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.

Stoicism and its Legacy


Text written for a public lecture at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, accompanying a small exhibition of Stoic-related books. The talk was recorded and is available as a podcast.

In what follows I am going to try to do three things. I shall try to introduce the ancient philosophy of Stoicism for those who may not know so much about it; I shall try to say something about its later reception; and I shall try to say something about the particular books that are on display. That’s quite ambitious for a relatively short talk but I’ll do my best.

Let’s start at the beginning. The Stoics were so called because they used to meet to discuss philosophical topics at the Painted Stoa on the northern edge of the Agora in ancient Athens. They started to do so sometime around 300 BC and their founder was Zeno, originally from Cyprus. When Zeno first arrived in Athens he came under the influence of a philosopher called Crates, who was a follower of Diogenes the Cynic. In order to understand the origins of Stoicism it may be useful to say something about the Cynics. The Cynics were famous for their complete rejection of traditional customs and conventions, preferring instead to live as close to nature as they could, hence the name, Cynic or ‘dog-like’. Diogenes, Crates, and other Cynics held that all of the external things that people typically hold to be important for a good life, such as money or social reputation, have no intrinsic value and that all we need in order to live a good, happy life is virtue – that is, an excellent, healthy state of mind. If we have that then we shall live well. Moreover the knowledge that that is all we need in order to live well will enable us face the sorts of external trials and tribulations that will inevitably come along with a calm indifference.

There are two key ideas in what I have just said: i) the idea that only virtue or an excellent state of mind is necessary for living a good, happy life, and ii) the idea that we ought to look to Nature as our guide when thinking about how to live. Both of these ideas left a big impression on Zeno and they went on to become central ideas in Stoicism. But Zeno was clearly not entirely satisfied by Cynicism otherwise he would have presumably joined their ranks instead of setting out on his own. While the Cynics offered a very direct and practical philosophy of life they had less to say about the sorts of theoretical questions that occupy philosophers today. But other philosophers in Athens at the time did address those sorts of questions and Zeno was keen to study with them too. In particular he is said to have spent a number of years as a student at Plato’s Academy where he would have studied a wide range of topics that remain central in philosophy today: questions about what exists, about what knowledge is, and so on.

But ultimately Zeno chose not to join the Academy either and decided to set out on his own. We are told that his immediate followers were known as Zenonians but after a while they came to be known as Stoics after the place where they met to discuss philosophy each day. Inspired by elements of both his Cynic and Platonic education Zeno developed his own distinctive philosophy. In some respects it seems to us a strikingly modern philosophy. Zeno and the other early Stoics held that all of our knowledge comes through the senses and that the only things that exist are material bodies. There is no immortal soul or afterlife, and all that there is is what we see before us. Nature as a whole ought to be thought of as an organic unity, a living being of which we are parts, pre-empting some strands of contemporary ecological thinking. So far so good. Perhaps less modern is the claim that we ought to identify this living Nature with God, and think of it as animated by a divine spirit or breath permeating everything, including us. Indeed the Stoics identify this breath as the soul of God and suggest that each of our individual souls is literally a fragment of this divine soul. This divine spirit immanent within Nature is ultimately responsible for everything that happens and is identified with God’s will, with reason, with providence, and with fate. Everything that happens does so necessarily and does so according to a providential and rational plan.

That tells us something about Stoic physics – how they conceived Nature. When I discussed the Cynics earlier I touched on two ideas that would become central in Stoic ethics. One of the distinctive characteristics of Stoic philosophy is its desire to bring these different parts of philosophy together into a systematic whole. I don’t have time to go into this in the detail that it deserves here but let me at least try to join a few jots. As we have seen the Stoics take from the Cynics the idea that we ought to live in harmony with Nature and, as we have also seen, they develop a pantheistic conception of Nature. So to live in harmony with Nature is to live in harmony with the divine, rational will. We have also seen that the Stoics think that all we need to live a good, happy life is a virtuous, excellent mental state, and we can now see that our own mental virtue is a fragment of the divine soul. So, the more virtuous and rational we become the more in harmony we become with the rational principle that guides all of Nature.

There is one more Stoic idea I should mention before moving on, and it is one for which they are very famous, namely their attitude towards the emotions. The word ‘stoic’ has entered modern vocabulary as a word referring to the control or suppression of emotion, but the ancient Stoic position is something different. The early Stoics suggest that our emotions are not some separate force within our minds that need to be controlled but rather that they are simply the product of beliefs we hold that, in turn, are the product of judgements we make about things. If we alter our judgements, our beliefs will change, and so will our emotions. One consequence of this view is the claim that our emotions are ultimately within our power.

