Author Archives: Massimo

About Massimo

Massimo is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. He blogs at and He is the author of How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life.


Welcome to How to Be a Stoic! It began back in March ’15 as a blog to track my personal journey into modern practical Stoicism. The blog has now moved to Patreon and I hope you will follow me there.

However, the full archive of 425 posts and a whopping 4,600 comments will remain permanently available for free. You will also find here links to a number of podcasts and guest articles I wrote about Stoicism, collections of essays, practical meditations, suggestions for books, a Stoicism 101 section, and information about my contemporary school of Stoicism — the Stoa Nova. These pages will keep being updated as new material becomes available.

I hope you will enjoy this site and that it will help you in your continuing quest for understanding and practicing this ancient philosophy.


Massimo Pigliucci

(the City College of New York)

How to make progress with your Stoic practice (or learn to drive a car), Epictetus style

“you are just an impression!” (from Action Philosophers!)

There are different ways to understand and practice Stoic philosophy, and this is true not just for the differences between ancient and modern Stoicism, but even within ancient Stoicism itself. After all, the philosophy evolved over a course of more than five centuries from Zeno of Citium to Marcus Aurelius, and it is still evolving today, after an hiatus of 18 centuries.

One of the classic ways to approach Stoicism is through Epictetus’ famous three disciplines: desire/aversion, action, and assent. I have discovered that I’m partial to this way of thinking, since I structured my first book on Stoicism according to the Epictetean disciplines, and I’m currently finishing a new book on Stoic spiritual exercises with my friend Greg Lopez, also, as it happens, organized using the same framework.

The basic outline of the three disciplines is found in Discourses III.2, a section entitled “What a person must train himself in if he is to make progress, and that we neglect what is most important.” Here is how Epictetus puts it (from the excellent Oxford Classics translation by Robin Hard):

“There are three areas of study in which someone who wants to be virtuous and good must be trained: that which relates to desires and aversions, so that he may neither fail to get what he desires, nor fall into what he wants to avoid; that which relates to our motives to act or not to act, and, in general, appropriate behaviour, so that he may act in an orderly manner and with good reason, rather than carelessly; and thirdly, that which relates to the avoidance of error and hasty judgement, and, in general, whatever relates to assent.” (III.2.1-2)

Epictetus goes on to actually tells us which discipline is most important:

“Of these, the most important and most urgent is that which is concerned with the passions, for these arise in no other way than through our being frustrated in our desires and falling into what we want to avoid. This is what brings about disturbances, confusions, misfortunes, and calamities, and causes sorrow, lamentation, and envy, making people envious and jealous, with the result that we become incapable of listening to reason.” (III.2.3)

Once we have reasonably mustered the discipline of desire/aversion, we can move on to the discipline of action, which is concerned with putting into practice what we have learned so far:

“The second is concerned with appropriate action; for I shouldn’t be unfeeling like a statue, but should preserve my natural and acquired relationships, as one who honours the gods, as a son, as a brother, as a father, as a citizen.” (III.2.4)

Finally, the advanced student can move to the third and last discipline:

“The third belongs to those who are already making progress, and is concerned with the achievement of constancy in the matters already covered, so that even when we’re asleep, or drunk, or depressed, no untested impression that presents itself may catch us off guard.” (III.2.5)

Epictetus even goes on to complain that some misguided colleagues put too much emphasis on logic chopping, considering the discipline of assent as the primary one:

“But philosophers nowadays neglect the first and second areas of study to concentrate on the third, dealing with equivocal arguments, and those that are developed through questioning, and those that are fallacious, like ‘the Liar.’” (III.2.6)

He chides his students, warning them not to fall into this trap, out of too much self-assurance:

“Is it in this regard that you fall short, then? Have you achieved perfection in the other areas of study? When a bit of money is involved, are you secure against deception? If you see a pretty girl, can you resist the impression? If your neighbour receives an inheritance, don’t you feel a bite of envy? And are you lacking in nothing else at present than unshakeable judgement?” (III.2.8)

One way to make sense of what Epictetus is saying here is that our progress in Stoicism should follow something like this sequence:

theoretical understanding of the basics > practical implementation > refinement and automation

The discipline of desire/aversion tells us very clearly what we should properly desire (good judgments) and be averse to (bad judgements), together with whatever is neutral or “indifferent” (everything else). What is this knowledge good for? So that we can act properly toward other people, which is the essence of the discipline of action. After all, “ethics” and “morality” respectively come from Greek and Latin words referring to our character and our social customs. The very point of ethics is to learn how to live pro-socially. Once we are more comfortable with the first two disciplines, then, we can move to refine our understanding of “impressions,” interrogating them whenever they arise, in a way made memorable by another Epictetean quote:

“Practise, then, from the very beginning to say to every disagreeable impression, ‘You’re an impression and not at all what you appear to be.’ Then examine it and test it by these rules that you possess, and first and foremost by this one, whether the impression relates to those things that are within our power, or those that aren’t within our power; and if it relates to anything that isn’t within our power, be ready to reply, ‘That’s nothing to me.’” (Enchiridion I.5)

It strikes me that this sequence is pretty much the way we learn lots of things that have theoretical and practical components. For instance, driving a car. Typically, you begin with a bit of theory, during which an instructor, or a book, tells you the things that it is proper to “desire” (e.g., putting blinkers on when turning, respecting speed limits, etc.) and those to be “averse” to (e.g., crossing a red light, not respecting pedestrian precedence). You then begin to put these precepts into practice, because after all you are going to driving school not just for the sake of learning the theory, but because you want to drive a real car, on actual streets. (This step is where a lot of philosophy gets lost: many of my colleagues, and consequently their students, stop at the theory, as if it had intrinsic value without the practice.) Finally, once you are confident about the basics of how theory and action go together, you can get more nuanced and begin to automate your behaviors, so that you don’t have to stop and consciously take care of every detail while you are driving. Internalizing the theory makes the practice smooth, and you graduate from beginner to experienced driver. Or student of Stoicism!

