recent comments by Aravis, Labnut, Asher Kay and Mark English.

    There’s only left for me to comment on the charges of ‘fatalism’ in some of the earlier posts.

    All philosophies that teach a way of acceptance are assailed with this charge, but the charge itself does not adequately address reality.

    The charge has two components, the local and the political. The local charge is that if you are undergoing rough times, you should not submit fatalistically, but do something to change your situation.

    But no philosophy teaching acceptance denies this. The question is, what is to be done?

    If the company I work for goes bankrupt, I’m out of a job; it is clear that I’ll need to find new means of support. It would make no sense to petition my former employers to re-open their company just to provide me with a job. Useless to cry over spilled milk. So there is a fact I am stuck with and must accept and move beyond.

    The political component of the ‘fatalism’ charge appears to be much stronger. If we just accept a social situation, then aren’t we surrendering both our right to demand change and our power of bringing change about?

    The very notion that there can be ground-up efforts at political change, involving the majority of the polis, is actually quite new. Nobody before the later Renaissance would have had much understanding of what we are talking about here. So the idea has a history. Much of the past 5 centuries can be read as a series of attempts to vindicate this idea.

    But, we now live in an age when the idea seems to be exhausting itself, as various centers of power and interest coalesce and maneuver to fragment and dis-empower the popular will. We know that America’s disastrous foreign policy is decided by members of the military and the government safe from the vagaries of election. We know that America’s economy is decided by parties of the wealthy with little interest in ‘the greatest good for the greatest number.’ So we protest; but we have a growing awareness that our protests will prove ineffectual at producing change. (This doesn’t even address the problem of the cultural chaos I’ve noted elsewhere, that frequently leaves people of good will unable to communicate with each other effectively on politics.)

    So: why do we even bother to protest? Because, accepting the situation, we have an ethical demand to respond to it.

    In order for Americans to live with some sense of relative calm in the present political situation, acceptance is necessary. That doesn’t necessitate inactivity. We develop any ethic, precisely because, despite occasionally dreadful political and social realities, we still need to live together, and find some way to better our collective situation.

    An ethic not teaching a way of acceptance is unrealistic. The way of acceptance, far from being ‘fatalistic,’ helps form a ground for social action.

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  33. Why not Stoicism? Good question. Here’s why not, at least for the masses.

    In evaluating a selling proposition, one must ask what’s the value of the product and what’s in it for the customer? (Not me). What’s the “So What?” If we targeted every person on earth with multi-channel marketing and personal one-on-one sales consultations, I don’t think it could be sold today. Why? Stoicism makes no insurance guarantee of afterlife promise benefits (carrot) and motivation to perform in this life through afterlife torment threats (stick). Mainstream religions provide more binding to the social group glue, and there is no incentive for maverick individuals to put their salvific retirement benefits at risk. So I’d say not a good idea for mass marketing.

    For targeted marketing, Stoicism might benefit a smaller prospective universe of individuals. Perhaps those more hard wired toward freedom of inquiry, and/or disaffected by mainstream religions.

    Who knows, perhaps living a virtuous life could have surprising unknown ironic future rewards, the promise of nihilism notwithstanding.

    Is anyone familiar with the fee structure for becoming a Stoic? We can’t make it as expensive as Dianetics obviously (and no evil dictator Xenu and body thetans, etc.).

    Personally I appreciate the values of Stoicism as presented, and will consider them in developing my own eclectic philosophical work in progress.

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  34. Hi Massimo,

    “The expanding circle comes from Hierocles, a 2nd century CE Stoic.”

    Thanks, I was not aware of him at all. I looked up his circles concept and he seemed to have something not mentioned in your intended practice. There was an idea of envisioning pulling the circles in toward the center, basically collapsing them to make them all one. For some reason this hit me as more intuitive, bringing in rather than projecting out. Out of curiosity was there a conscious choice to exclude the drawing in of circles?

    “I don’t know much about Taoism, to be frank.”

