The growing pains of the Stoic movement

Modern Stoicism is a thing. It has been in the page of major newspapers (e.g., here), magazines (e.g., here), and assorted news outlets (e.g., here). Stoic Week and Stoicon are annual international events, and a number of new books about Stoicism have been published both by popularizers and scholars. There are Stoic blogs (like the one you are reading), podcasts (here is my own, in case you haven’t checked it out), and Facebook pages. Since the goal of Stoicism is to make us better people, more sensitive to injustice, and more helpful to the human cosmopolis, this is largely a good thing.

I say largely because just like in any other successful movement, it was inevitable that modern Stoicism would eventually spun a number of sub-groups, some of which are in danger of turning a good thing into something debatable, or even downright despicable. At the cost of going to be accused of gatekeeping, exclusionary attitude and so forth, I’m going to spell out my two cents about this, in the spirit of stimulating an open and frank discussion among people who genuinely care.

What’s happening to Stoicism is by all means not peculiar to it. Take Christianity, for instance. It has its “mainstream,” both Catholic and Protestant, but it also has its fundamentalism (a word that originally simply meant “a return to the fundamentals”), as well as its corruptions, like the abomination known as “prosperity gospel,” or the “muscular Christianity” anti-immigration and misogynist movement of the late 19th century.

So what is there to be concerned for modern Stoics? The first, though admittedly least problematic, stop, is “traditional Stoicism.” These are people who think that a religious belief in the divine and in providence is an inevitable component of Stoicism, without which one has simply betrayed the ancient philosophy for one’s “assumed” modern worldview. Traditional Stoics accuse the rest of us of changing things around to make the philosophy “more palatable” to modern sensitivities.

It is undeniable that the ancient Stoics frequently invoked “god” and did believe in some sort of “providence.” Nobody can read Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius and miss that. At the same time, it is also very clear that the ancient Stoics themselves did not see an unavoidable connection between their idea of providence and their ethical practice, as Marcus Aurelius repeats several times in the Meditations. Moreover, “the divine” for the Stoics had a very specific meaning: they were pantheists, not theists, meaning that for them god is immanent in the universe, indeed it is the universe itself, permeated by a rational principle known as the Logos. God, for the ancient Stoics, is made of matter, and has little to do with most modern conceptions of the term. Moreover, “providence” was not a Christian-type plan, but the result of the fact that the Cosmos is a living organism that does its thing (see this, chapters 5-8). We don’t understand what our part in that thing is, just like the cells of our body don’t understand what the body is doing. For the Stoics there was no afterlife, no long-term survival of the soul (which was also made of matter), and — pace the famous Hymn to Zeus by Cleanthes — no god who is going to answer our prayers. In his Republic, Zeno explicitly said that there would be no temples in the ideal Stoic community,

What bothers me about traditional Stoics, however, is not their metaphysical beliefs, as much as I think they are unsustainable in the light of modern science (of course, they would say that this is simply a reflection of my “assumed” worldview). Indeed, a major reason I embraced Stoicism is precisely because I think it is compatible with a number of metaphysical positions, from pantheism (obviously) to deism, from theism to atheism. It’s a big tent, which is consistent with the Stoics’ own concept of cosmopolitanism. But traditional Stoics seem to act in an exclusionary manner, thinking of themselves as holding to The Truth, and everyone else as either wrong or, worse, moved by an agenda of political correctness. Come back to the big tent, brothers and sisters, there is a lot of space over here.

“Either there is a fatal necessity and invincible order, or a kind Providence, or a confusion without a purpose and without a director. If then there is an invincible necessity, why do you resist? But if there is a Providence that allows itself to be propitiated, make yourself worthy of the help of the divinity. But if there is a confusion without a governor, be content that in such a tempest you have yourself a certain ruling intelligence.” (Meditations, XII.14)

“Will I not walk in the footsteps of my predecessors? I will indeed use the ancient road — but if I find another route that is more direct and has fewer ups and downs, I will stake out that one. Those who advanced these doctrines before us are not our masters but our guides. The truth lies open to all; it has not yet been taken over. Much is left also for those yet to come.” (Letters to Lucilius, XXXIII.11)

Let me turn now to the Stoic equivalent of the prosperity gospel. No, I’m not talking about Ryan Holiday. Even though some of his writings have a mixed business / self-help flavor to it, I’ve met Ryan and I’ve seen him talk about Stoicism. He knows his Marcus Aurelius, and he understands the distinction between a philosophy of life and a bag of tricks: the former includes the latter, but the latter does not the former make. Still, we have also seen an avalanche of “Stoicism for business” and “Stoicism for success” articles, which not only have just a superficial relationship with Stoicism, but in fact constitute a perversion of it. Once again, Stoicism is a philosophy of personal and societal moral improvement. Personally, the focus is on understanding and practicing the dichotomy of control and deploying the four cardinal virtues in everything we do. Societally, things will improve — according to the Stoics — from the bottom up, so to speak: Zeno’s ideal Republic, essentially a peaceful anarchy of wise people, will be realized because we all, individually, do our part to make human society better.

