Category Archives: Psychology

Stoicism, stoicism, and mental health

Clint Eastwood Good Bad and UglyYou can tell Stoicism is getting popular when anyone who disagrees with me on Twitter resorts to the “argument” (I’m using the word very loosely): “but what you said is un-Stoic!,” pretty much regardless of what I actually said, or of its logical connection to Stoicism. Anyway, another sign of popularity is the fact that mental health professionals are beginning to take an interest, wishing to empirically assess the effects of practicing Stoicism on people’s psychology.

Since Stoicism itself has from the beginning been a philosophy that included the study of psychology (under the field of “logic”), and moreover has always been explicitly open to revision, this is welcome news. What is not so welcome is when people, predictably, claim that they are studying Stoicism, while in fact they are studying stoicism (for this crucial, and not even that subtle distinction, see this article by Don Robertson).

Which is why a paper published last year in BMJ Open and entitled “Stoic beliefs and health: development and preliminary validation of the Pathak-Wieten Stoicism ideology scale” was a missed opportunity. Authored by Elizabeth Pathak, Sarah Wieten, and Christopher Wheldon, it purports to develop a scale with which to measure, as the title says, Stoic “ideology,” with the purpose of beginning to explore the mental health effects of practicing such ideology. Unfortunately, the paper hopelessly mixes Stoicism and stoicism, with a strong lean toward the latter.

The authors identify four “key domains” of Stoicism: imperviousness to strong emotions, indifference to death, taciturnity, and self-sufficiency. It is on the basis of these domains that they build their scale, which they then test on 390 subjects, most of whom are young students (aged less than 25), mostly white (though somewhat gender balanced), almost all American born.

Setting aside the usual problems with the sampling of subjects used in this sort of study, which there is very little reason to think is representative even of the American population, let alone beyond, let me begin with the four domains just mentioned. I will then move to a brief examination of additional problematic statements made by Pathak and collaborators in the paper.

I. Imperviousness to strong emotions: it is absolutely not the case that this is a Stoic value (although it certainly is a stoic one). Consider, for instance, what Seneca says to his friend Marcia in his letter of consolation to her:

“‘But,’ say you, ‘sorrow for the loss of one’s own children is natural.’ Who denies it? Provided it be reasonable? For we cannot help feeling a pang, and the stoutest-hearted of us are cast down not only at the death of those dearest to us, but even when they leave us on a journey.” (VII)

A bit earlier he writes to her:

“I am not soothing you or making light of your misfortune: if fate can be overcome by tears, let us bring tears to bear upon it: let every day be passed in mourning, every night be spent in sorrow instead of sleep.” (VI)

Does that sound to you like someone who is trying to be impervious to emotions? Or consider just how explicit on the subject Epictetus, notoriously the most stern of the ancient Stoics, really is:

“I must not be without feeling like a statue, but must maintain my natural and acquired relations, as a religious man, as son, brother, father, citizen.” (Discourses III.2)

And here is what modern scholar Margaret Graver, who wrote a whole book on Stoicism and Emotion, says: “If the psychic sensations [i.e., feelings] we experience in emotion are not simply identical with the pathē [i.e., negative emotions], then the norm of apatheia [i.e., lack of negative emotions] does not have to be cashed out as an injunction against every human feeling. One might be impassive in the Stoic sense and still remain subject to other categories of affective experience.”

So, no, the Stoics do not seek to be impervious to emotions. Rather, they work toward improving their judgments about externals, in order to re-align their emotional spectrum, de-emphasizing unhealthy emotions and nurturing and developing healthy ones.

II. Indifference to Death: one can see how people may develop a misconception here, for instance while reading what Seneca writes to Marcia:

“Reflect that the dead suffer no evils, that all those stories which make us dread the nether world are mere fables, that he who dies need fear no darkness, no prison, no blazing streams of fire, no river of Lethe, no judgment seat before which he must appear, and that death is such utter freedom that he need fear no more despots. All that is a phantasy of the poets, who have terrified us without a cause.” (XIX)

This, however, is an explanation of why we should not be afraid of what will happen after we die (because there won’t be any “us” to be concerned by things), it is hardly a council not to care about dying.

True, death — like everything that is not virtue — is categorized within the “indifferents,” either preferred or, in this case, dispreferred. But that word has a very clear technical meaning in Stoic philosophy: it doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t care about dying, but rather that death itself is irrelevant to virtue, in the sense that dying or staying alive, per se, doesn’t make you a better person.

Not convinced? Here is how Epictetus reacts to the news that a friend of his has decided to commit suicide for the hell of it:

“If your decision is justified, look, here we are at your side and ready to help you on your way; but if your decision is unreasonable, you ought to change it. ‘We ought to hold to our decisions.’ — What are you up to, man?” (Discourses II.15.6-7)

Again, does this sound like indifference (in the ordinary sense of the word) to death? I should think not.

III. Taciturnity: stoicism appeals to men, according to the authors, and goes well with the ideal (myth, really) of the solitary man who speaks by his actions. Think Clint Eastwood in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, or in any of his other movies, for that matter. But Stoicism (the philosophy) advocates nothing of the sort. True, Epictetus famously advises his students to talk little and of important things:

“When you’re called upon to speak, then speak, but never about banalities like gladiators, horses, sports, food and drink — common-place stuff. Above all don’t gossip about people, praising, blaming or comparing them.” (Enchiridion 33.2)

Immediately below, Epictetus adds:

“In your conversation, don’t dwell at excessive length on your own deeds or adventures. Just because you enjoy recounting your exploits doesn’t mean that others derive the same pleasure from hearing about them.” (Enchiridion 33.14)

It’s obvious that this an injunction not to annoy people, and to engage others in meaningful, as opposed to idle, conversation. After all, the Stoics we know of were teachers, senators, generals, and emperors. Hardly the kind of individual who spends his life in a taciturn mood.

IV. Self-sufficiency: here too, stoicism (the attitude) seems to rely on the myth of the solitary hero who depends on no one. But Stoicism (the philosophy) is quintessentially cosmopolitan, and teaches that our primary concern should be to do good on behalf of the human polis. Sure, Marcus is often cited as saying:

“Begin the morning by saying to yourself, I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. … I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him.” (Meditations II.1)

But that’s simply an honest analysis of his expectations about other people qua emperor. He also tells himself in his personal diary:

“Have I been made for this, to lie under the blankets and keep myself warm? But this is more pleasant. Do you exist then to take your pleasure, and not at all for action or exertion?” (Meditations V.1)

And what action and exertion is he referring to, other than the obviously military one (he was encamped on the Danube fighting the Marcomanni tribes when he wrote the above)?

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

Seneca says something interesting about this matter:

“The wise man is self-sufficient. Nevertheless, he desires friends, neighbours, and associates, no matter how much he is sufficient unto himself.” (IX. On Philosophy and Friendship, 3)

It is clear in context that by “self-sufficient” he means capable of maintaining virtue. And at any rate he is talking about the Sage, which is as rare as the mythical phoenix. He immediately adds that even the Sage desires friends, neighbors, and associates. So, no, there is no basis in Stoicism for the idea of self-sufficiency as understood within the context of stoicism.

This brief analysis should make clear that there is a huge difference between Stoicism and stoicism. Unfortunately, Pathak et al.’s article completely mixes the two, with a far stronger dose of stoicism than Stoicism. The result is a scale that measures something, but definitely not the effects of adopting a Stoic philosophy.

Let us take a look at some quotes from the paper itself, to make sure I am not misinterpreting what the authors are doing. “Stoicism has also been invoked as a defining characteristic of masculinity and as a key explanatory factor for certain health behaviors and outcomes among men” (p. 2 of the online version). This very clearly refers to the stiff upper lip attitude, not the philosophy. Indeed, on the very same page there is mention of the Liverpool Stoicism Scale, which includes “three items that are ideological, for example, ‘one should keep a stiff upper lip.’” Precisely, but no Stoic ever advocated that, so the scale should be renamed the Liverpool stoicism Scale…

Pathak et al. “attempt to articulate an explicitly theory of stoicism [the fact that they are using the lowercase here and elsewhere is not indicative of a distinction being made between the philosophy and common parlance] and its potential impact on health. … stoicism is an ideology … we theorize that people who strongly endorse a personal ideology of stoicism may be more likely to avoid or delay seeking professional medical intervention for serious signs and symptoms of disease” (p. 3)

This can be extremely misleading, if it will lead to adoption of the scale developed in the study for social health research that focuses on stoicism but makes claims about the medical unsoundness of Stoicism.

The results are also difficult to interpret, again because of the complete confounding of stoicism and Stoicism. For instance: “men were more than two times as likely as women to fall into the top quartile of responses” (p. 5), meaning that men agreed more readily with a self-description as “stoic.” “Scores for stoic taciturnity were strongly correlated with scores for both stoic endurance and stoic serenity, but stoic endurance and stoic serenity were not highly correlated with each other. Stoic death indifference … was least correlated with the other three domains” (p. 4). Moreover: “In this study population, respondents were least likely to endorse stoic serenity and most likely to endorse stoic death indifference” (p. 5).

It is hard to know what to make of these findings, since it isn’t clear at all to what mixture of stoicism and Stoicism they refer. Please note, of course, that so far as we know likely none of the participants to the study actually had any training in, or exposure to, Stoic philosophy. Based on that, I’m inclined to say that the relevance of the study to Stoicism is close to zero, while it may tell us a lot about stoicism.

The authors draw some conclusions that seem to me to be rather unsubstantiated, or at least, again, ambiguous as to their referent: “Ironically, a personal ideology of stoicism almost guarantees failure to live up to one’s ideals. … An ideology of stoicism creates an internal resistance to external objective needs, which can lead to negative consequences. … a study of major strain among family caretakers of elderly patients with dementia found those who used stoicism as a coping strategy suffered burnout, while those who sought social support did not” (pp. 6-7).

Right, but that sounds a lot like stoicism, not Stoicism. Now one could perhaps argue that Pathak et al. never actually intended to address Stoic philosophy, only the stiff upper lip modern attitude. But that is clearly not the case from the opening line of the paper: “Stoicism is a school of philosophy which originated in ancient Greece” (p. 1).

Which makes some of their conclusions particularly troublesome, especially for people who are trying to practice the philosophy: “We hypothesise that illness behaviors may become ‘noncompliant’ or ‘irrational’ or ‘self-harming’ when specific courses of action would create an internal conflict with patients’ ideas of who they are. … This internal conflict will lead to delays in or avoidance of help seeking, with potentially life-threatening consequences. For example, empirical studies of male suicide in rural Australia have identified hegemonic masculine norms of stoicism as an important causal factor in the context of severe economic stress” (p. 8).

The situation of rural men in Australia subject to economic stress and committing suicide at high rates is horrible, but it does not seem to have anything to do with Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, names that are very likely entirely unknown to the people in question. It is therefore highly misleading, dangerous, and — I’m sorry to say — irresponsible to so casually mix stoicism and Stoicism.

Of course, as Don Robertson points out in his article on the matter, the same problem applies to other philosophies. I can easily see a study of “epicureanism” showing that if people indulge frequently in large meals, a lot of drinking, and unprotected sex with multiple patterns, they will incur health risks. But to blame Epicurus — who argued for restrain in or abstention from all the just mentioned activities — would be bizarre.

So I urge Elizabeth Pathak, Sarah Wieten, and Christopher Wheldon to scrap the whole exercise, ideally retracting their paper, and writing up their findings again while making crystal clear what they mean by “stoicism.” Better yet, since there is a philosophy that has carried that name for the past 23 centuries, avoid to use the term altogether and write a paper on how to measure the potentially negative health consequences of trying to live like Clint Eastwood in a Western movie. The underlying problem — that an image of extreme self-reliance is bad for one’s health — is likely real and deserves attention. But the relevant research ought to be carried out properly.