The analogy between finding your path to virtue and learning to drive a car can be pushed even a bit further, I think, though one ought to be wary of not stretching analogies to the breaking point, after which they become useless or downright misleading.

Once we learn how to drive, we usually don’t forget it. The acquired skills stay with us. Analogously, several (though not all) ancient Stoics thought that once acquired, virtue cannot be lost. And yet, we can make sense of those cases in which we do lose it: if we suffer an injury that impairs parts of our body or brain that are necessary to drive, we won’t be able to do it any longer. Similarly, there may be situations in life (e.g., a degenerative brain disease) that will actually make us regress in terms of virtue. Moreover, unless we are Formula 1 drivers (and not even then, really!) we are not perfect, and we can incur into accidents. But the right attitude in those cases is to learn from our mistakes, overcome our fear of getting into a car again, and resume driving. Similarly, we can slip back in our virtuous practice, but that’s no reason to give it up. We pick ourselves up, reflect on where we went wrong, and resume our quest for becoming better human beings.

Stoics should be vegetarian

Summer by Giuseppe Arcimboldo

Vegetarianism is a big deal, ethically speaking. It was put on the map in terms of public philosophy by utilitarian Peter Singer, with his landmark Animal Liberation, published back in 1975. In truth, utilitarians have been very clear on the subject from the beginning. The founder of the approach, Jeremy Bentham, famously said that when it comes to the treatment of animals “the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?” (in: Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, 1789).

What about Stoicism? A recent article by Jeremy Corter over at Modern Stoicism summarizes the situation as far as the ancient texts are concerned. I will not repeat Jeremy’s points here, since he does a superb job of it. After parsing several quotes from Zeno, Chrysippus, Seneca, Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, he concludes (correctly, in my view): “Stoicism and vegetarianism are two separate philosophies. Stoic teachings never denounced eating animals and, in fact, often stated that animals were there for us to use. Musonius and Seneca are the only two Stoics we know of that were vegetarians, but neither cite any Stoic arguments for being so. Seneca cites Pythagoras and it would be safe to think that Musonius would have been aware of the same reasons.”

So why am I not ending the post here? Because of this, one of my favorite quotes from Seneca:

“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)

I think vegetarianism is, in fact, one of those cases where the ancient road is not the best one, and we need to revise it. Full disclosure here: I am not a complete vegetarian, though I heavily lean that way. My eating habits can best be described as vegetarianism with the addition of occasional wild caught fish thrown into the mix (paying attention to whether the species in question is being overfished). I have never considered veganism seriously, even though the ethical argument there is at least as strong as the one for vegetarianism (though it’s not easy to be a healthy vegan, an issue I don’t want to get into here because it would distract from the main point). You could accuse me of hypocrisy, and I will respond that I’m trying to do my best, and that at any rate I’m doing more than a lot of other people. Never claimed to be a sage, never will.

As Corter himself recognizes near the end of his essay, this is of course a variation of the somewhat annoying generic question: “is X Stoic?” He is somewhat dismissive of the question itself, which — to be sure — is often abused on social media. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a sensible question. Jeremy says “the Stoics don’t ‘approve’ of anything besides virtue … In short, it’s all indifferent.” Well, not exactly.

To begin with, virtue means nothing in a vacuum. Virtue is a propensity to engage in certain behaviors because that’s the right thing to do (as oppose to a vice, which is a propensity to engage in the wrong sort of behavior). One cannot be courageous, or just, or temperate, or prudent (phronesis) in the abstract. Virtue is considered by the Stoics the chief good because it can never, by definition, be used for ill. But it needs to be used for something nonetheless!

For what? Well, for handling the indifferents, which as we know come in two categories: preferred and dispreferred. This means that it is a bit too reductive and glib to say that the Stoics approve only of virtue because the rest is indifferent. The Stoics, for instance, opposed tyranny, and several of them lost their lives fighting it. Clearly, that means they disapproved of it! Seneca even approved of something as apparently neutral as rest and relaxation, as he makes clear in On Tranquillity of Mind, XVII.

So “is vegetarianism Stoic?” is a real question, and we need to find the answer not in the specifics of what the ancient said (since they are our guides, not our masters), but in the resources offered by the Stoic philosophical system as a whole. This approach is not unusual, being the same sort of exercise that modern Buddhists, say, or Christians, or Jews, engage in whenever looking at their own tradition for guidance concerning modern issues.

Indeed, the likely answer (in the affirmative) to the question of whether vegetarianism is Stoic is hinted at by Jeremy himself, near the end of his essay. He writes: “The Stoics felt that animals were there for human use, including for the use of food. This isn’t to say that the Stoics would have been in favor of factory farming or animal abuse. The Stoics thought that animals had souls, not like a human’s, but a soul nonetheless. Maybe I’m overthinking this part, but I’m suspecting that if they truly thought this, a Stoic would lean towards, if not protecting animals, at the very least not abusing and exploiting them.”

