Roman Calendar

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Laughing Stoic (IO SATURNALIA!)

     In honor of the beginning of Saturnalia today, I thought I would post a link to an article entitled "The Laughing Stoic". This article discusses the Stoic embrace of positive emotions such as joy and happiness, often overlooked by those who mistakenly think that Stoicism rejects all emotion!

Enjoy the article! IO SATURNALIA!

Monday, December 16, 2013

Stoicism's "Brotherhood of Man" (from "Stoicism and Emotion")

     One of the concepts in Stoicism that receives less attention than perhaps it ought in modern times is the concept of the "brotherhood of man" - the essential obligation of all human beings to all other human beings, simply by virtue of being human. Yes, human beings, lacking perfect wisdom, will quarrel and even go to war with one another, yet we are all human, and all have a duty to treat one another as fellow human beings. Here is Margaret R. Graver's take on this from Stoicism and Emotion:

"[E]very person has an obligation to consider the interests of others in determining how to act. In theory, that obligation should extend not only to others in existing social systems (the polis within which one is born) but also to every human being, since all rational beings are in fact united in a single cosmic community under the rule of Zeus. Progress in ethical understanding is in large part a matter of increasing one's awareness of the extent of this obligation. "Every human being should regard every other as akin just because they are human," writes Cicero." Another fragment by Hierocles speaks of a sense of kinship (again, oikeiosis) as something that can be intensified by conscious effort. Hierocles thinks of the individual as surrounded by concentric circles representing successively the self, the nuclear family, the extended family, the neighborhood, city, country, and finally the whole human race. It is a mark of character, he says, "to somehow pull the circles toward the center in one's proper treatment of each person, deliberately transferring those in the outer circles to the inner ones. As one comes to think of the persons in the wider circle as truly belonging to oneself, one will be increasingly motivated to behave toward them in the way the wise person would do."

Margaret R. Graver. Stoicism and Emotion (pp. 176-177). Kindle Edition.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

On Human Relationships (from "Stoicism and Emotion")

     On dies Saturni (Saturday), a.d. XII Kalendas Ianuarias (the 21st of December), I, Gaius Tullius Valerianus Germanicus, shall be marrying Appia Gratia Avita, my dearest love, who is also a practicing Stoic. Many people, who labor under the misconception that Stoicism is somehow the repression of emotion, seem surprised about the idea of Stoics getting married. Can a Stoic be married? How can a Stoic fall in love? But social contracts, including marriage, were and are highly valued by Stoics. Here are some thoughts from Margaret R. Graver's Stoicism and Emotion:

     "The fact that nearly all humans live together in organized groups is not just a result of our contingent need for mutual assistance. It is also an expression of a deep-seated preference which is characteristic of our species. The Stobaean source indicates that marriage and political action are in accordance with the nature of humans as creatures who are not only rational but also communal (koinonikos) and gregarious (philallelos). The treatise of Hierocles supports a similar assertion from the ease with which social ties are formed.

But we are the kind of animal that has a herd instinct and a need for one another. This is why we live in cities. For every person without exception is part of some polis. In addition, we form friendships easily. For by sharing a meal or sitting together in the theater. . .'

     Unfortunately the papyrus tails off in mid-sentence, but it is clear enough what the argument must have been: if we can feel connected to another person from so slight an acquaintance as sitting next to one another at a performance, we must indeed be companionable beings."

      Appia Gratia Avita and I are indeed "companionable beings," and are looking forward to spending the rest of our lives together in a companionable relationship. Feliciter!

Margaret R. Graver. Stoicism and Emotion (p. 176). Kindle Edition.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Confusing Pain with Evil (Stoicism and Emotion)

On the matter of confusing pain with evil (from Margaret R. Graver's Stoicism and Emotion):

This alternative (and philosophically preferable) explanation is expressed in the passage just quoted, in connection with the confusion between pain and the destruction of our nature. Pain, says Cicero, is thought to be an evil both because of its sharpness and because it is seen to accompany (videtur sequi) destructions of our nature; i.e., instances of harm to our natural constitution." Being injured is not at all the same thing as being in pain, yet because pain does regularly accompany injury, it is easy for the undeveloped mind to assume that it is the pain itself that is to be avoided. Hence the difficulty of persuading a child to accept some necessary but painful medical treatment. With greater experience of the world, the child may come to realize that there are two object types to be kept straight, those which cause pain and those which harm the body, and to regard these things in different ways. Until then, the frequency with which these co-occur will be misleading. Likewise pleasure comes to be understood as a distinct object type from that which promotes health, and good or bad reputation as distinct from reputable or disreputable conduct. Even life itself-that is, the mere continuance of one's existence as an animate organism-is to be distinguished from a proper object, the preservation of one's natural state or (as we might say it) of one's wholeness as a person. A mature person does not necessarily believe that death is to be avoided at all costs.