    To me Taoism really captures the idea of letting go of the things you cannot control. It’s advantage over Buddhism, was that it did not demand a detachment from life itself, or a negative view of the material world. The painting “The Vinegar Tasters” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vinegar_tasters) depicts the 3 main philosophies of China, and its interpretation gets at the difference I am talking about. Taoism allows for more joy in living, by taking the world as it is.

    “I guess I find it interesting that so many ancient doctrines had so many points of inter-cultural similarity, and that they are all more useful than anything a Kantian deontologist or a utilitarian might have to say, in my opinion.”

    Obviously I share that opinion 🙂

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  35. Labnut, Alex, EJ Winner: It’s true Stoicism wasn’t totally world-denying. It’s also true that, in the Roman Empire (see Seneca and Nero for example 1!) there were limits as to what activism could do, anyway.

    Also, Stoicism, like other ancient philosophies, and religions, evolved over the centuries. The Stoicism of Marcus or Epictetus was not the Stoicism of Zeno. Stoicism may have evolved less over 500 years than Platonism, or Christianity, but evolve it did.

    That said, I think, beyond Christian charges and the realities of life under the Roman Imperium, that Stoicism was somewhat world-denying, and definitely world-weary. OTOH, Christianity, especially in earlier decades with its focus on the next-world eschaton, stands guilty of the same charge. On the third hand, per Massimo, onhis response to me, maybe, all things considered, that was at times the best response.

    And, per my first comment, especially now I note that some of Stoics’ seeming “word denying” may have been forced on them by events.

    And, Stoicism was a “realistic” philosophy in many ways. The realization that there are many things we cannot change is something that the great majority of modern Americans need to accept.

    And, if not Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius, how about James T. Kirk, in “Charlie X”:

    There are a million things in this universe you can have and a million things you can’t have. It’s no fun facing that, but that’s the way things are. … Hang on tight and survive. Everybody does.

    The wisdom of Roddenberry!

    Massimo, I’d like to hear more on the different results, since the different means is obvious. As noted, I see it as similar to Franklin’s list of virtues, and wonder if you have more thought on that line.

    On Taoism, I have a book of daily meditations. A starting point for understanding Taoism is to think on the idea that Zen is essentially “baptized” Taoism, Taoism given a rinse through the waters of Buddhism.

    Labnut’s later comment? Well, many compare ancient Rome to the US. Some argue that income inequality, along with the ancient equivalents of celebrity worship, overdone individualism and more, are part of what sank Rome. (Probably not true, nor is Gibbons true. Rather, lack of specie, inflation from coin clippage, plagues from ancient cities being crowded to their limits and other factors were all contributors to the “fall” of Rome.) That’s not to say “individualism run rampant” wasn’t a problem then or today, but per Aristotle, take that idea in moderation.

    Mark English has a good observation, and I won’t retreat from that part of my critique of Stoicism. A “good” orderly universe doesn’t exist. Ideas from Stoicism can be denatured as guides to meditation, perhaps; the “control” vs. “don’t control” in conscious life needs to be denatured even more, though, especially in a US of 315 million and world of 7 billion plus.

    Finally, we could have not a world-denying philosophy, but a culture-denying one. We’ve had Aristotle, then the Stoics. Cynicism next, anybody?

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  36. walreis,

    “Bravo, Massimo! You even look like another writer in this essay, quite the sort of disciple Epictetus would accept in his circle. And it seems that you’re entering it through the only door at our disposal: the practical solution of suffering”

    Thank you, much appreciated.

    “I’m sure that Stoic philosophy still plays a big role in Christian ethic”

    I just found this article that explores the similarities and differences between the two: http://blogs.exeter.ac.uk/stoicismtoday/2013/12/05/features-stoicism-and-christianity-by-jules-evans/

    Aravis,

    “I think that eudaimonist ethics and moral philosophies like Utilitarianism and Deontology play fundamentally different roles, both of which are necessary for a complete ethical outlook”

    I actually agree. I have written in the past that I adopt virtue ethics as personal guidance and lean toward a moderate type of Rawls-style political philosophy at the societal level.

