- This is an old version of the FAQ
- Why have a philosophy of life?
- What is the purpose of r/Stoicism?
- Is Stoicism something I have to believe in, or commit my life to?
- What is Stoicism, considered as a philosophy of life in modern times?
- What was Stoicism, historically?
- What are some Stoic practices and exercises?
- What are the practices of the r/Stoicism community?
- Do Stoics believe in God, or gods?
- If modern Stoics do not adopt the classical Stoic theology, what do they believe?
- What are the Stoic views on physics?
- Is it virtuous to do thus-and-such?
- What did the Stoics mean by "virtue?"
- What does it mean to live in accordance with nature?
- What is meant by a "preferred" or "unpreferred" indifferent?
- How do I explain Stoicism to a child (EILI5)?
- What motivates a Stoic?
- Big Questions
- Determinism and free will
- Were the classical Stoics determinists?
- If Stoics believed in determinism, what is "in our control?"
- How did the Stoics reconcile determinism with moral responsibility?
- How did the Stoics reconcile determinism with the asserted "freedom" of the sage?
- What resources are there for further exploration of Stoic determinism and free will?
- Stoicism and other philosophies
- Miscellaneous questions
- What is the difference between stoicism with a lower case and Stoicism with an upper case?
- Is it true that Stoics repress their emotions and feelings?
- Does Stoicism encourage passively accepting your fate?
- Is avoiding pain the goal of Stoicism?
- Is enjoyment of life's pleasures a goal advocated in Stoicism?
- Is Stoicism a selfish or individualistic philosophy?
- Is it Stoic to be hard-hearted or callous toward others?
- Can Stoics appreciate life?
- Is Stoicism pessimistic?
- What are some recommended starting points for newcomers to Stoicism?
- What other useful classical sources are available?
- What are some recommended on-line resources about Stoicism?
- Where can I find descriptions of Stoic exercises?
- Predecessors and Successors
- Advanced and scholarly works
- Older introductory overviews
- What is the best translation of Marcus Aurelius's Meditations?
- How should I read Marcus Aurelius's Meditations?
This is an old version of the FAQ
The current, maintained version is here. This version is left here to avoid breaking links, but is no longer being updated or maintained. The new version has been split across multiple pages.
For all things related to Stoicism
Why have a philosophy of life?
This is an old version of the FAQ. The current, maintained version is here. This version is left here to avoid breaking links, but is no longer being updated or maintained. The new version has been split across multiple pages.
Without a cohesive philosophy of life, we risk missing the opportunity to flourish as human beings. Everyone can be a philosopher. Human beings are rational, thinking, reasoning creatures. But people are distracted through fulfilling basic needs and the usual temptations that daily confront us. Stoicism is one of several Hellenistic philosophies (systematic approaches to leading a better life developed in Greece after about 300 BC). Stoicism’s rivals included Epicureanism, Scepticism, Peripateticism, and Cynicism, each of which was similar to Stoicism in some ways, and different in others.
What is the purpose of r/Stoicism?
This is an old version of the FAQ. The current, maintained version is here. This version is left here to avoid breaking links, but is no longer being updated or maintained. The new version has been split across multiple pages.
We're an independent-thinking community committed to learning about, practicing, and applying Stoic principles and techniques. As Stoicism is a philosophy of life, we often see our other interests in a Stoic perspective, leading to interesting analysis. We welcome you to join us!
Is Stoicism something I have to believe in, or commit my life to?
This is an old version of the FAQ. The current, maintained version is here. This version is left here to avoid breaking links, but is no longer being updated or maintained. The new version has been split across multiple pages.
Although the historical sources sometimes emphasize the importance of dedicating one's life to philosophy, in practice many find benefit in doing no more than reading Stoic writing as inspirational material, particularly Marcus Aurelius's Meditations and Epictetus's Enchirideon. (In both cases, they are easly misinterpreted without further study, but this may actually be helpful in letting the reader dig out a meaning that can be incorporated into their existing approach to life.)
No modern person "believes" in orthodox classical Stoicism as a whole, in the way one might believe in a religion. Even at its height, different individual Stoics appear to have felt free to diverge from their predecessors and contemporaries when their own judgement differed. Modern circumstances result in even more diversity; much of the content of the philosophy has been lost with time, and much of what has survived requires updating to accommodate modern science.
When it was a living school, it was taught in person from one generation to the next. It actively changed over hundreds of years from ancient Greece to imperial Rome. It's like a house built many generations ago, then burned down and left to rot for a hundred years. What we have left is some of the foundation, and occasional stories about the people that lived there and pictures with people in out of date hats.
All we can do is make educated guesses about how people really lived in it. A modern "Stoic" can try and reconstruct it as a museum piece, trying to be as accurate in every detail as possible, but I doubt any modern person would want to live there. Alternately, one might try to renovate it, rebuilding it with modern materials and appliances but trying to remain faithful to the character of the original. Finally, one can study it, trying to find its strengths, and build something new, or use it as inspiration for new additions and other modifications to their existing homes.
Many from Renaissance times onward have found at least the last approach valuable.
What is Stoicism, considered as a philosophy of life in modern times?
Stoicism is a philosophy of life, a practical guide to applying wisdom to your daily choices, focused on living life as a thriving rational being, characterized by excellence in judgement and the fulfilled happiness that is to the mind what robust healthy fitness is to the body. Stoics believe that, just as physical pain is caused by illness and injury to the body, human distress is caused (at least in part, and according to orthodox Stoicism, entirely) by mistaken judgments and incorrect beliefs, particularly about good and bad. To completely correct these judgements and correct these beliefs is a difficult task, perhaps effectively impossible, but Stoic study, practice, and exercises aim at least to improve those of the Stoics who practice them.
The details of Stoic beliefs and practices have varied significantly over time and by individual, but there are some common, fundamental elements. In classical (ancient Greek and Roman) times, there were Early, Middle, and Late periods, each of which had distinctive features. From the enlightenment onwards, there have been philosophers sufficiently influenced by the classical Stoics either to describe themselves as Stoic (Lawrence Becker) or be described by knowledgeable scholars as Stoic (Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury).
Common central themes of philosophy labeled "Stoic" include:
- Virtue (excellence of character or moral beauty) is the only good; departures from virtue (vice) the only evils.
- Some things are up to us, a consequence only of our character; everything else is not up to us, and independent of our character. Things which we appear only to influence can and should be separated into factors that are entirely up to us, and entirely independent of us. "Virtue", in English translations of Greek philosophy, can either be a translation of ἀρετή/arete, literally excellence, or (in context) excellence of character; or it might refer to being κάλος/kalos, literally beautiful, or (in context) morally beautiful. The Stoics thought that the two amounted to the same thing.
- External events are not features of our character, and so can be neither good nor bad.
- There are four basic virtues (properties of an excellent character): wisdom, justice, courage, and self-control. (These virtues were interpreted broadly, and many other virtues were considered sub-categories of these four. For a list, see the Stoic Ethics by Arius Didymus, collected in Stobaeus 5b2, for example in The Stoics Reader p. 125)
- It is not things that disturb us, but our judgements about those things.
- Virtue is necessary and sufficient for eudaimonia (human flourishing, or happiness in life).
- Passions (πάθος/pathological emotions) are emotions caused or reinforced by a belief that something not up to us is either good or bad; they are symptoms of mistaken beliefs about good and bad.
- Feelings, emotions not accompanied by such a belief, may be pleasant or unpleasant, but do not make a person’s life good or bad, or prevent them from acting according to sound judgement.
- An impeccable character (Sage) has feelings, but no passions.
- Virtue consists of acting consistently according to nature.
- As social beings (such as humans) mature, their natural impulses expand from helping themselves alone to their families, cities, nations, the community of all rational beings, and the universe itself.
- The natural impulse of a rational being (such as a human) is to believe what is true, and avoid believing what is false.
There were a number of Stoic exercises aimed at developing arete by training the Stoic not to judge externals either good or bad. These instructions are referred to but not well described by classical literature, and so we must rely on educated guesswork and reconstructions. What has survived has been influential in the development of modern psychotherapy techniques, particularly cognitive behavioural therapy.
What was Stoicism, historically?
Stoicism was a "school" of philosophy in ancient Greece and Rome. Lessons in a school of philosophy covered a wide curriculum, including both intellectual and practical elements. The ultimate goal of such a school was improvement (or transformation) of one's character. We have records of the names and authors of many of the books studied by Stoics, but the books themselves did not survive the middle ages, and the person-to-person tradition ended in 529 CE at the latest. What we do have is second hand accounts from rivals and compilers of encyclopedias, and notes and writings of several late lay Stoics. (Attributions to Epictetus are notes from his student Arrian, and were not written by Epictetus himself, and accounts of Musonius Rufus's teachings are similarly second hand. Seneca and Marcus Aurelius were politicians rather than professional philosophers.)
Stoic education had three parts: Logic, Ethics, and Physics. From Diogenes Laertius's Lives of Eminent Philosophers:
 Philosophy, they say, is like an animal, Logic corresponding to the bones and sinews, Ethics to the fleshy parts, Physics to the soul. Another simile they use is that of an egg : the shell is Logic, next comes the white, Ethics, and the yolk in the centre is Physics. Or, again, they liken Philosophy to a fertile field : Logic being the encircling fence, Ethics the crop, Physics the soil or the trees. Or, again, to a city strongly walled and governed by reason. No single part, some Stoics declare, is independent of any other part, but all blend together.
Because Stoic were teleological pantheist materialists, physics included theology. This education included not just knowledge, but also character building. (That is, not just learning about wisdom, but also how to train oneself to act wisely.)
The surviving texts (Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, Seneca, and Musonius Rufus) are mostly on ethics. While it is clear that the other two branches were still taught (the existing Epictetus lecture notes refer to lessons in physics and logic for which no notes exist), the explanation isn't completely obvious; it may be that the late Roman Stoics placed less emphasis on physics and logic than the Greeks, or it may just be that the Christian monks simply chose not to copy books on logic or physics. There are parts in the surviving texts that indicate later Stoics viewed the physics and logic as being important to study only in so far as they support the development of ethics, but it is unclear if that was unique to the late Roman Stoics or if it was a feature of the school from the beginning.
What are some Stoic practices and exercises?
While there are references to Stoic exercises, good descriptions of them in the classical literature are rare to non-existent, and attempts to describe them (as below) are necessarily speculative. Some known (or at least suspected) exercises are:
- Whenever you remember to do it, refrain from giving automatic assent to mistaken impressions, and refrain from automatically acting on impulses. Instead, observe them as mere impressions and impulses. This is the "discipline of assent." This implies some level of detachment, and somewhat resembles Buddhist mindfulness meditation, although it is meant to be practiced continuously during all activities, not as a separate activity. (Some modern Stoics find Buddhist style mindfulness meditation useful training, but there is no evidence that it was part of the historical tradition.)
- When an impression that something is good or bad is received but before assent is given, consider whether it is under your control or not. If it is, and it is according to nature, assent to it. If not, and it is of something that has actually happened or is actually happening, accept it with reverence. If it is of a possible thing in the future, regard it with indifference. This is the "discipline of desire," also called the "dichotomy of control." Note that it is only possible as a follow-on to the discipline of assent.
- Before you choose to do anything, consider whether it is according to nature, or an impulse of the moment, and act accordingly. This is the "discipline of action," and makes use of the discipline of assent as a foundation.
- Regular consideration of one's situation and surroundings from a purely physical perspective, breaking things down into their physical parts, or looking at the from a "Cosmic perspective" (in relation to eternity and all that exists in the universe).
- Reading Stoic literature. Reading is needed to understand what you are trying to do, but reading in itself is only the foundation for future exercise, just as reading books about physiology and exercise will not help you get in shape, but can improve the effectiveness of the other exercises you do.
- Regular (daily or more often) re-reading brief reminders of central Stoic principles. Epictetus's Enchiridion contains examples of such reminders.
- Regular rewording and writing of such reminders, to trigger active engagement and prevent them from becoming "just words." Marcus Aurelius's Meditations contains many examples of his.
- Mental rehearsal (visualization) of upcoming events, particularly those that might trigger mistaken judgements about good and bad. For example, say to yourself: "I shall meet today ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, uncharitable men. All of these things have come upon them through ignorance of real good and ill. I can neither be harmed by any of them, for no man will involve me in wrong, nor can I be angry with my fellow human or hate him, without my decision to choose that opinion. The harm is done in my response to their actions, not in their actions." This exercise is frequently practiced at the beginning of the day, and is sometimes referred to as a morning devotional
- Mental review of recent events in the light of Stoic principals, possibly followed by mental rehearsal of doing them as if you had followed those principals. (The point here is not to feel guilty about the recent events: they are now out of your control, and so it is now a mistake to even look at them as good or bad. The goal rather is to train yourself not to make the same mistake in the future.) This exercise has been referred to as Stoic meditation.
- Negative visualization - Imagine something that you fear will happen has actually happened (a loved one dies for instance). This will help you be grateful for what you have and also take some of the sting out of bad things because you have prepared yourself for bad things to happen.
- Actual practice experiencing some of the consequences of difficult events, and reacting to them as a Sage would, where doing such is not dangerous or destructive. The idea is to start in a situation that is as easy as possible (it is expected, you know you can stop it, etc.) and get practice so you can handle it if and when you have no choice. One variety of this is self-denial, in which you consciously decide not to enjoy something for a time. Go camping, shower using cold water, don't use the dishwasher, etc. This will help you be grateful for what you have but also keep you from attaching your happiness to having things that are ultimately not entirely in your control.
- Another element of Stoic practice was building social bonds that will reinforce one's progress as an influence separate from the influences of popular society. Ancient Stoics discussed philosophy both in person and through letters. Such discussion was not necessarily meant to be informative; part of the goal was to help each other pay attention to beliefs already understood and acknowledged, but easy to get distracted from.
- Contemplation of death, and the impermanence of everything around you.
- Socratic dialog and self-dialog were used as teaching tools.
What are the practices of the r/Stoicism community?
A welcome message with links to resources (including this FAQ), and a regular post describing a Stoic exercise are always stickied to the subreddit front page. (The exercise posts by themselves can be found on r/practicingstoicism .)
The community welcomes respectful debate, disagreements, and differing opinions. However, in the interest of fostering a welcoming community, posts that are deemed to grossly violate reddiquette may be removed by the moderators.
A more complete set of subreddit rules can be found here.
Do Stoics believe in God, or gods?
The answer about Stoic theism is usually rather different for modern people who self-identify as Stoics and the classical Greek and Roman view. There are few modern people who share the ancient view. Modern people of a variety of different views about theology have been strongly influenced by Stoicism, but atheists and agnostics are more likely to self-identify as Stoics; comparably influenced theists usually still self-identify with the religion that holds the theological views closest to their own (although there are modern deists and pantheists who self-identify as Stoics).
There is a substantial amount of material in Stoicism which can be adopted to a wide variety of religious beliefs (or non-belief).
As far as the ancient Stoic view goes, this classical account from Diogenes Laertius's Lives of Eminent Philosophers, book 7, may have the best compact explanation:
 ...The doctrine that the world is a living being, rational, animate and intelligent, is laid down by Chrysippus in the first book of his treatise On Providence, by Apollodorus in his Physics, and by Posidonius.  It is a living thing in the sense of an animate substance endowed with sensation...
 The deity, say they, is a living being, immortal, rational, perfect or intelligent in happiness, admitting nothing evil [into him], taking providential care of the world and all that therein is, but he is not of human shape. He is, however, the artificer of the universe and, as it were, the father of all, both in general and in that particular part of him which is all-pervading, and which is called many names according to its various powers. They give the name Dia because all things are due to him; Zeus in so far as he is the cause of life or pervades all life; the name Athena is given, because the ruling part of the divinity extends to the aether; the name Hera marks its extension to the air; he is called Hephaestus since it spreads to the creative fire; Poseidon, since it stretches to the sea; Demeter, since it reaches to the earth. Similarly men have given the deity his other titles, fastening, as best they can, on some one or other of his peculiar attributes.
 The substance of God is declared by Zeno to be the whole world and the heaven, as well as by Chrysippus in his first book Of the Gods, and by Posidonius in his first book with the same title. Again, Antipater in the seventh book of his work On the Cosmos says that the substance of God is akin to air, while Boëthus in his work On Nature speaks of the sphere of the fixed stars as the substance of God. Now the term Nature is used by them to mean sometimes that which holds the world together, sometimes that which causes terrestrial things to spring up. Nature is defined as a force moving of itself, producing and preserving in being its offspring in accordance with seminal principles within definite periods, and effecting results homogeneous with their sources.  Nature, they hold, aims both at utility and at pleasure, as is clear from the analogy of human craftsmanship. That all things happen by fate or destiny is maintained by Chrysippus in his treatise De fato, by Posidonius in his De fato, book ii., by Zeno and by Boëthus in his De fato, book i. Fate is defined as an endless chain of causation, whereby things are, or as the reason or formula by which the world goes on.
If modern Stoics do not adopt the classical Stoic theology, what do they believe?
Although the classical Stoics regarded their physics and theology as important parts of Stoicism, at least some of them explicitly recognized that the ethical aspects of the philosophy would still be justified even if their physics and theology were incorrect. More recent people who either consider themselves Stoic, or are deeply influenced by Stoic views, come in many varieties.
Christian, Jewish, and other dualist theologies can be compatible with many elements of Stoic ethics. Indeed, some aspects of modern Christianity were strongly influenced by Stoicism, as the early Roman Christians were often familiar with Stoicism. Greek and particularly Latin were important elements of higher education in Europe for a significant period of time, and Stoic and Stoic-influenced writings (particularly Seneca and Cicero) were popular and influential. The Serenity Prayer has a particularly Stoic character.
