Occasional reflections on the wisdom of Ancient Greek and Roman philosophers. More atpatreon.com/FigsInWinter. Please consider supporting Stoic Meditations. (cover art by Marek Škrabák; original music by Ian Jolin-Rasmussen, www.jolinras.info).
The Academic Skeptics were one of the major rival schools to Stoicism. Yet, on the nature of human knowledge, and on what it means in practice, for everyday living, the two philosophies were not very far apart.
Zeno of Citium, the founder of the Stoic sect, says that there are three sets of things in the world: virtue, things according or contra to nature, and neutral things. From which a solid moral compass for everyday living follows.
Socrates was the first to draw philosophy away from matters of an abstruse character, in which all the philosophers before his time had been wholly occupied, and to have diverted it to the objects of ordinary life.
Paris stole Menelaus' wife, Helen, thereby starting the Trojan War. He did that because he assented to the impression that it was good to pursue the wife of his host, and that misjudgment resulted in ten years of misery for so many.
How many things are superfluous; we merely used them not because we needed them, but because we had them. How much do we acquire simply because our neighbors have acquired such things, or because most people possess them!
“Bad bread!” you say. But just wait for it; it will become good. Hunger will make even such bread delicate and of the finest flavor. And the same goes for any other external thing, whether a necessity or a luxury.
It's relatively easy to stay on the right track by following simple methods, but there are countless ways to go wrong if we don't pay attention. Here are three basic rules from Stoic philosophy to keep your life on the right track.
How do we strike a good balance between cultivating externals, like wealth, and focusing on the improvement of our own character? Different philosophical schools gave different answers to this question.
Philosophers have debated for millennia the nature of ethics. Is it arbitrary? Or are there universal moral laws that we can apprehend through reason? Neither, say the Stoics. Theirs is a thoroughly naturalistic philosophy.
Desires have to be reined in, fear to be suppressed, proper actions to be arranged, debts to be paid; we therefore include self-restraint, bravery, prudence, and justice among the virtues – assigning to each quality its special function.
No doubt you have seen dogs playing with, and fawning before, each other, and thought, ‘Nothing could be friendlier.’ But just throw some meat in the middle, and then you’ll know what friendship amounts to.
The Stoics understood what bodily health is, and from that they deduced the existence of a certain mental health also. They knew about bodily strength, and from that they inferred the existence of mental sturdiness.
The Stoics regard nothing as good which can be put to wrong use by any person. And we can all see for ourselves to what wrong uses many people put their riches, their high position, or their physical powers.
We take a lot of things for granted, when life is going well for us. But — fools that we are — we really appreciate what we had only once we’ve lost it. That's why the Stoics devised a series of exercises in mild self-deprivation.
Here is a basic Stoic equation: external thing or activity + virtue = good, while its opposite is: external thing or activity + vice = bad. So, is your profession good or bad, according to this approach?
One of the major differences between Stoics and Aristotelians has always been the treatment of disruptive emotions, such as anger and fear. They are helpful, in small measure, for Aristotle, but definitely to avoid for the Stoics.
Seneca reminds us that Alexander the Great conquered everything, except his own destructive emotions, which led to endless grief for him and his friends. Beware, therefore, of reacting in anger to your problems.
Doesn't it take time to practice Stoicism? We are all so busy! Here is Marcus Aurelius' response to that question. A response that applies also if you are a Christian, or a Buddhist, among other things.
Human beings have an unparalleled ability to communicate with each other. And yet, Seneca suggests, much of the time we talk about things that are neither improving ourselves, nor making the world a better place.
Epictetus bluntly tells us that if we have not been affected by philosophy and have not changed our mind about something important as a result of it, we are simply playing a game. So, has philosophy changed your mind yet?
Seneca advises Lucilius to think, but not to worry, about the future. It is reasonable to plan for things to come and to act in the best way possible. So long as we don't delude ourselves into thinking that we actually control outcomes.
Marcus Aurelius takes the long view of things in order to remind himself that whatever troubles us so much right now will soon be over, one way or another. This isn't nihilism, but rather the conscious adoption of a healthier perspective on human affairs.
