Stoicism and Emotion, V: brutishness and insanity

Orestes pursued by the Furies

Orestes pursued by the Furies

The Stoic way of understanding emotional experience emphasizes that what we properly call anger, fear, love, or any other emotion actually depends on a judgment by the mind, that this or that has happened or is about to happen, and that it makes sense to react in some feeling-laden way. So what about animals? And what about people who aren’t capable of reasoning, either because they are very young children or because their mental faculties are impaired in some way? Should the strong feelings they undoubtedly have be considered emotions? Are they morally responsible for things they do in moments of strong feeling? And what about the fact that none of us is perfectly rational, unless we happen to be a Stoic sage? Is there really a difference between the actions of a typical imperfect adult in a fit of anger and what might be done by someone who is mentally ill? Interestingly, the ancient Stoics had answers to these questions.

Famously, for the Stoics everyone who is not a Sage is a fool, and in a sense “insane,” because he lacks knowledge of what is important, and consequently too readily assents to impressions from which he should recoil. This includes people who get angry, which is why Seneca calls anger a “temporary madness.” This class of individuals can certainly be held morally responsible for their actions, since they are perfectly capable of reason, they just don’t use it well. This is the set up for the fifth chapter of Margaret Graver’s book on Stoicism and Emotion, which I have been commenting upon with her help (she has kindly agreed to check my posts before publication).

In order to keep confusion at bay, I will follow Margaret’s qualification of the two types of “insanity”: paradoxical insanity (where “paradoxical” in ancient Greek just meant contra to common opinion) is the way in which we are all fools because we are not Sages (we are, literally, unsound, as one translates the Latin word insanus). The other type is “melancholic” insanity, from the Greek term literally referring to “black bile disease,” but which broadly speaking indicates a condition close to our modern conception of mental illness. Again: moral responsibility requires functional agency, so the paradoxically insane is ethically responsible for the use of his impressions, while the melancholically insane is not.

A classic example of melancholic insanity is that of Orestes, the son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, who at one point hallucinates that his sister is a Fury, pursuing him for his (just, arguably) matricide. According to the ancients, this condition may be the result of what we would today call extreme psychological stress, or may even be caused by drugs, including alcohol. Graver points out, for instance, the existence of a fragment in which Stobaeus refers to drunkeness as a “little insanity.” Interestingly, one of the disagreements between Cleanthes (the second head of the Stoa) and Chrysippus (the third head) is that the former thought that once acquired virtue cannot be lost, while Chrysippus points out that even the Sage may suffer the effects of melancholia or drunkenness (though she shouldn’t get drunk of her own volition in the first place!), and thus at least temporarily lose virtue. The difference between the two philosophers is not actually very big, according to Margaret, but it is indicative of the fact that the Stoics modified their positions in response to external criticism, in this case from Academic Skeptics.

Again, though — and contra popular mischaracterization — there is a clear distinction between actual insanity and the Stoic “paradoxical” insanity, as Graver forcefully reminds us:

“No bona fide Stoic text ever asserts that the mental state of every human is just the same as that of an Orestes or Alcmaeon, and none ever refers to melancholia or any other medicalized notion of insanity when speaking of the madness of humans in general. … ‘All fools are mad’ is a paradox, one of the counterintuitive teachings for which the school was renowned. Like others of its kind — ‘only the wise person is rich,’ ‘all fools are slaves’ — it runs contrary to popular opinion (para doxan) but becomes plausible when restated in other terms. It is a conversation opener, a deliberately provocative formulation meant to arouse the curiosity of the audience, later to be cashed out in a way that renders it acceptable.” (p. 117)

This isn’t quite as strange as one might at first think. Chrysippus points out that even lay language refers to people in the throng of strong emotions (anger, love, etc.) as “besides themselves,” i.e., mad, if temporarily. When those people wish to do whatever is on their mind to do “no matter what,” this is a clear indication that they are not in full possession of their rational faculties. The Stoics just pushed the point a little further: for them, anyone who sets their heart on external things — as almost all of us do — is primed for emotional turmoil at any moment. We might be fine now, but any chance event can throw us into a tailspin. Cicero too uses a similar approach, when in the third Tusculan Disputation he uses the Latin word “insania,” meaning without health, i.e., a mental condition that falls short of full health, or sanity.

Graver brings up the intriguing question of whether it is compatible with Stoic psychology to consider the possibility of a strictly emotional cause of derangement, given the Stoic emphasis on rational assent. She reminds us that the Stoics were strict materialists, for whom anything happening in our mind is the result of one sort or another of physical change in the pneuma, the substance that pervades everything. So yes, it is perfectly conceivable, within Stoicism, that either physical substances (drugs, alcohol) or repeated, strong emotional experiences will cause some permanent alteration of our psychic condition, mediated by physical changes. Nowadays, we don’t believe in pneuma, but we think — like the Stoics — that there is no separation between the mental and the physical, so the general idea still applies.

The last two sections of the chapter are devoted to Seneca’s treatment of anger, and especially of a particularly dangerous form of insanity that Seneca calls “brutishness.” They make for fascinating and insightful reading. Brutishness in the Senecan sense is no longer anger, but it has its roots in the latter condition, and it should serve as a warning for the dire, ultimate consequences of indulging in anger. The difference between anger and brutishness is that the first is motivated by a (mistaken, in Stoic philosophy) belief that one has been hurt. The sort of behavior Seneca calls brutishness, by contrast, is cruel and results in inflicting pain for fun, without even a plausible reason for it. Indeed, Margaret points out that although the term brutishness refers to animal-like behavior, this is misleading, since animals don’t attack out of cruelty, but in response to natural urges like hunger, self-defense, or defense of their offspring. Animals are not morally responsible for their actions, human beings in possess of their rational faculty are.

Seneca explains the difference between anger and cruelty also in his On Clemency, where he says that the cruel tyrant has a tendency to punish beyond what is actually required by the situation, indulging his own lust for blood and the infliction of pain. And in his Letter CXXXIII to Lucilius he describes the excesses of Mark Anthony, an example of the cruelty developed by the far gone alcoholic. We call this anti-social personality disorder, or psychopathy. This loss of rationality affects us profoundly, of course, because for the Stoics rationality is the best and most characteristic of human attributes.

The last bit of this chapter is an in-depth discussion of Seneca’s so-called three movements in On Anger, and again is well worth a detailed look. Consider first the following extended quote from Seneca:

“Let me tell you how the emotions begin, or grow, or get carried away. The first movement is nonvolitional, a kind of preparation for emotion, a warning, as it were. The second is volitional but not contumacious, like this, ‘It is appropriate for me to take revenge, since I have been injured,’ or ‘It is appropriate for this person to be punished, since he has committed a crime.’ The third movement is already beyond control. It wants to take revenge not if it is appropriate, but no matter what; it has overthrown reason. That first impact on the mind is one we cannot escape by reason, just as we cannot escape those things which I said happen to the body, such as being stimulated by another person’s yawn, or blinking when fingers are thrust suddenly toward one’s eyes. That second movement, the one that comes about through judgment, is also eliminated by judgment. And we must still inquire concerning those people who rage about at random and delight in human blood, whether they are angry when they kill people from whom they have not received any injury and do not believe that they have — people like Apollodorus or Phalaris. This is not anger but brutishness. For it does not do harm because it has received an injury; rather, it is willing even to receive an injury so long as it may do harm. It goes after whippings and lacerations not for punishment but for pleasure. What then? The origin of this evil is from anger, which, once it has been exercised and satiated so often that it has forgotten about clemency and has cast out every human contract from the mind, passes in the end into cruelty.” (On Anger II.4-5)

The standard scholarly interpretation of this is that Seneca brakes with the bit that begins “and we must still inquire,” where he starts talking about brutishness. According to some interpreters, anger is not present until the third movement, and brutishness is a separate topic entirely. If this is true, then – observes Graver – Seneca is committed to say that there is a half-way point at which one assents to the full content of anger as a judgment but still doesn’t get carried away. So the sequence of three movements would be: pre-emotion > anger not at odds with reason > full-fledged anger. But this is contrary not only to the entire corpus of Stoic doctrine (sounding suspiciously Aristotelian), but also to everything Seneca himself has been saying in On Anger up to that point.

