Stoic joy

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—Seeking tranquility

Beginning with Zeno, Stoic philosophers sought tranquility.

Introduction[edit | edit source]

Stoics explore the essential question “How can we best live our lives?”

Understanding the enduring lessons of Stoic Philosophy can help us enjoy eudemonia, achieve tranquility, and live our lives well.

Stoicism began with Zeno in Athens in the early 3rd century BC and flourished throughout the Roman and Greek world until the 3rd century AD. Among its adherents was Emperor Marcus Aurelius. It experienced a decline after Christianity became the state religion in the 4th century AD. Since then it has seen revivals, notably in the Renaissance (as Neostoicism) and in the contemporary era (as modern Stoicism).

Stoics are developing a practical philosophy, including theory and practice, that can help us live lives worth living. The central concern is about what we ought to do or be to live well, to flourish[1]. The primary reason to study Stoicism is to be able to put the relevant insights into practice.[2]

Stoics recognize that humans are social animals endowed with reason. Therefore, we have a duty to apply reason to guide our actions toward living well in society. This requires that each of us exercise our agency wisely to change what we can and accept the rest. Furthermore, the Stoics recognize that the only good is a virtuous character, and that we are all citizens of the world. Applying these simple lessons can help us live life well.

Objectives[edit | edit source]

The objectives of this course are to:

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Brief Historic overview[edit | edit source]

Ancient Stoic philosophers gathered and taught at the Stoa Poikile, the painted porch, shown in this restoration.

This section provides some historical context and can be skipped by students who want to begin immediately applying Stoic lessons to their daily life.

Stoicism is a school of Hellenistic philosophy founded by Zeno of Citium in Athens in the early 3rd century BC. It is a philosophy of personal ethics informed by its system of logic and its views on the natural world. According to its teachings, as social beings, the path to eudaimonia (happiness, or flourishing) is found in accepting the moment as it presents itself, by not allowing oneself to be controlled by the desire for pleasure or by the fear of pain, but by using one's mind to understand the world and to do one's part in nature's plan, and by working together and treating others fairly and justly.

The Stoics are especially known for teaching that "virtue is the only good" for human beings, and external things—such as health, wealth, and pleasure—are not good or bad in themselves (adiaphora), but have value as "material for virtue to act upon". Alongside Aristotelian ethics, the Stoic tradition forms one of the major founding approaches to virtue ethics. The Stoics also held that certain destructive emotions resulted from errors of judgment, and they believed people should aim to maintain a will (called prohairesis) that is "in accordance with nature". Because of this, the Stoics thought the best indication of an individual's philosophy was not what a person said but how a person behaved. To live a good life, one had to understand the rules of the natural order since they thought everything was rooted in nature.

Many Stoics—such as Seneca and Epictetus—emphasized that because "virtue is sufficient for happiness", a sage would be emotionally resilient to misfortune.

Stoicism flourished throughout the Roman and Greek world until the 3rd century AD, and among its adherents was Emperor Marcus Aurelius. It experienced a decline after Christianity became the state religion in the 4th century AD. Since then it has seen revivals, notably in the Renaissance (as Neostoicism) and in the contemporary era (as modern Stoicism).

Prominent Ancient Stoic Philosophers[edit | edit source]

Many Stoic philosophers practiced and taught beginning with Zeno around 301 BC and continuing until the death of Marcus Aurelius in 180 AD. The most influential ones are listed here.

  • Zeno of Citium was the founder of the Stoic school of philosophy, which he taught in Athens from about 300 BC.
  • Chrysippus expanded the fundamental doctrines of Zeno, which earned him the title of Second Founder of Stoicism.
  • Seneca the Younger was a Roman Stoic philosopher, statesman, and dramatist.
  • Gaius Musonius Rufus was a Roman Stoic philosopher of the 1st century AD. He is remembered for being the teacher of Epictetus.
  • Epictetus was a Greek Stoic philosopher. He was born a slave and lived in Rome until his banishment, when he went to Nicopolis in northwestern Greece for the rest of his life. Epictetus taught that philosophy is a way of life and not just a theoretical discipline. To Epictetus, all external events are beyond our control; we should accept whatever happens calmly and dispassionately. However, individuals are responsible for their own actions, which they can examine and control through rigorous self-discipline.
  • Marcus Aurelius was Roman emperor from 161 to 180 and a Stoic philosopher.

This list of Stoic philosophers mentions many more.