None of this has anything to do with the dogged pursuit of externals, such as money, fame, or success. These are all classed by the Stoics among the preferred indifferents, i.e., things that may be pursued secondarily, so long as they don’t get in the way of practicing virtue. And speaking of practice, the Stoic “bag of tricks” was never meant to advance your business career or make your team win the SuperBowl. Indeed, the Stoics would have been appalled by such applications. The only point of the evening reflection, the exercises in self-deprivation, the premeditatio malorum, and so forth is to allow you to internalize the dichotomy of control and to make you a better person. Period. This is entirely analogous to Christianity: regardless of what you may think of the merits of the religion, being a Christian is about bettering yourself and helping others. It has nothing whatsoever to do with accumulating reaches and property, or any other measure of “success.”

“What decides whether a sum of money is good? The money is not going to tell you; it must be the faculty that makes use of such impressions – reason.” (Discourses, I.1.5)

“Receive wealth or prosperity without arrogance; and be ready to let it go.” (Meditations, VIII.33)

Dulcis in fundo (L., the sweetest for last, except that this is here meant entirely sarcastically), there is the apparent popularity of Stoicism in the men’s rights movement (MRM) and allied sub-movements (like incels, MGTOW, etc. — it’s hard to keep up with the burgeoning acronyms and abbreviations). This is one reason Jordan Peterson is so often talked about in Stoic circles, though the phenomenon is certainly not limited to him. The people I’m referring to love to point out that courage is a Stoic virtue, since they associate it with “manliness.” But they entirely forget that courage, in Stoicism, is a moral virtue, and it is impossible to decouple it from justice which, curiously, hardly goes mentioned in the same quarters. (Besides, the Stoics believed in the unity of virtue, so one should strive to be simultaneously courageous, just, temperate, and prudent.)

“Manly” Stoics of course also point out that “virtue” comes from the Latin word vir, which means man. While this is true, they also conveniently forget that vir was the translation of the Greek arete, which simply means excellence. And they entirely skip on the several quotes from the ancient Stoics — from Zeno to Seneca to Musonius Rufus — that very clearly talk about the intellectual equality between men and women. True, Greco-Roman society was certainly sexist, and so were some of the Stoics themselves, but the theory (and some of the practice) was way ahead of its time. And why on earth would we want to model 21st century behavior on the worst of what our forebears did and thought?

“I know what you will say, “You quote men as examples: you forget that it is a woman that you are trying to console.” Yet who would say that nature has dealt grudgingly with the minds of women, and stunted their virtues? Believe me, they have the same intellectual power as men, and the same capacity for honourable and generous action.” (To Marcia, On Consolation, XVI)

“Injustice is impiety. For since the universal nature has made rational animals for the sake of one another to help one another according to their deserts, but in no way to injure one another, he who transgresses her will is clearly guilty of impiety toward the highest divinity.” (Meditations, IX.1)

I am not the Pope of Stoicism. Thank Zeus we don’t have a Pope or anything like that. And of course I could be wrong, both in terms of my understanding of the history and of the philosophy of Stoicism. But at the very least all Stoic practitioners should seriously and thoughtfully engage in discussions of these issues, and honestly trying to do their best not just to further the philosophy itself, but to contribute to the welfare of the human polis and the ethical stewardship of the world in which we live.

43 thoughts on “The growing pains of the Stoic movement

  1. jaycel adkins

    Thought provoking post and accurate take on the various sub-groups of Stoicism that have emerged in the time I have been attempting to practice this way of life.

    That the issues each of these subgroups have are readily solved by having a basic understanding of actual Stoicism via reading the Stoics and understanding the principles points to the shallowness of their merits.

    A possible interesting exception to this are Traditional Stoics. But one need only watch the conduct of many of that group’s adherents to realize Tribalism and not Cosmopolitianism is their true creed.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. Tim Bartik (@TimBartik)

    Thank you for this post, Massimo.

    I think an implication is that it is important, in discussing Stoic philosophy, to emphasize the parts of the philosophy that counter these all-too-common misinterpretations. That is, it is important to emphasize that: Stoicism does not require traditional theism; Stoicism regards virtue as its goal, not wealth; Stoic virtue is an integrated virtue that includes justice and moderation; Stoic philosophy properly includes women as well as men as moral and intellectual equals.