Corter is not overthinking at all. He just should have pursued that line of thinking a bit further. We know a lot more nowadays about animal suffering than the Stoics did two millennia ago. Moreover, we have developed truly horrific standardized practices for the treatment of animals in quantities that the Stoics could not have imagined.

Just to give you an idea, these are the USDA statistics of slaughtered animals for the year 2008, obviously limited to the USA only:

Cattle: 35,507,500
Pigs: 116,558,900
Chickens: 9,075,261,000
Layer hens: 69,683,000
Turkeys: 271,245,000

I strongly suggest these numbers ought to disturb you, especially if you know anything about how all of this is actually done. And that’s without bringing into consideration additional factors that the ancient Stoics were not concerned with, like labor practices (generally speaking, horrible) and environmental impact (not at all good, to put it very mildly).

Given all this, I strongly suggest that modern Stoics should lean heavily toward vegetarianism, or at the very least endorse only humane practices of raising and killing animals, as it is done in a number of small, independently owned farms. The problem is that that model simply does not scale up to feeding billions of human beings, which means that, for practical purposes, Stoics should indeed be vegetarian.

But what about the idea — which the ancient Stoics surely did have — that animals and plants are here to satisfy human needs? That idea stemmed from the Stoic concept of a providential universe, understood as a living organism itself, endowed with the Logos, the capacity for rationality.

The problem is that modern science very clearly tells us that that’s not the kind of universe we exist in. Plants and other animals are the product of billions of years of evolution, just like ourselves, and so in no rational way can they be said to be here “for” us. Seneca, above, said that the truth lies open to all; it has not yet been taken over, as much is left for those yet to come. Well, two thousand years later we are still searching for a lot of truths, but we have found out a few more than in Seneca’s time. It is our ethical duty, therefore, to update our practices accordingly. Remember that one of the pillars of Stoic philosophy is precisely that the “physics” (i.e., all of natural science) should inform our ethics, so better knowledge of biology in particular should redirect the way we think about what is right and what is wrong when it comes to eating habits.

Jeremy argues that vegetarianism is an indifferent, and that “like any indifferent, it doesn’t make you a good or bad person.” I think that’s not the right way to look at it. Our diet is more properly referred to as the indifferent, but deciding what we eat and why is very much a reflection of our character, and therefore a function of how we exercise the virtues. As Epictetus put it in a different context:

“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)

Substitute “diet” for “money” and you can answer in the same way: reason. And reason — given contemporary scientific knowledge — very much tells us that we, as Stoics, ought to be vegetarians. Therefore, I’m going to redouble my personal efforts to follow this path and further reduce my intake of other foodstuff. I hope you will join me, to reduce both suffering in the world and our carbon footprint as a species. And Seneca adds, you’ll also feel better and think more clearly.


P.S.: very likely, there will be people who will read the above and argue the facts. I have neither time nor inclination to debate the science, so I will not respond. I have looked long and hard, as a biologist, into the various issues surrounding vegetarianism, and I have concluded to my own satisfaction that a vegetarian diet is: (i) better in terms of the ethics of animal suffering (though not as good as a vegan one); (ii) better for the environment; (iii) not supportive of horrible labor practices that are commonly engaged in by large agricultural corporations; and (iv) better for your health. If you are not convinced, that’s your prerogative, and clearly outside my control.

Stoic Q&A: can virtue justify evil?

which role model?

[Feel free to submit a question for this column, addressing it at massimo at howtobeastoic dot org.]

V. writes: My question is: can Stoic virtues be used as excuses to conduct evil deeds? I’m asking this question for several reasons. First, in the current political climate, the term “loyalty” frequently comes up and is often labelled a “virtue.” Loyalty isn’t a Stoic virtue, and in fact I wonder if it’s a virtue at all or it is just tool to keep people under control. Historically, people have often done evil things under the cover of “loyalty,” particularly “loyalty to my country.”

However, this does make me question the philosophical concept of virtue, and whether it can be used to be a cover for evil deeds. Let’s look at the Stoic virtues: temperance, courage, wisdom and justice. Say that somehow I managed to get into Adolf Hitler’s head and had a conversation with his rather deranged soul. Please understand that I think Hitler did very evil things, yet he would plausibly think of himself as a virtuous man, because he thought that the German people were truly superior, and that if the world were controlled by a superior race, this would benefit humanity as a whole.

Back to modern days, I could list many evil things done under the flag of “loyalty is a virtue.” I’m wondering if Stoic virtues are any different? Can they also be used as a cover to conduct evil deeds? Would it be better to not have “virtues” at all?

This is a great question, even though I am weary of an increasingly popular informal logical fallacy, sometimes referred to as “reductio ad Hitlerium” (I’m not making this up!), the idea that an example based on Hitler somehow trumps everything else. But let’s go with it, because if the Stoic concept of virtue can withstand a reductio ad Hitlerium, then we are in good shape!