What they got wrong[edit | edit source]

The ancient Stoics practiced about 2,000 years ago. We have learned many things since then, and in retrospect it is clear they had many ideas that we now know are wrong. Here is a partial list.

Stoics believed the entire universe is a living organism, endowed with reason. They also believed that God was Zeus. Although modern scientific thinking supersedes these early conjectures, the Stoic concepts of materialism, cause and effect, and determinism are still useful.

Stoic philosophers were typically old white men who owned slaves. We now know that slavery, racism, patriarchy, and other forms of discrimination based on social class are unwise.

The discipline of physics studied by the Stoic philosophers encompassed much of the natural sciences. Modern scientific thinking has superseded many of the nascent ideas ancient Stoics were forming about the natural sciences.

This course values practical advice for living wisely over orthodox adherence to ancient Stoic philosophy. Also, because many of the ancient Stoic’s scientific conjectures have been superseded by modern science, this course will adopt modern scientific knowledge.

None-the-less, the ancient Stoics had many good ideas we can learn from to help us live our lives well today.

Becoming a Sage[edit | edit source]

A sage is a perfect practitioner of Stoic philosophy. The Stoic sage was understood to be an inaccessible ideal rather than a concrete reality.

The aim of Stoicism was to live a life of virtue, where "virtue consists in a will which is in agreement with Nature."[3] As such, the sage is one who has attained such a state of being and whose life consequently becomes tranquil.

Seneca recognized although a human cannot become a sage, we can each continue our journey toward perfection:

"I am not a wise man, and I will not be one in order to feed your spite: so do not require me to be on a level with the best of men, but merely to be better than the worst: I am satisfied, if every day I take away something from my vices and correct my faults. I have not arrived at perfect soundness of mind, indeed, I never shall arrive at it: I compound palliatives rather than remedies for my gout, and am satisfied if it comes at rarer interval—and does not shoot so painfully. Compared with your feet, which are lame, I am a racer." —Seneca, Of a Happy Life, Book XVII. (Emphasis added).

Seneca advised adopting a lifestyle between that of a sage and of an ordinary person:

“This is the mean of which I approve; our life should observe a happy medium between the ways of a sage and the ways of the world at large; all men should admire it, but they should understand it also.”—Seneca, Moral letters to Lucilius, Letter 5, On the philosopher’s mean.

Recognize the sage as an ideal and do your best as you live your life.

Principles[edit | edit source]

The following sections describe the core principles of Stoic philosophy.

Physics[edit | edit source]

Stoics studied natural science, which they called physics, so they could better understand how the world works. They investigated the nature of nature. Stoics recognize that we cannot change the laws of physics and other natural sciences, so these natural laws must be understood to identify what you can change and what must be accepted as unchangeable. Also, because today’s understanding of physics is more accurate, it is prudent to rely on our best current understanding of physics, and other scientific knowledge, when solving today’s problems.

Assignment[edit | edit source]

  • Read the essay on what there is.
  • Optionally continue learning modern physics and other scientific disciplines.

Reason[edit | edit source]

Stoics study logic because they believe that reason is the distinguishing feature of humanity.[4] They study logic, so they could think clearly and form sound arguments.

In a dialogue with someone who asked why logic is useful, Epictetus argued that to answer the question he would have to form a sound argument for the usefulness of logic. Here is the exchange:

“When someone in his audience said, Convince me that logic is necessary, he answered: Do you wish me to demonstrate this to you?—Yes.—Well, then, must I use a demonstrative argument?—And when the questioner had agreed to that, Epictetus asked him. How, then, will you know if I impose upon you?—As the man had no answer to give, Epictetus said: Do you see how you yourself admit that all this instruction is necessary, if, without it, you cannot so much as know whether it is necessary or not?” — Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 2, Chapter 25.

Epictetus argued that the person questioning the value of logic was expecting Epictetus to use logic to answer the question. Logic is so important that it is required to argue for or against the value of logic!

The scope of what the Stoics called ‘logic’ was broad, including not only the analysis of argument forms, but also rhetoric, grammar, the theories of concepts, propositions, perception, and thought. Stoic logic included not only the rules of inference we today call logic, but also the philosophy of language and epistemology—the philosophy of knowledge.[5]

Seneca described the importance of reason in achieving peace of mind:

“What we are seeking, then, is how the mind may always pursue a steady, unruffled course, may be pleased with itself, and look with pleasure upon its surroundings, and experience no interruption of this joy, but abide in a peaceful condition without being ever either elated or depressed: this will be ‘peace of mind.’” Seneca, Of Peace of Mind, II.4.