Think of practicing philosophy as going to the gym: sure, you can do a lot on your own. But if you choose a good partner to keep you focused on the task, you'll see more steady improvement. So, who's your virtue buddy?
Cicero explains a classic Stoic paradox: only the wise person is free, while everyone else is a slave. To what? To externals that they think are indispensable for their happiness, and yet lay outside of their control.
Seneca says that associating ourselves with a philosopher we cannot help but learning something that may change our lives. So today try to get a friend or relative into philosophy. You'll be doing some good for the whole human cosmopolis.
Seneca reminds us that, regardless of how terrible a problem or event appears to be right now, plenty of others have gone through something similar before. They can be an inspiration to us to overcome whatever is happening in the same way.
Cicero explains that we may lose any external good, because it isn't truly ours, but rather on loan from the universe. However, our judgments, considered opinions, and consciously embraced values are truly ours and cannot be taken away.
Seneca talks about the premeditatio malorum, an exercise that allows us to be mentally prepared for possible negative outcomes of our action. The key to it is to engage your reasoning faculty, not your emotional reactions.
Seneca uses a metaphor of life as a journey, or as a trip to the thermal baths, to make the point that obstacles will be thrown our way, either on purpose or by accident. The question is: how do we deal with them?
Marcus Aurelius joins Seneca in his rejection of anger as a valid or effective motivator of human action. We should, instead, be moved to act by positive triggers, such as a sense of justice, or duty, or love.
Cicero reminds us that in virtue ethics the answer to moral questions is always going to depend on circumstances, a striking contrast with modern - and arguably less useful - universalist frameworks like deontology and consequentialism.
Want to become a better person? Forget about traveling, since you will bring with you the same problems you are trying to flee. Read a good book instead, enter in conversation with the best minds humanity has produced across time.
Seneca continues his analysis of the relationship between traveling and self-improvement. While there are good reasons to travel (leisure and learning), self-improvement isn't one of them, because that requires critical reflection, wherever one happens to be.
Seneca dispels the stereotype of Stoics going through life with a stiff upper lip by explicitly advocating suffering for those we love. What marks the Stoic is not that she doesn't suffer, but how she handles suffering.
Epictetus complains about something that hasn't changed much in two millennia: people who are happy to discuss the fine logical points of ethical dilemmas, but are apparently not that interested in becoming better human beings.
Seneca reminds us how to behave with fellow human beings, but also that, from a Stoic perspective, what is and is not to be valued (one's good and bad judgments) is not quite what most people value, focused as they often are on externals.
Seneca reminds us that our fellow human beings aren't always trustworthy or well intentioned. Nevertheless, we have a duty to treat others, and ourselves, with forgiveness, to be helpful when we can, and to endure when we cannot.
Cicero talks about one of the classic Stoic paradoxes: virtue is all-or-nothing, and yet one can make progress toward it. How is this possible? In this episode we explain, by way of a geometrical analogy.
Seneca reminds us that we do not actually know when "the remorseless law of Fate" has fixed the time of our death. Therefore, we should prioritize what's important, postpone nothing, and balance our life’s account every day.
Seneca agrees with Epicurus: there is no sense in fearing what happens after death, since we won't be there to experience it. Therefore, we should not allow religious and political authorities to manipulate us through that fear.
Seneca says that good and evil are not in the world per se, but in our judgments about the world, and the actions we take as a consequence of those judgments. Which is why training ourselves to arrive at better judgments is so crucial.
Epictetus tells us about a fundamental Stoic technique: never act on first impressions and implied judgments. Always pause, challenge your impressions, make the judgments explicit, and see whether they were on target or not.
Here is Seneca's version of an exercise most often associated with Marcus Aurelius: when you feel overwhelmed by your problems, take a minute to consider a broader perspective. When your mind is calmer, come back to earth and tackle the problems.
Seneca lists an impressive gallery of ancient Roman role models, who have done brave things to safeguard their ideals. Surely, then, we can find the courage to overcome our comparatively small problems in everyday life, no?
Cicero uses a metaphor involving ship pilots and their cargo to remind us that a more or less valuable "cargo" doesn't make us better or worse "pilots." It is our skills, that is our virtue, that make the difference.
