Practical suggestions for a prokoptôn

Dichotomy of control A “prokoptôn” is someone who is making progress in his study, and especially practice, of Stoicism. Hopefully, we are all prokoptontes.

From time to time, I like to go back to the basics, reflect on what Stoicism entails, and remind myself of the sort of things I can actually do, here and now, in order to improve as a person, from a Stoic perspective. This is my latest such summary, organized by major topic and supported by sourced quotations, in the hope that it might be useful to others.

As a general warning, below you will also find quotes recommending some practices that few moderns would engage in (like masturbating in public, Cynic-style). I have included them for two reasons: first, because they are a reminder that Stoicism is an evolving philosophy, not a rigid set of religious precepts. So Stoic practice must change with the times. Second, because sometimes the Stoics themselves disagreed on certain issues (we’ll see the marked contrast on the topic of sex between the early and the late Stoa), it is good to keep in mind that there is more than one reasonable way of being a Stoic.

All of the precepts listed below should be thought of as stemming from basic Stoic principles in ethics (the study of how to live one’s life). Particularly the idea that virtue, not pleasure, is the paramount goal, and the notion of preferred indifferents, as long as virtue is being taken care of.

For each section, I begin with a short summary of the practice I am aiming at, and then list pertinent quotations, in rough chronological order (from early to late Stoics).

On the very idea of practicing and making progress: we need to focus in the here and now, we may slip, but we need to keep going back and try to be more virtuous. Do not postpone, do it now.

“[The wise person] must also set due value upon all the things which adorn our lives, without over-estimating any one of them, and must be able to enjoy the bounty of Fortune without becoming her slave.” (Seneca, On the Happy Life III)

“Pleasure is not the reward or the cause of virtue, but comes in addition to it; nor do we choose virtue because she gives us pleasure, but she gives us pleasure also if we choose her.” (Seneca, On the Happy Life IX)

“Whatever you do, come back soon from body to mind. The mind must be exercised both day and night, for it is nourished by moderate labour. And this form of exercise need not be hampered by cold or hot weather, or even by old age. Cultivate that good which improves with the years. Of course I do not command you to be always bending over your books and your writing materials; the mind must have a change – but a change of such a kind that it is not unnerved, but merely unbent.” (Seneca, Letters to Lucilius XV.5-6)

“If you accomplish something good with hard work, the labor passes quickly, but the good endures; if you do something shameful in pursuit of pleasure, the pleasure passes quickly, but the shame endures.” (Musonius Rufus, Sayings 51.2)

“You ought to practise in small things and go on from them to greater.” (Epictetus, Discourses I.18)

“Take a minute and let the matter wait on you. Then reflect on both intervals of time: the time you will have to experience the pleasure, and the time after its enjoyment that you will beat yourself up over it.” (Epictetus, Enchiridion 34)

“When faced with anything painful or pleasurable, anything bringing glory or disrepute, realize that the crisis is now, that the Olympics have started, and waiting is no longer an option; that the chance for progress, to keep or lose, turns on the events of a single day.” (Epictetus, Enchiridion 51.2)

On food: (quantity) always in moderation; (quality) prefer simpler meals to fancy ones; (type) a vegetarian or near so diet.

“I was imbued with this [vegetarian] teaching, and began to abstain from animal food; at the end of a year the habit was as pleasant as it was easy. I was beginning to feel that my mind was more active.” (Seneca, Letters to Lucilius CVIII.22)

“Mastering one’s appetites for food and drink is the beginning of and basis for self-control.” (Musonius Rufus, Lectures XVIII.A1)

“Zeno thought it best to avoid gourmet food, and he was adamant about this. He thought that someone who once experiences gourmet cuisine would want it all the time, inasmuch as the pleasure associated with drinking and eating creates in us a desire for more food and drink.” (Musonius Rufus, Lectures XVIII.A6)

“The more often we are tempted by gastronomic pleasure, the greater the danger it presents. And, indeed, at each meal, there is not one chance for making a mistake, but several.” (Musonius Rufus, Lectures XVIII.B4)

“[The Stoics] will take wine, but not get drunk.” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, VIII)

On sex: this is were the sources differ sharply from early to late Stoa. My own compromise is along the following lines: sex is ethical only within a committed relationship and for reciprocal pleasure, since it is part of what keeps a relationship healthy.

