Welcome to How to Be a Stoic! It began back in March ’15 as a blog to track my personal journey into modern practical Stoicism. The blog has now moved to Patreon and I hope you will follow me there.

However, the full archive of 425 posts and a whopping 4,600 comments will remain permanently available for free. You will also find here links to a number of podcasts and guest articles I wrote about Stoicism, collections of essays, practical meditations, suggestions for books, a Stoicism 101 section, and information about my contemporary school of Stoicism — the Stoa Nova. These pages will keep being updated as new material becomes available.

I hope you will enjoy this site and that it will help you in your continuing quest for understanding and practicing this ancient philosophy.


Massimo Pigliucci

(the City College of New York)

How to make progress with your Stoic practice (or learn to drive a car), Epictetus style

“you are just an impression!” (from Action Philosophers!)

There are different ways to understand and practice Stoic philosophy, and this is true not just for the differences between ancient and modern Stoicism, but even within ancient Stoicism itself. After all, the philosophy evolved over a course of more than five centuries from Zeno of Citium to Marcus Aurelius, and it is still evolving today, after an hiatus of 18 centuries.

One of the classic ways to approach Stoicism is through Epictetus’ famous three disciplines: desire/aversion, action, and assent. I have discovered that I’m partial to this way of thinking, since I structured my first book on Stoicism according to the Epictetean disciplines, and I’m currently finishing a new book on Stoic spiritual exercises with my friend Greg Lopez, also, as it happens, organized using the same framework.

The basic outline of the three disciplines is found in Discourses III.2, a section entitled “What a person must train himself in if he is to make progress, and that we neglect what is most important.” Here is how Epictetus puts it (from the excellent Oxford Classics translation by Robin Hard):

“There are three areas of study in which someone who wants to be virtuous and good must be trained: that which relates to desires and aversions, so that he may neither fail to get what he desires, nor fall into what he wants to avoid; that which relates to our motives to act or not to act, and, in general, appropriate behaviour, so that he may act in an orderly manner and with good reason, rather than carelessly; and thirdly, that which relates to the avoidance of error and hasty judgement, and, in general, whatever relates to assent.” (III.2.1-2)

Epictetus goes on to actually tells us which discipline is most important:

“Of these, the most important and most urgent is that which is concerned with the passions, for these arise in no other way than through our being frustrated in our desires and falling into what we want to avoid. This is what brings about disturbances, confusions, misfortunes, and calamities, and causes sorrow, lamentation, and envy, making people envious and jealous, with the result that we become incapable of listening to reason.” (III.2.3)

Once we have reasonably mustered the discipline of desire/aversion, we can move on to the discipline of action, which is concerned with putting into practice what we have learned so far:

“The second is concerned with appropriate action; for I shouldn’t be unfeeling like a statue, but should preserve my natural and acquired relationships, as one who honours the gods, as a son, as a brother, as a father, as a citizen.” (III.2.4)

Finally, the advanced student can move to the third and last discipline:

“The third belongs to those who are already making progress, and is concerned with the achievement of constancy in the matters already covered, so that even when we’re asleep, or drunk, or depressed, no untested impression that presents itself may catch us off guard.” (III.2.5)

Epictetus even goes on to complain that some misguided colleagues put too much emphasis on logic chopping, considering the discipline of assent as the primary one:

“But philosophers nowadays neglect the first and second areas of study to concentrate on the third, dealing with equivocal arguments, and those that are developed through questioning, and those that are fallacious, like ‘the Liar.’” (III.2.6)

He chides his students, warning them not to fall into this trap, out of too much self-assurance:

“Is it in this regard that you fall short, then? Have you achieved perfection in the other areas of study? When a bit of money is involved, are you secure against deception? If you see a pretty girl, can you resist the impression? If your neighbour receives an inheritance, don’t you feel a bite of envy? And are you lacking in nothing else at present than unshakeable judgement?” (III.2.8)

One way to make sense of what Epictetus is saying here is that our progress in Stoicism should follow something like this sequence:

theoretical understanding of the basics > practical implementation > refinement and automation

The discipline of desire/aversion tells us very clearly what we should properly desire (good judgments) and be averse to (bad judgements), together with whatever is neutral or “indifferent” (everything else). What is this knowledge good for? So that we can act properly toward other people, which is the essence of the discipline of action. After all, “ethics” and “morality” respectively come from Greek and Latin words referring to our character and our social customs. The very point of ethics is to learn how to live pro-socially. Once we are more comfortable with the first two disciplines, then, we can move to refine our understanding of “impressions,” interrogating them whenever they arise, in a way made memorable by another Epictetean quote:

“Practise, then, from the very beginning to say to every disagreeable impression, ‘You’re an impression and not at all what you appear to be.’ Then examine it and test it by these rules that you possess, and first and foremost by this one, whether the impression relates to those things that are within our power, or those that aren’t within our power; and if it relates to anything that isn’t within our power, be ready to reply, ‘That’s nothing to me.’” (Enchiridion I.5)

It strikes me that this sequence is pretty much the way we learn lots of things that have theoretical and practical components. For instance, driving a car. Typically, you begin with a bit of theory, during which an instructor, or a book, tells you the things that it is proper to “desire” (e.g., putting blinkers on when turning, respecting speed limits, etc.) and those to be “averse” to (e.g., crossing a red light, not respecting pedestrian precedence). You then begin to put these precepts into practice, because after all you are going to driving school not just for the sake of learning the theory, but because you want to drive a real car, on actual streets. (This step is where a lot of philosophy gets lost: many of my colleagues, and consequently their students, stop at the theory, as if it had intrinsic value without the practice.) Finally, once you are confident about the basics of how theory and action go together, you can get more nuanced and begin to automate your behaviors, so that you don’t have to stop and consciously take care of every detail while you are driving. Internalizing the theory makes the practice smooth, and you graduate from beginner to experienced driver. Or student of Stoicism!

The analogy between finding your path to virtue and learning to drive a car can be pushed even a bit further, I think, though one ought to be wary of not stretching analogies to the breaking point, after which they become useless or downright misleading.

Once we learn how to drive, we usually don’t forget it. The acquired skills stay with us. Analogously, several (though not all) ancient Stoics thought that once acquired, virtue cannot be lost. And yet, we can make sense of those cases in which we do lose it: if we suffer an injury that impairs parts of our body or brain that are necessary to drive, we won’t be able to do it any longer. Similarly, there may be situations in life (e.g., a degenerative brain disease) that will actually make us regress in terms of virtue. Moreover, unless we are Formula 1 drivers (and not even then, really!) we are not perfect, and we can incur into accidents. But the right attitude in those cases is to learn from our mistakes, overcome our fear of getting into a car again, and resume driving. Similarly, we can slip back in our virtuous practice, but that’s no reason to give it up. We pick ourselves up, reflect on where we went wrong, and resume our quest for becoming better human beings.

Stoics should be vegetarian

Summer by Giuseppe Arcimboldo

Vegetarianism is a big deal, ethically speaking. It was put on the map in terms of public philosophy by utilitarian Peter Singer, with his landmark Animal Liberation, published back in 1975. In truth, utilitarians have been very clear on the subject from the beginning. The founder of the approach, Jeremy Bentham, famously said that when it comes to the treatment of animals “the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?” (in: Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, 1789).

What about Stoicism? A recent article by Jeremy Corter over at Modern Stoicism summarizes the situation as far as the ancient texts are concerned. I will not repeat Jeremy’s points here, since he does a superb job of it. After parsing several quotes from Zeno, Chrysippus, Seneca, Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, he concludes (correctly, in my view): “Stoicism and vegetarianism are two separate philosophies. Stoic teachings never denounced eating animals and, in fact, often stated that animals were there for us to use. Musonius and Seneca are the only two Stoics we know of that were vegetarians, but neither cite any Stoic arguments for being so. Seneca cites Pythagoras and it would be safe to think that Musonius would have been aware of the same reasons.”

So why am I not ending the post here? Because of this, one of my favorite quotes from Seneca:

“Will I not walk in the footsteps of my predecessors? I will indeed use the ancient road — but if I find another route that is more direct and has fewer ups and downs, I will stake out that one. Those who advanced these doctrines before us are not our masters but our guides. The truth lies open to all; it has not yet been taken over. Much is left also for those yet to come.” (Letters to Lucilius, XXXIII.11)

I think vegetarianism is, in fact, one of those cases where the ancient road is not the best one, and we need to revise it. Full disclosure here: I am not a complete vegetarian, though I heavily lean that way. My eating habits can best be described as vegetarianism with the addition of occasional wild caught fish thrown into the mix (paying attention to whether the species in question is being overfished). I have never considered veganism seriously, even though the ethical argument there is at least as strong as the one for vegetarianism (though it’s not easy to be a healthy vegan, an issue I don’t want to get into here because it would distract from the main point). You could accuse me of hypocrisy, and I will respond that I’m trying to do my best, and that at any rate I’m doing more than a lot of other people. Never claimed to be a sage, never will.

As Corter himself recognizes near the end of his essay, this is of course a variation of the somewhat annoying generic question: “is X Stoic?” He is somewhat dismissive of the question itself, which — to be sure — is often abused on social media. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a sensible question. Jeremy says “the Stoics don’t ‘approve’ of anything besides virtue … In short, it’s all indifferent.” Well, not exactly.

