Wednesday, 25 November 2015

The Stoic Worldview


First posted on the Stoicism Today blog. Now published in Stoicism Today: Selected Writings II (2016).

In my workshop at Stoicon 2015 I talked about Stoic physics and about its relationship with what we would today call religion and science. My aim was simply to try to give participants a sense of the broader ‘Stoic worldview’ beyond their practical advice about how to live well.

I Bodies

The Stoics begin with the claim that only bodies exist (Cicero, Acad. 1.39). Everything that exists is a physical thing. Anything that has any kind of causal power must ultimately be a physical body. So, if the Stoics claim that virtue impels us to act, for instance, and so has some causal power, then virtue must be a body. And they think it is: virtue is an excellent mental state, i.e. the physical soul organized in an optimal way. Closely connected to this claim that only bodies exist, the Stoics reject the existence of universals (i.e. Plato’s Ideas or Forms). Only particulars exist. So when they talk of ‘virtue’ they are not talking about some general concept or abstract ideal, which doesn’t exist, but rather about specific virtuous actions or specific optimal brain states. (Talk of brain states might sound anachronistic but it is pretty much what they have in mind.)

II Breath

They go on to claim that all bodies are composed of two principles or aspects: matter and ‘breath’ (pneuma) (Diog. Laert. 7.134). Matter is passive; breath is active. Breath is what makes things alive, and because everything is composed of both matter and breath, everything is alive. Breath comes in a variety of degrees of ‘tension’ (tonos) and the greater the tension the more complex the object. Inanimate objects such as stones have the lowest level of tension; living things such as plants have a higher degree; animals with the powers of sensation and movement are higher again; adult humans with rationality have the highest degree of tension. The higher the tension of the breath, the more complex the living organism will be (see Philo, in Long-Sedley 1987, 47P-Q). An important point here is that there is no difference in kind between a stone and a human being, only a difference in tension of breath (we might say a difference in internal organization or structural complexity; A.A. Long once proposed ‘wave-length’ as a way of thinking about this).

III Nature and God

The physical world, Nature as a whole, is a continuum and is infinitely divisible; the divisions between physical objects are to an extent only relative. Ultimately there is just one physical thing, Nature, of which we are all parts. The breath that structures and animates all of Nature the Stoics call ‘God’. Some sources say God is the breath, the soul of the world, just as the breath in our bodies is our soul. Other sources identify God with Nature as a whole, with the breath being his soul and the matter his body (the difference is between God being an animating force within Nature or simply being Nature). So, Nature is a living organism comprised of a soul and a body, breath and matter, and because, by definition, there is nothing greater than this, it, if anything is, must be God. On either view, we are fragments of God. If God is the world soul, the breath animating all of Nature, then the breath that animates us, our soul, is simply one part of that.

IV How Religious?

It is difficult to know how serious this talk of ‘God’ was. The early Stoic Cleanthes appears very sincere in his ‘Hymn to Zeus’, for instance, and we have no reasons to doubt his sincerity. However the Stoics were also well known for offering allegorical interpretations of the pagan Gods, including allegorical interpretations of the portraits of the Gods in Homer for instance. Famously, the Stoic Chrysippus once said that Zeus and his wife Hera are actually the active and passive principles in Nature, breath and matter. (In one source, Diog. Laert. 7.147, divine names for Nature are explained on the basis of their etymology.) Much later, in the third century AD, the philosopher Plotinus said that the Stoics bring in God into their philosophy only for the sake of appearances (Enn. 6.1.27). If ‘God’ is simply another name for Nature then it doesn’t really do much work in their philosophy; it doesn’t add or explain anything, so one might easily drop the word without any obvious loss. However the idea of a divine breath permeating Nature would later influence the Christian idea of a Holy Spirit (pneuma), and then would be interpreted by Church Fathers and others looking to harmonize Stoicism with Christianity right through to the seventeenth century. Perhaps that afterlife gives Stoic accounts of pneuma stronger religious overtones than they originally had. It is very hard to know. But again, Cleanthes’ Hymn appears quite sincere.

V How Scientific?

When the Stoics developed this idea of the soul as breath permeating the body they were doing so in dialogue the science of their day. In the image they give of the human soul comprised of a commanding centre with tentacles spreading pneuma (breath) throughout the body was inspired in part by the work of early anatomists (esp. Praxagoras; also Erasistratus) who were cutting open bodies and finding arteries and nerves. Chrysippus located the commanding centre of the soul in the chest (following Praxagoras), which of course contains the heart and arteries leading off it that spread through the entire body. (Praxagoras thought that arteries were pipes also connected to the lungs, carrying pneuma.) A later Stoic disagreed with Chrysippus and said the commanding centre of the soul was in the head, which of course contains the brain with nerves leading off it spreading through the entire body. This shift in position may well have been prompted by further observations (i.e. dissections): the distinction between arteries and nerves was still unclear in Chrysippus’ day and he commented that the scientific evidence was only tentative and one ought to wait for further discoveries. The important point to make here is that all this talk of a soul pervading and animating the body was actually part of a first step towards developing an account of the brain and nervous system. As crude as it may have been, this was a theory based on the cutting-edge scientific knowledge of the day.

VI Some Concluding Comments

The Stoics give us arguments for why we ought to think that Nature is rational, alive, and intelligent. We have those properties, nothing without those properties can give birth to something with them; therefore they must be properties of Nature (Cicero, Nat. D 2.22). (There are philosophers of mind today who continue to argue against the claim that consciousness could be an emergent property.) The Stoics then call this living Nature ‘God’. If Nature (or the Cosmos) encompasses everything, and if only bodies exist, and if God is something than which there is nothing greater, then it looks as if God must be identified with Nature. God cannot be anything lesser than Nature and cannot be anything outside Nature. However it remains difficult to know how seriously we ought to take this: is it a devout pantheism (you really ought to worship Nature), simply a deflationary use of language (when you say ‘God’ what you really mean is Nature), or a cautious pragmatism (rather than deny the existence of God, let’s call Nature ‘God’)? We do know the Stoics repeatedly engaged with (what we would now call) the science of their day: Chrysippus drew on the anatomist Praxagoras, the Stoic Posidonius studied botany and geology, a later Stoic, Cleomedes, wrote on astronomy, and Seneca wrote not just his ethical works but also his Natural Questions (on meteorology). The Stoics wanted to understand Nature because Nature taken as a whole is the greatest thing there is and we are parts of it. They aspired to a ‘smooth flow of life’, which they defined as a life in harmony with Nature, something that will require at least some appreciation of how Nature works. Whether we choose also to call Nature ‘God’ or ‘Zeus’ or ‘Gaia’ is perhaps less important.

Monday, 9 November 2015

What is a Stoic? Some Historical Reflections


A couple of quite different projects I have been working on recently have required me to have a view about how to define a Stoic. Here are some thoughts. Some of this material comes from my introduction to The Routledge Handbook of the Stoic Tradition. It is also posted on the Stoicism Today blog.