You may recall from previous posts (e.g., here and here) that the Socratic-Stoic idea is that nobody commits evil on purpose, only out of “ignorance.” Ignorance, however, does not mean lack of information, or even of formal education. The Greek word is amathia, which translates best to un-wisdom. And yes, even Hitler did what he did because of amathia. Even he probably (I’m guessing here) did not go up to his mirror in the morning, looked at his reflection and broke into an evil laugh, wondering with eagerness what sorts of mayhem he could get away with today. As you say, he had a (highly twisted, deranged) conception of the superiority of the German “race,” which — coupled with a sort of Social Darwinism — led him to truly believe that the world would be better off under the German boot. Horrifying tragedy for millions of people followed from such spectacular lack of wisdom, as we all know.

This, it turns out, is a really hard to accept example of a Stoic paradox (literally meaning, from the ancient Greek root, uncommon opinion), as I experience every time I tweet something about amathia: people love to think that “evil” is a metaphysical essence that affects specific individuals, I suspect so that they can demonize said individuals and not bother with a more nuanced analysis of what happened and what made it possible (after all, Hitler didn’t do the Holocaust by himself).

On my part, the concept that bad things are done out of lack of wisdom has been liberating, as it has allowed me to confront and resist injustice, while at the same time not forget that even people who do really bad things are still human beings, made of the same flesh and bones as everyone else, and at least potentially capable of the same sparks of intelligence and empathy as I am.

But let’s go back to the broader question of whether virtue can be used as an excuse to do bad things. Empirically, as you point out, the answer is clearly yes. And indeed, nationalism is a very common occurrence of this phenomenon. In my How to Be a Stoic I mention the famous phrase, often brought up in the United States, “my country, right or wrong” (ch. 13, p. 154). The original attribution of the quote is to Stephen Decatur, a US naval officer who allegedly said in an after-dinner toast in 1816: “Our Country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but right or wrong, our Country!”

Now compare this to a similar remark made by US Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz in front of the Senate, on 29 February 1872: “My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.”

The contrast between these two uses of the expression is precisely the one you are getting at: Decatur undoubtedly thought what he was saying to be obviously virtuous, but the real virtue lies in Schurz’s version. How can we tell the difference? That’s the tricky part. There is no hard and fast rule. Anyone can claim the mantle of virtue, but that doesn’t mean that everyone is justified in doing so. One has to reflect on the specific issue, make an argument for why what one is saying or doing is indeed virtuous. And listen to others who think otherwise, weighing their arguments properly.

There is, in other words, no shortcut to virtue, no certainty in virtue ethics, no simple algorithm that will guarantee you a virtuous outcome. This is why the Stoics insisted that only the sage is truly virtuous, while the rest of us are — at best — proficientes: those who make progress. And how do we know that we are making progress? Because we confront ourselves with others, as we are all doing on this blog, or on the Facebook Stoicism page. That is also why the concept of role models is so crucial to Stoic practice. As Seneca aptly puts it:

“Choose therefore a Cato; or, if Cato seems too severe a model, choose some Laelius, a gentler spirit. Choose a master whose life, conversation, and soul-expressing face have satisfied you; picture him always to yourself as your protector or your pattern. For we must indeed have someone according to whom we may regulate our characters; you can never straighten that which is crooked unless you use a ruler.” (Letters XI.10)

Stoic advice: my friend is a jerk, what do I do?

[Feel free to submit a question for this column, addressing it at massimo at howtobeastoic dot org. However, consider that I have a significant backlog, and I may not get to your question for some time, or at all.]

M. writes: My friend has been an avid member of the Red Pill community for the past year and it has inflated his ego to completely disproportionate levels, reaching heights of selfishness and arrogance I hadn’t seen before. We were walking down the street and an old lady walking with a frame was coming in our direction. I immediately moved aside in order to give her room. I looked at my friend and he wasn’t moving. He made the old lady stop and walk around him, after which he looked at me, a grin on his face, and said “I move for nobody.”

I didn’t say anything at the moment and haven’t brought it up since. I haven’t seen much of him since then, given that I wouldn’t reply to his messages out of sheer astonishment and a feeling of resentment into seeing what my friend has become. Seeing how unjust and disrespectful this was really got to me. This has been turning in my head ever since I witnessed his behavior, trying to figure out what the best mode of action is. I know his behavior is something external to me and it doesn’t affect me directly but it’s the idea of being associated with someone who acts this way that gets to me. I know that he has quite a lot of unresolved issues which may fuel this behavior of his, but as much as this may explain his actions, it doesn’t justify them.

So here I am, accepting that my friend is acting like a jerk but I know I can do something about it and not just accept it. I just need some advice as to what the more just way of reacting would be.

First off, thanks for educating me on Red Pill, whose existence I was unaware of until I read your letter, and about which I had to do some research (see this article, for instance). My reaction to this and similar kinds of communities (like the “Men Going Their Own Way” group) is one of sadness. On the one hand, it is clear that they are populated by a lot of lonely and angry men, with serious problems. On the other hand, their attitude is clearly toxic, sexist, and often downright misogynist. These are the same kind of people who tend to be influenced by the likes of Jordan Peterson, about whom I have written — not in a positive fashion — from a Stoic perspective.

There are two questions here, Stoically speaking: how should we think of people like your friend? How should we behave, as friends and more broadly fellow human beings, toward them?

I hope I do not have to make much of an argument that Red Pill, MGTOW, and such are not in line with Stoic values. Stoicism is inclusive and treats everyone equally (because of its cosmopolitanism), and the virtue of justice (which has to do with how to properly treat other people) seems to me to be in direct opposition to your friend’s rude behavior to the old lady.