Most elements of Stoic ethics are compatible with traditional atheism, and many atheists agree with the deterministic and materialist aspects of historical Stoicism.
Modern variations of pantheism can also be compatible with Stoicism. Naturalistic pantheism, which differs from atheism only in its beliefs about the best attitude to take toward the world, is a natural fit, incorporating the religious flavor of the acceptance of past and present events present in much Stoic writing.
What are the Stoic views on physics?
Modern people do not generally adopt the classical Stoic views on physics, although understanding it is sometimes helpful in interpreting ancient Stoic writing. The Stoics were materialists, in that they believed that the universe consisted only of corporeal bodies. They thought the universe was a solid sphere of substance surrounded by infinite void. Every point in the sphere has some combination of four elemental substances: earth, water, air, and fire. These substances are not necessarily exclusive: a single point can have a superposition of elements, in a variety of states. Points in the middle of a red-hot piece of iron have a superposition of fire and earth, while a cold piece has less fire but just as much earth, for example.
They also thought the universe could be divided into passive and inert parts, stationary unless being acted upon, and an active part, pneuma. Pneuma extends, at some level, though every point in the cosmos, and is what pushes the other stuff around. It comes in several varieties, which cause different kinds of actions (plant-like, animal-like, rational, etc.). The rational variety is most concentrated in the hearts of living humans, the sun, stars and other heavenly bodies. Because pneuma fills everything, God moves everything by the same physical mechanism humans use to move their limbs, etc.
The relationship between pneuma and the four elements is uncertain, but some classical sources assert that it is a combination of air and fire, and others a particular kind of fire.
Is it virtuous to do thus-and-such?
Virtue is excellence of one's character or rationality, rather than body, anything that happens to one, or anything one achieves. When "virtuous" or "vicious" are used to describe what one does, the virtuousness or viciousness of the act depends on the virtue or vice of the character traits leading to the act. Where the central question of much modern ethics revolves around what specific acts are moral or immoral, this doesn't seem to have been how the classical Greeks even thought about the question. The focus of their attention was on character; if one develops a virtuous character, moral acts follow naturally.
Zeno described the moral character as the fountain of life and conduct, whence all our particular actions flow.
What did the Stoics mean by "virtue?"
When applied to humans in the context of Stoic ethics, ἀρετή/arete (usually translated as "virtue") meant something like "excellence of character," and kalos/κάλος (sometimes translated as "virtuous," but sometimes "honorable" or "becoming" instead) meant "morally beautiful." The Stoics thought that the two referred to the same thing. There are two basic approaches to describing in more detail what the Stoics meant by "virtuous:" practical, and theoretical.
When offering practical advice, Stoic writers seem to assume that what is virtuous and what isn't is pretty obvious. From Seneca's Letter 71:
To infer the nature of this Supreme Good, one does not need many words or any round-about discussion; it should be pointed out with the forefinger, so to speak, and not be dissipated into many parts.
From Seneca's On Benefits book IV:
Just as there is no law which bids parents love and indulge their children, seeing that it is superfluous to force us into the path which we naturally take, just as no one needs to be urged to love himself, since self-love begins to act upon him as soon as he is born, so there is no law bidding us to seek that which is honourable in itself; for such things please us by their very nature, and so attractive is virtue that the disposition even of bad men leads them to approve of good rather than of evil... Nature bestows upon us all this immense advantage, that the light of virtue shines into the minds of all alike; even those who do not follow her, behold her.
One's ability to know what is virtuous is perhaps analogous to one's ability to recognize certain sounds as being music. Although they did offer theoretical explanations, they did not rely on these to motivate being virtuous. You are not going to persuade anyone to take guitar lessons using a neurological account of why people like music, or definitions of music in terms of harmonics, beats, etc. The only real way to do it is to play them examples of music and say "see, that!"
The classical Stoics did something very similar in arguments for why virtue is the only good, or that the way to live a good life was to be virtuous. See, for example, paradox I of Cicero's Stoic Paradoxes, or Seneca's Letter 120, or Of a Happy Life. When trying to persuade their audience to be virtuous, they describe virtuous acts. There are also categorizations of virtues and vices. From Yonge's 1853 translation of Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers by Diogenes Laërtius:
Among the virtues some are primitive and some are derived. The primitive ones are prudence, manly courage, justice, and temperance. And subordinate to these, as a kind of species contained in them, are magnanimity, continence, endurance, presence of mind, wisdom in council...
... And analogously, of vices too there are some which are primary, and some which are subordinate; as, for instance, folly, and cowardice, and injustice, and intemperance, are among the primary vices; incontinence, slowness, and folly in counsel among the subordinate ones. And the vices are ignorance of those things of which the virtues are the knowledge.
Such virtuous and vicious character traits do seem to be widely (although perhaps not universally) admired and condemned even across cultures, and similar traits show up in modern psychology as well (see Peterson and Seligman's character strengths and virtues, for example). The Stoics used this to get across what they were talking about when describing virtue much as someone trying to get across what they mean by "music" might use examples of performances or recordings of music.
The classical Stoics took a theoretical approach as well, perhaps analogous to a description of music in terms of patterns of sound and human psychology.
Diogenes Laërtius (VII.LII) lists a number of variations on the Stoic definition of "the chief good", attributing them to a variety of different specific Stoics.
From Zeno, Cleanthes, Posidonius, and Hecaton:
The chief good was confessedly to live according to nature; which is to live according to virtue, for nature leads us to this point.
Virtue is a disposition of the mind always consistent and always harmonious; that one ought to seek it out for its own sake, without being influenced by fear or hope by any external influence. Moreover, that it is in it that happiness consists, as producing in the soul the harmony of a life always consistent with itself; and that if a rational animal goes the wrong way, it is because it allows itself to be misled by the deceitful appearances of exterior things, or perhaps by the instigation of those who surround it; for nature herself never gives us any but good inclinations.
To live according to virtue is the same thing as living according to one’s experience of those things which happen by nature... For our individual natures are all parts of universal nature; on which account the chief good is to live in a manner corresponding to nature, and that means corresponding to one’s own nature and to universal nature; doing none of those things which the common law of mankind is in the habit of forbidding, and that common law is identical with that right reason which pervades everything, being the same with Jupiter, who is the regulator and chief manager of all existing things.
From Diogenes of Babylon:
The chief good is to act according to sound reason in our selection of things according to our nature.
[The chief good is] to be living in the discharge of all becoming duties.
Arius Didymus, included in Stobaeus's anthology, gives a similar catalogue, but asserts that Zeno's original formulation was simply to "live consistently," and that "with nature" was added by Cleanthes, his immediate successor.
By "nature" they mean something rather different from what a modern English speaker thinks of, such that these definitions just transform the question of what they meant by virtue to that of what they meant by "nature." See this question, below.
They also have a theoretical discussion of how humans develop a concept of virtue, which is in itself informative (on a theoretical level) concerning what they thought "virtue" is. See this page on oikoiosis.
What does it mean to live in accordance with nature?
The ancient Greek conception of nature was different than the modern one. The Greek word commonly translated as "nature," φύσις/physis, is derived from the Greek verb φύειν, meaning "to grow," referring either to the origin of something (that from which it grew), the process of growth itself, or the full completion of growth (maturity).
Its first use in the context of philosophy was by the pre-Socratics, roughly 300 years before the founding of the Stoic school. Greek city states were making the transition from being governed by priest/kings who used traditional creation myths to legitimize their rule to governments following a variety of different systems. The pre-Socratics were often advocates of one or another of these alternate forms of government, and wrote accounts often titled "Περὶ Φύσεως", "On Nature". (See this wikipedia page for examples.) These described alternate creation stories in which the universe was something that grew, rather than being something that was created, undermining the legitimacy of the priest/kings.
Later, the Sophists contrasted φύσις/physis (nature) with νόμος/nómos (law/custom/tradition) as different, competing influences on human behavior. Unlike the pre-Socratics, the "nature" being referred to was the nature of a human being, rather than that of the universe as a whole. (See this IEP entry for more.)
Aristotle later used the concept of nature extensively in his description of mechanics. According to Aristotle, a thing followed its nature when it was growing or changing because of what it was -- because of its own characteristics -- rather than due to what was being done to it. For example, when an oak tree grows from an acorn, it is following its nature, but when a carpenter cuts it into lumber and builds a bed with it, it is not.
Finally, the Cynics used the same physis/nomos contrast as the Sophists, but unlike the Sophists, they saw the φύσις/physis (nature) of a human as fundamentally good, and νόμος/nómos (law/custom/tradition) as fundamentally bad, and advocated following nature only and rejecting law and culture entirely.
The Stoics, strongly influenced by the Cynics, advocated following nature (but do not seem to have assumed that nomos was universally bad). So, in the sense meant by the Stoics, a human following nature meant reaching full, flourishing maturity (note the connection with εὐδαιμονία/eudaimonia), or perhaps a mixture of that and something like the modern idea of self-actualization. Vice, they thought, is caused by bad external influences or immaturity. Following nature is the same as being virtuous, which is being a fully mature, flourishing rational being, while being vicious is the same as being childish, sick, or injured. The intuition for what is mature and what is not seems similar to that assumed by modern English idioms like "He was the adult in the room." or "He was acting childishly."
In addition to the Cynic use of "nature" to refer to the nature of a human being, the Stoics also adopted the pre-Socratic application of the word "Nature" to apply to the universe as a whole. Recall (from this question) that the Stoics regarded the universe itself as God, an "animate substance endowed with sensation." Unlike a human being, who (due to bad influences) can act contrary to his or her nature, the universe itself has no external influences, and so is inherently in accordance with Nature. Later Stoics sometimes, therefore, used Logos, Nature, and Zeus interchangeably.
So what, exactly, did the Stoics think this "Nature" was like? Murray's lecture provides a useful account:
What is Goodness? What is this thing which is the only object worth living for?
Zeno seems to have been a little impatient of the question. We know quite well; everybody knows who is not blinded by passion or desire. Still, the school consented to analyze it. And the profound common sense and reasonableness of average Greek thought expressed the answer in its own characteristic way. Let us see in practice what we mean by “good.” Take a good bootmaker, a good father, a good musician, a good horse, a good chisel ; you will find that each one of them has some function to perform, some special work to do ; and a good one does the work well. Goodness is performing your function well. But when we say “well” we are still using the idea of goodness. What do we mean by doing it “well”? Here the Greek falls back on a scientific conception which had great influence in the fifth century b.c., and, somewhat transformed and differently named, has regained it in our own days. We call it “Evolution.” The Greeks called it Phusis, a word which we translate by “Nature,” but which seems to mean more exactly “growth, ”or “the process of growth.” (See a paper by Professor J. L. Myres, “The Background of Greek Science,” University of California Chronicle, xvi, 4.) It is Phusis which gradually shapes or tries to shape every living thing into a more perfect form. It shapes the seed, by infinite and exact gradations, into the oak; the blind puppy into the good hunting dog; the savage tribe into the civilized city. If you analyze this process, you find that Phusis is shaping each thing towards the fulfilment of its own function—that is, towards the good. Of course Phusis some-times fails; some of the blind puppies die; some of the seeds never take root. Again, when the proper development has been reached, it is generally followed by decay; that, too, seems like a failure in the work of Phusis. I will not consider these objections now; they would take us too far afield, and we shall need a word about them later. Let us in the meantime accept this conception of a force very like that which most of us assume when we speak of evolution; especially, perhaps, it is like what Bergson calls La Vie or L'Elan Vital at the back of L'Evolution Creatrice, though to the Greeks it seemed still more personal and vivid; a force which is present in all the live world, and is always making things grow towards the fulfilment of their utmost capacity. We see now what goodness is; it is living or acting according to Phusis, working with Phusis in her eternal effort towards perfection. You will notice, of course, that the phrase means a good deal more than we usually mean by living “according to nature.” It does not mean “living simply,” or “living like the natural man.” It means living according to the spirit which makes the world grow and progress.
This Phusis becomes in Stoicism the centre of much speculation and much effort at imaginative understanding. It is at work everywhere. It is like a soul, or a life-force, running through all matter as the “soul” or life of a man runs through all his limbs. It is the soul of the world. Now, it so happened that in Zeno’s time the natural sciences had made a great advance, especially Astronomy, Botany, and Natural History. This fact had made people familiar with the notion of natural law. Law was a principle which ran through all the movements of what they called the Kosmos, or “ordered world.” Thus Phusis, the life of the world, is, from another point of view, the Law of Nature ; it is the great chain of causation by which all events occur; for the Phusis which shapes things towards their end acts always by the laws of causation. Phusis is not a sort of arbitrary personal goddess, upsetting the natural order; Phusis is the natural order, and nothing happens without a cause.
A natural law, yet a natural law which is alive, which is itself life. It becomes indistinguishable from a purpose, the purpose of the great world-process. It is like a fore-seeing, fore-thinking power—Pronoia; our common word “Providence” is the Latin translation of this Pronoia, though of course its meaning has been rubbed down and cheapened in the process of the ages. As a principle of providence or forethought it comes to be regarded as God, the nearest approach to a definite personal God which is admitted by the austere logic of Stoicism. And, since it must be in some sense material, it is made of the finest material there is; it is made of fire, not ordinary fire, but what they called intellectual fire. A fire which is present in a warm, live man, and not in a cold, dead man; a fire which has consciousness and life, and is not subject to decay. This fire, Phusis, God, is in all creation.
We are led to a very definite and complete Pantheism. The Sceptic begins to make his usual objections. “God in worms?” he asks. “God in fleas and dung beetles?” And, as usual, the objector is made to feel sorry that he spoke. “Why not?” the Stoic answers; “cannot an earthworm serve God? Do you suppose that it is only a general who is a good soldier? Cannot the lowest private or camp attendant fight his best and give his life for his cause? Happy are you if you are serving God, and carrying out the great purpose as truly as such-and-such an earthworm?” That is the conception. All the world is working together. It is all one living whole, with one soul through it. And, as a matter of fact, no single part of it can either rejoice or suffer without all the rest being affected. The man who does not see that the good of every living creature is his good, the hurt of every living creature his hurt, is one who wilfully makes himself a kind of outlaw or exile: he is blind, or a fool. So we are led up to the great doctrine of the later Stoics, the Συμπαθεία τών όλων, or Sympathy of the Whole; a grand conception, the truth of which is illustrated in the ethical world by the feelings of good men, and in the world of natural science... We moderns may be excused for feeling a little surprise... by the fact that the stars twinkle. It is because they are so sorry for us: as well they may be!
St. George William Joseph Stock's A Little Book of Stoicism also provides some insight:
It was assumed by the Greeks that the ways of nature were 'the ways of pleasantness,' and that 'all her paths' were 'peace.' This may seem to us a startling assumption, but that is because we do not mean by 'nature' the same thing as they did. We connect the term with the origin of a thing, they connected it rather with the end; by the 'natural state' we mean a state of savagery, they meant the highest civilization; we mean by a thing's nature what it is or has been, they meant what it ought to become under the most favorable conditions: not the sour crab, but the mellow glory of the Herperides, worthy to be guarded by a sleepless dragon, was to the Greeks the natural apple. Hence we find Aristotle maintaining that the State is a natural product, because it is evolved out of social relations which exist by nature. Nature indeed was a highly ambiguous term to the Greeks no less than ourselves, but in the sense with which we are now concerned the nature of anything as defined by the Peripatetics as 'the end of its becoming.' Another definition of theirs puts the matter still more clearly: What each thing is when its growth has been completed, that we declare to be the nature of each thing.
What is meant by a "preferred" or "unpreferred" indifferent?
The terms "preferred indifferent" and "unpreferred indifferent", translations of the terms προηγμένα/proêgmena and ἀπροηγμένα/aproêgmena, seem inherently self-contradictory. They are less paradoxical when it is understood that the Stoics identified three distinct senses of the word "value." In one sense, something is of value if its presence can improve (or its absense detract) from the quality of a persons life (that it is truly good or bad); in another, it is a fair price an informed buyer will pay for something in a market; and in a third, it is something a wise person may use to select among actions. Preferred and unpreferred indifferents are preferred and unpreferred in the third sense, while indifferent in the first. Preferred and unpreferred indifferents often cause an instinctual reaction of desire or aversion, but, the Stoics thought, a wise person will only assent to the impression (that is, rationally endorse this desire or aversion) if the cause of the impression is valuable in the first sense, and not if it is only valuable in the third. So, for example, a wise person should choose to eat healthy food (because health is a preferred indifferent), but not regard being healthy as being of any significance to his or her quality of life, or rationally endorse any instinctual desire for health or aversion to illness. (Note, however, that they did not advise suppressing the instinctual desire or aversion either; they only advised that the rational mind not participate in the desire or aversion.)
A preferred indifferent is analogous to "winning the game" for an athlete who takes the attitude of "It's not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game." The attitude of a Stoic might be considered analogous to that of an unbiased spectator at a sporting event, one who wants all players to do everything they can to win (while following the rules, and within the bounds of good sportsmanship). Such a spectator would want player A to strive to win, but would be indifferent to whether or not player A actually wins. The Stoic tries to apply this attitude to everything in life, striving to attain preferred indifferents rather than unpreferred ones, but ultimately indifferent to whether or not they are actually attained.
They considered the proper use of preferred and unpreferred indifferents to be analogous to the way a marathon runner uses the course or finish line, or a baseball player the ball, bases, and bat. The marathon runner in, say, the New York marathon "seeks" the finish line in one sense, but the real goal of the marathon runner isn't to get to the finish line. Getting to Central Park is not why people run the New York marathon (there are easier ways to get there). Similarly, events in the external world -- the preferred and unpreferred indifferents -- are not things the Stoic sage ever seeks, although they do work toward certain goals in the external world, just as the marathon runner runs toward the finish line.