Stoicism and Emotion, II: the “pathetic” syllogism

8B41A1FD-32E8-4ABC-A2FB-A3AE55F64197Stoicism is not about suppressing emotions. At least, not exactly. Last time we have seen that Margaret Graver, in her Stoicism and Emotion, makes the point that for the Stoics (as in modern cognitive science) there is a fundamental distinction between feelings and emotions. Feelings are raw materials of our subjective awareness, and they can evolve into cognitively informed emotions of different types, depending on the (implicit or explicit) judgment that accompanies them. A rush of adrenaline, for instance, may cause the feeling of fear or dread, but that feeling becomes actual fear (of a specific something) only after I have given it assent: “yes, I really should be afraid, after hearing that noise in my house in the middle of the night, because it is highly likely that someone is after me.” But I can also withhold assent, if I think the feeling is not justified: “no, there is nothing to worry about, it was, once again, the damn cat making noises.”

That is why we need to be careful whenever we talk about a major goal of Stoic training: achieving the state of apatheia, literally the lack of pathē, which are the disruptive or unhealthy emotions, not to be confused with the eupatheiai, the positive or healthy emotions. As Graver puts it:

“If the psychic sensations [i.e., the feelings] we experience in emotion are not simply identical with the pathē, then the norm of apatheia does not have to be cashed out as an injunction against every human feeling. One might be impassive in the Stoic sense and still remain subject to other categories of affective experience.”

But aren’t emotions natural? And don’t the Stoics advise us to “live according to nature”? If so, where does this talk of healthy vs unhealthy come from? It comes from the fact that even though according to the Stoics nature endowed us with feelings for good reasons, it pays to rationally scrutinize what such feelings actually are in any particular circumstance. It is Cicero — quoted by Margaret — that makes the connection clear:

“By nature, all people pursue those things which they think to be good and avoid their opposites. Therefore, as soon as a person receives an impression of some thing which he thinks is good, nature itself urges him to reach out after it.” (Tusculan Disputations, IV.12)

So the inclination to follow our feelings is natural, but how we do that depends on our judgment of whether the feeling refers to a good or a bad situation. Nature yes, but not unaided by reason…

Emotions, for the Stoics, not only come with a (either implicit or explicitly articulated) content, they are associated with a normative aspect. Graver stresses that this is a crucial characteristic of the Stoic approach: the psychological aspect of emotions must be integrated with an ethical judgment as to the appropriateness (or not) of that emotion. The ability to do that, fundamentally, is what distinguishes human beings from other animals. This position is easily traceable back to the early Stoa:

“They [the Stoics] think that the pathē are judgments, as Chrysippus says in his work On Emotions. For [he says that] fondness for money is a supposition that money is a fine thing, and similarly with drunkenness, stubbornness, and so forth.” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers, VII.3)

Cicero, in book III of the Tusculan Disputations, presents a two-step processes for analyzing emotions, informed by Stoic philosophy (recall that Cicero himself was not a Stoic, though he was clearly sympathetic to the Stoic approach):

“When our belief in the seriousness of our misfortune is combined with the further belief that it is right, and an appropriate and proper thing, to be upset by what has happened, then, and not before, there comes about that deep emotion which is distress.” (III.61)

In other words, distress is what happens when we believe that we should be distressed about whatever it is going on (or we perceive as going on). It is not the event in itself that carries the distress embedded into it, but our cognitive analysis (which, once more, to pre-empt lazy criticism, does not have to be consciously taking place at that specific moment).

Margaret calls this the “pathetic syllogism” (from pathos, nothing to do with the modern word), and she spells out the general form in this fashion:

P1: Objects of type T are evil
P2: Object O belongs to type T
P3: Object O is in prospect
C: An evil is in prospect

Take the famous example of Agamemnon, the commander in chief of the Achaean expedition against Troy, who felt fear at the idea that he was about to be defeated. The fear comes from his belief that defeat is a bad thing, plus the additional belief that one ought to have certain feelings when a bad thing is in prospect. Of course, just like in any syllogism, if one wishes to deny the conclusion (assuming that the reasoning is valid, which in this case it is), then one needs to find a premise that can be rejected. And that is a major objective of Stoic training, of course.

Another way of looking at the issue, also discussed by Graver, is in terms of externals vs. what she calls “integral” things. Both Plato and Aristotle referred to things that are determined by us (i.e., they are not externals) as good (or evils) “of the psyche.” The Stoics made this distinction — commonly referred to as the dichotomy of control — central to their philosophy, often the “integrals” as ways of handling externals, or as dispositions to use externals one way or another. Seneca, for instance, talks about an ambassadorship as an external, where the true good lies in handling it with honor. In the case of Agamemnon, the true good (or evil) lies in how the king would handle defeat, if it really did come. As it turns out, the Achaeans were not defeated, though we also know that Agamemnon was pretty bad in general at handling difficult situations, especially for a commander in chief. Graver summarizes the Stoic ethical stance in this way:

“The chief insight of Stoic axiology could very well be expressed this way: that in a rational being, external objects never merit uncompromising evaluation but integral objects always do. … The claim often appears in the form ‘virtue is the only good, vice the only evil.’”

Because the above mentioned dispositions to use externals are, of course, the virtues. The oft-neglected other side of this famous Stoic coin is that indifferents are not so in the sense that they don’t matter. Indeed, as Margaret says, they may be pursued strenuously, at times, but only on the basis of a restricted evaluation, applicable to local circumstances. The only thing that is always good, under all circumstances, is virtue, and that is why it is often referred to as the chief good, or the only (intrinsic, unqualified) good. Virtue is the good by means of which one is able to properly handle every external, including ambassadorships and defeats in war.

According to Stoic philosophy, it is possible — though very rare — for a person to align all her beliefs with each other, yielding a full and consistent evaluation of herself and her surrounding. That person would be in harmony with herself and with the cosmos at large, and of course it is referred to in Stoic lore as a Sage. Sagehood, as Seneca says in Letter XLII.1 is as rare as the mythical Ethiopian phoenix, a bird who comes back to life from its ashes (every 500 years, according to legend). Why bother with such a concept then? Graver puts it aptly:

“Alongside the dissatisfaction with our actual moral condition [for the Stoic] goes an extraordinary optimism about what we might achieve. … Becoming like the Sage would be becoming more human, not less; it would be recognizable as human maturation.”

What about the famous eupatheiai, the positive, of healthy emotions? Following Graver’s analysis, we should think of them as normative affect, i.e., as the ethically proper responses of individuals who have been practicing their virtue, and have therefore developed the right dispositions toward externals:

“A wise person who meets with an opportunity to perform some generous or courageous action might feel a kind of yearning toward that action; conversely, she may be expected to experience a horrified aversion from anything shameful or wrong.”

It is commonly assumed that the eupatheiai are somehow less intense than the pathē, leading to the stereotype of Stoics as (nearly) emotionless, or at least characterized by flat emotions. But this is nowhere to be found in the actual literature, and there is no reason, based on Stoic philosophy, to believe that to be the case. Margaret stresses that eupatheiai are “corrected” (by way of ethical training), not diminished, versions of human emotions. She makes the analogy to the seamless movements of a trained athlete: forceful but without strain.

“Preeminent among eupathic responses is the one called chara or joy. Joy is ‘well-reasoned elevation,’ corresponding on a feeling level to the happy excitement the ordinary person experiences on winning a raffle or leaving on vacation. But joy differs from those feelings in being directed at genuine goods: a generous action, for instance, would be an occasion for joy, and the proper object of the feeling would be the generosity itself, as exercised on that occasion.”

I trust you can see just how grating Stoicism can be for some modern sensibilities. I’m thinking of the sort of people who say things like “who are you to tell me I should / should not feel this way?” The answer is clear, from a Stoic perspective: emotions, as characterized above, come in bad and good varieties, and we should, indeed, work toward feeling in certain ways and avoid to feel in certain other ways. While we cannot avoid raw feelings, we are not at the mercy of our fully formed emotions, pace David Hume. (See also my recent commentary on Letter XXIII, where Seneca tells Lucilius that joy is a serious matter.)

Graver ends the chapter with a nice discussion of the Stoic classification of positive and negative emotions, first at what she calls the “genus” (i.e., broad categories) level, then at the “species” (i.e., on the basis of more detailed examples) level. The generic classification is nice and neat, while there is no consensus among the available sources about the specific classification. Graver suggests that this isn’t a reflection of disagreement among the Stoics, but rather stems from the fact that the specific examples were meant as illustrative of the generic categories, not as an exhaustive list. Figures 2, 3, 4, and 5 in this chapter are very useful summaries of both levels of classification. I am reproducing the first two tables here:

Stoic emotions

Notice the lack of a “present evil” category among the eupatheiai. The explanation is along these lines:

“We can see why one would want to claim that the person of perfect understanding has no genus of affective response for present evils. Having perfect understanding entails that one regards as evil only those things that really are evil; that is, integral evils such as personal failings, errors, and other events or situations whose causes lie within oneself. In order to believe that this sort of evil is present in the relevant sense, one would have to believe that a proposition concerning one’s own shortcomings has just become true, something like ‘I act unjustly’ or ‘I am ungenerous.’ But the person of perfect understanding is exempt by definition from everything of that kind. The situation simply never arises.”

From the third table (not shown here), consider as an illustrative example some of the “species” listed under the “genus” Desire, a pathos: anger (desire to punish someone who is thought to have armed us unjustly); hatred (anger stored up to age); rancor (anger biting its time for revenge); exasperation (anger that breaks out suddenly). And from the fourth table (not shown), here are some examples of the species listed under the genus Joy, a eupatheia: enjoyment (joy befitting the surrounding advantages); cheerfulness (joy in the sensible person’s deeds); and good spirits (joy about the self-sufficiency of the universe).

Let me conclude with one important note. Stoicism is often accused of being a self-centered philosophy, focused only on self-improvement. But as Margaret writes:

“The genus concerned with prospective goods includes some affective responses that are directly concerned with the goods of other people. … The rich affective life of the wise is being said to include some concern for other human beings that goes beyond disinterested service to the level of genuine affective involvement.”

Stoicism and Emotion, I: a science of the mind

Stoicism and EmotionIf there is one complex, and often misunderstood, topic in Stoicism is the role played by emotions in the philosophy. You know, stiff upper lip and all that nonsense. That is why I decided to begin a multi-part series devoted to an extended commentary of Margaret Graver’s excellent book, Stoicism and Emotion.

Margaret was the keynote speaker at Stoicon 2017 in Toronto (you can read an interview with her here), and she is a serious scholar of ancient Stoicism. Her book is accessible, but not aimed at a general public, which is why I am going to do with it something similar to what I did recently with Larry Becker’s must read, A New Stoicism. As in the latter case, I have asked the author to take an advance look at my posts and, whenever possible and useful, to comment on the published version during the discussion window. Margaret has graciously agreed to it, which I’m sure will enhance the value of this series. Without further do, then, let us get started!

Stoicism and Emotion is organized in nine chapters, and from the look of it, I will have to devote a post to each, since Graver’s treatment is in-depth and requires some time to unpack. The first chapter is entitled “A science of the mind,” and it sets the stage for an understanding of Stoic psychology in general, and their treatment of emotions in particular.

The Stoics, Margaret begins, thought about emotions in what turns out to be a very modern fashion, as at least in part having propositional content. That is, they adopted toward emotions what today’s philosophers call an intentional stance: emotional reactions are certainly physiological in nature, but they also contain a judgment, say that something is threatening, or valuable. There is no contradiction between thinking this way about emotions and taking on board what modern neuroscience tells us about the underlying neurophysiology:

“The recognition of a threat [say], is analyzable on two different levels, a physiological level as investigated by the neuroscientist and an intentional level as investigated by the cognitive psychologist.”

Moreover, the Stoic approach is also very much like our own in the sense that the Stoics were materialists, so they thought of mental events in terms of physical changes effected by material substances. These two aspects are important to keep in mind throughout our discussion, because they account for why — despite getting some important details wrong, as we shall see — Stoic psychology is still very much useful today, especially in terms of its practical ethical implications. Indeed, Graver draws a direct analogy between Stoic thought on emotions and William James’ circa 1884, as well as with the more recent work by modern neuroscientists like Antonio Damasio (see, for instance, his Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain).