To begin with, virtue means nothing in a vacuum. Virtue is a propensity to engage in certain behaviors because that’s the right thing to do (as oppose to a vice, which is a propensity to engage in the wrong sort of behavior). One cannot be courageous, or just, or temperate, or prudent (phronesis) in the abstract. Virtue is considered by the Stoics the chief good because it can never, by definition, be used for ill. But it needs to be used for something nonetheless!

For what? Well, for handling the indifferents, which as we know come in two categories: preferred and dispreferred. This means that it is a bit too reductive and glib to say that the Stoics approve only of virtue because the rest is indifferent. The Stoics, for instance, opposed tyranny, and several of them lost their lives fighting it. Clearly, that means they disapproved of it! Seneca even approved of something as apparently neutral as rest and relaxation, as he makes clear in On Tranquillity of Mind, XVII.

So “is vegetarianism Stoic?” is a real question, and we need to find the answer not in the specifics of what the ancient said (since they are our guides, not our masters), but in the resources offered by the Stoic philosophical system as a whole. This approach is not unusual, being the same sort of exercise that modern Buddhists, say, or Christians, or Jews, engage in whenever looking at their own tradition for guidance concerning modern issues.

Indeed, the likely answer (in the affirmative) to the question of whether vegetarianism is Stoic is hinted at by Jeremy himself, near the end of his essay. He writes: “The Stoics felt that animals were there for human use, including for the use of food. This isn’t to say that the Stoics would have been in favor of factory farming or animal abuse. The Stoics thought that animals had souls, not like a human’s, but a soul nonetheless. Maybe I’m overthinking this part, but I’m suspecting that if they truly thought this, a Stoic would lean towards, if not protecting animals, at the very least not abusing and exploiting them.”

Corter is not overthinking at all. He just should have pursued that line of thinking a bit further. We know a lot more nowadays about animal suffering than the Stoics did two millennia ago. Moreover, we have developed truly horrific standardized practices for the treatment of animals in quantities that the Stoics could not have imagined.

Just to give you an idea, these are the USDA statistics of slaughtered animals for the year 2008, obviously limited to the USA only:

Cattle: 35,507,500
Pigs: 116,558,900
Chickens: 9,075,261,000
Layer hens: 69,683,000
Turkeys: 271,245,000

I strongly suggest these numbers ought to disturb you, especially if you know anything about how all of this is actually done. And that’s without bringing into consideration additional factors that the ancient Stoics were not concerned with, like labor practices (generally speaking, horrible) and environmental impact (not at all good, to put it very mildly).

Given all this, I strongly suggest that modern Stoics should lean heavily toward vegetarianism, or at the very least endorse only humane practices of raising and killing animals, as it is done in a number of small, independently owned farms. The problem is that that model simply does not scale up to feeding billions of human beings, which means that, for practical purposes, Stoics should indeed be vegetarian.

But what about the idea — which the ancient Stoics surely did have — that animals and plants are here to satisfy human needs? That idea stemmed from the Stoic concept of a providential universe, understood as a living organism itself, endowed with the Logos, the capacity for rationality.

The problem is that modern science very clearly tells us that that’s not the kind of universe we exist in. Plants and other animals are the product of billions of years of evolution, just like ourselves, and so in no rational way can they be said to be here “for” us. Seneca, above, said that the truth lies open to all; it has not yet been taken over, as much is left for those yet to come. Well, two thousand years later we are still searching for a lot of truths, but we have found out a few more than in Seneca’s time. It is our ethical duty, therefore, to update our practices accordingly. Remember that one of the pillars of Stoic philosophy is precisely that the “physics” (i.e., all of natural science) should inform our ethics, so better knowledge of biology in particular should redirect the way we think about what is right and what is wrong when it comes to eating habits.

Jeremy argues that vegetarianism is an indifferent, and that “like any indifferent, it doesn’t make you a good or bad person.” I think that’s not the right way to look at it. Our diet is more properly referred to as the indifferent, but deciding what we eat and why is very much a reflection of our character, and therefore a function of how we exercise the virtues. As Epictetus put it in a different context:

“What decides whether a sum of money is good? The money is not going to tell you; it must be the faculty that makes use of such impressions — reason.” (Discourses I, 1.5)

Substitute “diet” for “money” and you can answer in the same way: reason. And reason — given contemporary scientific knowledge — very much tells us that we, as Stoics, ought to be vegetarians. Therefore, I’m going to redouble my personal efforts to follow this path and further reduce my intake of other foodstuff. I hope you will join me, to reduce both suffering in the world and our carbon footprint as a species. And Seneca adds, you’ll also feel better and think more clearly.


P.S.: very likely, there will be people who will read the above and argue the facts. I have neither time nor inclination to debate the science, so I will not respond. I have looked long and hard, as a biologist, into the various issues surrounding vegetarianism, and I have concluded to my own satisfaction that a vegetarian diet is: (i) better in terms of the ethics of animal suffering (though not as good as a vegan one); (ii) better for the environment; (iii) not supportive of horrible labor practices that are commonly engaged in by large agricultural corporations; and (iv) better for your health. If you are not convinced, that’s your prerogative, and clearly outside my control.

Stoic Q&A: can virtue justify evil?

which role model?

[Feel free to submit a question for this column, addressing it at massimo at howtobeastoic dot org.]

V. writes: My question is: can Stoic virtues be used as excuses to conduct evil deeds? I’m asking this question for several reasons. First, in the current political climate, the term “loyalty” frequently comes up and is often labelled a “virtue.” Loyalty isn’t a Stoic virtue, and in fact I wonder if it’s a virtue at all or it is just tool to keep people under control. Historically, people have often done evil things under the cover of “loyalty,” particularly “loyalty to my country.”

However, this does make me question the philosophical concept of virtue, and whether it can be used to be a cover for evil deeds. Let’s look at the Stoic virtues: temperance, courage, wisdom and justice. Say that somehow I managed to get into Adolf Hitler’s head and had a conversation with his rather deranged soul. Please understand that I think Hitler did very evil things, yet he would plausibly think of himself as a virtuous man, because he thought that the German people were truly superior, and that if the world were controlled by a superior race, this would benefit humanity as a whole.

Back to modern days, I could list many evil things done under the flag of “loyalty is a virtue.” I’m wondering if Stoic virtues are any different? Can they also be used as a cover to conduct evil deeds? Would it be better to not have “virtues” at all?

This is a great question, even though I am weary of an increasingly popular informal logical fallacy, sometimes referred to as “reductio ad Hitlerium” (I’m not making this up!), the idea that an example based on Hitler somehow trumps everything else. But let’s go with it, because if the Stoic concept of virtue can withstand a reductio ad Hitlerium, then we are in good shape!

You may recall from previous posts (e.g., here and here) that the Socratic-Stoic idea is that nobody commits evil on purpose, only out of “ignorance.” Ignorance, however, does not mean lack of information, or even of formal education. The Greek word is amathia, which translates best to un-wisdom. And yes, even Hitler did what he did because of amathia. Even he probably (I’m guessing here) did not go up to his mirror in the morning, looked at his reflection and broke into an evil laugh, wondering with eagerness what sorts of mayhem he could get away with today. As you say, he had a (highly twisted, deranged) conception of the superiority of the German “race,” which — coupled with a sort of Social Darwinism — led him to truly believe that the world would be better off under the German boot. Horrifying tragedy for millions of people followed from such spectacular lack of wisdom, as we all know.

This, it turns out, is a really hard to accept example of a Stoic paradox (literally meaning, from the ancient Greek root, uncommon opinion), as I experience every time I tweet something about amathia: people love to think that “evil” is a metaphysical essence that affects specific individuals, I suspect so that they can demonize said individuals and not bother with a more nuanced analysis of what happened and what made it possible (after all, Hitler didn’t do the Holocaust by himself).

On my part, the concept that bad things are done out of lack of wisdom has been liberating, as it has allowed me to confront and resist injustice, while at the same time not forget that even people who do really bad things are still human beings, made of the same flesh and bones as everyone else, and at least potentially capable of the same sparks of intelligence and empathy as I am.

But let’s go back to the broader question of whether virtue can be used as an excuse to do bad things. Empirically, as you point out, the answer is clearly yes. And indeed, nationalism is a very common occurrence of this phenomenon. In my How to Be a Stoic I mention the famous phrase, often brought up in the United States, “my country, right or wrong” (ch. 13, p. 154). The original attribution of the quote is to Stephen Decatur, a US naval officer who allegedly said in an after-dinner toast in 1816: “Our Country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but right or wrong, our Country!”

Now compare this to a similar remark made by US Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz in front of the Senate, on 29 February 1872: “My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.”

The contrast between these two uses of the expression is precisely the one you are getting at: Decatur undoubtedly thought what he was saying to be obviously virtuous, but the real virtue lies in Schurz’s version. How can we tell the difference? That’s the tricky part. There is no hard and fast rule. Anyone can claim the mantle of virtue, but that doesn’t mean that everyone is justified in doing so. One has to reflect on the specific issue, make an argument for why what one is saying or doing is indeed virtuous. And listen to others who think otherwise, weighing their arguments properly.

