Stoic advice column: Stoicism vs skepticism, and whether the Stoic bar is just set too high

Advice[Stoicism is a practical philosophy, as Epictetus often reminds his students: “If you didn’t learn these things in order to demonstrate them in practice, what did you learn them for?” (Discourses I, 29.35) Accordingly, I have started a “Stoic advice” column, a philosophically informed, hopefully useful, version of the classic ones run by a number of newspapers across the world. If you wish to submit a question to the Stoic advice column, please send an email to massimo at howtobeastoic dot org. Please be mindful that the advice given in this column is strictly based on personal opinion and reflects my own, possibly incorrect, understanding of Stoic philosophy.]

E. writes: “I discovered you through the Rationally Speaking podcast. I’ve been into the skepticism movement recently and really enjoying it from an epistemological standpoint. I’m liking Stoicism for a sense of meaning and purpose to life, for personal ethics, and a way to handle setbacks and challenges. It seems like the original Stoics and Skeptics were often at odds with each other. How do you handle being in both camps? I am generally looking to Stoicism for my ethics, but skepticism for my epistemology. What are your thoughts on that approach? I like the idea of Stoicism and virtue ethics. But I don’t consider my personal temperament as good of a fit regarding my behavior vs my ideals. I sometimes struggle with compulsive or addictive behaviors, depression, anxiety, and self-loathing. These impact my ability to do my job as well as I’d like, interact with others the way I would like, etc. I’ve struggled mightily and tried nearly every avenue available to remedy these issues, yet they persist. As much as I like the idea of Stoicism, when I first started trying to practice it I just ended up feeling self-hatred for not being able to live up to the ideals of courage, temperance, wisdom, and justice. I wasn’t able to emotionally muster indifference to some other challenges that hit at the same time and so I would say I wasn’t even making progress in those areas. I was struggling just to keep it together. For lack of a better term it was almost a type of scrupulosity. Have you found people who start out in Stoicism with these historical weaknesses of character are somehow able to stick with it and make progress? Do you have advice on not becoming demoralized to the point that it makes you slide backwards? Stoicism gave me some more lofty ideals, but the chasm between ideals and behavior was widened and made me feel demoralized.”

Dear E., there are two distinct issues that you bring up, and I’ll treat them in the sequence you present them, though the second one is both more complex and more important: i) Stoicism vs “skepticism”; and ii) the mismatch, as you perceive it, between Stoic ideals and your ability to put them into practice.

Let’s begin with Stoicism vs. Skepticism. As you know, I have been — and still am, to some extent — part of the “skeptic” community, but you seem to assume that modern-day skepticism is akin to the ancient variety that was in fact a rival school of Stoicism. They are not, which is why I use capitalization for the ancient school and lowercase for the modern movement. (This is different from ancient vs. modern Stoics, since both refer to the same basic philosophy.)

Ancient Skepticism had a variety of manifestations, but essentially it amounted to a fairly radical conception of epistemology, where an acknowledgment of human cognitive and perceptual limitations led the Skeptics — very differently from the Stoics, who had their own epistemological theories — to advocate agnosticism on pretty much every issue. (A good introduction to the ancient school, including an account of their disagreement with the Stoics, can be found here.)

The modern skeptical movement, by contrast, is more akin to David Hume’s famous take that a reasonable person proportions her beliefs to the evidence, as he expressed it in his landmark essay On Miracles. The dictum was then turned by Carl Sagan into the famous “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Modern skeptics are far from agnostic on a number of matters (they tend to be staunchly pro-science, and highly critical of anything they consider to be pseudoscientific). Moreover, unlike in ancient Skepticism, the modern version doesn’t come attached to any particular ethical philosophy, as humanism and atheism, for instance, are entirely logically detachable from skepticism, as I’ve argued here.

So the way I reconcile my Stoicism with my skepticism is that I think of the first one as primarily concerned with ethics and the latter as a form of intellectual activism aimed at combating scientific and rational illiteracy. I see no contradiction between the two, as the Stoics themselves advocated the study of natural science (part of their “physics”) and critical thinking (part of their “logic”).