The Stoic rejection of dualism is based on the same sort of cogent arguments accepted by most contemporary philosophers (even though, amazingly, dualism hasn’t completely died out even in 21st century philosophy). First off, the objection that famously stumped Descartes: if mental phenomena are not physical, then how on earth can we account for the causally efficacious interaction between non-physical and physical aspects of human mentation?

Moreover, the Stoics were familiar with empirical examples of mind-body interactions that, again, clearly point to a physical-to-physical connection. Consider for instance that a cut to your finger (physical) causes pain (mental), or that when you are angry (mental) your face becomes red (physical). It’s a two way street, and one does not need to invoke magical or metaphysically suspect non-physical properties to account for it.

Margaret carefully explains the Stoic theory that there is a single substance permeating the universe, the pneuma (literally, breath), a mixture of fire and air, two of the classical four primordial elements. That mixture can take different specific forms, which account for the differences between non-living things and living ones, as well as for those among plants, animals, and humans. The pneuma can take various forms because of the tension (tonos) produced by the balance of the two elements, sort of like the different types of vibrations one gets with a string musical instrument:

“It is variations in tension, and not the properties of air and fire alone, that explain differences in the qualities imparted by pneuma to things: hardness to stones, whiteness to silver, and at higher levels the sophisticated properties of plants and animals. Living things differ across the board from the nonliving in that they have much greater complexity in structure and function, and animals also differ from plants in that their more elaborate body structures and life functions require a higher level of tension to support them. The special characteristics that set humans apart have their physical explanation in yet another level. Indeed the pneuma in a human being at his or her optimal level of functioning is characterized by such a high level of tension that it is capable of maintaining its cohesion [for a time] after the body’s death.”

Of course, all of this has been superseded by modern science. But the relevant kernel of truth is nonetheless crucial: everything in the universe is made of the same stuff (we call it quarks, strings, or whatever, depending on the fundamental physical theory du jour), and yet this elemental stuff is arranged in different, and varyingly complex patterns, accounting for the variety of non-living and living matter. The implication is that the differences we observe at the macroscopic level, and that seem to be qualitative to us, are in reality the result of an underlying quantitative continuum.

What about the Stoic reference to the soul? The Greek word is psuché, and it has none of the non-physical characteristics that Christian theology attaches to the word. Psuché, for the Stoics, is material and subject to the same laws of cause and effect as anything else. It can be studied scientifically, just like everything else. And interestingly, Graver points out, does not correspond to the modern concept of mind, but rather to the entire nervous system.

What does correspond to the modern idea of mind is the hêgemonikon, the central directive faculty that combines our sensations with our judgments, and which initiates action. As I have argued in another post, the hêgemonikon is very much akin to the frontal lobes of the human brain.

Chrysippus located the hêgemonikon in the chest, and was chastised for that by Galen (Marcus Aurelius’ personal physician), who correctly thought that it was located in the brain. Once again, an example of the Stoics being wrong in the details and correct about the general picture. Lucky for us, it is the latter that matters. (Incidentally, as Margaret explains, Chrysippus’ choice was not crazy at all, but actually fit very well with Ancient Greek knowledge of human physiology.) Therefore:

“As a theoretical construct … their account of psychic function did not depend on any particular physiology. Given a more detailed knowledge of the workings of the central nervous system, a Stoic theorist should have had no difficulty in transferring to the brain the role that Chrysippus in fact gave to the heart.”

Graver then moves to a detailed explanation of the relations among thought, belief, and action in Stoic psychology, and we need to grasp at least the basics in order to make sense of their treatment of emotions. To begin with, the simplest kind of mental event is an “impression” (phantasia). This is an alteration of the psuché that tells us that something seems to be present or to be the case. Notice that animals too are capable of impressions, but not of a rational kind, since they are unable to conceptualize their phantasia.

Margaret makes the interesting point that the word “rational” (logikos) here does not have a prescriptive meaning, but rather a descriptive one: it just says that human beings are capable of complex thought, not that they get it right from the standpoint of formal logic.

The Stoics thought of impressions, again, as physical events. Zeno, for instance, used the analogy of a wax tablet that is “impressed” with something. Apparently, Cleanthes (the second head of the Stoa) took this quasi literally, so he was corrected by Chrysippus, who said that one should simply think of impressions as some (unspecified) kind of alteration in the psychic material. No need to be committed to a particular theory of human neurophysiology:

“The impression is made, i.e., caused, by some material thing, which, by impinging upon the sense organs, brings about an alteration in the material psyche, and that alteration ‘reveals itself’ together with its object through the psyche’s awareness of its own movements. But impressions may also be of that kind for which the object is more properly described as an actual or hypothetical state of affairs, i.e., a proposition.”

The impression, then, is a linguistically formulable thought. It gets translated into a more complex mental event that the Stoics referred to by a variety of terms, including “assent,” “judgment,” and “forming an opinion.” (See the book for the corresponding Greek terms. I will limit their use here to the essential ones, for ease of exposition.) This is crucial: assent is conceived of in intentional terms: by way of assent one either accepts or rejects the apparent truth of a given impression. It follows that the difference between an ordinary mind and a (Stoically) trained one is that the former has a tendency to accept impressions at face value, while the latter more wisely exercises its faculty of judgment. (As in: “That is a beautiful woman over there, I must sleep with her!” As opposed to: “That is an aesthetically pleasing human being of the female gender. Nothing else follows from such observation.”)

Margaret presents the example of the simple act of walking. If we are walking, then we have assented to the impression that, right now, it is good for us to walk (say, because we need to get to the grocery store to buy some foodstuff for dinner). The assent does not need to be conscious, but for the Stoics the fact that we are walking is either the result of a conscious judgment of the hêgemonikon, or it implies an unstated judgment of that kind, which can be articulated if need be. If someone stops you in the street and asks you why you are walking, presumably you will be able to tell him that you need to get to the grocery store and why.

What about emotions? From the beginning of the school they have been thought of in a particular way. Zeno defined them as “excessive impulses,” by which he meant a powerful kind of tendency to act. Since the cognitive mature emotions are the result of an assent, they then depend on ratifying (again, subconsciously or consciously) certain propositions about ourselves and how we think of our surroundings. Here is how the commentator Stobaeus puts it:

“Distress is a contraction of psyche which is disobedient to reason, and its cause is a fresh believing that some evil is present toward which it is appropriate to be contracted. Delight is an elevation of psyche which is disobedient to reason, and its cause is a fresh believing that some good is present toward which it is appropriate to be elevated.”

The above, it should be noted, refers to the unhealthy emotions, of which the Stoics produced a detailed taxonomy. In fact, Graver points this out immediately, mentioning that they also recognized “well reasoned” occurrences of “elevation,” “withdrawing,” and “reaching.” Moreover:

“[In] both the Zenonian and the Chrysippan definitions, there is a distinction to be made between the emotions or pathe understood as judgments (i.e., strictly for their intentional content, which may be either true or false), and the feeling one gets from a certain emotion. … Feelings which are phenomenologically similar will not necessarily represent the same kind of affective response.”

For instance, I may be sexually aroused by the sight of my partner, or by the sight of a stranger. The raw feeling is similar, but if I act on it (following my judgment that it is desirable for me to do so), the first case has a very different import from the second. There are crucial ethical implications of assenting, or withdrawing assent, from the very same emotions.

The philosophy and science of (Stoic) free will

Frontal lobes and hegemonikonTime to tackle again the debate that never goes away: how is the Stoic idea that we can work to improve our character, or — which is the same — Epictetus’ contention that some things are up to us and other things are not up to us, compatible with the (also Stoic) contention that we live in a universe determined by a universal web of cause and effect? In other words, how is Stoic “free will” going to square with their metaphysical position of physicalism? And, moreover, hasn’t modern neuroscience “demonstrated” that there is no such thing as free will?

Let me summarize the answers upfront, and then we’ll dig into the details, with the help both of scholarly work on Stoic philosophy and of scientific research on the human mind. In a nutshell: “free will” is an awfully confusing term that should never, ever, be used again. (Yes, I know, it’s in the title of this post. That’s because I wanted to grab your attention.) Instead, we should use the word “volition,” which — as we shall see in a moment — is both the best translation of what Epictetus means by the Greek term prohairesis as well as the appropriate technical term used by modern cognitive scientists. Moreover, the Stoics had a sophisticated causal model of volition (it may be good to re-read this post on Chrysippus’ metaphor of the rolling cylinder, before proceeding further), which turns out to be in very good agreement with the findings of modern science (yes, including the (in)famous Libet experiments popularly, but mistakenly, assumed to “demonstrated scientifically” that there is no such thing as free will; more on that below). Okay, let’s get started.

To begin with, the Stoics used two terms within the context of this discussion: hêgemonikon and prohairesis. The two are often treated as interchangeable, but Anthony Long, in his excellent Epictetus: A Stoic and Socratic Guide to Life (see my two commentaries here and here) draws an interesting and useful distinction between them.

Hêgemonikon is the most common Stoic term, and broadly speaking it is a faculty of the mind that has four “powers,” according to this helpful article in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “presentation [phantasia], impulse [hormê], assent [sugkatathesis], and reason [logos].” The ancient Stoics thought that the hêgemonikon resided in the heart, a notion for which they were ridiculed by Galen, Marcus Aurelius’ personal doctor. Galen was right, of course, and I suggest that modern neuroanatomy locates the hêgemonikon in the frontal lobes.

The frontal lobes are areas of the brain that are particularly developed in both humans and other great apes (but, interestingly, not so in lesser apes and monkeys). The frontal lobes (one per hemisphere) are the largest of the four lobes of the mammalian brain, and experimental research has associated them with the following functions: reward, attention, short-term memory tasks, planning, and motivation. They also allow us to project the future consequences of our intended actions, to choose between what seem to us as good or bad actions, to override and suppress socially unacceptable responses, and to assess similarities and differences between things and events. That sounds to me very much like what the Stoics were talking about whenever they used the term hêgemonikon, usually translated as ruling faculty. Here is Marcus, for instance:

“Things stand outside of us, themselves by themselves, neither knowing anything of themselves nor expressing any judgment. What is it, then, that passes judgment on them? The ruling faculty.” (Meditations, IX.15)

Modern science tells us that the frontal lobes do not fully mature in human beings until our late ‘20s, and of course a variety of situations can impair their proper function, from accidents such as the famous one that occurred in 1848 to the American railroad construction foreman Phineas Gage to strokes, Alzheimer’s disease, and various forms of dementia.

Interestingly, according to Long:

“Hêmonikon does not mean rationality; it is a term that applies to the souls of animals who lack rationality as well as to human beings“ (p. 211)

Which is in broad agreement with the above mentioned scientific fact that all mammals have this structure, albeit in a less developed form than in the great apes. The Stoics were also clearly aware that there are conditions in which one’s hêmonikon is impaired, by age or disease, or not yet fully formed, in children.

Long insists, and it seems to me that he is correct, that there is a good reason why Epictetus — uniquely among the Stoics — switches to prohairesis, instead of hêmonikon. Prohairesis refers to a faculty that is unique to humans, and in a sense is a specific sub-component of the hêgemonikon:

“We should take prohairesis to refer to the human mind in just those capacities or dispositions that Epictetus constantly maintains to be completely ‘up to us’ and free from external constraint.” (p. 211)

What’s the difference? One of the characteristics of the hêgemonikon, as we have seen, is that it is presented with phantasia, or impressions, both external ones (from our sensory apparatus) and internal ones (from memory). Such presentation, according to Epictetus, is automatic, i.e., it is not “up to us.” The remaining three powers of the hêgemonikon, however, impulses, assent, and reason are up to us. So we can think of prohairesis as the ability to reason and to give or withdraw assent to our impressions — thereby controlling our impulses — that is part of the hêgemonikon. I will leave it to neuroscientists to work out exactly which structures within the frontal lobes are more concerned with reasoning and decision making, and which are devoted to sensorial inputs and memory. The answers are empirical in nature, but do not affect the philosophy at all.

