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Valentine’s Day Advice from Aristotle: Love Yourself

by February 14, 2020

Written by Alex Barrientos, Senior Editor, Classical Wisdom
What does it mean to love yourself—to practice self-love (Philautia)? It’s not uncommon to see self-love being lumped in with selfishness: we see someone who is greedy, who only cares for his own advantage, often at the expense of those close to him, and we say, “He doesn’t love anyone but himself.” In this way and others self-love is used in a derogatory manner.
Aristotle, however, thought this needn’t be the case. He argued instead that “the good man should be a lover of self.” Perhaps you find such a claim rather shocking. After all, couldn’t the world use a little more selflessness? What need have we of more people loving themselves?
Well, hold onto those questions and hear me (well… Aristotle) out.
A Dialogue on Self-Love
Aristotle: Do you agree with the view that one ought to love best one’s best friend?
Xenocrates: Why, yes.
aristotle and alexander

Aristotle tutoring Alexander, illustration by Charles Laplante, 1866.

Aristotle: And do you agree that a man’s best friend is one who wishes well to the object of his wish for his sake, even if no one is to know of it?
Xenocrates: Why, by Zeus, I would say so.
Aristotle: Well then, is it not the case that these attributes are found most of all in a man’s attitude towards himself, and so are all the other attributes by which a friend is defined? And, furthermore, is it not the case that the proverbs support this, e.g. ‘a single soul,’ and ‘what friends have is common property,’ and ‘friendship is equality,’ and ‘charity begins at home’; for all these marks will be found most in a man’s relation to himself, will they not?
Xenocrates: That certainly seems to be the case.
Aristotle: Then, it follows that man is his own best friend, and therefore ought to love himself best.
Xenocrates: Perhaps you are right. But before I assent to your conclusion, I must ask, is it not the case that self-love is destructive of virtue? Is it not true that those lovers of self assign to themselves a greater share of wealth, honors, and bodily pleasures? Such things, you must agree, are not signs of virtue, much less things the good man ought to busy himself with!

Roman copy in marble of a Greek bronze bust of Aristotle by Lysippos, c. 330 BC, with modern alabaster mantle

Aristotle: I agree that such things are not signs of virtue nor things the good man ought to busy himself with, but I disagree with you on what you define as self-love. Certainly, you have described what most people desire, and wrongly consider to be the best of all things (which is why they become objects of competition). But people who grasp at such things are only gratifying their appetites and in general their feelings and the irrational element of the soul. And, since most men are like this, self-love has become an epithet of disgrace—taking its meaning from the prevailing type of self-love, which is a bad one.
Xenocrates: What then, dear Aristotle, defines the good kind of self-love? Is there such a thing?
Aristotle: Indeed, there is, and this I will explain. But first, I must respond with a question to you.
Xenocrates: Go on.
Aristotle: Would you reproach a man who was always anxious that he himself, above all things, should act justly, temperately, or in accordance with any other of the virtues, and in general was always striving to secure for himself the honorable course?
Xenocrates: Certainly not.
Aristotle: Perhaps you might even praise him?
Xenocrates: I would say so.
Aristotle: And yet, few would be willing to describe such a man as a lover of self, though he seems to me to be more a lover of self than the man you described!
Xenocrates: How so?
Aristotle: He assigns to himself the things that are noblest and best, and gratifies the most authoritative element in himself and in all things obeys this; and just as a city or any other systematic whole is most properly identified with the most authoritative element in it, so is a man; and therefore the man who loves this and gratifies it is most of all a lover of self.
Aristotle at Freiburg