The Stoics go on to claim that many of the harmful emotions that cause people so much distress are in fact based on mistaken judgements and that if we can learn to see why they are mistaken and then stop making them, we shall be able to overcome them. Many of these harmful emotions arise from judgements about external objects or events – thinking that some event is a terrible thing, or worrying about something that might happen in the future, and so on. But if we accept the claim that it is our own inner virtue that is the only thing that really matters for our well being then we shall see that these external things are inessential and that we ought not to judge them as good or bad strictly speaking at all. If we refrain from making those judgements then we won’t generate the harmful emotions.

A slightly later Stoic, Epictetus (whom we’ll come to shortly), adds the thought that these external things are all ultimately out of our control anyway, whereas the one thing that will guarantee our happiness, namely making correct judgements, is the only thing completely within our control. If we can grasp this idea and focus our attention on our own judgements then, if we start to make only correct judgements, we shall avoid unpleasant emotions, not be overly concerned about external trials and tribulations, and achieve the virtuous, rational state of mind that the Stoics claim is the only thing that can deliver a genuinely good and happy life.

I hope that gives us at least a sense of what the Stoics thought. I mentioned earlier that Zeno founded the school. After he died he was succeeded by his pupil Cleanthes, who was, in turn, succeeded by Chrysippus. In many ways Chrysippus was the most important of the early Stoics and much of what I have just described may have been formulated by him. He was also the most prolific of the early Stoics and is said to have written over 700 books. Unfortunately for us more or less all of the works of the early Stoics are lost and for our knowledge of them we have to rely on summaries and quotations preserved by later ancient authors. However there have been some more recent discoveries: at the end of the eighteenth century fragments from previously lost works by Chrysippus were recovered from the charred papyrus scrolls unearthed at Herculaneum. In some cases the scrolls literally crumbled into dust not long after being opened but their contents were thankfully recorded in drawings before they disintegrated. In the display we have a reproduction of one of these drawings, made in 1802 and held in the Bodleian, which now that the scroll is lost is the only evidence we have for the text it records, in this case the Logical Questions of Chrysippus.

The early Stoics including Zeno and Chrysippus were all teaching and writing in Athens in the third and second centuries BC. In the first century BC Athens lost its status as the preeminent centre for philosophy while at the same time Roman authors such as Cicero made the ideas of the Stoics and other Greek schools of philosophy available to a Latin-reading audience. Stoicism attracted a number of Roman admirers and in the first two centuries AD we find what were to become the three great canonical Roman Stoics: Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius. Seneca is famous, or perhaps infamous, for being tutor to the Emperor Nero and, as well as writing a series of philosophical essays and letters, he also wrote a series of tragedies. Epictetus was a slave originally from Asia Minor who found himself in Rome where his master allowed him to attend the lectures of a Stoic called Musonius Rufus. In due course Epictetus gained his freedom and he went on to found his own philosophy school in Western Greece. Like his hero Socrates, Epictetus chose to write nothing but one of his pupils, the historian Arrian, wrote up his lecture notes and these notes form the work we now know as the Discourses. Arrian also produced a shorter summary of key ideas called the Handbook. Marcus Aurelius was of course the Emperor who kept a notebook of philosophical reflections we now know as the Meditations. The story of the influence of Stoic ideas is in large part the story of the influence of these three Roman Stoic authors, although we ought not to forget the importance of other sources, such as Cicero, who did much to preserve and transmit Stoic ideas to later generations.

In the third century AD Stoicism fell out of favour, eclipsed in philosophical circles by a renewed interest in the works of Plato and Aristotle, and eclipsed in the wider culture as a practical guide to living by Christianity. While Stoicism did have some influence on the development of both Neoplatonism and early Christian thought, it no longer held the prominent position it had in previous centuries. This continued for much of the Middle Ages, although there were of course exceptions, such as the 13th century Oxford philosopher Roger Bacon, whose section on ethics in his major philosophical work is little more than a patchwork of quotations from Seneca because Bacon thought that Seneca had more or less got it right.