What is a Stoic? Who counts (or counted) as a Stoic? One might think the best way to answer these questions would be to point to a core set of doctrines and say that anyone who holds or held those doctrines is or was a Stoic. Alternatively one might focus on following Stoic guidance, living a Stoic life; someone who does this is a Stoic.

Who counted as a Stoic in antiquity? There are problems with trying to follow the ‘core set of doctrines’ approach. Even in its original incarnation in Athens, Stoicism was not a fixed set of doctrines adopted by unthinking disciples. The Hellenistic Stoics were philosophers and, like all philosophers, were prone to argue among themselves. The Roman Stoic Seneca famously said “we Stoics are not subjects of a despot; each of us lays claim to his own freedom” (Ep. 33.4). Some scholars have tried to downplay this remark, suggesting that as a rule members of all the Hellenistic schools had a strong sense of loyalty to the school’s founder, in this case Zeno of Citium.

Zeno founded the “school” in Athens around 300 BCE, after having studied with the Cynic Crates, the Megarian Stilpo, and Polemo in Plato’s Academy (Diog. Laert. 7.2). It was not Zeno but, so the story goes, the school’s third head Chrysippus of Soli who really developed Stoicism into a systematic body of thought. Chrysippus is reported to have written some 705 books (7.180). As Diogenes Laertius put it, “if there had been no Chrysippus, there would have been no Stoa” (7.183). However the idea of a philosophy as an abstract system of thought is very much a modern one, gaining currency in the eighteenth century, even if the Stoics did emphasize the unity of their own philosophy (see e.g. Diog. Laert. 7.41-3). How unified Chrysippus’s “philosophy” was remains an open question. One of our most important sources is the later Platonist Plutarch who quotes seemingly contradictory passages from works by Chrysippus in order to show the contradictions inherent in Stoicism. Yet it is almost impossible to judge Plutarch’s claims when the quotations are all out of their original context. Contradictory passages might come from works written decades apart, for instance. If Chrysippus was the great philosopher many in antiquity claimed him to be then surely he could have developed his views and changed his mind over time. There may never have been a single unified thing that we could call “Chrysippus’s philosophy” consistently maintained over 705 books, even if some subsequent Stoics may have tried to summarize that vast output.

In the ancient world and for a long time after, histories of philosophy were written as histories made up of philosophers, not philosophies, with those philosophers grouped into schools. The story of the Hellenistic Stoa is above all a story about a series of individual philosophers who self-identified as “Stoics”. Initially this reflected the fact that the founding members of the school met at a particular place, the Painted Stoa on the northern edge of the Agora in Athens, but over time came to reflect a commitment to a shared set of philosophical views. (It is worth noting that Zeno’s earliest followers called themselves “Zenonians”, only adopting the name “Stoics” later on (see Diog. Laert. 7.5). The change perhaps reflected a desire not to be bound by the doctrines of the founder.) Even so, as Seneca’s comment highlights, the Hellenistic Stoics did not agree upon everything and we have numerous reports of later Stoics disagreeing with the supposedly orthodox Stoic view on one topic or another. Well-known examples include Aristo of Chios on the distinction between different types of “indifferents” (Diog. Laert. 7.160) and Boethus of Sidon on the cosmos being a living being (7.143). These both look like central Stoic doctrines, yet neither of these Stoics felt compelled to leave the school and they were not forced out by those they disagreed with either. Aristo is forever labelled a “heterodox Stoic” but the fact remains he did remain a Stoic, and didn’t run off to become a Cynic.

We might wonder whether there was indeed a core set of philosophical views to which all Stoics subscribed, or simply a set of philosophical family resemblances that meant no one doctrine was sacrosanct, or perhaps just an ever-developing tradition of thought that happened to be able to trace a line of succession back to Zeno’s gatherings at the Painted Stoa. However one might try to answer that question, the point I would like to make here is that the Hellenistic Stoa was itself a developing tradition of thought, founded by Zeno, strongly identified with Chrysippus, but embracing a wide range of other philosophers too, from Aristo and Cleanthes to Panaetius and Posidonius. In traditional accounts Panaetius and Posidonius are presented as so-called “Middle Stoics”, heterodox and eclectic when compared with their predecessors. The extent to which Posidonius, for instance, was heterodox has been challenged in recent years, but even if he were, the preceding variety and dispute within the school would not make him out of place. (To repeat: this is what philosophers do, they argue among themselves!) Even in the Hellenistic period, then, Stoicism was a rich and diverse movement, a complex living tradition.

The living tradition of masters and pupils who could trace their lineage back to Zeno was over by the end of the Hellenistic period. The last recorded heads of the school were Mnesarchus and Dardanus (Cicero, Acad. 2.69). Cicero, who wrote our earliest and in some ways most important accounts of Stoicism, visited Athens at a time when the Athenian schools were more or less at an end, but he did manage to attend the lectures of Posidonius in Rhodes, making him one of the last people to have first hand knowledge of the Athenian Stoic tradition. The first few centuries of our era saw many philosophers who explicitly identified themselves as Stoics but they now depended on texts for their knowledge of Athenian Stoic philosophy.

One of the first and most famous of these “text-based Stoics” was Seneca. Seneca embraced the title “Stoic” but was happy to draw on ideas from Epicurus when he found them reasonable (again: he was a philosopher, not a religious convert). He also studied in the philosophical school of Sextius, via whom he adopted a number of Pythagorean ideas and practices (and many of the practical exercises that Seneca exhorts and people now think of as distinctively “Stoic” in fact had their origins in Pythagoreanism). So Seneca drew on ideas from a number of sources but chose to self-identify as a Stoic. He was also in close contact with a number of others who embraced Stoicism, including his nephew Lucan, Cornutus, and the poet Persius who is reported to have owned a collection of more or less all of Chrysippus’s works. This was a new, local Stoic community of friends.

Around the same time, Musonius Rufus lectured on Stoicism in Rome and his lectures were attended by a slave called Epictetus, who would go on to found his own school in Nicopolis on the western coast of Greece after gaining his freedom. Students at Epictetus’s school studied works by Chrysippus, while continually being reminded to apply Stoicism to their daily lives. Reports of Epictetus’s lectures were recorded by one of his students, the historian Arrian, and these proved to be a decisive influence on the young Marcus Aurelius, who wrote his own notes “to himself” towards the end of his life. Again we see a mix of what we might call “text-based Stoicism” and the creation of new Stoic communities.

The texts of Chrysippus were still readily available during this period, as we can see from the frequent quotations in authors such as Plutarch and Galen; by late antiquity these were seemingly all lost. Since then the reception of Stoic ideas has been closely bound up with the transmission of texts either by later Stoics (Seneca, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius) or by other, often hostile, authors reporting Stoic views. In the Latin West the principal sources were always Seneca and Cicero.

The reception of Stoic ideas since antiquity has differed from Roman Stoicism in two ways: first, later readers have taken Roman authors as their main source of information rather than having access to works by the Hellenistic Stoics; and second, the vast majority of those readers were for a very long time sincerely or otherwise publically committed to Christian doctrine and so did not affirm every Stoic idea they encountered. They welcomed some doctrines but rejected or were silent about others. In this they were no different from the Roman Stoics themselves or even many of the Hellenistic Stoics, as I have tried to show.