Bronze statue, University of Freiburg, Germany, 1915

Xenocrates: What is this most authoritative element you speak of?
Aristotle: Reason. A man is said to have or not to have self-control according as his reason has or has not the control, on the assumption that this is the man himself ; and the things men do from a rational principle are thought most properly their own acts and voluntary acts. That reason is the man himself, then, or is so more than anything else, is plain, and also that the good man loves this part of himself most. The lover of self you described lives as passion dictates, satisfying base desires, and therefore does not love that which is best in him, and so is not truly a lover of self; whereas he who lives according to reason—that most authoritative element in himself—desires what is noblest and best, and can truly be called a lover of self.
Xenocrates: I think I am beginning to see clearly what you mean. Though, I wonder, does anyone benefit from this self-love besides the lover of self?
Aristotle: An important question! To which I say that the good kind of self-love I have described is most beneficial for our neighbors and fellow citizens. Those who busy themselves in an exceptional degree with noble actions all men approve and praise; and if all were to strive towards what is noble and strain every nerve to do the noblest deeds, everything would be as it should be for the common weal, and every one would secure for himself the goods that are greatest, since virtue is the greatest of goods. And so when I say that the good man should be a lover of self, this is not only because he will himself profit by doing noble acts, but because will benefit others as well.
Xenocrates: A quite excellent point my dear friend. What an unfortunate state of affairs that more do not think of self-love in this way!


Becoming Your Own Friend
Now, of course, no such dialogue took place that we know of. The above arguments from Aristotle take place in his Nicomachean Ethics, Book IX, chaps. 8-9. Long story short, we’ve been under quite the misunderstanding when it comes to self-love. And this Valentine’s Day, whether you have someone to celebrate it with or not, I say we listen to Aristotle and make sure that we celebrate the love we ought to have for ourselves.
Yet, it is difficult, if not impossible, to appreciate what Aristotle has to say about self-love if you don’t view yourself as your own friend.
“[H]e is his own best friend and therefore ought to love himself best.” 
In one of his letters to Lucilius, Seneca writes the following:
“Meanwhile, since I owe you the daily allowance, I’ll tell you what took my fancy in the writings of Hecato [of Rhodes] today. ‘What progress have I made? I am beginning to be my own friend.’ That is progress indeed. Such a person will never be alone, and you may be sure he is a friend of all.” Letter VI
We know the Stoics were familiar with Aristotle, and indeed this sentiment mirrors that of Aristotle’s above. It is not only important for your own well being to cultivate this friendship with yourself, but important for those around you. He who has done so can truly be a friend to others, since he has learned how to be a friend to himself. Similarly, he who has cultivated the good kind of self-love, in striving towards what is noble and doing the noblest deeds, contributes towards the common good.
So, let us become our own friends—let us cultivate self-love!

The Mandalorian Way and Stoicism

by February 7, 2020

Written by Adam Piercey, Co-Founder of Modern StoicismToronto 

The image of a lone warrior walking a barren wasteland is a captivating sight. Made popular by movies, television, and graphic arts, the single fighter following a path unyieldingly will always incite a sense of excitement in its viewers. Following an ancient practice, upholding the highest laws, or bringing some wrongdoer to justice, a solitary hero’s strict adherence to a long-held code, ethos or principle sets them apart from the rest of us and elevates them to the status of a champion.

The Mandalorian showed audiences a lone hunter, unyielding in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. “Mando” operates within the principles of the creed that he has chosen: The Mandalorian Way. Mando’s choice of this path means strictly adhering to his code regardless of the situation in which he finds himself. This has striking parallels with the path of Stoicism, as followers of that philosophy choose to remain unrelenting regardless of the obstacles to their practice.

“When one chooses to walk the way of the Mandalore, you are both Hunter, and Prey.” — The Armorer, The Mandalorian

This notion of a way or path is a recurring theme in Stoic writings, and the path is an allegory for the life that Stoics choose to follow; one with direction and purpose based on reason and virtue. To the Stoics, the true path of reason is the right path and may yield difficulties and obstacles along the way, however the way must be followed regardless of its difficulties. As Seneca put it in his book Letters to a Stoic:

“It is a rough road that leads to the heights of greatness.” — Letters, 84

As Stoics proceed to follow this path, just like the Mandalorians, they accept the challenges and trials of its twists and turns as part of this virtuous path they are on. Mandalorians do the same, even as their worlds go through significant upheaval. Mando’s actions make it so that the “Culvert”, one of the last bastions of culture and identity for those Mandalorians remaining, must be relocated. The simple reply to his dismay, from a fellow Mandalorian, is: “This is the way”. But how would the Stoics feel about this fictional character? Would they approve?