Margaret R. Graver. Stoicism and Emotion (pp. 160-161). Kindle Edition.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Objects Mistakenly Regarded As Good or Evil (from "Stoicism and Emotion")

     From Margaret R. Graver's Stoicism and Emotion, in which the author explores Cicero's explanations of how we come to regard objects (mistakenly) as good or evil:

     " Cicero names six objects which people mistakenly regard as goods and evils: pleasure and pain, death and life, honor and disrepute. Each of these is closely associated with an object for which we have some natural affinity or disaffinity: on the positive side health, the preservation of one's natural state, and moral excellence; on the negative side bodily harm, the dissolution of one's nature, and (by implication) moral turpitude. Our errors arise from our tendency to confuse objects in the first group with the corresponding objects in the second group. We fail to make distinctions between things that are in fact distinct.

     But why should we make such mistakes? Cicero twice speaks of the confusion in terms of a resemblance between one thing and another. Pleasure, he says, 'has something similar' to what is good by nature and so is 'an imitator of the good.' Glory, also, is said to resemble moral excellence (honestas). However, the language of resemblance is not entirely transparent. Ordinarily we think of resemblance as a sharing of properties: to perceive a resemblance is to observe the same properties in two distinct objects, each of which is already fully conceptualized. That is not quite what is happening in this case, where the relevant concepts are still in the process of formation. Here as in Calcidius, the salient epistemic challenge must be that of sorting out experiences which regularly occur together. The difficulty that confronts the developing mind is that of recognizing that the objects in question are in fact different, making distinctions it has not previously made, so as to form the boundaries of its concepts correctly."

Margaret R. Graver. Stoicism and Emotion (p. 160). Kindle Edition.

Monday, December 9, 2013

"Habitudes of the Wise" (from Stoicism and Emotion)

From Margaret R. Graver's Stoicism and Emotion:

Habitudes of the wise

     "Finally we return to the attributes belonging to the normative human life and to the group of conditions called epitedeumata, that is, `habitudes' or `pursuits.' Examples of these appear in another portion of the Stobaean account: Fondness for music (philomousia), fondness for literature (philogrammatia), fondness for horses (philippia), fondness for hunting with dogs (philokunegia), and, in general, the things that are said to be encyclical skills are called by Stoics `habitudes' but are not said to be forms of knowledge; rather, they are classed among the worthwhile conditions. Accordingly, they say that only the wise person is fond of music and fond of literature, and analogously with the others. And they give an outline account of the `habitude' as follows: `a road that leads toward what is in accordance with virtue through a skill or through part of a skill.'

     What strikes the eye immediately is the similarity of nomenclature between the examples of `habitudes' philomousia, philogrammatia, philippia, philokunegia-and the `sicknesses' considered earlier: philarguria, philogu- nia, and so on. Why should `fondness for horses' have a different moral standing from `fondness for birds'? There would be no reason at all, if it were not that the habitudes are defined quite differently from the sicknesses. Sicknesses and infirmities have as part of their definition a mistake about the value of externals: they take some object to be choiceworthy that is in fact not choiceworthy. A habitude does not involve any such mistake; nor could it, since habitudes belong to the inerrant wise. Thus while a nonwise person might well be fond of dogs or literature in an ordinary way, thinking of a day of hunting, or of reading Euripides, as a genuine good, that would not be the sort of fondness that counts as a habitude.29 To be a habitude, one's engagement with the preferred object must be `a road that leads toward what is in accordance with virtue through a skill or through part of a skill.'

`     To understand this definition, it is helpful to know that the word hodos, `road,' also means method': a sensible means of achieving some end. Also, we have a definition of `skill' as `a system of accurate cognitions trained together toward some good end.' Accurate cognitions, also called katalepseis or `grasps,' are instances of reliable judgment. Thus we are again dealing with the area of belief, though these beliefs are not the precipitate and unstable opinions (doxai) of the nonwise but the wise person's fully justified beliefs, also describable as items of knowledge. A habitude should therefore be the kind of item that can work together with a set of interrelated beliefs to guide one's actions in one direction rather than another. I suggest, then, that a habitude must itself take the form of a belief (in this case a reliable `grasp') with specific content. Logically it should be related in content to the katalepseis comprised by the skill, without being one of them. That is, it should not just register some reliable bit of information concerning, for instance, horses but should direct a person's actions in that direction. This would be the case if the content grasped included something about the appropriateness in one's own case of preferring activities related to horses where circumstances permit and where no other more pressing obligation stands in the way.

     Thus a habitude is indeed a road or method, in that it guides a person toward actions in accordance with virtue. It should be remembered, though, that in the Stoic system all the actions of a wise agent are necessarily in accordance with virtue. We cannot think, then, that the habitude leads toward what is in accordance with virtue by directing one away from what is in accordance with vice: the wise person would not need such direction. Rather a habitude must offer a principle of selection among a number of possibilities for virtuous action. It must give the justification for devoting one's time to literature rather than public service, or sports rather than music.