That said, one of the most important, and at the same time really hard to internalize, concepts of Stoic-Socratic philosophy is the idea that people don’t do bad things on purpose (meaning because they want to be bad), but due to their lack of wisdom, or amathia. This is evident from your friend’s own justification for his action: “I move for nobody,” meaning that he has somehow convinced himself that it is not right for him to yield to anyone, presumably because he wants respect and is under the (misguided) impression that one way to get it is to be rude to old ladies.

I think the proper Stoic attitude toward these people is pity, not contempt. So that is what you should work toward. Here is what Epictetus says about this:

“We use labels like ‘thief’ and ‘robber’ in connection with them, but what do these words mean? They merely signify that people are confused about what is good and what is bad. So should we be angry with them, or should we pity them instead?” (Discourses I, 18.3)

Also, remember that we ourselves may have erred in similar or equally inexcusable ways, and should therefore be a bit humble when we regard the mistakes made by others:

“When you are offended at any man’s fault, immediately turn to yourself and reflect in what manner you yourself have erred: for example, in thinking that money is a good thing, or pleasure, or a bit of reputation, and the like.” (Meditations, X.30)

Now, how should we treat people who lack wisdom and consequently make mistakes? The standard Stoic approach is beautifully expressed in this quote by Marcus:

“They are certainly moved toward things because they suppose them to be suitable to their nature and profitable to them. ‘But it is not so.’ Teach them then, and show them without being angry.” (Meditations VI.27)

However, I do think there is a limit to the idea of teaching or simply putting up with people like your friend. For one thing, most people don’t want to be taught, and they will not be receptive to you until they themselves figure out that there is something amiss and ask spontaneously for your advice. Part of the calculation here concerns just how close of a friend the person in question is, and therefore how much friendship capital, so to speak, you are in a position to spend in your attempt to help him out of his situation.

At some point, however, there is a danger that instead of you helping him, he will be the one to drag you away from virtue, perhaps insinuating in your mind that something like Red Pill is a good idea after all. That’s the point when you may need to follow Epictetus and simply look for better company:

“Avoid fraternizing with non-philosophers [i.e., people who don’t try to improve themselves]. If you must, though, be careful not to sink to their level; because, you know, if a companion is dirty, his friends cannot help but get a little dirty too, no matter how clean they started out.” (Enchiridion 33.6)

This is tricky, as it sounds impossibly snobbish, even though it is hardly different from the very sensible advice your mother probably gave you when you were a kid, to be careful about which company you keep. The upshot is: do your best, don’t judge your friend harshly, and try genuinely to be helpful to him. But if he is not ready, you are under no obligation of sticking around until your own soul becomes dyed with the same dark thoughts.

The evolution of ancient Stoicism, and why it matters today

the ancient theater at Pergamon (photo by the Author)

Modern Stoics are interested in picking up the ancient tradition while at the same time updating it and molding it to modern times. For some reason, this is often considered a controversial thing, with flying accusations of cherry picking and dire warnings about the result not “really” being Stoic enough. But this is rather baffling, as philosophies, like (and more readily than) religions, do evolve over time, and indeed some of them have this attitude of constant revision built in. Just consider one of my favorite quotes from Seneca:

“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)

(For one concerted effort at updating Stoicism see here; for some of the predictable growing pains of the movement see here; and check here for a smorgasbord of our modern critics.)

In fact, ancient Stoicism itself underwent a number of changes that are well recorded in both primary and secondary texts. The early Stoics used a different approach and emphasis from the late ones, and there were unorthodox Stoics like Aristo of Chios (who was closer to Cynicism and rejected the importance of physics and logic in favor of ethics), Herillus of Carthage (who thought that knowledge was the goal of life), and Panaetius (who introduced some eclecticism in the doctrine). There were heretics who left the school, like Dionysius of Heraclea, who suffered from a painful eye infection and went Cyrenaic.

Even within the mainstream, though, one gets fairly different, if obviously continuous, pictures of Stoicism moving from the early Stoa of Zeno and Chrysippus to the late Stoa of Seneca and Epictetus, with major differences even between the latter two. While an accessible scholarly treatment of this can be found in the excellent Cambridge Companion to the Stoics (especially chapters 1 and 2), I want to focus here on some obvious distinctions among the early Stoa, Seneca, and Epictetus, distinctions that I think both illustrate how Stoicism has always been an evolving philosophy, and provide inspiration to modern Stoics who may wish to practice different “flavors” of the philosophy, depending on their personal inclinations and circumstances.

I. The early Stoa: live according to nature and the four virtues

The major sources we have about the philosophy of the early Stoa, from the founding of the school by Zeno of Citium circa 300 BCE to when Panaetius (who is considered to belong to the middle Stoa) moved to Rome around 138 BCE, are Diogenes Laertius’ Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers, and a number of Stoic-influenced works by Cicero.

Reading through these sources, it is quite obvious that the early emphasis was on the teaching of the fields of inquiry of physics (i.e., natural science and metaphysics) and logic (including rhetoric and what we would call cognitive science) in the service of ethics:

“Philosophic doctrine, say the Stoics, falls into three parts: one physical, another ethical, and the third logical. … They liken Philosophy to a fertile field: Logic being the encircling fence, Ethics the crop, Physics the soil or the trees. … No single part, some Stoics declare, is independent of any other part, but all blend together.” (DL VII.39-40)

This changed in the late Stoa, as we shall see, when physics and logic were largely (though not completely) set aside, in favor of the ethics. But for the early Stoics, a reasonable understanding (logic) of how the world works (physics) lead to the famous Stoic motto: live according to nature.