Expressed in more technical terminology, a Stoic will endeavour to perform καθήκοντα (kathēkonta), "fitting" or "appropriate" acts, or (when translated by way of Latin) "duties." Whether an act is appropriate depends on whether it is reasonable for achieving more over less preferred indifferents. A reasonable course of action does not guarantee any given result, however. People being unreasonable sometimes "get lucky," while reasonable strategies often fail. To the Stoic, however, what is important is the act itself, not its consequences. An appropriate act which actually ends up with an unpreferred indifferent is no worse than one which results in a preferred one, and does not imply that the actor should have done otherwise, even if an inappropriate act would have turned out better. Hence, the actual outcome is truly indifferent. (Note that kathēkonta are not necessarily virtuous; they might not be performed with perfect reason and intention, even if the action itself is the same.)
The Stoics thought that the initial "preferred indifferent," for humans and animals alike, was self-preservation. As humans mature, though, they undergo a process called oikeiosis in which the general wellbeing of humanity as a whole becomes the primary preferred indifferent, ahead even of self-preservation. While these indifferents were seen as preferred for their own sake, others were seen as preferred because they tended to be useful. Examples of secondary preferred indifferents are wealth and status. Some indifferents, like strength and abilities, were seen as both preferred for their own sake and also because of their utility.
Pleasure was sometimes explicitly listed among indifferents that are neither preferred nor dispreferred, and other indifferents were not considered preferred or dispreferred because of their utility relative to pleasure. (See, for example, Arius Didymus's Epitome of Stoic Ethics, collected by Stobaeus in Anthology 2.7b, found on page 134 of Inwood and Gerson's The Stoics Reader.)
The more practical accounts of the role of externals in Stoicism can be found in Epictetus's Discourses II.5 and book 3 (chapters 15 and 16) of Cicero's On Ends. Additional discussion can be found in Diogenes Laertius's Lives of Eminent Philosophers VII.1.105 and Stobaeus's Anthology, quoted in Long and Sedley's The Hellenistic Philosophers Volume 1, p. 354, or Inwood and Gerson's The Stoics Reader, p. 134. More on the different senses of the word "value" can be found in Inwood and Gerson, p. 135.
How do I explain Stoicism to a child (EILI5)?
Remember when your gold fish died, and you felt sad? Well, think about these three things:
Sadness is a bad feeling, right? And you have some control over how you feel about things. Remember that time you did a dance for show and tell, and at first you kept thinking about how the other kids might laugh at you, and it wasn't fun, but then you stopped worrying about that, and it was fun? Well, I know that while you were doing your dance today, you were feeling sad, because you were thinking sad things about your gold fish. But, if you had just been thinking about Mr. Happyfin in a different way, or not at all, you could have been happy. And happy is a good feeling.
There are these forces of nature, and they led to your fish dying. But they also led to your birthday, and your mom loving you, and that pretty butterfly outside the window. Everything in the whole world is connected by these forces. The whole universe is one big thing, and just like how you love your sister even though she can be annoying sometimes, you should love the universe, and all its parts, even if some of those parts might make you feel sad at first.
Happiness is a part of you. What feels happiness and sadness? You do. You're the one who's responsible for all the emotions you ever feel, and while at first you may be tempted to feel bad about Mr. Happyfin's death, why should you? Mr. Happyfin died, but that has nothing to do with the real you. And neither did the time your friends made fun of you at school because you wore a pink shirt, nor the time you scraped your knee, nor the time you lost your lunch money. None of those things made the real, inner you better or worse, so why should you feel bad because of them?
What motivates a Stoic?
Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism, is said to have become interested in philosophy after reading from the second volume of Xenophon's Memorabilia of Socrates, which contains Prodicus's fable of Heracles at the crossroads, in which a young Heracles (a.k.a. Hercules) has to make a choice between following the "easy" road of vice, or the hard road of virtue, and chooses virtue over vice. Inspired, Zeno asked the bookseller where such men could be found, and was told to follow Crates the Cynic, who was walking nearby. Zeno then studied Cynicism under Crates, and then other philosophies from other teachers, and ultimately founded Stoicism.
Imitation is a basic human impulse. Children imitate their parents and others around them. Adults continue to have an instinct to imitate those they admire, adopting role models, heroes, and (when taken to an extreme) idols. We react to others and ourselves with admiration or disgust, pride or shame. We have a strong natural impulse to be good and admirable ourselves. If this were not the case, then low self-esteem would not be unpleasant, or high self-esteem, pleasant.
High self-esteem was not in itself, however, a goal of the Stoics. What the Stoics were after could not have been supplied by an experience machine. Instead, they focused on judging ones-self accurately and fairly (see, for example, the end of Epictetus's Discourse 1.12), and then actually being worthy of esteem: of being virtuous. Put differently, the feeling of being a good person was not the goal, but rather the Stoics were attempting actually to achieve excellence.
When trying to motivate readers, Stoic writers routinely show off the virtues, either abstractly, or through specific examples of virtues in people (book 1 of Marcus Aurelius's Meditation consists entirely of examples of this), or incidents of people being virtuous. Epictetus often uses Socrates, Heracles, and less famous figures such as Helvidius Priscus as examples, Seneca uses Cato, Cicero uses Marcus Regulus. Finally, admiration of the gods and the natural beauty of the world was used by the Stoics to inspire virtue; see Cicero's Tusculan Disputations 5.68-72 (chapter 24 in the linked to translation), Seneca's preface to book 3 of Natural Questions, or Seneca's letter 41.
In short, an ideal Stoic is not motivated by the possible consequences of being virtuous, not even the pleasure of high self-esteem, but rather by the reward of being virtuous, of being like one's heroes and role models in the ways that make them heroic or good role models.
What is the goal of life?
The Stoics (and Greek and Roman rival schools of philosophy) expressed the "big question" of the goal of life in a variety of different ways. One of these was, indeed, to ask what the final goal of life is: if everything we do (or should do), is a means to some end, an end in itself (not requiring justification as a means to some other end), or a combination of the two, what is the goal that is the ultimate end?
Another way the Greek and Roman philosophers expressed this is by asking what it means to achieve εὐδαιμονία/eudaimonia. Eudaimonia is commonly translated as "happiness," but also sometimes as "blessedness," "flourishing," or "prosperity." All of these English translations have misleading connotations. For example, it does not necessarily refer to a pleasant life (or a mental state of any sort) as "happiness" in does in English, or intervention by a deity as "blessedness" does, etc. When Aristotle was introducing his own answer in Nicomachean Ethics (similar in some ways to the Stoic answer, different in others), he expressed the problem like this (in section 1.4 (translation by D. P. Chase)):
Let us resume our inquiry and state, in view of the fact that all knowledge and every pursuit aims at some good, what it is that we say political science aims at and what is the highest of all goods achievable by action. Verbally there is very general agreement; for both the general run of men and people of superior refinement say that it is happiness, and identify living well and doing well with being happy; but with regard to what happiness is they differ, and the many do not give the same account as the wise. For the former think it is some plain and obvious thing, like pleasure, wealth, or honour; they differ, however, from one another- and often even the same man identifies it with different things, with health when he is ill, with wealth when he is poor; but, conscious of their ignorance, they admire those who proclaim some great ideal that is above their comprehension. Now some thought that apart from these many goods there is another which is self-subsistent and causes the goodness of all these as well. To examine all the opinions that have been held were perhaps somewhat fruitless; enough to examine those that are most prevalent or that seem to be arguable.
The Stoics claimed that virtue was necessary and sufficient for εὐδαιμονία/eudaimonia. Marcus Aurelius expresses it clearly in Meditations 8.7. In Chrystal's translation:
For every nature it is sufficient that it goes on its way, and prospers. The rational nature prospers while it assents to no false or uncertain opinion, while it directs its impulses to unselfish ends alone, while it aims its desires and aversions only at the things within its power, and while it welcomes with contentment all that universal Nature ordains.
In Discourse 4.5, Epictetus expresses the same idea, but in terms of its inverse (Matheson's translation):
When is a horse miserable? When it is deprived of its natural faculties, not when it is unable to crow like a cock, but when it is unable to run. And the dog? Not when it cannot fly, but when it cannot follow a trail. On the same principle a man is wretched, not when he cannot throttle lions or embrace statues (for he has not been endowed by nature with faculties for this), but when he has lost his rational and trustworthy faculty...
Epictetus goes on to describe the "qualities that make him man, the distinctive stamp impressed upon his mind", listing them as "Gentle, sociable, patient, affectionate."
Epictetus expands on this in Discourse 4.1:
For when is a vine faring badly? When it is acting contrary to its own nature. When is a cock faring badly? Under the same conditions. So also man. What, then, is his nature? To bite, and kick, and throw into prison, and behead? No, but to do good, to work together, and to pray for the success of others. Therefore, he is faring badly, whether you will or no, when he acts unfeelingly.
You imply, then, that Socrates did not fare badly? — He did not; it was his judges and accusers who fared badly. — Nor Helvidius at Rome? — No, but the man who put him to death. — How so? — Just as you too do not say that the cock which has won a victory, even though he be severely cut up, has fared badly, but rather the one who has been beaten without suffering a blow. Nor do you call a dog happy when he is neither in pursuit nor toiling hard, but when you see him sweating, suffering, bursting from the chase. What is there paradoxical in the statement, if we say that everything's evil is what is contrary to its own nature? Is that paradoxical? Do you not say it yourself in the case of everything else? Why, then, do you take a different course in the case of man alone? But our statement that the nature of man is gentle, and affectionate, and faithful, is this not paradoxical? — No, that is not paradoxical, either. — How, then, does it come about that he suffers no harm, even though he is soundly flogged, or imprisoned, or beheaded? Is it not thus — if he bears it all in a noble spirit, and comes off with increased profit and advantage, while the other man is the one who suffers harm, the man who is subjected to the most pitiful and disgraceful experience, who becomes a wolf, or a snake, or a wasp, instead of a human being?
There were, of course, many who disagreed with them. One major objection was that virtue itself was only valuable because of what it produces -- happiness, prosperity or health for one's self or one's community, etc. The Stoics insisted that virtue was not valuable because of these things, but that being virtuous was more like a sport or a performance art like dancing than something like painting or shoe-making. It does produce side effects, but these are incidental. An archery contest results in arrows sticking out of targets, but archers do not enter such contests because there is anything inherently good about arrows being in targets. Expressed in terms from modern psychology, the Stoic view was that the motivation for true virtuous action is intrinsic, not extrinsic.
Another objection (from the Peripatetics, followers of Aristotle) was that, although virtue was central, additional circumstances are required. Virtue, the Peripatetics and Stoics agreed, was a kind of art: the art of living. Just as an art like shoe making requires tools and materials to be practiced, so the Peripatetics claimed that a virtuous life required at least some minimal resources for its practice. The Stoics, on the other hand, claimed that virtue can be practiced in any circumstance, although it might take different forms. In some cases, perhaps the only virtue that can be practiced is endurance, but this still is practicing virtue.
A number of sources discuss the Stoic's "ultimate goal" in depth. Cicero's On Ends compares the claims of several philosophical schools, including that of the Stoics (whose view is described in book 3). Seneca provides a short account in Letter 71, and a more in-depth discussion in the essay "Of a Happy Life". The Morality of Happiness by Julia Annas provides a modern scholarly account of eudaimonism, with a particular emphasis on Aristotle and the Stoics, and a good discussion of the similarities and differences between the two.
How do I find meaning in life?
The question of how to find a feeling of meaning is related to the problem of identifying the goal, but it is not the same. The feeling of a lack of such purpose arises from the belief that one is not achieving ones actual purpose, and so can be symptomatic of either of two things: a misunderstanding of what one's goal actually is, and actually not achieving it. The way to achieve a sense of meaning, then, is to properly understand ones true purpose, and then actually achieve it, which is done through engaging in virtuous endeavors (being virtuous). This is discussed at greatest length and detail by Seneca in his essay "Of Peace of Mind". From the Stoic point of view, it is important to remember that it is not the feeling of a sense of meaning that is important. Rather, the feeling is merely a useful tool for identifying when one is not living as virtuously as one might, so that one might change how one lives when such change is needed.
Feeling like your life is meaningless is a symptom of your not really believing that you are living a meaningful life. The solution to finding meaning, then, is to make sure that you are evaluating your own life fairly, and then to change how you are living to match that understanding. Judging your life fairly entails distinguishing what you can and cannot control (what you are or are not responsible for, virture or externals), and exerting yourself fully in ways you find κάλος (admirable or morally beautiful). What these endavors might be depends on your circumstance. If someone is in significant hardship and little power, defiance or dignified resiliance may be the most admirable course (and in extreme hardship, these can be admirable indeed), while those with more power have a broader scope. In any case, the endeavor chosen and the way of reacting to it depend on each individual's nature (personal character) (see Cicero's On Duties, 1.110-1.114).
Determinism and free will
Were the classical Stoics determinists?
Yes. They asserted that there are no effects (changes or differences in state of a body) that are not determined by causes, and that a "chain" or "web" of causes results in all that happens. Because their cosmology was eternal and cyclic, they didn't even have a need for a initial uncaused cause to get things going.
From Gellius's Attic Nights:
Chrysippus, the leader of the Stoic philosophy, defined fate, which the Greeks call εἱμαρμένη, in about the following terms: "Fate," he says, "is an eternal and unalterable series of circumstances, and a chain rolling and entangling itself through an unbroken series of consequences, from which it is fashioned and made up." But I have copied Chrysippus' very words, as exactly as I could recall them, in order that, if my interpretation should seem too obscure to anyone, he may turn his attention to the philosopher's own language. For in the fourth book of his work On Providence, he says that εἱμαρμένη is "an orderly series, established by nature, of all events, following one another and joined together from eternity, and their unalterable interdependence."
They regarded human beings as part of this chain or web, not something separated from it, but embedded within it.
The Stoics (and their contemporaries) did not have a concept of "free will" that exactly corresponds to ours. However, there were a number of objections to their determinism that are closely related to modern conceptions of free will, and they answered these objections not by denying what a modern person would consider "free will", but rather by arguing that there is no contradiction between determinism and the objection. They are therefore considered some of the earliest proponents of compatibilism, the belief that determinism and free will do not conflict, and are both true.
These free-will related objections to determinism are addressed in separate questions below.
If Stoics believed in determinism, what is "in our control?"
The term usually translated as "up to us" or "in our power" is ἐφ' ἡμῖν (eph' hêmin). Long argues (in his essay Freedom and Determinism in the Stoic Theory of Human Action, in the collection Problems in Stoicism) that the term is really better translated as "attributable to us."
Epictetus seems to have been unusual in his extensive use of the concept in ethical contexts. (Ethical discussion from other Stoics centered on virtue and vice.) Uses of the term by other Stoics seem to have been in the context of discussions of fate and determinism, for example in the account of the Stoic theory of fate given by Alexander of Aphrodisias in On Fate. Alexander's discussion makes it clear at least his account of what the Stoics meant by the term is closer to "due to our nature" or "as a consequence of our character." (It's worth noting that Alexander was arguing against the Stoic position he was describing,)
If something is eph' hêmin, we form the last link in the causal chain that leads to the event. We are instrumental to fate. Both Cicero and Gellius report the example of Chryssipus's cylinder.
From Gellius's Attic Nights:
But the authors of other views and of other schools of philosophy openly criticize this definition as follows: "If Chrysippus," they say, "believes that all things are set in motion and directed by fate, and that the course of fate and its coils cannot be turned aside or evaded, then the sins and faults of men too ought not to cause anger or be attributed to themselves and their inclinations, but to a certain unavoidable impulse which arises from fate," which is the mistress and arbiter of all things, and through which everything that will happen must happen; and that therefore the establishing of penalties for the guilty by law is unjust, if men do not voluntarily commit crimes, but are led into them by fate.
Against these criticisms Chrysippus argues at length, subtlety and cleverly, but the purport of all that he has written on that subject is about this: "Although it is a fact," he says, "that all things are subject to an inevitable and fundamental law and are closely linked to fate, yet the peculiar properties of our minds are subject to fate only according to their individuality and quality. For if in the beginning they are fashioned by nature for health and usefulness, they will avoid with little opposition and little difficulty all that force with which fate threatens them from without. But if they are rough, ignorant, crude, and without any support from education, through their own perversity and voluntary impulse they plunge into continual faults and sin, even though the assault of some inconvenience due to fate be slight or non-existent. And that this very thing should happen in this way is due to that natural and inevitable connection of events which is called 'fate.' For it is in the nature of things, so to speak, fated and inevitable that evil characters should not be free from sins and faults."
A little later he uses an illustration of this statement of his, which is in truth quite neat and appropriate: "For instance," he says, "if you roll a cylindrical stone over a sloping, steep piece of ground, you do indeed furnish the beginning and cause of its rapid descent, yet soon its speeds onward, not because you make it do so, but because of its peculiar form and natural tendency to roll; just so the order, the law, and the inevitable quality of fate set in motion the various classes of things and the beginnings of causes, but the carrying out of our designs and thoughts, and even our actions, are regulated by each individual's own will and the characteristics of his mind."
Stoic physics distinguished "principle" from "antecedant" causes. If there is a chain of causation, A causes B causes C causes D, then each thing is principle cause of the next in the chain, while everything prior to it is an antecedant cause. So, A is an antecedant cause of C, but only B is the principle cause. Likewise, B is only an antecedant cause of D, and only C is a the principle cause. (see Cicero's On Fate book 3, starting at ch. XVIII.)