There is, in other words, no shortcut to virtue, no certainty in virtue ethics, no simple algorithm that will guarantee you a virtuous outcome. This is why the Stoics insisted that only the sage is truly virtuous, while the rest of us are — at best — proficientes: those who make progress. And how do we know that we are making progress? Because we confront ourselves with others, as we are all doing on this blog, or on the Facebook Stoicism page. That is also why the concept of role models is so crucial to Stoic practice. As Seneca aptly puts it:

“Choose therefore a Cato; or, if Cato seems too severe a model, choose some Laelius, a gentler spirit. Choose a master whose life, conversation, and soul-expressing face have satisfied you; picture him always to yourself as your protector or your pattern. For we must indeed have someone according to whom we may regulate our characters; you can never straighten that which is crooked unless you use a ruler.” (Letters XI.10)

Stoic advice: my friend is a jerk, what do I do?

[Feel free to submit a question for this column, addressing it at massimo at howtobeastoic dot org. However, consider that I have a significant backlog, and I may not get to your question for some time, or at all.]

M. writes: My friend has been an avid member of the Red Pill community for the past year and it has inflated his ego to completely disproportionate levels, reaching heights of selfishness and arrogance I hadn’t seen before. We were walking down the street and an old lady walking with a frame was coming in our direction. I immediately moved aside in order to give her room. I looked at my friend and he wasn’t moving. He made the old lady stop and walk around him, after which he looked at me, a grin on his face, and said “I move for nobody.”

I didn’t say anything at the moment and haven’t brought it up since. I haven’t seen much of him since then, given that I wouldn’t reply to his messages out of sheer astonishment and a feeling of resentment into seeing what my friend has become. Seeing how unjust and disrespectful this was really got to me. This has been turning in my head ever since I witnessed his behavior, trying to figure out what the best mode of action is. I know his behavior is something external to me and it doesn’t affect me directly but it’s the idea of being associated with someone who acts this way that gets to me. I know that he has quite a lot of unresolved issues which may fuel this behavior of his, but as much as this may explain his actions, it doesn’t justify them.

So here I am, accepting that my friend is acting like a jerk but I know I can do something about it and not just accept it. I just need some advice as to what the more just way of reacting would be.

First off, thanks for educating me on Red Pill, whose existence I was unaware of until I read your letter, and about which I had to do some research (see this article, for instance). My reaction to this and similar kinds of communities (like the “Men Going Their Own Way” group) is one of sadness. On the one hand, it is clear that they are populated by a lot of lonely and angry men, with serious problems. On the other hand, their attitude is clearly toxic, sexist, and often downright misogynist. These are the same kind of people who tend to be influenced by the likes of Jordan Peterson, about whom I have written — not in a positive fashion — from a Stoic perspective.

There are two questions here, Stoically speaking: how should we think of people like your friend? How should we behave, as friends and more broadly fellow human beings, toward them?

I hope I do not have to make much of an argument that Red Pill, MGTOW, and such are not in line with Stoic values. Stoicism is inclusive and treats everyone equally (because of its cosmopolitanism), and the virtue of justice (which has to do with how to properly treat other people) seems to me to be in direct opposition to your friend’s rude behavior to the old lady.

That said, one of the most important, and at the same time really hard to internalize, concepts of Stoic-Socratic philosophy is the idea that people don’t do bad things on purpose (meaning because they want to be bad), but due to their lack of wisdom, or amathia. This is evident from your friend’s own justification for his action: “I move for nobody,” meaning that he has somehow convinced himself that it is not right for him to yield to anyone, presumably because he wants respect and is under the (misguided) impression that one way to get it is to be rude to old ladies.

I think the proper Stoic attitude toward these people is pity, not contempt. So that is what you should work toward. Here is what Epictetus says about this:

“We use labels like ‘thief’ and ‘robber’ in connection with them, but what do these words mean? They merely signify that people are confused about what is good and what is bad. So should we be angry with them, or should we pity them instead?” (Discourses I, 18.3)

Also, remember that we ourselves may have erred in similar or equally inexcusable ways, and should therefore be a bit humble when we regard the mistakes made by others:

“When you are offended at any man’s fault, immediately turn to yourself and reflect in what manner you yourself have erred: for example, in thinking that money is a good thing, or pleasure, or a bit of reputation, and the like.” (Meditations, X.30)

Now, how should we treat people who lack wisdom and consequently make mistakes? The standard Stoic approach is beautifully expressed in this quote by Marcus:

“They are certainly moved toward things because they suppose them to be suitable to their nature and profitable to them. ‘But it is not so.’ Teach them then, and show them without being angry.” (Meditations VI.27)

However, I do think there is a limit to the idea of teaching or simply putting up with people like your friend. For one thing, most people don’t want to be taught, and they will not be receptive to you until they themselves figure out that there is something amiss and ask spontaneously for your advice. Part of the calculation here concerns just how close of a friend the person in question is, and therefore how much friendship capital, so to speak, you are in a position to spend in your attempt to help him out of his situation.

At some point, however, there is a danger that instead of you helping him, he will be the one to drag you away from virtue, perhaps insinuating in your mind that something like Red Pill is a good idea after all. That’s the point when you may need to follow Epictetus and simply look for better company:

“Avoid fraternizing with non-philosophers [i.e., people who don’t try to improve themselves]. If you must, though, be careful not to sink to their level; because, you know, if a companion is dirty, his friends cannot help but get a little dirty too, no matter how clean they started out.” (Enchiridion 33.6)

This is tricky, as it sounds impossibly snobbish, even though it is hardly different from the very sensible advice your mother probably gave you when you were a kid, to be careful about which company you keep. The upshot is: do your best, don’t judge your friend harshly, and try genuinely to be helpful to him. But if he is not ready, you are under no obligation of sticking around until your own soul becomes dyed with the same dark thoughts.

The evolution of ancient Stoicism, and why it matters today

the ancient theater at Pergamon (photo by the Author)

Modern Stoics are interested in picking up the ancient tradition while at the same time updating it and molding it to modern times. For some reason, this is often considered a controversial thing, with flying accusations of cherry picking and dire warnings about the result not “really” being Stoic enough. But this is rather baffling, as philosophies, like (and more readily than) religions, do evolve over time, and indeed some of them have this attitude of constant revision built in. Just consider one of my favorite quotes from Seneca:

“Will I not walk in the footsteps of my predecessors? I will indeed use the ancient road — but if I find another route that is more direct and has fewer ups and downs, I will stake out that one. Those who advanced these doctrines before us are not our masters but our guides. The truth lies open to all; it has not yet been taken over. Much is left also for those yet to come.” (Letters to Lucilius, XXXIII.11)

(For one concerted effort at updating Stoicism see here; for some of the predictable growing pains of the movement see here; and check here for a smorgasbord of our modern critics.)

In fact, ancient Stoicism itself underwent a number of changes that are well recorded in both primary and secondary texts. The early Stoics used a different approach and emphasis from the late ones, and there were unorthodox Stoics like Aristo of Chios (who was closer to Cynicism and rejected the importance of physics and logic in favor of ethics), Herillus of Carthage (who thought that knowledge was the goal of life), and Panaetius (who introduced some eclecticism in the doctrine). There were heretics who left the school, like Dionysius of Heraclea, who suffered from a painful eye infection and went Cyrenaic.

Even within the mainstream, though, one gets fairly different, if obviously continuous, pictures of Stoicism moving from the early Stoa of Zeno and Chrysippus to the late Stoa of Seneca and Epictetus, with major differences even between the latter two. While an accessible scholarly treatment of this can be found in the excellent Cambridge Companion to the Stoics (especially chapters 1 and 2), I want to focus here on some obvious distinctions among the early Stoa, Seneca, and Epictetus, distinctions that I think both illustrate how Stoicism has always been an evolving philosophy, and provide inspiration to modern Stoics who may wish to practice different “flavors” of the philosophy, depending on their personal inclinations and circumstances.

I. The early Stoa: live according to nature and the four virtues

The major sources we have about the philosophy of the early Stoa, from the founding of the school by Zeno of Citium circa 300 BCE to when Panaetius (who is considered to belong to the middle Stoa) moved to Rome around 138 BCE, are Diogenes Laertius’ Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers, and a number of Stoic-influenced works by Cicero.

Reading through these sources, it is quite obvious that the early emphasis was on the teaching of the fields of inquiry of physics (i.e., natural science and metaphysics) and logic (including rhetoric and what we would call cognitive science) in the service of ethics:

“Philosophic doctrine, say the Stoics, falls into three parts: one physical, another ethical, and the third logical. … They liken Philosophy to a fertile field: Logic being the encircling fence, Ethics the crop, Physics the soil or the trees. … No single part, some Stoics declare, is independent of any other part, but all blend together.” (DL VII.39-40)

This changed in the late Stoa, as we shall see, when physics and logic were largely (though not completely) set aside, in favor of the ethics. But for the early Stoics, a reasonable understanding (logic) of how the world works (physics) lead to the famous Stoic motto: live according to nature.