[Incidentally, as Long points out, Epictetus is not alone here: Aristotle also adopted the term prohairesis to mean “the deliberated desire of things that are up to us.” Moreover, Aristotle too judges what he calls “prohairetic disposition” to be a better assessment of moral character than action, presumably because actions are not entirely up to us, only judgments are. (p. 212)]

We are now in a better position to make sense of one of the most famous passages in the Discourses:

“For a start, don’t be carried away by [the impression’s] vividness, but say: Wait for me a bit, impression; let me take a look at you and what you are about, let me test you. Next, don’t let it lead you on by painting a picture of what comes next. Otherwise, it is off and away, taking you wherever it wishes. Instead, confront it with another impression, a fine and noble impression, and dismiss this foul one.” (II.18)

It is the hêgemonikon that both presents us with the impression (say, of an attractive member of the other sex) and with memories to draw from (of pleasurable previous sexual encounters). But it is our prohairesis that applies reason to the situation and denies assent to the impression (I am in a committed relationship, and I will therefore not pursue sex with another person on the side).

That also makes sense of why the Stoics, and Epictetus in particular, insisted that the only things that are truly good or bad are our judgments: the impression itself is neutral, because it is a fact about the world, and moreover is not under our control. It is us, through the faculty of prohairesis, who attach a value judgment to things and events. That attaching of a judgment is under our control, and so the only truly good thing is to have a well functioning prohairesis, and the only truly bad thing is to have a malfunctioning one (which leads to the condition often describe as amathia, or un-wisdom).

Long provides his readers with a very good discussion of why he ends up translating prohairesis with “volition,” and it is well worth attending to his reasoning. He considers three other options: moral purpose (or moral character), will, and agency. He discards the first possibility, because prohairesis can be good or bad, while “moral” has a positive meaning only; moreover, the word is tainted by later connotations that would distract and lead us to misunderstand the Stoic meaning.

What about will? He has actually translated prohairesis that way, occasionally, particularly because Epictetus does use phrases like “if you will, you are free.” But, again, the term has become loaded with especially Christian-influenced meaning, and — more importantly — it may lead us to erroneously conclude that Epictetus is thinking of a faculty of the will distinct from assent and impulse, which he is definitely not.

Agency, says Long, is a better alternative, and indeed it is the one used by modern Stoic Lawrence Becker throughout his A New Stoicism, about which I have recently published a ten-part commentary. But Long isn’t happy with agency either. Consider this passage:

“And who told you; it is your function to walk unimpeded? What I was telling you is that the only unimpeded thing is the impulse. Wherever there is a need for the body and the body’s cooperation, you have long ago heard that nothing is your own.” (Discourses IV.1.72-73)

What Epictetus is reminding his student of, here, is that even our bodily actions are not entirely up to us: we may decide to start walking, but we could be paralyzed by disease, or chained to a wall by a tyrant. So the action is not (entirely) up to us, only the impulse to perform the action. Since “agency” typically carries a meaning of actually doing things, not just willing them, then I would have to agree with Long’s take.

Hence the final preference for volition, which in modern psychology is “the cognitive process by which an individual decides on and commits to a particular course of action. It is defined as purposive striving and is one of the primary human psychological functions.”

As Long correctly points out, volition is not contradictory to a physicalist view of the world as determined by cause and effect:

“We take people to have volitions irrespective of whether these are predetermined or independent of antecedent causation.” (p. 220)

And, moreover, modern psychological science considers volition to be “a process of conscious action control which becomes automatized” (see link just above). But wait a minute! Isn’t it a fact of modern science that free will, however one wishes to call it, is an “illusion”? Specifically, didn’t the famous experiments by Benjamin Libet back in the 1980s conclusively show that to be the case? Does that not mean, therefore, that the entire Stoic philosophy of mind, and hence the crucial idea of the dichotomy of control as expressed by Epictetus at the very beginning of the Enchiridion, crumble under the pounding of modern science? Nope, not at all. On the contrary, Libet’s experiments, and subsequent others carried out since, spectacularly confirm the ancient Stoic intuition about prohairesis.

Libet performed some fascinating experiments on conscious vs unconscious decision making, beginning back in 1983. Briefly, he asked subjects to follow the movements of a dot on the screen of an oscilloscope. The dot moved like the hands of a clock, but faster. Libet told his subjects to move a finger at a moment of their choice during the experiment, noting the position of the dot when they became aware of their decision to act. The experiment showed that the decision to move the finger entered conscious awareness about 200 milliseconds before the actual movement. But, stunningly, there was a rise in the so-called “readiness potential,” which is thought to be associated with the preparation for action, about 550 milliseconds before movement. So the subjects appeared to get ready to move the finger a full 350 milliseconds before they became conscious of their decision to do so. (Indeed, in later experiments, the readiness potential has been shown to build up even as long as 1.5 seconds before movement.)

Taken at face value, Libet’s results seem to show that we decide our actions unconsciously, and that what we call consciousness is simply a (late) awareness of a decision that has been made. There are several well known criticisms of such conclusion, beginning with the obvious one, that the experimental conditions have precious little to do with the recursive, complex behavior that we normally label “conscious decision making,” and which is understood as a continuous feedback loop between what Daniel Kahneman calls System I (fast, subconscious) and System II (slow, deliberate) brain processing systems.

But in fact it was Libet himself who rejected the facile “free will is an illusion” interpretation of his own research. Here is part of his commentary:

“The finding that the volitional process is initiated unconsciously leads to the question: is there then any role for conscious will in the performance of a voluntary act? The conscious will does appear 150 msec before the motor act, even though it follows the onset of the cerebral action by at least 400 msec. That allows it, potentially, to affect or control the final outcome of the volitional process. An interval msec before a muscle is activated is the time for the primary motor cortex to activate the spinal motor nerve cells, and through them, the muscles. During this final 50 msec, the act goes to completion with no possibility of its being stopped by the rest of the cerebral cortex. The conscious will could decide to allow the volitional process to go to completion, resulting in the motor act itself. Or, the conscious will could block or ‘veto’ the process, so that no motor act occurs.” (B. Libet, Mind Time: The Temporal Factor in Consciousness, 2004, p. 137)

Note that the motor cortex in question is part, surprise surprise!, of the frontal lobes (specifically, part of the posterior border of the lobe, called the precentral gyrus), which I have suggested is the anatomical counterpart of both the hêgemonikon and enables the faculty of prohairesis.

Also, more recent research (summarized here), has led to a re-interpretation of Libet’s original findings that aligns them even more with the intuitions of the Stoics. For instance, a group of researchers in Germany has modified the original protocol to test Libet’s idea of a veto power exercised by conscious thought. Bear with me for a minute, because some of the details are important.

Subjects were asked to hit a foot pedal as quickly as possible after seeing a green light on a screen, but also to stop themselves from doing so (i.e., cancel their own movements) whenever a red light appeared. Researchers then put the red light under the control of a computer monitoring the participants’ brain waves. The twist was that whenever the computer detected the above mentioned readiness potential building up it would make a red light appear. In agreement with Libet’s veto hypothesis, participants were, in fact, able to stop themselves from pushing the pedal, reversing the build up of the action potential. This was possible up until a point of no return: if the red light was too close after the green one (about 0.25 seconds) then the foot movement could not be completely inhibited.

And there is more. A French team of neuroscientists published a paper in 2012 in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in which they argued for a different interpretation of Libet’s original experiments. They suggest that the readiness potential does not, in fact, signal the brain’s preparation for a specific action. Rather, the potential goes up and down randomly, but movement can only occur when a certain threshold in the potential is reached. Sure enough, they conducted an experiment in which they asked subjects to press a button, either at moments of their own choosing, or when they heard a random click. The results show that the response to the random clicks were much faster when they happened to coincide with a (again, random) surge in the readiness potential then when the potential happened to be low. So the potential is not really a sign of an already made unconscious decision, but rather one of a number of co-occurring causes that facilitate the movement.

All of the above seems to me eminently compatible with the Stoic take on volition. Please understand that I am not suggesting that the ancient Stoics somehow anticipated modern neuroscience. That would be preposterous. They knew nothing about action potentials, and they even got spectacularly wrong the anatomical location of the hêgemonikon. But their intuitive understanding of human psychology — on which they built their moral philosophy of action — was right on target, which makes their philosophy perfectly compatible with modern cognitive science. (For another example of such compatibility, this one concerning the Stoic treatment of emotions as cognitively informed, see here.) There is no magic here, the Stoics were simply astute observes of human nature.

To summarize then: the hêgemonikon, our ruling faculty, is roughly equivalent to the functions performed by the mammalian frontal lobes, which are particularly developed in the great apes, and that in the human species reach full maturity in our late ‘20s. Prohairesis is our special faculty of deliberate, rational judgment, and is made possible by sub-components of the frontal lobes. Our volition is compatible with the fact that the cosmos is characterized by a universal web of cause and effect, because some of these causes are internally generated (see Chrysippus’ cylinder), which makes Stoic philosophy of mind a type of compatibilism about “free will” (and please, let’s no longer use that term!). Finally, not only there is no contradiction between modern cognitive science and the Stoic idea that some things (namely, our judgments) are “up to us.” It is, on the contrary, the case that modern science tells us about the anatomical bases and physiological mechanisms underlying prohairesis. It is this congruence between early Stoic intuitions about human psychology and nature and modern science that make their philosophy still so useful today. We can, therefore, agree with Epictetus when he says:

“You are not flesh or hair but volition; if you keep that beautiful, then you will be beautiful.” (Discourses III.1.40)

Living according to nature

Zeno, Cleanthes and Chrysippus

The ancient Stoics were famous, or infamous, depending on whom one asks, for promulgating doctrines that sounded “paradoxical.” Indeed, Cicero wrote an entire book called Paradoxa Stoicorum (my commentary here), in which he tried to explain six of them. “Paradox” here, however, does not literally mean something that is logically contradictory, or that otherwise appears to violate the laws of logic. Rather, it simply means a notion so odd that it is hard to imagine that serious philosophers — such as the Stoics certainly were — ever actually said that. The Stoic motto “live according to nature” certainly falls into this category. And yet, it is a fundamental aspect of Stoic doctrine, so it is important to understand exactly what the Stoics said, and what they meant by it.

One thing the phrase does not mean is that we should go running naked into the nearest forest, stopping to hug trees from time to time. Another thing it does not mean is an appeal to nature. The latter is a well known informal logical fallacy, and according to G.E. Moore, in his Principia Ethica of 1903, it consists in claiming that “a thing is good because it is ‘natural,’ or bad because it is ‘unnatural.’” (This is related to, but not the same, as David Hume’s is/ought gap, often referred to as the naturalistic fallacy. We will turn to that one in a minute.)

It should be pretty obvious that appealing to nature to determine what is good or bad is not a sound procedure. Vaccines are “unnatural,” meaning that they are human creations (of course humans themselves are part of nature, but you see the distinction), and yet they are good for us, anti-vax pseudoscientific nonsense notwithstanding. By contrast, tsunamis are most definitely natural, and yet they are bad for both human beings and other animals on earth who happened to be so unfortunate as to experience their effects.

The Stoics, as we shall see, were not invoking a logical fallacy when they exhorted us to live according to nature. What they were doing, however, is much closer to rejecting David Hume’s postulation that there is an unbridgeable (or at least, very hard to bridge) gap between is and ought, i.e., between facts about the world and moral values. Here is how Hume himself famously put it, in A Treatise of Human Nature, 1739:

“In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.”

In truth, it is not clear here whether Hume is saying that the is/ought gap cannot be bridged, or simply warning us that if one wishes to bridge it then one ought (ah!) to provide explicit arguments, and not just accomplish the feat by sleight of hand. In a talk that I gave earlier this year at Oxford (slides here; video here) I argued for the latter, and connected this to two facts about Hume: (i) he developed a theory of human nature that is compatible with a naturalistic understanding of ethics, and hence with a bridge between is and ought; and (ii) he was actually sympathetic to Stoic philosophy, though not a Stoic himself (see this previous post).

Hume proposed a “progressive” theory of human nature as part of a debate he was involved in with some of his most esteemed contemporaries, Bernard Mandeville, Francis Hutcheson, and the Earl of Salisbury, Anthony Cooper. (I discuss that debate and Hume’s view of human nature here.)