What does all this mean for the question “What is a Stoic?”? Since the first century BCE “text-based Stoicism” has involved people reading Stoic texts, finding some things they like but perhaps a few other things they don’t, reflecting their own temperament, judgement, existing beliefs, and cultural background. Some of those who think they agree with a significant amount of what they find choose to adopt the title of “Stoic”. Others prefer to avoid labels. Each personal encounter with the ideas in the texts will of course be unique. Each stands on its own terms. It will be more or less impossible to judge which of these is “properly Stoic” given that there never was a single set of definitively agreed Stoic doctrines upheld by all the philosophers of antiquity who were members of the Athenian Stoa. Instead what we see is a series of family resemblances.

The phrase “modern Stoicism” is a perfectly good one for referring to the recent upsurge of interest in Stoicism as a source of practical guidance for everyday life. It indicates that people don’t claim to be resurrecting an ancient system of thought as a whole, but instead taking what they find useful and applying it in a modern context. However it would be a mistake to think that “modern Stoicism” might be defined as a set of doctrines, in some way abstracting the core ideas of ancient Stoicism and updating them for the modern world, against which individuals might in some way be judged as “Stoics” or not (and which itself might be judged as not properly “Stoic” enough). Instead there are just people who read Stoic texts, take what they find agreeable or useful, and in some cases chose to self-identify as Stoics. That’s how it has been for a very long time.

Friday, 28 August 2015

Stoic Mindfulness


A recurring theme in popular discussions of Stoicism is a perceived affinity between Stoicism and mindfulness techniques adapted from Buddhism. This modern version of mindfulness, often abstracted from its original context, promotes attention to one’s immediate experiences and often proceeds by recommending paying close attention to the experience of one’s own breathing. The Stoic idea that we ought to keep our thoughts not on the past or future but rather the present moment (e.g. Marcus Aurelius 12.3) looks like it might offer some form of parallel here. Did the Stoics in their comments about the importance of focusing on the present moment propose something close to modern versions of mindfulness?

I want to suggest that the Stoics did have their own version of mindfulness but that it was quite different from the modern version adapted from Buddhism. While that version encourages paying attention of our immediate sensory experience (e.g. our breathing) in order to draw our attention away from anxieties or destructive thoughts, the Stoic version proposes that we continually keep in mind a series of key philosophical principles so that they can guide our action in each moment. So, while modern Buddhist-inspired mindfulness attempts to shift our attention from thoughts to experience, Stoic mindfulness attempts to replace unthinking actions shaped by habit with conscious actions shaped by philosophical principles always kept ready to hand.

There are two interesting texts where this idea is developed, one in Epictetus and one in Marcus Aurelius. The key term here is prosochê, which is usually translated as ‘attention’. Epictetus’s Discourses 4.12 is devoted to this notion. There Epictetus exhorts his readers to pay attention not to the present moment but rather to a number of fundamental principles, none of which will come as any great surprise to readers familiar with his work: i) no one can control another person’s faculty of choice (proairesis), ii) this is where all good and evil reside, and so consequently iii) each person has complete control over good and evil in their lives. What is striking is Epictetus’s insistence that one’s attention to these principles must be maintained at all times without exception and that if one falls into inattentiveness poor behaviour and distress will follow almost immediately. Epictetean mindfulness demands constant vigilance lest one lose sight of central Stoic ideas even for a moment.

In the Meditations we can see Marcus Aurelius trying to put this idea from Epictetus into practice. The key passage is Meditations 4.3. Here Marcus recommends periods of retreat during which one might reflect on ‘brief and fundamental truths’ already within the mind in order to ‘wash away all distress’ and to attain ‘perfect ease’. He then gives us a couple of examples of what he has in mind, such as reminding himself that he is by nature a social animal in order to keep in check any anger he might feel towards people who behave poorly. He goes on to suggest that there are two fundamental ideas that must be kept ‘ready to hand’ (procheiros): i) that mental disturbances are the product not of things but of our judgements, and ii) nothing is stable and everything passes, subject to universal flux. He then summarizes these two principles as concisely as possible in order to aid memorization: ho kosmos alloiôsis, ho bios hupolêpsis, which might be translated expansively as ‘the cosmos is in continual change; the concerns of human life are the product of opinion’. What is striking about these two key principles that must be kept ready to hand is that they are not ethical principles relating to conduct. Instead one comes from Stoic physics, the other from Stoic logic. (Marcus is interested in logic and physics – not in the details of logical and physical theory, but rather living in accord with a series of logical and physical claims central to Stoicism.) In Meditations 4.3 as a whole he shows us how reflecting on doctrines in Stoic epistemology and physics might contribute to the cultivation of a mind at complete ease and in good order. His version of Stoic mindfulness involves keeping these maxims abstracted from Stoic physics and epistemology continually in his conscious mind.

So, while the Roman Stoics do often encourage us to pay attention to the present moment rather than dwell on the past or be anxious about the future, their own brand of ‘mindfulness’ is quite different from the sort of thing people usually associate with the term today. Rather than try to empty the mind of everything and pay attention to one’s sensory experiences in the present moment, Stoic mindfulness involves continually repeating and reminding oneself of the central Stoic ideas according to which one is trying to live. Hence the importance of short summaries (Epictetus’s Handbook), memorable maxims (such as Marcus’s above), and daily reading practices.

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Stoicism and the Human Condition


A post originally written for the Stoicism Today blog

A common remark about the recent revival of interest in Stoicism is that this is merely a reaction to current economic difficulties in parts of the developed world. In tough times people turn to Stoicism, so the story goes, but when all is well people have little interest in or need for Stoicism. This echoes Hegel’s account of Roman Stoicism written two centuries ago, claiming that their focus on self-transformation merely reflected the fact that they were powerless to change the world.

I don’t think this is right. Of course it may be true in some cases, but it hardly tells the whole story. Rather than see Stoicism as a response to current external circumstances, a sort of short-term therapy for current adversity, I would rather see it as a response to something more basic and fundamental about the human condition. The central ideas presented by the Roman Stoics all reflect in different ways on the fact that we are by nature finite beings, mortal and limited in our power.

Our lives are by their nature brief moments in time. As finite beings it is necessarily so that we cannot completely control the external world. We have no say whether we get ill or not, or precisely when we shall die. We can of course do what we can to influence these things, do things to secure our health, search for a cure for cancer, and so on, but we can never change the basic facts that we are mortal, we shall die, and all our loved ones will die. What time we do have is limited and we have no say over how much we shall have or when it will end.