“Nature, they say, made no difference originally between plants and animals, for she regulates the life of plants too, in their case without impulse and sensation, just as also certain processes go on of a vegetative kind in us. But when in the case of animals impulse has been superadded, whereby they are enabled to go in quest of their proper aliment, for them, say the Stoics, Nature’s rule is to follow the direction of impulse. But when reason by way of a more perfect leadership has been bestowed on the beings we call rational, for them life according to reason rightly becomes the natural life. For reason supervenes to shape impulse scientifically. 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), which is the same as a virtuous life … for our individual natures are parts of the nature of the whole universe.” (DL VII.86-87)

What about the virtues? Both the early and late Stoics subscribed to the Socratic doctrine of the unity of virtue, but the early ones were more keen then the late ones to talk about separate virtues (as we’ll see below, Seneca usually refers to “virtue” in the singular, and Epictetus hardly even mentions the word):

“Amongst the virtues some are primary, some are subordinate to these. The following are the primary: [practical] wisdom, courage, justice, temperance.” (DL VII.92)


“Virtue is a habit of the mind, consistent with nature, and moderation, and reason. … It has then four divisions — prudence [i.e., practical wisdom], justice, fortitude [i.e., courage], and temperance.” (Cicero, On Invention II.53)

And how did they define the virtues?

“Prudence [practical wisdom] is the knowledge of things which are good, or bad, or neither good nor bad. … Justice is a habit of the mind which attributes its proper dignity to everything, preserving a due regard to the general welfare. … Fortitude [courage] is a deliberate encountering of danger and enduring of labour. … Temperance is the form and well-regulated dominion of reason over lust and other improper affections of the mind.” (On Invention II.54)

It should be noted that courage has an inherently moral component to it, it doesn’t refer just to rushing into a situation regardless of danger:

“The Stoics, therefore, correctly define courage as ‘that virtue which champions the cause of right.’” (Cicero, On Duties I.62)

II. Seneca: virtue and role models

When we move to Seneca, the emphasis shifts rather dramatically. Even though Seneca wrote a book on natural science, the overwhelming majority of his writings are on ethics. He rarely mentions individual virtues, talking instead of virtue in the singular. Consider:

“There is the whole inseparable company of virtues; every honourable act is the work of one single virtue, but it is in accordance with the judgment of the whole council.” (Letters LXVII. On Ill.10)


“The matter can be imparted quickly and in very few words: ‘Virtue is the only good; at any rate there is no good without virtue; and virtue itself is situated in our nobler part, that is, the rational part.’ And what will this virtue be? A true and never-swerving judgment.” (Letters LXXI.32)

Moreover, Seneca puts a lot more emphasis than earlier Stoics on the importance of role models:

“Choose therefore a Cato; or, if Cato seems too severe a model, choose some Laelius, a gentler spirit. Choose a master whose life, conversation, and soul-expressing face have satisfied you; picture him always to yourself as your protector or your pattern. For we must indeed have someone according to whom we may regulate our characters; you can never straighten that which is crooked unless you use a ruler.” (Letters XI.10)

That is why I devoted an entire section of this blog to the exploration of role models, both ancient and modern. They are a great practical tool not just because they provide us with examples of ethical behavior to use as inspiration and to do our best to imitate, but also because our very choices of role models tell us a lot about our values and help us reflect on them.

As Liz Gloyn has commented in her The Ethics of the Family in Seneca, one can read the 124 letters to Lucilius as a bona fide Stoic curriculum, and it does not look at all like something Zeno or Chrysippus would have used. One gets a distinctive impression that Seneca has decidedly moved away from theory and into pragmatics, which foreshadows, of course, the great late innovator of Stoicism, Epictetus.

III. Role ethics and the three disciplines

Among modern Stoics Epictetus is most famous for his clear statement of the dichotomy of control (see Enchiridion I.1), which with him becomes a dominant component of Stoic philosophy, and which underlies his famous three disciplines: desire, action, and assent.

“There are three departments in which a man who is to be good and noble must be trained. The first concerns the will to get and will to avoid; he must be trained not to fail to get what he wills to get nor fall into what he wills to avoid. The second is concerned with impulse to act and not to act, and, in a word, the sphere of what is fitting: that we should act in order, with due consideration, and with proper care. The object of the third is that we may not be deceived, and may not judge at random, and generally it is concerned with assent.” (Discourses III.2)

The dichotomy of control, the all-important distinction between what is in our power (our values and judgments) and what is not in our power (everything else) is an application of the virtue of practical wisdom, to which Cicero above referred to as the knowledge of things that are truly good or bad for us. It is most directly connected to the discipline of desire, which trains us to desire what is proper (i.e., what is under our control) and not what is improper (what is not under our control), but it really underlies all three Epictetian disciplines.

Epictetus, like Seneca before him, emphasizes practical philosophy, telling his students over and over that if they were there just to learn Chrysippus’ logic they were wasting their time (and his):

“If from the moment they get up in the morning they adhere to their ideals, eating and bathing like a person of integrity, putting their principles into practice in every situation they face – the way a runner does when he applies the principles of running, or a singer those of musicianship – that is where you will see true progress embodied, and find someone who has not wasted their time making the journey here from home.” (Discourses I.4.20)

Which is presumably why he developed an elaborate type of role ethics, as brilliantly discussed by Brian Johnson in his The Role Ethics of Epictetus: Stoicism in Ordinary Life. Brian points to this passage in the Discourses were Epictetus lays out the primary role of being human, contrasted with the secondary roles we all take on, some because we choose them, some because they are assigned to us by circumstances:

“For, if we do not refer each of our actions to some standard, we shall be acting at random. … There is, besides, a common and a specific standard. First of all, in order that I [act] as a human being. What is included in this? Not [to act] as a sheep, gently but at random; nor destructively, like a wild beast. The specific [standard] applies to each person’s pursuit and volition. The cithara-player is to act as a cithara-player, the carpenter as a carpenter, the philosopher as a philosopher, the rhetor as a rhetor.” (Discourses III.23.3–5)

This, according to Johnson, is a sophisticated elaboration of and advancement upon Panaetius’ four personae, a theory used by Cicero in the first volume of De Officiis: our universal nature as rational agents; what we can be by way of our natural dispositions; what we are as a result of external circumstances; and the lifestyle and vocation we choose.

This is why Brian disagrees with the famous — and widely accepted in modern Stoic circles — notion proposed by Pierre Hadot of a tight relationship among the three disciplines of Epictetus, the classical four virtues, and the three fields of inquiry (physics, logic, and ethics). I summarized Hadot’s approach here (see especially the diagram accompanying the post), but the more I think about it the more it seems both too neat and too strained. Too neat because it seeks to make coherent sense of different ideas that were deployed by the Stoics in a different manner when teaching five centuries apart from each other; and too strained because there just isn’t any good way to make things fit given that there is precious little evidence that Epictetus was thinking about the four virtues (or even the three fields of inquiry) when he articulated his three disciplines.

The upshot: a curriculum for modern Stoicism

If my analysis is even approximately correct, then this is a reasonable way to summarize the evolution of ancient Stoicism:

I want to stress that the implication is most definitely not that later iterations are better than early ones. “Evolution” here simply means what the root of the word indicates: change over time. In fact, I think these three approaches are different ways of interpreting the same basic Stoic philosophy, by putting the emphasis in different places as a function of the style of the teacher and the audience of students one is addressing. Ancient Athens was culturally distinct from imperial Rome, and Seneca definitely had a distinct temperament compared to Epictetus.

What does it all mean for modern students of Stoicism? The next slides is my own attempt at reorganizing the same material in a way that makes sense for contemporary audiences and could serve as the basis for a curriculum in modern Stoicism.

To begin with, notice the distinction between a theoretical and a practical approach (first row). Both should be deployed, as Stoicism is not just a bag of tricks, it is a coherent philosophy of life. A modern Stoic would be well served from learning the basics of natural science, developing a grasp of our best ideas about how the world actually works, so to avoid as much as possible buying into questionable views of reality. She should also acquire basic training in critical reasoning, so to be able to distinguish sense from nonsense and arrive at the best possible judgments in her life. The idea is the same one informing the ancient notion that in order to live a good life one has to appreciate how the cosmos is put together and has to be able to reason correctly about it.

The practical counterpart of the curriculum could be based on the Epictetian disciplines, which still provide a useful framework to actually practice Stoic philosophy, especially when tackled in the sequence envisioned by Epictetus. We still need to get better at redirecting our desires away from things that is improper (Stoically speaking) to want and toward things that is proper to want. The next step is to put our newly acquired practical knowledge into action, by behaving properly in the world, which largely means treating others justly and fairly. Finally, for the advanced students (as Epictetus suggested), we can refine our practice by paying careful attention to what exactly we should or should not give assent.

The second row in the diagram draws a parallel between two ways of thinking about how to live a eudaimonic life. On the left we have the theoretical understanding: we want to live following the best part of human nature, which for the Stoics very clearly meant to apply reason (our most distinctive faculty in the animal world) to improve society (because we are highly social beings who only thrive in a group). On the right we see Epictetus’ very practical way to put this into action: his role ethics. Notice two things, however: first, the most fundamental of our roles is that of a human being, which implies a cosmopolitan (as opposed to a nationalistic) stance. Second, that our specific roles in society can be interpreted creatively, which means, for instance, that just because one is, say, a mother, it does not follow that one should behave as a patriarchal society would want her to behave. If patriarchy is unjust (and it is), then a Stoic woman is under ethical obligation to play her role as mother to her children creatively, and if necessary in opposition to accepted social norms. (Needless to say, this applies to fathers and their role, and to pretty much any other role we play in life, whether given or chosen.)