Briefly, Mandeville argued that human beings are naturally self-interested, while Hutcheson and Cooper thought that we are naturally benevolent. Hume came down somewhere in the middle, suggesting that human nature is really a mix of the two, as we both have instincts that are aimed at self preservation as well as instincts that make us a naturally social and cooperative animal. Our social virtues, Hume added, then develop further because of reflection, cultural forces, and habit:

“’Tis by society alone [that man] is able to supply his defects. … By society all his infirmities are compensated and tho’ in that situation his wants multiply every moment on him, yet his abilities are still more augmented and leave him in every respect more satisfied and happy than ‘tis possible for him in his savage and solitary condition, ever to become.” (A Treatise of Human Nature, 479)

Hume scholar Michael Gill explains: “People initially care about justice [and other socially valuable virtues] because it accords with self-interest, [Hume] tells us here. But over time, they develop mental associations that lead them to approve of justice even when it does not promote their self-interest, and to disapprove of injustice even when it does promote their self-interest.” (Hume’s progressive view of human nature, Hume Studies XXVI.1:87-108, 2000)

As we shall see, this is the Enlightenment version of the Stoic “cradle argument,” and does, in fact, provide the basis for a philosophically sound bridging of the is/ought gap. It is also part of the justification for the Stoic dictum that we should live according to nature.

Let’s turn now to the Stoics. In volume III of De Finibus Bonorum et Malorum (On the Ends of Good and Evil; my commentary here and here), Cicero imagines Cato the Younger explaining things to him:

“It is the view of those whose system I adopt, that immediately upon birth (for that is the proper point to start from) a living creature feels an attachment for itself, and an impulse to preserve itself and to feel affection for its own constitution and for those things which tend to preserve that constitution … Infants desire things conducive to their health and reject things that are the opposite before they have ever felt pleasure or pain; this would not be the case, unless they felt an affection for their own constitution and were afraid of destruction.” (III.5)

Continuing:

“Man’s first attraction is towards the things in accordance with nature; but as soon as he has understanding, or rather become capable of ‘conception’ … and has discerned the order and so to speak harmony that governs conduct, he thereupon esteems this harmony far more highly than all the things for which he originally felt an affection, and by exercise of intelligence and reason infers the conclusion that herein resides the Chief Good of man, the thing that is praiseworthy and desirable for its own sake [i.e., moral virtue].” (III.21)

It should be clear why this is essentially Hume’s view or, rather, the other way around, since Hume not only lived 18 centuries after Cicero, but we have direct evidence that he was influenced by the Stoics. It should also be clear why this is often referred to as the cradle argument: it is a developmental account of how we gradually move from purely selfish interests to more and more socially oriented ones, as a result of upbringing (chiefly, teachings from our caretakers), as well as our own ability to reflect on what makes sense and what doesn’t, and to behave accordingly.

The other major source on the Stoic idea of living according to nature is Diogenes Laertius, who in book VII of the Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers wrote:

“An animal’s first impulse, say the Stoics, is to self preservation, because nature from the outset endears it to itself, as Chrysippus affirms in the first book of his work On Ends: his words are, ‘The dearest thing to every animal is its own constitution and its consciousness thereof’; for it was not likely that nature should estrange the living thing from itself or that she should leave the creature she has made without either estrangement from or affection for its own constitution. We are forced then to conclude that nature in constituting the animal made it near and dear to itself; for so it comes to repel all that is injurious and give free access to all that is serviceable or akin to it.’ For [animals], 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, virtue being the goal towards which nature guides us. So too Cleanthes in his treatise On Pleasure, as also Posidonius, and Hecato in his work On Ends. Again, living virtuously is equivalent to living in accordance with experience of the actual course of nature, as Chrysippus says in the first book of his De Finibus; for our individual natures are parts of the nature of the whole universe. And this is why the end may be defined as life in accordance with nature, or, in other words, in accordance with our own human nature as well as that of the universe, a life in which we refrain from every action forbidden by the law common to all things, that is to say, the right reason which pervades all things … Diogenes [of Babylon] then expressly declares the end to be to act with good reason in the selection of what is natural. Archedemus says the end is to live in the performance of all befitting actions.” (VII.85-88)

Several things need to be observed in the long passage above. To begin with, again, this is a developmental account of human social psychology. Second, Diogenes tells us that this notion appeared at the very beginning of Stoic philosophy, with Zeno, Cleanthes, and Chrysippus, respectively the first, second, and third heads of the Stoa. Finally, living according to nature in the sense above leads us to live virtuously, because the virtues (practical wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance) are the means by which we rationally govern our intercourse with fellow human beings. Or as Socrates says in the Euthydemus (see separate essay here), virtue is the chief good because it is the only thing that can never be used for ill (unlike wealth, health, education, and all the other preferred indifferents).

As I have explained in a series of recent posts, the cradle argument has been reconstructed in a philosophically sound way, and one moreover that agrees with modern cognitive science, by Larry Becker in his A New Stoicism:

“We may begin life as greedy little egoists, but it is clear enough that we soon spontaneously develop matching affective responses to what we read as signs of others’ pleasures and pains. Cognitive development is relentlessly recursive — ‘leg over leg’ as Piagetians say — in the sense that whatever conceptual schemas we develop and whatever content we acquire in them themselves become the objects of (and determinants of) our subsequent development. As we develop and begin to use the ability to represent this purposive activity symbolically … and begin to manipulate those symbolic representations logically, a secondary form of agency arises, driven by this representational and logical activity. … The process of deliberation and choice becomes a determinative condition of (some of) our conduct.” (Ch. 6)

My original research background is in evolutionary biology, and it is interesting to me that the above meshes very nicely with what primatologists have discovered about our close evolutionary kins over the past couple of decades or so. Just check out Frans de Waal’s “Primates and Philosophers” for a good sense of a combined scientific and philosophical approach to the evolution of morality. Studies conducted on chimpanzees, macaques, rhesus monkeys, and capuchin monkeys show the presence in social primates of four building blocks of morality: empathy, the ability to learn and follow social rules, reciprocity, and peace making. So the life sciences tell us that the building blocks of morality are found (and presumably selected for) in non-human social primates. In the light of modern science, the phrase “live according to nature” takes an enlarged, empirically substantiated meaning.

It is also interesting to note that the words “ethics” and “morality” themselves have revealing roots: the first one comes from the Greek êthos, a word related to our idea of character; the second one is from the Latin moralis, which has to do with habits and customs. Ethics or morality, in the ancient sense, then, is what we do in order to live well together — just like our primate cousins, except of course that unlike bonobos and capuchin monkeys, we can articulate and reflect on our own behaviors, which leads us to the more sophisticated, rationally based sense of living according to nature that the Stoics were defending.

As for modern cognitive sciences, which I see as an extension of the life sciences to the special case of humans, Jean Piaget found that young children are focused on authority mandates, and that with age children become autonomous, evaluating actions from a set of independent principles of morality. Famously, Lawrence Kohlberg expanded upon Piagetian notions of moral development to arrive at his three-level classification of attitudes toward morality:

Subsequently, Elliot Turiel has argued for a social domain approach to social cognition, delineating how individuals differentiate moral (fairness, equality, justice), societal (conventions, group functioning, traditions), and psychological (personal, individual prerogative) concepts from early in development throughout their lifespan. Over the past 40 years, research findings — including cross-cultural studies — have supported this model. (The Handbook of Moral Development, edited by Melanie Killen and Judith Smetana, summarizes the relevant literature while covering a large range of related topics. Also, I am aware that Piaget’s and Kohlberg’s original articulation of their ideas has been criticized, but the general picture seems to hold as much as anything else in developmental moral psychology.)

The way I see it, evolutionary biology, cognitive science, and philosophy provide us with a fuller picture of ethics. The first one tells us something about why we have a moral instinct in the first place (we are inherently social animals, so natural selection favored the evolution of pro-social behaviors); the second one informs us about how modern human beings, with their large brains and cultural milieu, develop complex views of morality from infancy through adulthood; and the third one helps us further develop the logical consequences of our own thinking about how to relate to others, for instance arriving at the related Stoic principles of oikeiôsis and cosmopolitanism, famously articulated by Hierocles with his ideas of a series of contracting circles of concern:

We can therefore, and without fear of committing any logical fallacy, happily agree with Epictetus:

“What should we do then? Make the best use of what is in our power, and treat the rest in accordance with its nature.” (Discourses I.1.17)

Stoic advice: I suffer from addiction, and I hate myself because I’m a bad Stoic

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

E. writes: Before I discovered Stoicism, many years ago, I struggled with an addiction. At the time I tried to implement what I now understand to be the dichotomy of control: that I can’t control external events but that it was within my power to work and change my addictive behavior. Yet no amount of realization seemed to make the situation better. If anything it made it worse.

But once I entered a 12 step program they taught me that the first step was to realize my powerlessness over the addiction. That was transformative, and the program is what brought me relief and “sobriety” from the addiction. Of course, there is more to it, but admitting my powerlessness over the direct addiction, whilst simultaneously strengthening my resolve to work around the addiction, made the difference. Some actions I could control: working the steps, making amends, talking to my sponsor, reporting on progress, daily journaling, going to meetings, helping others, etc.

Now that I face other (less destructive, but emotionally turbulent all the same) addictions, and after losing my belief in a higher power and trying to act according to Stoic virtue, I find myself in a state of not progressing again. Mostly I just really hate myself for how badly I’m failing to live up to Stoic ideals and a virtuous life. Is there any room in the dichotomy of control for finding utility in recognizing that some people seem powerless to change their bad behaviors directly, but have power to alter their environment, thoughts, etc. such that eventually their behaviors change as a consequence? I can’t say unequivocally this is the case, but it almost seems, paradoxically, that for me attempting to exert control over the addictive behavior is counterproductive and makes it worse. 

Stoicism is a philosophy of life, not a cure for addiction. The latter requires professional intervention, in forms that may vary from support groups like the one that helped you originally, to psychotherapy, to medication. Nevertheless, as you know, many 12-step organizations adopt the so-called Serenity Prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

The Prayer is, in fact, a modern Christian version of a sentiment found in different cultures (e.g., in the writings of 8th-century Indian Buddhist scholar Shantideva, as well as those of 11-century Jewish philosopher Solomon ibn Gabirol), but is also found in Stoic writings, especially Epictetus:

“Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing.” (Enchiridion I.1)

The tricky part is that the standard interpretation of Epictetus assumes that he seems to be assuming that people having complete control of their inner workings, a notion that modern psychology most certainly does not support. But the Stoics, despite living in a pre-scientific era, where keen observers of the human psyche, and they realized very well that there are plenty of aspects of the human mind that we do not control. That’s why they famously distinguished between proto-passions and fully formed passions. Consider what Seneca says, for instance, about anger:

“A passion, therefore, consists not in being affected by the sights which are presented to us, but in giving way to our feelings and following up these chance promptings.” (On Anger, II.3)

We cannot help being affected by external events, or internal turmoil. It is human, and to even attempt to control those is a path toward misery and possibly destruction. What we can control is our cognitive attitude toward what is going on, the very same principle that informs modern Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, for instance. Interestingly, early CBT was based on the assumption that changing maladaptive thinking (the “cognitive” part) eventually leads to changes in behavior and affect (the “behavioral” part). Some more recent varieties of the approach maintain, more modestly, that the focus should be on one’s attitude toward the maladaptive thinking, rather than on the thinking itself, though I think both approaches are valid, depending on what, exactly, “the thinking” is about.

As is well known, the basic steps of CBT are:

I — Identify critical behaviors;
II — Determine whether critical behaviors are excesses or deficits;
III — Evaluate critical behaviors for frequency, duration, or intensity (obtain a baseline);
IV — If excess, attempt to decrease frequency, duration, or intensity of behaviors; if deficits, attempt to increase behaviors.

You can see even from this short summary that CBT is very practically oriented, it doesn’t provide, and is not meant to provide, a general philosophical framework for life. That is why I suggest engaging in both: therapy for the immediate problem, philosophy (what my colleague Lou Marinoff calls “therapy for the sane”) for a broader outlook.