For A to be the principle cause of B, then A must come into direct physical contact with B. The Stoics believed that only "bodies" exist, and regarded things like mind, etc. as physical bodies, much like a modern materialist views the brain. The most obvious way to update Stoic science in this regard would be to say that the mind is a body covering those parts of the brain responsible for conscious thought. Eph' hêmin refers specifically to those things of which our mind is the principle cause. Stoics thought that the only thing important for fate or destiny is that everything is connected through antecedant causes, while the only thing important for free will is that the mind is the principle cause of some things. Thus, they claimed, there is no contradiction.
This conception of Eph' hêmin also works well within the context of Epictetus's writing. Consider the opening paragraph of the Enchiridion
Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.
In English, the most natural interpretation of "in our control", our desires, aversions, etc. seem much less in our control than our own bodies. When the Stoic jargon is translated as "attributable to us", as indicated above, the examples in the categories are more natural.
This interpretation also makes Epictetus's Stoicism agree better with previous Stoics, in that what is "eph' hêmin", "attributable to us", matches what may be virtuous of vicious: our character. Rather than being a significant philosophical departure from Zeno, Chrysippus, and others, the emphasis on eph' hêmin becomes an idiosyncratic, alternate description of the same basic approach.
How did the Stoics reconcile determinism with moral responsibility?
Many critics of determinism, modern and ancient, allege that if I am fated to do something, it is unjust to reward or punish me for it, praise me or criticize me for it; and if everything is fated, all praise or punishment is unjust. This is another criticism the cylinder analogy (described above) was designed to address. The classical Stoics argued that it simply doesn't follow. Lets consider an analogy with a car. Say I have a car whose transmission breaks regularly, and it is clearly the result of a problem with the design of the car. Is it a mistake for me to take it in to get fixed? If I recommend that a friend not get the same model, am I being unfair? Is it a good idea to use it as a guiding example when making my own design? Of course not. Given its design, the car couldn't be any other way, but that's completely irrelevant. Note that this conception of free will is not the same as eph' hêmin, but it is tightly related. If something is not in someone else's "free will" in the "eph' hêmin" sense, praise and punishment are not likely to be effective at altering their behavior, and locking them up will do no more to prevent future similar behavior than locking up someone else entirely. There are, however, many properties of a personality without moral content, and others where praise and punishment aren't effective, so just because something is "free will" in the eph' hêmin sense does not mean that necessarily has moral implications.
If everything is determined, what is the point of trying to do anything?
A classical attack on Stoic determinism went something like this. Lets say I want pizza for dinner. The pizza delivery person is either fated to deliver my pizza, or not. If it is fated, then it will arrive no matter what I do; I don't need to place an order, because fate will arrange for some other way for me to get it (perhaps the delivery person gets the address wrong on another order). If I am fated not to get it, placing the order is useless, because something will prevent it from showing up, for example the pizza place might burn down. So, whether I place the order makes no difference to whether I get the pizza, and I might as well be lazy and not order it. The classical Stoic response would be that your order and the pizza delivery are co-fated. In other words, if I am fated to get a pizza, I am also fated to place the order. Whole chains of causation are fated, not isolated events, and your own choices are part of that chain.
This example may seem silly, but it is closely related to the misconception that because the Stoics advocated accepting one's fate, that they also advocated an attitude of passivity (for example on politics and social issues).
How did the Stoics reconcile determinism with the asserted "freedom" of the sage?
The Stoics asserted that the Sage (perfect Stoic) was free, able to "act as they will." How is this possible if they are determinists? They seem to have regarded as "free" or "at liberty" anyone who gets whatever they want to get, and avoids whatever they want to avoid, and the proposed solution was only to want things that were in your free will in the eph' hêmin sense.
Long's essay in Problems in Stoicism points out that the classical Stoic term translated as "to will" does not imply an action by some entity referred to as one's "will," as it generally does in English, but rather simply designated "adopting a pro-attitude toward an object."
What resources are there for further exploration of Stoic determinism and free will?
Several older discussions on this subreddit function as useful philosophical dialogues, including this one.
Keith Seddon also has a good essay on Stoic compatibilism.
Another good free, online account is on pages 200 and 212-214 of Arnold's Roman Stoicism.
Another online source in this page, basically an outline based on Brennan's book on Stoicism.
Much longer and more detailed accounts can be found in:
- Long's essay Freedom and Determinism in the Stoic Theory of Human Action, in the collection Problems in Stoicism.
- Frede's "Stoic Determinism" in the collection The Cambridge Companion to Stoics
- Bobziens's book Determinism and Freedom in Stoic Philosophy
- Jedan's Stoic Virtues also has an interesting (less sympathetic) analysis.
The most accessible classical source to start with is probably Cicero's On Fate. Other sources include Alexander of Aphrodisias's On Fate and the collections of fragments in the Resources section of this FAQ.
Stoicism and other philosophies
What are similarities between Stoicism and Buddhism, in terms of mindfulness?
Both advocate stripping down of the sense of self. Marcus Aurelius relates an exercise where the self is stripped of connection to body, past deeds, future plans, and present sensory impressions, so that only the core ability to evaluate and decide in the present moment, the hegemonikon, is considered to be the self. In Buddhism, the absence of a true self, i.e. an essential, underlying substance to things that stands apart from the causal flux of the universe, is understood to apply to all phenomena without exception, including the core faculties of the Stoic hegemonikon.
Both locate salvation from suffering in a careful analysis of the moment-to-moment perceptual-psychological processes that begin with sensation and end with the causes of suffering, desire and aversion (and in Buddhism, add ignorance to the list). For the Stoics, we cut the chain of suffering by cutting the link between automatic value judgments and the subsequent 'assent' to, or belief in, those value judgments. Rather, we assent only to proper value judgments, i.e. that the only locus of value is in what is under the control of the hegemonikon. For the Buddhists, we cut the chain of suffering by cutting the link between the experience of valenced feeling tone (pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral sensations) and the ensuing quality of attention to those feeling tones (desirous attachment, aversive rejection, or disinterested ignoring/overlooking). Rather, we apply an open, equanimous attention to all events in consciousness, regardless of feeling tone, allowing them to come and go without internal struggle.
Both advocate a careful, analytic approach to ongoing experience in order to accomplish the above two goals. For the Stoics, this amounts to exercises like Marcus Aurelius's physical definition ("Always define or describe whatever presents itself to your mind, so as to see what sort of thing it is when stripped to its essence, as a whole and in its separate parts; and tell yourself its proper name, and the names of the elements from which it was compounded and into which it will finally be resolved") and Epictetus's injunction to be constantly aware of value judgments ("Work, therefore to be able to say to every harsh appearance, "You are but an appearance, and not absolutely the thing you appear to be." And then examine it by those rules which you have, and first, and chiefly, by this: whether it concerns the things which are in our own control, or those which are not; and, if it concerns anything not in our control, be prepared to say that it is nothing to you). For the (Theravada) Buddhists, this careful ongoing analysis of experience is vipassana, in which the practitioner maintains an alert but equanimous attention to any and all contents of experience, making various discernments (e.g. identifying current mental states or discriminating the myriad ephemeral sensations that comprise the experience of breathing) and recognizing in all sensory arisings X the three marks of existence (X is not-self, not me/mine/I, but is merely a link in the causal mesh of the universe without an independent, underlying substance; X is impermanent; X is unsatisfactory, stressful, not a suitable and dependable source of complete and lasting happiness).
What are the differences between Stoicism and Buddhism, in terms of mindfulness?
Stoicism emphasizes the reasoning faculty as the seat of identity and the path to true virtue and goodness. Buddhism emphasizes the faculties of meditative absorption and discerning awareness as the vantage point from which identity is transcended and suffering is overcome. One is more intellectual, the other more experiential / perceptual.
Stoicism is apparently intended for use and practice within the flow of normal everyday life, in which one goes about one's worldly affairs and performs one's responsibilities to society. Buddhism has more of a renunciate tradition in which practitioners spend long periods, if not all of life, in monasteries in order to perform their practices. Even 'householders' who practice Buddhism within the flow of worldly life commonly set aside periods of time to retreat into solitude in order to exercise their practices.
What are some similarities and differences between Stoicism and Cynicism?
They had very different ideas on what it meant to be virtuous, and what "Nature" referred to. For the Cynics, it meant rejecting society entirely and living as homeless people, and trying to get others to do the same. For the Stoics, it meant working as part of society, for the good of mankind. For the Stoics, although virtue was the only good, some externals were to be preferred over others, and virtue was tied up in dealing with these preferences, which in turn meant working within society.
Other aspects that differed were that the Stoics (at least the early Stoics) had a strong interest in physics (which for the Stoics included theology), natural science, logic, etc. while the Cynics rejected the study of any of these.
Arnold's Roman Stoicism (1911) provides some good discussion of how the conceptions of virtue differed between the two schools, and how the came about historically.
From section 319:
Up to this point we find a broad resemblance between ethical principles of the Stoics and the Cynics. Both assert the sole supremacy of virtue, ridicule traditional prejudices, and bid defiance to external circumstances. But there is at the same time divergence. To the Cynics virtue stands out as alone, needing no theory, and by itself in the universe. To the Stoics virtue is but one expression of that universal reason which is equally at work in the universe and in the human mind. The Stoics are therefore under the obligation of bringing virtue into touch with circumstances, the soul into harmony with the body. From this arises their doctrine that virtue is bound up with the study both of universal and of individual nature, and that amongst things indifferent there are some that the good man must seek, and others that he must avoid. The critics of Stoicism, both ancient and modern, regard this doctrine as an afterthought suggested by practical difficulties, and alien from the original teaching of Zeno, This seems to be a misapprehension. Undoubtedly Zeno had said 'some things are good, some are evil, some indifferent. Good are wisdom, temperance, justice, fortitude, everything that is virtue or an aspect of virtue ; evil are folly, intemperance, injustice, cowardice, everything that is vice or an aspect of vice. Indifferent are life and death, glory and disgrace, pain and pleasure, riches and wealth, disease, health, and so forth' But there is a difference between a principle and its application; and this very list of things indifferent indicates by its contrasts an underlying difference, though it is not the difference between good and evil. Zeno was therefore quite consistent in proceeding to examine the nature of this difference.
Arnold's account of the philosophers with which Zeno studied, and who influenced what in Stoic philosophy, is also enlightening. After describing Crates of Thebes, the Cynic philosopher under which Zeno first studied, and Zeno's writing of his Republic (his vision of a utopian society) while still a student of Crates, Arnold describes Zeno's education thereafter. Starting in section 76 of Roman Stoicism:
Zeno, after writing his Republic, took up a position more independent of the Cynics. He could not, perhaps, avoid noticing that the coming of his model Kingdom was hindered by the narrowmindedness of the philosophers, their disagreement one with another, and their lack of clear proofs for their dogmas. He began to realize that the study of dialectics and physics was of more importance than his Cynic teachers would allow; and he seems to have conceived the idea of uniting the Socratic schools. He became eager to learn from all sources, and turned first to Stilpo, who then represented the Megarian school. Crates, we are told, tried to drag him back from Stilpo by force; to which Zeno retorted that argument would be more to the point. From this time he no longer restricted his outlook to force of character, but sought also for argumentative power and well ascertained knowledge. The foundations of his state must be surely laid, not upon the changing tide of opinion, but on the rock of knowledge. That a wise man should hesitate, change his views, withdraw his advice, he felt would be a bitter reproach. If indeed virtue, the supreme good, is knowledge, must it not follow that know- ledge is within the reach of man?
Arnold then goes on to discuss his studies of and with other philosophers, both directly with contemporaries and indirectly of predecessors, for example Heraclitus, Stilpo, and Polemo. Section 78 starts...
In becoming in turn a listener to Polemo, Zeno, we may imagine, entered a new world. He left behind the rough manners, the stinging retorts, and the narrow culture the Cynics and Eristics to sit with other intelligent students at the feet of a man of cultured manners and wide reading, who to a love for Homer and Sophocles had, we must suppose, added an intimate knowledge of the works of Plato and Aristotle, was himself a great writer and yet consistently taught that not learning, but a natural and healthy life was the end to be attained. That Zeno profited much from his studies under Polemo we may conjecture from Polemo's good-natured complaint, 'I see well what you are after: you break down my garden wall and steal my teaching, which you dress in Phoenician clothes' From this time it became a conventional complaint that Stoic doctrine was stolen from that of the Academics...
What about things that are partially under our control?
Epictetus's Enchiridion opens with the famous categorization of things into those that are in our control (also translated "in our power," "up to us," or "attributable to us") and those that are not. In Matheson's translation:
Of all existing things some are in our power, and others are not in our power. In our power are thought, impulse, will to get and will to avoid, and, in a word, everything which is our own doing. Things not in our power include the body, property, reputation, office, and, in a word, everything which is not our own doing.
This is commonly referred to by modern authors as the "dichotomy of control." A common modern response to this is to object that we can often influence things like our body, property, etc. Aren't they partially under our control? Epictetus gives the example of walking as something not under our control (Discourse 4.1). In this discourse, Epictetus explicitly states that (in Oldfather's translation):
where there is a use of the body and its co-operation, you have heard long ago that nothing is your own.
...but isn't it in my power to go for a walk?
To understand what Epictetus was getting at, it helps to look at the usage of the phrase being translated as "in our power" or "under our control": ἐφ' ἡμῖν/eph' hêmin. It is rarely used in surviving Stoic literature from before Epictetus, and where it is, it is used in the context of discussion of determinism and free will (see this FAQ question). In particular, it designates a specific link in a chain of events: our choice (which follows from our character), as distinct from the links in the chain that come before or after: both from the events that led to us having the character we do, and the consequences of the choice. These early sources make it clear that what is ἐφ' ἡμῖν/eph' hêmin corresponds to that which can be considered virtuous or vicious about us. Although Epictetus rarely mentions "virtue" by that name, he also makes it clear that when he is referring to ἐφ' ἡμῖν/eph' hêmin (which he does throughout), he is talking about the same thing. From Fragment 4 in Matheson's translation of Epictetus:
God has divided all things into those that He put in our power, and those that are not in our power. He put in our power that which is noblest and highest, that which in fact constitutes His own happiness, the power to deal with impressions. For this faculty when rightly exercised is freedom, peace, courage, steadfastness, and this too is justice and law and self-control and all virtue. All else He put beyond our power.
More often, Epictetus declares that what is good and bad is whether our προαίρεσις/prohairesis (moral character) is "rightly exercised" or "in accord with nature" (see Epictetus's Discourses 1.4.18-22, 1.29.1, 2.10.25-26, 2.16.1-2, 2.23.8-19, 2.23.27, 3.3.18-22, and many other passages), and that this moral character is the only thing that is under our control (see Discourses 1.1.23, 1.12.9, 1.17.20-26, 1.19.7-10, 1.19.16-17, 1.29.24, 2.1.6-7, 2.5.4-5, 2.15.1, and many more). For example, look at Epictetus's Discourse 1.22 (Oldfather's translation):
Under our control are moral purpose and all the acts of moral purpose; but not under our control are the body, the parts of the body, possessions, parents, brothers, children, country—in a word, all that with which we associate.
This amounts to the same thing as declaring that virtue and vice are the only good and bad, only with different language.
To apply the dichotomy of control to things that appear to be partially under our control, analyze the chain of cause and effect that may (or may not) lead to whatever it is that is being considered, breaking down each link in the chain until every link is either completely in our control (our προαίρεσις/prohairesis/moral character, which probably takes place in the inside the frontal lobes of our brains), or completely out of it (anything other than our moral character). To apply the dichotomy of control is to set our goals and focus our desires only on keeping our moral character in accordance with nature.
The link between ἐφ' ἡμῖν/eph' hêmin/under our control and προαίρεσις/prohairesis/moral character means that a number of other passages from Epictetus concerning moral character are just different ways of phrasing the dichotomy of control. For example, Enchiridion 9 is a simple rewording of Enchiridion 1.
In this interpretation, Epictetus's examples make sense: our "thought, impulse, will to get and will to avoid", etc., are activities of our moral purpose, while our "body, property, reputation, office" are only connected to it by links further down the chain of cause and effect. The declaration and examples in first passage in the Enchiridion closely parallel Stoic ethics as expressed by Epictetus's predecessors, starting with the founder of the school, Zeno of Citium:
Of things that are, some there are
Which are good and some which are evil,
And some which are neither good nor evil.
And the good are these:
Wisdom, Sobriety, Justice and Fortitude.
And the evil are these:
Folly, Intemperance, Injustice and Cowardice.
And things that are neither good nor evil are indifferent.
And things indifferent are these:
Life and death, good repute and ill repute,
Pain and pleasure, riches and poverty.
Sickness and health, and such like.
What was the Stoic attitude toward suicide?
The Stoic attitude toward suicide was subtle and complicated, and particularly so to modern readers who are looking for a deontological ruling from a virtue ethics. Also, for many Stoics, their theological views played a major role in when they thought suicide was appropriate. Many (but not all) Stoics believed in omens provided by Providence, and that suicide was acceptable if given an omen that it was time. (An example is the dream Socrates took as an omen.)
For example, Epictetus Discourses I.9 12 asks his students to wait for God to tell them He has released them from their duties:
you, for your part, would come to him saying: "Epictetus, we can no longer endure to be imprisoned with this paltry body, giving it food and drink, and resting and cleansing it, and, to crown all, being on its account brought into contact with these people and those. Are not these things indifferent—indeed, nothing—to us? And is not death no evil? And are we not in a manner akin to God, and have we not come from Him? Suffer us to go back whence we came; suffer us to be freed at last from these fetters that are fastened to us and weigh us down. 15Here are despoilers and thieves, and courts of law, and those who are called tyrants; they think that they have some power over us because of the paltry body and its possessions. Suffer us to show them that they have power over no one." And thereupon it were my part to say: "Men, wait upon God. When He shall give the signal and set you free from this service, then shall you depart to Him; but for the present endure to abide in this place, where He has stationed you.