The final row in the slide recovers a theoretical role for the classical cardinal virtues of prudence, courage, justice, and temperance, because I find them useful in order to provide a general framework for thinking about how we ought to behave. The practical counterpart is Epictetus’ dichotomy of control: every time we remind ourselves that some things are up to us and others are not, we then have to decide how to act on the first set and how to best ignore the second set. And our moral compass is provided by, you guessed it, the four virtues.

As you can see, Stoicism has always been a dynamic philosophy, responding to challenges from rival schools (Academic Skeptics, Epicureans, Peripatetics), to changing cultural milieu (Athens, Rome), and as a function of who was practicing and teaching it (Zeno, Seneca, Epictetus). There is no reason why this should not continue into the 21st century and beyond, now that we are responding to new challenges (Christianity, Existentialism, even Nihilism), that the culture has changed again (and has become more global), and that new teachers have emerged (Larry Becker, Don Robertson, Bill Irvine, hopefully yours truly, and many, many others). However you do it:

“Do what is necessary, and whatever the reason of a social animal naturally requires, and as it requires.” (Meditations IV.24)

Stoic advice: can a salesperson be a Stoic?

[Feel free to submit a question for this column, addressing it at massimo at howtobeastoic dot org. However, consider that I have a significant backlog, and I may not get to your question for some time, or at all.]

D. writes: How should a practising Stoic ethically approach their work if it involves rhetoric, persuading others and achieving sales, e.g. salesman, copywriter, etc.? This could also apply to grant writers, lawyers and so on.

That’s a very good question, and I think there is a general answer, even though there may be significant differences in how to implement it among the professions you list, and others that may fall under the same category.

The obvious way to approach it is through Epictetus’ role ethics, as brilliantly elucidate by my friend Brian Johnson in his The Role Ethics of Epictetus: Stoicism in Ordinary Life, which I discussed on this blog in a 6-part series. As you may recall, Epictetus distinguishes among roles that we are given by accident or circumstances (e.g., being someone’s son), roles that we choose (e.g., our career), and our foundational role as members of the human cosmopolis. Consider:

“For, if we do not refer each of our actions to some standard, we shall be acting at random. … There is, besides, a common and a specific standard. First of all, in order that I [act] as a human being. What is included in this? Not [to act] as a sheep, gently but at random; nor destructively, like a wild beast. The specific [standard] applies to each person’s pursuit and volition. The cithara-player is to act as a cithara-player, the carpenter as a carpenter, the philosopher as a philosopher, the rhetor as a rhetor.” (Discourses III.23.3–5)

The “common” standard in the quote above is that which applies to all human beings qua human beings. The “specific” standard is the one that applies to our particular roles. If you are a cithara player you ought to practice your cithara, take care of your instrument, and perform to your best. If you are philosopher, you ought to work on your reasoning ability, and use it to help others live a better and more meaningful life. (Note: unfortunately, this isn’t the sort of thing you’ll learn in most modern philosophy departments, but that’s a different story.)

So a first answer to your question is that a salesman, copywriter, grant writer, lawyer and so fourth ought to do what salesmen, copywriters, grant writers, and lawyers do. That is, if you choose one of those professions, the Stoic thing to do is to practice it well.

That should be the case unless your specific role within your profession comes into conflict with your broader role as a human being. As Epictetus puts it, you don’t want to behave randomly, like a sheep, or destructively, like a wild beast. This means that if your job is demanding something from you that you know is unethical, in conflict with the wellbeing of humanity, then you ought not to do it. Your role as a member of the cosmopolis trumps every other role you may play. Why? Because:

“You are a citizen of the cosmos, and a part of it, and not a subordinate part, but a principal part of it. For you are capable of understanding the divine administration, and of reasoning on what follows from that. What then is the profession of a citizen [of the world]? To have no private gain, never to deliberate as though detached [from the whole], but to be like the hand or the foot, which, if they had reason and understood the constitution of nature, would never exercise impulse or desire, except by reference to the whole.” (Discourses II.10.3-4)

In a modern sense, “divine administration” in the quote above can simply be understood as what reason and justice demand, without specific metaphysical overtones. So far, then, we have the idea that whatever one does, from a Stoic perspective the way to do it is to do it well, with integrity. Moreover, there is a limit imposed by our broader duty to humanity itself. How might we bump into such limit, in practice?

Let’s take the example of a salesman, let’s say someone who sells cars. He is within Stoic bounds in doing his best to sell as many cars as possible to potential customers, because that is what the role of a car salesman is. But consider a scenario where he is actually aware that a given used car has defects that he has been asked by his employer not to disclose, in order to make a quick sale and get rid of the lemon. That’s where his duty to humanity at large kicks in: if he followed through, he would commit an injustice toward another fellow human being, so — Stoically speaking — he should politely refuse. Even to the point of being reprimanded, or losing his job.

That’s a tall of order for most of us, but nobody said practicing Stoicism coherently was going to be easy. (I would maintain that practicing any philosophy or religion coherently — including Christianity or Buddhism — ain’t easy.) The Stoics recognized that none of us is a sage, and that we will inevitably fall short of the ideal. Here is how Epictetus puts it:

“Consider at what price you sell your integrity; but please, for God’s sake, don’t sell it cheap.” (Discourses I, 2.33)

The idea is that we should strive to do our best, while at the same time acknowledging that we have limits. For instance, going back to our hypothetical car salesman, he may not want to refuse his boss’ request because he has a family to take care of and cannot afford losing his job. That is a reasonable tradeoff to make, but perhaps he can implement an alternative strategy: he could be purposively less convincing when it comes to cars he knows are lemons, thus stealthily undermining his boss’ unethical request; and at the same time he could begin to look for another job in which he is not asked to compromise his integrity, and yet can still take care of his family.

As a final thought, note that this sort of situation calls for the application of all four cardinal virtues: the courage to stand up to your boss’ unethical demands; a sense of justice that allows you to recognize that you are not playing your cosmopolitan role to your best; temperance in your response to the boss, given that other things are at stake, like your family’s welfare; and especially practical wisdom, the knowledge that the only things that are truly bad for you are not externals, such as losing your job, but your own bad decisions, such as knowingly scamming your customer.

Were the ancient Stoics feminist? Should the modern ones be?

Woman with wax tablets and stylus, Roman fresco, Pompeii

The short answers to the title questions are: not really, and of course yes. At least, that’s the conclusion of a detailed analysis of the relationship between Stoicism and feminism published in a paper by Scott Aikin and Emily McGill-Rutherford in Symposion, 1, 1 (2014): 9-22. And I think they are right.

The basic thesis put forth by Aikin and McGill-Rutherford is that ancient Stoics had an uneven track record when it came to women, with some positions that can readily be understood as proto-feminist, and others not so much. But the authors also separate the philosophy from the specific times and people that practiced it in ancient Greece and Rome — just as we sensibly do for other philosophical and religious traditions. So they ask whether Stoicism as a philosophy has the tools that are required in order to endorse a full fledged feminism in modern times. And their answer is definitely yes.

I think this is a very important paper, and deserves to be more widely read, for two reasons: (i) it reminds us modern Stoics that the ancients are, as Seneca famously put it, our guides, not our masters; and (ii) it significantly helps the ongoing project of updating Stoicism for the 21st century, which has been carried out most exemplarily by Larry Becker.

The first task Aikin and McGill-Rutherford set themselves is to show the existence of two strands of ancient Stoic thought, when it comes to women’s issue: a progressive one, and a “misogynist” one. I put the latter term in quotation marks because from now on I will use “sexist” instead, which I think is more appropriate. Misogyny refers to the hatred of women, which I don’t think is a label that can be fairly applied to the Stoics; sexism, by contrast, is precisely what you get from the readings of Seneca, Epictetus, and others.

(The Merriam-Webster defines misogyny as “hatred of women; from the Greek misogynia, from misein to hate + gynē woman; first used around 1656. By contrast, it defines sexism as “unfair treatment of people because of their sex; especially: unfair treatment of women; 1: prejudice or discrimination based on sex, especially: discrimination against women; 2: behavior, conditions, or attitudes that foster stereotypes of social roles based on sex; from sex + -ism, as in racism; first used in 1963.)