Publicity still from The Mandalorian Media Kit, courtesy of Disney.

The Stoics used characters themselves to personify what it would mean to live as a Stoic. Sometimes this took the form of real people like Socrates or Diogenes the Cynic. Sometimes it would take the form of fictional characters, though, a primary example being the mythic hero Hercules. Prodicus’ Choice of Hercules was recounted by Socrates in Xenophon’s Memorabilia, and tells the story of the Greek demigod’s decision, as a young man, to spend the rest of his life following a path of honor, virtue, and self-discipline.

Hercules was facing a fork in the road before him: to follow the path of virtue, or to follow the path of vice. In order to choose, Hercules had to decide between the arguments of two spirits: Kakia (vice) and Arete (virtue). After Kakia presented her arguments to Hercules for a life of pleasure, ease, and delight, Arete stepped forward to propose a life of hardship, effort and pain, saying:

“Nothing that is really good and admirable is granted by the gods to men without some effort and application.” — Memorabilia, 2.1.21–2.1.28

Hercules’ ultimate decision was to proceed with the life of hardship and effort, and the path that he took would eventually lead to his own death, but also to his apotheosis, his ascension to become a god in his own right alongside his father, Zeus.

Socrates introduces the allegory by quoting these lines from the poet Hesiod:

“Evil can be easily found, and freely;
Smooth is the road, and very near she dwells.
But sweat the gods have set upon the way
To goodness: long and steep is the path to it
And rough at first; but if you reach the summit
Thereafter it is easy, hard though it was.”

The moral of the story is simply that the majority of us would rather avoid any hardship altogether, preferring the easier way. However, in order to realize our potential we must be willing to face obstacles and overcome them, uncomplaining, by following the rougher path in life — the hero’s path.

“How can one be a coward if one chooses this life?” — The Armorer, The Mandalorian

Mandalorians choose their path never to bend any of their values, and to accept that which is in front of them as the way things must be — without question. This uncompromising practice of acceptance mimics the Stoic Discipline of Desire. In Donald Robertson’s book Stoicism and the Art of Happiness, he explains that the Stoics placed a high importance on the psychological practice of:

“Accepting events as determined by causal necessity or fate, or alternatively greeting them with rational joy as being the will of God.” — Robertson, p. 80

It was important for Stoics to understand that the events unfolding before them were always going to be so, regardless of whether they wished differently. Between the choice of fighting the situation or simply accepting it as an undeniable fact, the choice was clear; accept the situation and proceed onward. As Marcus Aurelius put it: “What stands in the way, becomes the way.” (Meditations, 5.20).

Mandalorian 2

Publicity still from The Mandalorian Media Kit, courtesy of Disney.

“You are as its father. This is the way.” — The Armorer, The Mandalorian

Since the Star Wars universe began, the laconic Mandalorian has been an integral character of the series. Direct, terse, and sometimes rude, any lack of elaboration on the part of a Mandalorian is expected. When faced with seemingly insurmountable odds, Mandalorians revert to their normal mantra of “This is the way”, as a reminder of the fact that complaining will do nothing to change the current situation. The Stoics embraced this notion as much as the Mandalorians do, and Seneca says:

“It is a bad soldier who follows his commander grumbling and groaning.” — Letters, 108

Stoics always believed that a good man will try to: “…accept serenely those events which do not depend on him” (Hadot, 35), as Pierre Hadot said in his book The Inner Citadel. Uncomplaining, undeterred warriors make up the ranks of the Stoics as well as the Mandalorians, whether we look at those Stoics living a life of luxury like Marcus Aurelius, or Stoics in a time of great struggle like Cato.

Perhaps the parallels of all these attributes make the Mandalorian out to be more stoic than Stoic, more a caricature of the ideal sage than a true Stoic sage. Comparing the images of Mando staring down a mud horn with his last ounces of strength to Cato opposing the armies of Caesar at Utica, the similarities between the Stoic and Mandalorian ways become clear. Stoics and Mandalorians are kindred spirits in their personal practices.