Assignment[edit | edit source]

Cosmopolitanism[edit | edit source]

A defining feature of Stoicism is its cosmopolitanism; according to the Stoics, all people are manifestations of the one universal spirit and should live in brotherly love and readily help one another.

In the Discourses, Epictetus comments on man's relationship with the world:

"…what other course remains for men but that which Socrates took when asked to what country he belonged, never to say ‘I am an Athenian,’ or ‘I am a Corinthian,’ but ‘I am a citizen of the universe’?"— Epictetus, Discourses, i. 9. 1

Marcus Aurelius also recognized we are each part of a larger social system, as expressed in this quotation:

“As you are yourself a complement of a social system, so let every act of yours be complementary of a social living principle. Every act of yours, therefore, which is not referred directly or remotely to the social end sunders your life, does not allow it to be a unity, and is a partisan act, like a man in a republic who for his own part sunders himself from the harmony of his fellows.” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations Book IX, 23.

Seneca wrote:

“Let this verse be in your heart and on your lips:
        ‘I am a human being, I regard nothing human as foreign to me’.
Let us possess things in common; for birth is ours in common. Our relations with one another are like a stone arch, which would collapse if the stones did not mutually support each other, and which is upheld in this very way."—Seneca, Letters 95.51-53

They described the concept of cosmopolitanism.

Cosmopolitanism can be traced back to Diogenes of Sinope, the founding father of the Cynic movement in Ancient Greece. Of Diogenes it is said: "Asked where he came from, he answered: 'I am a citizen of the world (kosmopolitês)'". In Ancient Greece, the broadest basis of social identity at that time was either the individual city-state or the Greeks (Hellenes) as a group. The Stoics, who later took Diogenes' idea and developed it, typically stressed that each human being "dwells [...] in two communities – the local community of our birth, and the community of human argument and aspiration".

A common way to understand Stoic cosmopolitanism is through Hierocles' circle model of identity that states that we should regard ourselves as concentric circles, the first one around the self, next immediate family, extended family, local group, citizens, countrymen, and finally all of humanity. Within these circles human beings feel a sense of "affinity" or "endearment" towards others, which the Stoics termed oikeiôsis. The task of world citizens becomes then to "draw the circles somehow towards the center, making all human beings more like our fellow city dwellers, and so forth".[6]

Assignment[edit | edit source]

Providence[edit | edit source]

Why do things happen? What is our destiny? To the ancient Stoics, the cosmos is a single pantheistic god, one which is rational and creative, and which is the basis of everything which exists. Reality is identical to divinity. They believed the entire universe is a living organism, endowed with reason. They also believed that God was Zeus. Although modern scientific thinking supersedes these early conjectures, the Stoic concepts of materialism, cause and effect, volition, and determinism are still useful.

Regarding what is real, Stoics distinguished between somata (corporeal, such as rocks) and asomata (incorporeal such as thoughts and square roots) objects. Both are real. The corporeals are said to exist, while the incorporeals are said to subsist.

Stoics understand that effects have causes. Stoics also understand the fallacy of the single cause and they are careful to describe several co-causes along with primary causes that contribute to some effect. Stoics also understand that causes can have both local and global effects.

“…the first postulate must be: 'I am part of the Whole which is governed by Nature'; the second: 'I am allied in some way to the parts that are of the same kind with me.' – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book X,6.

Furthermore, causes may originate internally or externally to you. Volition, known to the ancient Stoics as prohairesis, describes internal causes; our conscious judgments and decisions to act.

The importance of prohairesis for Epictetus is that it exerts a power that allows people to choose how they will react to impressions — pre-cognitive judgments originating from our previous experiences or our subconscious thinking — rationally:

“Remember that it is not he who reviles you or strikes you, who insults you, but it is your opinion about these things as being insulting. When, then, a man irritates you, you must know that it is your own opinion which has irritated you. Therefore especially try not to be carried away by the appearance. For if you once gain time and delay, you will more easily master yourself.” —Epictetus, The Enchiridion, 20.

Stoics are compatibilists—they believe that volition and determinism are mutually compatible and that it is possible to believe in both without being logically inconsistent.

Stoics recognize that life ends at death, so the most we can do is live a life worth living.

Assignment:[edit | edit source]

Virtue[edit | edit source]

Virtue is excellence, and human virtue is excellence in being human— living life well. The ancient Stoics used the word arete—best translated as excellence—to describe virtuous character.