    Any philosophy is prone to common misunderstandings, and it is therefore important to make special efforts to counter these misunderstandings.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Chuchu

    Thank you for writing this Massimo! This is actually quite educational for me.

    I’ve so far successfully avoided most online Stoic “help files” and have mainly stuck with the Stoic book collection from my university – yours being one of them. 😊 your blog is the only one I follow, since your writing is one of the few I found that’s easy to understand – I’m not majored in philosophy. All I can say is thank you for making Stoicism easier for an average person such as myself to understand. I’d be much more lost if I hadn’t read your explanations on Stoic ethics, logic and physics etc.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Neyda Abreu-Schienke

    Thank you so much for writing this post. There are some Stoic threads that have been in some cases less than inclusive of women and in others openly misogynistic. I have decided to stay away of internet discussions about Stoicism because they are very time consuming and because (as with any other internet discussion) I am not going to change anybody’s mind. However, I do feel like I am missing out on interesting conversations and on interacting with the community as a whole.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. E. O. Scott


    You might be interested in this Quora post I recently wrote summarizing the debate over Traditional Stoicism. I’d love to hear more of your thoughts on the matter:

    It has always seemed to me that the debate over TS has been rather inefficient, in the sense that the main arguments each side wishes to make haven’t really connected with each other. And i think this guarantees that the social rift will only get wider.

    For instance, one of TS’s biggest complaints is that atheistic Stoics often try to prove too much too fast about the independence of ethics and theology by proof texting from Marcus Aurelius. And they believe they have scholarship to point to (starting with Hadot) that shows why that line of argument doesn’t hold water, or at least needs to be treated with nuance.

    They may be partly mistaken about that, I don’t know, but it does seem that their argument hasn’t really been heard by secular Stoics. As far as I can tell, we (myself included) have continued singing our own tune, without really dialoguing with or adapting to TS claims.

    Anyway. I do highly recommend Chris Fisher’s podcast, Stocism on Fire, If you find the time.
    It is very well done, and he goes out of his way to be charitable to atheistic Stoicism, even while he presents an argument for the serious value-add of a providential world view.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. Massimo Post author

    Thanks E.O.. I’m aware of the arguments and scholarship, and as I say in the OP there is no question that the ancient Stoics saw providence as integral to their system. But I really see no argument for why that should continue too be the case, or why if someone rejects that position then someone should not count himself as a Stoic. The best articulated response to TS is the book by Larry Becker, A New Stoicism.

    Moreover, what bothers me is the tendency of TS to be exclusionary: I have no problem with theistic or pantheistic Stoics. Why should they have any problem with atheistic or agnostic ones?

    Liked by 3 people

  7. Plutarch

    Thank you for this post and your continued work writing about Stoicism Massimo. Any growing religious/philosophical movement will have the issues you’ve noted so it’s great you’re stepping up and sharing your thoughts on how to demarcate various branches of modern Stoicism. You do a great job approaching your interlocutors with humility, or err, the more explicitly Stoic virtues of temperance and justice. You’re not one who presents yourself as a pope by any stretch of the imagination. You’re a helpful Stoic inspiring others, so thank you!

    Liked by 2 people

  8. E. O. Scott


    “The best articulated response to TS is the book by Larry Becker, A New Stoicism.”

    Indeed. And the TS group generally looks favorably on Becker’s book, because Becker is up front that about disagreeing with and discarding ancient Stoic theology (as opposed to downplaying the importance of theology for the ancients in order to make secular Stoicism appear more “orthodox”). I’ve only really heard them criticize a couple particular pages somewhere in the middle of the book, where they feel he has misrepresented the state of the scholarly debate over just how essential theology was to ancient Stoic ethics.

    “Why should they have any problem with atheistic or agnostic ones?”

    I hear you. Sometimes they have (rarely, in my experience) summarized their position with language like “atheistic Stoicism is not ‘Stoicism'”—which are fightin’ words, to say the least! Even if they only mean to say that “atheistic Stoicism has important qualitative differences from the classical Stoic system of practice, which stretches the ‘family resemblance’ that holds the concept together,” choosing to word it as “not Stoicism” adds a definite exclusionary quality to the argument.

    But even then it’s worth noting that the “problem” they have is a pretty narrow one. Fisher, at least, generally voices strong support for atheistic Stoicism as a project. And I don’t believe he has any beef at all with us calling ourselves “modern Stoics” or “secular Stoics.”