Margaret’s interpretation, by contrast, seems to me (admittedly, as a simple Stoic practitioner, not a scholar of ancient philosophy) to make much more sense. She takes Seneca’s sequence to present anger in the middle, flanked by a pre-emotion that precedes it, and by a runaway brutishness that follows it (if one indulges one’s anger). Neither the first nor the third movement are rational. The first one because it takes place without assent, the third one because it happens to an individual who is no longer rationally competent. Only the second movement is actual anger, because it is caused by a mistaken assent given by reason to the impression of injury. Remember that in Stoicism assent to an impulsory impression does not take place before the impulse; rather, it is the impulse, analyzed at the intentional level. That analysis, of course, may be on target (the agent withholds assent and anger winds down) or off (the agent mistakenly gives assent and full anger results).

I find this analysis — and Seneca’s presentation of the issue — beautiful and clarifying. In Stoic psychology, anger is a cognitive emotion, which is why it is under our control. But neither the pre-emotion nor the descent into brutishness is under our control. The first because it is naturally inevitable, since it comes before reason kicks in. The latter because we have lost control of things and are overpowered, thus losing competence to arrive at rational judgment. This is a terrifying prospect, which has enormous practical consequences, and that’s precisely why Seneca makes a big deal of it, using appropriately horrific language to describe it. As Graver concludes at the end of the chapter:

“One thus has a powerful motive to learn ways of eliminating or at least decreasing the frequency of anger by the methods Seneca goes on to suggest, like examining one’s conscience, correcting one’s values, asking friends for help. For these are the means of preserving one’s humanity.” (p. 132)

Nobody expects the Stoic Opposition!

the Spanish Inquisition“So what was it that Agrippinus used to say? ‘I won’t become an obstacle to myself.’ The news was brought to him that ‘your case is being tried in the Senate.’ ‘May everything go well! But the fifth hour has arrived’ — this was the hour in which he was in the habit of taking his exercise and then having a cold bath — ‘so let’s go off and take some exercise.’ When he had completed his exercise, someone came and told him, ‘You’ve been convicted.’ ‘To exile,’ he asked, ‘or to death?’ — ‘To exile.’ — ‘What about property?’ ‘It hasn’t been confiscated.’ — ‘Then let’s go away to Ariccia and eat our meal there.’” (Discourses I.1.28-30)

That’s how Epictetus describes one of the famous episodes of the so-called Stoic opposition, a group of philosophers and Senators who criticized and opposed the rule of the emperors Nero, Vespasian, and Domitian, during the late I century. The Agrippinus in question was Paconius Agrippinus, who was sent into exile by Nero, and whose own father had been put to death for treason by the emperor Tiberius. The Stoic opposition is important because it was a result, not an aberration, but of deliberately applying Stoic philosophy to politics. It should be a good counter to so many nowadays who insist in thinking of Stoicism as a quetist philosophy, inward looking and inherently favoring the status quo.

Which is a rather strange position, since the first and most famous example of a Stoic taking up arms to oppose someone he thought was a tyrant was none other than Cato the Younger, the archenemy of Julius Caesar often praised by Seneca as a role model. That, of course, was in Republican times, but the Stoics gained notoriety for systematically opposing the tyranny of emperors, so much so that Tacitus tells us that Cossutianus Capito, an advisor to Nero, uttered these words against the Stoic Thrasea Paetus: “Either let us pass over to his creed, if it is the better, or let these seekers after a new world lose their chief and their instigator. It is the sect that … subverts the empire, they make a parade of liberty: the empire overthrown, they will lay hands on liberty itself. You have removed Cassius to little purpose, if you intend to allow these rivals of the Bruti to multiply and flourish!” (Tacitus, Annals, xvi. 22)

This more than hints at the fact that the Stoic opposition was a consequence of philosophical principles, not just a local affair triggered by personal antipathy or lust for power. The idea is explicitly reinforced later on by Marcus Aurelius himself, one of whose teachers was Junius Rusticus, a direct descendant of Arulenus Rusticus, who was executed by Domitian for having written a panegyric in praise of Thrasea:

“It was through [my brother Severus] that I came to know Thrasea, Helvidius, Cato, Dio, Brutus, and to conceive the idea of a balanced constitution, and of government founded on equity and freedom of speech, and of a monarchy which values above all things the freedom of the subject.” (Meditations, I.14)

The Stoic opposition had taken shape initially under Nero, whose first victim in this regard was the Senator Rubellius Plautus, sent into exile in 60 CE. He was accompanied by none other than Musonius Rufus, Epictetus’ teacher, who in turn was to be exiled two more times, again by Nero in 65 CE, and sent to the inhospitable Greek island of Gyarus, and then once more around 75 CE by Vespasian, who for good measure expelled all philosophers from Rome (only to be outdone by his son Domitian, who expelled them from the entire Italian peninsula — including Epictetus, thus leading to the establishment of his school in Nicopolis, on the Western coast of Greece).

In 65 CE, still under Nero, it was Epaphroditus, the emperor’s secretary and Epictetus’ master, who denounced both Seneca and his nephew, Lucan, who were then both ordered to commit suicide. As we all well know, Seneca certainly wasn’t a model Stoic, something he readily admitted himself, but in all fairness he was faced with a near impossible situation in trying to reign in the increasingly unhinged Nero.

Barea Soranus, another Stoic teacher, was put on trial in 66 CE, after false accusations made by the Stoic teacher Publius Egnatius Celer. Celer was later openly accused by Musonius Rufus, and as a result fell out of favor with the emperor Vespasian.

That same year it was Thrasea’s turn to be charged with treason and put to death. His crime was one of the earliest recorded campaigns of civil disobedience: he did not attend Senate meetings, refused to take the yearly senatorial oath to the emperor, never sacrificed for the health of the emperor, and excused himself from voting to confer divine honors to Poppaea (the wife Nero killed, apparently accidentally, in a fit of rage), after skipping her funeral.

The above mentioned Paconius was a friend of Thrasea, and so was another Stoic who was sent in exile at the same time, Helvidius Priscus, about whom Epictetus writes:

“When Vespasian sent for Helvidius Priscus and commanded him not to go into the Senate, he replied, ‘It is in your power not to allow me to be a member of the Senate, but so long as I am, I must go in.’ ‘Well, go in then,’ says the emperor, ‘but say nothing.’ ‘Do not ask my opinion, and I will be silent.’ ‘But I must ask your opinion.’ ‘And I must say what I think right.’ ‘But if you do, I shall put you to death.’ ‘When then did I tell you that I am immortal? You will do your part, and I will do mine: it is your part to kill; it is mine to die, but not in fear: yours to banish me; mine to depart without sorrow.’” (Discourses, 1.2.19-21)

Moving forward to 82 CE, Dio Chrysostom — whom we have seen mentioned in the Meditations — who was a Stoic-influenced rhetorician, banished by Domitian. In 93 CE seven more people were brought to trial for insulting the emperor. Three were put to death: Arulenus Rusticus (Junius’ ancestor named earlier), Herennius Senecio, and Helvidius Priscus (the son of the elder Priscus). The Stoic opposition only came to an end with the period of the five so-called good emperors, the last of whom was Marcus. Dio, for instance, returned to Rome under Nerva, the first of the five, and Epictetus had good relations with Hadrian, the third good emperor.

So there is plenty of historical evidence that the Stoics did oppose tyranny and defended the ideal of a society marked by liberty and free speech. Of course this is to be understood within the constraints of the culture of the time. When Cato the Younger opposed Caesar he was thinking of liberty for non slave white males, especially of the higher social classes. And we should not construe people like Priscus and Agrippinus as anything like modern figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. or Nelson Mandela. The point, however, is that the Stoic opposition was not an aberration, but rather the logical consequence of a philosophy counting justice among one of its virtues, and a discipline of prosocial action among its principles.

When I hear modern Stoics emphasizing courage and wisdom, but somehow neglecting social justice, I am therefore dumbfounded. And if I were not a decent practitioner I would get positively irritated by many of our critics who insist that Stoicism counsels passivity in the face of social evils. It does no such thing, so if you are genuinely interested in Stoicism, the question is: are you a member of the Stoic opposition, wherever you are in the world? Because there are plenty of threats to liberty and freedom of speech for us to oppose, at home and abroad.

