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Stoic Meditations

Stoic Meditations

By Massimo Pigliucci
Occasional reflections on the wisdom of Ancient Greek and Roman philosophers. More at Please consider supporting Stoic Meditations. (cover art by Marek Škrabák; original music by Ian Jolin-Rasmussen,
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Practical philosophy is called practical for a reason

Stoic Meditations

Divination, anyone?
The ancient Stoics believed in divination. They were obviously mistaken about it. And yet the general principle they adopted was very much akin to the one underlying modern science.
October 26, 2020
Obviously, the universe is guided by an intelligence. Or is it?
We begin the study of book II of Cicero's On the Nature of the Gods, and we see that the Stoics begin with deploying what is nowadays known as an argument from design.
October 23, 2020
Look less critically at others, and a bit more critically at yourself
Do you look at other people’s pimples while yon yourselves are covered with countless ulcers?
October 22, 2020
Careful not to underestimate the power of Fortune
You are rendered over-proud by a fine house, as though it could never be burned, and your heads are turned by riches as though Fortune has not sufficient strength to swallow them up.
October 21, 2020
Ready for bad stuff to happen, but preferring the good stuff
I shall make whatever befalls me become a good thing, but I prefer that what befalls me should be comfortable and pleasant and unlikely to cause me annoyance.
October 20, 2020
Be at ease wherever you find yourself
A Stoic finds herself at ease both in a fancy house where food is served on silver plates and under the bridge sharing the fare with beggars.
October 19, 2020
Why wealth is not a good
Riches, I say, are not a good thing; for if they were, they would make people good: now since that which is found even among bad people cannot be termed good, I do not allow them to be called so.
October 16, 2020
People's social status doesn't matter
Nature bids me do good to mankind. Wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for a benefit.
October 15, 2020
On rational giving
He who believes giving to be an easy matter, is mistaken: it offers very great difficulties, if we bestow our bounty rationally, and do not scatter it impulsively and at random.
October 14, 2020
No one condemned wisdom to poverty
The philosopher may own wealth, but will not own wealth that has been torn from another, or which is stained with another’s blood: her must be obtained without wronging anyone, and without it being won by base means.
October 13, 2020
On the desirability of wealth
Do not, then, make any mistake: riches belong to the class of desirable things. But if my riches leave me, they will carry away with them nothing except themselves.
October 12, 2020
Tall or short, it doesn't matter
Health, for Aristotle, is a necessary requirement for a eudaimonic life. For the Stoics, it is preferred, other things being equal, but a life worth living is within grasp of everyone, regardless of their specific condition.
October 9, 2020
Rich, and yet a philosopher?
Wealth ought to be despised, not that we should not possess it, but that we should not possess it with fear and trembling: we do not drive it away from us, but when it leaves us, we follow after it unconcernedly.
October 8, 2020
The basic precepts of a good Stoic life
Seneca gives us a handy list of fundamental goals to live a life worth living.
October 7, 2020
When an Epicurean goes Stoic
Diodorus has said what you do not like to hear, because you too ought to do it. “I’ve lived, I’ve run the race which Fortune set me.”
October 6, 2020
Aspiring to a life of virtue while being a fallible human being
I shall continue to praise that life which I do not, indeed, lead, but which I know I ought to lead, loving virtue and following after her, albeit a long way behind her and with halting gait.
October 5, 2020
I'm not a sage, but I get better every day
I am not a wise man, so do not require me to be on a level with the best of men, but merely to be better than the worst: I am satisfied, if every day I take away something from my vices and correct my faults.
October 2, 2020
Between Cynicism and Aristotelianism
Why, then, do you talk so much more bravely than you live? Why do you pay regard to common rumor, and feel annoyed by calumnious gossip? Why do you drink wine that is older than yourself?
October 1, 2020
Are you controlling your pleasures, or the other way around?
Let virtue lead the way and bear the standard: we shall have pleasure for all that, but we shall be her masters and controllers; she may win some concessions from us, but will not force us to do anything.
September 30, 2020
The real problem with Epicureanism
Seneca strikes a sympathetic note toward Epicureanism, suggesting that it is a misunderstood philosophy, just like, in some respects, modern Stoicism turns out to be.
September 29, 2020
The balance between pleasure and virtue
You devote yourself to pleasures, I check them; you indulge in pleasure, I use it; you think that it is the highest good, I do not even think it to be good: for the sake of pleasure I do nothing, you do everything.