The Stoics advocated virtue ethics which focuses on the character of the person.

“This is why Zeno was the first (in his treatise On the Nature of Man) to designate as the end ‘life in agreement with nature’ (or living agreeably to nature[7] ), which is the same as a virtuous life, virtue being the goal towards which nature guides us.” –Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, Book VII, 87.

Stoics value the four cardinal virtues of:

  1. Providence, also known as practical wisdom,
  2. Justice,
  3. Fortitude, also known as (moral) courage, and
  4. Temperance.

Stoics exercise virtue as social beings, as cosmopolitans, as citizens of the world.

Seneca also connected virtue with happiness:

“True happiness, therefore, consists in virtue: and what will this virtue bid you do? Not to think anything bad or good which is connected neither with virtue nor with wickedness”– Seneca, Of a Happy Life, Book XVI.

Virtue is the chief good because–by definition—it cannot be used for evil. Furthermore, true virtue is the path toward true happiness.

In his easy Of a Happy Life, Seneca identifies virtue as essential to pleasure:

"…for I too say that no one can live pleasantly unless he lives honorably also, and this cannot be the case with dumb animals who measure the extent of their happiness by that of their food. I loudly and publicly proclaim that what I call a pleasant life cannot exist without the addition of virtue. … You devote yourself to pleasures, I check them; you indulge in pleasure, I use it; you think that it is the highest good, I do not even think it to be good: for the sake of pleasure I do nothing, you do everything.” —Seneca, Of a Happy Life, Book X.

Assignment[edit | edit source]

  1. Complete the course segments on the virtues of wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance.
  2. Optionally complete the full course on Virtues.
  3. Optionally complete the course on Moral Reasoning.
  4. Become virtuous.

Good[edit | edit source]

Stoics understand the concept of good only in the context of a virtuous character. A judgment, decision, or action is good if it promotes or demonstrates character virtue, otherwise it is not good. Many conditions, such as wealth rather than poverty or health rather than sickness, can arise in people who are virtuous or in people who lack virtue. Therefore, such conditions are described as indifferent—neither morally good nor morally bad. However, because it is often preferable to be rich and healthy than to be sick and poor, wealth and health are described as being preferred indifferent, and sickness and poverty are described as being dispreferred indifferent conditions.

Character virtue leads to tranquility, and tranquility promotes character virtue.

Practicing virtue leads to a life well lived. Living life well is practicing virtue.

Agency[edit | edit source]

Agency is your ability to act, make things happen, and get things done. It is your ability to influence people, organizations, and events around you. Agency is exercising your personal power to apply your assets, to achieve some goal.

Recognizing that effects have causes, and humans have reason and volition, the Stoics emphasize the role of agency in living life well. Throughout Stoic philosophy, agency is manifest as the dichotomy of control, making judgements and decisions, reappraising impressions, forestalling negative emotions, assenting to judgment or action, deciding to yield to or forestall desire, impulse-control, discipline, and duty.

Dichotomy of Control[edit | edit source]

The Enchiridion begins with the statement:

“Some things are under our control, while others are not under our control. Under our control are conception, choice, desire, aversion, and, in a word, everything that is our own doing; not under our control are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, everything that is not our own doing.” – Epictetus, the Encheiridion, Chapter 1.

Stoics recognized a vital distinction between what you can change and what you cannot change. This is known as the dichotomy of control.

We have a duty to change what we can to live life according to our virtuous character, and to quietly endure what we cannot change.

Marcus Aurelius provides this example and advice:

“The cucumber is bitter? Put it down. There are brambles in the path? Step to one side. That is enough, without also asking: 'Why did these things come into the world at all?'’” — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 8.50.

These is no value in complaining about those things we cannot change.

Author and modern Stoic William Irvine explains it is more accurate to consider a trichotomy of control:[8]

  1. Things we have complete control over,
  2. Things we have no control over, and
  3. Things which we have some but not complete control over.

Examples of thing we have some but not complete control over include impulses, desires, cravings, aversions, phobias, and addictions that arise spontaneously in us, among several others.

Assignment[edit | edit source]

  1. Complete the Wikiversity course What you can change and what you cannot.
  2. Gain the wisdom to know the difference.
  3. Apply your agency to live the virtues.

Reappraising Impressions[edit | edit source]

Stoics describe techniques for attaining impulse control.

Stoics recognize that it is useful to separate an observation from its interpretations. Our interpretation consists of a perception followed by an immediate judgment which Stoics call an “impression”.