    I think both groups would be more than happy to form a “big tent,” and to relegate this whole Providence issue to a friendly internal debate. But several key interpersonal bridges have been burned in that department, I think, and until Traditional Stoics (who have had their own independent community since the 90’s) are invited to participate in Stoicon and start to feel like a welcome part of that wider community, I’m not sure how much progress we can expect.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Robert

    Excellent post Sir. Everyone chooses (I suppose) their own camp. Now, perhaps, the camps have their own blind-spots made more visible.


    Liked by 2 people

  10. wtc48

    An excerpt of Renaissance Stoicism from Hamlet (Act 5, Sc.2):

    “We defy augury.
    There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow.
    If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come,
    It will be now; if’t be not now, yet it will come.
    The readiness is all.”

    The entire process of the play can be read as a transformation from the tribal mode of a revenge story to a point of view more compatible to virtue ethics. Without expressly abandoning the task of vengeance that has been imposed on him, Hamlet’s path is diverted by an attempt to achieve reconciliation with the (entirely vengeful) Laertes, and in the process his enemies fall victim to their own plots. He also dies, but his last effort is to make sure of the kingdom’s survival and to enable the bystanders to learn the truth about what had happened.


  11. jbonnicerenoreg

    I think the basic problem is the tendency of some to be exclusionary. Considering that the overwhelming majority of ancient Stoic works have been lost there is no reason for anyone to claim that only one view is right. Looked at positively, it’s a wonderful opportunity to prove your point of view, without being completely tied down by ancient maxims.


  12. Pelagius

    We would do well to make Stoicism the basis for a new philosophy of how to live in the modern world, one that also incorporates the parallel ethical concepts, beliefs, discoveries and practices of Aristotle, Plato, Epicurus, secular Buddhism, neuroscience, Existentialism, Taoism, the Judeo-Christian tradition, etc.


  13. namckor68

    I think Ryan Holiday is milking Stoicism and making big bucks off of it. I’ve read his books and they are no different than Les Brown or one of those guys. Typical “you can do it, you can be just like Andrew Carnegie, or John Glenn, or whatever great figure. Alain de Botton puts a very real spin on that kind of thing saying some people are blessed by fortune and some aren’t and you need to realize that and stop being unrealistic about it. Again I don’t think Stoicism is about making tons of money off of it.


  14. E. O. Scott

    Chris Fisher has written a reply to this post’s treatment of Traditional Stoicism on social media. The group members seem to agree that Massimo has created a straw man, and that he has shown his ignorance of the actual views that TS’s have clearly and consistently been stating for years:

    To be fair, this is much the same complaint that leaders of the Modern Stoic movement typically level at their TS critics.

    Which is why I say that it seems neither side has ever managed to communicate well enough so that their arguments connect with each other accurately and effectively. So long as every argument consistently ends with both sides saying “you misunderstood my point, that’s a straw man,” then it indicates to me that no real debate has ever in fact begun.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Massimo Post author

    Thanks E.O.. I’m not sure where the strawman comes from, but I’ll check their link. I must reiterate that I read their own description of what TS is about, on their web site, before writing my OP, so it may be more stupidity than ignorance on my part.

    At any rate, my fundamental objection is to the exclusionary vein of TS, of which Fisher has definitely been guilty in the past, and which I don’t think can reasonably be attributed to Don Robertson or myself.

    Liked by 2 people

  16. Massimo Post author

    Ah, I have now read Chris’ post, which I find unnecessarily confrontational and misleading. He accuses me of basically having chased him out of the modern Stoicism Facebook page, which is absolutely not the case. In one case I lost my temper with him in that forum, and I immediately apologized for it. He also, either purposefully or out of a rush reading, completely misunderstands my comment about “political correctness,” replying that they do not discuss politics on their site — a good example of a non sequitur. Oh well, I guess not much of a dialogue it’s going to come out of this in the near future.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Tyrrell McAllister

    But traditional Stoics seem to act in an exclusionary manner, thinking of themselves as holding to The Truth, and everyone else as either wrong or, worse, moved by an agenda of political correctness.

    All I know about TS is from listening to Chris Fisher’s podcast. But what he says there is at variance with how your characterize TS here. There, he frequently says that one’s choice of a philosophy of life is an “existential choice”. He frequently cites Hadot on this point. A typical quote from this page (which seems to be a transcript) for Chris’s episode #4:

    While philosophical theory was an essential part of practice for all ancient philosophical schools, it was not the primary motive that drove people to philosophy in general nor to any particular school. Instead, students were attracted to the philosophical way of life as a quest for wisdom, then they made a “specific existential choice”[3] to follow the path prescribed by one of the schools.