Let’s get now to your second question, which as I said is both more difficult and more important. To begin with, I do think that some personalities are more or less apt to the practice of Stoicism. While the ancient Stoics thought they had arguments demonstrating the universality of their approach (which is why they were constantly in debate with the rival schools!), I think Stoicism is just one “form of life,” as some modern philosophers put it, that is, a cultural tradition that has a lot to go for it, but is ultimately one of a number of alternatives available to anyone wishing to adopt a personal philosophy of life (others include Buddhism, Christianity, even Epicureanism…).

As William Irvine puts it in his A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, developing a (suitable, helpful, somewhat coherent) philosophy of life is a broader and more important goal than necessarily embracing Stoicism: “Why is it important to have such a philosophy? Because without one, there is a danger that you will mislive — that despite all your activity, despite all the pleasant diversions you might have enjoyed while alive, you will end up living a bad life. There is, in other words, a danger that when you are on your deathbed, you will look back and realize that you wasted your one chance at living.”

It is possible, for instance, that your personality and the specific problems you describe would work better with, say Buddhism, because of some of its varied schools’ emphasis on a type of meditative practice aimed at calming the mind, and which has been empirically shown to be effective. Or perhaps, just to go on a limb, the ancient Cyrenaic school may be of interest to you. They elaborated a version of enlightened hedonism, that is of a hedonism that was still informed by virtue, where the goal of life is, in fact, pleasure, and yet it is pursued so that you own the pleasure and not the other way around.

(You also mention a tendency to addiction, though you don’t specify how strong it is, for instance if it reaches the level of a need for medical attention. In that case, CBT or another talk or medication-based therapy would be the first step, in order to help bring your mind back to a point of sufficient equilibrium from which you can then engage in a philosophical journey.)

All of the above notwithstanding, I still do encourage you to keep exploring Stoicism and to give it a chance for a little longer. Although I don’t experience that level of disappointment with myself and, as you put it, even of self-hatred for failing to live up to my own chosen ideals, I — and probably every other prokopton — do sometimes succumb to a sense of inadequacy at being so far from the Sage, or even from any actual role model (say, Nelson Mandela, or Malala Yousafzai).

But Stoicism itself does have resources to deal with this. Here is Seneca, in a famous passage where he explains his technique of evening meditation:

“The spirit ought to be brought up for examination daily. It was the custom of Sextius when the day was over, and he had betaken himself to rest, to inquire of his spirit: ‘What bad habit of yours have you cured to-day? What vice have you checked? In what respect are you better?’ Anger will cease, and become more gentle, if it knows that every day it will have to appear before the judgment seat. What can be more admirable than this fashion of discussing the whole of the day’s events? How sweet is the sleep which follows this self-examination? How calm, how sound, and careless is it when our spirit has either received praise or reprimand, and when our secret inquisitor and censor has made his report about our morals? I make use of this privilege, and daily plead my cause before myself: when the lamp is taken out of my sight, and my wife, who knows my habit, has ceased to talk, I pass the whole day in review before myself, and repeat all that I have said and done: I conceal nothing from myself, and omit nothing: for why should I be afraid of any of my shortcomings, when it is in my power to say, ‘I pardon you this time: see that you never do that anymore?’A good man delights in receiving advice: all the worst men are the most impatient of guidance.” (On Anger, III.36.)

I have made a practice of doing exactly what Seneca suggests, and to actually write it down in a personal philosophical diary, since (exactly, I just looked it up) 4 October 2014. Has that made me a perfect student of Stoicism? Hardly. But it has, in fact, had the sort of calming effect on the mind that Seneca describes, and it has become one of my most precious tools (thank Zeus for search capabilities in word processors!) of self-discovery and self-assessment. Know thyself, and much else will follow.

18 thoughts on “Stoic advice column: Stoicism vs skepticism, and whether the Stoic bar is just set too high

  1. Wow! What you have written could have been written by me years ago: “I sometimes struggle with compulsive or addictive behaviors, depression, anxiety, and self-loathing. These impact my ability to do my job as well as I’d like, interact with others the way I would like, etc. I’ve struggled mightily and tried nearly every avenue available to remedy these issues, yet they persist. As much as I like the idea of Stoicism, when I first started trying to practice it I just ended up feeling self-hatred for not being able to live up to the ideals of courage, temperance, wisdom, and justice.”