    Mark,

    ” it seems to me that any serious version of Stoicism or neo-Stoicism is predicated on a certain general view of the natural world, and it will not work for those who do not have this particular intuition. I am talking about a sense that there is something essentially ‘good’ about the natural world”

    Well, I’m not trying to sell anything, just commenting on something about which I’m curious and that seems to be working well for me, judging from the first steps. But yes, one always buys into certain assumptions no matter what philosophy one adopts. However, a neo-Stoic is not committed to the idea that the universe is inherently good, just that it is structured logically-mathematically, and that it is deterministic in nature, both of which notions are highly compatible with modern science.

    “an element of something approaching joyfulness. But you can really only achieve this if you believe that there is some deep goodness or rightness in or behind nature”

    I’m not convinced. The Stoics found joy in cultivating the virtues and in being able to make reasoned distinctions between what they could and could not affect. I don’t think that translates into a view of nature itself as joyful.

    Mike,

    “I want to follow up Brandholm’s request for what you think is the *purpose* of Concentric Circles? … an approach like Metta and Tonglen are designed to cultivate compassion and empathy towards oneself and others. Is that its purpose, to culivate a certain emotion to internalize a virtue?”

    That’s exactly right, as far as I can tell.

    Matt,

    “It helps to accept tragedy, to believe that the author of nature is fundamentally good and that we don’t have to worry about things beyond our control (because God is in control)”

    Of course, but as you point out, I’m not a believer, so I don’t have room for that approach in my own system. But, as I said above, it is doubtful that the Stoics thought the universe itself was good. They thought that it was good to come to terms with the reality of nature, and that that reality was orderly, but I don’t feel any more than that is necessary for a working philosophy.

    wtquinn,

    “In evaluating a selling proposition, one must ask what’s the value of the product and what’s in it for the customer?”

    Sorry, I refuse to approach everything in life from that point of view. And as I said, I ain’t selling nothing. If one feels the need to develop a coherent philosophy of life, then Stoicism is one of several good approaches on offer. If one doesn’t feel that need one can spend his time doing other things.

    “Stoicism makes no insurance guarantee of afterlife promise benefits (carrot) and motivation to perform in this life through afterlife torment threats (stick).”

    Which is not stopping millions of people from living ethical lives anyway.

    “Personally I appreciate the values of Stoicism as presented, and will consider them in developing my own eclectic philosophical work in progress.”

    That was the idea.

    brandholm,

    “Out of curiosity was there a conscious choice to exclude the drawing in of circles?”

    No, it didn’t occur to me, glad you looked it up and it made more sense.

    Socratic,

    For all I know Franklin might have gotten his list of virtues from the ancient Greeks. As for the results of my practice of Stoicism, it’s too early, I’ll get back to this topic in a little bit.

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  37. I vaguely remember an NPR interview with a philosopher who had put out an ad somewhere billing himself as a kind of philosopher consultant. This was probably sometime in the 1990s. He explained his reasoning for the service that sometimes a person’s problem was more philosophical in nature than psychological. This whole idea of philosophical counseling is pretty interesting. I wish I could find that old interview again.

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  38. Massimo

    I meant the phrase “something approaching joyfulness” in my first comment to be read as descriptive of the Stoic response to the workings of nature not as referring to nature itself. At the heart of Stoicism is an embracing (or almost joyful acceptance) of fate. And this is only possible, I think, if you believe that the workings of the natural world are in accordance with some kind of higher reason or logos. If you substitute scientific laws as we generally understand them for logos you change the picture completely, in my opinion, and there is no longer any reason to embrace the workings of nature in a positive way.

    You accept that the (so-called) laws of science will operate inexorably, but you don’t necessarily do so with any great enthusiasm or sense of comfort (as you might if you saw these laws as embodying some kind of higher wisdom or ‘reason’).

    Alex Knapp

    You claim that the “Stoic focus is about not overly concerning yourself with things outside of one’s control and instead focusing on those aspects of your life you can control. Whether ‘fate,’ broadly speaking, is good or bad is beside the primary point about it – namely, that you can’t change it; you can only change how you respond to it.”