In describing his reaction to encountering a storm at sea, Epictetus made a distinction between the storm (something external to him) and his judgments or opinions about the storm (which were internal to him). He said:

“Make it, therefore, your study at the very outset to say to every harsh external impression, ‘You are an external impression and not at all what you appear to be.’ After that examine it and test it by these rules which you have, the first and most important of which is this: Whether the impression has to do with the things which are under our control, or with those which are not under our control; and, if it has to do with some one of the things not under our control, have ready to hand the answer, ‘It is nothing to me.’" – Epictetus, The Discourses, 1.

He recognized the distinction between the storm—an observation of what is happening external to him—and his interpretation, judgment, and reaction to the storm—his instinctive (“first movement of the soul”) fear of the storm. He also recognized that the storm was not in his control, although his judgement and reaction to the storm is in his control. He went on to recognize that he could reinterpret the observation, reappraise his judgment of it and reaction to it, and decide not to fear the storm. Today this is called attaining cognitive distance from an automatic judgement.

Epictetus goes on to say:

“Presently, however, the wise man does not assent to such impressions (that is, these appearances which terrify his mind), he does not approve or confirm them by his opinion, but rejects and repels them and does not think that there is anything formidable in them; and this they say is the difference between the wise man and the fool, that the fool thinks that the impressions which at first strike him as harsh and cruel are really such, and as they go on approves them with his own assent and confirms them by his opinion as if they were really formidable.”[9]

Stoics recognize that nothing is properly considered either good, or bad, aside from those things that are within our own power to control, and the only thing fully in our power to control is our own volition (prohairesis) which exercises the faculty of choice that we use to judge our impressions. By exerting their prohairesis (will, volition, or choice), people can choose rationally how to react to impressions.

This provides Stoics with a powerful method for attaining tranquility. While the automatic reaction is not under our control, the cognitive component is. Therefore, we can challenge our own thoughts (“stare back the thought”) and learn not to yield to irrational or harmful impressions.

Assignment[edit | edit source]

  1. Complete the course on appraising emotional responses.
  2. Complete the course on Coping with Ego.
  3. Separate observation from interpretation.
  4. When encountering negative emotions, stare back the thought, stand in the gap, and reappraise your judgments, decisions, and actions based on principles of Stoic philosophy.

Assent[edit | edit source]

The discipline of assent is the practice of making correct judgements and decisions and acting on those correct judgements. Assent is the recognition that we can think carefully before we act. We can stand in the gap between stimulus and response, and while we are dwelling in that gap we have the opportunity and obligation to apply reason and choose actions that uphold our well-chosen values.

Strive to suspend and refine your judgements. Consider this quotation from the Enchiridion.

“Does a man bathe quickly? Do not say that he bathes badly, but that he bathes quickly. Does a man drink much wine? Do not say that he does this badly, but say that he drinks much. For before you shall have determined the opinion, how do you know whether he is acting wrong? Thus it will not happen to you to comprehend some appearances which are capable of being comprehended, but to assent to others.” Epictetus, The Encheiridion, XLV.

The key skill is to separate the interpretation and judgment from the observation.

Assent only based on adherence to Stoic principles. Base your judgments and decisions on salient Stoic principles including the following:

  1. Prepare by being patient. Do not act rashly. Deliberate carefully and do only what reason commands or what can be rationally justified.
  2. Is this true? Does this correspond to reality as best understood by modern scientific thinking?
  3. Is this reasonable? Is the decision based on representative evidence and sound logic?
  4. Am I being cosmopolitan? Have I adopted a global perspective?
  5. Do I understand the many causes of the relevant effects?
  6. There are many things you can change, and things you cannot change. You cannot change another person. You can change your judgements, decisions, and actions. Separate your interpretation and judgment from your observations. Considering the dichotomy of control, is this something I can control?
  7. Act from your virtuous character. Recognizing that virtue is the only true good; does this action promote virtue?
  8. Ensure your action will be done for the sake of the right end—virtue and the good. Is this good? For whom?
  9. Have I accurately reappraised my impression? Assent to impressions only based on Stoic principles.
  10. We will all die.
  11. Life ends at death.
  12. Is this real good?

Skillful assent is helpful in coping with several negative emotions and life’s inevitable difficulties and setbacks. Specific topics are addressed in the section, below, on Applications.

Desire and Aversion[edit | edit source]

Epictetus describes three applications of what we can call agency, our ability to make choices and act wisely.

