Welcome to How to Live Like a Stoic

keep calmLast year I began practicing Stoicism. And since I’m an academic, I now feel a strong urge to write about it, share my experiences, and generally introduce people to this intriguing ancient Greco-Roman philosophy. Blame it on professional habit.

This blog has the purpose of helping people understand and practice Stoicism. It is most certainly not the first blog on the topic (see my list of recommended resources), and interested people can also find plenty of books on the topic. Nonetheless, it is my personal contribution to modern Stoicism, and I hope it will be useful.

The title of the site comes from an article I published in the New York Times, and which I am currently considering expanding (a lot!) into a book. Stay tuned for news about that project. Next year I will also take a sabbatical from my position at the City College of New York to further deepen my understanding of Stoicism while visiting scholars (and places!) in Italy and Greece. Stay tuned about that too.

The main page will function as a blog, with (more or less) regular short entries highlighting something that I am reading and I think it’s worth discussing, presenting my personal musings about Stoic topics, or directing people to new available resources and other ongoing discussions.

The rest of the site is organized into five sections: books about Stoicism, things written by me (or in which I am quoted), selected meditations to help with daily practice, links to what I think are the best external resources available, and a brief introductory gallery of Stoics. I am also planning on eventually adding a “Stoicism 101” section, partly inspired by a course on the subject that I will be teaching at City in the coming Fall.

Enjoy, meditate, improve your life. Fate permitting, of course.


24 thoughts on “Welcome to How to Live Like a Stoic

  1. Awesome. I just read the NYT piece. Regarding the “positive” results from Stoic Week, any thoughts on the effects of just naming oneself in a positive light, regardless of what the actual practices were? I assume they didn’t have a manipulation-type control (placebo philosophy) group but I bet this type of thing may have been done in other similar studies. Thoughts?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. nzmuth (hmm, I think I know who that is…), yes, that is one of a number of potential problems with the results from Stoic Week. (Then again, one could argue that, being based on a self-selected group of people who are already interested in Stoicism, the improvements are likely an underestimate.) The organizers are working on a standardized experimental setup, for which of course they need funding, and you know how that goes…


  3. While I find much commendable in stoicism, especially the emphasis on living according to positive values, it seems like it equivocates at its very core. On the one hand, it seems that the stoics reject the idea of an objective, universal and unchanging moral law. However, it seems that this philosophy depends on such a thing.


  4. It was a fated stumbling upon Stoicism as an undergrad that led me into studying philosophy, and I’ve been practicing Stoicism (as best I can) for nearly half my life now.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. @Daniel Mann, As one who strives to live “according to positive values” but “reject the idea of an objective, universal and unchanging moral law”, I don’t see any contradiction there. But given the prevalence of your stated position, I will be interested in leaning more about how the classical responses to it compare to my own.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Daniel, would you mind expanding on your comment? Why do you think that the Stoics reject a universal morality? After all their approach is based on the axiom that the ultimate good in life is cultivating one’s moral character (the virtues). Now, one can reject such an axiom and be done with it, but I don’t see why it leads to any contradiction.


  7. alQpr and SciSal: I was under the impression that the Stoics (Zeno) didn’t hold to an objective moral law. However. there might be some variation there.

    I think that an objective, unchanging, and universal law is necessary for any coherent understanding and life of virtue. After all, is virtue possible in a morally relativistic world where morality has no independent existence apart from the way we subjectively and changingly think about it.

    Besides, why should we be virtuous if this is merely an idea that society created to give structure to our lives. If this is the case, perhaps authenticity would require us to live for our desires.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Daniel, Perhaps our deepest desire (not necessarily the most immediately intense, but the one with the longest resonance – maybe even to the extent of being the *only* one we are left with at the time of our death) is to be “virtuous” in a sense which is not necessarily universal but which, upon exploration, we find to be shared with our fellow humans (or at least those for whose opinions we have a feeling of respect).

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  9. aloQpr, If virtue is something that we do simply because the majority believe in it, then we also might as well believe in a God because of the majority. At least, this would situate virtue in a place where it would have a status above and independent of all of our subjective wrangling.

    And if we are going to base stoicism on pragmatic considerations, then the concept of the Christian God should win out based on pragmatic considerations. After all, Christians tend to be happier and healthier.


  10. ***In Cicero’s dialog, the Epicurean explains this to his stoic opponent:

    “You [stoics] would surely have no need of the activity of such a figure [a skilled craftsman] if you would only observe how unlimited, unbounded tracts of space extend in all directions. When the mind strains and stretches itself to observe these distances, it journeys abroad so far that it can observe no ultimate limit at which to halt. It is in this boundless extent of breadth, length, and height, then, that innumerable atoms of infinite quantity flit around. … There is space between them, yet they latch on to each other. In gripping each other they form a chain, as a result of which are fashioned the shapes and forms of things which you Stoics believe cannot be created without bellows and anvils. So you have implanted in our heads the notion of an external lord whom we are to fear day and night; for who would not stand in awe of a god who is a prying busybody, who foresees and reflects upon and observes all things, believing that everything is his business?”


  11. Daniel, Stoic don’t practice virtue because that’s what the majority of people do (in fact, the majority of people manifestly don’t!).