Seneca, differing from Epictetus in a metaphysical sense, says that the universe is - as we would put it - morally neutral to us. What matters, then, is how we handle so-called "good" and "bad" things.
Seneca uses a colorful analogy between life and a journey. Sure, we'd like to live longer, but when the journey is longer a number of unpleasant things are bound to happen, like rain and mud. Just bring good gear with you for the trip.
Seneca uses an interesting economic analogy to remind us that the privilege of being alive comes with the tax of suffering setbacks and losses. Understanding this helps us to cope with problems and even to look forward to them as further exercises in virtue.
Seneca says that it is natural for us to be virtuous. Modern scientists say that it is natural for us to be prosocial. Either way, it is reason that allows us to expand our instinctive circles of ethical concern.
Marcus Aurelius reminds us that we spend far too much time trying to change other people, which is outside of our control, and too little time attempting to improve ourselves, which we certainly have the power to do.
Seneca echoes the advice of Musonius Rufus when he says that we don't need to pay for extravagant meals with ingredients brought from all over the world. Every time we sit at the table to eat we have a chance to exercise temperance.
A good Stoic can be "happy" even on the rack. This phrase happened to be true in the case of the Roman general Marcus Regulus. And his story is worth pondering to see that we can be helpful and find meaning in so many small ways.
Seneca uses the analogy of a scabbard and a sword to remind us that external goods, like wealth or health, are indeed preferable, but only in a limited fashion. What's truly important is the shape of our character.
Seneca says that Nature does not discriminate, it hands out suffering and death to everyone, eventually. But we can still make our life better by developing equanimity toward what we cannot change while trying to change what we can.
This episode features our first discussion of Cicero. While not a Stoic (he considered himself an Academic Skeptic), he was sympathetic to Stoic philosophy, and frequently borrowed from it to create his own eclectic blend of moral philosophy.
Seneca, building on the Stoic concept of universal causation, reminds us that we don't get to say how the universe works. Our only choices are to accept it (and work within it), or take "the open door," as Epictetus puts it.
Seneca reminds us that although some people are naturally more virtuous than others, and that much depends on our family upbringing, we are capable of making rational decisions as adults. So make the decision to practice every day to become a better human being.
In a rather forceful passage Seneca makes a strong political statement, referring to Roman imperialism as "sacrilege on a grand scale." Unfortunately, two millennia later, we still honor that sort of sacrilege, which flies in the face of the virtue of justice and the concept of cosmopolitanism.
Seneca says that his life's journey taught him that much of what we possess is superfluous, and indeed positively gets in the way of living a good life. He ought to know, as we discuss in this episode.
Marcus Aurelius reminds us that all too often we care far too much about the opinions of people we do not actually hold in high esteem. If they judge us badly according to mistaken values, the problem is theirs, not ours.
Seneca brings up a parallel between the life of virtue and the art of a sculptor like Phidias. Just like a good sculptor will make the best art that the materials at his disposal permit, so we can be good human beings regardless of the specific circumstances of our lives.
Seneca directly takes on the Peripatetics, followers of Aristotle, and criticizes their notion that virtue always lies in the middle. Some things, like insanity, or anger, are not good even in small quantities.
Seneca suggests that we should alternate between reading and writing in order to truly understand and internalize new concepts. Which, of course, is yet another way to achieve a major goal of Stoic training: arrive at better and better judgments.
We take a look at one of the most famous metaphors in Stoicism, the notion put forth by Marcus Aurelius that life is a bit like wrestling: we need to be prepared and alert, because the next move may be unexpected.
Seneca reminds us that we should interpret other people's actions and words in a generous manner, instead of conjuring the worst possible scenario. It is, after all, the way we would like to be treated.
A contemporary theory of consciousness, proposed by philosopher Jesse Prinz, recalls Seneca's treatment of the emotions, and teaches us how to avert painful thoughts by focusing on the good things that happen to us.
Epictetus reminds us that the only things that are truly good or bad for us are our judgments, which are under our control. It follows that "happiness," in the sense of a life worth living, is also under our control.