If you wish to be wise and good, exercise these three disciplines yourself:

“There are three things in which a man ought to exercise himself who would be wise and good. The first concerns the desires and the aversions, that a man may not fail to get what he desires, and that he may not fall into that which he does not desire. The second concerns the movements (toward) and the movements from an object, and generally in doing what a man ought to do, that he may act according to order, to reason, and not carelessly. The third thing concerns freedom from deception and rashness in judgement, and generally it concerns the assents.” – Epictetus Encheiridion, Book 3, Chapter 2.

Here Epictetus is describing three disciplines:

  1. Wise desire—know what is proper or not to seek or avoid. Exercise courage and temperance.
  2. Wise social action—behave wisely towards others, and
  3. Wise assent—the ability to endorse or reject our impressions based on reasoned adherence to Stoic principles.

We began studying the skill of assent in an earlier section of this course. In this section we apply the skill of assent to the problems of desire and aversion. In the next section we apply assent to social interactions.

Nascent Stoics are constantly tempted by impressions created by desires. These might include temptations to indulge in large meals, sweet desserts, sexual adventures, buying newly stylish clothes, shoes, jewelry, fancy cars, clever gadgets, fame, fortune, or power.

However, we can easily become trapped by the hedonic treadmill — the tendency of humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes. We desire that shiny bright object, we work to obtain it, and it is not long before we become satisfied and then bored with it. We then go on to want the next shiny bright object. They cycle never ends, the frenzy continues, and happiness remains just beyond our reach.

Stoics recognize that it is essential to get off the hedonic treadmill to attain freedom, tranquility, eudaimonia, and the good life.

“…freedom is acquired not by the full possession of the things which are desired, but by removing the desire.” – Epictetus Encheiridion, Book 4, Chapter 1.

Although Stoics may experience impressions of desire, they only asset to desires that are consistent with Stoic principles and that advance character virtue. Stoics want what they have, and rely on the virtues of wisdom, courage, and temperance to dismiss unhelpful impressions of desire.

Similarly, Stoics overcome impressions of aversion to take wise and courageous actions. Nascent Stoics are often averse to undertaking difficult tasks, unpleasant chores, maintaining fitness, difficult conversations, facing fears, persevering toward some goal, overcoming addictions, and confronting phobias. The strategy for overcoming aversions is the same as the strategy for removing desires. Assent to aversions based only on Stoic principles. Take wise and courageous action to promote virtue.

Assignment[edit | edit source]

  1. Read the essay want what you have. (under development)
  2. Practice wanting what you have.
  3. Complete the Wikiversity course What Matters.
  4. Focus on what matters.

Interpersonal Relationships[edit | edit source]

We are inherently social beings. We often interact with others. How can we best interact with others to live our lives well?

As you go about your day you are likely to encounter people who are unskilled in practicing Stoic philosophy. Especially when such novices are co-workers, family members, or others you cannot avoid, each encounter provides a valuable opportunity to practice your Stoic skills.

Begin by recalling essential principles of Stoic philosophy, described in sections above. Ensure each social interaction is based on Stoic principles and advances your virtue. This can be especially difficult when others abuse or insult you.

Regarding insults, including scolding, slights, snubs, or even dirty looks, smirks, or snickers, Epictetus says

“If someone brings you word that So-and-so is speaking ill of you, do not defend yourself against what has been said, but answer, ‘Yes, indeed, for he did not know the rest of the faults that attach to me; if he had, these would not have been the only ones he mentioned.’" — Epictetus, The Enchiridion 33.

Pause to consider if the insult is true or false. If the insult is true you then thank the person for the helpful feedback, however if it's false then they are the one who is in error. You can't control the insult but only your reaction to it.

It is wise to remain humble and learn from constructive feedback, especially when it is provided by experts, teachers, or other wise people.

Reminding us of the dichotomy of control, Epictetus advises:

“Remember that it is not he who reviles you or strikes you, who insults you, but it is your opinion about these things as being insulting. When, then, a man irritates you, you must know that it is your own opinion which has irritated you. Therefore especially try not to be carried away by the appearance. For if you once gain time and delay, you will more easily master yourself.” — Epictetus, The Enchiridion, XX.

Stoics often react to false insults in one of two ways 1) react as a stone would, or 2) respond with self-deprecating humor.

Try this. Pick up a stone and hold it in your hand. Do your best to insult it. Notice how the stone reacts. Continue your insults, increasing their intensity and viciousness. Notice how the stone reacts. Keep going, do not stop, use better insults. Notice how the stone reacts.