This is not meant to sound overly pessimistic; it is simply stating a series of facts. Stoicism, like many other practically oriented philosophies, is a reflective response to these facts. Its insights can inform the way we look at both good and bad periods in our lives. Seneca advises that we reflect on how much is ultimately out of our control when things are going very well as much as when they are going badly. The successes we have are as much out of our control as our failures, both the product of chance and forces outside of us as much as they are due to our efforts. A Stoic attitude, then, ultimately ought to be one of humility in the face of forces much larger than ourselves. We are but momentary arrangements of matter soon to be dissipated and forgotten. As Samuel Beckett put it:

They give birth astride of a grave,
The light gleams an instant,
Then it is night once more.

Or, as Marcus Aurelius put it:

Of man’s life, his time is a point, his substance flowing, his perception faint, the constitution of his whole body decaying, his soul a spinning wheel, his fortune hard to predict, and his fame doubtful; that is to say, all the things of the body are a river, the things of the soul dream and delusion, life is a war and a journey in a foreign land, and afterwards oblivion.

These sorts of reflections have nothing to do with frustration about not being able to change the world for the better. Great wealth or political power do not make them go away, as the case of Marcus Aurelius himself amply illustrates. Instead they speak of something more fundamental about what it means to be a finite being, limited in power and duration, surrounded by forces that might overwhelm us at any moment.

Saturday, 18 July 2015

Stoics on Papyrus



Some notes based on material in my Introduction to The Routledge Handbook of the Stoic Tradition. 

The body of surviving ancient Stoic literature has been far from static over the last century or so. Von Arnim’s Stoicorum Veterum Fragmenta (1903-5) included a number of Stoic texts and testimonia that had only recently been discovered in papyri. These included fragments of treatises by Chrsyippus that had been recovered from the scrolls found at Herculaneum, notably parts of his work Logical Questions (the papyri finds printed in von Arnim (1903-5) include Chrysippus’s Logikôn Zêtêmatôn (PHerc 307, SVF 2.298a; cf. Crönert 1901), the Papyrus Letronnii (SVF 2.180), a Herculaneum text previously edited by von Arnim (PHerc 1020, SVF 2.131; cf. Arnim 1890), and a handful of other fragments taken from papyri published in the Herculanensia Volumina (SVF 2.639; 2.640; 2.1060)). Von Arnim had edited one of these finds himself a few years before the publication of his collection (Arnim 1890). An equally important find used by von Arnim was Philodemus’s history of the Stoa, the Index Stoicorum Herculanensis (PHerc 1018, first edited by D. Comparetti in 1875, and recently re-edited under the title Stoicorum Historia in Dorandi 1994).

Beyond his work on the evidence for the early Stoa, von Arnim also edited another significant Stoic find on papyrus: the Elements of Ethics of Hierocles (Arnim 1906), a theoretical ethical treatise the rediscovery of which has done much to change the way in which we think about Stoicism in the Roman period (re-edited in Bastianini and Long 1992 and now with a facing English translation and commentary in Ramelli 2009). A less significant but still noteworthy discovery was a papyrus fragment from the diatribes of Musonius Rufus, edited and published by Enoch Powell in 1936.

Since then further new Stoic texts have been recovered from the Herculaneum scrolls (see Marrone 1987, 1988; Dorandi 2005). These include further fragments from Chrysippus (Marrone 1997) and a second work by Philodemus devoted to Stoicism (Dorandi 1982). Whether there will be more finds it is hard to say. Marcello Gigante, director of the Centro Internazionale per lo Studio dei Papiri Ercolanesi in Naples for many years, commented that he thought it highly likely that there would be further Stoic discoveries (Gigante 1995: 3), but we shall have to wait and see.

References

Arnim, H. von (1890) “Über einen stoischen Papyrus aus der herculanensischen Bibliothek,” Hermes 25: 473-95.
Arnim, H. von (1903-5) Stoicorum Veterum Fragmenta, 3 vols (vol. 4, indices by M. Adler, published 1924), Leipzig: Teubner.
Arnim, H. von (1906) Hierocles, Ethische Elementarlehre (Papyrus 9780) nebst den bei Stobäus erhaltenen ethischen Exzerpten aus Hierokles, Berlin: Weidmann.
Bastianini, G., and Long, A. A. (1992) “Hierocles, Elementa moralia,” in Corpus dei Papiri Filosofici Greci e Latini I 1**, Florence: Olschki, pp. 268-451.
Crönert, W. (1901) “Die logika zêtêmata des Chrysippos und die uebrigen Papyri logischen Inhalts aus der herculanensischen Bibliothek,” Hermes 36: 548-79.
Dorandi, T. (1982) “Filodemo, Gli Stoici (PHerc 155 e 339),” Cronache Ercolanesi 12: 91-133.
Dorandi, T. (1994) Filodemo, Storia dei filosofi: La stoà da Zenone a Panezio (PHerc. 1018), Leiden: Brill.
Dorandi, T. (2005) “La tradition pspyrologyque des Stoïciens,” in G. Romeyer Dherbey and J.-B. Gourinat (eds) Les Stoïciens, Paris: Vrin, pp. 29-52.
Enoch Powell, J. (1936) The Rendel Harris Papyri of Woodbrooke College, Birmingham, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Gigante, M. (1995) Philodemus in Italy: The Books from Herculaneum, trans. D. Obbink, Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.
Marrone, L. (1987) “Testi Stoici Ercolanesi,” Cronache Ercolanesi 17: 181-84.
Marrone, L. (1988) “Testi Stoici Ercolanesi II,” Cronache Ercolanesi 18: 223-25.
Marrone, L. (1997) “Le Questioni Logiche di Crisippo (PHerc. 307),” Cronache Ercolanesi 27: 83-100.
Ramelli, I. (2009) Hierocles the Stoic: Elements of Ethics, Fragments, and Excerpts, trans. D. Konstan, Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature.


Thursday, 26 March 2015

Cicero on Living a Stoic Life


A post originally written for the Stoicism Today blog. Now published in Stoicism Today: Selected Writings II (2016).

What is involved in living a Stoic life? In his book On Duties (1.107 ff.) the Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero outlines a theory involving four distinct rules for living a life. This is known as the four personae theory and it is usually supposed that Cicero is following a now lost work by the Stoic philosopher Panaetius. There are scholarly debates about how closely Cicero follows Panaetius and to what extent Panaetius might be deviating from the orthodox Stoic view, but putting those questions to one side Cicero’s account is on its own terms an interesting window on what might be involved in living a Stoic life. 

We have, Cicero says, two natures, one common and one individual. Our common nature as human beings offers one sort of guide to how to live. The fact that we are rational, social animals gives us one set of pointers to what a life in accordance with nature might look like. However we also each have our own individual natures, the specific set of character traits that we have not chosen and that make us who we are. Some people are loud and outgoing; others shy. Some are sporty and physical; others intellectual and bookish. Some are artistic by nature; others more inclined to technical problems. None of us chose the particular set of strengths and weaknesses that we have; they have been given to us by nature.

Central to Cicero’s account is the claim that a life in harmony with nature ought to be sensitive to these aspects of our individual nature. It is not simply a question of following universal guidelines about being rational or virtuous; it is also about being sensitive to who we are as individuals. There is of course the possibility that the two might come into conflict with one another, in which case Cicero says that universal nature comes first: ‘Each person should hold on to what is his as far as it is not vicious … we must act in such a way that we attempt nothing contrary to universal nature; but while conserving that, let us follow our own nature’.