September 28, 2020
Why are you asking for more?
Does this not appear great enough, when I tell you that the highest good is an unyielding strength of mind, wisdom, magnanimity, sound judgment, freedom, harmony, beauty? Do you still ask me for something greater?
September 25, 2020
Virtue is its own reward
If exercising virtue is pleasurable, aren't the Stoics a kind of Epicureans in disguise? Not at all, because the pleasure of virtue is a byproduct, not the main goal.
September 24, 2020
Harmonize your mind
A mind in harmony with itself is a virtuous one, because it is the vices that are at war with each other.
September 23, 2020
Pleasure is the companion, not the essence, of life
The ancients bade us lead the highest, not the most pleasant life, in order that pleasure might not be the guide but the companion of a right-thinking and honorable mind.
September 22, 2020
The difference between pleasure and virtue
If pleasure and virtue were entirely inseparable, we should not see some things to be pleasant, but not honorable, and others most honorable indeed, but hard and only to be attained by suffering.
September 21, 2020
Reason is the only thing that will make you truly happy
That person is happy, whose reason recommends to them the whole posture of their affairs.
September 18, 2020
There is no happiness without truth
For no one can be styled happy who is beyond the influence of truth.
September 17, 2020
Do away with hope and fear
A person may be called “happy” who, thanks to reason, has ceased either to hope or to fear: but rocks also feel neither fear nor sadness, yet no one would call those things happy which cannot comprehend what happiness is.
September 16, 2020
Fortune vs virtue
The highest good is a mind which despises the accidents of fortune, and takes pleasure in virtue.
September 15, 2020
Pursue the pleasures of life, in moderation
A happy life must also set due value upon all the things which adorn our lives, without over-estimating any one of them, and must be able to enjoy the bounty of Fortune without becoming her slave.
September 14, 2020
Don't follow blindly what other say, no matter how famous they are
When I say “our opinion,” I do not bind myself to any one of the chiefs of the Stoic school, for I too have a right to form my own opinion.
September 11, 2020
Don't go after fool's gold
These good things which men gaze at in wonder, which they crowd to see, which one points out to another with speechless admiration, are outwardly brilliant, but within are miseries to those who possess them.
September 10, 2020
Living by reason, not by imitation of others
Nothing gets us into greater troubles than our subservience to common rumor, living not by reason but by imitation of others.
September 9, 2020
What is happiness anyway?
Seneca advises his brother, and us, not to listen to the random "shouts and clamors" of people, but to reflect carefully on what happiness is and how to achieve it.
September 8, 2020
Do not wish for impossible things
We know that certain things are features of the world. Like the existence of annoying people. Do not wish them away, because that is impossible. Rather, teach them, or bear with them.
September 7, 2020
Do not wait for Plato's Republic
Do not expect Plato’s Republic: but be content if the smallest thing goes on well, and consider such an event to be no small matter.
September 4, 2020
Either god or randomness
In a word, if there is a god, all is well; and if chance rules, do not also be governed by it.
September 3, 2020
Do not concern yourself with other people's opinions
Other people's opinions are not under your control, so focus instead on your own judgments and decisions to act or not to act.
September 2, 2020
Negative and positive actions on behalf of the cosmopolis
As you yourself are a component part of a social system, so let every act of yours be a component part of social life.
September 1, 2020
Everything changes
All things are changing: and you yourself are in continuous mutation and in a manner in continuous destruction, and the whole universe, too.
August 31, 2020
The importance of our ruling faculty
Things stand outside of us, themselves by themselves, neither knowing anything of themselves nor expressing any judgment.
August 28, 2020
Objective situations and subjective judgments
Today I have got out of all trouble, or rather I have cast out all trouble, for it was not outside, but within and in my opinions.
August 27, 2020
Apply reason to social improvement
Labor not as one who is wretched, nor yet as one who would be pitied or admired; but direct your will to one thing only: to act or not to act as social reason requires.
August 26, 2020
Teach them or bear with them
If you are able, correct by teaching those who do wrong; but if you cannot, remember that indulgence is given to you for this purpose.
August 25, 2020
When peope do wrong they hurt themselves first
He who does wrong does wrong against himself. He who acts unjustly acts unjustly to himself, because he makes himself bad.
August 24, 2020
Pain, pleasure, and injustice
Our fear of pain and our desire for pleasure sometimes lead to injustice. Let that not be the case.