    It does seem to bother him when terminology doesn’t clearly reflect what he considers to be significant differences, such as over belief/disbelief in providence. But he seems to consider the “traditional stoicism” / “modern stoicism” terminological distinction to be sufficiently clear. In particular, I haven’t heard him express any Truth-based problems with modern stoicism. Here’s another quote from the above link:

    So where does that leave those in the twenty-first century who are looking for a philosophical way of life and are considering Stoicism? It leaves them in the place Robert Frost’s famous traveler stood, where two roads diverged. One road it that of modern Stoicism and the other is of traditional Stoicism. Both may be equally viable; however, the traveler must pick one. That does not mean the same traveler cannot garner benefit from both versions of Stoicism. Nevertheless, in the case of traditional Stoicism, the path is made distinct by assent to a divine and providential cosmos. Therefore, it is unlikely an atheist or agnostic will be interested in traveling that path. What do I recommend? Do what Frost’s traveler did. Look down both paths as far as you can see. Then pick the one that has the way of life you find most appealing. However, please leave the other road visible for those who may find it appealing. Please don’t switch the road signs or put up danger signs on the other path simply because you think it is an unreasonable path for moderns.

    I don’t know the history between MS and TS. But the version of TS in the podcast seems to be ecumenical enough. There seems to be an opening for rapprochement there. Of course what you do with that is up to you.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. E. O. Scott

    Massimo: “I guess not much of a dialogue it’s going to come out of this in the near future.”

    Indeed. I’m not interested in pointing fingers one way or another myself. I’m just optimistic that at some point (be it sooner or later) we can all reach a more constructive mutual understanding than we have right now.

    Liked by 3 people

  19. E. O. Scott

    Tyrrell: “the version of TS in the podcast seems to be ecumenical enough. There seems to be an opening for rapprochement there.”

    Indeed! Chris has made a conscious effort to strike a conciliatory tone in the podcast. I’ve gotten a lot of value out of it on a practical level, even though I neither believe in nor quite fully agree with his heavy emphasis on Stoic theology.

    It’s a great resource for the contemporary Stoics of any metaphysical color.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Massimo Post author


    Thanks for posting Fisher’s comments, they do sound much milder than what I remember from him when he was on the main Facebook Stoicism page.

    Incidentally, my “The Truth” comment was in reference to the self-assuredness, as I perceive it, of TS folks about the soundness of the scholarship they claim backs up their view of ancient Stoicism. Since there is a lot of debate on that, from other scholars, I would caution against too much confidence.

    Unlike the quote from Chris you posted, TS people also often say that their brand of Stoicism is the one that deserves the name, and that modern Stoics who are atheists are simply imposing their own assumptions on the philosophy. This is on their web site.

    Again, I’ve always been explicitly for a bit tent. If you are a theistic or pantheistic Stoic it doesnt matter, so long as you practice the virtues and try to better yourself and humanity. I do, however, also honestly think, as a scientist, that both theism and pantheism are untenable in the light of modern science. When I say this, predictably, I get accused of being arrogant.

    Liked by 2 people

  21. Plutarch

    Massimo, I would appreciate if you would address something that I think could be a serious doctrinal split within Modern Stoicism. In your previous Post on Why Jordan Peterson is No Stoic, you and I exchanged a fruitful back and forth in the comments section. For now, I’d like to ignore our debate about Peterson as a potential Stoic, and focus on the point where we came to opposing conclusions about whether or not Stoicism, if it a philosophy of social roles, implies society is best arranged hierarchical.

    Now, you 1) advance Brian E. Johnson’s idea that Epictetus created the social roles theory within Stoicism, and 2) say that Zeno’s Republic suggested the ideal state was essentially anarchic, and therefore not arranged hierarchical. You don’t see maintaining 1) and 2) as an issue because to quote you “Roles do not imply hierarchies.”

    I want to re open this discussion, because I politely disagree, and fear that Zeno and Epictetus may not agree on this, and if this is the case, then this has serious doctrinal and practical implications for Modern Stoicism.

    Consider the lovely quote of Epictetus you often use in your posts:

    “You are a citizen of the cosmos, and a part of it, and not a subordinate part, but a principal part of it. For you are capable of understanding the divine administration, and of reasoning on what follows from that. What then is the profession [epangelia] of a citizen [of the world]? To have no private gain, never to deliberate as though detached [from the whole], but to be like the hand or the foot, which, if they had reason and understood the constitution of nature, would never exercise impulse or desire, except by reference to the whole.” (II.10.3-4)

    Epictetus is suggesting we visualize and resolve hierarchical social dynamics, disputes and conflicting duties by using the visual metaphor of SOCIETY as BODY. This metaphor suggests we each are different ‘parts’ ‘limbs’ or ‘organs’ with different characteristic functions and roles in the hierarchical social ‘body.’ Another classic Stoic expression of this image is the Stoic Marcus Aurelius’s reminder to himself at the opening of Book 2 of the Meditations: “We were born to work together like feet, and hands, and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower.”