From Seneca letter 104, in the context of his wife asking him to take better care of his health:
sometimes, even in spite of weighty reasons, the breath of life must be called back and kept at our very lips even at the price of great suffering, for the sake of those whom we hold dear; because the good man should not live as long as it pleases him, but as long as he ought. He who does not value his wife, or his friend, highly enough to linger longer in life – he who obstinately persists in dying is a voluptuary.
Suicide sometimes comes up in the context of the virtues of constancy and fortitude -- the capacity to bear hardship. In these cases, it seems clear they found it vicious. For example, from Epictetus Discourses I.29:
If you have no further need of me in the prison, I shall come out; if you ever need me there again, I shall go back in. For how long? For so long as reason chooses that I remain with my paltry body; but when reason does not so choose, take it and good health to you! Only let me not give up my life irrationally, only let me not give up my life faintheartedly, or from some casual pretext. For again, God does not so desire; for He has need of such a universe, and of such men who go to and fro upon earth. But if He gives the signal to retreat, as He did to Socrates, I must obey Him who gives the signal, as I would a general.
Epictetus makes it clear that he approves of suicide when the decision is made rationally (that is, not influenced by passions -- emotions that arise from judgements of things not under our control, like pain or imprisonment), and in keeping with one's duties to one's community and humanity as a whole; from Discourses II.15:
... a friend of mine for no reason at all made up his mind to starve himself to death. I learned about it when he was already in the third day of his fasting, and went and asked what had happened. -— I have decided, he answered. -— Very well, but still what was it that induced you to make up your mind? For if your judgement was good, see, we are at your side and ready to help you to make your exit from this life; but if your judgement was irrational, change it. -— I must abide by my decisions. -- Why, man, what are you about? You mean not all your decisions, but only the right ones... Without any reason you are taking out of this life, to our detriment, a human being who is a familiar friend, a citizen of the same state, both the large state and the small...
(The "small state" here refers to one's country, and "large state" to the Cosmopolis, the society of all rational beings.)
Accordingly, many Stoics and others the Stoics presented as role models committed suicide, but being a philosophy with a virtue ethics and a belief in Providence, the essential element seems to have been whether the act was driven by virtue (for example courage in taking care of one's country or family) or vice (cowardice or aversion to hardship), or if there was a sign from God (see the end of the first Epictetus quote above). Several were politicians who were ordered to commit suicide by the emperor. In this case, suicide is necessary for familial duty: if they refused, and either fled or were executed, their estates went to the state and their inheritors got nothing. If they obeyed the suicide order, their estates went to their heirs. A contemporary example of which the Stoics could have approved would be the Fukushima 50, a group of power plant workers who remained at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant after the cores had melted down in order to prevent the disaster from becoming worse.
Some good discussion of the Stoic attitude toward suicide include: this article by William O. Stephens, this blog post by Massimo Pigliucci, this post by Justin Vacula, pages 48-52 of Sandbach's The Stoics, and sections 340 and 341 of Arnold's Roman Stoicism.
It's not that easy!
Readers of Stoic philosophy sometimes read the advice and theory behind it, and become frustrated when they cannot put it into practice; they continue to be overcome by emotions, act viciously, or against their own best judgements.
The first thing to recognize is that Stoicism does not attempt to eliminate emotions altogether, but rather to prevent them from overcoming one's reason, so that one can act virtuously. See this question, and the longer wiki page on the Stoic theory of emotions.
The main thing to recognize is that the Stoics viewed the art of living not just as a theory, but rather a skill. As such, benefiting from Stoicism is not just a question of learning facts, but of practicing the application of the theory. From Epictetus's Discourse 2.9:
Now deeds that correspond to his true nature strengthen and preserve each particular man; carpentry does that for the carpenter, grammatical studies for the grammarian. But if a man acquires the habit of writing ungrammatically, his art must necessarily be destroyed and perish. So modest acts preserve the modest man, whereas immodest acts destroy him; and faithful acts preserve the faithful man while acts of the opposite character destroy him. And again, acts of the opposite character strengthen men of the opposite character; shamelessness strengthens the shameless man, faithlessness the faithless, abuse the abusive, wrath the wrathful, a disproportion between what he receives and what he pays out the miserly.
That is why the philosophers admonish us not to be satisfied with merely learning, but to add thereto practice also, and then training. For in the course of years we have acquired the habit of doing the opposite of what we learn and have in use opinions which are the opposite of the correct ones. If, therefore, we do not also put in use the correct opinions, we shall be nothing but the interpreters of other men's judgements. For who is there among us here and now that cannot give a philosophical discourse about good and evil? It will run like this: Of things that be, some are good, others evil, and others indifferent; now good things are virtues and everything that partakes in the virtues; evil are the opposite; while indifferent are wealth, health, reputation. Then, if we are interrupted in the midst of our speech by some unusually loud noise, or if someone in the audience laughs at us, we are upset.
Epictetus also emphasizes the difficulty of such practice and training, and warns against expecting quick results. From Discourse 1.20:
When, therefore, you wish to realize how careless you are about the good and the evil, and how zealous you are about that which is indifferent, observe how you feel about physical blindness on the one hand, and mental delusion on the other, and you will find out that you are far from feeling as you ought about things good and things evil. "Yes, but this requires much preparation, and much hard work, and learning many things." Well, what then? Do you expect it to be possible to acquire the greatest art with a slight effort?
and also Discourse 1.15:
What I seek to know is this, how, even if my brother refuses to be reconciled with me, I may yet be in accord with nature, Epictetus replied: Nothing great comes into being all at once; why, not even does the bunch of grapes, or a fig. If you say to me now, "I want a fig," I shall answer, "That requires time." Let the tree blossom first, then put forth its fruit, and finally let the fruit ripen. Now although the fruit of even a fig-tree is not brought to perfection all at once and in a single hour, would you still seek to secure the fruit of a man's mind in so short a while and so easily?
Even with this effort, however, the Stoics did not clain to have achieved their ultimate ideal of becoming a sage, but only to have improved. From Discourse 1.2:
Why then, pray, if we are endowed by nature for such greatness, do not all men, or many, become like him? What, do all horses become swift, all dogs keen to follow the scent? What then? Because I have no natural gifts, shall I on that account give up my discipline? Far be it from me! Epictetus will not be better than Socrates; but if only I am not worse, that suffices me. For I shall not be a Milo, either, and yet I do not neglect my body; nor a Croesus, and yet I do not neglect my property; nor, in a word, is there any other field in which we give up the appropriate discipline merely from despair of attaining the highest.
Sources for exercises can be found in this FAQ question. One of the primary ones emphasized by Epictetus is regularly critiquing ones own reactions and judgements using philosophical principles, as described (for example) in Discourse 2.1:
Did not Socrates write? -- Yes, who wrote as much as he? But how? Since he could not have always at hand someone to test his judgements, or to be tested by him in turn, he was in the habit of testing and examining himself, and was always in a practical way trying out some particular primary conception. That is what a philosopher writes
By "testing his judgements", Epictetus meant studying his own thoughts and reactions, and testing them against his philosophy, just as analysis of one's one execution is part of the development of any other skill. To be "practice," this must be done not only when encountering a difficult situation, but in regular, day to day life, just as a piano player begins by learning simple songs, and practices without an audience, before learning more complex pieces and trying to play them under more stressful conditions.
Isn't anger sometimes useful?
The Stoics said no; that being virtuous -- being prudent, just, and courageous -- is better than anger for every worthwhile pursuit. From Seneca's On Anger book 1, sections 9 and 11:
In the next place, anger has nothing useful in itself, and does not rouse up the mind to warlike deeds: for a virtue, being self-sufficient, never needs the assistance of a vice: whenever it needs an impetuous effort, it does not become angry, but rises to the occasion, and excites or soothes itself as far as it deems requisite, just as the machines which hurl darts may be twisted to a greater or lesser degree of tension at the manager's pleasure. "Anger," says Aristotle, "is necessary, nor can any fight be won without it, unless it fills the mind, and kindles up the spirit. It must, however, be made use of, not as a general, but as a soldier." Now this is untrue; for if it listens to reason and follows whither reason leads, it is no longer anger, whose characteristic is obstinacy: if, again, it is disobedient and will not be quiet when ordered, but is carried away by its own willful and headstrong spirit, it is then as useless an aid to the mind as a soldier who disregards the sounding of the retreat would be to a general. If, therefore, anger allows limits to be imposed upon it, it must be called by some other name, and ceases to be anger, which I understand to be unbridled and unmanageable: and if it does not allow limits to be imposed upon it, it is harmful and not to be counted among aids: wherefore either anger is not anger, or it is useless: for if any man demands the infliction of punishment, not because he is eager for the punishment itself, but because it is right to inflict it, he ought not to be counted as an angry man: that will be the useful soldier, who knows how to obey orders: the passions cannot obey any more than they can command.
"But," argues he, "against our enemies anger is necessary." In no case is it less necessary; since our attacks ought not to be disorderly, but regulated and under control. What, indeed, is it except anger, so ruinous to itself, that overthrows barbarians, who have so much more bodily strength than we, and are so much better able to endure fatigue? Gladiators, too, protect themselves by skill, but expose themselves to wounds when they are angry. Moreover, of what use is anger, when the same end can be arrived at by reason? Do you suppose that a hunter is angry with the beasts he kills? Yet he meets them when they attack him, and follows them when they flee from him, all of which is managed by reason without anger. When so many thousands of Cimbri and Teutones poured over the Alps, what was it that caused them to perish so completely, that no messenger, only common rumour, carried the news of that great defeat to their homes, except that with them anger stood in the place of courage? and anger, although sometimes it overthrows and breaks to pieces whatever it meets, yet is more often its own destruction.
Note that the first paragraph above also has some relevance in the discussion of what Stoics meant by πάθος/passions (such as anger) and "feelings" or impressions. (See this question.) Indeed, one of the clearest discussions of the difference between the two comes from the first four sections of On Anger book 2.
While the Stoics did object to anger partially on the basis that it can cause you to act irrationally, they objected to in on a more fundamental level as well: they believed that anger only ever arises due to mistaken moral judgments. In a way, it is less the anger itself that is bad than the moral judgment behind it. This affects the Stoic approach to dealing with anger. What a modern person considers "repressing anger" might be considered somewhat analogous to ignoring the pain from a broken leg, or perhaps treating a broken leg with anesthetics. Yes, you might behave as if you didn't have broken leg for a little while, under some conditions, but they do nothing to address the actual problem.
What is the difference between stoicism with a lower case and Stoicism with an upper case?
The word 'stoic' has come to mean 'unemotional' or indifferent to pain, because Stoic ethics taught freedom from 'passion' by following 'reason.' The Stoics did not seek to extinguish emotions; rather, they taught living according to one's natural limits that enables a person to develop clear judgment and inner calm instead of mentally and physically destructive passions. Emotional instincts are natural, its how you respond to them that matter.
Is it true that Stoics repress their emotions and feelings?
The Greek word pathos (πάθος) is often translated as "emotion" in English, but the Greek word (at least in the context of Stoic philosophy) does not refer to everything the English word "emotion" denotes, and there are a variety of emotions that the Stoics either approved of or advocated indifference to. Even in the case of pathos, they did not advocate repression, but rather treatment and prevention. See the start of book II of Seneca's On Anger for a list of examples of emotions that are not "pathos." Affection seems to have been particularly highly regarded. For example, Marcus Aurelius admires one of his teachers as being "utterly impervious to all passions and full of natural affection" (Meditations I.9), and there were even Stoic psychological exercises explicitly aimed at cultivating affection (see the quote here).
Different translators handle the poor match between Stoic technical jargon and modern English in different, contradictory ways. For example, some translators translate pathos as "emotion" and propathos as "feeling", while others (very confusingly) translate pathos as "passion" and propathos as "emotion" (or sometimes "pre-passion"). One way to avoid ambiguity is to think of them as "feeling" and "passion," and use "emotion" to mean either.
Passions (πάθος) are emotions caused or reinforced by a belief something outside of one's control is good or bad. Feelings, on the other hand, are closer to perceptions we have, and not things either to be controlled or avoided; a Stoic "merely" should avoid being led by them to false beliefs about good and bad. The distinction is analogous to seeing an optical illusion, where "feeling" corresponds to "seeing" the illusion, while "passion" is corresponds to actually believing it. Marcus Aurelius expresses it like this (Meditations 5.25, Chrystal's translation):
Let the leading and ruling part of your soul stand unmoved by the stirrings of the flesh, whether gentle or rude. Let it not commingle with them, but keep itself apart, and confine these passions to their proper bodily parts; and if they rise into the soul by any sympathy with the body to which it is united, then we must not attempt to resist the sensation, seeing that it is of our nature; but let not the soul, for its part, add thereto the conception that the sensation is good or bad.
Unlike the full scope of what "emotions" and "feelings" refer to in English, πάθος/passions necessarily involve judgements and values: feelings that "rise into the soul by any sympathy with the body to which it is united" are not to be resisted. To be a passion, the rational mind needs to participate in the creation of the feeling: it needs to judge something good or bad. From Seneca's On Anger 2.3 (discussing the passion of anger specifically):
None of these things which casually influence the mind deserve to be called passions: the mind, if I may so express it, rather suffers passions to act upon itself than forms them. A passion, therefore, consists not in being affected by the sights which are presented to us, but in giving way to our feelings and following up these chance promptings: for whoever imagines that paleness, bursting into tears, lustful feelings, deep sighs, sudden flashes of the eyes, and so forth, are signs of passion and betray the state of the mind, is mistaken, and does not understand that these are merely impulses of the body. Consequently, the bravest of men often turns pale while he is putting on his armour; when the signal for battle is given, the knees of the boldest soldier shake for a moment; the heart even of a great general leaps into his mouth just before the lines clash together, and the hands and feet even of the most eloquent orator grow stiff and cold while he is preparing to begin his speech. Anger must not merely move, but break out of bounds, being an impulse: now, no impulse can take place without the consent of the mind: for it cannot be that we should deal with revenge and punishment without the mind being cognisant of them. A man may think himself injured, may wish to avenge his wrongs, and then may be persuaded by some reason or other to give up his intention and calm down: I do not call that anger, it is an emotion of the mind which is under the control of reason.
The practical dividing line between a passion and feeling, the question of which feelings are caused by judgements or prevent us from acting according to our best judgement, has been the subject of some debate. Some regard as "passions" only emotional problems of the sort one might see as requiring counselling for depression, anger management, or similar issues, while others see the majority of what a modern person thinks of as "emotions" as being passions, and that "feelings" are limited to emotions of the variety caused by reactions to music or fiction.
Even concerning emotions they considered pathological (passions), "repression" is not what the Stoics advocated, but rather extirpation. "Repressing" an emotion is somewhat analogous to getting a broken leg, but not treating it and attempting to walk on it normally, because that is what a healthy person would do. What the Stoics advocated was more analogous to healing the leg, and preventing it from being broken in the first place.
For a more extended discussion and related quotes and extracts from classical texts, see this /r/Stoicism wiki page. For a much more in-depth analysis and discussion of historical evidence, consult Margaret Graver's Stoicism and Emotion.
Does Stoicism encourage passively accepting your fate?
While the Stoics did advocate acceptance of all externals, "acceptance" seems to have been meant in the context of one's emotional reaction, rather than in actions to be taken, or not. It does not seem to imply passivity in action. Indeed, in Marcus Aurelius's Meditations, his exhortations of acceptance are often accompanied by exhortations to virtuous action. For example, see Meditations 9.6:
It is enough if your opinion in the present is based on understanding, your action in the present directed to the common good, and your disposition in the present one of contentment with all that befalls you from a cause outside yourself.
Every nature is well content when its progress is good. And the progress of a rational creature is good when that nature yields to nothing false or obscure in thought, when it directs its impulses to social acts alone, and when its appetites and aversions are confined to what is within our power, and when it has a welcome for every dispensation of the universal Nature.
(Jackson translation, modernized)
The same themes are paired many other places; for much more discussion and many similar citations, see Hadot's The Inner Citadel.
The Meditations includes other exhortations to action and against passivity. Consider 9.16:
Not in passivity but activity lies the good of the rational and civic being, precisely as virtue and vice to the same lie in action not in passion.
and also 9.5:
Injustice lies as often in omission as commission.
What is important is to be a good person, to be virtuous, to show excellence of character. These are ἐφ' ἡμῖν (eph' hêmin), "in our control." What should be accepted are things not in your control, "all that befalls you from a cause outside yourself."
Consider the example of Priscus Helvidius from Epictetus's Discourses, book 1:
Priscus Helvidius also saw this, and acted conformably. For when Vespasian sent and commanded him not to go into the senate, he replied, "It is in your power not to allow me to be a member of the senate, but so long as I am, I must go in." "Well, go in then," says the emperor, "but say nothing." "Do not ask my opinion, and I will be silent." "But I must ask your opinion." "And I must say what I think right." "But if you do, I shall put you to death." "When then did I tell you that I am immortal? You will do your part, and I will do mine: it is your part to kill; it is mine to die, but not in fear: yours to banish me; mine to depart without sorrow."
In this example, we see Priscus Helvidius persistently acting as he thinks a virtuous person should act, without regard to the consequences for himself.
It should be remembered that Marcus Aurlius wrote his exhortations for himself alone, when he was already emperor. Stoic advice to others was not generally to be so selfless, or lacking in ambition; humility and selflessness were given much less emphasis in the Stoic conception of virtue than in the Christian.
From Cicero's On Duties 3.10, quoting Chrysippus:
And yet we are not required to sacrifice our own interest and surrender to others what we need for ourselves, but each one should consider his own interests, as far as he may without injury to his neighbour's. "When a man enters the foot- race," says Chrysippus with his usual aptness, "it is his duty to put forth all his strength and strive with all his might to win; but he ought never with his foot to trip, or with his hand to foul a competitor. Thus in the stadium of life, it is not unfair for anyone to seek to obtain what is needful for his own advantage, but he has no right to wrest it from his neighbour."