August 21, 2020
The nature of injustice
Marcus Aurelius thinks injustice is a type of impiety against the cosmos. Modern Stoics have updated the concept, since we don't believe the universe to be a sentient living being.
August 20, 2020
Setting up again what chance has overthrown
From a Stoic point of view, there is absolutely nothing more important in life than to exercise our virtue in order to help our fellow brothers and sisters of the human cosmopolis.
August 19, 2020
Help, instead of pity, others
The wise person will not pity others, but will help them and be of service to them, seeing that he is born to be a help to all people and a public benefit.
August 18, 2020
The ideal ruler
Seneca details the characteristics of the ideal ruler. We should look for the same in the people who govern us. And in ourselves.
August 17, 2020
Stoicism in the service of all
No school of philosophy is more gentle and benign, none is more full of love towards man or more anxious to promote the happiness of all.
August 14, 2020
The opposite of mercy is cruelty
The virtues are never in contradiction with each other. The vices are never good for the people who indulge them.
August 13, 2020
The nature and importance of mercy
We should all follow Seneca's advice, resisting the urge for revenge and punishment, and practicing mercy and forgiveness.
August 12, 2020
When cruelty becomes pleasure
Both rulers and ordinary people sometimes turn cruelty into a pleasure. It seriously undermines the most precious thing we all have: our character.
August 11, 2020
Let us be more forgiving
Seneca reminds us that the human animal is a delicate thing, forgiveness for his mistakes is often in order.
August 10, 2020
The right and the wrong times to use violence
Turns out that, when the proper criteria are followed, it is almost never the time to use violence, either as a society, or as individuals.
August 7, 2020
People can change, and so can we
Seneca provides a historically accurate analysis of the life of Octavian Augustus, the first Roman emperor. With implications for how to live our own lives.
August 6, 2020
The tyrant will not be able to hide
A cruel reign is disordered and hidden in darkness, and while all shake with terror at the sudden explosions, not even he who caused all this disturbance escapes unharmed.
August 5, 2020
Beware of the corruption of the justice system
Seneca reminds us that prosecutors and judges might be corrupted, and that we have to take this into account when we act.
August 4, 2020
Do not support leaders who drag their office into the mud
Seneca issues a stern reminder to Nero about the responsibilities of government. It can all too easily be applied today.
August 3, 2020
War is cruelty on a massive scale
Seneca warns that the cruelty of people in charge of government can have massive consequences.
July 31, 2020
When you hurt others, you hurt yourself
Seneca reminds Nero, and us, that not doing the right thing is first and foremost injurious to ourselves.
July 30, 2020
Seneca and the Peter Parker principle
With great power comes great responsibility, as both Seneca and Spider-Man agree.
July 29, 2020
Let us err on the side of clemency
Seneca makes an epistemic argument to convince us that it is better to err on the side of clemency, rather than punishment.
July 28, 2020
Clemency helps the innocent and the virtuous
Seneca makes an argument in favor of a broad conception of clemency, not just on behalf of the guilty, but of the innocent and the virtuous.
July 27, 2020
Is Nero going to "forget" his character?
Seneca flatters Nero at the same time as he issues veiled threats to the new emperor, in case he steers from the right path.
July 24, 2020
Seneca offers himself as a mirror for Nero's soul
We begin the study of the controversial On Clemency, through which Seneca tried to steer Nero's course for the good of the Roman people.
July 23, 2020
Overcome your fear of death and you will be free and powerful
Epictetus and Seneca agree: our own death is the ultimate test of our character, and philosophy is a long journey to prepare us for it.
July 22, 2020
What is and is not up to us
'What then, if I fall ill?' You shall bear illness well. 'Who shall tend me?' God, and your friends. 'I shall lie on a hard bed.' But you can do it like a man.
July 21, 2020
Consider how much control you have, and what follows from that
When you think about it, it turns out that we have far less control over things and people than we think, and therefore far less blame.
July 20, 2020
You can get better immediately, it's up to you
Epictetus says that our moral improvement is not like the Olympic Games: when we fail, we can resume immediately, not having to wait four years.
July 17, 2020
If you are in Gyara, live as one who is in Gyara
Epictetus advises us to live the life we have, in the place we are, rather than indulge in regret for what we may have lost.
July 16, 2020
How to practice and what to practice
Epictetus gives us a very practical pointer about how to incorporate Stoic precepts in our lives.