It is in the Renaissance and in particular with the Renaissance Humanists that we see a significant revival of interest in Stoicism. The recovery of previously neglected ancient texts, a taste for Latin authors, and a rejection of the predominant Aristotelian scholastic approach to philosophy all contributed to a renewed interest in the Stoics. All these elements can be seen in the case of Petrarch, writing in the 14th century. Perhaps a little unfairly, Petrarch dismissed Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics as a tedious book that left him cold. In its place Petrarch read Cicero, Seneca, and Augustine, all of whom informed him about Stoicism and led ultimately to him composing his Stoic-inspired dialogue Remedies for Both Kinds of Fortune. The two kinds are of course bad fortune and good fortune, for Petrarch followed Seneca in seeing unbridled good luck as a very dangerous thing indeed – dangerous because it lulls us into thinking that the external goods that it brings really are goods, when in fact only virtue is a genuine good.

Stoic texts and ideas circulated widely in the 15th century, in both manuscript and print. On display we have a Florentine Manuscript of Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations, a work in which Cicero discussed at length the Stoic theory of the emotions that I touched on earlier. We also have a copy of the Humanist Angelo Poliziano’s translation into Latin of the Handbook of Epictetus, printed in Venice by Aldus Manutius in 1498.

It was, however in the 16th and 17th centuries that Stoicism came into its own. In the early 16th century both Erasmus and Calvin spent time editing Seneca’s works and it has been suggested that Calvin’s later ideas about predestination owed something to his knowledge of Stoic ideas about fate. But the real revival came a little later in the work of the Flemish Humanist Justus Lispius. Lipsius was primarily an admirer of Seneca and his dialogue De Constantia written in 1584 presented some of the central Stoic ideas he found in Seneca as what he called an ‘antidote to public evils’. What is striking about Lipsius is that he seems to have wanted to revive Stoicism as a living philosophical movement, or at least a contemporary guide to life. He gathered around himself a number of pupils, including Philip Rubens, brother of Peter Paul Rubens, who wrote some Stoic-inspired poetry published in the volume of his that is on display. In the display we have a reproduction of Peter Paul Ruben’s painting The Four Philosophers that depicts Lipsius reading with some of his pupils. Philip Rubens is among the seated and Peter Paul represents himself standing to the side. The whole group is watched over by a bust of Seneca. (As an aside the ancient bust depicted in the painting is no longer thought to be of Seneca, but Rubens used it here and in his famous painting of the death of Seneca, which is reproduced as an engraved frontispiece to one of the volumes on display.)

While the De Constantia was a pocketbook guide to life focused on how one might draw on Stoic ideas in times of difficulty, Lipsius’s major contributions to Stoic scholarship came later, at the end of his career. In 1605 he published a huge folio edition of Seneca’s works and on display we have one of the later reprints for which the original engravings were revised by Rubens. The year before, in 1604, Lipsius published two handbooks to Stoicism in which he gathered together the scattered fragmentary evidence for the early Stoics for the very first time. These are also on display.

The revival of interest in Stoicism inspired by Lipsius is sometimes called Neostoicism by modern scholars. Neostoicism, so the story goes, is distinct from ancient Stoicism insofar as it proposes various modifications of Stoic doctrine in order to make it acceptable to contemporary Christian readers. At first glance this is what Lipsius appears to do in his De Constantia where he seems to suggest that modern Christian admirers of Stoicism ought to reject the rigid determinism of ancient Stoicism in order to leave room for free will and miracles. In fact I think Lipsius is more orthodox a Stoic than many readers have supposed but the important point for present purposes is that the reception of Stoic ideas in this period was unsurprisingly shaped by its relationship with Christianity.

It is at this point that I should mention Thomas James, who was Thomas Bodley’s first librarian. James was evidently something of an admirer of the Neostoic movement as he translated into English a work by Guillaume du Vair, a French follower of Lipsius who drew heavily on Epictetus. In the preface to the translation, which is on display, James wrote that ‘no kinde of philosophie is more profitable and nearer approaching unto Christianitie than the philosophie of the Stoicks’.

When half a century later the vicar of Rotherhithe Thomas Gataker published his important edition of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, which is also on display, he prefaced the edition with a lengthy introduction championing the text’s compatibility with Christianity and he included a list of parallels with Biblical passages.

It wasn’t too difficult for these early modern readers of the Roman Stoic authors to find high-minded moral sentiments about virtue and indifference to earthly goods that chimed with their own Christian values. But as people gained a better understanding of the determinist, materialist, and pantheist physics of the early Stoics the claims made by Lipsius, James, and Gataker seemed less convincing. While Christian writers in the early 18th century began to attack Stoicism as a form of atheism, by the middle of the century Enlightenment thinkers started to champion them for the very same reason.