A footnote in the paper pretty nicely summarizes the author’s point as far as ancient Stoicism is concerned, and I will therefore quote it in full: “Like Socrates’ views on women guardians, Zeno’s early views on liberty were more for minimizing social strife than for the sake of women’s liberation. Similarly, Musonius holds that women should learn philosophy, because such training would make them better (wiser and more dutiful) housewives (Stobaeus 2.31.127). Seneca, despite holding that women have the same native capacity for virtue, nevertheless also holds that there are special impediments to virtue that come with being a woman: lack of self-control (Ad Helv. 14.2), credulity (De Cons. Sap. 19.2), and simple-mindedness (Ad Marc. 16.3). And Epictetus standardly references women as the kind of humans who can’t keep their emotions in check (D 3.24.53) or as the kind of pretty trophy one would want when living the life of externals (D 4.94). This is not to mention all the standard usages of casually [sexist] phraseology. ‘Philosophize like a man, don’t simper like a woman’ (Seneca: De Const. I.1.2).” (note 3)

Let’s take a specific example from Epictetus:

“Women from fourteen years old are flattered with the title of ‘mistresses’ by men. Therefore, perceiving that they are regarded only as qualified to give the men pleasure, they begin to adorn themselves, and in that to place all their hopes. We should, therefore, fix our attention on making them see that they are valued solely for displaying decent, modest and discreet behavior.” (Enchiridion XL)

Here we have a condemnation of the objectification of women (the progressive element), but also a call for women to be decent, modest and engage in discrete behavior (the sexist element).

Aikin and McGill-Rutherford find it a “mystery” that the Stoics only addressed an audience of men, but that’s one of the least convincing of their points, in my opinion. At the time that was, unfortunately, the standard attitude, though of course the Stoics can be faulted for not going against the general approach. More convincingly, they point out that both Cicero (not a Stoic!) and Seneca consistently use feminine adjectives to denote moral failings, and masculine ones to denote virtuous behaviors. Moreover, Epictetus dismisses Epicureanism as a philosophy not befitting even women.

Hierocles is another one who puts forth a problematic view of women as individuals who “fulfill the orders of the master of the house” (Stob. Anthol. 4.28.21, and see Engel 2003, 284). Though to be fair, Hierocles is arguably the most conservative of the ancient Stoics of which writings have survived. (Then again, we do owe him the beautiful image of the contracting circles of concern that is often used to visualize the crucial Stoic concept of oikeiosis, which in turn is the basis for Stoic cosmopolitanism, and — as we shall see below — of modern Stoic feminism.)

The major issue that Aikin and McGill-Rutherford identify with ancient Stoicism treatment of women is what they refer to as the “social standing problem.” Several Stoics were explicit in acknowledging the importance of circumstances to help us practice virtue: Seneca, for instance, says that we should avoid being hungry or tired, since that helps controlling our anger (De Ira III.9.5), and most famously the entire first book of Marcus’ Meditations is a long list of thanks to people who have taught him how to be virtuous. The idea, then, is that since women were generally not afforded the kind of social status that people like Seneca and Marcus had by default, the Stoics failed to recognize that there was a built-in disadvantage for women when it came to practicing virtue.

This is an important and fair point, but it is mitigated by a couple of observations, I think. First, that the Stoics also insisted that it is possible to be virtuous even under extreme circumstances, for instance in the case of a slave, like Epictetus himself. Second, there were a lot of men who not only did not enjoy the social status of Seneca or Marcus, but who also had a significantly lower social status than patrician women, several of whom, during the empire, managed to reach financial independence, control over their inheritance, and a degree of education. Still, these caveats aside, Aikin and McGill-Rutherford’s main point holds.

We now come to the positive part of the paper, where the authors begin to construct an argument that Stoicism qua philosophy does have the tools to call for a modern progressive feminism.

They begin this by providing two interpretations of the famous Stoic imperative, live according to nature. Interestingly, they distinguish between what they call a “thin” and a “thick” version of Stoic naturalism (though they use the word “teleological” for the latter, which I will avoid here because I don’t think their reasoning depends on a particular concept of providence). Thin naturalism simply means to accept what is natural and deal with it, which is something very much like what Epictetus says we should do in the Manual:

“Don’t hope that events will turn out the way you want, welcome events in whichever way they happen: this is the path to peace.” (Enchiridion VIII)

Thick naturalism, by contrast, means that one finds a normative element in nature. When Marcus, in Meditations II.16 and IX.1, says that injustice is unnatural, he is deploying a thick version of naturalism:

“Our soul does violence to itself when it turns away from any other person or moves against him with the intention of causing him harm, as is the case with those who lose their temper.” (Meditations II.16)

Both elements of naturalism are present in Stoic philosophy, which is the reason why still today if people emphasize thin naturalism they end up talking about “stoicism” rather than “Stoicism.” Now consider again oikeiosis: if the process is an example of thin naturalism, then we don’t have reason to invoke social reform or a change of the status quo. But if we take it to be stemming from a thick naturalistic conception, now we have the philosophical tools to invoke social change.

As the authors put it: “The Stoic [thick] natural view is that women have rational natures and a capacity for reasoned choice. The consequence is that from the perspective of the goods relevant to moral goodness, women are men’s equals and deserve the same respect and dignity that men are afforded. And this is precisely why Musonius Rufus holds that women deserve to be taught philosophy, why Seneca holds that women have the same capacities for virtue as men, and why Epictetus criticizes the sexualization of young women. What is valuable in women, their capacity for rational choice, is not being respected. Culture criticism is necessary in those cases, and the Stoics consistently came to criticize their own cultures for these failings.” (pp. 18-19)

Why, then, can we not consider them full fledged feminists? Because they failed to follow through the logical implications of their own philosophy, limited — as we all are — by their own culture and time.

Aikin and McGill-Rutherford point out something that even a number of modern Stoic practitioners too often forget. They rightly claim that we have duties to each other qua rational creatures, and that these duties include the respect of each other’s choices. Externals are indifferent, of course, to our own practice of virtue, but that does not license inaction in the face of injustice. Justice — let us never forget — is one of the four cardinal virtues! There is a difference, they maintain, between recognizing that we are not actually truly harmed (according to Stoic philosophy) by being treated unjustly (because our virtue remains intact) and being complicit in the unequal treatment of anyone. Including, obviously, women.

Here is a poignant passage from the paper that should be framed by anyone who practices modern Stoicism: “The Stoic can have a critique of the institution of slavery or any other unjust treatment of people, but then also have strategies for life that makes it so that when injustices happen to us, we can endure them. Epictetus prepares to go to the baths by readying himself for the rude and raucous behavior of others. When he goes and is splashed or has someone act inappropriately around him, he must understand that he signed up for the whole experience. And so he is ready to endure what must be endured. But this is not an endorsement of the rude or raucous behavior.” (p. 19)

“When you’re about to embark on any action, remind yourself what kind of action it is. If you’re going out to take a bath, set before your mind the things that happen at the baths, that people splash you, that people knock up against you, that people steal from you. And you’ll thus undertake the action in a surer manner if you say to yourself at the outset, ‘I want to take a bath and ensure at the same time that my choice remains in harmony with nature.’” (Enchiridion IV)

Aikin and McGill-Rutherford conclude: “We identify the correct conditions for justice, but we prepare ourselves for when injustice arrives. There is, then, living in accord with what is (thin naturalism’s acceptance of what is), and living in accord with what natural reason requires (recognizing the ways one’s culture can fail to manifest divine reason).” (p. 20)

The upshot is that Stoicism qua philosophical framework, independently of the specific ways it was instantiated in Greco-Roman times, does have the resources to welcome women (and any other group) in its fold, and — more importantly — to call for social change. The intrinsic respect that Stoicism accords to the human capacity for reason (Epictetus’ prohairesis) is the very same respect for human choice that is at the core of feminism.


Post scriptum: It occurred to me that precisely the same argument made by Aikin and McGill-Rutherford about the difference between what the ancient Stoics wrote and what is logically entailed by Stoic philosophy applies to social justice as well.

The Ethics of the Family in Seneca, VI: rewriting the family

Seneca wrote his famous letters to Lucilius near the end of his life. They are not just philosophical letters to a friend, but a structured curriculum in Stoic philosophy, as the entries are meant to be read in sequence, with the reader assuming the role of Lucilius. Moreover, Seneca is careful not to alienate his readers by presenting himself as perfect. On the contrary, he is a flawed fellow proficiens. He has a headstart on us, but we can catch up.

This is the setting for the last chapter of Liz Gloyn’s excellent The Ethics of the Family in Seneca, which I have been commenting on for the past several weeks. In the course of the 124 letters, Seneca manages, among several other things, to redefine the role of the family in Roman society from a Stoic perspective, even though he never mentions any of Lucilius’ relatives, and his own family appears only rarely, for a total of four times.

The first twelve letters, on Liz’s reading, are essentially programmatic statements, orienting the reader and making him aware of what he is committing to. Letter IX is interesting, because there Seneca rebukes Epicurus, in response to a question posed by Lucilius. Epicurus had apparently criticized Stilbo (or Stilpo), who had lost his family, and yet seemed to think he could live on his own. Seneca explains the Stoic perspective by means of a treatment of the concept of apatheia (lack of negative passions), non-suffering, and self-sufficiency. Stilbo does experience the loss of his family as a loss, but he does not thereby lose his moral composure, despite his bereavement. Seneca summarizes the right Stoic attitude in this fashion:

“As long as he [the wise man] may order his own affairs by his own judgement, he is content in himself, and marries a wife; he is content in himself, and brings up children; he is content in himself, and yet would not live, if he were to live without a human being. No personal benefit brings him to friendship, but a natural stimulus; for as the enjoyment of other things is innate to us, so it is with friendship.” (IX.17)

This is an interesting point, which Gloyn analyzes in detail, even down to the specific Latin terms used by Seneca in describing the Stilbo episode. The rather surprising idea is that losing one’s family could provide, from a Stoic perspective, sufficient reason to commit suicide. But, as the example of Stilbo shows, it does not have to, as one can survive the loss and continue his pursuit of virtue. This is really fascinating to me, since it shows that according to Seneca even the wise person can be driven to “the open door” (as Epictetus calls it) by such a gigantic loss. And exiting through the door would be considerate acceptable, under certain circumstances, even though it is certainly not required. Love for one’s family is a positive emotion, and thus not to be curtailed by a Stoic.