“Nature, they say, made no difference originally between plants and animals, for she regulates the life of plants too, in their case without impulse and sensation, just as also certain processes go on of a vegetative kind in us. But when in the case of animals impulse has been superadded, whereby they are enabled to go in quest of their proper aliment, for them, say the Stoics, Nature’s rule is to follow the direction of impulse. But when reason by way of a more perfect leadership has been bestowed on the beings we call rational, for them life according to reason rightly becomes the natural life. For reason supervenes to shape impulse scientifically. This is why Zeno was the first (in his treatise On the Nature of Man) to designate as the end ‘life in agreement with nature’ (or living agreeably to nature), which is the same as a virtuous life … for our individual natures are parts of the nature of the whole universe.” (DL VII.86-87)

What about the virtues? Both the early and late Stoics subscribed to the Socratic doctrine of the unity of virtue, but the early ones were more keen then the late ones to talk about separate virtues (as we’ll see below, Seneca usually refers to “virtue” in the singular, and Epictetus hardly even mentions the word):

“Amongst the virtues some are primary, some are subordinate to these. The following are the primary: [practical] wisdom, courage, justice, temperance.” (DL VII.92)


“Virtue is a habit of the mind, consistent with nature, and moderation, and reason. … It has then four divisions — prudence [i.e., practical wisdom], justice, fortitude [i.e., courage], and temperance.” (Cicero, On Invention II.53)

And how did they define the virtues?

“Prudence [practical wisdom] is the knowledge of things which are good, or bad, or neither good nor bad. … Justice is a habit of the mind which attributes its proper dignity to everything, preserving a due regard to the general welfare. … Fortitude [courage] is a deliberate encountering of danger and enduring of labour. … Temperance is the form and well-regulated dominion of reason over lust and other improper affections of the mind.” (On Invention II.54)

It should be noted that courage has an inherently moral component to it, it doesn’t refer just to rushing into a situation regardless of danger:

“The Stoics, therefore, correctly define courage as ‘that virtue which champions the cause of right.’” (Cicero, On Duties I.62)

II. Seneca: virtue and role models

When we move to Seneca, the emphasis shifts rather dramatically. Even though Seneca wrote a book on natural science, the overwhelming majority of his writings are on ethics. He rarely mentions individual virtues, talking instead of virtue in the singular. Consider:

“There is the whole inseparable company of virtues; every honourable act is the work of one single virtue, but it is in accordance with the judgment of the whole council.” (Letters LXVII. On Ill.10)


“The matter can be imparted quickly and in very few words: ‘Virtue is the only good; at any rate there is no good without virtue; and virtue itself is situated in our nobler part, that is, the rational part.’ And what will this virtue be? A true and never-swerving judgment.” (Letters LXXI.32)

Moreover, Seneca puts a lot more emphasis than earlier Stoics on the importance of role models:

“Choose therefore a Cato; or, if Cato seems too severe a model, choose some Laelius, a gentler spirit. Choose a master whose life, conversation, and soul-expressing face have satisfied you; picture him always to yourself as your protector or your pattern. For we must indeed have someone according to whom we may regulate our characters; you can never straighten that which is crooked unless you use a ruler.” (Letters XI.10)

That is why I devoted an entire section of this blog to the exploration of role models, both ancient and modern. They are a great practical tool not just because they provide us with examples of ethical behavior to use as inspiration and to do our best to imitate, but also because our very choices of role models tell us a lot about our values and help us reflect on them.

As Liz Gloyn has commented in her The Ethics of the Family in Seneca, one can read the 124 letters to Lucilius as a bona fide Stoic curriculum, and it does not look at all like something Zeno or Chrysippus would have used. One gets a distinctive impression that Seneca has decidedly moved away from theory and into pragmatics, which foreshadows, of course, the great late innovator of Stoicism, Epictetus.

III. Role ethics and the three disciplines

Among modern Stoics Epictetus is most famous for his clear statement of the dichotomy of control (see Enchiridion I.1), which with him becomes a dominant component of Stoic philosophy, and which underlies his famous three disciplines: desire, action, and assent.

“There are three departments in which a man who is to be good and noble must be trained. The first concerns the will to get and will to avoid; he must be trained not to fail to get what he wills to get nor fall into what he wills to avoid. The second is concerned with impulse to act and not to act, and, in a word, the sphere of what is fitting: that we should act in order, with due consideration, and with proper care. The object of the third is that we may not be deceived, and may not judge at random, and generally it is concerned with assent.” (Discourses III.2)

The dichotomy of control, the all-important distinction between what is in our power (our values and judgments) and what is not in our power (everything else) is an application of the virtue of practical wisdom, to which Cicero above referred to as the knowledge of things that are truly good or bad for us. It is most directly connected to the discipline of desire, which trains us to desire what is proper (i.e., what is under our control) and not what is improper (what is not under our control), but it really underlies all three Epictetian disciplines.