While these disputes about the relationships between God and Nature and free will and determinism went on, other readers continued to turn to the Roman Stoics as a source of practical moral wisdom, less concerned by such physical or theological questions. Noteworthy among these was Anthony Ashley Cooper, the third Earl of Shaftesbury, who kept a philosophical notebook modelled on the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius in which he drew extensively on Marcus and Epictetus and reflected on a range of practical questions about how to live. Shaftesbury studied these texts very closely and even proposed a series of amendments to the Greek texts, some of which are recorded in the critical apparatus of an edition of Epictetus by John Upton, first published in 1739. I mention this because Upton’s edition was the one used by Elizabeth Carter for the final item on display, her translation of Epictetus, published in 1758. Carter’s edition is noteworthy for completing the translation of the principal Roman Stoic texts into English. Marcus Aurelius had been translated a number of times by then, most notably by Meric Casaubon in 1634 who coined the title Meditations in the process. And Seneca had been translated in 1614 by Thomas Lodge, who simply translated Lipsius’s edition, including much of his editorial material, and Lodge’s edition of Seneca is on display. But the Discourses of Epictetus had to wait until the 1750s before Carter made them accessible to English readers.

I’d like to conclude by saying something about more recent uses of Stoicism. Everything I’ve said so far has been about the past and one might think that while Stoicism is an interesting thread in the history of philosophy and ideas, it is of little relevance to us today. But it is striking to note that a number of the founding figures of modern cognitive psychotherapy have cited Stoicism as a central influence. In particular Aaron Beck and Albert Ellis have both pointed to the importance of Epictetus’ famous statement that it is not things but our judgements about things that disturb us. Indeed, Ellis went so far as to call Epictetus ‘one of the patron saints of cognitive behavior therapy’. So the ancient Stoic idea that philosophy might offer some kind of therapy for the emotions is alive and well today, and the legacy of Stoicism continues.

Which Stoicism?


This text considers the Stoic credentials of the Stoicism Today project and was written for the Stoicism Today blog. It has since been published in the book Stoicism Today: Selected Writings (2014).

The aim of the Stoicism Today project is to highlight ways in which ancient Stoicism might be of use to people as a general guide to life or might contribute to a therapeutic response to specific problems. Some critics might object that the version of Stoicism being offered bears little relation to the Hellenistic philosophy founded by Zeno and developed by Chrysippus and others (see e.g. Williams on Nussbaum (LRB 16/20 (20 Oct. 1994), 25-6) and Warren on Irvine (Polis 26/1 (2009), 176-9)). As Williams quipped, what use is Chrysippus’ logical theory in learning how to live?

The project, by contrast, has been inspired primarily by a study of Marcus Aurelius and the materials prepared for the project draw on the works of Seneca, Musonius Rufus, and Epictetus – all later Roman Stoics. This is not just because the works of these later Stoics survive and those of the earlier Stoics active in Athens do not; it also reflects the fact that these later Stoics focus their attention on what we might call ‘Stoic practice’. They offer a wide range of practical guidance designed to contribute towards the cultivation of tranquillity or what Zeno called ‘a smooth flow of life’. It is hard to know to what extent these sorts of practices figured in early Stoicism: we know that early Stoics wrote books on mental training (askêsis) and we also know that this featured prominently in Cynicism, an important influence on the early Stoics. Ultimately the evidence is just too thin for us to know for sure.

It may be that this concern with practices (what Pierre Hadot called ‘spiritual exercises’) did not figure much in early Stoicism and it may have been a Pythagorean theme in later Stoicism introduced by the Roman Stoic Sextius, who influenced Seneca. That view would hold that there is a marked difference between early Hellenistic Stoicism and later Roman Stoicism (although in my own book Stoicism (2006) I consciously tried to downplay such a division by treating the ancient Stoic tradition as a continuous whole). But even if one did take that view, the later Roman Stoics were indeed Stoics – they self identified as Stoics and others in antiquity described them as Stoics. If their use of practices counts as an innovation in the history of ancient Stoicism that does not stop them being fully paid up members of the Stoic tradition. The Stoicism that the ‘Stoicism Project’ draws on is this later variety of Roman Stoicism.