    As for Epicurus, he was, rightly, I think, reacting to some Stoics’ interpretation of the Logos as a God who oversees the universe (e.g., in Epictetus), but that’s definitely not the only possible interpretation of the Logos, and it isn’t one that many modern Stoics buy into.


  12. Massimiso, I certainly agree that stoics don’t practice stoicism because of the majority. However, the problem still remains – Why practice stoicism if the concept of virtue has no independent or ontological existence, if it’s something that we just make up? Or its merely something that our genes force upon us?

    I think that you would agree that pragmatic considerations are not an adequate basis for the practice of virtue. So you are left with the question: “Why should anyone practice virtue?”


  13. Daniel, I didn’t mean to imply that we feel our sense of virtue *because* it is often shared, but just that on exploration and “wrangling” we often find that we do come to agreement.

    For me, behaviour is virtuous if it leaves me undisturbed by pangs of conscience – which generally seem to outlast the immediate pleasure obtained by ignoring them, and which I presume I feel due to an evolved mechanism for promoting eusociality in humans. The fact that I can be influenced by and have influence on others does not imply that there is any particular hierarchy of virtues that is common to all humans, let alone genuinely universal. Indeed, sometimes the best efforts of one community lead to widespread agreement on a hierarchy of virtues that differs from that reached in another, so it does not seem wise to always just defer to the apparent majority.

    It is true that for many the adoption of a religion seems to enable a strong sense of virtue which may lead to healthy happiness, but my view of history is that in the long run the faith of a religious community always ends up getting co-opted by defectors in the population who take advantage of the delegation of moral authority either for personal advantage or in the interests of a distorted sense of what is good, and so that it is better to place one’s trust in the workings of individual judgement and conscience rather than faith in some external authority.

    My goal in following Massimo is not to become a Stoic but just to get a better understanding of what it means. The quote from Cicero’s Epicurean expresses a thought I share and leaves me wondering how the attribution to Stoics of faith in the Logos squares with the idea that they didn’t hold to an objective moral law.


  14. alQpr,

    I agree with much that you’ve written, especially: “For me, behaviour is virtuous if it leaves me undisturbed by pangs of conscience – which generally seem to outlast the immediate pleasure obtained by ignoring them.”

    Although this is very true, there are problems leaving this statement as is:

    1. You are basing the practice of virtue on pragmatism. However, the history of humankind has demonstrated that pragmatism alone can lead to some very undesirable behaviors. For one thing, it will not give us what we need to stand up against extreme threat or fear.

    2. Only when virtue is based on a conviction of ontological (immutable, independent, and unchangeable) correctness can stoicism provide the needed confidence.

    3. If virtue is merely the product of an “evolved mechanism,” it is still evolving and based exclusively on the bio-chemical (what is). This fails to give us the transcendent “what should be.” Putting it another way, why should we be constrained by a bio-chemical reaction? Why not rape and deal with the consequences of guilt with alcohol or a pill!


  15. Daniel, Thanks for your comments. Here are some thoughts in response:
    1. I am uneasy being assigned a label that I do not understand on the basis of what must, of necessity, be a very limited sample of how I describe what I think. But I do suspect that you are right about my inability to stand up to extreme threat or fear.
    2. Perhaps belief in some kind of immutable, independent, and unchangeable correctness might give me a bit more backbone, but seeing things as clearly and truthfully as possible is of a higher value to me than having such strength.This is mainly just a matter of personal preference, but it is also more than that. I really do think that in the long run having people commit to an honest and unrestricted search for the truth would serve us all better than encouraging them to accept as certain things which are probably false, and I suspect that people as a whole do far too much “standing up” against threats which might well be dealt with more effectively in a less overt manner.
    3. Perhaps I would be happier as a psychopath but I am not one now. And to violate my nature by chemically cutting off what to me now is an essential part of me feels at least as wrong to me as to “improve” myself by accepting propositions that I know in my heart to be false.


  16. alQpr, I am sorry that you found my response offensive. I didn’t mean it in that way. Rather, you have conducted yourself honorably throughout this discuss. Please forgive any offense on my part.


  17. alQpr, Daniel,

    Well, I think the discussion has indeed been very good, it is the mark of intelligent people to be able to disagree and yet entertain a different opinion, no?


  18. Daniel, I’m sorry I sounded offended. That was not my intention at all. I just always like to resist labels and maybe tend sometimes to be a bit flip in responding to arguments which I actually have no disrespect for. (And I do quite sincerely agree that what I would consider an unwarranted level of certainty in the rightness of one’s cause can give extra strength which is often helpful or even necessary for success – but also I think it is often harmful by giving strength to a cause which does not “deserve” it).


  19. Pragmatism – performing virtuous behavior for the benefits – is only a fair-weather friend. Pragmatism – a cost/ benefit analysis – is also used to justify greed and inhumanity. (Sorry to bringing up the same argument again.) Therefore, virtue must reach up for a justification beyond itself, not based primarily on the benefits.

    Therefore, when we perform virtue, we must also be convinced of its intrinsic correctness, irrespective of the benefits. However, this depends upon a moral law that transcends culture and even our own thinking.


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