That said, notice the difference between the Zenonian approach and the late Roman one: apparently, and logically enough, the early Stoics were much more “Cynical” then the later, rather prudish, Romans.

“[Chrysippus in his work on Commonwealth] praises Diogenes for saying to the bystanders as he masturbated in public, ‘Would that I could thus rub the hunger too out of my belly.'” (Plutarch, De Stoicorum repugnantiis 1044b-1045a)

“[Zeno says] penetrate the thighs of a beloved child no more and no less than those of a non-beloved child, and neither those of a female any more or any less than those of a male.” (Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism III.245-246) [“Child” here means young boy, as was the custom in ancient Greece, so one should resist a presentist reading in terms of pedophilia. The actual reason I included it is because of the reference to the acceptability of having sex with persons of either gender.]

“In the Republic [Zeno] lays down community of wives [i.e., free love] … he bids men and women wear the same dress and keep no part of the body entirely covered.” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers VII.33)

“It is also [the Stoics’] doctrine that amongst the wise there should be a community of wives with free choice of partners, as Zeno says in his Republic and Chrysippus in his treatise On Government.” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers VII.133)

Now compare the above to the much more restrictive Roman take, which seems to me unacceptable in modern society:

“If you consider sexual passion to have been bestowed on mankind not for the sake of pleasure, but for the continuance of the race, all other desires will pass harmlessly by one who is safe even from this secret plague, implanted in our very bosoms.” (Seneca, To my Mother Helvia, on Consolation, XIII)

“Men who are neither licentious nor wicked must consider only those sexual acts which occur in marriage and which are carried out for the creation of children to be right.” (Musonius Rufus, Lectures XII.1)

“When you yield to carnal passion you must take account not only of this one defeat, but of the fact that you have fed your incontinence and strengthened it.” (Epictetus, Discourses II.18)

“If any one does own to incontinence, he brings in passion, to give him the excuse of involuntary action. Injustice is in no circumstances conceived as involuntary. There is an involuntary element, they think, in jealousy, and for this reason this too is a fault which men confess.” (Epictetus, Discourses II.21)

On friends and social company: seek virtuous friends, avoid bad company. The first allow you to grow and improve, the latter present the danger of dragging you back down into unvirtuousness.

“To the question ‘Who is a friend?’ [Zeno’s] answer was, ‘A second self.'” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers VII.23)

“[The Stoics] argue that a friend is worth having for his own sake and that it is a good thing to have many friends. But among the bad there is, they hold, no such thing as friendship, and thus no bad man has a friend.” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers VII.124)

“Ponder for a long time whether you shall admit a given person to your friendship; but when you have decided to admit him, welcome him with all your heart and soul. Speak as boldly with him as with yourself.” (Seneca, Letters to Lucilius III.2)

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

“In this sense the wise man is self-sufficient, that he can do without friends, not that he desires to do without them. When I say ‘can,’ I mean this: he endures the loss of a friend with equanimity.” (Seneca, Letters to Lucilius IX.5)

“If you hear that these men in very truth believe the good to lie only in the region of the will and in dealing rightly with impressions, you need trouble yourself no more as to whether a man is son or father, whether they are brothers, or have been familiar companions for years; I say, if you grasp this one fact and no more, you may pronounce with confidence that they are friends, as you may that they are faithful and just. For where else is friendship but where faith and honour are, where men give and take what is good, and nothing else?” (Epictetus, Discourses II.22)

On topics of conversation: talk when necessary, and chiefly of important things, not frivolities. Avoid gossiping, don’t judge others.

“When the aim is to make a man learn and not merely to make him wish to learn, we must have recourse to the low-toned words of conversation. They enter more easily, and stick in the memory; for we do not need many words, but, rather, effective words. Words should be scattered like seed; no matter how small the seed may be, if it has once found favourable ground, it unfolds its strength and from an insignificant thing spreads to its greatest growth.” (Seneca, Letters to Lucilius XXXVIII.1-2)

“Be silent for the most part, or, if you speak, say only what is necessary and in a few words. Talk, but rarely, if occasion calls you, but do not talk of ordinary things — of gladiators, or horse-races, or athletes, or of meats or drinks — these are topics that arise everywhere — but above all do not talk about men in blame or compliment or comparison. If you can, turn the conversation of your company by your talk to some fitting subject; but if you should chance to be isolated among strangers, be silent.” (Epictetus, Enchiridion 33)

“In your conversation avoid frequent and disproportionate mention of your own doings or adventures; for other people do not take the same pleasure in hearing what has happened to you as you take in recounting your adventures.” (Epictetus, Enchiridion 33)

On clothing, housing, and other material goods: avoid luxury, go minimalist, but there is no need to go all Cynic.