You can decide to react to insults the same way the stone reacts. Ignore the insults, do not respond, and your insulter will eventually stop, and may even feel foolish.

Alternatively, you can respond with self-deprecating humor, as Epictetus did. If someone insults your weight, ask why he did not also insult your clothing, or your lack of intelligence.

Author and modern Stoic William Irvine keeps a list of Stoic-inspired responses to insults.[10]

The Stoics do advise correcting a foolish insulter if some asymmetrical yet helpful relationship is being challenged, or some vulnerability is being exploited. For example, if a student insults a teacher, a layperson insults an expert, or if anyone insults a disadvantaged person, the cheap shot needs to be corrected.

Seneca explains:

“…the wise man, therefore, is quite justified in treating the affronts which he receives from such men as jokes: and sometimes he corrects them, as he would children, by pain and punishment, not because he has received an injury, but because they have done one and in order that they may do so no more… . ‘Why, if the wise man receives neither injury nor insult, he punishes those who do these things?" He does not revenge himself, but corrects them.’” — Seneca, On the firmness of the Wise Man, XII.

Assignment[edit | edit source]

  1. Complete the Wikiversity course on Dignity.
  2. Expect dignity. Treat others with dignity.
  3. Complete the Wikiversity course on Living the Golden Rule.
  4. Live the golden rule.
  5. Complete the Wikiversity course on Global Perspective.
  6. Maintain a global perspective.
  7. Become cosmopolitan. Act as a citizen of the world.

Duty[edit | edit source]

What is the duty of a Stoic?

In this passage Marcus Aurelius tells us we each have a duty to do the work of a human being.

“On those mornings you struggle with getting up, keep this thought in mind—I am awakening to the work of a human being. Why then am I annoyed that I am going to do what I’m made for, the very things for which I was put into this world? Or was I made for this, to snuggle under the covers and keep warm? It’s so pleasurable. Were you then made for pleasure? In short, to be coddled or to exert yourself?” —Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 5.1.

He is telling us to perform the work of a human being each day. Each of us has a duty to be excellent at being human. Each human has been granted one life and each of us has a duty to live that one life well. We awake each morning to perform the work of a human being.

Stoics have a duty to live lives well, but how do we do that? As we encounter difficult choices, we can remember to do what a sage would do in a similar situation. And what might that be?

The concept and obligations of duty, as understood by ancient Stoic philosophers, is disputed, however here is a well-considered interpretation.[11]

In the first book of De Officiis, Cicero identifies four roles, or persona, that each human fulfills.[12] These roles are:

  1. Universal human nature, the role of a rational social animal,
  2. Individual nature, including both physical characteristics and temperament,
  3. Characteristics bestowed by chance, such as wealth, reputation, status, etc., and
  4. Characteristics chosen by our own volition, such as our vocation.

Stoics consider each of these roles in determining what they ought to do. Stoics begin deliberation by considering virtue first and employing various criteria (regulae) to rule out all considered actions that go against virtue.[13]

Although the writing of no single ancient Stoic presents a complete formula for deciding what to do, one careful reading and synthesis of texts suggests the following general decision structure:[14]

  1. Prepare by being patient. Do not act rashly. Deliberate carefully and do only what reason commands or what can be rationally justified.
  1. Begin by ensuring your action will be done for the sake of the right end—virtue and the good.
    • When you feel aversion toward an object, decision, or action, employ your reason to test it,
    • If some course of action seems expedient, apply reason to test it. Take no actions that are morally wrong. If you are inclined to conceal your actions, they are likely to be morally wrong. If an action is contrary to your normal behavior and good character, it is probably morally wrong.
  2. When these deliberations identify what you ought to do, then act to fulfill your duty.

Our duty is to act for the good. Only after virtue is assured, can we then choose the preferred indifferent over the dispreferred indifferent.

Assignment[edit | edit source]

  1. Act only for the good.
  2. Perform the excellent work of a human being.

CBT Connection[edit | edit source]

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a modern therapy approach intended to improve mental health. CBT focuses on challenging and changing cognitive distortions (e.g. thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes) and behaviors, improving emotional regulation, and the development of personal coping strategies that target solving current problems.

Precursors of certain fundamental aspects of CBT have been identified in various ancient philosophical traditions, particularly Stoicism. Stoic philosophers, particularly Epictetus, believed logic could be used to identify and discard false beliefs that lead to destructive emotions, which has influenced the way modern cognitive-behavioral therapists identify cognitive distortions that contribute to depression and anxiety.