    Sure, it’s advisable not to fret about things beyond one’s control, but you don’t need a philosophical system to understand this. Ordinary practical intelligence is enough. My concern here is that ‘updating’ Stoicism runs the risk of stripping the term of any significant meaning or changing its meaning such that the connection with the historical phenomenon becomes just too tenuous to justify using the same term (even with a ‘neo’ in front of it).

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  39. Aravis,
    This is starting to sound a bit like Right Wing talking points on the culture war.

    I have voted liberal all my life and I risked real danger for my liberal beliefs.

    For what it’s worth, I think it’s largely nonsense

    As I have said before, I greatly admire your contributions and thoughtful commentary.

    Like

  40. Labnut, I am sorry that I apparently offended you. That said, you dodged the substance of the question.

    I repeat.

    “This social fabric is being dissolved by the combination of freedom and celebrity driven consumerism which emphasises the rights of the individual to consume as much as s/he wishes and to behave pretty much as s/he wishes. It is a world of great abundance and great temptations. It is no accident that the US has become the most obese nation on earth, the biggest consumer of narcotic drugs and with an enormous trade deficit.”
    —————————–
    As I asked before, what is your evidence for these empirical claims? Specifically, what is your evidence that our drug use and obesity is the result of the “social fabric” being “dissolved by the combination of freedom and celebrity driven consumerism…”?

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  41. Why not Stoicism? Because internal dispositions are not volitions in the sense demanded. Because both the exercise of vital powers and personal well being are inseparable from society and Stoicism has nothing to offer on that count. Because Stoicism’s practical appeal lies in the lives of its spokesmen, people like Cato the Younger, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, yet a critical view is either impossible (Caesar’s Anti-Cato is lost, while the senatorial/aristocratic opposition’s views are not) or buried under historical myth (Seneca’s nobility is a rhetorical assault on Nero, as Marcus Aurelius’ is an assault on Commodus.)

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  42. The death preparation component of Stoicism is an important aspect – the endgame.

    “Rehearse death. To say this is to tell a person to rehearse his freedom. A person who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave. He is above, or at any rate, beyond the reach of, all political powers.” – Seneca

    “You want to live – but do you know how to live? You are scared of dying – and, tell me, is the kind of life you lead really any different from being dead?” – Seneca

    “Consequently Stoic physics showed that there exists a physical connection and continuity between mind and matter.” (b. Pneuma and Tension, and the Scala naturae)
    http://www.iep.utm.edu/stoicmind/

    “Nature shows us only the tail of the lion. But there is no doubt in my mind that the lion belongs with it even if he cannot reveal himself to the eye all at once because of his huge dimension.” – Albert Einstein

    Of course we know that the quantum world has nothing to do with drama, fate and free will. Human drama is only the excrement of the quantum world, unaware of itself. The quantum world just hasn’t learned where its ass is yet, relative to the human eye, in order to wipe it. Einstein is currently working on this relativity problem. He asked me to say hello.

    What kind of death do we want, violent or non-violent? Do we get to choose?

    “Death smiles at us all, all a man can do is smile back.” Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

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  43. The links below are to works that I’ve read most about Stoicism and Epicureanism.

    What I find remarkable in both doctrines is that they share more similarities than assumed. There are few surviving Epicurean texts and that makes it difficult to make an idea of that philosophy as good as that we make of Roman Stoicism in general, particularly that of Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius.

    In short, it seems to me that the most striking point of dissonance between Stoics and Epicureans is that the latter don’t feel compelled to turn their backs to the world just because it can be a source of pleasure, an advantage point I deeply appreciate, as it seems that the best self discipline aiming to avoid suffering must not be that of refusing all that the world offers as compensations or as pure pleasure: it seems ‘more’ wise consciously enjoy the world and be able not to crave when things are not available; at least this posture looks a lot more like a self-controlled one than that of spitting the little water from the mouth instead of quenching the thirst (that would perhaps work as an eventual exercise, though in a really tough time I doubt that this be a good idea).

    I must confess I ‘have a crush for’ Epicurus’ letter, in spite of being passionate to Epictetus’ work.