Indeed, whether they are proceeding regardless of the obstacle, accepting of the situation and all its difficulty, or uncomplaining about the latest adversity needing to be overcome, Mandalorians and Stoics share a common core to their creed and practice.

[First seen on] 

Classical Ethics – Part Two

by January 28, 2020

By Brendan M.P. Heard, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
The maxim, know thyself, inscribed over the opening to the very ancient Temple of Apollo at Delphi, was a traditional credo of much speculation. This call to know thyself is inextricably tied to Socrates’ belief that “the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being” (Plato, Apology). Indeed it was the Oracle of Delphi who reportedly told Socrates that there was no one wiser than he, since he knew the limits of his own knowledge.
“For my part, as I went away, I reasoned with regard to myself: ‘I am wiser than this human being. For probably neither of us knows anything noble and good, but he supposes he knows something when he does not know, while I, just as I do not know, do not even suppose that I do. I am likely to be a little bit wiser than he in this very thing: that whatever I do not know, I do not even suppose I know.’” – Plato, Apology 21d-e

Ruins of forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, where know thyself was once said to be inscribed

Like Socrates, Aristotle, who taught Alexander the Great, believed that knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom. What heights of potential did Alexander reach, from knowing himself? Only by cultivating the internal world may the maturity of balance be genuinely achieved in ethical decision making.
Aristotle Teaching Alexander

Aristotle instructing the younger Alexander the Great

Aristotle believed rational development was the most important human pursuit, being a uniquely human trait, and essential to philosophical self-awareness. More to the point, this concept of balance, or moderation, was encouraged in all ways, as the extremes led to chaos, and the resulting imbalance a force for moral degradation.
One of his examples was the virtue of courage, being considered the balance or moderate concept in-between the extremes, or vices, of cowardice and recklessness. The two extremes are animal responses, the middle road of courage is the balanced higher human response. This balance fulfills the Greek concept of harmony.
Finding Balance

Finding Balance

“The just, then, is a species of the proportionate (proportion being not a property only of the kind of number which consists of abstract units, but of number in general)…
“This, then, is what the just is-the proportional; the unjust is what violates the proportion. Hence one term becomes too great, the other too small, as indeed happens in practice; for the man who acts unjustly has too much, and the man who is unjustly treated too little, of what is good. In the case of evil the reverse is true; for the lesser evil is reckoned a good in comparison with the greater evil, since the lesser evil is rather to be chosen than the greater, and what is worthy of choice is good, and what is worthier of choice a greater good.
“This, then, is one species of the just.”
– Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Written 350 B.C., Translated by W. D. Ross
The Stoic school of thought, quite similarly, entailed a system of personal ethics informed by an acceptance of each moment as it occurs, where freedom consisted solely in the way we react to outside events.
The Stoics believed that we ought to master our natural desire for pleasure and aversion to pain by dwelling on nature and the essentiality of destiny. Their ethics considered the greatest good to be contentment or apatheia (which in translation means equanimity rather than apathy), and this state of mind was to be achieved through self-mastery. They strove always to accept the inevitable, for Stoic philosophy mandates the embracing of that which cannot be altered. This is surely the ultimate balanced or harmonious attitude to the currents of fate.
Know thyself

A memento mori mosaic from excavations in the convent of San Gregorio in Rome, featuring the Greek motto.

