The Stoic Pledge

keep calmStoicism is a philosophy of life aimed — like all Hellenistic philosophies, but also Buddhism, Confucianism, Christianity, and a number of others — at providing both a general framework and specific guidance on how to live. During the past two and a half years I’ve taken it pretty seriously, both in terms of studying ancient and modern authors, and especially in terms of practice. After all, as Epictetus puts it: “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, it’s a good idea, from time to time, to review exactly what one is committing to when practicing as a Stoic (or an Epicurean, Buddhist, Confucian, Christian…). The following is my own pledge for how to live like a Stoic while keep improving as a student of the philosophy. The items constituting the “pledge” (to myself) below should not be construed as the only, or even a main, way of doing things from a Stoic perspective. The Stoics disagreed on a lot of specifics, and of course Stoicism is a philosophy, not a religion, so there are no sacred texts, commandments, and the like to rigidly structure our life. But if readers are interested in taking Stoicism seriously as a transformative philosophy of life, then below is a decent template to keep in mind, which may be adapted to individual needs and views. Each entry in the pledge is supported by an appropriate quote from the ancient Stoics, the original source of wisdom for our brother/sisterhood.

[For future reference and ease of use, this pledge may be downloaded as a standalone pdf.]

As a prokopton I pledge to follow these precepts and rules of conduct:

I. The most important thing in my life is the practice of virtue, in order to live in accordance to nature.

“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)

II. I will not be discouraged by setbacks in my practice. I will get up in the morning and try again.

“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)

III. I will do my best to behave ethically, regardless of the popularity of my opinions and actions.

“I will do nothing because of public opinion, but everything because of conscience.” (Seneca, On the Happy Life, XX)

IV. I will be concerned for the welfare of all humanity, regardless of people’s gender, ethnicity, religion, or political persuasion.

“Labor not as one who is wretched, nor yet as one who would be pitied or admired; but direct your will to one thing only: to act or not to act as social reason requires.” (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, IX.12)

V. I will reject nationalism and any other kind of parochial view of humanity. My creed is that of cosmopolitanism.

“I will view all lands as though they belong to me, and my own as though they belonged to all mankind.” (Seneca, On the Happy Life, XX)

VI. I will refrain to the best of my abilities from judging people’s actions, especially without forming a good opinion as to their motivations.

“Someone bathes in haste; don’t say he bathes badly, but in haste. Someone drinks a lot of wine; don’t say he drinks badly, but a lot. Until you know their reasons, how do you know that their actions are vicious?” (Epictetus, Enchiridion, 45)

VII. I will cultivate true friendships because they are important for a eudaimonic life.

“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)

VIII. I will treat everyone kindly and with respect.

“I will be agreeable with my friends, gentle and mild to my foes: I will grant pardon before I am asked for it, and will meet the wishes of honorable men half way.” (Seneca, On the Happy Life, XX)

IX. I will do my best to contribute to discourse about important matters, while at the same time avoiding to lecture people or become overbearing.

“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)

X. I will follow a simple, largely vegetarian diet, because it is healthy (and thus helps the practice of virtue), it has a lower impact on the environment, and it reduces needless pain and suffering in the world.

“Just as one should choose inexpensive food over expensive food, and food that is easy to obtain over food that is hard to obtain, one should choose food suitable for a human being over food that isn’t. And what is suitable for us is food from things which the earth produces: the various grains and other plants can nourish a human being quite well. Also nourishing is food from domestic animals which we don’t slaughter.” (Musonius Rufus, Lectures, 18a)

XI. I will cultivate an attitude of indifference toward material possessions.

“Whatever I may possess, I will neither hoard it greedily nor squander it recklessly.” (Seneca, On the Happy Life, XX)

XII. I will adopt a reasonably minimalist life style.

“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)

XIII. I will remind myself that just as we ought to endure the blows that Fortuna delivers, so we ought to enjoy the gifts she bestows.

“It does good also to take walks out of doors, that our spirits may be raised and refreshed by the open air and fresh breeze: sometimes we gain strength by driving in a carriage, by travel, by change of air, or by social meals and a more generous allowance of wine: at times we ought to drink even to intoxication, not so as to drown, but merely to dip ourselves in wine: for wine washes away troubles and dislodges them from the depths of the mind, and acts as a remedy to sorrow as it does to some diseases.” (Seneca, On the Tranquility of Mind, XVII)

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Categories: What Would a Stoic Do?

20 replies

  1. The obvious problem: many things seem to be in accord with nature, and especially with human nature as it has evolved, but are not consistent with virtue. Examples include adherence to in-group doctrine, hostility to and claims of superiority over out-groups, and seeking out evidence (and company) that reinforces rather than challenges our existing beliefs. So how do we decide what things are virtuously in accord with nature, and what are all too natural human frailties to be overcome?

    I am of course aware that some problem of this kind would arise in any attempt to specify what is virtuous.

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  2. This is a great list and will be very helpful in my own journey. Please accept my deepest appreciation for everything you have done to share your knowledge of Stoicism and philosophy in general, Massimo. Best wishes from Brazil!

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  3. Paul,

    The Stoics had a very specific interpretation of the phrase “living according to nature,” which definitely excluded the cases you are talking about. This post is meant as a list of practical things to do, not a defense of the theory, but if you are interested you should check out my essays on this point, based on book III of Cicero’s De Finibus (http://tinyurl.com/jnb8gfr and http://tinyurl.com/je8ocwa) and on Plato’s Euthydemus (http://tinyurl.com/hopc3cq).