“I prefer, as far as my feelings go, to show myself in public dressed in woollen and in robes of office, rather than with naked or half-covered shoulders.” (Seneca, On the Happy Life XXV.2)

“We can eat as comfortably from a wooden table as from a silver one.” (Musonius Rufus, Lectures XX.2)

“On the whole, we can judge whether various household furnishings are good or bad by determining what it takes to acquire them, use them, and keep them safe. Things that are difficult to acquire, hard to use, or difficult to guard are inferior; things that are easy to acquire, are a pleasure to use, and are easily guarded are superior.” (Musonius Rufus, Lectures XX.3)

[I am thankful] “to have desired a plank bed and skin, and whatever else of the kind belongs to the Grecian [i.e., Stoic] discipline.” (Marcus, Meditations I.6)

“If [a man] must live in a palace, then he can also live well in a palace.” (Marcus, Meditations V.16)

14 thoughts on “Practical suggestions for a prokoptôn

  1. Stewart Slater

    On the idea of growing used to luxurious food, compare Benjamin Disraeli – “I do sometimes like to drink bad wine; one can become so tired of the good”. With regards to the Sextus Empiricus quote, “pais” or “child” could also mean slave. I’ve never read Sextus, so I don’t know if that was his habit, but it is an alternative reading (which may be slightly more appealing to the modern mind).

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  2. Bruno Tourinho Raymundo

    Hmm. I’m having difficulty understanding the “problem” with sex. Why would only sex in a committed relationship be ethical? What’s so different about sex than other proegmena?


  3. Massimo Post author


    Good question. A reasonable interpretation is that unlike true preferred indifferents, sex outside of a committed relationship does not nurture virtue.

    The Stoics thought that some indifferents are preferred (or dispreferred) because they aid (or impede) one’s pursuit of virtue. So, the Roman, more conservative, Stoics, thought sex should be limited to marriage and the act of procreation (sounds very Christian, doesn’t it?). But a broader interpretation is that sex within a relationship aids in the nurturing of such relationship, which in turn may help one’s pursuit of virtue.

    But outside of a committed relationship, when sex is casual, it is done solely for the pursuit of pleasure, and it is hard to see how virtue would benefit. Indeed, it may suffer because one might do things that are unvirtuous in order to obtain sex (e.g., lie about his intentions, paying money for it, thus debasing the other human being, etc.).

    I’m not saying I fully agree with the above, I’m just trying to provide a charitable reading of the Stoics’ take.


  4. Bruno Tourinho Raymundo

    Thanks, Massimo!

    Yes, I can see it more clearly now. I agree that the Romans sound very Christian, and I have a distaste of this type of prudishness. So, the Stoic view of sex is not necessarily an a priori prudishness or repulsiveness of things carnal (although Marcus Aurelius sounds this way sometimes), but a practical approach against things interfering with the pursuit of virtue, right?

    I’ll think more about it… From the top of my head, I can certainly picture scenarios where one can be virtuous but still engage in casual relationships not involving lying, debasement, etc.


  5. jbonnicerenoreg

    The idea of progress requires a criteria which seems to be closer to goal of virtue. By closer one could mean to fail less often to do the virtuous thing. So why do Stoics insist that all vice is the same rather than looking at the person to see his/her growth or decline?


  6. Massimo Post author


    “I can certainly picture scenarios where one can be virtuous but still engage in casual relationships not involving lying, debasement, etc.”

    Yes, though I think they are more rare than most people are willing to admit.

    But, again channeling the Stoic viewpoint here, even so sex isn’t like eating or seeking shelter: it is not necessary for life (unless it is for reproduction). It is done for pleasure, which puts it into the suspicious category of indifferents.

    If one does it within a committed relationship one can reasonably argue that, besides providing reciprocal pleasure, it solidifies said relationship, thus helping virtue.

    But done solely for the purpose of pleasure, as in casual sex, such redeeming factor does not apply. Moreover, like all pleasures, it can easily lead one to seek more for its own sake, and eventually down the road of lying, debasement, etc.. Again, just thinking out loud here.