“Work, therefore to be able to say to every harsh appearance, ‘You are but an appearance, and not absolutely the thing you appear to be.’ And then examine it by those rules which you have, and first, and chiefly, by this: whether it concerns the things which are in our own control, or those which are not; and, if it concerns anything not in our control, be prepared to say that it is nothing to you.” – Epictetus, Enchiridion
The Epicureans were not as antagonistic towards pleasure as the Stoics were, but they believed the pleasures to be sought would be moderate ones. Far from hedonistic, this pleasure was to be found in living a simple life, free from fear and pain. Intellectual pleasure was higher than physical and, conversely, desire itself was considered an interference with Epicurean pleasure. In this sense they were not so very far from the Stoics. This complex concept of pleasure, if correctly understood, would coincide with virtue.
“When we say, then, that pleasure is the end and aim, we do not mean the pleasures of the prodigal or the pleasures of sensuality, as we are understood to do by some through ignorance, prejudice, or willful misrepresentation. By pleasure we mean the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul. It is not an unbroken succession of drinking-bouts and of merrymaking, not sexual love, not the enjoyment of the fish and other delicacies of a luxurious table, which produce a pleasant life; it is sober reasoning, searching out the grounds of every choice and avoidance, and banishing those beliefs through which the greatest disturbances take possession of the soul.” – Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus
Again we see balance as a foundational concept and function, where concepts of pleasure are measured between the extremes of physical desire and mental peace.
In all classical thought, pertaining to art, music, poetry, geometry, architecture, astronomy, philosophy, justice, ethics, and more, we see the recurring theme of balance. Even mathematically this is described as the eternal guidance of the perfect ratio known as the Golden Mean, which was the Pythagorean formula for proportion emulated in patterns everywhere in nature (and is a principle in classical art and architecture).
In this ratio each part relates to the sum of larger parts, and they to the whole, following principles of harmony and proportion for which there is a mathematical basis. The beauty of this numerical harmony is the glowing hearth of classic lore.

Artist Illustration of Pythagoras

As applied to ethics, harmony or balance seems to contain great wisdom, in that the harsh pluralities of right and wrong do not always become clear, when viewed in light of the truly virtuous path, or the path required to reach justice where conflict occurs. The harmonious path seeks ethical answers that determine objective decisions.
To emulate classical virtue seek balance in your ethics and your self-judgments. Let reason be the rudder to your ship of virtue, as you pilot a sea of turbulent extremes. For reason moderates passion; and there is no scenario, mild or precarious, for which a carefully measured response or judgment is unwelcome. Above all else, know thyself!
“Now he who exercises his reason and cultivates it seems to be both in the best state of mind and most dear to the gods. For if the gods have any care for human affairs, as they are thought to have, it would be reasonable both that they should delight in that which was best and most akin to them (i.e. reason) and that they should reward those who love and honour this most, as caring for the things that are dear to them and acting both rightly and nobly. And that all these attributes belong most of all to the philosopher is manifest. He, therefore, is the dearest to the gods. And he who is that will presumably be also the happiest; so that in this way too the philosopher will more than any other be happy.” – Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Written 350 B.C.,Translated by W. D. Ross

Classical Ethics

by January 27, 2020

By Brendan M.P. Heard, contributing writer, Classical Wisdom
Ethics: the ambitious discipline of determining nothing less than what is good and what is bad, or the analysis and administration of the obligation of moral duty.
One might say it is the judicial branch of philosophy, or the point at which the philosopher, after establishing whether or not a thing exists, and whether it should be considered good or bad, and whether or not we are equipped to sufficiently understand it – tries to establish how we should react to it. But the road to prudent action is not to be undertaken without firmly establishing what is best, and so ethical inquiry becomes the penultimate stage of philosophical determination, the final self-evaluation before the plunge into manifest action. Invariably in classical thought, with the exception of the Sophists, this discussion leads to the topic of virtue, but virtue alone is only an aspect of the mechanics of ethics.
“Remember our words, then, and whatever is your aim let virtue be the condition of the attainment of your aim, and know that without this all possessions and pursuits are dishonourable and evil.”
– Plato, Menexenus, NB: Here Plato is repeating the oration of Aspasia the Milesian, one of his teachers, The Dialogues of Plato (ed. 1871) translated by Benjamin Jowett (1817-1893)