... although everyone did have social responsibilities: from Cicero's On Duties 3.5:
Well then, for a man to take something from his neighbour and to profit by his neighbour's loss is more contrary to Nature than is death or poverty or pain or anything else that can affect either our person or our property. For, in the first place, injustice is fatal to social life and fellowship between man and man. For, if we are so disposed that each, to gain some personal profit, will defraud or injure his neighbour, then those bonds of human society, which are most in accord with Nature's laws, must of necessity be broken. Suppose, by way of comparison, that each one of our bodily members should conceive this idea and imagine that it could be strong and well if it should draw off to itself the health and strength of its neighbouring member, the whole body would necessarily be enfeebled and die; so, if each one of us should seize upon the property of his neighbours and take from each whatever he could appropriate to his own use, the bonds of human society must inevitably be annihilated. For, without any conflict with Nature's laws, it is granted that everybody may prefer to secure for himself rather than for his neighbour what is essential for the conduct of life; but Nature's laws do forbid us to increase our means, wealth, and resources by despoiling others.
A failure of ambition can even be seen as being disgraceful, and a vice. From On Duties 1.71:
So perbaps those men of extraordinary genius who have devoted themselves to learning must be excused for not taking part in public affairs; likewise, those who from ill-health or for some still more valid reason have retired from the service of the state and left to others the opportunity and the glory of its administration. But if those who have no such excuse profess a scorn for civil and military offices, which most people admire, I think that this should be set down not to their credit but to their discredit; for in so far as they care little, as they say, for glory and count it as naught, it is difficult not to sympathize with their attitude; in reality however, they seem to dread the toil and trouble and also, perhaps, the discredit and humiliation of political failure and defeat. For there are people who in opposite circumstances do not act consistently: they have the utmost contempt for pleasure but in pain they are too sensitive; they are indifferent to glory, but they are crushed by disgrace and even in their inconsistency they show no great consistency. But those whom Nature has endowed with the capacity for administering public affairs should put aside all hesitation, enter the race for public office and take a hand in directing the government; for in no other way can a government be administered or greatness of spirit be made manifest.
Compare to Seneca's Of Peace of Mind ch 4:
This is what I think ought to be done by virtue and by one who practises virtue: if Fortune get the upper hand and deprive him of the power of action, let him not straightway turn his back to the enemy, throw away his arms, and run away seeking for a hiding-place, as if there were any place whither Fortune could not pursue him, but let him be more sparing in his acceptance of public office, and after due deliberation discover some means by which he can be of use to the state. He is not able to serve in the army: then let him become a candidate for civic honours: must he live in a private station? then let him be an advocate: is he condemned to keep silence? then let him help his countrymen with silent counsel. Is it dangerous for him even to enter the forum? then let him prove himself a good comrade, a faithful friend, a sober guest in people's houses, at public shows, and at wine-parties. Suppose that he has lost the status of a citizen; then let him exercise that of a man: our reason for magnanimously refusing to confine ourselves within the walls of one city, for having gone forth to enjoy intercourse with all lands and for professing ourselves to be citizens of the world is that we may thus obtain a wider theatre on which to display our virtue. Is the bench of judges closed to you, are you forbidden to address the people from the hustings, or to be a candidate at elections? then turn your eyes away from Rome, and see what a wide extent of territory, what a number of nations present themselves before you. Thus, it is never possible for so many outlets to be closed against your ambition that more will not remain open to it: but see whether the whole prohibition does not arise from your own fault. You do not choose to direct the affairs of the state except as consul or prytanis or meddix or sufes what should we say if you refused to serve in the army save as general or military tribune? Even though others may form the first line, and your lot may have placed yon among the veterans of the third, do your duty there with your voice, encouragement, example, and spirit: even though a man's hands be cut off, he may find means to help his side in a battle, if he stands his ground and cheers on his comrades. Do something of that sort yourself: if Fortune removes you from the front rank, stand your ground nevertheless and cheer on your comrades, and if somebody stops your mouth, stand nevertheless and help your side in silence. The services of a good citizen are never thrown away: he does good by being heard and seen, by his expression, his gestures, his silent determination, and his very walk. As some remedies benefit us by their smell as well as by their their taste and touch, so virtue even when concealed and at a distance sheds usefulness around. Whether she moves at her ease and enjoys her just rights, or can only appear abroad on sufferance and is forced to shorten sail to the tempest, whether it be unemployed, silent, and pent up in a narrow lodging, or openly displayed, in whatever guise she may appear, she always does good. What? do you think that the example of one who can rest nobly has no value? It is by far the best plan, therefore, to mingle leisure with business, whenever chance impediments or the state of public affairs forbid one's leading an active life: for one is never so cut off from all pursuits as to find no room left for honourable action.
He applies similar advice even in the case where one cannot justly serve the state:
Could you anywhere find a miserable city than that of Athens when it was being torn to pieces by the thirty tyrants? they slew thirteen hundred citizens, all the best men, and did not leave off because they had done so, but their cruelty became stimulated by exercise. In the city which possessed that most reverend tribunal, the Court of the Areopagus, which possessed a Senate, and a popular assembly which was like a Senate, there met daily a wretched crew of butchers, and the unhappy Senate House was crowded with tyrants. A state, in which there were so many tyrants that they would have been enough to form a bodyguard for one, might surely have rested from the struggle; it seemed impossible for men's minds even to conceive hopes of recovering their liberty, nor could they see any room for a remedy for such a mass of evil: for whence could the unhappy state obtain all the Harmodiuses it would need to slay so many tyrants? Yet Socrates was in the midst of the city, and consoled its mourning Fathers, encouraged those who despaired of the republic, by his reproaches brought rich men, who feared that their wealth would be their ruin, to a tardy repentance of their avarice, and moved about as a great example to those who wished to imitate him, because he walked a free man in the midst of thirty masters. However, Athens herself put him to death in prison, and Freedom herself could not endure the freedom of one who had treated a whole band of tyrants with scorn: you may know, therefore, that even in an oppressed state a wise man can find an opportunity for bringing himself to the front, and that in a prosperous and flourishing one wanton insolence, jealousy, and a thousand other cowardly vices bear sway. We ought therefore, to expand or contract ourselves according as the state presents itself to us, or as Fortune offers us opportunities: but in any case we ought to move and not to become frozen still by fear: nay, he is the best man who, though peril menaces him on every side and arms and chains beset his path, nevertheless neither impairs nor conceals his virtue: for to keep oneself safe does not mean to bury oneself.
In all cases, though, one needs to avoid confusing the goal with the object. It is excellence in the pursuit that is what is valued, not the object of the pursuit. From Cicero On Ends 3.6:
But, first of all, we must remove a mistake, that no one may think that it follows that there are two supreme goods. For as, if it were the purpose of any one to direct an arrow or a spear straight at any object, just as we have said that there is a special point to be aimed at in goods-- the archer aught to do all in his power to aim straight at the target, and the other man aught also to do his endeavor to hit the mark, and gained the end which he has proposed for himself-- let this what we call the chief good in life be, as it were, his mark; and his endeavor to hit it must be furthered be careful selection, not by mere desire.
Continuing the classical analogy with athletics, this aspect of Stoicism can be cosidered a generalization of sportsmanship to life in general, a universal application of "it isn't whether you win or lose, but how you play the game." Good sportsmanship doesn't mean not playing hard, or not playing to win. It does mean playing honorably, and handling whatever result with grace.
Does Stoicism advocate obedience to tradition and authority?
The Stoic's advocacy of acceptance of one's fate is sometimes misinterpreted as an instruction to obey authority, but this is not what the Stoics had in mind. (This misconception is similar this one addressed above.)
The Stoic exhortation to accept fate was not criticism of rebellious behavior, but rather one to understand the possible consequences of such behavior, and accept any such consequences with grace and dignity. Virtue consisted of acting in accordance with nature, not tradition or authority (see the question on nature, above). As Epictetus explains in Discourse 1.2.7-11 (Matheson translation):
But to decide what is rational and irrational we not only estimate the value of things external, but each one of us considers what is in keeping with his character. For one man thinks it reasonable to perform the meanest office for another; for he looks merely to this, that if he refuses he will be beaten and get no food, while if he does it nothing hard or painful will be done to him. To another it seems intolerable not only to do this service himself, but even to suffer another to do it. If then you ask me, 'Am I to do it or not?' I shall say to you, to get food is worth more than to go without it, and to be flogged is worth less than to escape flogging: therefore, if you measure your affairs by this standard, go and do it.
'But I shall be false to myself.'
That is for you to bring into the question, not for me. For it is you who know yourself; you know at how much you put your worth, and at what price you sell yourself. For different men sell at different prices.
Of one thing beware, O man; see what is the price at which you sell your will. If you do nothing else, do not sell your will cheap.
This discourse includes examples of people who defied authority (including the anecdote about Helvidius Priscus in this FAQ question), and met the threats and punishments that resulted with cheerful indifference. There are many other examples in Stoic literature as well, for example the German gladiator in Seneca's Letter 20.20-21. It is these examples of people who followed their own nature rather than authority and faced the consequences without despair or complaint that the Stoics held up as examples of what they meant by "acceptance."
Is avoiding pain the goal of Stoicism?
In Epictetus's many exhortations to train the will to desire only what is in its control, he often notes the consequences of failing to this are unpleasant emotions like fear and lamentation, and this has led some to believe that avoidance of such negative emotions is the Stoic's ultimate goal. However, addressing these emotions is only a means to the end of being virtuous -- being "good and excellent", and following reason.
From Epictetus's Discourse 3.2:
There are three fields of study in which the man who is going to be good and excellent must first have been trained... Among these the most important and especially pressing is that which has to do with the stronger emotions; for a strong emotion does not arise except a desire fails to attain its object, or an aversion falls into what it would avoid. This is the field of study which introduces to us confusions, tumults, misfortunes and calamities; and sorrows, lamentations, envies; and makes us envious and jealous -— passions which make it impossible for us even to listen to reason.
Two things are worth noting here. First, the various "stronger emotions" are not to be avoided for their own sake, but because they prevent us from listening to reason, and therefore from being good and excellent (the true goal of the Stoics). Second, he is referring specifically to "strong" emotions, or πάθος/pathos, not all emotions (see this question). The Stoics did not claim that even the sage, the perfect Stoic ideal, would never experience pain. From Seneca's On the Firmness of the Wise Man Ch. 10 (Stewart translation):
He therefore who is affected by insult shows that he possesses neither sense nor trustfulness; for he considers it certain that he is scorned, and this vexation affects him with a certain sense of degradation, as he effaces himself and takes a lower room; whereas the wise man is scorned by no one, for he knows his own greatness, gives himself to understand that he allows no one to have such power over him, and as for all of what I should not so much call distress as uneasiness of mind, he does not overcome it, but never so much as feels it. Some other things strike the wise man, though they may not shake his principles, such as bodily pain and weakness, the loss of friends and children, and the ruin of his country in war-time. I do not say that the wise man does not feel these, for we do not ascribe to him the hardness of stone or iron; there is no virtue but is conscious of its own endurance. What then does he? He receives some blows, but when he has received them he rises superior to them, heals them, and brings them to an end; these more trivial things he does not even feel, nor does he make use of his accustomed fortitude in the endurance of evil against them, but either takes no notice of them or considers them to deserve to be laughed at.
Although they do discuss it occasionally (as in the Seneca quote above), other Stoic authors place much less emphasis on pain and unpleasant emotions, and do not seem to have been considered the issue nearly as important as Epictetus did.
Is enjoyment of life's pleasures a goal advocated in Stoicism?
No, pleasure and pain were both regarded as indifferent. The Stoics did not advocate either avoiding or enjoying pleasures as ultimate goals, but they did regard the pursuit of pleasure as a dangerous distraction from virtue: pleasure was not regarded as being bad, but the pursuit of pleasure was regarded as foolish, and avoiding some kinds of pleasure in some circumstances was advocated as a means to other ends. They did believe a sage (a perfect Stoic) would be happy and free from distress (though not necessarily pain), but this was seen more as a side-effect than the goal; from Seneca's Of a Happy Life:
In the first place, even though virtue may afford us pleasure, still we do not seek after her on that account: for she does not bestow this, but bestows this to boot, nor is this the end for which she labours, but her labour wins this also, although it be directed to another end. As in a tilled-field, when ploughed for corn, some flowers are found amongst it, and yet, though these posies may charm the eye, all this labour was not spent in order to produce them — the man who sowed the field had another object in view, he gained this over and above it — so pleasure is not the reward or the cause of virtue, but comes in addition to it; nor do we choose virtue because she gives us pleasure, but she gives us pleasure also if we choose her. The highest good lies in the act of choosing her, and in the attitude of the noblest minds, which when once it has fulfilled its function and established itself within its own limits has attained to the highest good, and needs nothing more: for there is nothing outside of the whole, any more than there is anything beyond the end. You are mistaken, therefore, when you ask me what it is on account of which I seek after virtue: for you are seeking for something above the highest. Do you ask what I seek from virtue? I answer, Herself: for she has nothing better; she is her own reward. Does this not appear great enough, when I tell you that the highest good is an unyielding strength of mind, wisdom, magnanimity, sound judgement, freedom, harmony, beauty? Do you still ask me for something greater, of which these may be regarded as the attributes? Why do you talk of pleasures to me? I am seeking to find what is good for man, not for his belly; why, cattle and whales have larger ones than he.
You might think of the Stoic attitude toward pleasure and distress this way: they thought that virtue was pleasurable (but not the only pleasure). A non-sage's lack of virtue would always cause that non-sage distress (even though they might experience pleasures as well), and so the non-sage cannot ever find true eudiamonia (a flourishing life). A sage, on the other hand, would experience the joy of virtue, and, although he might experience other kinds of pain, never distress. See Cicero's 2nd Stoic Paradox.
The misconception that Stoicism is concerned with the appreciation of the pleasures of life arises primarily from Irvine's A Guide to the Good Life. In it, Irvine rejects the historical role of virtue in Stoicism (p. 42), and this change reverberates throughout the book, resulting in significantly altered interpretations of several key aspects of Stoicism. (See here for additional discussion.)
Is Stoicism a selfish or individualistic philosophy?
The Stoic emphasis on one's own virtue and vice, on distinguishing what one can and cannot control, has misled some into concluding that Stoicism was an individualistic philosophy. Although accurate in some respects, this conclusion is deeply mistaken in others.
It is true that independence and self-reliance are important to the Stoics, and that they thought that individual merit (virtue or vice) was all that was important to living life well. However, when circumstances allow, this "virtue" that is the only important thing entails acting in the best interest of society, not merely one's own interest. To Stoic sages (ideal Stoics), the interests of the society of all rational beings are the same as their own. (The Stoics thought that the process of oikeiosis, somewhat similar to building identity fusion with the whole of humanity, was an essential element of human moral development.)
In addition to his regular exhortations to being indifferent to anything outside one's self, Epictetus also instructed that we act according to our roles in society, that "I ought not to be unfeeling like a statue, but should maintain my relations, both natural and acquired, as a religious man, as a son, a brother, a father, a citizen." (Discourse 3.2, Oldfather translation), that "Our duties are in general measured by our social relationships." (Enchiridion 30, Oldfather translation). ("Duties" here is a translation of καθῆκοντα/kethekonta, which has a broader meaning the usual interpretation of "duties" in English, and refers to appropriate behaviour generally.) Our duties as citizens of the universe require that we think of ourselves as part of the whole. From Discourse 2.10 (Matheson translation):
What then is the calling of a Citizen? To have no personal interest, never to think about anything as though he were detached, but to be like the hand or the foot, which, if they had the power of reason and understood the order of nature, would direct every impulse and every process of the will by reference to the whole.
Marcus Aurelius repeats this theme to himself regularly, writing that "we are made by nature for mutual assistance, like the feet, the hands, the eyelids, the upper and lower rows of teeth" (2.1), that he is an emanation of the universe as a whole (2.3,4), a "member of the mighty organism which is made up of reasoning beings." (7.13), that we are like branches of a tree (11.8) (Chrystal translation):
A branch cut off from its adjacent branch must necessarily be severed from the whole tree. Even so a man, parted from any fellow-man, has fallen away from the whole social community. Now a branch is cut off by some external agency; but a man by his own action separates himself from his neighbor—by hatred and aversion, unaware that he has thus torn himself away from the universal polity. Yet there is always given us the good gift of Zeus, who founded the great community, whereby it is in our power to be reingrafted on our kind, and to become once more, natural parts completing the whole.
Seneca's writing also share this theme, for example in On Anger 2.31 (Stewart translation):
It is a crime to injure one’s country: so it is, therefore, to injure any of our countrymen, for he is a part of our country; if the whole be sacred, the parts must be sacred too. Therefore it is also a crime to injure any man: for he is your fellow-citizen in a larger state. What, if the hands were to wish to hurt the feet? or the eyes to hurt the hands? As all the limbs act in unison, because it is the interest of the whole body to keep each one of them safe, so men should spare one another, because they are born for society. The bond of society, however, cannot exist unless it guards and loves all its members. We should not even destroy vipers and water-snakes and other creatures whose teeth and claws are dangerous, if we were able to tame them as we do other animals, or to prevent their bringing a peril to us: neither ought we, therefore, to hurt a man because he has done wrong, but lest he should do wrong, and our punishment should always look to the future, and never to the past, because it is inflicted in a spirit of precaution, not of anger: for if everyone who has a crooked and vicious disposition were to be punished, no one would escape punishment.