Stoicism and Emotion, IV: feelings without assent

ship in a storm by Daniel Eskridge

Ship in a storm, by Daniel Eskridge

There is a famous story told by Aulus Gellius, of a Stoic philosopher who finds himself aboard a ship in the midst of a severe storm. While he does not scream or cries, he shows all the outwardly signs of being emotionally disturbed: he is pale, he trembles, and his expression is one of alarm. Once the storm passes, Aulus asks the philosopher how come his Stoicism did not preclude such reactions? Isn’t that what his school teaches? Not at all, responds the philosopher, and gets out his copy of Epictetus’ Discourses, from which he quotes, in part:

“When some terrifying sound occurs, either from the sky or from the collapse of a building or as the sudden herald of some danger, even the wise person’s mind necessarily responds and is contracted and grows pale for a little while, not because he opines that something evil is at hand, but by certain rapid and unplanned movements antecedent to the office of intellect and reason. Shortly, however, the wise person in that situation ‘withholds assent’ from those terrifying mental impressions; he spurns and rejects them and does not think that there is anything in them which he should fear.” (Fragments, IX)

Margaret Graver begins in this way the fourth chapter of her Stoicism and Emotion, which I am commenting on in this series of posts. The idea expressed by Epictetus is crucial to understand the Stoic theory of emotions. The initial mental impression (phantasia, in Greek) is an inevitable component of human affective responses, and the point of Stoic training is certainly not to try to achieve the impossible. The bit that is morally significant is not whether one experiences the impression, but how one reacts to it, and specifically whether one actually judges that there is an evil is at hand. Before that point one has what Graver calls a pre-emotion, a good rendition of the Greek propatheia.

A similar treatment of the emotions is actually found in Aristotle, and — among the early Stoics — in Chrysippus:

“People who are weeping stop, and people weep when they do not want to, when the impressions created by underlying facts are similar, and there is either some impediment or no impediment. For it is reasonable that in such cases [i.e., those of involuntary weeping] something happens similar to the way that the cessation of weeping and lamentation come to pass, but rather in the beginnings of the circumstances bringing about the movement.” (cited in Galen, The Doctrines of Hippocrates and Plato IV.7.16-17)

The point is that the simple fact that people are weeping (or laughing, for that matter) should not be taken to be evidence of a fully formed emotion, because people may start weeping suddenly, in response to an external stimulus, even though they are not actually grieving, or stop weeping when they are distracted by something else, even though they are, in fact, grieving. Proper distress, for the Stoics, is volitional, because it is dependent on judgment.

Margaret observes that this view that feelings sometimes occur in the absence of assent is most fully developed, in the Stoic literature, by Seneca, particularly in On Anger. According to Seneca, anger is a high-level response, which requires not just the impression that an injury has been received, but the additional assent to such impression:

“We hold that anger dares nothing on its own; rather, it comes about with the mind giving its approval. For to gain an impression of injury received, and conceive a desire for revenge, and to link together the two ideas that one ought not to have been wronged and that one ought to take revenge-none of this is characteristic of that impulse that is stirred involuntarily.” (On Anger II.1.4)

Why is this? Because anger, fear, and other emotions depend on our believing certain things. For instance, a person isn’t really angry unless they believe they have been injured in some way: to be angry is to believe that a particular person knowingly did something bad to you which you didn’t deserve. That sort of belief is complicated; it relies on concepts like personhood, intention, and fairness. While some reactions really are involuntary — a rush of adrenalin, as we say, or jumping at a loud noise — it wouldn’t be plausible to say that a truly involuntary reaction can include all of that belief-content. So the Stoics need a lesser term for the kind of reaction that might have some of the physiological characteristics of emotion but doesn’t include the characteristic beliefs. Their word for the lesser reaction is “pre-emotion.” As Graver points out later on, in the course of her lengthy and careful exegesis of Seneca’s On Anger, the crucial distinction to the Stoics is between assent, which is the most crucial function of the rational mind (see here) and the ability to receive impressions, which we share with the rest of the animal world. Indeed, Seneca provides a long and at first sight haphazard list of examples of situations that appear to be anger but are not. What the items on the list have in common is that they are all feelings that do not depend on assent, and for which, therefore, the individual experiencing is not morally responsible. But he is human, so he will experience them just the same:

“For natural faults of body or mind are not removed by any amount of wisdom: what is innate and implanted may be mitigated by treatment, but not overcome. … Some people have lively, energetic blood that rises swiftly to their faces. This is not cast out by any amount of wisdom; if it were, if wisdom could erase all a person’s faults, then wisdom would have nature itself in charge.” (Letters to Lucilius, XI)


“Lest it should seem that what we call virtue strays outside the natural order, the wise person will tremble and feel pain and grow pale, for all these things are feelings of the body.” (Letters to Lucilius, LXXV)

In Letter IC, Seneca even explains that sometimes even the wise person weeps involuntarily, for instance suddenly at a funeral, and at other times voluntarily, when remembering a loved one who passed away. Contra to common misunderstanding in modern times — not to mention popular caricatures of Stoicism — our philosophy is not a magic bullet that will make you invincible, or impervious to the basic feelings associated with the human condition. It is, rather, an attempt to analyze that human condition and to derive best practices for living it in the best way possible that is actually accessible by members of our species.

Margaret’s chapter ends with an interesting discussion of the same concepts as found in the Jewish scholar Philo of Alexandria, as well as in the exegetical writings of the Christian Origen. Philo is concern with the interpretation of Genesis and Exodus in the Old Testament, for instance presenting Abraham as not really mourning Sarah — in the standard sense of the term — but rather behaving a bit like a Stoic sage. His concern, like that of the Stoics, is to explain what Scripture says about Abraham (“he came there to mourn”) in a way that allows Abraham to still be the wisest of all human beings. Similarly, Origen — who was familiar both with Philo and with actual Stoic sources — is concerned with interpreting some apparent emotional reactions displayed by Jesus as propatheia, or pre-emotions. In other words, it won’t do for these two authors to allow a possible interpretation of either Abraham or Jesus as affected by what the Stoics would characterize as unhealthy emotions, hard to reconcile with the wisdom of a prophet and the character of a god. It seems, then, the the concept of pre-emotion was instrumental in allowing the Stoic theory of emotions to be taken seriously by many in the ancient world, including their later rival, the Christians.

Shall the truth make you free? Hinduism, Buddhism, Stoicism, Skepticism and the nature of philosophical inquiry

Sextus EmpiricusWhat is philosophy for? Is it a quest for truth? Is it really the case that the truth shall set us free, as the Bible says (John 8:32), and if so, is philosophy our way to freedom? These and other fascinating questions were asked by Ethan Mills, a philosopher at the University of Tennessee, at a special session on Stoicism and Eastern Philosophies held at the recent meeting of the American Philosophical Association—Eastern Division (Savannah, January 2018). Ethan went through a lot of material, and I only have his handouts and my few notes to attempt to provide the gist of his talk, yet the subject matter is crucial not just for Stoic practitioners, but for anyone interested in philosophy. I shall do my best here, and perhaps Ethan himself will chime in during the discussion.

The talk started with a few examples of a recently popular sport, the gratuitous denigration of philosophy, especially by scientists or science popularizers, and particularly by physicists. I have covered this territory multiple times (e.g., here, here, and here), so there is no reason to get into it again. Ethan poses himself the question of how best to respond to these charges (which may indicate he takes those people a bit too seriously, but then again the question of the value of philosophy ought to be answerable by any decent practitioner of the field). His first pass is a list that includes philosophy as “therapy” (following Martha Nussbaum), or as a way of life (in the words of Pierre Hadot).

Ethan’s thesis is then stated as follows: “While Naiyayikas [a collective term for several Hindu schools of logic and epistemology] and Stoics demonstrate that the concept of philosophy as therapy or as a way of life does not rule out also conceiving of philosophy as a truth-seeking enterprise, ancient skeptics bring into focus the limitations of the truth seeking image, which may be useful today in defending philosophy from its denigrators.”

So the contrast here is between philosophy as therapy / way of life and philosophy as a truth-seeking enterprise. I have argued at book length, however, that — historically — the truth-seeking part of philosophy was natural philosophy, or what is today called science (see also this discussion). The rest of philosophy is more into the business of developing understanding than seeking truth — the two are definitely not the same thing. That is an additional “line of defense” (if one is really needed) against detractors of philosophy, especially of a scientistic bent: philosophy is therapy, a way of life, and a path toward understanding — that ought to be more than good enough to take it seriously. In terms of truth seeking, however, it does not (and need not to) compete with its offspring, science.