    Thanks for your transparency. I too had struggled mightily against “depression, anxiety, and self-loathing.” I couldn’t find any relief from anything – changes in lifestyle, travel, and my five highly-recommended PHD psychologists. I too tried to live a life of virtue, wanting to elevate my self-esteem. However, like you, my failures in this area produced further self-loathing.

    However, I found the answers I needed in Christ (rather, He found me.) I am now beloved and protected, not on the basis of my performance or intrinsic worthiness, but simply because of Him. As a result of this love and forgiveness, I am motivated to live for Him and to practice His teachings. Yes, I fail daily, but He forgives me and continues to love me. In fact, since I belong to Him, it is no longer about me and my deficient identity.

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  2. “Do not give up in disgust or impatience if you do not find action on the right principles consolidated into a habit in all you do. No, if you have a fall come back again and be glad if most of your actions are on the right side of humanity. And love what you return to.” Marcus Aurelius
    Seneca and Marcus both seem to be particularly forgiving of human frailty in the pursuit of Virtue, Epictetus perhaps less so. I’m not sure if that reflects their different “audiences”, but I always chalk it up to their credit.

    I think the idea of having a personality which is “susceptible” to Stoicism is an interesting one which should be explored further. I can certainly see reasons in my own experiences as to why I might find Stoicism attractive but I wonder if I had not had those experiences, or had a different personality, I would get less out of it or find it harder to practice. That might have implications for how far the Modern Stoicism movement can go.

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  3. The latter part of E’s question sounds pretty familiar to me as well. Despite on-and-off interest in Stoicism over the past 3 1/2 years or so, it’s only during the last month that I feel like I’ve made real progress – luckily, within Stoicism – on the core of the insecurity issues. The things that seem to be working so far are the following:
    1) Committing myself to a daily Courage and Humility practice. Despite appearances and the stereotypes of egotism as thinking oneself to be better than others, insecurity is not humility. See point #4.
    2) Accepting that many moral failings were likely to result from lack of training in Stoic mindfulness and/or subconscious proto-passions to which I don’t necessarily need to assent, and which can potentially be trained out. Not everything within the realm of “the mind,” according to modern neuro-psychology, is within our conscious control
    3) Seeing for myself that I was making remarkably quick progress in reducing even the subconscious proto-passions after a couple weeks.
    4) Through the previous three things, coming to realize why I was so insecure in the first place: a really outdated notion that any evidence of poor ability meant that I was doomed to make only unpleasant things happen by my own accord and ruin my life and everyone else’s around me. That’s where the “non-humility” aspect of insecurity comes in, seeing myself as if more demon than human, larger than my tiny actual place in the causal chain of things. I then learned to debunk that notion by realizing that Chance affects all external outcomes even for the best and worst of people, and that the abilities that mattered most were the very ones I was recently starting to develop: questioning and changing my approach toward life in the direction of wisdom, realism, and balance.

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  4. Julie,

    Thanks for your thoughtful commentary!


    Yes, Epictetus may have been less “forgiving,” though as you say, he was talking to a different audience. But I do appreciate the variety of personalities and opinions among the Stoics:

    I do think there are limits to the expansion of modern Stoicism, but I’m not bothered by it. After all, even great religions like Christianity and Buddhism have limits in terms of followers. And, frankly, I wouldn’t want everyone on earth to adopt the same creed.


    While I respect the value of your own experience, your comment borders on straightforward proselytizing, please avoid it.


  5. I’m not a philosopher or a philosophy student, but I had seen the Cyrenaics mentioned in Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations. (So, now I know how to disagree with them, but little about what they actually have to say.) Thanks for the reminder – I’m going to do a little reading in this area now…

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  6. It was fascinating to compare Daniel’s reply with that of Massimo. The one relies on extrinsic motivation(God) and the other relies on intrinsic motivation(understanding, will and discipline). I think they are both good, but even better when combined. A good example of that is St. Ignatius of Loyola. He originated the Daily Examen, a prayerful means of bringing up the events of each day for review, understanding their significance, learning a lesson and resolving to apply it in the coming day.

    This is remarkably similar to the practice described by Seneca. Almost certainly St. Ignatius borrowed that idea from Seneca and adapted it to his religious practice. As a well educated nobleman he would have been familiar with Seneca’s writings. This is a good indication of the quite significant influence Stoicism has exerted, even on religious thinking. All Jesuits are required to practice the Daily Examen on every day. I have begun to do this as well and it has had a profound effect on me.