    One remarkable aspect of Stoicism is the absolute eagerness for power (some of the Discourses’ passages show a hysterical Epictetus before the impossibility for him to contemplate the marvelous spectacle of a perfect stoic): there’s no acceptable levels below 100% of control, which can be experienced just with the subject’s own ‘opinions’ (or judgments): this is the stoic way to control the world: control what must be thought of it (revolutionary Marxists hate this idea). But achieving 100% accurate, non-delusional (true) visions of the world means hard science/philosophy, not less than this.

    Finally Stoics and Epicureans share the conviction that the only innate knowledge is that of the good and both philosophies have it and a very revolutionary concept of egoism as the bases for their cosmopolitan ethics (by means of which all things are embraced as a part of the individual – or the individual grows into becoming equal with the totality).

    Epictetus:
    1) Enchiridion: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/45109
    2) The Discourses (Long): https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/e/epictetus/e65d/
    Epicurus:
    Letter to Moeneceus: http://wiki.epicurus.info/Letter_to_Menoeceus

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  44. Aravis,
    I am sorry that I apparently offended you

    No, just amused by(and sad about) the remarks coming from someone who took such great offence. We reacted with generosity and kindness. That says something important. It is a point worth noting.

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  45. I definitely think that the Epicureans and Stoics share a lot in common (we often argue the most passionately against those with whom we mostly agree, no?) But one striking difference between the Epicureans and the Stoics, to me, is that the Epicureans made very strong arguments against participating in political life in favor of cultivating friendships, whereas the Stoics emphasized social duty in the political arena.

    As a matter of a practical way of life, you might not actually be able to tell the difference between a Stoic and an Epicurean – both emphasized simplicity in living to avoid attachments, etc. And to those more inclined to a neo-Epicureanism as opposed to a neo-Stoicism, I think it’s perfectly valid to pursue that. But I’ve always found the Stoic preoccupation with social duty to be something that makes it more attractive, even though some of my personal sentiments are more Epicurean. But a wise person would, I think, take the best of both worlds in constructing a personal way of life.

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  46. Hi Massimo,

    Thanks! It is a great essay. You rightly pointed out the strong ethical component of Stoicism, this school shared with the Aristotelians the achieving of “eudaimonia” (good spirit, happiness). Though the Stoics went a step further and preached philanthropy (civil concord). I wonder if the status of foreigner that owned Aristotle in Athens prevented him of speaking openly about philanthropy.

    It’s also interesting that you wrote: “The Stoics believed in something they called logos, or fate, or universal reason […] it is unquestionable that Stoicism is steeped in teleology, or the idea that final causes operate in nature”. Here there’s coincidence with the Peripatos, so teleology fits with the Stoic’s logos or universal reason. The Stoics also spoke about the logos spermatikos, the generative principle of the Universe.

    There seems to be a sort of deism, on one hand it’s claimed the existence of the universal reason or logos, according to Marco Aurelio: “Constantly regard the universe as one living being, having one substance and one soul”. But on the other hand we are invited to explore the logos with the current reason or current knowledge. This inquiry is complex, there are misperceptions, personal feelings and biases that makes difficult to carry out the correspondent epistemology.

    Regarding the circles, it reminds me the opening of the heart chakra, a flowering perceived and described by western and eastern mystics. A friend of mine that meditates habitually told me that such opening is easier for parents, taking care of children helps to keep the heart attentive.

    Hi walreis,

    I guess that Epicurus wanted to be away of the Athenian political disputes, his hedonist theory discouraged to be engaged in social affairs. It is a pity that the majority of his manuscripts are lost.

    Hi (@vvmarko,

    There is an apocryphal story that says that Jesus visited Athens, not for religious purposes but for civil ones. It is a common mistake to think that the first Christians were solely engaged in religious issues, they actually formed a combative movement that fought against the Roman Empire and slavery. It isn’t surprising to find coincidences between the Stoic ethic and the social views of the first Christians. These were persecuted, thrown out to the lions and crucified for speaking out in searching of justice and philanthropy (civil concord).

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