After these preliminaries, Ethan got into the meat of his talk, starting with a presentation of the Nyaya position on epistemology. I will provide a couple of quotes, though I must admit that they perfectly exemplify the reason why Eastern philosophy never spoke to me (too prone to riddles and unclear statements), which is why Stoicism felt like such a breadth of fresh air. But of course I realize that this may be in part a matter of taste and personality, and in part a question of cultural upbringing and familiarity with one approach rather than the other.

For instance, Ethan quotes Gautama’s Nyaya Sutra, from circa 200 CE:

“Attainment of the highest good is based on knowledge of the truth of the following: means of knowledge, object of knowledge, doubt, purpose, example, established position, limbs of an inference, speculative reasoning, ascertainment, friendly debate, debate for the purpose of victory, debate without establishing a counter-position, fallacies, quibbling, false rejoinders, and grounds for defeat.”

Now compare Marcus Aurelius, also cited by Ethan:

“Two things are clear: first, I am a part of the universe governed by nature, and second, I am related in some way to other parts like myself. Once I acknowledge this, I shall be content with any role the universe assigns me. … Realizing that I am part of just such a universe, I will calmly accept whatever happens.” (Meditations, X.6)

It sounds from the above like Gautama was indeed (also) in the business of finding truths about the world, and so were the Stoics. As is well known, they developed a three-fold curriculum of study, which included “physics” (i.e., natural science and metaphysics), “logic” (i.e., logic, rhetoric, and psychology), and “ethics” (i.e., the study of how to best live one’s life). The physics and the logic were in the service of the ethics, but were nonetheless respectively in the business of seeking truth about the natural world and of developing good arguments.

Which brings us to the next section of Ethan’s talk, on skepticism, in both its Eastern and Western versions. From the East, the Chinese mystic and philosopher Zhuangzi — one of the founders of Taoism in the IV century BCE — was a skeptic. Here is a quote from him, mentioned by Ethan:

“A fish trap is there for the fish. When you have got hold of the fish, you forget the trap. … Words are there for the intent. When you have got hold of the intent, you forget the words. Where can I find a man who has forgotten words, so I can have a few words with him?”

Not crystal clear? Yeah, to me neither. Nevertheless, Ethan mentioned several other skeptics from the Eastern traditions, including Nagarjuna (an Indian Buddhist philosopher of the II century), Jayarasi (an Indian philosopher of the early IX century), and Sri Harsa (a XII century Indian poet and philosopher).

On the Western side, of course, we have Sextus Empiricus and the philosophy known as Pyrrhonism, a general approach with which the Stoics very much engaged, especially in the form that it took among the so-called Academic Skeptics (such as Cicero). Here is a taste of Sextus:

“Skepticism is an ability to set out oppositions among things which appear and are thought of in any way at all, an ability by which, because of the equipollence in the opposed object and accounts, we come first to suspension of judgment and afterwards to tranquillity. … Suspension of judgment is a standstill of the intellect, owing to which we neither reject nor posit anything. Tranquillity is freedom from disturbance and calmness of soul.” (Pyrrhōneioi hypotypōseis 1.8-10)

By the end of his talk, Ethan had reached the conclusion that both Nyaya and Stoicism demonstrate that pursuing philosophy as therapy / way of life doesn’t rule out philosophy as a truth-seeking enterprise. He asked if a similar idea could work for modern philosophy, and I have already given my negative answer above: two thousand years later, philosophy has deputized the search for truths about the world to science, and even logic is increasingly an independent discipline (though it is mostly still taught in philosophy departments). But this is no reason to deny the value of philosophy beyond therapy and as a way of life (both roles that science certainly cannot claim). That’s because of the huge contribution that philosophy continuously makes to our understanding of how things generally “hang together,” so to speak, what Wilfrid Sellars, one of the best and least known philosophers of the 20th century, conceptualized as the dynamic reconciliation of the “manifest” (i.e., the way things look like to us) and the scientific (i.e., whatever the latest science thinks its true) images of the world.

Indeed, Ethan himself comes close to this conclusion when he acknowledges that the skeptics do have a point, and that their position has survived challenges for more than two millennia. So perhaps modern philosophers should learn their lesson and avoid over-emphasizing the truth seeking aspect of their discipline. In my mind, they should simply avoid it, and leave that sort of business to science. Ethan raises the question of whether the truth seeking image of philosophy encourages the denigration of the field, and the answer is very clearly yes. The likes of physicists Lawrence Krauss and Stephen Hawking, as well as science popularizers such as Neil deGrasse Tyson, are on record as stating that philosophy is useless because it has not contributed to the advancement of scientific knowledge. A statement that is both absolutely true and entirely irrelevant. Like saying that literary criticism, or art history, are useless because they have not advanced our understanding of biology.

Ethan specifically says that he is not claiming that philosophers should give up on the truth seeking image, but I do. It serves no purpose and it distracts us from what we should be doing instead. And what is that? Ethan himself has a partial list for us:

  • Cultivation of cognitive skills (critical thinking, intellectual imagination).
  • Lessening of dogmatism (especially scientific and religious ones, I’d say).
  • Therapeutic aims (mental peace, openness to life, reducing anxiety, cognitive behavioral therapy).
  • Intellectual empathy.
  • Understanding of the history of ideas.
  • Fun! (Indeed!)

Notice, however, that the overwhelming majority of professional philosophers don’t do most of the above, and in fact often positively disdain it. That, more than anything else, may be the root cause of philosophy’s damaged reputation at the onset of the 21st century.

A simple Stoic timeline

Stoicism invented hereIt’s always a good thing to have a sense of the development of ideas, so as to be able to put them in a broader historical and cultural context. This is true, of course, also for philosophies, such as Buddhism or Stoicism. Fortunately, the history of Stoicism is far less complex than that of Buddhism, since it has been “interrupted” during the late Roman Empire, precluding the diversification of schools and approaches that is characteristic of Buddhism. Still, it may be of service to the Stoic community, as well as to curious onlookers, to have available a handy timeline highlighting what I think are the major events and people that have shaped Stoicism throughout the past 23 centuries. That’s what this post, and the two accompanying slides, aim at accomplishing.

The trace origins of what later became Stoicism can be found in the figure of Heraclitus (535-475 BCE), the pre-Socratic philosopher most famous for his discussions of the Logos (a crucial Stoic concept) and his “process metaphysics,” summarized in the phrase “panta rhei” (everything flows). He is referred to by all the major late Stoics, including Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus.

A crucial historical event occurred in 399 BCE, with the death of Socrates. The Stoics explicitly referred to their philosophy as Socratic in nature, and their idea that virtue is the chief good is articulated by Socrates in the Euthydemus.

The Stoics were also influenced by the Cynics, whose philosophy was inspired by Antisthenes (445-365 BCE), and most famously epitomized by Diogenes of Sinope, mentioned with admiration by Epictetus.

In 323 BCE the Greek world is shaken by the death of Alexander (“the Great”), which is followed by the disintegration of his empire and the beginning of the Hellenistic period, during which a number of philosophies, including Stoicism, arise and flourish.

Around 300 BCE Zeno of Citium, a former Phoenician merchant who had studied with the Cynic Crates and several others, begins to teach his own philosophy in the Stoa Poikile (painted porch), an open market in Athens. His followers are initially called Zenonians, but the word Stoics is the one that sticks.

History of Stoicism-1


Chrysippus (279-206 BCE) becomes the third head of the Stoa. He makes huge contributions to logic, among other things, writing a large number of books, listed by Diogenes Laertius, who comments that “but for Chrysippus, there had been no Porch.” (Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers, VII.183)

In 155 BCE another crucial event occurs that likely affected the successive history of philosophy in the ancient world, not just Stoicism: a delegation of three philosophers, including Diogenes of Babylon, the head of the Stoa, arrives in Rome on a diplomatic mission. While there, the philosophers lecture to the public, introducing the Romans to philosophy for the very first time. Reportedly, they enjoy great success and piss off Roman conservative aristocrats, like Cato the Elder.

About seven decades later, in 86 BCE, Athens is sacked by the Roman General Sulla, and it ceases to be the cultural center of reference of the Mediterranean world. This begins a diaspora of philosophers, who transfer their schools to Rhodes, Alexandria of Egypt, and, of course, Rome.

The next important figure is Posidonius (135-151 BCE), a major exponent of the so-called middle Stoa, and teacher of Cicero. I hope to be writing quite a bit more about him eventually, as I’m slowly making my way through his extant fragments.

Cicero (106-43 BCE) himself is a major contributor to the history of Stoicism, even though his allegiance is formally for the Academic Skeptics. He writes abundantly, and generally sympathetically, about Stoicism, including in book III of De Finibus, the Paradoxa Stoicorum, and the Tusculan Disputations.