Seneca reminds us that those who study philosophy are human beings, subject to the physiological responses and emotions of the case. The difference is in how they reflect on and react to circumstances.
Seneca tells us that virtue can be present at all levels, from nations to individuals, and in all circumstances, from wealth to poverty. Let's find out what, precisely, the Stoics meant by virtue and why it's so important.
Seneca gives a splendidly clear and cogent description of the Stoic concept of preferred "indifferents," external things that are not under our complete control, and which Fortuna can take away at any moment.
Seneca conjures a vivid image of the goddess Fortuna showering mortals with gifts, which are ruined by the eager crowd, or badly used, and that at any rate do not produce happiness. That's because people lack wisdom, necessary to truly enjoy Fortuna's gifts.
Seneca explains that if our happiness depends on externals, like fame or money, we are in the hands of Fortuna, who could take those things away at any moment. But if we are happy because we are good, then Fortuna is powerless.
Seneca states very clearly that wealth is an indifferent, in Stoic terms. It can be pursued if it allows us to do good, but it should be avoided if it corrupts our moral fiber, making us greedy toward luxury and power.
Seneca advises us to be careful how we spend our time, and especially how we respond to other people's demands for it. Life is short, surely you won't regret, on your deathbed, not having attended one more useless office meeting...
Seneca says that people are like dogs who eagerly await the next tasty morsel from Fortuna, swallow it quickly, then eagerly await the next one. Don't be like a dog, that way lies perennial dissatisfaction with life.
Seneca says that lacking wisdom is like being sick. Although we can imagine what it would be like to be perfectly healthy, in reality we can be happy if we manage to be less sick than before. That's progress, folks!
Epictetus reminds us that one does not become a good carpenter, or pilot, by simply studying the theory of carpentry or piloting. Mindful, repeated effort is needed to see results. The same goes with one's philosophy of life.
Seneca makes the startling claim that philosophy is a lifelong commitment that cannot be indulged only in our spare time. He doesn't mean academic studies, but rather practice, just like a Christian or Buddhist would do it.
Seneca says that he hasn't conquered any enemy but his own greed, ambition, and fear of death. If more people, especially the leaders of the world, were to take that attitude, perhaps there would be no need to conquer enemies.
The goal of Stoic training is to become a better person, not a perfect one. But the first step, as always in life, is to want to make progress. If you wish to better yourself, the game is afoot, you need to start now.
Marcus Aurelius reminds himself to be grateful for the things he has, which he would long for if he didn't have them. At the same time, everything is impermanent, so we should be prepared for our losses.
Seneca tells Lucilius that he himself is far from being a wise person, which is as rare as the mythical phoenix. Nevertheless, we can all be "proficientes," those who make progress. Which is the whole point of Stoic training.
We hear a lot of nonsense about Stoicism being tough and therefore only for men. But Seneca clearly explains that virtue doesn't make us invulnerable to pain and suffering, and that women are just as capable as men to become virtuous. Go figure.
Seneca gives us another Stoic "paradox": it may be better to be tortured than to sit at the dinner table. Well, not normally, but surely if you are being tortured to protect innocent lives, or sit at dinner with a tyrant. It all depends on context.
Epictetus explains why king Antigonus was anxious to meet Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, and not vice versa. The king had not yet internalized the fundamental principle of the dichotomy of control: making a good impression on others is not up to us.
A quote from Seneca leads us into a discussion of the difference between Stoicism and modern philosophies of despair. For the Stoic, knowledge of the vastness of time and space is no excuse for nihilism, but simply a way to put things in perspective and get back to the task of living well.
Seneca tells Lucilius how Cato, after losing an election, went out to play; and how, before taking his own life, he retired to his room to read a book. Stoicism isn't just about enduring things, it's about achieving serenity in the face of ill fortune.
Seneca invites his friend Lucilius to consider that philosophy is too serious a business to be left only to professional philosophers, especially those who engage in clever wordplay and logic chopping just to show how smart they are.
Seneca continues his discussion of suicide with his friend Lucilius, arguing that maintaining agency and exercising our judgments are fundamental ingredients of a good life. It follows that we should be in charge of when and how to quit.