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  4. Excellent work – thanks again so much for sharing!

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Geez… Feel too little progressed to even sign the pledge… Sad.

    (Did I just channel Donald Trump there…?)

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  6. Thank you, this list is really helpful and convenient. 🙂
    Could you please elaborate on one of the items?

    IX. I will do my best to contribute to discourse about important matters, while at the same time avoiding to lecture people or become overbearing.

    Specifically, this part of the reference: “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.”

    Do you think that this applies to all settings? When visiting with friends, we share funny stories and update one another on what’s going on in our lives and with our children, would this be in conflict with stoicism?

    Thank you so much.

    Srae

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  7. Good stuff Massimo, though I’d recommend the formation of such pledges as a group activity.
    It’d be a great foil to evoke conversation among Stoics, and to urge them to meet together in conference. You could take nominations for pledge lines and hold debates on including / excluding and hold a vote – mostly to get people engaged since there’s no mandate whatever is chosen.
    Another thing would be to have something like a library of pledges – so either people could choose which pledges to make or alternatively – one could gradually increase the number of pledges depending on one’s commitment to the practice – similar to Buddhist and Christian monastics who take more vows than are expected of laity.

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  8. Daniel,

    Interesting idea, building a library of possible pledges! This is, of course, my personal list, simply offered as one of many possible suggestions.

    Srae,

    Good question, and it depends on how strictly you interpret the distinction between preferred indifferents and virtue. Epictetus was pretty strict, with clear Cynic tendencies, as explained in this post: http://tinyurl.com/zh25skt

    I’m not quite that strict, leaning more toward Seneca’s end of the spectrum (as discussed here: http://tinyurl.com/hr3e5nu), so I interpret it as steering the conversation toward interesting topics whenever appropriate, and definitely away from gossip under pretty much all circumstances. Other than that, nothing wrong with shooting the breeze with friends now and then!

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  9. Great list but maybe too long to be “ready to hand”. Some like #12 and #13 come up pretty naturally after one had practised even for a short time. In other words, is the list addressed to the novice or to the journeyman?

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  10. John, I think the list is good for beginners too, but it is addressed at more experienced prokoptontes.

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  11. Also, the downloadable version is 4 pages, i.e., two sheets of paper, if printed front and retro. Not too bad…

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  12. I wish I were better at talking of ordinary things, which I see as a form of social grooming, not as something to be avoided

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  13. Great list, Massimo.

    I’ll use it myself, adding two items dealing specifically with the necessities of avoiding anger and being moderate in everything (including my relationship with technology).

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  14. Apologies, Massimo, but X is wrong both environmentally and physiologically. I would argue there are better ways to express/demonstrate the cardinal virtues through choice of diet and, even, exercise.

    Robert Cooney, MD

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  15. Robert,

    With all due respect, X is just fine. I’m a biologist, and I’ve looked extensively at the literature on the ethics of food production and consumption, as well as at the empirical evidence. A vegetarian diet is more healthy, better for the environment, and reduces animal suffering (though in terms of the latter a vegan diet does even better, as much as it is more difficult — but not impossible — to be a healthy vegan).

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  16. Hi Massimo, this may be an appropriate place to share my pledge/personal motto/personal mantra. I like to say it mindfully to myself in the morning and in the evening during my meditations (and snippets of it during the day when I encounter some difficulties). I was trying to make it as non-technical as possible so it speaks to me in my own language. I think it worked well for me for the last 2+ years, so maybe others might consider some parts of it as inspiration for their own routines.

    “I will try to know myself better by being more mindful of my own experience and of my own body. I will not surrender to my impressions. I will try to know the world around me so I can understand my place in it and make rational choices. This way I will know what is just to my best knowledge and I will act upon it even when it is not convenient. I will embrace the concern for others. I will be mindful of what is and is not under my control. I will use my self-control to work on the things that are under my control and I will be indifferent to things that are not under my control. This way I will maintain my composure. I will treat day events as challenges to my composure, as a sparring partner for my character. I will have Socrates as my guide and inspiration throughout this process of building my inner citadel.”

    Feels surprisingly personal to post it like this (wonder whether you sometimes feel like that when you are writing your blog). Take care!

    M.

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  17. XIV. I will persist in my daily practice of the Stoic exercises such as…, … ( for example, early morning reflection, Stoic journal, evening meditation, readings of Stoic texts, etc).

    Note.
    I know this is your pledge but you haven’t said so in this list.

    XV. I will strive to emulate the ideal person in my conduct and attitude. In all instances I will ask how the ideal, virtuous Stoic would behave and set myself the target of emulating this ideal.

    To X. I would add some reference to regular, strenuous exercise since, by now, the physical, cognitive, emotional and psychological benefits have been well established. Maintaining a healthy body and mind, through diet and exercise, enables us to play a fuller, more effective role in society(which is our duty).

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  18. XI. I will cultivate an attitude of indifference toward material possessions.

    XII. I will adopt a reasonably minimalist life style.

    These points say nearly the same thing so, in the interests of brevity, they could be combined.

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  19. Labnut,

    XI and XII are distinct: non-attachment to material goods doesn’t imply minimalism. Seneca was rich, but he considered his wealth something to enjoy while Fortuna favored him, and yet to be ready to give back when Fortuna would ask for it.

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