     We are told that a habitude is not a form of knowledge but rather a worthwhile condition.' The significance of this assertion is that as worthwhile conditions, the habitudes do not have to characterize all wise persons equally. Knowledge in Stoicism is a property of a person's overall epistemic makeup, and it is a diathesis: it is present whenever someone holds all beliefs in a fully systematic way, as all the wise do. The virtues are forms of knowledge, and as such they interentail, so that every wise person possesses all the same virtues. However, the Stoics did not assert that every wise person has the same experience or knows exactly the same things. There is room for individuality in the account of skills, for while the virtues (in the sense that applies here) are also skills, not every skill is also a virtue. Skills are concerned with particular areas of experience: they are defined by specific good aims rather than by more general epistemic characteristics such as internal consistency or stability. It is quite possible, then, that each wise person may differ from all others in the specific skills that he or she possesses. Likewise, each may have his or her own habitudes.

     The habitude, then, is a characteristic of the wise person as an individual different from others who are also wise. Related in content to her individual skills, it gives her activities a specific focus which is no more virtuous than many alternative possibilities, but which is nonetheless legitimately favored by her. For instance, being `fond of music' would mean that she believes-with full justification-that it is appropriate for her to spend many hours a day practicing, studying, or listening to music. Such an appreciation is not in itself a virtue, and it is not by any means necessary for virtue that a person have either that appreciation or any specific appreciation at all. One wise person may be fond of music but not of dogs, while another, equally wise, devotes herself to horses, or to a variety of pursuits. Such preferences are not what it is to be wise; rather, they are personality traits of the wise, products of their varied experience."

Margaret R. Graver. Stoicism and Emotion (p. 145-147). Kindle Edition.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Today's Stoic Reading - "Reflections about Stoic Ethics at Work"

     My Stoic reading for today was an article in "The Stoic Philosopher: A Quarterly EJournal Published by the Marcus Aurelius School of the College of Stoic Philosophers." The article was entitled "Some Reflections about Stoic Ethics at Work." The title could potentially be misleading, by "at work," the author did not mean "in practice" (since every Stoic should be a practical rather than merely theoretical philosopher), but rather "in the workplace." Here is the link to the article by Manolo Trueba:

     I found the article very interesting, especially in its emphasis on the Stoic as a part of multiple communities, including a work community. I tend to find that modern Stoics spend much more time thinking about themselves, their own emotional states, their own practice, and so forth, and not as much time thinking about this communal aspect of philosophical living. I think it's definitely worth thinking about!

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Involuntary Emotions? (from Stoicism and Emotion)

     We find in Seneca the notion that there might be involuntary pre-emotional reactions that are somewhat extended in time, yet still not considered true emotions or passions by Seneca. How does this square with the teachings of Stoicism as a whole? Is Seneca on his own here? I find it somewhat difficult to reconcile. This is the description from Margaret Graver's Stoicism and Emotion:

"Pursuing this theme, Seneca gives considerable scope and elaboration to `natural' affect. In the Consolation to Marcia, for instance, he admits that missing a family member is natural not only in bereavement but even in separation and says that it is "necessary" that there be "a biting and a contraction of even the firmest minds." Animals utter loud cries for a day or two over their missing young and search about, but only human beings grieve consciously, willfully, and at length. This suggests that in humans, too, noisy weeping and other such reactions might continue for a period of days and still be excused as mere preliminaries to emotion. Even more remarkable is a discussion of the wise person's tears in Moral Epistle 99. The wise person weeps both involuntarily, as at a funeral with sobs shaking his whole body, and voluntarily, when remembering the loved one's kind deeds and cheerful companionship. The involuntary tears are forced out by a certain `requirement of nature' (naturalis necessitas) and are an indication of `humanness' (humanitas). The other, voluntary tears can only be eupathic; they have some admixture of joy and are not uncontrollable. This is the only text known to me in which a eupathic response gives rise to weeping."

Margaret R. Graver. Stoicism and Emotion (p. 101). Kindle Edition.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Stoic Week Evening Text for Reflection - Day 7

Evening Text for Reflection:


'I travel along Nature's Way until the day arrives for me to fall down and take my rest, yielding my last breath to the air from which I draw daily, falling onto that earth which gave my father his seed, my mother her blood...the earth which for so many years has fed and watered me day by day; the earth which bears me as I tread it under foot and which I make use of in a thousand ways.'

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 5.4.

Stoic Week Lunchtime Exercises (The View From Above) - Day 7

From the Stoic Week Handbook:
Today’s Lunchtime Exercise: The View from Above


On our final day we turn to think about our place within Nature as a whole:

A fine reflection from Plato. One who would converse about human beings should look on all things earthly as though from some point far above, upon herds, armies, and agriculture, marriages and divorces, births and deaths, the clamour of law courts, deserted wastes, alien peoples of every kind, festivals, lamentations, and markets, this intermixture of everything and ordered combination of opposites.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 7.48

The ‘View from Above’ is a guided visualization that is aimed at instilling a sense of the ‘bigger picture’, and of understanding your role in wider community of humankind. You can download a recording of the View from Above from the main Stoic Week 2013 page:


Anyone who reads the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius is bound to notice a recurring theme that involves contemplating the vastness of the universe, of space and time, the multitude of stars, and also the smallness of life on Earth when viewed from above. The French scholar Pierre Hadot called the deliberate effort to mentally visualise human affairs from high overhead “The View from Above”, and he found references to it throughout ancient literature, particularly in Stoic writings.