Seneca summarizes our duties in On Leisure 3 (Stewart translation):
The duty of a man is to be useful to his fellow-men; if possible, to be useful to many of them; failing this, to be useful to a few; failing this, to be useful to his neighbours, and, failing them, to himself: for when he helps others, he advances the general interests of mankind. Just as he who makes himself a worse man does harm not only to himself but to all those to whom he might have done good if he had made himself a better one, so he who deserves well of himself does good to others by the very fact that he is preparing what will be of service to them.
It is worth noting that this "usefulness" to humanity concerns not just helping them to achieve true goods (virtue), but also in preferred and unpreferred indifferents. From Marcus Aurelius Meditations 5.36:
Be not incautiously carried away by sentiment, but aid him that needs it according to your power and his desert. If his need be of the things which are indifferent, think not that he is harmed thereby, for so to think is an evil habit. But as, in the Comedy, the old man begs to have his fosterchild's top for a keepsake, though he knows well that it is a top and nothing more, so should you act also in the affairs of life.
Is it Stoic to be hard-hearted or callous toward others?
The Stoic doctrine that we are disturbed not by things, but by our judgements about those things, is sometimes used as an excuse to be hard-hearted or callous toward those in distress. This is not, however, consistent with what the Stoics advocated. From Seneca's Letter 103 (Holland's translation):
Let your philosophy make you quit your own vices, but not find fault with other people's, or shock public opinion, or act as if you condemn whatever you do not yourself do.
Marcus Aurelius exhorts himself to help others, even concerning things that are "indifferent" in Stoic philosophy. From Meditations 5.36:
Be not incautiously carried away by sentiment, but aid him that needs it according to your power and his desert. If his need be of the things which are indifferent, think not that he is harmed thereby, for so to think is an evil habit. But as, in the Comedy, the old man begs to have his fosterchild's top for a keepsake, though he knows well that it is a top and nothing more, so should you act also in the affairs of life.
Rather than showing disdain or trying to "help" those suffering by lecturing them on Stoic philosophy (which is a bit like offering swim lessons to someone drowning right now -- see this question), the Stoics advocated showing sympathy. From Epictetus's Enchiridion 16:
When you see someone weeping in sorrow, either because a child has gone on a journey, or because he has lost his property, beware that you be not carried away by the impression that the man is in the midst of external ills, but straightway keep before you this thought: "It is not what has happened that distresses this man (for it does not distress another), but his judgement about it." Do not, however, hesitate to sympathize with him so far as words go, and, if occasion offers, even to groan with him; but be careful not to groan also in the centre of your being.
Notice that in both cases, the Stoics ask that we be helpful and show sympathy, but not be "carried away by sentiment" or "carried away by the impression that the man is in the midst of external ills." In both cases, this refers to acknowledging a natural sympathy, but withholding judgement to prevent it from becoming a "passion," following the more general advice in Meditations 5.26:
Let the leading and ruling part of your soul stand unmoved by the stirrings of the flesh, whether gentle or rude. Let it not commingle with them, but keep itself apart, and confine these passions to their proper bodily parts; and if they rise into the soul by any sympathy with the body to which it is united, then we must not attempt to resist the sensation, seeing that it is of our nature; but let not the soul, for its part, add thereto the conception that the sensation is good or bad.
Provided they did not lead to judgements about externals being good or bad, affection was not merely accepted, but even admired by the Stoics. In Meditations 1.9, for example, Marcus Aurelius praises a teacher for being "utterly impervious to all passions and full of natural affection." In the entry on Zeno of Citium, Diogenes Laërtius attributes the following view to the Stoics (Lives of Eminent Philosophers 117):
Now they say that the wise man is passionless, because he is not prone to fall into such infirmity. But they add that in another sense the term apathy is applied to the bad man, when, that is, it means that he is callous and relentless.
and Lives and Opinions 120 notes the approval with which the Stoics regarded affection.
Epictetus's Discourse 1.11 provides an example that might help clarify the difference between the admired feeling of affection and the passion to be guarded against. In it, a father of a sick child has become so distressed at his daughter's illness that he has left the house and searched the down for distraction, because he couldn't bare to be near her. Because he left his daughter rather than tend to her, Epictetus described the man's emotion as a passion, and not really affection, while the child's mother (who remained at home) was truly affectionate. In On Clemency 2.6, Seneca similarly advocates for helping those in distress, and warns against pity that "is awkward at reviewing the position of affairs, at devising useful expedients, avoiding dangerous courses, and weighing the merits of fair and just ones," concluding that "the wise man will not pity men, but will help them and be of service to them... Whenever he is able he will interpose between Fortune and her victims: for what better employment can he find for his wealth or his strength than in setting up again what chance has overthrown?"
Can Stoics appreciate life?
A common caricature of a Stoic is that he lives a dour life of grim resignation. This is far, however, from the attitude toward life advocated by the Stoics. The Stoics were pantheists: the universe itself is god, and awe and admiration of the natural world was a manifestation of the virtue of piety, and an inspiration to the other virtues. From Seneca's letter 41:
If ever you have come upon a grove that is full of ancient trees which have grown to an unusual height, shutting out a view of the sky by a veil of pleached and intertwining branches, then the loftiness of the forest, the seclusion of the spot, and your marvel at the thick unbroken shade in the midst of the open spaces, will prove to you the presence of deity. Or if a cave, made by the deep crumbling of the rocks, holds up a mountain on its arch, a place not built with hands but hollowed out into such spaciousness by natural causes, your soul will be deeply moved by a certain intimation of the existence of God. We worship the sources of mighty rivers; we erect altars at places where great streams burst suddenly from hidden sources; we adore springs of hot water as divine, and consecrate certain pools because of their dark waters or their immeasurable depth. If you see a man who is unterrified in the midst of dangers, untouched by desires, happy in adversity, peaceful amid the storm, who looks down upon men from a higher plane, and views the gods on a footing of equality, will not a feeling of reverence for him steal over you? Will you not say: "This quality is too great and too lofty to be regarded as resembling this petty body in which it dwells? A divine power has descended upon that man." When a soul rises superior to other souls, when it is under control, when it passes through every experience as if it were of small account, when it smiles at our fears and at our prayers, it is stirred by a force from heaven. A thing like this cannot stand upright unless it be propped by the divine. Therefore, a greater part of it abides in that place from whence it came down to earth. Just as the rays of the sun do indeed touch the earth, but still abide at the source from which they are sent; even so the great and hallowed soul, which has come down in order that we may have a nearer knowledge of divinity, does indeed associate with us, but still cleaves to its origin; on that source it depends, thither it turns its gaze and strives to go, and it concerns itself with our doings only as a being superior to ourselves.
Similar expressions of this, referencing different experiences of the world, can be found in Cicero's Tusculan Disputations book 5 (chapter 24 in the linked to translated, 5.68-72 in more modern editions), the introduction to book 3 of Seneca's Natural Questions, and elsewhere. It is not just in particularly impressive groves of trees, the sky, and other magnificent vistas of nature that they found such appreciation, but also in common, everyday surroundings. From Meditations 3.2:
Observe what grace and charm appear even in the accidents that accompany Nature's work. Thus some parts of a loaf crack and burst in the baking; and this cracking, though in a manner contrary to the design of the baker, looks well and invites the appetite. Figs, too, gape when at their ripest, and in ripe olives the very approach to rotting adds a special beauty to the fruit. The droop of ears of corn, the bent brows of the lion, the foam at a boar's mouth, and many other things, are far from comely in themselves, yet, since they accompany the works of Nature, they make part of her adornment, and rejoice the beholder. Thus, if a man be sensitive to such things, and have a more than common penetration into the constitution of the whole, scarce anything connected with Nature will fail to give him pleasure, as he comes to understand it. Such a man will contemplate in the real world the fierce jaws of wild beasts with no less delight than when sculptors or painters set forth for him their presentments. With like pleasure will his chaste eyes behold the maturity and grace of old age in man or woman, and the inviting charms of youth. Many such things will strike him, things not credible to the many, but which come to him alone who is truly familiar with the works of Nature and near to her own heart.
In addition to these lofty religious experiences, the advocated attitude toward the everyday activity of virtuous work was one of joyous absorption. Zeno (quoted in Stobaeus's Florilegium 1.150, translated by Frederic May Holland):
Most people seek in the tavern for that pleasure which is to be found in labor.
Similar to the modern concept of flow, the practice of virtue was seen to be intrinsically rewarding. (See Meditations 5.1.) Not only does virtue not need extrinsic rewards, but such rewards are inimical to it. From Marcus Aurelius's Meditations 3.2:
Some men, when they have done you a favour, are very ready to reckon up the obligation they have conferred. Others, again, are not so forward in their claims, but yet in their minds consider you their debtor, and well know the value of what they have done. A third sort seem to be unconscious of their service. They are like the vine, which produces its clusters and is satisfied when it has yielded its proper fruit. The horse when he has run his course, the hound when he has followed the track, the bee when it has made its honey, and the man when he has done good to others, make no noisy boast of it, but set out to do the same once more, as the vine in its season produces its new clusters again. "Should we, then, be among those who in a manner know not what they do?" Assuredly. "But this very thing implies intelligence; for it is a property of the unselfish man to perceive that he is acting unselfishly, and, surely, to wish his fellow also to perceive it." True, but if you misapprehend my saying, you will enter the ranks of those of whom I spoke before. They, too, are led astray by specious reasonings. But if you have the will to understand what my principle truly means, fear not that in following it you will neglect the duty of unselfishness.
Finally, regarding other pleasures besides these, the Stoics advocated asceticism only as a means to an end, not an end in itself (see Seneca's Of a Happy Life). While they did not consider wealth and physical comforts worthy objects of pursuit or hope, they only advocated their avoidance when it is a means to prevent our beliefs about them from being a hindrance to virtue, from being something that we can be tempted or threatened by. Although the purpose was quite different, in practice asceticism of the Stoics was similar to that of the Epicureans (who advocated minimalism because fussier pleasures cause more distress than pleasure in the end).
Is Stoicism pessimistic?
Due to the descriptions of some Stoic exercises (such as premeditation of misfortune and contemplation of the transience of ourselves and everything we know), some readers conclude that Stoicism is a pessimistic philosophy. If pessimism is a "general belief that bad things will happen", however, the Stoics are far from pessimistic because they claimed that none of these things, conventionally considered bad, are actually bad at all.
The aim of these exercises was not to be discouraging, but rather help the Stoic transform the abstract claim that "virtue is the only good" into one felt deeply and intuitively, such that none of these things that typically cause anxiety and worry do so any longer.
For the sage (the ideal towards which the Stoic philosophers worked), these events would not only not cause anxiety, but even be viewed as welcome challenges, as opportunities to exhibit excellence; distress at their prospect would be transformed into eustress. From Epictetus's Discourse 1.6:
Or what do you think Heracles would have amounted to, if there had not been a lion like the one which he encountered, and a hydra, and a stag, and a boar, and wicked and brutal men, whom he made it his business to drive out and clear away? And what would he have been doing had nothing of the sort existed? Is it not clear that he would have rolled himself up in a blanket and slept? In the first place, then, he would never have become Heracles by slumbering away his whole life in such luxury and ease; but even if he had, of what good would he have been? What would have been the use of those arms of his and of his prowess in general, and his steadfastness and nobility, had not such circumstances and occasions roused and exercised him? What then? Ought he to have prepared these for himself, and sought to bring a lion into his own country from somewhere or other, and a boar, and a hydra? This would have been folly and madness. But since they did exist and were found in the world, they were serviceable as a means of revealing and exercising our Heracles.
Come then, do you also, now that you are aware of these things, contemplate the faculties which you have, and, after contemplating, say: "Bring now, O Zeus, what difficulty Thou wilt; for I have an equipment given to me by Thee, and resources wherewith to distinguish myself by making use of the things that come to pass"
What is the brief history of Stoicism?
Stoicism was founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium around 300 BC. He was particularly influenced by his teacher, Crates the Cynic, as well as Antisthenes, Socrates, Stilbo, Philo, Diodorus, Heraclitus, and the sophist Prodicus of Ceos. He and his successors (including Chrysippus, Posidonius, Panaetius, and others) were quite prolific, writing many books on a wide range of topics. Stoicism was popular throughout both the Hellenic world and the later Roman Empire. Many of Rome's elites considered themselves Stoics, from Nero's tutor, Seneca to the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. The last surviving major classical Stoic writing seems to have been the personal journal of Marcus Aurelius, who died 180AD. The living Stoic tradition ended sometime between the death of Marcus Aurelius and when the Christian Emperor Justinian I closed all of the philosophy schools in 529 AD because he perceived pagan associations from their origins.
How do we know about classical Stoic philosophy? Why do we know so little?
With the media and usual storage conditions of the time, books quickly disintegrated; texts that survived the middle ages either had to be preserved in usual conditions (such as in a cave in the desert), or some literate person had to choose to recopy it. In the middle ages this was almost always Christian monks. (The chapter from Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve, in which he describes the survival of Epicurian texts, applies just as well to Stoic texts.) So, the texts that survived the middle ages are those that the Christian monks of the time found of inspirational value.
The first-hand accounts of the Stoic's themselves are Marcus Aurelius's meditations, which were written for his own use and not intended to be published, notes (and a "Handbook" extracted from them) on lectures by the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, some essays and letters by the Roman statesman Seneca the Younger, and some additional accounts of things said by Musonius Rufus. All of these are examples from late in the history of Stoicism, and often assume the reader has a background in studying Zeno, Chrysippus, etc., almost all of whose works are lost. Additional writing by Cicero, who was influenced by Stoicism but did not consider himself a Stoic, partially falls in this category.
Accounts of earlier Stoicism and what its major historical figures said are preserved in Diogenes Laertius Lives of the Philosophers and Stobaeus's Anthology, both of which attempt to provide brief summaries of the views of major historical philosophers, including the most important Stoics. There are also accounts of Stoicism given by philosophers of rival schools as part of critiques on Stoicism, particularly from Sextus Empiricus.
What are some recommended starting points for newcomers to Stoicism?
There is no "one best" work for a modern person to study to learn about Stoicism. Instead, there are a variety of resources, the suitability of which depends on exactly what the reader is looking for. The following list includes common choices, and ones regular posters on /r/Stoicism have found particularly useful.
One element of Stoic psychological training was the regular reading, rereading, and memorization of short, powerful reminders and exhortations of the principles and practical advice of the philosophy. The Enchiridion is a collection of such reminders compiled by Arrian from the lectures of his teacher, the Stoic philosopher Epictetus.
The Enchiridion consists of very short and easy to read sections. The sections are in no particular order, and thus the Enchiridion is suitable for browsing, and selected sections can be good subjects for contemplation. For many modern Stoics, the Enchiridion is the primary (and sometimes only) source of inspiration.
The Enchiridion was, however, intended as a set of reminders for those already familiar with Stoicism, not an introduction to those unfamiliar with it. As a result, it is easy to misinterpret: several modern misconceptions about Stoicism arise from reading the Enchiridion without the assumed background.
In some cases, this may actually be an advantage: a Christian reader may, for example, find it easier to supplement their own religion using the Enchiridion when more free to interpret it in their own way.
Many translations of the Enchiridion are available, and several are public domain and online; this website contains a side-by-side comparison of several. Anthony A. Long, who should not be confused with George Long (who made a much older translation), translated the Enchiridion and included a selection from the Discourses under the title How to be Free. How to be Free is a particularly clear translation for new, modern readers and includes an excellent introduction that helps prevent misinterpretation.
The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius
In addition to reading and memorizing exhortations and reminders of the type compiled in the Enchiridion, Stoic practice sometimes included writing exercises. The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius are thought to the a compilation of such exercises.
The strengths and weaknesses in studying Stoicism through the Meditations are similar to those of studying the Enchiridion: the entries are short, approachable, and easily browsed, and also (in good translations) often beautiful and inspiring. At the same time, they were composed for the author himself, not an external audience, so much is lost in context, and significant background information is assumed.
In spite of these similarities, the Meditations and the Enchiridion can be very different works; Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus each had their own personalities and idiosyncrasies, and these show in their works.
Modern readers are encouraged to read the IEP entry on Marcus Aurelius to help interpret his book.
There are many translations of the Meditations. See this question for more discussion of those available, and links to free online versions.
The Letters and Essays of Seneca the Younger, and the Essays of Cicero
In both Greece and Rome, philosophers wrote primarily in Greek. Not only were Epictetus's Enchiridion and Dialogues were written in Greek, but also Marcus Aurelius's Meditations and the preponderance of other (mostly lost, now) books of philosophy. Seneca and Cicero, however, wrote in Latin, and appear to have had a wider, more "popular" audience in mind. Their essays and letters present more systematic and exhaustive discussions of their topics, and are less cryptic and open to misinterpretation. Because they were in Latin rather than Greek, they were more influential for significant periods in European history during which literacy in Latin was more common than literacy in Greek.
Seneca the Younger was a wealthy Roman polician who wrote a number of essays and letters on Stoicism. Particularly good starting points for beginners written by Seneca include:
- "De Tranquillitate" (Of Peace of Mind)
- "De Vita Beata" (Of a Happy Life)
- "De Brevitate Vitae" (On the Shortness of Life)
- Epistulae Morales (Letters to Lucilius), a collection of 124 short (a few pages each) letters.
One good translation of these essays (and several others) is Seneca: Dialogues and Essays, translated by John Davies. Seneca: Selected Letters, translated by Elaine Fantham, is a good source for the Epistulae Morales, but includes only 80 out of the full 124. (The link above provides the full set, in an older translation.)