    Another indicator of the influence of Stoicism on religion is the Jesuit motto of ‘contemplation in action‘(simul in actione contemplativus) which has a decidedly Stoic feel about it. This was variously defined as Stop, Reflect, Act; or alternatively, Learning how to Be, Learning how to See, Learning how to Love, where love is the highest form of action.


  7. Massimo,

    I certainly respect your right to set the parameters for your own blog. I do the same with my blog. However, I am unclear about your concern about “straightforward proselytizing.”

    While it is true that I have a philosophy/worldview that determines my thinking and speaking, so do most of the others who interact on your blog.

    Perhaps I could better understand if my comments didn’t address your posts, but I have tried to honestly and directly interact with them in a respectful manner. In fact, as I hope you have observed, I do respect many aspects of Stoicism. Perhaps you can further explain your concern and the limits you wish to set.


  8. Daniel,

    I hope you know that I welcome criticism and diverging perspectives, including Christianity — see both this series and your and labnut’s comments. But, frankly, telling my readers that you found personal salvation in Jesus Christ the Lord seems to go far beyond discussion and disagreement and straight into witnessing and proselytizing. Again, please keep to the former, not the latter, two activities.


  9. Massimo, again I have to thank you for your blog and commitment to examining Stoicism and the benefits it can have in our modern lives. On a lighter note – I can’t help but see the pun in a “Stoic Advice Column”. Would the Ancients have called it an “Advice Stoa?”

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  10. Seneca said,
    Anger will cease, and become more gentle, if it knows that every day it will have to appear before the judgment seat. What can be more admirable than this fashion of discussing the whole of the day’s events?

    That is so true. The fore-knowledge of giving an accounting modifies one’s behaviour in the direction of the desired behaviour.

    Some notes on my experience of doing this.

    I started my Journal in electronic form using note-taking software, which is where I keep all my comments, insights, snippets of information, etc. The problem is that it seemed a little too glib, too easy and I started to gloss over the process. Making it part of my normal note-taking process seemed to devalue my Journal by making it equivalent to everything else.

    To remedy this I am forcing myself to write my Journal with pen and paper(so delectably retrograde!). I bought a good quality fountain pen and some good paper. I am discovering that I love the tactile feel of writing in this way that somehow adds much more value to my Journal. It has slowed me down, making me think more about the process. I write carefully, with attention to appearance and I find this is reflected in the care that I give to my thoughts that I record in the Journal. The process and its result interact in a satisfying way that was missing when using my note-taking software. The entire process took longer and then I understood its importance, that it deserved my time and concentration.

    Like E. I often disappoint myself. And yet I record some small victories. These little victories are encouraging and maintain my hope. They are cumulative and over time become bigger victories. If I had not recorded them in my Journal I would not have experienced the encouragement of the cumulative effect of little victories.

    Writing my thoughts down on paper raised an unexpected problem. These were intimate thoughts. Did I really want expose them to be potentially read by other people? This became a test of honesty. Did I want to be honest? Yes. Then I must accept the potential consequences, my little peccadilloes deserve no less 🙂


  11. I must give credit where it is due. Quite some time ago Massimo wrote about keeping a journal, a la Seneca. When I discovered the Daily Examen I remembered his advice and resolved to follow his example. Thanks Massimo, you were right.

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  12. Roughly speaking, stoicism as ethical and practice philosophy is not the opposite of skepticism movement! Anyone can be both at the same time. In fact, skepticism can help someone to be more stoic, as questioning and taking time to know the truth, which can help in controlling emotions!

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  13. Massimo,
    the way I reconcile my Stoicism with my skepticism is that I think of the first one as primarily concerned with ethics and the latter as a form of intellectual activism aimed at combating scientific and rational illiteracy.

    One must distinguish carefully between skepticism as a tool and skepticism as a world view.

    While I think skepticism is a perfectly good tool to keep in one’s intellectual armoury, I think it is a poor world view that impoverishes.