    The metaphor of SOCIETY as BODY implies [to quote Phillip J. Ivanhoe from Oneness: East Asian Conceptions of Virtue, Happiness, and How We Are All Connected (2017)] : “a hierarchy within the unity of oneness” for “while we care for every part of our bodies and every inch our skin, we do not care for them equally or treat them the same way.”

    Roles do seem to clearly imply hierarchies.

    Consider the social roles, parent & child, teacher & student, etc. A hierarchy is clearly implied within these social roles. If you extend a social role and duty based philosophy to a societal scale it seems you end up committed to a political philosophy which says hierarchies are necessary and even preferable when done well. Now that doesn’t mean we should let the hierarchy be exploitative and predatory, but it does mean we do and ought to live within a hierarchically arranged society we strive to make more just.

    As modern Stoics I think we have to decide to follow Epictetus or Zeno, not both.

    In so far as we base Stoicism on Epictetus (which you usually like to do) I think we are forced to come to the conclusion that society is best arranged in a hierarchy where we perform our roles justly. I don’t see issues with this because I don’t think hierarchies have to be exploitative, even if they often do become exploitative.

    Instead, we could base our modern Stoicism on Zeno to (theoretically) secure a more anarchic and non hierarchical society. Such an ideal ‘Stoicism’ would necessarily be opposed to (hierarchical) social roles like parent & child, and teacher & student, as well as the theory of social roles in general. Frankly, this sounds much more like Cynicism and Diogenes than it does Stoicism and Epictetus.

    If we are forced to decide (and I do think we are forced to decide if you are correct in calling Zeno Republic’s anarchic) I think we should side with Epictetus and his theory of social roles. Thoughts?

    Once again, and as always, great blog and great posts Massimo. We all appreciate your work making Stoicism relatable and practical for the 21st century. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  22. Massimo Post author


    hmm, goog questions about hierarchy, which may deserve a separate post. For now, however, a few notes.

    First off, I don’t think there is a contradiction between Zeno and Epictetus, as the former is explicitly talking about the Stoic Republic, which is inhabited by sages, while the latter is talking about current society, which is not inhabited by sages. So there is no choice to be made. Rather, we need to deal with society as it is, but pushing it forward the ideal.

    Second, I really don’t think roles iimply hierarchies. My current ongoing series on Liz Gloyn’s book, The Ethics of the Family in Seneca (, will make it very clear (next episode out tomorrow). That’s because of the Stoic theory of oikeiosis, whereby we are supposed to “appropriate” other people concern’s as if they were our own — no hierarchy.

    Third, you may be taking the metaphor of the body a bit too literally, which is always the problem with metaphors. But even so, that was in reference to the Cosmos, not human society, both in Epictetus and in Marcus.

    Lastly, it may be necessary, as a pragmatic matter, to have some social hierarchies before we establish the Republic, but only in terms of division of labor, not ethically. And the Stoics are concerned about the latter, not the former.

    Liked by 2 people

  23. Modern Stoic

    Possibly the following might offer some middle ground on which the MS and TS views could converge. The TS believe in the Logos as traditionally understood but MS can concur that for some reason that science cannot yet explain we live in a Universe governed by rational laws which is also friendly to life. Without invoking any teleology this has something in common with the TS idea of Providence. Science and spirituality understood as something natural are not necessarily enemies. Modern Stoics can have an imaginative engagement with the metaphysics and spirituality of TS without having to accept it as a scientific description of reality.

    Liked by 2 people

  24. Massimo Post author

    Modern Stoic,

    yes, that sounds reasonable to me. Indeed, that’s how I have tried to operate so far. We all agree that the universe is organized according to rational principles. Someone calls that God, others the web of cause-effect. We can use the word Logos as a general reference and then focus on the ethics, which is really the most important part of Stoicism.

    Liked by 3 people

  25. Tyrrell McAllister


    (I’m assuming that you meant me when you wrote “Tim”.)

    Incidentally, my “The Truth” comment was in reference to the self-assuredness, as I perceive it, of TS folks about the soundness of the scholarship they claim backs up their view of ancient Stoicism.

    TS people also often say that their brand of Stoicism is the one that deserves the name

    So you seem to have two main concerns about TS:

    (1) TS people have false or insufficiently substantiated beliefs about what ancient Stoics believed.