Seneca makes a point that is still controversial two millennia later. The important thing about life is not its length, but its quality. And it is up to the individual to judge the quality of her own life.
Seneca gives some very commonsensical advice, backed up by modern psychological research, on how to best avoid temptation. Which leads us to a discussion of what we should avoid, and what, by contrast, we should seek out in order to act virtuously.
Seneca says to his friend Lucilius that he is no wise man or doctor, but rather an unwise and sick person. Which brings us to a discussion of Stoic humility and how it is that we can all make progress toward wisdom.
Seneca argues that tranquillity of mind is the result of an active, but realistic, engagement with the problems posed by life. By contrast, refusing to rise up to challenges simply leads to a flat and meaningless calm.
Musonius Rufus advises us to follow a minimalist life style, closer to the so-called "Cynic" wing of the Stoic movement. Why is that? Because reducing temptations helps us practicing virtue, as we'll see by way of an example featuring gelato.
Epictetus says that a lyre player plays beautifully when he practices on his own. But gets very nervous in front of an audience. That's because he wants something that is not under his control. Learn and internalize this lesson and your life will be happy and serene.
Seneca argues that the four cardinal virtues are a tightly coordinated council, which makes the best possible decisions for us. In this episode we explore the Stoic concept of the unity of virtue, and make sense of it by analogy with going to the gym to improve our health.
Illness is not something to look forward to, as Stoics are not mad. But it is a fact of life, and so it becomes a question of how we deal with it: by kicking and screming, or as a test of our virtue of temperance?
Epictetus tells the story of when he first started preaching, instead of teaching, philosophy. It did not go well, and he got punched on the nose. He quickly learned the difference between preaching and teaching.
Seneca recounts the last, painful day, of the life of the rival philosopher Epicurus, who claimed that even that day he was happy. Which leads us into a discussion of what the Stoics and Epicureans meant by happiness.
Seneca states the fundamental Stoic principle that the measure of a person has nothing to do with externals like wealth, health or good looks. It depends on one thing and one thing only: goodness of character.
Marcus Aurelius says that other people do wrong out of lack of wisdom, and so do we, which means we should be forgiving toward others. Besides, life is short, and others can't harm the most important thing: our faculty of judgment.
Epictetus reminds us that Socrates made an effort to talk to people while avoiding rudeness and invectives. Imagine if we did the same today, instead of indulging in the current climate of acrimony about social and political issues.
Seneca says that one shouldn't love a person because they are rich, or strong, but because they are virtuous. Which gets us into a discussion of the meaning of the word "axia," referring to things that have value but are not crucial.
Seneca says that it is natural to seek joy and avoid pain. But the virtue involved in both cases is the same. In the quote we examine today, then, there are a lot of crucial Stoic concepts to be parsed out.
Seneca tells us that virtue lies in how you handle things, both good and bad. If you are sick, be gentle with those who are taking care of you. If you get a promotion, don't brag to your colleagues. It's the virtuous thing to do.
Stoicism is often accused of counseling to suppress emotions. This quote from Seneca clearly shows it doesn't. Then again, we don't want to wallow in grief and let it paralyze us, because we have duties toward the living.
Seneca clarifies one of the famous Stoic paradoxes: no, you shouldn't live every day as if it were your last. But you should live every day to the fullest because you don't know which one will be your last.
Seneca reminds Lucilius that a full human life is about being useful, and particularly about helping others. Sure, you can withdraw from the world and live in peace, but then you are arguably already dead.
Seneca is critical of the fact that many ships are required to convey the requisites for a single meal, bringing them from no single sea. Still today so many people indulge in pleasures that cost a lot and cause much environmental damage. Time to revise our priorities about where our food comes from?
Let's talk about the ancient Roman goddess Fortuna, or what the Greeks called Tyche, to whom Seneca often refers in his letters to Lucilius. Why does she play such an important role in Stoic philosophy?
Seneca claims that flattery is a subtle enemy of our work toward becoming better persons. Too readily we agree with those who tell us that we are good, sensible, holy even. What's a good attitude toward praise, then?