You do not provide, in your letter, any details about which specific addictions you are battling, but if they are indeed addictions, then you need counsel and therapy, not just philosophy. That said, a philosophy, especially Stoicism, should be helpful in putting things into perspective, providing you with a compass for your entire life, not just this particular aspect of it.

Moreover, I keep stressing that Stoicism is inherently forgiving and, especially, self-forgiving:

“An ignorant person is inclined to blame others for his own misfortune. To blame oneself is proof of progress. But the wise man never has to blame another or himself.” (Enchiridion, V)

So long as you earnestly try to be a better person for yourself, your loved ones, and the rest of humanity, you are a prokopton, literally someone who makes progress. And progress isn’t linear either. Sometimes we slip back a bit, and that’s okay, it is human. Of course the danger is that we may rationalize our failures and actually give up a positive path to eudaimonia. That is why the Stoics suggested three fundamental types of exercise:

* Engage in self-reflection, for instance by way of keeping an evening diary;

* Summon the mental image of a role model (the “Sage on the shoulder” exercise) and ask yourself what he or she would do;

* Confront yourself with peers and like minded people, either directly, if possible (a local Stoic group, for instance) or indirectly (via our increasingly large Facebook community), to keep yourself from making up excuses and stop progressing.

You need to apply to yourself the very same attitude of non-judgment that Epictetus counsels us to apply to others:

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

The advantage, when applying this attitude to ourselves, is that we actually have a decent understanding of what we are going through, as well as, more generally, of the limits imposed on human agency by addiction. Forgive, then, yourself and simply do your best to cope with the situation the universe has handed you.

Stoicism is a philosophy. Not a magic wand, a bag of tricks, or a prosperity gospel

A funny thing is happening now that Stoicism is part of the zeitgeist: people want to use it as a magic wand to solve any and all problems, as if practicing a philosophy of life (any philosophy of life, not just Stoicism) provided some kind of superhuman powers that can make us transcend our limitations as finite beings. Which is ironic, given that a central tenet of Stoicism — the dichotomy of control — is precisely about just how limited human powers really are.

For instance, ever since I started my Stoic advice column I got seriously challenging questions, ranging from how to deal with being transgender to what to do if one finds herself in an unhappy marriage, from whether and how to give to the homeless to preparing for death because of terminal cancer. I do my best, and all of these are precisely the sort of questions that a philosophy of life should be able to help with. And the column is an immensely rewarding aspect of my Stoic practice, because both the people who write letters to me and many readers tell me that they find help and comfort in Stoic philosophy.

Then again, there are those who ask what I think of as near-impossible questions: can someone who is severely cognitively impaired practice Stoicism? Well, no, because in order to understand and follow a philosophy one’s mental abilities have to be within the range of normalcy or near-normalcy. Ah! But isn’t that a limitation of Stoicism? No, or if it is, then it’s a limitation that it shares with any other philosophy or religion. Or with very different kinds of activities, for that matter. Consider: would you say that exercising at the gym is of “limited” value because one has to have arms or legs in order to lift weights? That would sound silly, wouldn’t it?

Or: can Stoicism deal with depression? It depends. There are examples of people suffering from different degrees of depression who have actually benefited from Stoic philosophy. But depression is a mental illness, and it requires professional medical intervention, in the form of psychotherapy and/or, if needed, psychiatric therapy. My colleague at City College, Lou Marinoff, wrote a best selling book provocatively entitled “Plato, Not Prozac!” about philosophical counseling as a tool for, as he puts it, “therapy for the sane.” But even Lou, despite his obvious skepticism of psychiatry, acknowledges in the introduction to the book that if your mind does not function properly you may, in fact, need Prozac (or whatever other effective medication). That will bring your mind back to a near-functional level, at which point you will still be faced by life’s ordinary questions, about meaning, relationships, career, goals, and so forth. For those, philosophy, not pills, are going to be the answer.

Speaking of the relationship between philosophy and psychology, an increasing number of people also seem to consider Stoicism just a bag of tricks, essentially detached from the underlying philosophy. This is not as objectionable as the above mentioned attitude (or the one I’m going to turn to next), as not everyone is interested in adopting or developing a philosophy of life (though, arguably, they should be! — see below). The analogy here is with the practice of, say, yoga. Yoga is actually a complex and ancient set of spiritual, mental and physical practices that are supposed to work harmoniously together. But many people in the West just take yoga classes because they are good for their body and decrease their stress level. That’s fine, so long as one is clear about the distinction. Similarly, many people who are into Buddhism are not practitioners of that (very demanding) philosophy. They just use meditation techniques to improve their wellbeing. Again, that’s fine, but don’t go around calling yourself a Buddhist if you don’t take seriously the philosophy underlying those techniques.

The same, I think, holds for Stoicism. As is well known, Stoicism has inspired a number of modern cognitive-based therapies, like rational emotive behavior therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy. These approaches work, in many cases, and are useful to people. So if someone wishes to extract Stoic, or Stoic-inspired, exercises and mind tricks in order to improve their wellbeing, by all means they should do so. But that’s not Stoicism. Stoicism is a coherent philosophy of life, it comes complete with a particular view of ethics and eudaimonia, it prioritizes virtue over everything else (the so-called preferred indifferents), and it attempts to use our knowledge of the natural sciences and metaphysics, as well as of logic and cognitive science, for our own betterment. That’s a lot more than just a toolbox of practical techniques.

The third problem I see with certain developments in Stoicism sensu lato concerns what I have come to think of as the Stoic equivalent of prosperity theology, which, arguably, is no theology at all. I grew up Catholic, and I can tell you were in the Gospels (Mark 10,25; Matthew 19,24; and Luke 18,25) it actually says that not only wealth shouldn’t be a major goal in life, but rich people will have a hard time getting to heaven (presumably because in order to become rich one pretty much has to engage in not entirely Christian behaviors).

The Stoics had a similar attitude. While wealth is a preferred indifferent, meaning that it may be pursued so long as one does so in a virtuous fashion, it also comes with a particularly strong set of temptations to act unvirtuously. Here is Seneca, for instance, someone who knew a thing or two about both wealth and the temptations of unvirtuous behavior:

“Do you ask what is the proper limit to wealth? It is, first, to have what is necessary, and, second, to have what is enough.” (Letter II. On Discursiveness in Reading, 6)

“That which can fall to the lot of any man, no matter how base or despised he may be, is not a good. But wealth falls to the lot of the pander and the trainer of gladiators; therefore wealth is not a good.” (Letter LXXXVII. Some Arguments in Favor of the Simple Life, 15)

“When you are choosing between two good men, the richer is not necessarily the better, any more than, in the case of two pilots of equal skill in managing the tiller, you would call him the better whose ship is larger and more imposing.” (Letter LXXIII. On Philosophers and Kings, 12)

“Money never made a man rich; on the contrary, it always smites men with a greater craving for itself.” (Letter CXIX. On Nature as Our Best Provider, 9)

(And yes, before you bring it up, Seneca was not a Sage.)

Here is Epictetus on the same theme:

“Do you not know what the thirst of a man in a fever is like, how different from the thirst of a man in health? The healthy man drinks and his thirst is gone: the other is delighted for a moment and then grows giddy, the water turns to gall, and he vomits and has colic, and is more exceeding thirsty. Such is the condition of the man who is haunted by desire in wealth or in office, and in wedlock with a lovely woman: jealousy clings to him, fear of loss, shameful words, shameful thoughts, unseemly deeds.” (Discourses IV, 9)

“I say that virtue is more valuable than wealth to the same degree that eyes are more valuable than fingernails.” (Fragments 13)

“The following are non-sequiturs: ‘I am richer, therefore superior to you’; or ‘I am a better speaker, therefore a better person, than you.’” (Enchiridion 44)

And, just in case you are still not convinced, here is Marcus:

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

“From my mother [I learned] abstinence, not only from evil deeds, but even from evil thoughts; and further, simplicity in my way of living, far removed from the habits of the rich.” (Meditations I.3)

Now, can anyone have read the above and then written an article entitled “What is Stoicism and How Can it Turn your Life to Solid Gold?” Appropriately, the article refers to Stoic techniques as “tricks,” and the word “virtue” does not appear in it, at all.

There are a number of other examples of application of Stoicism to business and entrepreneurship, from Ryan Holiday’s “7 ways billionaires like Warren Buffett and Bill Gates demonstrate the ancient philosophy of Marcus Aurelius” to Petrina Coventry’s “6 Ways Stoicism Can Help Entrepreneurs.” (What’s with the numbering, anyway?) Again, nothing wrong with using Stoic techniques to achieve whatever goal one wishes to achieve. But that’s not Stoic philosophy, as abundantly demonstrated by the collection of quotes given above.

Ah, but am I not being hypocritical here? Don’t I make money out of selling my own book, How To Be A Stoic? Of course I do. Just like I get paid by the City College of New York to teach philosophy there. Philosophers too have to make a living, as the ancient Stoics themselves discovered: Chrysippus, the third heard of the Stoa, is reputed to have been the first one who took money for his services, and both Zeno and Seneca were wealthy. Epictetus started as a slave and lived a modest life, but Marcus Aurelius was literally the most powerful and wealthy man in the Western world.

The question, therefore, isn’t whether one earns money, or how much. The question is whether that’s a chief goal of their lives. I can honestly say that I do not care how many copies of How To Be A Stoic are sold (don’t tell my editor, please). If many, that’s a preferred indifferent; if few, that’s a dispreferred indifferent. I would have written the book anyway, because I thought I had something to say. As always with virtue ethics, the focus is not on the outcome, but on the agent’s intentions. Pursuit of money for its own sake is definitely not Stoic. And even having a lot of money acquired virtuously is problematic, because large amounts of wealth carry strong temptations to act unvirtuously, either in spending that money, or in acquiring even more of it, or in misusing it to buy oneself influence, power, or reputation. Again, Seneca docet.

Now, none of the above should be construed as an attempt to “purify” Stoicism, to demarcate the good guys from the bad guys. On the contrary, I’ve maintained from the beginning of my own practice that Stoicism is neutral with respect to a large spectrum of metaphysical positions and political ideologies. But I think it is a disservice to both the history and the very idea of Stoic philosophy not to make the distinctions I made above. Stoic techniques can be used to improve your mental health or to become rich and successful. But neither is the goal of Stoic philosophy. That goal is one and one only: to become a better, more virtuous person. Everything else is indifferent, as preferred as it may be.

Now why would anyone want to practice the philosophy, instead of just picking and choosing the good bits, like many modern yoga practitioners or meditators? Because a philosophy of life provides you with a general framework to orient yourself in the world, it gives you quick access to what is truly important and what you can ignore, it equips you with a moral compass, and it helps you construct meaning out of what you do. In short, it allows you to live a eudaimonic life, the sort of life that, once you get to the end, you look back to it and justifiably feel that it was time well spent.

But why Stoicism in particular? Because of Epictetus’ promise, right at the beginning of his Handbook:

“Now the things within our power are by nature free, unrestricted, unhindered; but those beyond our power are weak, dependent, restricted, alien. Remember, then, that if you attribute freedom to things by nature dependent and take what belongs to others for your own, you will be hindered, you will lament, you will be disturbed, you will find fault both with gods and men. But if you take for your own only that which is your own and view what belongs to others just as it really is, then no one will ever compel you, no one will restrict you; you will find fault with no one, you will accuse no one, you will do nothing against your will; no one will hurt you, you will not have an enemy, nor will you suffer any harm.” (Enchiridion I.3)

Do the Stoics lack a sense of humor?

Stoicism is, notoriously, associated with the suppression of emotions and going through life with a stiff upper lip. And with the lack of a sense of humor. Can you imagine Mr. Spock from Star Trek, the stereotypical Stoic, laughing at a joke (well, at least when he is not under alien influence, or something like that)? There is far more chance of Captain Kirk not kissing a female, whether alien or not (an almost impossibility) than Spock displaying a sense of humor.