In 31 BCE Octavian, adoptive son of Julius Caesar, defeats Mark Anthony and Cleopatra at the battle of Actium, which marks the end of the Hellenistic period, the beginning of the Roman Empire, and the onset of the late Stoa.


Seneca the Younger (4 BCE-65 CE) writes by far most of the extant literature on Stoicism, including his famous philosophical letters to his friend Lucilius, the landmark treaties On Anger, and a number of other books.

Several Stoic philosophers are persecuted by Nero, Vespasian, and Domitian, because of their criticisms of the tyranny exercised by these emperors (the so-called Stoic opposition). Twice, in 88/9 and 93/4 CE, Domitian expels all philosophers (not just the Stoics) from Italy.

One of those expelled by Domitian is Epictetus (55-135 CE), a brilliant former slave and student of Musonius Rufus. His most famous student, Arrian of Nicomedia, transcribes Epictetus’ dialogues with his students and visitors, producing what we know as the Discourses and the Enchiridion.

The last great ancient Stoic we know of is the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121-180 CE), who near the end of his life writes a personal diary of philosophical reflections that is referred to today as The Meditations.

At this point we have the first great hiatus (indicated in the second slide by the sundial), as Stoicism declines together with the other Hellenistic schools, replaced by Christianity during the last part of the history of Rome and beyond.

The first resurgence of Stoicism is the result of the efforts of Justus Lipsius (1547-1606), who explicitly forges his Neo-Stoicism as an attempt at reconciling the ancient philosophy with the tenets of Christianity. It does not last long, though it probably influences some major modern philosophers, like Descartes and especially Spinoza.

We then have a second hiatus, until the publication, in 1995, of Pierre Hadot’s Philosophy as a Way of Life. That book is not specifically about Stoicism (though his The Inner Citadel, centered on Marcus Aurelius, certainly is), but puts back on the map the idea that philosophy can, and should, be practical, a sort of therapy for the sane, so to speak. (It is also relevant that some modern psychotherapies, like REBT and CBT, taking holds in the 1960s and ‘70s, are loosely inspired by Stoic teachings.)

In 1998 Larry Becker publishes A New Stoicism, the first serious attempt by a modern scholar to update Stoic philosophy for contemporary life. It is not a “how to” manual, but rather a conceptual analysis and discussion of what form Stoicism might take in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Finally, beginning in 2012, a diverse group of philosophers, cognitive therapists, and others, launches Stoic Week and the associated annual Stoicon, which — together with the publication of accessible books by the likes of Don Robertson, Bill Irvine, John Sellars, and others (including, eventually, yours truly), sets the stage for, and continues to define and reshape, what I call the Fifth Stoa (after the early, middle, late ones, and Neo-Stoicism). And the story continues, Fate permitting…

Stoicism and Emotion, III: vigor and responsibility

Chrysippus from Trajan Markets

Chrysippus, Trajan Markets in Rome, photo by the Author

There is a sense in which emotions are something that happens to us regardless, or indeed in spite of, our will. As Margaret Graver reminds us in the third chapter of her Stoicism and Emotion, this idea of passivity is embedded in the very word the Ancient Greeks used to refer to emotions: pathos, the noun form of the verb paschein, which means to suffer, or to undergo.

Of course, as we have seen so far in the course of our discussion of Graver’s book, the Stoics made quite a big deal of reminding us that full fledged emotions actually include a cognitive component, which means that they are, in a sense, “up to us.” That said, we know that even Chrysippus, the third head of the Stoa, was well aware of the fact that people usually have a hard time controlling their feelings:

“Often, through the same blindness, we bite keys, and beat at doors when they do not open quickly, and if we stumble over a stone we take revenge on it by breaking it or throwing it somewhere, and we say very odd things on all such occasions.” (Chrysippus, cited in Galen, PHP 46.43-45)

Remember that two millennia-old quote the next time you shout at your computer, some things never change… According to Graver, despite the standard Stoic account of emotions which began with Zeno of Citium, Chrysippus was pretty pessimistic about the possibility of controlling them, thinking that once they begin they are for all effective purposes unstoppable. This is an important point to make, because it clearly shows that the Stoics were serious and sophisticated thinkers, and did not espouse the “stiff upper lip” caricature of philosophy that is often nowadays associated with their name.

Nevertheless, there seems to be a serious problem in the contrast between the Zenonian idea that emotions are up to us because they result, in part, from a cognitive judgment, and Chrysippus’ realistic appreciation that it ain’t quite that easy to overcome unhealthy passions. The resolution of this tension lies in the words “in part”: recall that for the Stoics fully formed emotions are the result of an impression, which is not under our control, and a cognitive judgment, which is under our control. These are co-causes of the emotions. The problem is that on the spur of the moment the impression easily overruns the cognitive judgment, as Seneca repeatedly points out in his On Anger:

“For once the mind is stirred into motion, it is a slave to that which is driving it. With some things, the beginnings are in our power, but after that they carry us on by their own force, not allowing a return. Bodies allowed to fall from a height have no control of themselves: they cannot resist or delay their downward course, for the irrevocable fall has cut off all deliberation, all repentance; they cannot help but arrive where they are going, though they could have avoided going there at all.” (On Anger, I.7)

Which means, argues Chrysippus, that the answer lies in a sort of cognitive preemptive action: we need to work on our character, our overall collection of judgments, before a specific impression hits us. As in medicine so in practical philosophy: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure after the fact.

“Stoic thought does not consider the impulsory impression to be the principal cause of an action. It is indeed a cause, but the real cause or reason for the assent is to be found in the agent’s own mental character, where by ‘mental character’ is meant simply the structure and content of one’s own belief set. … Whether assent is given on any particular occasion will thus depend on the nature of the existing mental contents and the sort of standard one uses for recognizing logical fit.”

Margaret at this point discusses Chrysippus’ famous analogy with the combination of internal and external causes that allow a cylinder to roll. I refer the reader to my own summary of that famous Stoic discussion of volition. The bottom line is that two people may be subject to the same impression (say, lust for an attractive potential sexual partner) and arrive at a different fully formed emotion because their characters differ enough that one is inclined to assent to and the other to withhold assent from the initial impression.

Graver then “tests” Stoic, and especially Chrysippean, ideas against several well known examples from Greek mythology. This may seem odd to modern readers, but is, in fact, not very different from the way in which contemporary moral philosophers confront their intuitions about ethical dilemmas by way of constructing thought experiments, sometimes inspired by fictional characters drawn from modern literature. Here, for instance, is how Chrysippus analyzes the famous instance of Menelaus’ reaction to seeing again his wife, Helen, during the final sack of Troy:

“An example is Menelaus as depicted by Euripides. Drawing his sword, he moves toward Helen to slay her, but then, struck by the sight of her beauty, he casts away his sword and is no longer able to control even that. Hence this reproach is spoken to him: ‘You, when you saw her breast, cast down your blade / and took her kiss, fondling the traitor dog.’” (Cited in Galen, PHP 4.6.7-9)

Margaret comments that Menelaus’ passivity is the result of a weakness of reason, not an instance of yielding to a passion that is independent of cognitive assent. Menelaus behaves that way because he suffers from a structural weakness in his belief system, i.e., in his character.

I want to emphasize just how important this is for practical purposes, as far as modern followers of Stoicism are concerned. Too often nowadays Stoicism is brandished as a magic wand, as if one decides to “be” a Stoic and this, ipso facto, guarantees immunity from unhealthy emotions. It doesn’t, and Chrysippus, Seneca, and Epictetus would be astounded that anyone would think so. Stoic training is like training for the Olympics (a metaphor often used by Epictetus): you don’t just decide to be an athlete, start running, and win the race. You have to train, patiently, for years, improving gradually, and suffering setbacks. We are talking real life here, not wishful thinking.

Medea, of course, is another example of a weak structural belief system, often used by the Stoics, who however tended to see that tragic character with compassion, as in Epictetus. Yet another example, again discussed by Chrysippus, is more positive: it refers to an episode of the Odyssey where Odysseus (a standard Stoic role model) has returned home to Ithaca, but has adopted a disguise to study the situation. He is angered by the brazen behavior of the Suitors and the treachery of his own maidservants. But he strikes his own breast and addresses his heart, reminding it to tolerate the offense for now, so not to spoil any realistic chance at justice later on.