Assignment[edit | edit source]

Seeking Real Good[edit | edit source]

In their own time, in their own ways, the ancient Stoics were seeking real good. To understand what is real they studied natural science as their discipline of physics. To understand what is good, they studied how to live life well, which they understood as living according to the virtues.

Assignment[edit | edit source]

Applications[edit | edit source]

Stoic philosophy applies to many daily events and problems. Each of the following individual lessons treats a particular topic. Study the topics that interest you.

  • Want what you have,
  • Stoic forbearance,
  • Stoic grieving,
  • Stoic courage
  • Stoic equanimity (overcoming anxiety)
  • Evaluating insults.

Exercises[edit | edit source]

Many exercises have been developed that can help you apply Stoic philosophy throughout your daily life. Several are listed here. Practice those that interest you.

  • Window non-shopping
  • Dress with less.
  • Negative visualization
  • Reflection meditation
  • Internalizing goals

Reflections from the Ancient Stoics[edit | edit source]

Several of the ancient Stoics wrote letters, diaries, handbooks, and other forms of advice that remain valuable today.

Here is an introduction to several of these resources.

  • Lessons from the Enchiridion
  • Seneca’s letters to Lucilius
  • Epictetus on the Importance of Reason
  • Epictetus on how to be free
  • Seneca on the shortness of life
  • Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius

Summary and Conclusions[edit | edit source]

Study, learn from, and practice these Stoic principles:

  1. Prepare by being patient. Do not act rashly. Deliberate carefully and do only what reason commands or what can be rationally justified.
  2. Is this true? Does this correspond to reality as best understood by modern scientific thinking?
  3. Is this reasonable? Is the decision based on representative evidence and sound logic?
  4. Am I being cosmopolitan? Have I adopted a global perspective?
  5. Do I understand the many causes of the relevant effects?
  6. There are many things you can change, and things you cannot change. You cannot change another person. You can change your judgements, decisions, and actions. Separate your interpretation and judgment from your observations. Considering the dichotomy of control, is this something I can control?
  7. Act from your virtuous character. Recognizing that virtue is the only true good; does this action promote virtue?
  8. Ensure your action will be done for the sake of the right end—virtue and the good. Is this good? For whom?
  9. Have I accurately reappraised my impression? Assent to impressions only based on Stoic principles.
  10. We will all die.
  11. Life ends at death.
  12. Is this real good?

Primary references[edit | edit source]

English language translations of some of the ancient Stoic philosophers’ writings are freely available on-line.

Recommend Reading[edit | edit source]

Students wishing to learn more about Stoicism may be interested in reading the following books:

I have not yet read the following books, but they seem interesting and relevant. They are listed here to invite further research.

  • A New Stoicism, by Lawrence C. Becker
  • A Handbook for New Stoics: How to Thrive in a World Out of Your Control—52 Week-by-Week Lessons, by Massimo Pigliucci and Gregory Lopez
  • How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life, by Massimo Pigliucci
  • Stoicism and the Art of Happiness: Practical wisdom for everyday life: embrace perseverance, strength and happiness with stoic philosophy, by Donald Robertson

Additional Resources[edit | edit source]

These resources may also be useful as you study and practice Stoic philosophy.

Notes[edit | edit source]

  1. A New Stoicism, by Lawrence C. Becker as reported in A Guide to the Good Life, @96 of 1090.
  2. A Guide to the Good Life, @28 or 1090.
  3. Not to be confused with the naturalistic fallacy, but understood instead as excellence in being human.
  4. A Guide to the Good Life @93 of 1090.
  5. Baltzly, Dirk, "Stoicism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
  6. The Morality of Happiness, Annas, as reported in A New Stoicism, Lawrence C. Becker
  7. Not to be confused with the naturalistic fallacy.
  8. A guide to the good life, @222 of 1090.
  9. Epictetus fragment #9 in Aulus Gellius Attic Nights 19. I
  10. A guide to the good life, Chapter 11.
  11. The Invention of Duty: Stoicism as Deontology, Doctoral Dissertation, Vanya Visnjic, 2018.
  12. As cited in The Invention of Duty: Stoicism as Deontology, Doctoral Dissertation, Vanya Visnjic, 2018, Page 182
  13. The Invention of Duty: Stoicism as Deontology, Doctoral Dissertation, Vanya Visnjic, 2018. Page 82.
  14. The Invention of Duty: Stoicism as Deontology, Doctoral Dissertation, Vanya Visnjic, 2018. Page 123.