So, while our primary commitment ought to be to universal nature, we ought also to be true to ourselves, our unique individual natures. Living in harmony with nature is as much about living in harmony with our own nature as it is conforming to Nature with a capital ‘N’. Of course this shouldn’t be much of a surprise given that the former is merely a local expression of the latter.

What we need, then, is plenty of self-knowledge about who we are, what our strengths and weaknesses are, and enough self-belief to remain true to what we find rather than trying to be like other people: ‘everyone ought to weigh the characteristics that are his own, and to regulate them, not wanting to see how someone else’s might become him; for what is most seemly for a man is the thing that is most his own. Everyone, therefore, should acquire knowledge of his own talents, and show himself a sharp judge of his own good qualities and faults’.

So far I’ve mentioned just two elements and at the outset I said there were four. The other two, which Cicero introduces later, are chance or circumstance and our own pursuits. Chance or circumstance refers to the aspects of situations that are out of our control. Someone might be a naturally gifted opera singer but find themselves at home with small children unable to realize that talent. Others might by nature be gifted sportsmen but due to injury be unable to compete any more. Chance can throw up situations in which we are unable to remain true to our individual natures, although if one buys the broader Stoic view of fate one would have to accept that these chance situations are also ultimately the product of Nature.

Our own pursuits includes things like the career we choose for ourselves. Cicero says that this is the one of the four elements where we actually have some choice. We decide whether to train as a doctor or a bricklayer. Cicero suggests that this ought to involve significant deliberation. However it is not clear just how much choice there really is, as the sort of deliberation Cicero has in mind ultimately boils down to self-examination so that we can find out who we really are. The person well suited to become a doctor may not be well suited to the life of a bricklayer, and vice versa. As Cicero puts it, ‘in such deliberation all counsel ought to be referred to the individual’s own nature’. But we also need to take into account the chance circumstances in which we find ourselves: ‘Nature carries the greatest weight in such reasoning, and after that fortune’.

So, how to live a Stoic life? The top priority remains a life in harmony with Nature/reason/virtue. Then there are the chance circumstances in which we find ourselves, out of our control and ultimately laid down by Nature too. But also central in Cicero’s account is the idea that we remain true to our own individual natures, to who we are. Thus self-knowledge becomes vital for a life in harmony with nature. Once we feel secure that we know who we are, what our strengths and weaknesses are, where we fit in the world, then the only decision to be made is how best to remain true to ourselves in the circumstances in which we find ourselves.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Meditation on Past Evils: A Neostoic Spiritual Exercise


A post written for the Stoicism Today blog. Now published in Stoicism Today: Selected Writings II (2016). These comments draw on a fuller account of Lipsius and spiritual exercises available here 

Much has been written about the Stoic idea of premeditation on future evils: pre-rehearse potential bad events so that if they come you are better prepared to deal with them and, if they don’t, be all the more grateful for your good fortune. But what about past evils? Is there anything to be gained from reflecting on evils that have already happened? 

In the sixteenth century Justus Lipsius thought there was. Lipsius was a Humanist and committed to Stoicism His On Constancy of 1584 is a dialogue about how Stoicism might help people then caught in the middle of horrific religious wars. He went on to produce an important edition of the works of Seneca in 1605 and published with it two volumes that, for the first time, tried to bring together all the surviving evidence for the early Stoics, in 1604. In the history of Stoicism he is probably the most important figure after the ancient Stoics. 

Lipsius’s On Constancy is an attempt to offer remedies for public evils, that is suggestions to help people trying to cope with adverse situations out of their control. One of his remedies tries to show that the public evils then afflicting people are, when put into an appropriate historical context, neither especially grievous nor unusual. Lipsius the Humanist thinks that the study of history can offer us therapeutic benefit. What follows is somewhat brutal, but that is part of the point. Lipsius recounts the death tolls of wars recorded in ancient historians. In the wars of the ancient Jews 20,000 died at Caesarea, 13,000 at Scythopolis, 2,500 at Ascalon, 2,000 at Ptolomais, 50,000 at Alexandria, 10,000 at Damascus, and so on and on. He then turns to Greek and Roman history. Drawing upon the ancient historian Procopius and other sources, Lipsius continues with graphic descriptions of ancient plagues and famines, of which just one gruesome example from a famine should be enough: ‘Two women (I quake to speak it) killed seventeen men in the night by treachery and did eat them; at length they themselves were slain by the eighteenth, who perceived the matter.’ 

Cruelty is nothing new either, Lipsius says, citing examples from the historian Valerius Maximus. Lipsius draws on his impressive knowledge of ancient history and literature to furnish us with numerous examples to support his claim that public evils such as civil war, tyranny, famine, and plague are by no means limited to the present age. All of these public evils are constant features of history and so we should not be surprised to find them in our own time. Indeed, it would be truly miraculous if our own time were exempt from such events. All countries and all ages have had their share of public evils; so must our country and our age. 

This strategy involves a version of an idea known as ‘moral distance’. This is the idea that we tend to care more for those things closer to us than those far away, and it is traditionally credited to David Hume. Our natural sympathy for those closest at hand, it is suggested, is a distortion that we must overcome when making moral judgements. Lipsius’s version is different though: his aim is to show that moral distance can distort our perception of public evils, making our own immediate troubles appear much more significant than they actually are. If we step back and consider those evils within a wider historical context we shall see that in fact they are neither especially grievous nor unusual. This shares something with what Pierre Hadot called ‘the view from above’, but in this case proposing a wider historical perspective rather than a wider geographical view. 

Lipsius was not wrong when he said that all ages have their share of public evils. For us the Holocaust has come to be seen as the archetypal example, and for good reason. Reflecting on horrific events from the past such as the Holocaust is important for a number of obvious and well-known reasons: some things should never be forgotten. For Lipsius this sort of reflection on past evils can also be a chilling way to put our current troubles into stark perspective.

Sunday, 4 January 2015

Stoicism and Emotion


Text of a presentation at the Stoicism Today 2014 event in London (video of talk here). Now published in Stoicism Today: Selected Writings II (2016).

One of the most common popular ideas about Stoicism is that the Stoics deny the value of emotions. This might be formulated in a number of different ways – the Stoics repress their emotions, or reject them, or overcome them – but the shared idea behind these different ways of putting it is that the Stoics think the emotions are not important for a good life. Indeed, not only are they not important, they are in fact an impediment to living a good life.

That’s a common view. Equally common is the objection that this Stoic attitude towards the emotions is deeply unattractive. This objection might also take a number of forms: a healthy human life must involve a healthy emotional life; the emotions are an essential part of what it means to be a human being; denying or repressing emotions will only generate longer-term negative consequences; the emotions (anger in the face of injustice, for instance) are valuable insofar as they spur us on to act in positive ways; and so on.