Plato and Aristotle

But what then is the core guiding principle of classical ethical thinking? It is the same core principle found permeating the entirety of classical accomplishment. It is the key to classical thought.
The word ‘ethics’ derives from the Greek ēthikós, itself derived from the word êthos meaning character (to us ethos suggests ideology). An individual’s ethics is their moral nature, manifest in a personal code of conduct regarding their interactions with others” since not everything that occurs to us is ethical or morally related. Ethics may in a sense supersede our intuitive reactions, and in fact ideally does so.
For instance: you are asked to honestly evaluate a co-worker. You know that being dishonest would give you a work-place (and thereby financial) advantage; however the individual in question is hard-working and loyal. The animal impulse is almost always for material or personal gain. The higher internal judiciary of personal ethics determines your final action. That internal judge, whom we must call virtue, will punish you with guilt, regret, self-loathing, and fear of retribution if you choose the unconsidered path. The animal path.
For the Greeks, this was largely the task of ethical thought: to determine what is, in fact, virtuous, or what virtue consists of and how we might best attain it. But there are deep subjective waters to tread in establishing an ethic, and in properly formulating a wise response to the moral paradoxes and contrary world views one encounters in daily life.
All true philosophy involves moral philosophizing, or systematizing concepts of right and wrong and establishing conduct based on those systems. Even relativist philosophies have to make the choice to be relativist (which is to them the correct view) – thus rejecting objective concepts (wrong). Even in nihilist or anarchist ethics, there is a rock solid rule about not making rules. Thus, inescapably, ethics is the practical summation of philosophical concepts of right and wrong.
Obviously each classical philosophical school has its own ethical canon. However, there is a linking concept between each, the aforementioned key to classical thought. This key to classical ethics, as espoused by the great Greek originators (Plato and Aristotle) would be the very same as their answer to nearly any conceptual question of antiquity: Balance.
This might also be understood as: moderation, proportion, and harmony.
“If it is thus, then, that every art does its work well- by looking to the intermediate and judging its works by this standard (so that we often say of good works of art that it is not possible either to take away or to add anything, implying that excess and defect destroy the goodness of works of art, while the mean preserves it; and good artists, as we say, look to this in their work), and if, further, virtue is more exact and better than any art, as nature also is, then virtue must have the quality of aiming at the intermediate. I mean moral virtue; for it is this that is concerned with passions and actions, and in these there is excess, defect, and the intermediate.”
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics
But how does that work in ethics? There are many treatises on the practice of virtue, as it pertains to the path to happiness, and within these the wisest claim the path to goodness begins with cultivating the virtues.

Aristotle: In Praise of Contemplation

by January 24, 2020

Written by Alex Barrientos, Senior Editor, Classical Wisdom
What is the best, the highest, the happiest kind of life for human beings? Does it consist of sensual pleasure, the attainment of money, or finding a meaningful job?
This is just one of the many questions that the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle concerned himself with.
What was his answer to this perennial question? Well, to put it simply, that the happy life is one devoted to contemplation.
The Pursuit of Happiness
Aristotle’s view of the best life rests largely on the notion that the aim of human affairs is happiness, and that the happiest life is one in accordance with what is best in us.
Now, happiness is not some static state to be achieved, but an activity.
In Book I of his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle identifies two types of activities:
  1. those necessary and desirable for the sake of something else, and
  2. those that are desired for their own sake.
Happiness, being the aim of human affairs, must belong to the second type of activity.

Roman copy in marble of a Greek bronze bust of Aristotle by Lysippos, c. 330 BC.

For an activity to be classified as being desired for its own sake, nothing else must be desired or aimed at beyond the activity itself.
Virtuous actions, for one, seem to be of this kind, “since doing noble and excellent actions is one of the things that are choice worthy because of themselves.” Yet, pleasant amusements—those that indulge the senses—also seem to be of this kind.
But surely, Aristotle thought, pleasant amusements do not provide happiness in the same way that virtuous actions do!
Pleasant amusements may seem to be desired for themselves because people often choose them in spite of the harms that result.
Furthermore, people often consider those who delight in pleasant amusements to be happy, “because people in positions of power,” namely tyrants, “spend their leisure in them.”
But we are wrong, Aristotle argues, to value the opinion of such people.
aristotle and alexander

Aristotle tutoring Alexander, illustration by Charles Laplante, 1866.