To be unambiguously clear, though, the circumstances around the loss of one’s family would have to be right to make using “the open door” virtuous — there would have to be something in play which made the preferred indifferent of life cease to be the preferred option in an individual’s life. So it’s not that any familial loss at all allows us to consider suicide as a valid option, but that such a loss is categorised by the Stoics as one of the possible things which could create a situation where suicide became a rational option.

The next appearance of family in the Letters occurs in a tight sequence: XXXI, XXXII, and XXXIII. Here, however, Seneca warns Lucilius that one’s family can just as well become an obstacle to the practice of virtue. Lucilius’ parents are well meaning, and accordingly they pray so that he could achieve glory and gather honors. But of course these are externals, which are merely preferred indifferents, and should not be our main focus in life. Which means that Lucilius’ parents are praying for the wrong thing, even though out of good intentions. That’s why the proficiens should choose his own, philosophical, family, and chart his path independently of what society expects from him.

Letter XXXIII contains one of the clues that Liz focuses on for her contention that the entire collection is really a curriculum in disguise. In the early letters, Seneca often closes with a “gift” to his friend: a quote from a wise person, which turns out to be Epicurus, from the homonymous rival school. But around this time in the sequence Seneca stops quoting Epicurus, and Lucilius complains. Seneca then explains that it is time to move away from aphorisms and become more autonomous in our quest for wisdom. Too much reliance on the words of others means that one will never attain his own mental independence.

The notion that the proficiens should supplement (or even replace) her own family with one chosen on purpose on the basis of philosophical considerations is fleshed out in letter XLIV:

“Socrates was not of patrician rank. Cleanthes was a water carrier and hired himself out to water a garden. Philosophy did not receive Plato noble but made him so. Why then should you despair of becoming equal to these men? All these are your ancestors if you behave in a way that is worthy of them; and so you will behave, if you immediately convince yourself that you are surpassed in nobility by nobody.” (XLIV.3)

These people are our philosophical ancestors, and it doesn’t matter whether our biological family is of high rank or not. Socrates, Cleathes, Plato and all the others surely are, and all we have to do is to “adopt” them, so to speak.

Three letters later, Seneca clearly includes slaves within the family, and argues that they should be treated as human beings, with inherent worth:

“Do you not see even this, how our ancestors took away all spite from masters, and all indignity from slaves? They addressed a master as the ‘father of the family,’ and the slaves as ‘members of the household,’ which custom even continues in mimes up to the present day; they established a holiday not as the only day on which masters ate with slaves, but as the one on which they did so without fail; they allowed slaves to bear honours in the household and to administer justice, and considered that the household was a miniature state.” (XLVII.14)

This is by no means a rebellion against the institution of slavery (which was, by contrast, openly called an evil by Zeno of Citium), but it is nonetheless a rather remarkable passage for the time and cultural milieu.

Another letter dealing with the family is L, but there the passage I prefer is one in which Seneca engages in a bit of self deprecating humor:

“If I ever wish to be entertained by a fool, I do not have to look far — I laugh at myself.” (L.2)

We get a reference to the always present doctrine of oikeiosis, or natural affection guided and enlarged by reason, in letter LXVI, when Seneca tells Lucilius that a parent ought to treat all his children equally:

“Surely no one would make such an unjust appraisal of his own children so as to love a healthy son more than a sick son, or a tall and nobly built son more than a short or average-sized one?” (LXVI.26)

The idea is that we should try, as Gloyn puts it, to treat our children on the basis of their (potential) inner virtue, not based on external attributes, such as their looks, or their athletic prowess.

In Letter LXX, Seneca provides yet another contrast meant to highlight that family members sometimes can give good advice and sometimes they fail to do so. It’s the story of the young Drusus Libo, who was in the middle of a trial where he was expecting a death sentence. He was wondering whether to kill himself as many of the Roman aristocrats did before sentence was passed. His aunt Scribonia counseled against walking through “the open door,” but Libo followed his own free judgment instead, disregarding his relative’s advice. The episode can usefully be contrasted with the one pertaining Paetus and his wife Arria. Paetus was ordered by the emperor Claudius to commit suicide, but could not find the courage. So she provided the example for him to follow: she stabbed herself, handing him the dagger with the gentle words “Paete, non dolet” (Paetus, it doesn’t hurt). Arria then, considered by Pliny the epitome of Stoic womanhood, becomes Scribonia’s antithesis.

But one also has duties to one’s family, and sometimes those duties preclude us from walking through the open door. This is explicitly put forth by Seneca in Letter LXXVIII:

“I often entertained the impulse to break off my life; the old age of my most tender father restrained me. For I thought not about how bravely I could die, but how little he would have been able to miss me bravely. And so I ordered myself to live. Sometimes even to live is to act bravely.” (LXXVIII.1-2)

I love the beautiful phrasing, as is often the case in Seneca, but the bottom line, as Liz points out, is that we as moral agents need to consider our duties toward our families as factors in our decisions, so long as we don’t let us be misled by family members into making an ethically inadvisable choice, in terms of our Stoic framework. Again emphasizing her reading of the Letters as a curriculum, Gloyn comments that by now “readers are sufficiently far along the Epistulae Morales’ developmental path to engage with the family both as a constructive and destructive influence on the proficiens’ virtue.” (p. 271)

The next pertinent section of that curriculum is comprised of Letters LXXXVIII, XCIV and XCV, where Seneca discusses children’s moral education, once again putting the family at the center of early moral development, as he has done through several of his other writings, magistrally explored by Gloyn in the book. The central concept is that the only true liberal education is one that is centered on ethics, the idea being that if education does not allow one to live a meaningful life than it has failed its main purpose. How I wish we moderns would take such advice to heart, instead of squandering countless resources into “educating” people, by which we just mean putting them in a position to get a job as one of many cogs in a giant societal money-making and soul-crunching machine.

According to Seneca, it all begins with the family, who has the duty to lead the child through the early stages of her moral development. But the family also has a duty to then provide the child with the means for further instruction, and a major component of such instruction takes the form of philosophical precepts, which the child and then young adult can learn from tutors and philosophers.

In Letter XCIV Seneca first considers Aristo’s criticism of relying on precepts, and then explains how they ought to be used: they are not supposed to be rules to be followed blindly, without understanding. Rather, they are what we would call heuristic devices, quick reminders of how to act virtuously in specific situations, based, however, in a comprehension of the philosophy from which they stem. Liz explains: “Marriage offers the case study for how precepta can help us. As a rule of thumb, adultery by either spouse is always unacceptable. This precept acts as a prompt for the overarching rule that applies to all marriages, namely that humans need reminding that adultery is bad for both men and women regardless of the dynamics of individual relationships.” (p. 274) (On why the Stoics disapprove of cheating on one’s spouse, and why they were right despite some currently fashionable psychological advice, see here.)

“It will be of no benefit to give precepts unless first you have removed the things that will stand in the way of precepts.” (XCV.38)

In other words, people need to internalize the idea that cheating is unacceptable, not simply repeat the notion and yet deep down remain convinced that it is somehow okay, or not a big deal.

In Letter IC, Seneca returns to the topic of grief, using the specific example of Marullus, who had lost his son. Gloyn comments that this is yet another occasion that could superficially be read as a case of Stoic heartlessness, since Seneca is criticizing Marullus for grieving. But a closer look clearly shows that the target of Seneca’s reproach is not grief per se, but what we might call performative grief, i.e., indulging in emotional distress, either in order to cultivate self-pity or, worse, to elicit other people’s sympathy. Seneca instead advises Marullus to take comfort in the memory of his son, to recover the important distinction (to the Stoic) between self indulgent and virtuous grieving.

Letter CIV is particularly interesting because of Seneca’s description of the tender behavior of his wife Paulina, as he is about to depart for his villa at Nomentum. While he apparently needs a break from domesticity in order to focus on his work, he also describes in detail how her caring for him revitalizes his zest for life. In the same letter, Seneca argues that the best kind of travel, at any rate, is the one we do with our minds, when we read books and thus come closer to our philosophical meta-family, to Cato, Socrates, Zeno, Chrysippus, Posidonius, and all the others. I cannot emphasize how often I have taken refuge and comfort in such extended family, which I have been able to build over decades of my life, picking and choosing from two and a half millennia of great minds produced by humanity.

Near the end of his curriculum for Lucilius (and for the rest of us) Seneca returns to the concept of oikeiosis, in Letter CXXI. He focuses on what Liz labels personal, as distinct from social, oikeiosis (the latter being the concept famously embodied by Hierocles’ metaphor of contracting circles of concern). As living organisms, early on we acquire a sense of our physical selves and an urge to care for it. That inborn sense of self-preservation allows us to love ourselves, but it soon becomes the emotional source we build on in order to begin loving others.