And yet, Stoics both ancient and modern seem to prefer to laugh at the universe, and indeed to think that’s a far better attitude than crying over it. Consider Seneca, in On Tranquillity:

“We ought therefore to bring ourselves into such a state of mind that all the vices of the vulgar may not appear hateful to us, but merely ridiculous, and we should imitate Democritus rather than Heraclitus. The latter of these, whenever he appeared in public, used to weep, the former to laugh: the one thought all human doings to be follies, the other thought them to be miseries. We must take a higher view of all things, and bear with them more easily: it better becomes a man to scoff at life than to lament over it. Add to this that he who laughs at the human race deserves better of it than he who mourns for it, for the former leaves it some good hopes of improvement, while the latter stupidly weeps over what he has given up all hopes of mending. He who after surveying the universe cannot control his laughter shows, too, a greater mind than he who cannot restrain his tears, because his mind is only affected in the slightest possible degree, and he does not think that any part of all this apparatus is either important, or serious, or unhappy.” (15)

The “vulgar” here are people not practicing philosophy, and as slightly elitist as Seneca sounds, his point is well put, especially in the second part of the quote: it takes a better sense of things to laugh, rather than to cry, at the absurdity of the universe. Or as Mel Brooks famously put it, “humor is just another defense against the universe.”

One of my favorite sources of (dark) Stoic sense of humor is Epictetus:

“I have to die. If it is now, well then I die now; if later, then now I will take my lunch, since the hour for lunch has arrived — and dying I will tend to later.” (Discourses I, 1.32)

Or consider this:

“‘But I get to wear a crown of gold.’ If you have your heart set on wearing crowns, why not make one out of roses — you will look even more elegant in that.” (Discourses I, 19.29)

Here is another one, which Epictetus attributes to Paconius Agrippinus, a Stoic philosopher and Roman statesman:

“Once, when [Agrippinus] was preparing for lunch, a messenger arrived from Rome announcing that Nero had sentenced him to exile. Unflustered he replied, ‘Then why don’t we just move our lunch to Aricia.’” (Fragments 21)

This, of course, is rather dark humor, suited to the times and the situations in which these people lived and died. The argument has often being made that Stoicism, like Buddhism and other similar philosophies, thrive whenever times are tough and unpredictable. But as my friend Larry Becker put it in an soon to be published interview with the American Philosophical Association, times are always tough and unpredictable.

Speaking of Larry, I found inspiration in his dry humor as well. I wrote about how he has dealt with severe disability due to polio, throughout his life. When, at some point in his academic career, he had to face the reality of permanently needing a wheelchair, he reminded himself that the important projects in his life included his wife of 46 years and their life together, his profession as a scholar and teacher, and his commitment to society at large. But, as he drily added:

“Doing without a wheel chair is not a basic life goal.” (Larry Becker, presidential address to Post-Polio Health International)

And of course no account of Stoic humor can do without mentioning Michael Connell, the Stoic comedian. Here is a full 31-minute, very funny, show entirely based on Stoic principles, which I had the pleasure and honor to “concept” check, so to speak, on Michael’s behalf before it was released. But I’ll leave you with one of my favorite among his short videos, focusing on the fundamental Stoic idea that the only things that are good or bad are those under your control (i.e., your values, judgments, and decisions), everything else being a preferred or dispreferred indifferent. Enjoy, and use it the next time your train or plane is late…

Basic Stoic theory, Diogenes Laertius edition

I just finished co-running Stoic Camp New York-2017, together with my friend Greg Lopez. We had 20 students and an amazing time up in Stony Point, on the West Bank of the Hudson River, north of New York. As part of the introductory session, we went through the basics of Stoic theory as reported by Diogenes Laertius in book VII of his Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers, which covers the early and middle Stoa (i.e., before Seneca, Musonius, Epictetus and Marcus). I’m going to propose the passages we used here, organized by subject matter, as a handy vademecum for the Stoic practitioner. Each section below begins with a selection of pertinent quotes from Diogenes, and ends with a mini summary and commentary of my own. I hope it’s going to be useful.

The parts of philosophy

[39] Philosophic doctrine, say the Stoics, falls into three parts: one physical, another ethical, and the third logical.

[40] 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.

[41] Diogenes of Ptolemaïs, it is true, begins with Ethics; but Apollodorus puts Ethics second, while Panaetius and Posidonius begin with Physics, as stated by Phanias, the pupil of Posidonius, in the first book of his Lectures of Posidonius.

This is the classic division of philosophy into three fields: logic (having to do with good reasoning), physics (understanding of the world), and ethics (how to live one’s life). The three are connected in that — as in the analogy of the garden — the logic and physics are necessary to protect (from bad reasoning) and nurture (through a sound understanding of the cosmos) the ethics. Notice that there was disagreement among the Stoics on the best way to set up the curriculum, one of a number of pieces of evidence that the philosophy was open to internal disagreement, not run like a cult (in the way of the Pythagoreans, for instance).

The nature of impressions

[45] A presentation (or mental impression) is an imprint on the soul: the name having been appropriately borrowed from the imprint made by the seal upon the wax.

[46] Freedom from precipitancy is a knowledge when to give or withhold the mind’s assent to impressions. By wariness they mean a strong presumption against what at the moment seems probable, so as not to be taken in by it.

[47] Without the study of dialectic, they say, the wise man cannot guard himself in argument so as never to fall; for it enables him to distinguish between truth and falsehood, and to discriminate what is merely plausible and what is ambiguously expressed, and without it he cannot methodically put questions and give answers.

[48] Overhastiness in assertion affects the actual course of events, so that, unless we have our perceptions well trained, we are liable to fall into unseemly conduct and heedlessness.

[49] For presentation comes first; then thought, which is capable of expressing itself, puts into the form of a proposition that which the subject receives from a presentation.

[51] Again, some of our impressions are scientific, others unscientific: at all events a statue is viewed in a totally different way by the trained eye of a sculptor and by an ordinary man.

“Impressions” are a combination of sensorial input and automatic judgment, as, for instance, when I suddenly feel fear because I have heard an unfamiliar sound in the house at night. Impressions ought to be examined in the light of reason, so that we can decide whether to give assent to them or not. This requires a certain degree of cognitive distancing (avoiding overhastiness), and also the ability to engage in sound reasoning (logic). This is the basis of Epictetus’ discipline of assent, which Pierre Hadot connects with the topos of logic and the virtue of prudence (practical wisdom). Notice that practice makes for better (more “scientific”) judgments of impressions.

Living according to nature

[85] An animal’s first impulse, say the Stoics, is to self preservation, because nature from the outset endears it to itself, as Chrysippus affirms in the first book of his work On Ends.

[86] And 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.

[87] 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. … Again, living virtuously is equivalent to living in accordance with experience of the actual course of nature, as Chrysippus says in the first book of his De finibus; for our individual natures are parts of the nature of the whole universe.

[88] And this is why the end may be defined as life in accordance with nature, or, in other words, in accordance with our own human nature as well as that of the universe. … And this very thing constitutes the virtue of the happy man and the smooth current of life.

[89] By the nature with which our life ought to be in accord, Chrysippus understands both universal nature and more particularly the nature of man, whereas Cleanthes takes the nature of the universe alone as that which should be followed, without adding the nature of the individual.

So the Stoics had what we would today call an evolutionary theory of virtue (just like their “cradle argument” was a theory of human developmental psychology, connected to the concept of oikeiosis): plant life is regulated without impulses and sensation, which however do play a role in animal and human life. But human beings have reason as well. So to apply reason to the question of how to live is the same as living according to nature. If you do that, according to the Stoics, you figure out that this specifically means living a life of virtue (though Diogenes doesn’t say this here, that’s because virtue is the only thing that is always useful to improve the human lot, an argument that goes back to Socrates in the Euthydemus). Notice two more things: first, the reference to a smooth flow of life if we live virtuously; second, again, vibrant disagreement among the Stoics on specific issues of doctrine, in this context whether we should think in terms of human nature or the nature of the cosmos at large.

The virtues

[90] Virtue, in the first place, is in one sense the perfection of anything in general, say of a statue; again, it may be non-intellectual, like health, or intellectual, like prudence.

[91] That it, virtue, can be taught is laid down by Chrysippus in the first book of his work On the End, by Cleanthes, by Posidonius in his Protreptica, and by Hecato; that it can be taught is clear from the case of bad men becoming good.

[92] Panaetius, however, divides virtue into two kinds, theoretical and practical; others make a threefold division of it into logical, physical, and ethical; while by the school of Posidonius four types are recognized, and more than four by Cleanthes, Chrysippus, Antipater, and their followers. Apollophanes for his part counts but one, namely, practical wisdom. Amongst the virtues some are primary, some are subordinate to these. The following are the primary: wisdom, courage, justice, temperance. Particular virtues are magnanimity, continence, endurance, presence of mind, good counsel. And wisdom they define as the knowledge of things good and evil and of what is neither good nor evil; courage as knowledge of what we ought to choose, what we ought to beware of, and what is indifferent.

[93] Similarly, of vices some are primary, others subordinate: e.g. folly, cowardice, injustice, profligacy are accounted primary; but incontinence, stupidity, ill-advisedness subordinate. Further, they hold that the vices are forms of ignorance of those things whereof the corresponding virtues are the knowledge.

[94] Virtue itself and whatever partakes of virtue is called good in these three senses — viz. as being (1) the source from which benefit results; or (2) that in respect of which benefit results, e.g.the virtuous act; or (3) that by the agency of which benefit results, e.g. the good man who partakes in virtue.

To begin with, the word “virtue” (arete, in Greek) applies to any kind of human excellence, of which the moral (intellectual) virtues are a subset. Diogenes lists the four cardinal Stoic virtues, but makes clear that there are several sub-virtuous, so to speak. The full list is detailed in a table on p. 28 of this paper by Matthew Sharpe on Stoic virtue ethics. Well worth the reading. Diogenes then says that to each virtue corresponds a given vice, and — most importantly — that virtue is a type of knowledge, and vice a type of ignorance (best understood as unwisdom). Notice, once more, evidence of debate among the Stoics on all these subject matters.

Preferred vs dispreferred indifferents

[102] Goods comprise the virtues of prudence, justice, courage, temperance, and the rest; while the opposites of these are evils, namely, folly, injustice, and the rest. Neutral (neither good nor evil, that is) are all those things which neither benefit nor harm a man: such as life, health, pleasure, beauty, strength, wealth, fair fame and noble birth, and their opposites, death, disease, pain, ugliness, weakness, poverty, ignominy, low birth, and the like. This Hecato affirms in his De fine, book vii., and also Apollodorus in his Ethics. and Chrysippus. For, say they, such things (as life, health, and pleasure) are not in themselves goods, but are morally indifferent, though falling under the species or subdivision “things preferred.”

[103] Further, they say that that is not good of which both good and bad use can be made; but of wealth and health both good and bad use can be made; therefore wealth and health are not goods.

[104] The term “indifferent” … denotes the things which do not contribute either to happiness or to misery, as wealth, fame, health, strength, and the like; for it is possible to be happy without having these, although, if they are used in a certain way, such use of them tends to happiness or misery.

[105] Of things indifferent, as they express it, some are “preferred,” others “rejected.” Such as have value, they say, are “preferred,” while such as have negative, instead of positive, value are “rejected.” Value they define as, first, any contribution to harmonious living, such as attaches to every good; secondly, some faculty or use which indirectly contributes to the life according to nature: which is as much as to say “any assistance brought by wealth or health towards living a natural life”; thirdly, value is the full equivalent of an appraiser, as fixed by an expert acquainted with the facts — as when it is said that wheat exchanges for so much barley with a mule thrown in.

[107] Again, of things preferred some are preferred for their own sake, some for the sake of something else, and others again both for their own sake and for the sake of something else. … Things are preferred for their own sake because they accord with nature; not for their own sake, but for the sake of something else, because they secure not a few utilities.