July 15, 2020
Do not wish for figs in winter
There is a proper time for everything, including enjoying your loved ones. Keep it in mind, before they're gone.
July 14, 2020
Stoics have a duty to work toward social and political change
Epictetus tells us what happens when a person is truly free. Tyrants begin to tremble.
July 13, 2020
Why should we be good?
At Olympia you do not want anything else; you are content to have been crowned at Olympia. Does it seem to you so small and worthless a thing to be noble and good and happy?
July 10, 2020
Enjoy figs in the summer, don't wish for them in the winter
How can you wish at the same time to grow old and not to see the death of any that you love?
July 9, 2020
Practicing philosophy is like going to the doctor's office
Friends, the school of a philosopher is a hospital. When you leave, you should have suffered, not enjoyed yourself.
July 8, 2020
Focus on the deed, not the praise
‘He’s a clever young man and a fan of rhetoric.’ ‘How do you know?’ ‘He praises me.’ Oh, well, that proves it, of course.
July 7, 2020
Your roles in life
Let us play our roles in life well. Not acting lik a sheep, gently but at random; nor destructively, like a wild beast.
July 6, 2020
The ultimate locus of your freedom
Look, can you be forced to assent to what appears to you wrong?’ ‘No.’ ‘Or to dissent from the plain truth?’ ‘No.’ ‘Then you see you do have within you a share of freedom.’
July 3, 2020
Who are you, anyway?
My mind represents for me my medium – like wood to a carpenter, or leather to a shoemaker. The goal in my case is the correct use of impressions.
July 2, 2020
It's about deeds, not words
So you can talk the right talk about Stoicism. But do you also walk the right walk?
July 1, 2020
A philosophy needs to be digested properly, not just vomited
Those who have learnt precepts and nothing more are anxious to give them out at once, just as men with weak stomachs vomit food.
June 30, 2020
Reframing problems into training exercises
I have a bad neighbor – bad, that is, for himself. For me, though, he is good: he exercises my powers of fairness and sociability.
June 29, 2020
When the universe sends you a sparring partner
A boxer derives the greatest advantage from his sparring partner – and my accuser is my sparring partner. He trains me in patience, civility and even temper.
June 26, 2020
Don't make yourself a salve of others
For God’s sake, stop honoring externals, quit turning yourself into the tool of mere matter, or of people who can supply you or deny you those material things.
June 25, 2020
What is truly good or bad
‘Being healthy is good, being sick is bad.’ No, my friend: enjoying health in the right way is good; making bad use of your health is bad.
June 24, 2020
Examine your values carefully
When people say that the unjust person is better off because he has more money, what exactly is their system of values?
June 23, 2020
The character gap
Keep well out of the sun, then, so long as your principles are as pliant as wax.
June 22, 2020
The fine trappings of a horse
Are you proud of things for which you don't really deserve credit? Or for things that are not important? Reflect on this, and set your priorities straight.
June 19, 2020
Are you alone or lonely?
Epictetus reminds us to draw a distinction between our objective situation and the way we feel about it.
June 18, 2020
Ask your impressions for the right password
We should always examine our impressions and ask whether they pass the test: are they in according with reason?
June 17, 2020
How to deal with a difficult relative
'My brother ought not to have behaved so to me.' No, but it is his business to look to that; however he may behave, I will deal with him as I ought.
June 16, 2020
What is always within your power
If now is the time for fever, take your fever in the right way; if for thirst, thirst in the right way, if for hunger, hunger aright. Is it not in your power? Who will hinder you?
June 15, 2020
Philosophical journaling
Epictetus explains one of the most powerful techniques in the Stoic toolkit for a better and more meaningful life.
June 12, 2020
The problem with wealth is that it doesn't guarantee you a sound mind
You have vessels of gold, but your reason--judgements, assent, impulse, will--is of common clay.
June 11, 2020
That is tyranny, not government
Epictetus argues that rational creatures will always oppose tyrannical governments.
June 10, 2020
Argue less, practice more
Epictetus draws a distinction between philosophy pursued for its own sake and philosophy as the art of life.
June 9, 2020
What do you like to tend to?
Socrates liked to daily monitor his moral self-improvement. How can we do the same?
June 8, 2020
Contemplating your final activity
Epictetus asks us to think about what we'd like to be doing when death will overtake us. It's an interesting exercise in self-knowledge.
June 5, 2020