Epictetus, like Seneca before him, emphasizes practical philosophy, telling his students over and over that if they were there just to learn Chrysippus’ logic they were wasting their time (and his):

“If from the moment they get up in the morning they adhere to their ideals, eating and bathing like a person of integrity, putting their principles into practice in every situation they face – the way a runner does when he applies the principles of running, or a singer those of musicianship – that is where you will see true progress embodied, and find someone who has not wasted their time making the journey here from home.” (Discourses I.4.20)

Which is presumably why he developed an elaborate type of role ethics, as brilliantly discussed by Brian Johnson in his The Role Ethics of Epictetus: Stoicism in Ordinary Life. Brian points to this passage in the Discourses were Epictetus lays out the primary role of being human, contrasted with the secondary roles we all take on, some because we choose them, some because they are assigned to us by circumstances:

“For, if we do not refer each of our actions to some standard, we shall be acting at random. … There is, besides, a common and a specific standard. First of all, in order that I [act] as a human being. What is included in this? Not [to act] as a sheep, gently but at random; nor destructively, like a wild beast. The specific [standard] applies to each person’s pursuit and volition. The cithara-player is to act as a cithara-player, the carpenter as a carpenter, the philosopher as a philosopher, the rhetor as a rhetor.” (Discourses III.23.3–5)

This, according to Johnson, is a sophisticated elaboration of and advancement upon Panaetius’ four personae, a theory used by Cicero in the first volume of De Officiis: our universal nature as rational agents; what we can be by way of our natural dispositions; what we are as a result of external circumstances; and the lifestyle and vocation we choose.

This is why Brian disagrees with the famous — and widely accepted in modern Stoic circles — notion proposed by Pierre Hadot of a tight relationship among the three disciplines of Epictetus, the classical four virtues, and the three fields of inquiry (physics, logic, and ethics). I summarized Hadot’s approach here (see especially the diagram accompanying the post), but the more I think about it the more it seems both too neat and too strained. Too neat because it seeks to make coherent sense of different ideas that were deployed by the Stoics in a different manner when teaching five centuries apart from each other; and too strained because there just isn’t any good way to make things fit given that there is precious little evidence that Epictetus was thinking about the four virtues (or even the three fields of inquiry) when he articulated his three disciplines.

The upshot: a curriculum for modern Stoicism

If my analysis is even approximately correct, then this is a reasonable way to summarize the evolution of ancient Stoicism:

I want to stress that the implication is most definitely not that later iterations are better than early ones. “Evolution” here simply means what the root of the word indicates: change over time. In fact, I think these three approaches are different ways of interpreting the same basic Stoic philosophy, by putting the emphasis in different places as a function of the style of the teacher and the audience of students one is addressing. Ancient Athens was culturally distinct from imperial Rome, and Seneca definitely had a distinct temperament compared to Epictetus.

What does it all mean for modern students of Stoicism? The next slides is my own attempt at reorganizing the same material in a way that makes sense for contemporary audiences and could serve as the basis for a curriculum in modern Stoicism.

To begin with, notice the distinction between a theoretical and a practical approach (first row). Both should be deployed, as Stoicism is not just a bag of tricks, it is a coherent philosophy of life. A modern Stoic would be well served from learning the basics of natural science, developing a grasp of our best ideas about how the world actually works, so to avoid as much as possible buying into questionable views of reality. She should also acquire basic training in critical reasoning, so to be able to distinguish sense from nonsense and arrive at the best possible judgments in her life. The idea is the same one informing the ancient notion that in order to live a good life one has to appreciate how the cosmos is put together and has to be able to reason correctly about it.

The practical counterpart of the curriculum could be based on the Epictetian disciplines, which still provide a useful framework to actually practice Stoic philosophy, especially when tackled in the sequence envisioned by Epictetus. We still need to get better at redirecting our desires away from things that is improper (Stoically speaking) to want and toward things that is proper to want. The next step is to put our newly acquired practical knowledge into action, by behaving properly in the world, which largely means treating others justly and fairly. Finally, for the advanced students (as Epictetus suggested), we can refine our practice by paying careful attention to what exactly we should or should not give assent.

The second row in the diagram draws a parallel between two ways of thinking about how to live a eudaimonic life. On the left we have the theoretical understanding: we want to live following the best part of human nature, which for the Stoics very clearly meant to apply reason (our most distinctive faculty in the animal world) to improve society (because we are highly social beings who only thrive in a group). On the right we see Epictetus’ very practical way to put this into action: his role ethics. Notice two things, however: first, the most fundamental of our roles is that of a human being, which implies a cosmopolitan (as opposed to a nationalistic) stance. Second, that our specific roles in society can be interpreted creatively, which means, for instance, that just because one is, say, a mother, it does not follow that one should behave as a patriarchal society would want her to behave. If patriarchy is unjust (and it is), then a Stoic woman is under ethical obligation to play her role as mother to her children creatively, and if necessary in opposition to accepted social norms. (Needless to say, this applies to fathers and their role, and to pretty much any other role we play in life, whether given or chosen.)

The final row in the slide recovers a theoretical role for the classical cardinal virtues of prudence, courage, justice, and temperance, because I find them useful in order to provide a general framework for thinking about how we ought to behave. The practical counterpart is Epictetus’ dichotomy of control: every time we remind ourselves that some things are up to us and others are not, we then have to decide how to act on the first set and how to best ignore the second set. And our moral compass is provided by, you guessed it, the four virtues.