Graver devotes a section of chapter 3 of her book to an interesting discussion of how Galen (a known critic of the Stoics, despite being the personal physician of none other than Marcus Aurelius) unfairly characterizes Chrysippus’ ideas, even accusing the third head of the Stoa of misunderstanding Plato’s treatment of the relationship between emotions and reason. She concludes:

“The charge is implausible. What seems more likely is that Galen and his contemporaries did not stop to reflect that their own interpretation of Plato might not be the only viable able reading … [and that] Chrysippus’ approach to mental conflict avoids these difficulties [faced by Plato’s account] while preserving Plato’s central insights about the importance of moral reflection and inner harmony.”

Chapter 3 continues with a fascinating section on the so-called Posidonian objections. Posidonius was a major figure in the middle Stoa, but he is quoted approvingly by Galen against Chrysippus. It’s easy to see why. Posidonius considers a number of objections to the standard Stoic account of emotions. For instance, tears caused by an emotional response to music, where there clearly is no role played by any belief structure, since no words are involved at all. He also takes up the issue of feelings experienced by animals and young children, again situations in which belief systems seem to play no role (animals) or a very limited one (depending on how young a child is). Or consider grief, which decreases over time, even though, presumably, the belief that co-causes it in the first place, remains intact (it is still a bad thing that my grandfather died, even though it happened decades ago).

Margaret argues that it is implausible that Posidonius meant these objections as insurmountable for the Stoics — as Galen believes — or else he would simply not have been regarded as a major exponent of the Stoic school. Rather, Posidonius considered the objections in questions out of intellectual honesty, as they ought to be confronted by any system that puts cognition and volition at the center of its account of emotions:

“It will help to clarify the import of Chrysippus’ position, then, if we pause to consider how a philosopher of his commitments might reply to the objections raised by Posidonius. This is more than a thought exercise, for on several points there is evidence suggesting that the older philosopher had already advanced at least the beginnings of a position, and on others we know how later admirers of Chrysippus handled similar problems.”

The first line of defense, then, is the realization that Stoic philosophy does not need to deny the existence of feelings in the absence of judgment. In fact, the Stoics recognized that both animals and young children do have affective responses, arguing however that these resemble, but are not the same, as a human adult’s affective response (which is always mediated by cognitive judgment). Indeed, it would actually be problematic to propose too sharp a distinction between young and adult human beings, or between humans and other animals, because then one would not have any account of how character develops over time.

Another way to respond to the Posidonian objections is that phenomena like the tears caused by a particularly moving piece of music are propatheiai, not fully formed emotions (“pre-emotions,” as Graver calls them), precisely because they lack a cognitive component. In this case, they lack it because it simply cannot be developed, given that the impression is caused by a stimulus that has no cognitive content.

What about the observation that grief diminishes over time? Recall that grief, like any fully formed passion, is the result of two co-causes: the impression and our assent to it. Margaret points out that we change our assessment of the import of certain events over time, to which one could add that the strength of the impression will also naturally change with time. Since both co-causes of grief are liable to change, then it is no surprise that grief itself does too.

Moreover, the “pathetic syllogism,” which we have discussed last time, should not be taken in the spirit of a modern scientific account of emotions, but rather as describing the ethical aspects of emotional responses, which is what Stoic philosophy is concerned with in the first place. The Stoics are interested in exploring the nature of character and the boundaries of ethical responsibility, in a way similar to a notion proposed by Robert Solomon in his “On the Passivity of the Passions,” quoted by Graver:

“The truth is, we are adults. We must take responsibility for what we do and what we feel. … Arguing as I have amounts to nothing less than insisting that we think of ourselves as adults instead of children, who are indeed the passive victims of their passions.”

Margaret further comments to the effect that Stoic psychological ethics is even more realistic and nuanced than Solomon’s:

“On the same [i.e., Stoic] school’s realistic understanding of ordinary mental capacities, however, it would be truer to say we are in the process of becoming adults: our intellectual and moral characteristics are always to be compared with that normative conception of human nature which is the endpoint of personal growth and development.”

We are all prokoptontes and prokoptousai, i.e., we are — hopefully — making progress, but we are not quite there yet.

Which leads me to the final section of chapter 3, on the Stoic meaning of “freedom.” For the Stoics freedom means to be able to do what we want to do, and not to have to do what we don’t want to do — thus distancing their treatment from esoteric, and ultimately sterile, discussions about the metaphysics of “free will,” grounding their approach instead in what Wilfrid Sellars, two millennia later called the “manifest image” of the world. It follows, then, that someone is not free if his affective responses get in the way of what he wants to do, as was the case for Medea and Menelaus, but not Odysseus.

Graver reminds us that even the Stoic Sage is likely to experience strong feelings. The difference between a Sage and the rest of us is that she always experiences the right feelings:

“An awareness of having done the right thing should evoke not just a mild satisfaction but real, deep joy. The thought of abusing a child should be met with more than unwillingness: aversion should go off like an air-raid siren that arrests one’s very being.”

In a sense, then, only the Sage is truly free, but, as Margaret puts it at the very end of the chapter, “we are unfree only because we are at variance with ourselves.”

Heraclitus, the weeping philosopher

Heraclitus and Democritus

crying Heraclitus and laughing Democritus, from a 1477 Italian fresco, Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan

The Stoics referred to themselves as “Socratic,” thus publicly acknowledging the direct connection between their philosophy and the one developed by the Athenian sage. For instance, the idea that wisdom if the chief good — because it is the only thing that is always good, and in fact the one that allows us to use other things (such as wealth, education, etc.) well — is defended by Socrates in the Euthydemus.

But the Stoics were also greatly influenced, especially in their metaphysics, by one of the most mysterious pre-Socratic philosophers: Heraclitus of Ephesus. Much of what we know of Heraclitus is from Diogenes Laertius (at the beginning of book IX of the Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers). Diogenes tells us that “Heraclitus, [who was the] son of Bloson or, according to some, of Heracon, was a native of Ephesus. He flourished in the 69th Olympiad,” i.e., around 504-501 BCE. We are told that he lived until the age of 60, probably dying of dropsy.

Apparently, Heraclitus was a bit of a misanthrope, not liking either the Athenians or his own fellow Ephesians. Diogenes says that “he would retire to the temple of Artemis and play at knuckle-bones with the boys; and when the Ephesians stood round him and looked on, ‘Why, you rascals,’ he said, ‘are you astonished? Is it not better to do this than to take part in your civil life?’” This enmity was the result of the fact that the Ephesians banished a friend of Heraclitus, Hermodorus, whom he considered “the worthiest man among them.”

Heraclitus was born into an aristocratic family, and actually abdicated his right to be king in favor of his brother (though he would have been “king” within the limits imposed by the Persian empire, of which Ephesus was part at the time). He educated himself through a sort of self-applied Socratic inquiry, and when he was young claimed — like Socrates later on — not to know anything (though, unlike Socrates, he later believed to have learned a lot).

His major work was apparently entitled On Nature, and it consisted of three parts, devoted to the nature of the universe, politics, and theology. His writings were not very clear, apparently on purpose. Diogenes tells us that “he deliberately made it the more obscure in order that none but adepts should approach it, and lest familiarity should breed contempt.” This is consistent with a saying that Diogenes attributes to Heraclitus: “Much learning does not teach understanding.” This confusion between (rote) learning and actual understanding, or between knowledge and wisdom, is very much alive today, unfortunately, though I don’t prescribe obfuscatory writing as a cure…

It is probably because of the difficulty of his writings that he was variously referred to as “the riddler” (by Timon of Phlius) and “the dark” (or the obscure one) by Cicero. Curiously, Heraclitus was also referred to as the weeping philosopher, and often contrasted in that respect with another pre-Socratic, Democritus, referred to as the laughing philosopher. Interestingly, Seneca — one of several Stoics who mentions Heraclitus — says:

“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.” (On Tranquillity of Mind, XV)

There are several obvious influences of Heraclitus on the Stoics. To begin with, he was among the first known authors to talk about the Logos, and “the idea that all things come to pass in accordance with this Logos.” There may have been also a connection with the famous Stoic notion of living according to nature: “it is necessary to follow what is common. But although the Logos is common, most people live as if they had their own private understanding.” This sounds a lot like the idea that we should live by following our nature and the nature of the cosmos, developed already by the early Stoics, contrasted with the notion that most people don’t realize this — which necessitates Stoic training, of the type for instance offered by Epictetus.