In a sense, these passages invite us to think like an ancient natural philosopher and simply to contemplate cosmology, the nature of the universe as a whole, in a detached manner. However, the Stoics clearly believed that doing so had profound “therapeutic” value and, as Marcus put it, can purge us of our over-attachment to trivial things by expanding our minds beyond their habitual, narrow perspective. We’re less upset about things when we literally picture them as occurring in a tiny corner of the cosmos: as a grain of sand in cosmic space, and the mere turn of a screw in terms of cosmic time. Why should we picture things in this way? First of all, for the Stoics, totality is reality. It’s a form of self-deception to ignore the wider context and it helps create the illusion that the events we face are somehow more important than they actually are. Second, the ancient Stoics sought to emulate the divine, and the View from Above happens to be the perspective of Zeus. We can even think of it as the Olympian perspective, what Zeus might have been thought to see when looking down upon human affairs from high atop Mount Olympus. If that seems too mythological, then for a more philosophical theology, the perspective of Zeus was perhaps that of omniscience, contemplating the whole of space and time in a single timeless vision. Again, the Stoics and other ancient philosophers aspired to glimpse that vision, and thereby to step into the shoes of Zeus for a moment.


This exercise appears to weave together many different threads within Stoic philosophy. That’s something that may become clearer to you if you practice it regularly. You don’t need to listen to an elaborate guided meditation, though. Just reading the passages from Marcus Aurelius may be enough to inspire you to close your eyes and contemplate things from a more “cosmological” perspective, in this way. Don’t worry if you find it tricky to literally visualise the whole of space and time – that’s normal. Just picture things that evoke the concept for you symbolically. You could draw a circle on a piece of paper, symbolising the totality of space and time, and imagine your whole life as an infinitesimally tiny dot in the middle. The Neoplatonic philosopher Plotinus, who was influenced by the Stoics to some extent, describes a contemplative exercise that involves visualising the whole of space and time as if encapsulated in a glass sphere, like a kind of cosmic snowglobe. Take your time. Allow these images to interact with your wider understanding of Stoic philosophy and practices. Try to take away some piece of learning or sense of change from each meditation of this kind.


Complete the Post-Week Questionnaires


As this is the final day, it is now time to complete the online scales that you filled in before the week, using the same name (email or pseudonym) as before.  Visit the main Stoic Week 2103 page for the links:

Stoic Week Morning Text for Reflection - Day 7

Morning Text for Reflection:


The works of the gods are full of providence. The works of Fortune are not independent of Nature or the spinning and weaving together of the threads governed by Providence. All things flow from that world: and further factors are necessity and the benefit of the whole universe, of which you are a part. Now every part of nature benefits from that which is brought by the nature of the Whole and all which preserves that nature: and the order of the universe is preserved equally by the changes in the elements and changes in their compounds.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 2.3

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Stoic Week Evening Text for Reflection - Day 6

Evening Text for Reflection:


If what philosophers say about the kinship of God and man is true, then the only logical step is to do as Socrates did, never replying to the question of where he was from with, 'I am Athenian' or "I am a Corinthian", but always "I am a citizen of the universe."

Epictetus, Discourses 1.9

Stoic Week Lunchtime Exercise (Philanthropy) - Day 6

From the Stoic Week Handbook:

Today’s Lunchtime Exercise: Philanthropy
So far we have focused mainly on the individual. Today we move on to think more about our relationships with other people. The Stoics were early advocates of the idea of cosmopolitanism – we are all fellow citizens of a single universal community, united by our shared nature. The Stoics also place great importance on “natural affection” of the kind of loving attitude that they believed we instinctively feel toward our own offspring, sexual partners, and perhaps other members of our family. Although some people mistakenly believe the Stoics were unemotional, like Mr. Spock from Star Trek, they actually rejected this interpretation themselves and frequently denied that they were advocating being insensitive, like someone having a heart of iron or stone. Instead of eliminating emotions entirely, the Stoics wanted to transform our natural sense of affection, in the light of reason and virtue. Marcus Aurelius neatly summed up the ideal when he praised his own Stoic teacher, Sextus of Chaeronea, as providing him with a living role-model who was “full of love yet free from [irrational] passions”. This Stoic view of love appears to have several implications:
1.             Stoics should, as Epictetus says, love others as though they could be taken from us at any moment, i.e., without any trace of clinging attachment, because their presence in our lives is ultimately not “up to us” but lies partly in the hands of fate. (Epictetus notoriously advises his students to kiss their loved ones goodnight while telling themselves silently that they may die at any moment - notice that means still behaving affectionately toward them, though.)
2.             We should desire only to love others, while accepting that it is ultimately “indifferent” whether they reciprocate, as again, this is not “up to us” but to them. (Hence, the Stoics foreshadow Christians in loving even their enemies, wishing them to become friends and live harmoniously in the world, fate permitting.) However, Epictetus also encouraged his students to place the 'good' in their relationships with others. Your brother might not be 'good' (you can't control your brother), but your attitude toward your brother is something in which you can place the 'good', so that you always aim to act well in the relationship.
3.             To love others is to wish them to flourish and for Stoics that means ultimately to attain virtue, rather than health, wealth, or reputation – so our love for others is a wish for them to become virtuous and enlightened. (For this reason, incidentally, Zeno and his followers, like Socrates, dedicated their lives to teaching philosophy to others and training them in the virtues.)
4.             As others are external to us, though, we can only “prefer” that they flourish, while accepting their imperfection, folly, and vice, as inevitable and beyond our direct control – with the Stoic “reserve clause”, in other words. (It was often observed, for example, that even Socrates, despite being a man of exemplary wisdom and virtue according to the Stoics, nevertheless had wayward followers and children.)
5.             We should not discriminate between others, but should aspire to expand our sense of natural affection to encompass the rest of humanity, an attitude sometimes called Stoic “philanthropy” or love of mankind. Marcus Aurelius constantly reminds himself, for example, to love mankind and accept their imperfections with Stoic indifference.  Marcus himself was often specifically praised for his "philanthropic" character as emperor of Rome.
Hierocles, a contemporary of Marcus Aurelius, described the Stoic view that we live as though enclosed in a series of concentric circles, representing progressively more distance from our true selves.