Having said that, it may be that the difference between early and later Stoicism is not as marked as some may think. As I have already noted, ultimately it is hard to know for sure given the fragmentary nature of the evidence for the early Stoa but we do know that the Cynics engaged in these sorts of practices and recent scholarship has rightly stressed the Cynic influence on all the early Stoics (e.g. Goulet-Cazé’s Les Kynica du stoïcisme, 2003). If the Cynic teachers of the early Stoics engaged in these practices and later Roman Stoics did too then it is not unreasonable to think that the early Stoics in between might have also, although we cannot know for sure.

Even so, the Stoicism Today project is primarily concerned with drawing on the surviving works of the later Roman Stoics who do outline a variety of practices designed to cultivate well being. The project could have been called ‘Roman Stoicism Today’, but ‘Stoicism Today’ is far from misleading.

There is a separate question about the extent to which it makes sense to call these practices ‘Stoic’ if they are divorced from the rest of Stoic philosophy. Are these practices essentially Stoic or only contingently so to the extent that later Stoics happened to make use of them? My own view is that these practices only count as philosophical practices when done in the light of some of the central tenets of Stoic philosophy – especially their theory of value and perhaps also their determinism. However one of the striking features of the Roman Stoics – Epictetus to an extent, Marcus Aurelius even more so – is the thought that these practices can benefit people even if they are not yet fully committed to the full range of Stoic doctrines. The beginning student, suggests Epictetus, can benefit from these practices before they have studied the full range of Stoic doctrine, and the cautious student of Nature, Marcus says, can pursue well being even if they remain unsure whether Nature is governed by providence or is merely chaotic. In short, the Roman Stoics offer a helpful model of how one might start to draw on these Stoic practices even if one is not yet fully committed to the Stoic philosophical system. One might say that simply embracing some of these practices does not make someone a Stoic if they do not also embrace all of the doctrine, and that is fine: the aim of the project is not to create a new sect of doctrinaire Stoics but rather the more modest goal of drawing on Stoic practices to the extent they might help people in their everyday lives.

Saturday, 3 January 2015

What is Stoicism?


Originally written for the Stoicism Today blog, this is an attempt to summarize Stoicism as succinctly as possible. It has since been published in the book StoicismToday: Selected Writings (2014).

Stoicism was one of the four principal schools of philosophy in ancient Athens, alongside Plato’s Academy, Aristotle’s Lyceum, and Epicurus’s Garden, where it flourished for some 250 years. It proved especially popular among the Romans, attracting admirers as diverse as the statesman Seneca, the ex-slave Epictetus, and the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. The works of these three authors have come down to us and have won admirers from the Renaissance through to the present day. Although the philosophy of Stoicism as a whole is complex, embracing everything from metaphysics to astronomy to grammar, the works of the three great Roman Stoics focus on practical advice and guidance for those trying to achieve wellbeing or happiness. Here are four central ideas:

Value: the only thing that is truly good is an excellent mental state, identified with virtue and reason. This is the only thing that can guarantee our happiness. External things such as money, success, fame and the like can never bring us happiness. Although there is nothing wrong with these things and they do hold value and may well form part of a good life, often the pursuit of these things actually damages the only thing that can bring us happiness: an excellent, rational mental state.

Emotions: our emotions are the project of our judgements, of thinking that something good or bad is happening or is about to happen. Many of our negative emotions are based on mistaken judgements, but because they are due to our judgements it means they are within our control. Change the judgements and you change the emotions. Despite the popular image, the Stoic does not repress or deny his emotions; instead he simply doesn’t have them in the first place. This isn’t as cold as it might at first sound: we ought to overcome harmful, negative emotions that are based on mistaken judgments while embracing correct positive emotions, replacing anger with joy.

Nature: the Stoics suggest we ought to live in harmony with Nature. Part of what they mean by this is that we ought to acknowledge that we but small parts of a larger, organic whole, shaped by larger processes that are ultimately out of our control. There is nothing to be gained from trying to resist these larger processes except anger, frustration, and disappointment. While there are many things in the world that we can change, there are many others we cannot and we need to understand this and accept it.

Control: in the light of what we have seen, there are some things we have control over (our judgements, our own mental state) and some things that we do not (external processes and objects). Much of our unhappiness is caused by confusing these two categories: thinking we have control over something that ultimately we do not. Happily the one thing we do have control over is the only thing that can guarantee a good, happy life.

The three Roman Stoics Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius offer a wide range of practical advice aimed at helping people incorporate these ideas into their daily lives.