What I want to do in what follows is to challenge, or at least to qualify, this way of describing the Stoic view, with the aim of undermining the sorts of objections I have just noted that are based on that view.  My main point will be that Stoics ought not to talk about emotions at all. That isn’t supposed to be a bad joke about repressing emotions; instead my main point is that we do a disservice to the Stoics when we talk about their attitude to the emotions, for the Stoics never spoke about the emotions in the way we do.

What do I mean by this? The ancient Stoics never spoke of emotions in the way we do because they didn’t speak English, and the English word ‘emotion’ is perhaps not the best word to use to translate the Greek and Latin terms that the Stoics did use. The Stoics never spoke of an emotion but rather a pathos or, in Latin, a passio and the English word ‘emotion’ isn’t quite the same. Emotion in English is a much a much broader notion and covers a much wider range of things (the Oxford English Dictionary defines it simply as a ‘mental feeling’ and contrasts it with reason). The statement that we ought to overcome our emotions is quite different, I suggest, from the statement that we ought to overcome our pathê. The Stoics did make the second statement, but not the first. Traditionally, in the early modern period, the terms the Stoics used were translated not as ‘emotion’ but as ‘passion’, and I think this is closer to the mark, although it has fallen out of favour in some quarters because it sounds a bit archaic. But that is no bad thing and it helps to underline that we are dealing with a technical notion here and not a very general and loose notion like ‘emotion’. So, my first point: the Stoics do not reject emotions, they reject passions, and that is quite a different thing.

So, what is the difference between emotions and passions? I want to give a definition of a Stoic passion so we have a clearer idea of precisely what it is that they think we ought to avoid, and I also want to mention a number of other things that the Stoics do not reject but that might well fall under the much broader English notion of emotion. In particular I want to distinguish between four different types of what we might call emotional response that the Stoics address.

1. Emotions of Affinity. The Stoics say that each of us is born with an inherent, natural instinct for our own self-preservation (Diogenes Laertius [DL] 7.85). They also say that this instinct extends beyond our self. We are naturally predisposed to care for our close family relations and, if we develop into well-rounded adults, we shall extend that circle of care to include our neighbours and, ideally, to include all humankind. When we take an interest and concern in the well being of others we are acting according to a perfectly natural instinct. When a mother puts her own wellbeing at risk for the sake of her child she is doing the same. The Stoics of course suggest that we ought to live a life in harmony with nature and so these sorts of natural instincts will be part of the ideal Stoic life. Indeed the Stoic ideal is not to close ourselves off from caring for others; on the contrary it is to expand our circle of concern so that we care for not just those who happen to be nearest to us but for everyone, everywhere. The claim that Stoics are indifferent to the wellbeing others is false.

2. Emotions of Shock. Part of the popular caricature of a Stoic is that they are unmoved by external events, a block of stone in the face adversity, and that this is inhuman, or superhuman to point of being an impossible ideal. This caricature was evidently already current in antiquity because there is a story in which someone on a boat is surprised to see a Stoic philosopher reacting in apparent fear to a storm at sea (Aulus Gellius 19.1). The Stoics do not claim that the ideal person will be completely unmoved by events, like a block of stone. Instead they fully acknowledge that we jump when there are sudden loud noises, we flinch when we think we might get hurt, we blush in embarrassing situations, we get pumped up on adrenalin in exciting or stressful situations, and so on. All of these sorts of reactions the Stoics call ‘first movements’ (or ‘pre-passions’), and they are natural, unthinking, physiological responses to external events that are out of our control. They will be part of an ideal Stoic life because, of course, they are automatic natural responses and so part of any human life.

3. Passions. This leads us on to passions proper, the things that the Stoics do think we ought to overcome. For the Stoics a passion is an emotional response to an external state of affairs based upon a value judgement. In this sense it is something quite complex, even though for most people they are generated almost unconsciously. Let me give an example: if I hear a loud explosion and I jump and hide behind the nearest wall, that is not an instance of the Stoic passion of fear; instead we might say that it is a ‘first movement’, perhaps combined with a response reflecting my natural instinct of self-concern (a combination of types 1 and 2 above). It is not a passion proper because it is too quick and instinctive. Let me give another example: if I hear that I might lose my job and I start to dwell on the all the negative consequences that such an event might lead to, and then I start to get very anxious about the future, even though I have not lost my job and nothing bad has actually happened at all, that would be a Stoic passion: a negative feeling about the future based upon a value judgement that something terrible is about to happen.

The Stoics of course think we can overcome these kinds of negative responses by examining and challenging the values on the basis of which we make our value judgements. And they think that they can offer us arguments about what we should and should not value, and this is where what the Stoics offer becomes distinctively philosophical therapy. Although the Stoics will recommend that we overcome negative responses such as fear because they can be unpleasant and sometimes debilitating features in our lives, it is worth stressing that the real reason why the Stoics want to avoid these passions is because they are the product of mistaken value judgements. It is not a question of whether anger is a good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant feature of a human life; the Stoics will want to argue that it is false, mistaken, wrong, the product of a judgement made according to a false set of values. The Stoic attitude towards the passions is not one of personal temperament or preference; it is instead the consequence of a series of philosophical arguments. The person who reacts to an event with an extreme passion has made a mistake.

Let me try to give an example: if I am anxious about losing my job (to borrow the example from earlier) then I am fearful because I have judged that something terrible might happen. I have judged that the loss of income will adversely impact my ability to live a happy life. I will have made that judgement holding the view that a certain level of material prosperity is necessary in order to be happy. That’s the belief or value judgement that ultimately grounds the passion of fear in this case. The Stoics will respond with a philosophical argument. They will ask the question whether material prosperity is necessary for a happy life. They will point to counter examples: people with little who are perfectly content, and people with much who are thoroughly miserable. They will acknowledge that although it might be nice, preferable, much better to be wealthy rather than poor, these counter examples show that it is not necessary or sufficient for a happy life (DL 7.104). Knowing that, we shall realize that our fear is unfounded – it is indeed perfectly possible to be happy even after losing one’s job – and when we correctly judge that this is not a terrible thing we shall not generate the negative passion of fear. While avoiding the negative passions is a welcome consequence, the most important thing here is not making mistaken value judgements.

4. Good Passions. So far I have talked about bad passions, unpleasant emotional experiences based on mistaken value judgements. The Stoics also acknowledge what they call good passions, positive emotional responses based on correct value judgements (DL 7.116). In the last example we saw the Stoics deny that wealth is a good because it is possible to be miserable with it and happy without it, and part of their definition of a good is that it is something that always and necessarily benefits (DL 7.103). The same sort of analysis applies to all external things, which although they benefit us sometimes, do not always and necessarily benefit us. The only thing that they suggest does always and necessarily benefit us is virtue, which we might gloss as an excellent and healthy state of mind. This is the only genuine good, the only thing that guarantees happiness, the only thing the absence of which guarantees misery.