Heraclitus identified the Logos with the fire, the generative principle of the cosmos, and interestingly, the early Christians also adopted the Heraclitean Logos, incorporating it into their theology. In particular, Hippolytus, in the III century, identified it with the Christian Word of God.

In terms of ethics, Heraclitus famously said that “character is fate,” a phrase that has been interpreted in a variety of ways, but generally as meaning that character is the most important aspect of a person, what sets us apart from other animals. Needless to say, the Stoics built their entire philosophy of life on the concept of character and the possibility of its improvement through the practice of the cardinal virtues.

Perhaps the most famous of Heraclitus’ utterances is panta rhei, everything flows, or “ever-newer waters flow on those who step into the same rivers,” rendered also as “everything changes and nothing remains still … you cannot step twice into the same stream.” In this respect too Heraclitus is opposed to Democritus: the latter espoused an ontology of objects, forerunner of what nowadays in philosophy is referred to as substance metaphysics. Heraclitus’ approach, by contrast, eventually led to the modern, currently cutting edge, process metaphysics. It is possible to see similarities between the concept of panta rhei and the Buddhist doctrine of impermanence, and the image of the flowing river recurs also in the 13th century Japanese tale of Hōjōki — which in fact refers to Buddhist impermanence.

Heraclitus was influential on Plato (who, however, vehemently disagreed with his doctrines), the Christians, and, most germane to us here, the Stoics. Anthony Long points out the fact that the pre-Socratic is often mentioned by Marcus Aurelius, for instance here:

“Remember Heraclitus: ‘When earth dies, it becomes water; water, air; air, fire; and back to the beginning.’ ‘Those who have forgotten where the road leads.’ ‘They are at odds with what is all around them’ — the all-directing Logos. And ‘they find alien what they meet with every day.’ ‘Our words and actions should not be like those of sleepers’ (for we act and speak in dreams as well) ‘or of children copying their parents’ — doing and saying only what we have been told.” (Meditations, IV.46)

But we find him also in Epictetus, who actually connects Heraclitus with the close philosophical kins of the Stoics, the Cynics:

“Remember that you should behave in life as you do at a banquet. Something is being passed around and arrives in front of you: reach out your hand and take your share politely. It passes: don’t try to hold it back. It has yet to reach you: don’t project your desire towards it, but wait until it arrives in front of you. … For it was by acting in such a way that Diogenes [the Cynic], and Heraclitus, and others like them, deservedly became divine and were called so.” (Enchiridion, XV)

Stoic Q&A: the four virtues

The four virtuesI was planning on writing a post on the definitions of the four cardinal Stoic virtues: practical wisdom (or prudence), justice, courage, and temperance, because discussions (and confusion) often arise about them among people interested in modern Stoicism. But Don Robertson beat me to it, and he has done such an excellent job (here) that it would be futile for me to repeat or trying to improve on his effort. (However, this post of mine may be useful; also, a good Wiki summary is here; and here are Plato’s Definitions of philosophical terms, a little known but very useful resource.)

Nonetheless, because the topic is so crucial, I am transcribing the definitions below, from Don’s post, for easy consultation by my readers. I refer you to Don’s commentary for in-depth explanations. As he points out, other than Plato’s Dictionary, the pertinent sources are the Stoic fragments from Diogenes Laertius and from Stobaeus; modern commentaries are found in Pierre Hadot’s Inner Citadel and Anthony Long’s Epictetus: A Stoic and Socratic Guide to Life. (Below, boldface indicates the bits that are particularly relevant to Stoicism.)

Phronêsis (prudence/practical wisdom)

The ability which by itself is productive of human happiness; the knowledge of what is good and bad; the knowledge that produces happiness; the disposition by which we judge what is to be done and what is not to be done.

Dikaiosynê (justice/morality)

The unanimity of the soul with itself, and the good discipline of the parts of the soul with respect to each other and concerning each other; the state that distributes to each person according to what is deserved; the state on account of which its possessor chooses what appears to him to be just; the state underlying a law-abiding way of life; social equality; the state of obedience to the laws.

Sôphrosynê (temperance/moderation)

Moderation of the soul concerning the desires and pleasures that normally occur in it; harmony and good discipline in the soul in respect of normal pleasures and pains; concord of the soul in respect of ruling and being ruled; normal personal independence; good discipline in the soul; rational agreement within the soul about what is admirable and contemptible; the state by which its possessor chooses and is cautious about what he should.

Andreia (fortitude/courage)

The state of the soul which is unmoved by fear; military confidence; knowledge of the facts of warfare; self-restraint in the soul about what is fearful and terrible; boldness in obedience to wisdom; being intrepid in the face of death; the state which stands on guard over correct thinking in dangerous situations; force which counterbalances danger; force of fortitude in respect of virtue; calm in the soul about what correct thinking takes to be frightening or encouraging things; the preservation of fearless beliefs about the terrors and experiences of warfare; the state which cleaves to the law.

BONUS I: Aretê (virtue/excellence)

The best disposition; the state of a mortal creature which is in itself praiseworthy; the state on account of which its possessor is said to be good; the just observance of the laws; the disposition on account of which he who is so disposed is said to be perfectly excellent; the state which produces faithfulness to law.

BONUS II: Eu̯dai̯monía (“happiness”/fulfillment)

The good composed of all goods; an ability which suffices for living well; perfection in respect of virtue; resources sufficient for a living creature.

Stoic advice: I’ve not been careful with someone else’s health


Galen, Marcus Aurelius’ physician

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

[Note: this post is part of a special one-week marathon of Stoic advice, which is made necessary by the sheer volume of requests I keep receiving. If you have written and I haven’t gotten to your letter yet, please be patient. If you are interested in the other features of this blog, we’ll resume regular programming next week…]

R. writes: I recently met a woman who I like and feel attracted to. The problem is that I contracted a skin condition that is highly contagious (nothing serious, it usually goes away on its own, but is pretty unaesthetic because it causes wart-like lesions). In spite of knowing that I had one of these lesions close to my lips, I kissed her, and therefore maybe spread the infection to her skin. I’ve since confessed this to her and made it clear that I will take care of the medical expenses in case she gets a confirmed diagnosis of the condition (removal of the lesions is pretty uncomfortable and costly). Apparently, she has since forgiven me or not taken the matter as seriously as I do (I infer this because we keep seeing each other). A friend told me that since the condition is harmless I have done nothing serious.

I cannot help but think that although her health is not compromised, I have unnecessarily caused her an annoying and bothersome predicament, all because I could not contain my impulses. The fact that she has a child and may spread the infection to him only makes my guilt worse. Also, the possibility of having lost a significant romantic relationship it’s something that creeps up my mind from time to time.

Obviously, I will have to abstain from physical intimacy with other people until my immune system manages to get rid of the infection. In the worst case, these could take four years. I believe the Stoic thing to do is to accept that I have no control over how long this could take, and learn from this to prevent harming others in the future. Actually, I think I’ve learned a significant moral lesson here: I used her as a means to gain momentary pleasure and I paid for it with my integrity. So I might as well use this obstacle as a way to strengthen my moral fiber.

From now on, it seems there is not much to do besides offering her all my support and friendship. And I use here the word friendship as opposed to the romantic relationship which I wished for and which my bad luck has deprived me of (I conceive romantic relationships to be defined by physical intimacy, but maybe there’s a broader experience to them). You may think I have figured out how to proceed but I’m having trouble dealing with the anxiety of losing her (as if it would be just to ask her to wait for me to get cured) Any Stoic advice that you could add would be really helpful! 

Well, you seem to me to have, in fact, figured out exactly what happened and why, and moreover how to move forward with it. The fact that you still feel anxiety at the prospect of losing this woman is natural and probably unavoidable. Seneca acknowledges that even the wise person is bound to experience feelings, since he is still a human being:

“For natural faults of body or mind are not removed by any amount of wisdom: what is innate and implanted may be mitigated by treatment, but not overcome. … This is not cast out by any amount of wisdom; if it were, if wisdom could erase all a person’s faults, then wisdom would have nature itself in charge.” (Letter XI)

“For there are some things, dear Lucilius, that no amount of virtue can escape: nature gives the virtuous a reminder of their own mortality. So they will change expression at sad events, and shudder at sudden events, and grow dizzy when looking down from a great height. This is not fear, but a natural affect which cannot be assailed by reason.” (Letter LVII)

“I come now to the point you are expecting from me. Lest it should seem that what we call virtue strays outside the natural order, the wise person will tremble and feel pain and grow pale, for all these things are feelings of the body.” (Letter LXXI)

As I have pointed out elsewhere, philosophy is not a magic wand, it can’t cure us of all unpleasant emotions, it just provides us with good tools to deal with such emotions. But that’s far from a negligible thing!