    Yes, that “virtue is all or nothing” thing bothered also the Stoics’ contemporaries. One famous analogy is that one is in danger of drowning in a meter of water just as in an ocean. But in some sense he’s also far more likely not to drown in the first rather than the second case.

    Look, I’ve written several times that Stoicism is not a religion, so if modern Stoics have to give up on some ancient ideas, so be it. And one can call it Stoicism so long as enough of the core is maintained.

    But it’s also a good exercise, in its own right, to try to be charitable and read the Stoics in a non-rigid fashion. There are plenty of passages in Seneca and Cicero where they try to explain what they mean by virtue being all or nothing, and yet at the same time asserting that a student of Stoicism makes progress (the very word: prokopton!).

    A good way to make sense of this, I think, is to take the “you can drown even in a meter of water” as a humble reminder that nobody is out of peril, in terms of virtue, except the Sage. We are all sinners, as the Christians would say, but that doesn’t mean we are all equally bad.


  7. dsf

    It’s good to know that there are other Brazilians interested to apply Stoicism to everyday life, Bruno. Unfortunately, we don’t have many resources on the subject in Portuguese.

    Ancient philosophers diverged regarding to sex, but I think they all agreed in one point: it shouldn’t be a source of anguish or dissatisfaction with life. So if one is engaged in a casual sex pursuit moved by torturing passions, by irrational urges, it’s almost needless to say that that behavior would be seen as unphilosophical, even by Epicureans.

    From my point of view, a certain degree of liberality in those matters wouldn’t be totally incompatible with Stoic doctrine, but the same can’t be said about incurring in acts that debase us or derrange our search for inner tranquility.

    Yet, certainly nobody will find any casual partner that would be able to do for him/her what Pompeia Paulina did for Seneca, attempting suicide in order to show her respect for her dying husband.

    In sum, I guess Stoics wouldn’t be great fans of Tinder, but they won’t threat its users with the torments of Hell if the latter eventually have a match.

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  8. dsf

    Putting things differently: sex that strenghens intimate relationships should be preferred to casual sex in the same manner one would rather be in a conversation to a close friend than chatting with a stranger while waiting in line. Since we’re dealing with what Stoics called preferred indifferents, the question of purpose seems fundamental to me.

    You know how much you value, said Epictetus. And I’d add that you know how much other people value, too.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Massimo Post author


    Good analogy. I would go a little further. Causal sex, from the Stoic perspective, may be like talk of gladiators, gossips, and other pleasurable but ultimate minor topics, which Epictetus explicitly says one should talk about as little as possible, because they diminish us and distracts us from what is important.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. viennahavana

    Hi Massimo, sorry for what might be an ignorant question, but isn’t reproduction also a preferred or dispreferred indifferent? If so, wouldn’t make sexual activity of any kind an indifferent and not at all related to virtue or a eudaimonic life? Maybe I have it wrong.


  11. Massimo Post author


    Good question. I imagine that sex-for-reproduction falls into a very small set of preferred indifferents that are absolutely necessary for virtue.

    One cannot practice virtue, for instance, unless one is alive. And one cannot be alive unless one eats. So even though life itself, and certainly food, are preferred indifferents, they are nonetheless indispensable for practicing virtue (unlike, say, wealth, which may help but is not indispensable, and in fact may hinder it).

    Similarly, I would guess, if people didn’t have sex for reproduction there wouldn’t be new prokoptontes.

    Other kinds of sexual activity, especially of the casual variety, are not necessary in that sense, and indeed may lead people away from virtue, if they simply indulge in pleasure and perhaps begin to lie or cheat in order to get it.

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  12. Frida Rodelo

    I think you are “overthinking” the Stoics’ take on sex. In antiquity there were no anticonceptive methods (I mean effective ones), there were probably many diseases (plus lack of knowledge about its mechanisms of transmission and lots of superstition). So, I think it is very wise and prudent in that context to advise to have only sex with a partner and for reproductive reasons (also, this is very benevolent for women, since they are the ones bearing the baby for nine months).
    See it reversed: in that context even Massimo’s take (sex with partner for mutual pleasure) would be unwise because it would be a continuous burden for women and it would give birth to lots of children in scarcity.
    I apologize because my argument is entirely heterocentric and assumes the Stoics’ societies were largely heterocentric (in long-term homosexual partnerships there would be no reproductive problems, so Massimo’s advise could be followed; nonetheless: were there conditions to develop that kind of relationships in ancient times?)

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