With this in mind, a good passion is an emotional state produced by a positive value judgement that is not mistaken. If, for the sake of argument, I possess an excellent, virtuous, healthy state of mind, and I judge this to be a good thing, then I shall be judging correctly, for this virtuous state is indeed good. When I make such a judgement I shall generate a positive emotion – a good passion – of joy. So the ideal Stoic life is not one devoid of emotions or passions, far from it. Indeed the life of the ideal Stoic will necessarily involve these good passions, insofar as the ideal Stoic will have an excellent, virtuous state of mind. And just to underline a point that should be clear already, the reason why these good passions are welcome and the other passions are not, is that these good passions are the product of correct value judgements rather than mistaken ones.

I have considered four different types of reaction that the ancient Stoics considered and that might fall under our usual thinking about emotions. As we have seen, the Stoics suggest we overcome just one of these four types. The other three they acknowledge as part of an ideal human life: care and concern for others, natural human responses to sudden events, and positive passions based on correct judgements about what is most important for human life. The ideal Stoic life is thus far from unemotional in the English sense of the word. Indeed, what the Stoics propose we reject are not emotions in the English sense of the word at all, if emotions are defined as feelings that contrast with reasoning. Instead what the Stoics propose we reject is faulty reasoning based on confused value judgements and the unpleasant consequences that this generates.

Marcus Aurelius, Philosopher


Originally written for, and published in, The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome (2010).

Marcus Aurelius was not only an emperor; he was also a philosopher. His interest in philosophy began at a young age, as his correspondence with the rhetorician Fronto indicates. One of Marcus’ tutors, Rusticus, introduced him to the philosophy of Stoicism and lent him a copy of the Discourses of Epictetus. This proved to be a decisive influence.

Although this interest in philosophy started very young, our only document for Marcus’ philosophy comes from his old age. The text that we now know as the Meditations was written in his final years, while on military campaign in Germania. The modern title Meditations dates only from the seventeenth century; the manuscript tradition offers the title To Himself (ta eis heauton). The earliest reference to this title dates to the ninth century and the original text may well have been untitled. This should come as no surprise, however, as the Meditations appear to be simply the private notebooks of the Emperor, containing a mixture of passing thoughts, memorable sayings, quotations from his reading, along with passages of more extended philosophical reflection. The twelve books of the Meditations have no obvious structure, although the first book differs from the rest, taking the form of an autobiographical record of Marcus’ debts to others, and this book may have been composed separately.

A number of themes emerge out of the remaining eleven books of the Meditations. Marcus repeatedly exhorts himself to analyse his impressions, to see himself as but one small part of Nature, and to act rightly. These three themes correlate with the three parts of Stoic philosophy – logic, physics, and ethics – although Marcus never explicitly puts it in those terms. These three themes, like the three parts of Stoic philosophy, are intimately connected to one another. Thus acting rightly requires that one does not assent to false impressions and that one understands one’s place within Nature.

The most striking passages in the Meditations express the second of these themes, urging us to approach human life – and, in particular, human vanities – from a much wider cosmic perspective. Everyday human concerns and ambitions seem trivial and inconsequential when seen against the background of the vast impersonal flows of matter that constitute the Cosmos. By embracing this sort of cosmic perspective Marcus wants to emphasize that everything that is apparently stable is in fact in a process of continual transformation. The Cosmos is an endless cycle of birth and death, creation and destruction. Human life – indeed all of human civilization – is merely a momentary slowing down of these larger impersonal cosmic processes. Much of our emotional distress and many of our ethical failings result from our inability to acknowledge this basic fact. But if we analyse our impressions correctly (using logic) and understand our place within Nature (with physics), then we shall learn to act appropriately (ethics).

Marcus’ philosophical worldview is ultimately Stoic, although the Meditations do not record any detailed engagements with the technical aspects of Stoic philosophy. Some readers have detected sympathies towards both Epicurean and Platonic ideas in his work, but more often than not these reflect ambiguous forms of expression rather than a deliberate philosophical eclecticism. In a number of places Marcus seems unable to choose between Stoic pantheism and Epicurean atomism but this agnosticism is probably the prudent response of one who claims no expertise in the details of the physical theory of either school. He is, however, committed to a doctrine of universal flux and, like the earlier Stoics, is an admirer of the Presocratic philosopher Heraclitus.

The ethical thrust of the Meditations focuses on the two inter-related themes of avoiding attachments to particulars and escaping irrational emotions, both central Stoic ideas. No externals are good or bad in themselves, and so they should neither be coveted nor feared; only a virtuous state of mind is genuinely good. Consequently the primary philosophical task for Marcus is to take care of his soul, which involves analysing his impressions closely in order to make sure he does not make any false judgements. But beyond these more formal philosophical themes, the Meditations are above all else an attempt by an old man to come to terms with the inevitability of his own impending death. Marcus continually reminds himself that his fame and reputation will ultimately be forgotten in the eternity of time and that all he can hold on to for sure is the present living moment.

The Meditations do not appear to have circulated widely after Marcus’ death. They are mentioned in passing by Themistius in the fourth century, it is reported that Arethas of Caesarea possessed a copy around the end of the ninth century, and they are noted in the Byzantine lexicon Suda some fifty years later. Marcus was read a little more widely during the Renaissance but the first printed edition was relatively late, in 1559. It was not until the late seventeenth century that the Meditations became widely known and they reached their height of popularity in the late nineteenth century. Out of vogue in the mid twentieth century, the Meditations are now receiving renewed attention.

Tough Luck


Originally published in The Philosophers’ Magazine as part of a themed section on luck (2011), I was asked to write something about Stoic attitudes towards luck.

There is a sense in which all of Stoic philosophy is about luck. Strictly speaking this is not true, of course, as the ancient Stoics developed a philosophical system addressing a wide range of topics (from logic to politics, astronomy, and grammar), but if one were forced to try to summarize the general thrust of Stoicism in just a few words it would be tempting to say that it is most concerned with luck.

Let me try to flesh this out some more. Like the majority of other ancient philosophers the Stoics are eudaimonists and so the goal of their philosophy is happiness or wellbeing. The way in which the Stoics think we can achieve wellbeing is by looking closely at our relationship with the external world and at the way in which we ascribe value to things. In particular they suggest that we ought never to ascribe value to external objects, situations, or even people. The only thing that has genuine value for the Stoics (or ‘goodness’ in their technical terminology) is virtue, which might be glossed as an excellent internal mental state. Conversely the only thing that is truly bad is having a terrible mental state. By happy coincidence, our internal mental state is practically the only thing that we can claim to have any control over, the Stoics suggest, making our wellbeing completely within our grasp. All those other things like wealth, success, health, and family that fate, fortune, and luck can withhold from us or take from us turn out to be completely unnecessary for a happy and good life. The essence of Stoicism, then, is the claim that in order for us to achieve happiness or wellbeing we must completely rethink our notion of luck.