Seneca reminds Lucilius that we can't relegate our quest for becoming better persons to intervals between indulgences. It's like going to the gym: you have to do it regularly and often, or you won't get the benefits.
Seneca says that the wise person (and, by extension, the practitioner of Stoicism) will deal with poverty, sorrow, disgrace or pain, because she is alert and fortified, ready to treat adversity as a way to improve her character.
Seneca tells Lucilius that old age is natural and to be welcomed. So long as it maintains our mind in working order. If that's not the case, then the Stoics prefer to exit through the open door, as virtue itself becomes impossible to practice.
Seneca reminds us that we have some power to make our body last longer, by exercising temperance in our pleasures. Enjoy your next meal, just don't over do it. And remember, Stoics drink wine, but they don't get drunk.
According to Epictetus philosophy gets started when we are genuinely interested in why people disagree about things. Not in terms of factual matters, which empirical evidence can settle, but about values and how we should think about the world and therefore act in it.
Seneca tells Lucilius that he welcomes knowledge from all fields, not just philosophy. That's why he wrote books on natural questions, including on the nature of comets, earthquakes, thunderstorms, and the causes of the flooding of the Nile.
Seneca tells Lucilius that we need rest and relaxation, but we can exercise virtue even in our choice of how we relax and entertain ourselves. Consider how you refresh your mind, the next time you pick a movie or organize a vacation!
Seneca quotes the Pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus to the effect that everything changes all the time, panta rhei. It follows that it is futile to get attached to things, including our own bodies. Enjoy what you have, but consider it a temporary loan from the cosmos.
Marcus Aurelius talks about being helpful to society. And yet he was an emperor who waged war and presided over slavery. How do we reconcile his actions with his Stoicism? At least in three ways, explored in this episode.
A splendid example of Epictetus' sarcasm by way of a bit of dialogue with one of his students. In the course of which we learn about the virtue of practical wisdom, the discipline of desire, and the dichotomy of control.
Seneca nicely explains what a proto-emotion is, and we discuss how proto-emotions can then develop into fully formed healthy or unhealthy emotions. It all comes down to what cognitive judgment we apply to our initial response.
Seneca reminds us that real tranquillity comes from a relaxed mind with a clear conscience. Which is why Stoics engage in an evening meditation on the major events of the day, learning from their mistakes, and filing them away before going to sleep.
Seneca challenges the common assumption that someone is self-sufficient if he has enough money, a nice place to live, and so forth. True self-sufficiency requires serenity, which comes from inner strength, not from externals.
Seneca agrees with Epicurus: death is a state of non-existence, therefore we do not feel anything, and there is nothing to be afraid of. Moreover, it is no different from the aeons before we were born, and we don't regret those, do we?
Seneca tells us that philosophy, understood as a way of life, cannot be relegated to spare moments. Just like someone can't be a Christian only on Sunday mornings, so a Stoic applies her principles at every opportunity, big or small.
Seneca advices his friend Lucilius to pay attention to people who act right, not just talk right. When we pick a role model to improve our character, let's pick someone whose actions we want to imitate, they are a better guidance to virtue.
Seneca argues that we can force Fortuna, the goddess of luck, to deal with us on equal terms, by not being slaves to external things we cannot control. Cultivate equanimity, and Fortuna will play fair with you.
Epictetus reminds his students that engaging in a wrong act, even one done in response to an injustice, stains our own character, and therefore hurts us first and foremost. Stoics don't favor retributive justice systems.
Seneca reminds us of the distinction between unhealthy and healthy emotions: being overwhelmed by the first ones tears us apart internally, while cultivating the second ones brings harmony to our psyche.
Seneca gives rare advice on one's abode. It should be a place that does not get in the way of practicing virtue, which means neither too uncomfortable (if we can avoid it) nor too luxurious or distracting.
Seneca disagrees with Epictetus: the first says that philosophy is a pleasant medicine, the second that it is a painful one. And yet they agree that it is a remedy that, taken regularly, makes for a wholesome life.
Seneca says that more often than we realize we blame our problems on the time and place we live in, without understanding that the fault may be with us, and that we should work on ourselves, instead of finding excuses.