Hierocles said that Stoics should attempt to “draw the circles somehow toward the centre”. He explained that, “The right point will be reached if, through our own initiative, we reduce the distance of the relationship with each person.”
He even suggests verbal techniques such as calling one’s cousins “brother”, and one’s uncles and aunts “father” or “mother”. (Think of the way some people use the word "brother" to describe close friends or comrades, even today.) Elsewhere, he says that we should view our actual brothers as if they were parts of our own body, like our own hands and feet. The saying of Zeno, that a friend is “another self” (alter ego), also depicts this shift in perspective, taking others one stage deeper into the circle of natural affection and personal affinity. One benefit of doing this, as Seneca argued, is that by expanding love to encompass as many others as possible, through philanthropy, we actually learn to love in a more natural and rational manner, without over-attachment to any individual that we love. Indeed, he goes so far as to say: “he who has not been able to love more than one, did not even love that one much” (Letters 63.11). The Sage is not obsessed with anyone, in part, because she loves everyone as much as she is able and does so while accepting that they are changeable and that one day they will die.
The following contemplative visualisation or meditation technique is loosely based on Hierocles’ comments about enlarging our sense of affection towards others:
1.             Close your eyes and take a few moments to relax and focus your attention on the things you're about to visualise.
2.             Picture a circle of light surrounding your body and take a few moments to imagine that it symbolises a growing sense of affection toward your own true nature as a rational animal, capable of wisdom and virtue, the chief good in life.
3.             Now imagine that circle is expanding to encompass members of your family, or others who are very close to you, whom you now project an attitude of family affection toward, as if they were somehow parts of your own body.
4.             Next, imagine that circle expanding to encompass people you encounter in daily life, perhaps colleagues you work alongside, and project natural affection toward them, as if they were members of your own family.
5.             Again, let the circle expand further to include everyone in the country where you live, imagining that your affection is spreading out toward them also, insofar as they are rational animals akin to you.

6.             Imagine the circle now growing to envelop the entire world and the whole human race as one, allowing this philosophical and philanthropic attitude affection to encompass every other member of the human race. 

Stoic Week Morning Text for Reflection - Day 6

Morning Text for Reflection:

At break of day, when you are reluctant to get up, have this thought ready to mind: 'I am getting up for a human being's work. Do I still then resent it, if I am going out to do what I was born for, the purpose for which I was brought into the world? Or was I created to wrap myself in blankets and keep warm?' 'But this is more pleasant.' Were you born for pleasure - all for feeling and not for action? Can you not see plants, birds, ants, spiders, bees all doing their own work, each helping in their own way to order the world? And then do you not want to do the work of a human being, do you not hurry to the demands of your own nature?


Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 5.1

Friday, November 29, 2013

Stoic Week Evening Text for Reflection - Day 5

Evening Text for Reflection:


At every hour devote yourself in a resolute spirit, as befits a Roman and a man, to fulfilling the task in hand with a scrupulous and unaffected dignity, and with love for others, and independence, and justice; and grant yourself a respite from all other preoccupations. And this you will achieve if you perform every action as though it were your last, freed from all lack of purpose and willful deviation from the rule of reason, and free from duplicity, self-love, and dissatisfaction with what is allotted to you. You see how few are the things that a person needs to master if he is to live a tranquil and divine life; for the gods themselves will demand nothing more from one who observes these principles.           

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 2.5

Stoic Week Lunchtime Exercise (Controlling Emotions) - Day 5

Today’s Lunchtime Exercise: Controlling Emotions


The Stoics developed many strategies for controlling unhealthy and excessive desires and emotions. For example, a whole text by Seneca survives on Stoic remedies for anger. We’ve already looked at many aspects of Stoic “therapy of the passions”. However, in this section we’ll look in more detail at one of the most famous Stoic psychological exercises: the premeditation of future “evils” or adversities (praemeditatio futurorum malorum).


There are many references in the surviving Stoic literature to the strategy of anticipating future catastrophes and preparing to face them in advance by patiently imagining them, as if they were happening already. Typical examples include bereavement, poverty, exile, illness, and, perhaps most importantly of all for the Stoics, one’s own death.