As you can see, Stoicism has always been a dynamic philosophy, responding to challenges from rival schools (Academic Skeptics, Epicureans, Peripatetics), to changing cultural milieu (Athens, Rome), and as a function of who was practicing and teaching it (Zeno, Seneca, Epictetus). There is no reason why this should not continue into the 21st century and beyond, now that we are responding to new challenges (Christianity, Existentialism, even Nihilism), that the culture has changed again (and has become more global), and that new teachers have emerged (Larry Becker, Don Robertson, Bill Irvine, hopefully yours truly, and many, many others). However you do it:

“Do what is necessary, and whatever the reason of a social animal naturally requires, and as it requires.” (Meditations IV.24)

Stoic advice: can a salesperson be a Stoic?

[Feel free to submit a question for this column, addressing it at massimo at howtobeastoic dot org. However, consider that I have a significant backlog, and I may not get to your question for some time, or at all.]

D. writes: How should a practising Stoic ethically approach their work if it involves rhetoric, persuading others and achieving sales, e.g. salesman, copywriter, etc.? This could also apply to grant writers, lawyers and so on.

That’s a very good question, and I think there is a general answer, even though there may be significant differences in how to implement it among the professions you list, and others that may fall under the same category.

The obvious way to approach it is through Epictetus’ role ethics, as brilliantly elucidate by my friend Brian Johnson in his The Role Ethics of Epictetus: Stoicism in Ordinary Life, which I discussed on this blog in a 6-part series. As you may recall, Epictetus distinguishes among roles that we are given by accident or circumstances (e.g., being someone’s son), roles that we choose (e.g., our career), and our foundational role as members of the human cosmopolis. Consider:

“For, if we do not refer each of our actions to some standard, we shall be acting at random. … There is, besides, a common and a specific standard. First of all, in order that I [act] as a human being. What is included in this? Not [to act] as a sheep, gently but at random; nor destructively, like a wild beast. The specific [standard] applies to each person’s pursuit and volition. The cithara-player is to act as a cithara-player, the carpenter as a carpenter, the philosopher as a philosopher, the rhetor as a rhetor.” (Discourses III.23.3–5)

The “common” standard in the quote above is that which applies to all human beings qua human beings. The “specific” standard is the one that applies to our particular roles. If you are a cithara player you ought to practice your cithara, take care of your instrument, and perform to your best. If you are philosopher, you ought to work on your reasoning ability, and use it to help others live a better and more meaningful life. (Note: unfortunately, this isn’t the sort of thing you’ll learn in most modern philosophy departments, but that’s a different story.)

So a first answer to your question is that a salesman, copywriter, grant writer, lawyer and so fourth ought to do what salesmen, copywriters, grant writers, and lawyers do. That is, if you choose one of those professions, the Stoic thing to do is to practice it well.

That should be the case unless your specific role within your profession comes into conflict with your broader role as a human being. As Epictetus puts it, you don’t want to behave randomly, like a sheep, or destructively, like a wild beast. This means that if your job is demanding something from you that you know is unethical, in conflict with the wellbeing of humanity, then you ought not to do it. Your role as a member of the cosmopolis trumps every other role you may play. Why? Because:

“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 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.” (Discourses II.10.3-4)

In a modern sense, “divine administration” in the quote above can simply be understood as what reason and justice demand, without specific metaphysical overtones. So far, then, we have the idea that whatever one does, from a Stoic perspective the way to do it is to do it well, with integrity. Moreover, there is a limit imposed by our broader duty to humanity itself. How might we bump into such limit, in practice?

Let’s take the example of a salesman, let’s say someone who sells cars. He is within Stoic bounds in doing his best to sell as many cars as possible to potential customers, because that is what the role of a car salesman is. But consider a scenario where he is actually aware that a given used car has defects that he has been asked by his employer not to disclose, in order to make a quick sale and get rid of the lemon. That’s where his duty to humanity at large kicks in: if he followed through, he would commit an injustice toward another fellow human being, so — Stoically speaking — he should politely refuse. Even to the point of being reprimanded, or losing his job.

That’s a tall of order for most of us, but nobody said practicing Stoicism coherently was going to be easy. (I would maintain that practicing any philosophy or religion coherently — including Christianity or Buddhism — ain’t easy.) The Stoics recognized that none of us is a sage, and that we will inevitably fall short of the ideal. Here is how Epictetus puts it:

“Consider at what price you sell your integrity; but please, for God’s sake, don’t sell it cheap.” (Discourses I, 2.33)

The idea is that we should strive to do our best, while at the same time acknowledging that we have limits. For instance, going back to our hypothetical car salesman, he may not want to refuse his boss’ request because he has a family to take care of and cannot afford losing his job. That is a reasonable tradeoff to make, but perhaps he can implement an alternative strategy: he could be purposively less convincing when it comes to cars he knows are lemons, thus stealthily undermining his boss’ unethical request; and at the same time he could begin to look for another job in which he is not asked to compromise his integrity, and yet can still take care of his family.

As a final thought, note that this sort of situation calls for the application of all four cardinal virtues: the courage to stand up to your boss’ unethical demands; a sense of justice that allows you to recognize that you are not playing your cosmopolitan role to your best; temperance in your response to the boss, given that other things are at stake, like your family’s welfare; and especially practical wisdom, the knowledge that the only things that are truly bad for you are not externals, such as losing your job, but your own bad decisions, such as knowingly scamming your customer.