    First the good. In life we are continually confronted with claims on our assent. Many of these claims are weak, unfounded or false. We need a habit of mind that tests these claims before assenting to them. Skepticism supplies a toolset that enables this. But it is not the only toolset and I think the evidentiary procedures of the law provide a better toolset. The law has been in the business of weighing evidence for a very long time. For a good book on the subject see ‘Legal Argumentation and Evidence‘ by Douglas Walton.

    Now the bad. I will be blunt and say that skepticism is a dreadful world view that impoverishes the mind and cripples thought. It begins with a negative assumption, looks for faults in evidence and reasoning, and therefore inevitably finds them. The name itself, ‘skepticism’ is tendentious and so it is practised in a tendentious way. It tends to reinforce bias because alternative views become subject to skepticism and not the favoured view. It becomes a club to wield against one’s opponents and a shield to defend ones biases.

    There is a better world view, and that is curiosity. Curiosity is open, it is explorative and seeks new understanding. It delights in discovery and thrills to new insights. It does not close down arguments with negativity but rather expands them by revealing new avenues for discovery. Curiosity builds on the imaginative and creative sides of our nature. It enriches our lives by expanding them with new insights. Curiosity has no opponents and it has no axe to grind. Its chief value is delight and not schadenfreude. It values understanding more than judgement. But there is a qualification. Intelligent curiosity is not gullible curiosity because finally curiosity must make choices and it is here that the skeptic toolset, or the evidentiary means of the law, come into play, but as tools in the service of curiosity, and not as a world view.

    For example.

    The skeptic will enjoy the schadenfreude of scorning the creation story in Genesis. The curious person will explore it for its allegorical meaning, its literary value, its historical background, and the way it informs religious beliefs. The skeptic will never see the surprising insights contained in the creation story while the curious, inquiring person will be delighted by their discovery.

    The skeptic walks away from the creation story with the smug satisfaction of having demolished yet another myth. The curious person comes away delighted by the discovery of new insights. The curious person has been enriched while the skeptic is impoverished by a failure of imagination.

    Massimo, I understand that you are speaking of skepticism as a form of intellectual activism, not as a toolset or worldview. I think it is a necessary form of activism but brings with it the danger of becoming a worldview.


  14. Just to amplify briefly on skepticism as intellectual activism. This should be intellectual activism in the service of ascertainable truth and not in the service of ideology. For example, the skepticism practised by militant atheism is intellectual activism in the service of ideology.

    On the other hand there is a burgeoning counter-knowledge movement. The main branches of this are quack medicine, pseudo-history, pseudo-economics, conspiracy theories, pseudo-science, fake news, urban myths, commercial manipulation and creationism. These do real harm to society, unlike religion, which is a net benefit.

    Intellectual activism is necessary to expose the fraudulent basis of the counter-knowledge movement and limit the serious harm that it causes. The counter-knowledge movement mostly acts within the ambit of the law, protected by free speech rights. It can only be countered by intellectual vigilantism and is the one area where vigilantism is defensible.


  15. Labnut,

    I actually tend to agree with your comments on the skeptic movement (distinct, as I write in the OP, from the ancient philosophy of Skepticism).

    “skepticism” is a tool, or set of tools, and it definitely doesn’t have the resources to be a worldview, even though some people do interpret it that way.

    It’s potential value, however, as a grassoroot movement in defense of critical thinking and science and against pseudoscience is great. Which is why I’m concerned about the entire effort being undermined by people who do want to turn it into a worldview.

    Similarly with atheism. I think the atheist movement is needed if it focuses on showing to others that one can be good without believing in gods, and when it battles for the separation of church and state. But it isn’t a philosophy, and it cannot provide a positive worldview, contra what the A+ people criticized by me in one of the links above vehemently maintain.

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  16. Massimo,
    I think the atheist movement is needed if it focuses on showing to others that one can be good without believing in gods,

    It is failing in that goal since atheism provides no moral guidance. This really is the function of Stoicism, to show that goodness can be achieved. But today’s Stoicism is not atheist, it is instead agnostic.

    I think that atheism is valuable for an entirely different reason. Its role as critic of religion prompts self-examination, reform and greater zeal. It makes theists sharpen their arguments and produce better justification. As a result of the criticism the religious body becomes healthier and more resilient. The development of the atheist movement has been a very good thing for the health of religion.


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