By repeatedly picturing future “catastrophes” as if they were already happening, the Stoic could not only reduce anxiety about them, in a similar way to how 'exposure therapy' in CBT today can reduce anxiety attached to specific situation,  but also rehearse judging them in accord with his ethical principles, as being “indifferent” with regard to his ultimate wellbeing and fulfilment. Picturing even their own death in this way, repeatedly, day after day, allowed the Stoics to develop a habitual “philosophical attitude” in the face of adversity, when it happens for real. We know from modern research that the best way to overcome anxiety is to actually “expose” yourself to the feared situation in reality, repeatedly and for sufficiently prolonged periods. However, we also know that simply picturing the same event in the mind, repeatedly and for long enough, often works almost as well.


To begin with, you should not do this with anything that seems like it might lead you to “bite off more than you can chew”. Don’t imagine things that are deeply personal or traumatic until you’re definitely ready to do so without feeling overwhelmed. Begin by working on small things that upset you. Don’t let yourself worry about them, just try to picture the worst-case scenario patiently, and wait for your emotions to abate naturally. Remind yourself of the Stoic principles you’ve learned. In particular, the maxim that people are upset not by external events but by their own judgements about them, particularly value-judgements that place too much importance on things that are not under your direct control. Try to spend at least 20-30 minutes doing this each day. You might find it helpful to keep a record of your experiences as follows:


1.             Situation. What is the upsetting situation that you’re imagining?

2.             Emotions. How does it make you feel when you picture it as if it’s happening right now? How strong is the feeling (0-100%)?

3.             Duration. How long (in minutes) did you manage to “sit with it” and patiently expose yourself to the event in your imagination?

4.             Consequence. How strong was the upsetting feeling at the end (0-100%)? What else did you feel or experience by the end?

5.             Analysis. Has your perspective changed on the upsetting event? Is it really as “awful” as you imagined? How could you potentially cope if it did happen? What’s under your control in this situation and what isn’t?


If your anxiety level hasn’t reduced to at least half its peak level then you might need to pick an easier subject, or else spend more time on things to benefit. Use the natural “wearing off” of upsetting feelings as an opportunity to re-evaluate the situation in a more rational and detached manner, i.e., from a more “philosophical” perspective. What do you think a Stoic like Seneca, Epictetus, or Marcus Aurelius would make of the same situation? How might you view it differently if you had mastered the “virtues” of practical wisdom, moral justice, courage and self-control? Take your time to note down what you can potentially learn from this experience.

Stoic Week Morning Text for Reflection - Day 5

Morning Text for Reflection:


Be like the rocky headland on which the waves constantly break. It stands firm, and round it the seething waters are laid to rest.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 4.49

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Stoic Week Evening Text for Reflection - Day 4

Evening Text for Reflection:


There is one type of person who, whenever he has done a good deed to another, expects and calculates to have the favour repaid. There is a second type of person who does not calculate in such a way but who, nevertheless, deep within himself regards the other person as someone who owes him something and he remembers that he has done the other a good deed.

But there is a third type of person who, in some sense, does not even remember the good deed he has done but who, instead, is like a vine producing its grape, seeking nothing more than having brought forth its own fruit, just like a horse when it has run, a dog when it has followed its scent and a bee when it has made honey. This man, having done one good deed well, does not shout it about but simply turns his attention to the next good deed, just like the vine turns once again to produce its grape in the right season.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 5.6

Stoic Week Lunchtime Exercise (The Practice of Stoic Mindfulness) - Day 4

From the 2013 Stoic Week Handbook:

Today’s Lunchtime Exercise: The Practice of Stoic Mindfulness
A large part of Stoic 'mindfulness' is concerned with the 'discipline of assent'. Epictetus said (Discourses, 3.2.2.) that this is about 'freedom from deception and hasty judgement, and, in general, whatever is connected with assent.' Essentially, that means developing more self-control over our thoughts and judgements. It involves a kind of continual mindfulness of our thinking processes, which the Stoics called prosochê or “attention” to yourself. Epictetus says that it requires training ourselves to avoid rashness or errors in our judgements. For Stoics, the key error of judgement that we make, as we’ve seen, lies in treating external things as if they were intrinsically good or bad, and forgetting that virtue is the only true good, as they claimed. We’ve already looked at this aspect of Stoicism when we talked about the practice of evaluating whether our judgements refer to things under our control or not. However, the discipline of assent also involves a process that’s perhaps even more fundamental, which Epictetus alludes to as avoiding “rashness” or being “carried away” by our thoughts and feelings. He says the key to retaining our grip on objective reality and not being swept away by irrational desire or emotions is that before we even begin to challenge our thoughts, we must learn to step back from them temporarily. The key passage here occurs at the start of the Handbook where Epictetus tells us to respond to each troubling thought or “impression” by saying: “You are just an impression and not at all the thing you claim to represent.”
This isn't a familiar concept to most people.  To understand what Epictetus may have meant, it helps to compare it to a psychological strategy commonly employed in modern cognitive therapy called “psychological distancing” or “cognitive distancing”. (So this is a modern interpretation and not something you'll find explicitly stated in most books on Stoicism.)  In cognitive therapy, which was originally inspired by Stoicism, it’s understood that before we can learn to challenge unhealthy patterns of thinking, we have to first spot them, and place our thoughts in question – they have to be “up for debate”. This is sometimes described as being able to see our thoughts as merely thoughts, rather than confusing them with facts or external events. Cognitive therapists commonly explain this by using metaphors. Imagine, for example, that you’re wearing coloured glasses, they could be “rose-tinted spectacles” or they might even paint the world in dark and gloomy colours. When you lack “cognitive distance” it’s like you’ve forgotten that you’re wearing coloured glasses, and you assume that the world really is, objectively, rose-tinted or gloomy, etc. When you engage in “cognitive distancing”, it’s like taking the glasses off and looking at them, rather than through them, or just realising that you’re wearing glasses that distort the colours you see. The first step in responding to troubling desires and emotions, in Stoicism, is therefore to gain psychological distance from them by reminding ourselves that the impressions they’re based upon are just impressions, just thoughts, and not the reality they claim to represent.
One quotation from Epictetus puts this so well that it is still taught to clients in cognitive therapy today. “It is not the things themselves that disturb people but their judgements about those things” (Handbook 5). Epictetus repeatedly advised his students that remembering this Stoic principle could help them to avoid being “carried away” by their troubling emotions and desires. We should be alert for the early-warning signs of problematic emotions and desires, which are often habitual and barely conscious. When we spot this initial signs, often certain bodily sensations or internal feelings, we should quickly try to identify the initial impressions and underlying value-judgements that are causing them. For example, the modern cognitive model of anxiety, which is derived from Stoic psychology, says that anxiety is caused by a thought or judgement along the lines of “Something bad is going to happen and I won’t be able to cope with it.” Distancing would consist in saying “I notice I’m having the thought ‘something bad is going to happen’ and that’s upsetting me” rather than being swept along by the impression that something bad is going to happen and allowing your fear to escalate unnecessarily.
One of the simplest ways of responding to troubling impressions, when you spot their early-warning signs, is to postpone doing anything in response to them. Modern researchers, for example, asked college students simply to spot when they were becoming anxious and starting to worry, and to postpone thinking about their perceived problems any further until a set time, later in the day, when they would try to problem-solve more calmly. Within about a week, this was found to reduce the frequency, intensity and duration of worry episodes by about fifty percent on average. Epictetus gave very similar advice to his Stoic students, nearly two thousand years ago. He says when we spot initial troubling impressions, especially if they seem overwhelming, we should “gain time and respite”, by reminding ourselves that these are just thoughts and waiting a while, until we’ve genuinely calmed down, before thinking about them any further, or deciding what action to take. The Pythagoreans mention a similar technique, which involved pausing, walking away, and waiting until your anger has naturally abated before rebuking someone over their behaviour. In modern anger management, this is sometimes called the “taking a time-out” strategy.  The Stoics talked of withholding our “assent”, or agreement, from upsetting initial impressions.  They knew that although some thoughts and feelings may appear to be very rapid or automatic, we do then typically have an opportunity to step back from them, spot what’s happening to us, and suspend judgement until things have calmed down enough for us to evaluate our thinking rationally.
You have already started self-monitoring your thoughts, actions, and feelings, and distinguishing between things under your control and things not. From this point onward, try to catch the early-warning signs of strong desires or upsetting emotions. Pause to give yourself thinking space and gain psychological distance from your initial impressions. If your feelings are particularly strong or difficult to deal with, postpone thinking about them any further until you’ve had a chance to calm down, which may be during your evening meditation practice. Epictetus  advises his students to do three main things when they return to the thoughts they’ve previously withheld their “assent” from:
1.             Most importantly, ask yourself whether the impressions that upset you are about things under your control or not and if they’re not under your control, accept this fact, and remind yourself that external things are “indifferent” with regard to your own flourishing and virtue.
2.             Ask yourself what someone perfectly wise and virtuous person would do when faced with the same problem or situation. This is the 'Stoic Sage', whom the Stoics treated as an ideal for imitation. Who would you pick as a wise role model?
3.             Ask yourself what strengths or resources nature has given you to master the situation, e.g., do you have the capacity for patience and endurance? How might using those potential virtues help you deal with this problem more wisely?

In a nutshell, don’t allow yourself to be carried away by irrational feelings, whether through force of habit or because they arise unexpectedly. Remember that you are upset by your own thoughts and value-judgments rather than by external events. Use this realisation to help you gain psychological distance, and the time and respite required to return to the subject later and evaluate it calmly and rationally, in accord with Stoic principles, using strategies like the three lines of questioning above.