In particular the Stoics suggest that we ought to reject our everyday notion of ‘bad luck’. Usually we talk in terms of being unlucky or having bad luck when some unfortunate event occurs, or something we hold to be valuable is taken away from us, or even when we fail to attain something that we hold to be valuable. In short we think we experience bad luck when we lose or fail to attain some external that we think can contribute to our happiness. According to the Stoics such negative judgements are wholly misplaced for no external object or state of affairs can either bring us happiness or impinge on our happiness. Only our internal mental state can do that. Once we have the correct mental state we shall realize that these supposed instances of ‘bad luck’ are no such thing; indeed, they ought to be of no consequence to us at all.

If one accepts this way of thinking then it is equally so that there is no such thing as ‘good luck’. When we say that someone is lucky or has experienced good luck we suppose that something of real value has been gained or retained. Yet as we have seen, the Stoics will argue that this also mistakenly ascribes value to externals. I can experience neither ‘bad luck’ nor ‘good luck’ for whatever the external world might throw at me it can never take away or supply anything of genuine consequence for my happiness.

There are two ways in which one might unpack this doctrine, both of which I suspect will seem unpalatable to most modern readers. The first would be to emphasize the fact that the Stoics also believe that the universe is providentially ordered. Without going too far into Stoic cosmology and theology, for our present purposes we can simply note that the Stoics claim that everything that happens is part of a determined and providential plan expressing the will of a divine rational principle within Nature. So, if it comes pass that by beloved pet cat should die today, not only should I not be upset because the loss of my cat ought not to affect my virtue, but I should also welcome the death of my cat as a necessary part of a rational and providential divine plan. If ‘welcome’ is too strong a word, I ought at the very least calmly to accept his death today as a necessary and inevitable moment in the order of events.

A second way to read the Stoic position would be to remain agnostic about the existence of providence, as indeed a number of ancient Stoics occasionally did, and treat external events and states of affairs as just chance and random occurrences. On this reading, there is certainly no reason for me to welcome the death of my cat, or even to accept it as something necessary; I might instead see it as a completely random event. Nevertheless I still ought to remain undisturbed by his death, ever conscious of the fact that this cannot impinge on my inner virtue, which, in turn, secures my happiness.

In the first reading, there is no good or bad luck for whatever happens is the necessary product of divine providence; in the second reading there is no good or back luck because whatever happens is of no significance for us. Strictly speaking the first reading is the orthodox Stoic view, although ancient Stoics such as Seneca and Marcus Aurelius do sometimes write as if adopting the second reading, either because they are trying to persuade someone who doesn’t accept the existence of providence or because they themselves are conscious of the limits of their own grasp of the way the universe works.

Many of these issues are explored in Seneca’s essay On Providence, in which he tries to answer the question why it is that good people suffer misfortunes in a supposedly providentially ordered world. As one would expect, Seneca challenges the assumption standing behind the question: “nothing bad can happen to a good man … adversity’s onslaughts are powerless to affect the spirit of a brave man”. The fact that here and throughout On Providence Seneca refers to ‘adversity’ suggests he is closer to the second reading of the Stoic position that I outlined a moment ago. Even so, Seneca goes on to argue that these adverse events not only don’t affect the virtuous but are also genuinely positive for the rest of us too. We should approach any adversity we encounter in our lives as a “training exercise”. Like wrestlers who welcome strong opponents, we too ought to welcome the challenges that life throws at us as opportunities to develop our character. What we might be inclined to think of as ‘bad luck’ should instead be embraced as valuable experience. Here Seneca comes closer to the first reading of the Stoic position, and indeed he goes on to suggest that we ought to think of these sorts of so-called adversities as not only positive but also deliberately sent by divine providence.

As Seneca develops his thoughts about the positive nature of what we might ordinarily call adversity or bad luck he suggests that it can have two distinct positive roles: it can train virtue and it can test virtue. Those of us who are a long way from having an excellent mental state (and that’s almost all of us, according the Stoics) ought to welcome adverse events as a form of training. I have already noted Seneca’s use of an analogy with wrestling but now he uses use the more graphic image of medical cautery. Poverty, hunger, or bereavement are all painful but necessary cures that will toughen us up and make us better prepared to cope with these same things in the future. It might be objected here that Seneca vacillates between the two readings of the Stoic position. If adversities such as poverty, hunger, and bereavement are not really bad at all, then why do we need to be trained to endure them? Surely we shouldn’t be thinking of these things as needing to be endured at all, if they cause us no genuine harm. That would certainly be true if we had mastered virtue, but while we are still imperfect, I take it that these sorts of events will continue to feel unwelcome for some time to come, and the sceptic will of course say that they will always feel unwelcome because they are genuine evils. But note that if one were to follow that sceptical line of thought then Seneca still has something to say to us: such adversities may well be genuine evils but if that is the case then all the more reason to train oneself to be able to bear them more effectively. The only serious training available is to suffer them first hand, so suffering them does have its benefits.

As well as training the imperfect, these adverse events also test the perfect. Seneca quotes the Cynic philosopher Demetrius: “nothing seems to me more unhappy than the man who has no experience of adversity”, adding himself “for he has not been allowed to put himself to the test”. We only find out who we are and what we are made of when we are put to the test. If we were never to experience any kind of bad luck in our lives then we would never know how we would respond. Only when faced with a real challenge do we find out who we really are, and that may be someone quite different from who we thought we were. In any case such adversities are an inevitable part of life, so wanting to avoid them completely simply displays a failure to grasp the nature of the real world. It is part of the human condition to be tested in this way: things will not always work out they way we would like, our plans will be thwarted some times, our loved ones will die. Given these are simply facts about the way the world works that reflect our limited power to control events, the real choice left to us is to decide whether to learn from such experiences or simply moan about them. As Seneca puts it, “disaster is virtue’s opportunity”. As for those who have never faced disaster, “no one will know what you were capable of, not even you yourself”.

So, Seneca suggests that truly great people will delight in bad luck, treating it as both further training and an opportunity to show their true worth. If one is minded to believe in divine providence then, given these benefits of adversity, one might even see bad luck as a gift or blessing from the gods. We should think of such tests as compliments, a bit like the soldier who is selected by his commander for an especially difficult mission.

If this sounds a bit extreme, Seneca goes even further. Not only should we welcome what we might ordinarily call bad luck; we should also shun what we usually think of as good luck: “the greatest danger comes from excessive good fortune”. The worst thing that can happen to us is to be blessed with a life of unending luxury, comfort, and wealth, for such a life would make one weak and lazy. But worst of all, the longer we experience a comfortable and easy life, the harder it will hit us when our luck finally changes, as it surely one day will.

So, turning all of our ordinary thinking about good and bad luck on its head, Seneca argues that the truly unlucky are those that have never experienced adversity. As for us, we ought not only to welcome what we ordinarily call bad luck but also be very wary of good luck. The traditional problem of evil that opens Seneca’s essay – why bad things happen if the universe is providentially ordered – simply vanishes, for those supposedly bad things are in fact of great service to us. The same thought was expressed many centuries later by Friedrich Nietzsche, when he wrote “that which does not kill me makes me stronger”. This line of thinking offers a powerful challenge to how we ordinarily think about luck, even if we might not be entirely convinced.