Gloyn concludes her analysis with a useful summary of the main tenets of Seneca’s epistolary curriculum: “Each family member, whether sibling, spouse, parent, aunt or uncle, occupies the same relational position to the aspiring sage, and thus has the same potential to offer good (or indeed bad) advice. Similarly, every issue is of equal moral importance. While suicide may appear of greater consequence than dietary habits, both are equally valid fields for the exercise of virtue.” (p. 288)

Or to put it even more simply: we can and should learn from anyone, but not everyone will give us virtuous advice. And every aspect of our life is a manifestation of the cosmic gym in which we are constantly given the opportunity to exercise and improve our virtue.

What Would a Stoic Do? Dating

“Dating” is a word I was not familiar with before coming to the United States. Especially with the advent of modern dating apps, it essentially means that you are trying out different people to see who “wins” the alleged honor of being your (next) partner. Except, of course, that you are playing the same game from the point of view of the other person, as the honor in question better be reciprocal. The dynamics of dating in this modern fashion are different from the traditional approaches, like meeting someone at a party, or — Zeus forbid — approaching a random stranger at a bar. And I have done enough app-mediated dating to be induced to reflect on the practice from a Stoic perspective. So, how should a Stoic look for a partner after having signed up on OKCupid, eHarmony, Match.com, or Tinder?

I am going to suggest three lenses, so to speak, through which to examine the question: the concept of preferred indifferents, the dichotomy of control, and the four cardinal virtues. I think they are best considered in that sequence if we want to get clear on how a Stoic should enter the dating game.

I. A partner is a preferred indifferent. Please don’t put things this way to your date, as it really doesn’t sound romantic, and it is labile to be seriously misunderstood if the other person is not a proficiens (as Seneca calls a student of Stoicism). Preferred (and dispreferred) indifferents, of course, include anything that is not concerned with the improvement of our character and our judgments, i.e., anything that does not have directly to do with virtue. But virtue makes no sense unless it is exercised in a particular context or situation: one cannot be courageous without doing anything, or temperate without moderating herself at something specific, and so on. Which means that even though being with a partner is, in itself, a preferred indifferent, it is nonetheless a very intimate interaction with another human being, an interaction that therefore offers countless opportunities to exercise virtue. (On this, see also my post on relationships.)

Moreover, take a look at what Seneca says about how a wise person regards having or losing friends:

“The wise man is self-sufficient. Nevertheless, he desires friends, neighbours, and associates, no matter how much he is sufficient unto himself.” (Letters IX.3)

This is a crucial insight, which applies a fortiori to one’s romantic partner. We are supposed to be sufficient to ourselves, meaning that we don’t depend on others for our eudaimonia. That’s because a eudaimonic life — for the Stoic — is a life of virtue, and the exercise of virtue depends only on us. But we are human beings, so we very much desire, as Seneca says, friends, neighbors, associates, and especially romantic partners. There is no contradiction, then, in striving to be self-sufficient and yet desiring to share one’s life with someone. Indeed, I would argue that it is a very healthy attitude to bring into a relationship.

II. Whether she likes you or not is outside of your control. Now that we have concluded that of course Stoics would engage in dating, let us turn to one of the fundamental pillars of our philosophy: the dichotomy of control. Just as a quick refresher, here is Epictetus’ version of the doctrine:

“Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing.” (Enchiridion 1.1)

Clearly, whether someone who agrees to go out with you for a drink or a coffee ends up liking you enough to go out a second time, and then a third, and so forth, and perhaps, eventually become a long term partner, is most definitely not up to you. It is up to her. What is up to you, however, is to do your best given the circumstances, which may include dressing appropriately in order to make a decent first impression, engaging the other person in interesting conversation, being attentive to her desires, and so forth.

None of this, however, guarantees you anything. At all. That is why Bill Irvine, in his A Guide to the Good Life suggests that one way to put into practice the dichotomy of control is to internalize our goals, shifting away from the outcome (which is not up to us) and focusing instead on the effort (which is up to us.) This is also Cicero’s advice, in the third book of De Finibus Bonorum et Malorum:

“If a man were to make it his purpose to take a true aim with a spear or arrow at some mark, his ultimate end, corresponding to the ultimate good as we pronounce it, would be to do all he could to aim straight: the man in this illustration would have to do everything to aim straight, yet, although he did everything to attain his purpose, his ‘ultimate end,’ so to speak, would be what corresponded to what we call the Chief Good in the conduct of life, whereas the actual hitting of the mark would be in our phrase ‘to be chosen’ but not ‘to be desired.’” (Cicero, De Finibus, III.22)

So, a repeat date is to be chosen, not to be desired, meaning that it is your target, metaphorically speaking, but you should not attach your worth as a person to actually hitting that target. If things don’t go well, there will be other people, and other dates.

One more thing: I mentioned above that a key ingredient is to engage the other person in an interesting conversation. Epictetus has a lot to say about this:

“When you’re called upon to speak, then speak, but never about banalities like gladiators, horses, sports, food and drink — commonplace stuff. Above all don’t gossip about people, praising, blaming or comparing them. … In your conversation, don’t dwell at excessive length on your own deeds or adventures. Just because you enjoy recounting your exploits doesn’t mean that others derive the same pleasure from hearing about them.” (Enchiridion 33.2 & 33.14)

I honestly don’t know what else to add here. Epictetus got it exactly right, two millennia before OKCupid and Match.com.

III. Engage in virtuous dating. As proficientes (the plural of proficiens above), of course, we are supposed to engage in anything, not just dating, in as virtuous a manner as we can muster. But we are talking about this strange 21st century meeting-for-mating ritual, so let’s be specific.

IIIa. Exercise prudence. I’m talking about prudentia here (or phronesis, for the Greeks), often translated as practical wisdom, not the contemporary English language sense of the word (though, of course, you may want to be “prudent” also in the latter sense, since after all you are going out to meet a stranger). Prudence is the knowledge of what is truly good or evil for you, and that knowledge is deeply rooted in the dichotomy of control: the only truly good things for you are your own good judgments, opinions, values, and goals. Similarly, the only truly bad things for you are bad judgments, opinions, values, and goals. The rest is, you guessed it, a preferred or dispreferred indifferent.

This means that while on a date you should be concerned not with whether you achieve your external goal (say, for the other person to agree to a second date, or whatever, depending on which stage of dating you are at). Rather, your goal should always — and only — be to express good judgments, opinions, and values while on the date. That’s it! Easy no? (No, not really, as the notion is simple to grasp, but exceedingly difficult to consistently put into practice.)

IIIb. Practice courageous and just dating. Courage, for the Stoics, isn’t just of a physical nature, but first and foremost moral. It often includes saying or doing things that make you uncomfortable, if it is the right thing to do. This means that you have to have a sense of what the right thing to do is in the first place, which is why I coupled the cardinal virtues of courage and justice in this section. According to the Stoics, you can’t really be courageous in an unjust fashion. (Technically, you can’t practice any of the four virtues in isolation, since the Stoics accepted the doctrine of the unity of virtue, but let’s set that aside for now.)

For instance, if you know you don’t actually like someone you are on a date with, as a person, and yet you find him attractive, resist the temptation to play around with him in order to get into bed once or twice. That would be using another human being as an object (that’s why the practice is called “objectification”), which is not nice, and you probably wouldn’t want it done to you. (You may think that you do, but trust me, you really don’t. It is never a good feeling to simply being used, under false pretense, by someone else.)

This means you may have to have the courage to do the right thing, thank your date for having come out with you, but abstaining from promising any follow-up if you don’t actually mean it, and even less so if said follow-up would be just to satisfy your sexual desires, and not because you are interested in the person in question.

IIIc. Temperance: go nice and easy. There is an old Frank Sinatra song that goes like this:

Let’s take it nice and easy
It’s gonna be so easy for us to fall in love
Hey, baby, what’s your hurry?
Relax ‘n’ don’t you worry, we’re gonna fall in love

We’re on the road to romance
That’s safe to say
But let’s make all the stops
Along the way

The problem now, of course
Is to simply hold your horses
To rush would be a crime
‘Cause nice and easy does it every time

Yeah, I know, Frank was most definitely not known for going nice and easy on anything. But the sentiment is right, and besides he didn’t write the lyrics (Alan Bergman, Marilyn Keith, and Lew Spence did).

The idea is to apply the fourth cardinal virtue: temperance, that is, doing things always in the right measure, neither too little, nor too much. My experience is that there is next to zero danger of doing too little in dating situations, but there is a constant temptation to do too much. Too much talking (especially about oneself, see above), too much drinking, or too much physical contact (especially if the other person has not given a clear go ahead signal or consent, and only up to the point where she hits the brake).

So, take it nice ‘n’ easy, enjoy some virtuous Stoic dating, and good luck finding your soulmate!

(Bonus material: did you know where the notion of a soulmate comes to begin with? It’s articulated by Aristophanes in the Platonic dialogue Symposium, where one even gets sex lessons from Socrates! Here is a lovely animated video about it.)