Stoic Week Morning Text for Reflection - Day 4

Morning Text for Reflection:

Train yourself to think only those thoughts such that in answer to the sudden question 'What is in your mind now?' you could say with immediate frankness whatever it is, this or that: and so your answer can give direct evidence that all your thoughts are straightforward and kindly, the thoughts of a social being who has no regard for the fancies of pleasure or indulgence, for rivalry, malice, suspicion, or anything else that one would blush to admit was in one's mind.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 4.4

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Stoic Week Evening Text for Reflection - Day 3

Evening Text for Reflection:
Every habit and faculty is formed or strengthened by the corresponding act - walking makes you walk better, running makes you a better runner. If you want to be literate, read, if you want to be a painter, paint. Go a month without reading, occupied with something else, and you'll see what the result is. And if you're laid up a mere ten days, when you get up and try to talk any distance, you'll find your legs barely able to support you. So if you like doing something, do it regularly; if you don't like doing something, make a habit of doing something different. The same goes for the affairs of the mind...So if you don't want to be hot-tempered, don't feed your temper, or multiply incidents of anger. Suppress the first impulse to be angry, then begin to count the days on which you don't get angry. 'I used to be angry every day, then only every other day, then every third....' If you resist it a whole month, offer God a sacrifice, because the vice begins to weaken from day one, until it is wiped out altogether. 'I didn't lose my temper this day, or the next, and not for two, then three months in succession.' If you can say that, you are now in excellent health, believe me.

Epictetus, Discourses 2.18

ALSO - Do Daily Evening Exercise!

Stoic Week Lunctime Exercise (Stoic Acceptance and Stoic Action) - Day 3

From the 2013 Stoic Week Handbook:

Today’s Lunchtime Exercise: Stoic Acceptance & Stoic Action
One of the most fundamental ways in which Stoics achieved serenity was the practice of Stoic acceptance. Epictetus encapsulated this as follows:
Seek not for events to happen as you wish but rather wish for events to happen as they do and your life will go smoothly.
Epictetus, Handbook 8
This doesn't mean passively resigning yourself to events, though. It’s important to emphasize that Stoic acceptance primarily means recognizing that some things are outside of your control, and that if those events have actually happened, this must be acknowledged and accepted. However, you still try to do your best in responding to these events, for that is something which is under your control. Put another way: Stoic serenity comes from “accepting reality” or “accepting the facts” – but not giving up! It is about establishing a sense of purpose within the events of your life.  The famous Serenity Prayer used by Alcoholics Anonymous provides a memorable summary of the Stoic doctrine:
God, grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
Courage, to change the things I can;
And Wisdom to know the difference.
For example, there’s no point worrying about the past or the distant future, although of course we can learn from the past and prepare for the future. What’s beyond remedy is beyond regret. Stoics focus on acting with virtue in the “here and now”, insofar as that is within their sphere of control, from moment to moment. Practice the attitude of Stoic acceptance, therefore, during your morning and evening meditation, by reminding yourself to patiently accept the fact that it’s too late to change the past, and that the future may always turn out against your plans. Stoics desire only what it is within their power to change, which means desiring only to excel in terms of their character and conduct, while graciously accepting external events, even when they go against our plans or preferences. Throughout the day, as you bring your attention continually back to the distinction between what is under your control, and what is not, bear this in mind.
As we have just seen, whilst accepting there are some things we cannot change, the Stoics did focus on how you could act as well as possible in the things which are under your control. And in order to act as well as possible, the Stoic focussed on ensuring he was cultivating wise intentions for action. Marcus Aurelius said an intention should have three principal qualities:
1.             It should be undertaken “with a reserve clause”, an attitude of somewhat detached “indifference” toward the actual outcome.
2.             It should be “for the common welfare” of mankind, which perhaps comes closest to what we mean nowadays by saying that something is “ethical” – taking into account the well-being of others as well as our own, as if all of mankind were part of a single family.
3.             It should be “according to nature”, meaning that some things are naturally worth pursuing and preferring over other things, both for ourselves and others, such as physical health, although these things are not considered intrinsically “good” in Stoic ethics.
Let's focus here particularly on the “reserve clause”. As we saw earlier, some people mistakenly assume that Stoics will be passive doormats, because they emphasize acceptance of external things. This should seem puzzling because history teaches us quite the opposite: that famous Stoics were often very brave, determined, and active in the world. The “reserve clause” allowed Stoics to reconcile action in the external world with a “philosophical attitude” of acceptance toward their fate. Put simply, it’s like qualifying every intention by saying “I will do such-and-such, if nothing prevents me” or “fate permitting”. Stoics aim to undertake every action with this in mind. They may begin each day, as this morning's passage from Marcus shows, by mentally rehearsing the many ways in which people and events could thwart their plans and preferences, while training themselves in serene acceptance, whether they meet with success or failure. And what is the Stoic aiming to do? As Marcus' key points show us, he wants to perform ethically sound actions for both oneself and others, cultivating positive states of mind, and obtaining positive 'externals' as far as possible, such as good friendships and a healthy body.

From now on during your morning meditation, you can practice incorporating the 'reserve clause',  saying to yourself: “I will do xyz, fate permitting” or “if nothing prevents me” (or words to that effect). Imagine all the things that could go wrong, and rehearse an attitude of detached acceptance toward them, as if the only thing that really matters is that you “do your best” and that you intend to act wisely and virtuously. Do what you must; let happen what may.