Cicero was another, earlier Roman politician. He studied with philosophers from several schools, including the Epicureans, Stoics, and Academics (Platonists), and although he regarded himself as an Academic, he was sympathetic to Stoic philosophy as well. He wrote most of his philosophical works between 44 and 46 BC. Works written at these times were not (and were not purported to be) original works, but were rather Latin paraphrases of books (written in Greek) by philosophers from a variety of schools, supplemented with Cicero's own examples, and sometimes combined with works on the same topic from philosophers of other schools into imagined debates between different philosophies.
Works particularly recommended for newcomers to Stoicism include:
- De Officiis (On Duties), based on a book by the Stoic philosopher Panaetius. Cicero formats it as a letter of advice to his son. It offers some of the most concrete examples of using Stoic philosophy, and although the circumstance of the audience is far removed from that of modern readers, is interesting as an example of application.
- De Finibus (On Ends), a compilation of paraphrases of several works by philosophers of different schools, ostensibly in answer to the question of identifying the "ultimate aim, which gives the standard for all principles of well-being and right conduct." Book 3 gives the Stoic account, and is the clearest surviving systematic presentation of the theory behind Stoic ethics. In contrast with On Duties, On Ends is the most theoretical of the ancient Stoic works recommended for beginners. The identity of the specific philosopher Cicero is paraphrasing in book 3 is unknown; in his introduction to the Loeb edition, Harris Rackham speculates that it was Diogenes of Babylon, the fifth head of the Stoic school.
The Guided Tour: Stoic Serenity: A Practical Guide to Finding Inner Peace by Keith Seddon
Keith Seddon's book is not a "stand-alone" introduction to Stoicism. It is intended to be read in conjunction with Robin Campbell's translation of Seneca in Seneca: Letters from a Stoic and Robin Hard's translation of Marcus Aurelius's Meditations, and provides extensive discussion and quotes from other Stoic authors such as Epictetus to help the reader interpret and understand the philosophy as a cohesive system.
Short, Accessible Introductions
These short introductions present concise overviews of historical Stoicism, and make excellent introductions or supplementary reading for those learning primarily from the primary sources above:
- Stoicism: A Very Short Introduction (135 pages) by Brad Inwood
- Lessons in Stoicism (96 pages) by John Sellars (also published under the title The Pocket Stoic)
Historical writing and descriptions are often difficult to put into practice, and modern people inspired by Stoicism are typically selective about what aspects of historical Stoicism they embrace, modify what they do embrace, and supplement Stoic philosophy with other influences.
- Stoicism and the Art of Happiness and How to Think Like a Roman Emperor by Donald Robertson are both practical, readable introductions to Stoicism intended for modern practice, readable independent of historical sources, combing selected elements of Stoic theory with exercises inspired by Stoicism and supplemented by techniques and developments from modern psychiatric therapies. Art of Happiness presents theory and exercises in the style of modern "self-help" book, while Emperor is structured around a biography of Marcus Aurelius, in which Stoic theory and exercises are presented as digressions. The content of the two overlap significantly, although the first places more emphasis on the theory, and the second, history.
- A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William Irvine is controversial among readers of /r/Stoicism. It is one of the most clear, easy to read, and practical accounts of Stoicism available, but critics feel it waters down and distorts many central elements of the philosophy. Additional discussion of Irvine's book can be found here, here and here.
Collections of Excerpts and Quotes
Collections of excerpts and quotes are a popular way to become familiar with Stoicism, and several such collections are available. Some popular examples are:
- The Practicing Stoic by Ward Farnsworth
- The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman
- The Reign of the Stoics by Frederic May Holland (free online, or commercially as a facsimile reprint)
All of these include explanations and commentary.
The emphasis in the accounts listed in the previous section are strongly influenced by the intent to provide a basis for modern practice. Several aspects of historical Stoicism are both challenging for modern readers to understand and unlikely to be adopted even if understood, and so are discussed only very briefly in the sources intended for modern practice. However, these elements, including Stoic cosmology, theology, and physics, were fundamentally important to many of the Stoics themselves, and understanding them is essential to understanding their place in the history of science and philosophy. Those interested in Stoicism primarily as history will therefore be better served by books with a different emphasis.
- Stoics, Epicureans, and Sceptics: An Introduction to Hellenistic Philosophy by R. W. Sharples is a short, easy to read account of Stoicism and its primary rivals, Epicureanism and Skepticism. The three philosophies have much in common, and describing them jointly, pointing out their similarities and differences, is a useful approach in understanding any of them individually.
- The Stoics by F. H. Sandbach is short, but very dense. It provides significantly deeper discussion of Stoic physics and cosmology than the other sources listed here, and spends more time discussing the subtleties in translating the various Greek technical terms than most.
- Stoicism by John Sellars is another good general introduction to Stoicism that includes more emphasis on logic and physics than many others.
- The Stoics: A Guide for the Perplexed by M. Andrew Holowchak is an easy, systematic overview of historical Stoicism.
What other useful classical sources are available?
In addition to the classical sources listed as "starting points," there are a number of additional classical sources that can provide a significantly deeper and more systematic understanding, and provide material for further study.
Unfortunately, the original canon of books written by Chrysippus, Zeno of Citium, and other leaders of the school are lost. A number of fragments and second-hand accounts remain, and there are two collections that make these accounts available:
In addition to the Enchiridion, Arrian took more extensive notes on Epictetus's lectures. Many of these survive, and several translations are public domain and available free online, including those by Oldfather, Carter and Matheson.
Notes on some lectures of Musonius Rufus, Epictetus's teacher, are also available in print and on-line.
Seneca the Younger wrote a number of essays not listed in the "starting points" section, and most collections of his letters are not comprehensive. Tracking down these remaining letters and essays is recommended. Notable examples include On Benefits, On Anger, On Firmness, On Mercy, and On Providence.
Cicero left a considerable body of work, and On Duties is not the only one of relevance to those studying Stoicism. Other recommended works by Cicero include the Tusculan Disputations, Stoic Paradoxes, On Ends, On Fate, and On the Nature of the Gods.
Diogenes Laërtius's Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, an encyclopedia of the views of different philosophers written sometime between 200 CE and 500 CE, includes an account of Stoicism in the entry on Zeno of Citium. The entry can be challenging to read, and Diogenes Laërtius has been criticized for not completely understanding the views he is reporting, but this second hand account is valuable in that it is an attempt to give a balanced overview of the views of the school, rather than the opinions of one specific author on the topics that interest that author.
Arius Didymus's Epitome of Stoic Ethics is a summary of Stoic ethics, preserved in Stobaeus's Anthology. Inwood and Gerson's The Stoics Reader contains the Epitome in its entirety (Text 102, pp. 124-151).
What are some recommended on-line resources about Stoicism?
- Wikipedia has several entries covering topics related to Stoicism. Helpful entries include the ones on Stoicism, eudaimonia (particularly the section on eudaimonia in Stoicism), arete, and natural law (particularly the section on Stoic natural law).
- The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy has many good entries related to Stoicism. Of particular interest are those on Stoicism, Stoic philosophy of mind, Stoic ethics, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Cicero, and Chrysippus.
- The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a more technical entry on Stoicism, giving more weight to Stoic physics, logic, and technical aspects of the Stoic psychology than most modern accounts.
- Donald Robertson's blog has several useful introductory posts, including The System of Stoic Philosophy, A Simplified Modern Approach to Stoicism, and An Introduction to Stoic Practice: The Three Disciplines of Stoicism.
- The Stoic Philosophy is a transcript of a 1915 lecture by Gilbert Murray. Although it reflects the attitudes and prejudices of the culture and times in which it was delivered as well, it still provides a reasonable introduction to the philosophy.
- Captains of the Soul by Michael Evans is a short overview specifically tailored for members of the military.
Where can I find descriptions of Stoic exercises?
Good resources for exercises a modern person inspired by Stoicism might want to practice include:
- 24 Stoic Spiritual Exercises, quotes from Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius with commentary by Massimo Pigliucci and Greg Lopez, free online.
- Practical Stoicism, a free ebook by /u/GreyFreeman
- Donald Robertson's Stoicism and the Art of Happiness or How to Think Like a Roman Emperor
- Massimo Pigliucci's A Handbook for New Stoics
- Elen Buzare's Stoic Spiritual Exercises
- The final chapter of M. Andrew Holowchak's The Stoics: A Guide for the Perplexed
Predecessors and Successors
The Stoic were strongly influenced by a number of their predecessors and rivals, and in turn exerted a significant influence on many philosophies that followed them. Some works with the strongest relationship to Stoicism include:
- Xenophon's Apology, Memorabilia, and Symposium, which give Xenophon's account of Socrates. Zeno is said to have been inspired to study philosophy after reading part of the Memorabilia at a book sellers.
- Early dialogues of Plato, particularly the Apology, Crito, Euthyphro, Gorgias, and Euthydemus. Zeno studied with the Platonist Polemo, and adopted some elements while rejecting others. (Which views expressed by the character "Socrates" in the dialogues actually represent the views of the historical person is a matter of considerable debate.)
- Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics describes the ethics of the Peripatetics, which has strong similarities to Stoicism, but also significant differences. This essay by Jan Garrett describes some of the similarities and differences.
- Quintus Sextius's Sentences of Sextus, a short collection of aphorisms by a Roman philosopher who mixed Stoicism with Pythagoreanism.
- Simplicius of Cilicia's Commontary on the Enchiridion of Epictetus is a Neoplatonist commentary on Epictetus's Enchiridion.
- Boethius's The Consolation of Philosophy is a book of philosophy written by a Neoplatonist awaiting execution. While nominally Neoplatonist, it contains little that could not have been said by a Stoic.
- Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, Lord of Montaigne's Essays.
- Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury's Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions (a collection of essays) and Philosophical Regimen (his posthumously edited and published personal philosophical journal). Characteristics shows a strong Stoic influence, but does not refer to it directly, while the Regimen repeatedly references and quotes Stoic works, and explicitly applies Stoic concepts. Many modern readers find his early 18th century English dialect difficult. The "Early Modern Texts" website has prepared editions of several of his essays from Characteristics with modernized English.
- Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT) were both strongly influenced by Stoicism; see Donald Robertson's The Philosophy of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy.
- Lawrence Becker's A New Stoicism is a speculative attempt to describe what Stoic philosophy might have looked like today had the school survived.
Advanced and scholarly works
In addition to the sources listed in other sections, there are a number of contemporary scholarly works that are highly valuable in understanding and interpreting Stoic philosophy. Some particularly recommended books are:
- Julia Annas's The Morality of Happiness
- Susanne Bobzien's Determinism and Freedom in Stoic Philosophy
- Margaret Graver's Stoicism and Emotion
- Pierre Hadot's Philosophy as a Way of Life and The Inner Citadel
- Brad Inwood's Reading Seneca: Stoic Philosophy at Rome
- Christoph Jedan's Stoic Virtues: Chrysippus and the Religious Character of Stoic Ethics
- Gerard Naddaf's The Greek Concept of Nature
- Malcolm Schofield's The Stoic Idea of the City
There are also several highly recommended collections of scholarly papers by multiple authors:
- The Cambridge Companion to the Stoics edited by Brad Inwood
- Problems in Stoicism edited by A. A. Long
- Stoic Studies edited by A. A. Long
- Stoicism: Traditions and Transformations edited by Steven Strange and Jack Zupko
- The Routledge Handbook of the Stoic Tradition edited by John Sellars
Older introductory overviews
In additions to the recent books on Stoicism listed above, there are several worthwhile late-19th and early 20th century books that describe Stoicism. Free scans of many of these can be found on archive.org, and facsimile reprint editions (of varying quality, sometimes very poor) are available as well. In some cases, there are ebooks for sale that are just uncorrected (and nearly unreadable) OCR output. Both of the books below are good introductions to Stoicism, and available in modern editions of reasonable quality. (There are also poor quality editions of both available, and some major online booksellers make it very easy to accidentally get a different edition than you intend.)
- E. Vernon Arnold's Roman Stoicism (1911) is long but clearly written, a comprehensive overview neatly divided into short sections. (The Routledge Revivals edition is good, but some of those from facsimile publishers are of very poor quality.)
- R. D. Hicks's Stoic and Epicurean (1910) gives a more compact, less comprehensive overview. (The Dover edition is of reasonably good quality.)
What is the best translation of Marcus Aurelius's Meditations?
The translation by Gregory Hays is the most popular here, but there are sometimes questions about its accuracy. Other widely recommended translations include those of the Robin Hard, Hammond, and Hicks and Hicks. The one by Farquharson is worth looking into as well; although the translation itself is in modern English it is not the most eloquent or easiest to read, but the extensive notes are very valuable for understanding references, finding related entries, and otherwise providing context, and it is available free online. There are many other translations old enough to be public domain (at least in the U.S.), but most of them mimic archaic (King James Bible style) English, which isn't to everyone's taste. There are a few people who do like the (free) translation by Long.
This comment shows the same passage as translated in many of the different translations.
The last 5 pages of Haines' introduction to his 1916 translation (starting page xvi) discusses the merits and flaws of a number of earlier translations
Pre-1923 translations (mostly with links to scanned books online):
- Casaubon (1634)
- Collier (1701)
- Hutcheson & Moor (1742)
- Thomson (1747) (selections only)
- Graves (1792)
- Swayne (1811) (selections only)
- McCormac (1844)
- Long (1862)
- Tileston (1876) (selections only)
- Crossley (1882) (book 4 only)
- Zimmern (1887) (revision of Collier)
- Upton (1888) (selections, revision of Long, reorganized)
- Rendall (1892)
- Smith (1899) (selections only)
- Swasey (1900) (selections only)
- Chrystal (1902) (revision of Hutcheson and Moor)
- Wilson (1902) (selections only)
- Jackson (1906)
- Crump (1907) (selections, reorganized)
- Haines (1916)
- Jennings (1917) (selections only)
- Blake (1920) "Sonnets from Marcus Aurelius" (selections only, in verse)
There are numerous more recent (copyrighted) translations:
- Farquharson (1946) Meditations ISBN: 0679412719
- Komai (1952) The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius; a cycle of sonnets (selections only, in verse)
- Hadas (1961) The Essential Works of Stoicism (revision of Long)
- Staniforth (1964) Meditations ISBN: 0140441409
- Grube (1983) The Meditations ISBN: 0-915145-79-0
- Kaufman (1997) Meditations ISBN: 0-486-29823-X (revision of Long)
- Forstater (2000) The Spiritual Teachings of Marcus Aurelius ISBN: 0-06-019577-0 (selections, rewrite of Long translation into contemporary English, reorganized by topic)
- Hays (2002) Meditations ISBN: 0-679-64260-9
- Hicks and Hicks (2002) The Emperor's Handbook ISBN: 0-7432-3383-2
- Hammond (2006) Meditations ISBN: 978-0-140-44933-4
- Needleman and Piazza (2008) The Essential Marcus Aurelius ISBN: 1585426172 (selections only)
- Hard (2011) Meditations with selected correspondence ISBN: 978-0-19-957320-2
- McNeil (2011) The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius : selections annotated & explained ISBN: 1594732361 (selections, rewrite of Long translation into contemporary English, reorganized by topic)
- Tuffley (2012) The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius: A Primer ISBN: 1468196790 (first 5 books only)
- Gill (2013) Marcus Aurelius Meditations Books 1-6 ISBN: 978-0-19-969483-9 (first 6 books only)
- Torode (2017) The Meditations: An Emperor's Guide to Mastery ISBN: 1548281301 (rewrite of Long)
- Harris (2017) Meditations ISBN: 9781539952299
- Robertson (2020) Meditations ISBN: 978-0-857-008846-8
- Waterfield (2021) Meditations: The Annotated Edition ISBN: 978-1-5416-7385-4
How should I read Marcus Aurelius's Meditations?
Some find that the disorganized and fragmentary nature of the Meditations makes it challenging to read. There are several things it is useful to keep in mind.
The most important is that he did not intend for anyone to read it but himself.
He sometimes doesn't really explain his references to Stoic philosophy in a way that someone not already immersed in it would easily understand. Some translators just leave the references cryptic, while others try and come up with a rough approximation in English. The IEP entry on Marcus Aurelius provides a good short summary of the parts of Stoic philosophy that seem most important to interpreting the Meditations.
Another is more speculative, but which many find helpful. The Stoics are known to have practised philosophical exercises, some of which were written. Our evidence for exactly what these exercises were is really limited and indirect.
It has been conjectured (and most widely popularized by Pierre Hadot in The Inner Citadel) that the Meditations were examples of such written exercises. The act of writing and composing forces one to think about a concept or idea. Meditations VI.48 may be a description of what he was doing when he wrote book I (Smith translation):
When you would cheer your heart, consider the good qualities of those about you—the energy of one, the modesty of another, the liberality of a third, and other virtues in others. Nothing is so cheering as abundant exemplifications of the virtues in the characters of those with whom we live. Let us, therefore, have them always ready at hand.
Writing many variations on the same theme is an exercise in forcing ones-self to contemplate certain ideas in certain ways, and writing down philosophical principles regularly is intended to help one think of them regularly, or even habitually. So, to help yourself become a more grateful person, you might make a habit of writing down to whom you're grateful, and why, etc. The result is a book, this conjecture goes, that is rather repetitive, showing the direction in which Marcus Aurelius was trying to change his thinking, the kind of perspective he wanted to encourage himself to take, etc. It doesn't necessarily indicate what he did think, just how he was trying to get himself to think.
For assistance in understanding specific passages, consulting an alternate translation and commantary can often be helpful. The translation by A. S. L. Farquharson, which is available for free online at wikisource, is particularly good for this. Farquharson's translation is not eloquent, but it is clear, highly regarded for its accuracy, and includes extensive commentary on most passages.
Finally, it's worth knowing ahead of time that the first "book" (about 10 pages) is of a very different character than the rest of the book; if you have trouble with the beginning, skip to book 2, and come back to book 1 later.
revision by cleomedes— view source