An important bit here is the very clear explanation that preferred indifferents are so-called because they have “value” (that’s why they are preferred) but they do not affect our moral character (indifferent). I have explained this concept in earlier writings in terms of what modern economists call lexicographic preferences. Notice, at [103], a piece of syllogistic reasoning aiming to prove that wealth, health, etc. are not “goods.” Once you understand how the Stoics used these terms, it becomes obvious why this is true: wealth, for instance, can be used to do good as well as to do evil, therefore it is logically independent of good and evil, and so it is not, by itself, good or evil (though one can use it in good or evil fashion). At [105] we get a pretty clear explanation of why certain things are preferred (or dispreferred): either they contribute to harmonious living, or to the life according to nature, or because of the barley and the mule thing…

On good and bad emotions

[110] Passion, or emotion, is defined by Zeno as an irrational and unnatural movement in the soul, or again as impulse in excess. The main, or most universal, emotions, according to Hecato in his treatise On the Passions, book ii., and Zeno in his treatise with the same title, constitute four great classes, grief, fear, desire or craving, pleasure.

[111] They hold the emotions to be judgements, as is stated by Chrysippus in his treatise On the Passions: avarice being a supposition that money is a good, while the case is similar with drunkenness and profligacy and all the other emotions. Pity is grief felt at undeserved suffering; envy, grief at others’ prosperity; jealousy, grief at the possession by another of that which one desires for oneself; rivalry, pain at the possession by another of what one has oneself.

[112] Fear is an expectation of evil.

[113] Desire or craving is irrational appetency, and under it are ranged the following states: want, hatred, contentiousness, anger, love [meaning irrational, obsessive passion], wrath, resentment. … Hatred is a growing and lasting desire or craving that it should go ill with somebody.

[114] Wrath is anger which has long rankled and has become malicious, waiting for its opportunity. … Resentment is anger in an early stage. Pleasure is an irrational elation at the accruing of what seems to be choiceworthy. … Malevolent joy is pleasure at another’s ills.

[115] And as there are said to be certain infirmities in the body, as for instance gout and arthritic disorders, so too there is in the soul love of fame, love of pleasure, and the like. … And as in the body there are tendencies to certain maladies such as colds and diarrhoea, so it is with the soul, there are tendencies like enviousness, pitifulness, quarrelsomeness, and the like.

[116] Also they say that there are three emotional states which are good, namely, joy, caution, and wishing. Joy, the counterpart of pleasure, is rational elation; caution, the counterpart of fear, rational avoidance. … And they make wishing the counterpart of desire (or craving), inasmuch as it is rational appetency. … Thus under wishing they bring well-wishing or benevolence, friendliness, respect, affection; under caution, reverence and modesty; under joy, delight, mirth, cheerfulness.

[117] Now they say that the wise man is passionless, because he is not prone to fall into such infirmity [i.e., unhealthy passions].

This is a pretty complete treatment of the oft-misunderstood topic of Stoic emotions. It should be clear, however, that the Stoics sought to avoid only the unhealthy emotions, what they called “passions” (pathē), and to nurture healthy emotions (eupatheiai). Diogenes gives a lengthy list of both, so to thoroughly explain what the Stoics meant. Notice, incidentally, the common parallel in Stoicism between physical and mental / spiritual health. At [111] we are introduced to the Stoic theory that emotions are a form of judgment, i.e., they have a cognitive component. So the “impressions” from above, which are automatic, generate a sort of proto-emotions (propatheiai), and it is to those that we apply our judgment. If we do this incorrectly, we turn the proto-emotion into an unhealthy passion. Schematically:

propatheiai + incorrect assent => pathē

Something like this is confirmed by modern cognitive science, where neuroscientists talk of “fear,” say, referring to the involuntary feeling arising from the rush of adrenalin when we perceive a threat, while psychologists use the same word referring to the mature, cognitively mediated emotion of the type “I ought to be afraid of terrorist attacks.” So when the Stoics say that the wise person is “passionless” (apatheia) they don’t mean that she lacks all emotions, but that she is unaffected by unhealthy one, as in:

propatheiai + correct assent => apatheia

The goal of Stoicism here is to produce emotionally healthy individuals. Hard to object to it, no?

That’s Stoicism in a nutshell! Let me leave you with a bonus quotation from Diogenes:

[118] They will take wine, but not get drunk.

Another one on Stoicism & Buddhism, the self, and even free will

Adam Gopnik has recently published in The New Yorker an in-depth review of the recent book by Robert Wright, Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment. It actually refers both to Wright’s volume as well as to Stephen Batchelor’s After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age, which also came out recently. There is much of interest in Gopnik’s in-depth essay (and a few things to disagree with as well), but I’m going to focus on a series of remarks he makes about Buddhism as a philosophy of life because they apply also to Stoicism, with due caveats.

(Interested readers may want to check out my video conversation with Bob Wright about the similarities between Buddhism and Stoicism, and our fun “Buddhism & Stoicism advice for life” video.)

A major theme running through Gopnik’s commentary is the premise that both Wright’s and Batchelor’s books share: that it is perfectly possible — indeed, a good idea — to update Buddhism to the 21st century, in the light of modern science. Which is next door to the idea that one can shed the supernaturalist component of the philosophy essentially without loss. Since these are also major ongoing topics of discussion among modern Stoics, the parallels are obvious and significant for our community as well.

(Let me, however, make clear at the onset that I do not advocate for an atheist Stoicism to the exclusion of a religious one. My position has always been that Stoicism is a big tent, both theologically and politically. My interest here is simply in defending the possibility of a secular Stoicism, not to claim that it is the only game in town.)

Gopnik tells us that “Wright’s is a Buddhism almost completely cleansed of supernaturalism. His Buddha is conceived as a wise man and self-help psychologist, not as a divine being … His new version of an American Buddhism is not only self-consciously secularized but aggressively ‘scientized.’ … Meditation, in Wright’s view, is not a metaphysical route toward a higher plane. It is a cognitive probe for self-exploration that underlines what contemporary psychology already knows to be true about the mind.”

Gopnik is not convinced by Wright’s penchant for evolutionary psychological explanations of why Buddhism is “true,” and — with all due respect to Bob — I’m rather skeptical of evopsych in general myself. But this doesn’t really matter because, as Gopnik immediately adds: “Desires may arise from natural selection or from cultural tradition or from random walks or from a combination of them all [most likely, in my opinion] — but Buddhist doctrine would be unaffected by any of these ‘whys.’”

And neither would Stoic doctrine. This is the same reason I’ve been giving for my conclusion that Stoic “physics” (which includes theology and metaphysics as well as all the natural sciences) underdetermines Stoic ethics, so that the two are partially (though not entirely) decoupled. Yes, we should “live according to nature,” but in modern terms this just means “follow the facts (of science),” as modern Stoic Larry Becker has aptly put it.

Here is where Batchelor’s contribution comes in. For instance, he disputes the standard Buddhist account of the self as fundamentally illusory: “The self may not be an aloof independent ‘ruler’ of body and mind, but neither is it an illusory product of impersonal physical and mental forces. … We may have no control over the rush of fear prompted by finding a snake under our bed, but we do have the ability to respond to the situation in a way that is not determined by that fear.”

The second quote there sounds exactly like what a Stoic would say while explaining the difference between impressions and the assent we may give to or withdrawn from them:

“So make a practice at once of saying to every strong impression: ‘An impression is all you are, not the source of the impression.’ Then test and assess it with your criteria, but one primarily: ask, ‘Is this something that is, or is not, in my control?’” (Epictetus, Enchiridion 1.5)

But it is the first section of that quote that seems to me to further blur alleged differences between Stoicism and Buddhism, as well as striking a sensible, empirically informed compromise between those who wish to defend an essentialist notion of the self (which is kind of necessary if you want to talk abut a “soul”) and those who would dismiss it as “just” an illusion. The self is precisely what Batchelor describes: the sum total of our feelings, emotions, thoughts (both unconscious and conscious), very much like David Hume described it back in the 18th century. It isn’t a static thing, but rather a dynamic product of brain activity while it continuously — moment to moment, year to year, decade to decade — interacts with the external world via our perceptual apparatus. In that sense, indeed, the self is neither an illusion nor a static ruler of the mind.

I also found this bit from Batchelor (again, quoted by Gopnik) to be revealing:

“The only thing that matters is whether or not you can perform a task. When an inclination to say something cruel occurs, for example, can you resist acting on that impulse? … Whether your decision to hold the barbed remark was the result of free will or not is beside the point. … [The obsession with free will is a] peculiarly Western concern.”

Yes! In fact, it is a Western obsession that arises from the specific Christian concept of contra-causal “free” will (which is needed as part of the so-called free will defense against the argument from evil). The Stoics did not concern themselves with free will, but with prohairesis, which best translates to the modern term “volition,” used by psychologists to refer to our indubitable ability to make decisions. When you feel like being cruel, can you stop yourself? When you wish to insult someone, can you refrain? That, as Batchelor correctly says, it’s all that matters. The rest is what the Stoics would have condemned as hide logic chopping.

(See here for my explanation of Chrysippus’ take on volition, understood as a combination of internal and external causes.)

Gopnik goes on to point out a potential problem for modern Buddhism, which, interestingly, I don’t think is faced by modern Stoicism:

“What Wright correctly sees as the heart of meditation practice — the draining away of the stories we tell compulsively about each moment in favor of simply having the moment — is antithetical to the kind of evidentiary argument he admires.”

Why is that? Because a major point of Wright’s approach is to bring science into Buddhism, but science is a kind of story telling. Gopnik mentions the famous episode of Newton and the falling apple (which, incidentally, is a fabrication by Newton himself, in a letter to a friend), and concludes: “That’s a story we tell, not a moment we experience. The Buddhist Newton might have been happier than ours — ours was plenty unhappy — but he would never have found the equation. Science is putting names on things and telling stories about them, the very habits that Buddhists urge us to transcend. … The meditator’s project of being here now will never be the same as the scientist’s project of connecting the past to the future, of telling how and knowing why.”

He has a point, and I will await Bob’s response with interested curiosity. But clearly that’s not an objection to Stoicism. Stoic meditation is very much an exercise in story-telling. When Epictetus invites us to question our impressions, perhaps to uncover that they are not at all what they seem, that’s an inquiry similar to that of science, which is the quintessential discipline in which we question appearances in order to discover an underlying, truer reality.

Or consider the standard Stoic exercise of reflecting on your daily actions in a personal philosophical diary:

“Admit not sleep into your tender eyelids till you have reckoned up each deed of the day — How have I erred, what done or left undone? So start, and so review your acts, and then for vile deeds chide yourself, for good be glad.” (Epictetus, Discourses III, 10)

That too, very clearly is an exercise in story telling. When people criticize Stoicism for engaging in “mind tricks” they are right, and yet profoundly wrong. Our perception of reality is always a “mind trick,” it is always the result of our dynamic self relating to the perceptions it receives from the external world. And the Stoics (and the Buddhists) hit on the profound truth that much can be accomplished by retraining our self to carry out that operation differently:

“It is not events that disturb people, it is their judgements concerning them.” (Epictetus, Enchiridion 5)

Finally, Gopnik comments on a crucial aspect of Buddhist practice which, again, I see having very strong parallels with Stoicism:

“Secularized or traditional, the central Buddhist epiphany remains essential: the fact of mortality makes loss certain. … The universal mortality of all beings — the fact that, if we’re lucky, we will die after seventy years or so — is not reformable. … To love less in order to lose less seems like no solution at all, but to see loss squarely sounds like wisdom.”

Stoic teachings — apparently just like Buddhist ones — are often interpreted by our critics as if they were pushing us not to care about things or people. But when Epictetus says:

“You must remind yourself that you love a mortal, and that nothing that you love is your very own; it is given you for the moment, not for ever nor inseparably, but like a fig or a bunch of grapes at the appointed season of the year, and if you long for it in winter you are a fool. So too if you long for your son or your friend, when it is not given you to have him, know that you are longing for a fig in winter time” (Discourses III, 24.86)

I take him to mean that we ought to (i) enjoy what the universe gives us while it is available to us (notice that he uses the word “love” without questioning it); and (ii) accept with equanimity the fact that at some point what we cherish will not longer be there, because impermanence is the law of the cosmos. Let us appreciate figs when they are in season, and let us not foolishly long for them in winter time.