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)