    (2) TS people are too exclusive in who they say gets to use the label Stoic today.

    Regarding (1), do you have some examples in mind? What are some beliefs that TS people over-confidently attribute to ancient Stoics?

    Regarding (2), I guess all I can say is that, if TS ever was too exclusionary, then you’ve already won this battle, and you can stand down. There’s nothing like this in the first ten episodes of Chris Fisher’s podcast. (Though, in retrospect, I can see now that he was trying at many points to emphasize how inclusive he is. Your post puts that concern of his in context.)

    Liked by 1 person

  26. Massimo Post author


    no my response above was to Tim, not you.

    Regarding (1), do you have some examples in mind? What are some beliefs that TS people over-confidently attribute to ancient Stoics?

    They are far too dismissive of the several quotes in which Marcus (and there are some also from Seneca and Epictetus) clearly says that whether there is providence of atoms it doesn’t matter to our ethical conduct. Some of those quotes are collected here: and Don Robertson has written several posts about it.

    They also take Cleanthes’ Hymn to Zeus as a strong indication (proof, they used to say on the Facebook page) that Stoicism was a religion. In so doing, they are both using far too broad a definition of religion, ignoring that there is not a single other known instance of “prayer,” and that Zeno explicitly said that there would be no temples in the Republic.

    Regarding (2), I guess all I can say is that, if TS ever was too exclusionary, then you’ve already won this battle, and you can stand down. There’s nothing like this in the first ten episodes of Chris Fisher’s podcast.

    If only it were that easy. I’m glad of Chris’ new attitude, and I will work on my part with the Modern Stoicism group to see if we can build bridges, for instance by having his or another TS speaker at a future Stoicon. But I still feel there is a lot of work to be done. And, I reiterate, it was Chris and his followers who left the group and explicitly did not allow someone who does not subscribe to TS to join their Facebook page (I don’t know whether this ban is still in effect).

    Liked by 1 person

  27. Roberto Sans

    Thank you Massimo for another thought-provoking post. Very interesting debate in the comments as well. As a lay person with only a sketchy instruction on Metaphysics or Theology I can only say that the writings from ancient stoics made much more emphasis on the importance of living like a Stoic rather than theoretically discussing different points of view. I cannot see how believing in a Providence makes much of a difference in the lives of the run of the mill aspiring stoic person , as we will all agree than Virtue , as looking for excellence in human endeavour is the only good. Unfortunately all intellectual movements tend to grow into families that might want to distinguish one from the other. That is human nature, and we have to accept it. As far a I am concerned I will look for useful ideas and virtuous behaviour in all corners before engaging too much in matters of doctrinal purity.
    “Waste no time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one” Marcus Aurelius . Meditations , X, 16

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  28. Plutarch

    Thank you for your diligent response Massimo. I think a post on hierarchies would be a great addition to this blog. (It would also allow you to sharpen the difference you believe inherent between Peterson and Stoicism.)

    Thank you for informing me. I did not know Zeno was talking about a Republic inhabited by sages (ideal perfected persons.) Are you saying that in this Republic, Zeno thinks social roles no longer play a part?

    You say that “roles don’t imply hierarchies […] because of the Stoic theory of oikeiosis, whereby we are supposed to “appropriate” other people concern’s as if they were our own — no hierarchy.”

    I respectfully disagree, and here’s why. At least to me, it seems like there are two obvious ways of understanding oikeiosis. 1. Universal love without distinctions. 2. Gradated love with distinctions.

    Now, I agree with you, Stoics would seem to be against hierarchies as the basic form of social organization if oikeiosis means that we are supposed to appropriate EVERY people’s concerns EQUALLY. That seems to be a practice of (1) universal love without distinctions.

    While it seems reasonable to me to interpret oikeiosis as meaning exactly that, I also think it is at least as reasonable, if not more reasonable, to interpret oikeiosis as meaning we should practice (2) gradated love with distinctions. (The metaphor for oikeiosis is, after all, concentric circles, which implies the image of a spatial hierarchy organizing our duties in expanding chains of concern.) This reading of oikeiosis would mean that Stoics see we do, and ought to live within hierarchies (Just hierarchies of virtue, not exploitative ones organized only by wealth alone etc.)

    While I do think it is reasonable to get (1) from oikeiosis, as you suggest we might, for multiple reasons I think (2) is much more plausible.