All of the above said, let me point out a couple of things that stand out to me from your narrative. First off, don’t pay attention to your friend, the one who minimizes the import of what you did. The fact that — luckily — the condition does not have major consequences (though, as you say, it is costly and painful to take care of, which counts to me like significant consequences) is irrelevant. The point is that you have violated the trust of a person you care about because you were incapable of denying assent to certain impressions, as the Stoics would say, and because you were not sufficiently courageous to be upfront with her.

I’m not writing this to make you feel bad, nor to condemn you. I’m trying to be helpful, and it isn’t my place to pass judgment on 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 45)

I am, rather, describing what happened from a neutral, yet Stoically-informed, perspective. While there is no point in indulging in regret and self-pity, there is a point in learning from one’s past mistakes, which in turn requires to clearly see certain actions as mistakes, resisting the temptation to minimize them, regardless of the advice of a well intentioned friend.

Second, you seem ambivalent about the future of your relationship with this woman. You fear that any chance at romance is lost, yet you say that she seems to have forgiven you. Then again, you appear to blame your condition for not being able to continue the relationship. My advice here is to practice both the (highly interrelated) virtues of courage and justice: talk openly to this woman. Ask her if she is still willing to pursue a romantic relationship with you, taking of course proper precautions about your condition (including, if need be, an abstention from physical contact for whatever time is necessary). I don’t see the point of torturing yourself with doubt, really. Her answer is outside of your control, and of course you will have to accept it, whatever it is. But asking, honestly and straightforwardly, is most definitely within your power. So what on earth are you waiting for?

Finally, I am sympathetic to your resolve to use the experience, and your endurance of the condition for an open ended period of time, as a way to practice your Stoic philosophy. Just so long as you don’t fall into the temptation of transforming this into a Christian-like exercise in self flagellation. Stoic humility and willingness to learn are a good thing, but there is no such thing as Stoic expiation of sins.

Stoic advice: I’ve done terrible things, now what?

Cato the Younger

Cato the Younger, a real Stoic role model

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

[Note: this post is part of a special one-week marathon of Stoic advice, which is made necessary by the sheer volume of requests I keep receiving. If you have written and I haven’t gotten to your letter yet, please be patient. If you are interested in the other features of this blog, we’ll resume regular programming next week…]

[Please note that this letter is heavily excerpted and somewhat redacted, because the original was too long and full of delicate personal details.]

F. writes: As a young child growing up in my African community, I was indoctrinated religiously into a Christian environment. But for as long as I could remember, I started crossing moral boundaries early on. I lied and stole in my parent’s house. I got worse when I left my parents house for junior high school at a boarding school. There I met an older student who I looked up to as my role model. I walked with him, studied with me, and stayed in the same hostel with him. And because he was the smartest in the school, I looked up to him and imbibed every one of his habits. My stealing habit stepped up because he too stole and I often accompanied him whenever he was doing his stealing. 

I did so many other immoral things — and they are hunting me now in the form of guilt. I stole in high school continuously, and coerced a young kid to steal his parents’ money for me. I cheated on exams in high school, was a pathological liar, and an harasser. But since March of 2015, I am developing ethically, even though I still fail sometimes, but not as badly as in my previous life. What can I do to erase all the guilt?

What do you think about reparation? Do you advice that I go ahead and set up a scholarship type of fund in my high school? The three young girls I molested, what do you think is the best way to show them that I am really sorry? How about the young boy I bullied, what do you think I can do for him? What can I do in cases where I cannot find my victim anymore? And to those I have lied to, what do you think I can do… go and apologize to them? Now, I am known as a good person, but within me, I am filled with guilt for my past. I told myself I do not deserve a wife or children because of what I made those little girls and boys go through. The term paper I bought, do you advise that I tell the professor even after she gave me an A in the class? What about the testing center I cheated at, do I have to send an apology letter to the office? I also cheated on my high school leaving certificate exam, should I return the certificate? I am confused. But I want to correct all the past mistakes as much as I can now by doing greater good and trying to live morally and practice Stoicism. Is reparation a good idea, and apology to those I have lied to?

Okay, this is a pretty big mess you made, apparently over many years. Some important details are not clear to me — despite the length of your letter. For instance, were you a minor when you abused those girls and that boy? And what sort of abuse are we talking about (that word is a bit too vague, generally speaking)? That makes a difference, both ethically and legally. It is also not clear at all what happened back in 2015. What, exactly, made you change your behavior so sharply? Finally, it sounds like you have a good reputation and some financial means now; did all of that accrue within the past couple of years?

Despite these crucial missing information, let me begin with your last question: is reparation a good idea, as well as an apology to those you have lied to? Yes, of course both apologies and reparations are a good starting point, not just to those you lied to, but those you stole from and those you abused. A Stoic would say you have a duty here to face up to your past deeds. Of course, this should not be done just to make you feel better, or assuage your guilt, but simply because it is the right thing to do.

The things you did fall into a number of categories, and they are certainly not equivalent from an ethical standpoint. Stealing change from your parents, or milk from a schoolmate (in a part of the letter not reported above) is relatively minor, especially when done at an early age when your character is not really formed. Cheating and lying on exams, over a prolonged period of time, and with major long-term consequences, is definitely worse. There is also the harassment and bullying you have perpetrated (pending the ascertaining of what, exactly, we are talking about). For those cases especially,  ask for psychological counseling first, immediately. Talk to your therapist, and then consider reporting yourself to the authorities so that justice proceedings may be initiated, as a way to keep yourself accountable. If that sounds unhelpful, then seek an “accountability buddy” to keep you on your toes. It is difficult to be a good prokopton on your own, under this sort of circumstances.

It certainly doesn’t seem right to me — Stoically or not — that you currently enjoy a good reputation and moreover are apparently taking material advantage of some of your misdeeds. The universe isn’t going to fix things for all the people you have wronged, you have to do it, if you aspire to truly overcome the person you were and become a better version of yourself.

That said, I’m not here to judge you. I am in no position to do so with anyone, really, as Epictetus colorfully reminds us:

“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 45)

And he applies the same logic not just to minor things, like bathing and drinking, but to major crimes:

“‘So how can Medea say, I know that what I intend to do is bad , But anger is master of my plans?’ Because she regarded this very thing, the gratification of her anger and exacting of vengeance against her husband, as being more beneficial than keeping her children safe. ‘Yes, but she is mistaken.’ Show her clearly that she is mistaken and she won’t follow that course; but as long as you haven’t shown it, what else can she do than follow what seems best to her? Nothing else.” (Discourses I.28.7-8)

It sounds as you, like Medea, suffer from a profound case of amathia, the sort of lack of wisdom that causes people to commit evil out of “ignorance.” I don’t know enough about your upbringing to see who failed you, but someone certainly did. You were not provided with a good moral compass, so you ended up choosing a clearly bad role model, contra to what Seneca suggests we do:

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

It is painfully obvious that the friend you looked up to was neither a Cato nor a Laelius, and following him made things much worse for you, as well as for those unfortunate ones who have been affected by your behavior after that fateful choice.

Stoicism is a very forgiving, and self forgiving, philosophy. There is no point in morally condemning you for what you have done in the past, nor is there any point for you to wallow in guilt. The past is no longer under your control (or mine). But your present judgments and actions certainly are, and that means three things: (i) learn from your past and vow to be a better person, right now; (ii) see what sort of amends can be done to help the people you have harmed; and (iii) summon enough courage to face whatever legal consequences there may be from your actions. A better you does not get started by making excuses and dodging consequences, but by rising up to do your Stoic duty.


Postscript: I have followed up with the author of the letter, investigating exactly what type of “abuse” he was talking about. It was rather minor, in all cases, and the writer was a child at the time. So I have strongly advised him not to go to the authorities, but still told him to seek therapy.

I am also increasingly convinced that the pushback against going to the authorities — even in far more serious cases — is actually on the right track, given that the justice system in most countries is geared toward punishment, not rehabilitation. Punishment is definitely not a Stoic goal. I do, however, remain convinced of the usefulness of an “accountability buddy,” so to speak, as it is too easy for all of us to rationalize that we’ve done good enough and just move on.