    (1) Universal love without distinctions, (whether of a Stoic, Mohist, or Buddhist variety) has genuine and unresolvable practical problems. We all inhabit multiple social roles. You, Massimo, for example, are finite being with limited time who is a father and a professor. You need to practically decide how to allocate your time between your students and daughter, which means to decide how to perform each role virtuously, and sometimes at the others expense. Sometimes these roles will conflict. It doesn’t seem to me like you can resolve role conflict with (1) universal love without distinctions. Because you would be urged to treat your daughter and your students as EQUALLY worthy of your time and performance of duties. This does not solve the problem of how you shall allot your time and concern between your conflicting duties. And that’s just two role conflicts. You, like all of us, inhabit more than two roles. In practice, (1) universal love without distinctions commits you to treating everyone the same, whether your daughter, parents, or a stranger with a vicious character. This is practically not sustainable if you wish to have a social life approximating anything resembling normal.

    Unless you intend to become a wandering street Cynic, it does seem to me like you have to find some principle to decide how to resolve role conflicts and conflicting duties. You already seem to be practicing oikeiosis as (2) Gradated love with distinctions. Gradated love implies a hierarchy of concern. If (2) is the case, oikeiosis implies a hierarchy is and ought to be how we arrange society.

    Regarding me “taking the metaphor of the body a bit too literally, which is always the problem with metaphors.”

    Fair enough, perhaps I might be taking this metaphor too literally. But, might it also be the case you haven’t been taking this metaphor as seriously as Epictetus does? I say so because Epictetus deploys the SOCIETY as BODY metaphor to resolve value and duty conflicts within Stoicism in other cases than the one I just provided which strongly suggests he uses it to organize hierarchical social dynamics in the ideal and real human cities. I don’t think this metaphor is window dressing on Epictetus’s argument, but rather that it contains his argument in image form, and that we should take it as seriously as the rest of his explicit arguments. Consider Epictetus use of the SOCIETY as BODY metaphor at 2.5.24-27:

    How can one say, then, that some externals are in accordance with nature, and others contrary to it? It is as if we are asking the question in isolation. Thus, I will say that it is natural for the foot to be clean, taken in isolation, but if you consider it as a foot and not in isolation, it will be appropriate for it also to step into the mud, and trample on thorns, and sometimes even to be cut off for the sake of the body as a whole; for otherwise, it will no longer be a foot. We should think in some such way about ourselves also. What are you? A human being. Now, if you consider yourself in isolation, it is natural for your to live to an advanced age, to be rich, and to enjoy good health; but if you consider yourself as a human being and as part of some whole, it may be in the interest of the whole that you should now fall ill, now embark on a voyage and be exposed to danger, now suffer poverty, and perhaps even die before your time. Why do you resent this, then? Don’t you know that in isolation a foot is no longer a foot, and that you likewise will no longer be a human being? What, then, is a human being? A part of a city, first of all that which is made up of gods and human beings, then that which is closest to us and which we call a city, which is a microcosm of the universal city. (2.5.24-27)

    In this passage, Epictetus supports the idea of externals (and thus the doctrine of preferred indifferents) by arguing that we do and ought to live within a social body. But he can only do this because he imagines we do and ought to live within a role based hierarchical social body. So, yes, I may be taking this metaphors too literally, but I would also say there is very good reason to take them seriously, because they are consistent with how Epictetus advances most of his arguments about human nature, and the real and ideal society.

    Finally, I may have to politely disagree when you say:

    “Lastly, it may be necessary, as a pragmatic matter, to have some social hierarchies before we establish the Republic, but only in terms of division of labor, not ethically. And the Stoics are concerned about the latter, not the former.”

    You seem to suggest (and I could be wrong) that Stoics would see division of labor as a necessary evil until we reach the Republic. But if my reading of Epictetus and the SOCIETY as BODYmetaphors are proper, it does not seem as if Stoics consider hierarchies (and thus a division of labor) any worse that the fact that our feet play different roles than our capacity to reason. Yet I can only come to this conclusion because I think social roles, and oikeiosis, imply a hierarchy (but not necessarily an exploitative one.)

    In any case, thank you once again for your diligence and careful engagement Massimo.


  29. E. O. Scott

    “explicitly did not allow someone who does not subscribe to TS to join their Facebook page (I don’t know whether this ban is still in effect).”

    Minor correction: they do not allow debate over TS’s validity in the group (or defenses of MS’s validity), arguing that there are plenty of other forums where such debates can and do take place. But within these constraints, non-TS members are welcome to participate.

    It’s a strict sort of moderation policy, to put it mildly, and it took me, for one, a while to learn exactly where they draw the line between friendly questions and “debate.” But I’ve been a member of the group for years.

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  30. Massimo Post author

    E.O., thanks for the correction. As you say, still a pretty strict policy, and one that is not welcoming for people with other metaphysical persuasions.

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