That tyrants and others in positions of power value pleasant amusements is no surprise, for, “being unable to taste pure and free pleasures,” they instead “take refuge in the bodily ones.”
In any case, as Aristotle notes, “virtue and understanding, which are the sources of excellent activities, do not depend on holding positions of power.”
Along with that response, Aristotle provides three other reasons as to why pleasant amusements are not to be confused with happiness:
  1. Pleasant amusements are not, in fact, desired for themselves. Pleasant amusements are a sort of relaxation from work and, because we cannot work endlessly, we require relaxation. Thus, pleasant amusements, being a type of relaxation from serious activity, such as work, are not desired for their own sake but for the sake of such activity.
  2. Happiness, as has been said, “seems to be in accord with virtue,” but virtue “involves engagement in serious matters and does not lie in amusement.” What is serious is better than that which involves amusement, and the better activity is also the more excellent. Since what is serious is better and therefore more excellent, “it bears more of the stamp of happiness.”
  3. Anyone can enjoy pleasant amusements and other bodily pleasures. Even slaves, Aristotle tells us, can enjoy such amusements. Yet no one would venture to attribute happiness to the slave who partakes in these amusements. This is due to the fact that “happiness does not lie in such pastimes but in activities in accord with virtue.”
Aristotle by Francesco

Aristotle by Francesco Hayez. Oil on canvas, 1811.

The Divine Within Us
With happiness now disassociated from pleasant amusements and placed instead in accord with virtue, Aristotle argues that happiness must be in accord with the highest virtue.
The highest virtue must involve the element that is best in us. What is best in us—what is most divine—according to Aristotle, is the understanding, or reason. It is the understanding that distinguishes human beings from other animals. The understanding may either be considered divine or as being the most divine thing within us. In either case, “the activity of it, when in accord with the virtue that properly belongs to it, will be complete happiness.” And this activity, according to Aristotle, is contemplative activity.
Aristotle’s argument as to why the activity of the understanding—contemplative activity—will be complete happiness, is because the attributes assigned to happiness are the same attributes assigned to contemplative activity.
Like happiness, contemplative activity is the most excellent, the most continuous, the most pleasant, and the most self-sufficient activity. Furthermore, contemplative activity, like happiness, is loved for its own sake and involves leisure.
Aristotle at Freiburg

Bronze statue, University of Freiburg, Germany, 1915.

Contemplative activity is the most excellent because the understanding is the most excellent element in us and because, “of knowable objects, the ones the understanding is concerned with are the most excellent ones.”
It is the most continuous activity because we can pass our time in contemplation more continuously than in other activities.
It is the most pleasant activity because the pleasures it entails, those that are derived from philosophy and theoretical wisdom, are of a pure and enduring nature and because “those who have attained knowledge should pass their time more pleasantly than those who are looking for it.”
It is the most self-sufficient activity because, though even the philosopher or “theoretically-wise person” requires the necessaries of life, he/she does not need others in order to engage in contemplation; though they may of course benefit from the company of others, one can contemplate in solitude.
Contemplative activity is loved for its own sake, “For nothing arises from it beyond having contemplated.”
Plato and Aristotle

Fig. 7 Wallerant Vaillant, after Raphael, Plato and Aristotle, 1658–77, mezzotint Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, inv. RP-P-1910-6901 (artwork in the public domain)

Finally, contemplation, like happiness, involves leisure. However, not leisure in the sense of lounging around. It is serious, it involves activity, it involves a rigorous dedication of the mind to study.
Dear to the Gods
But someone might be skeptical and object that the contemplative life is too high to attain for human beings. Perhaps it is a life only fit for the gods!
Yet, the element of the understanding is divine, or is at least the most divine element within us. Thus, according to Aristotle, there is no excuse to concern ourselves only with human and mortal things. We should, instead, “as far as possible immortalize, and do everything to live in accord with the element in us that is most excellent. For even if it is small in bulk, in its power and esteem it far exceeds everything.”
Rembrandt's Aristotle

Aristotle with a Bust of Homer by Rembrandt. Oil on canvas, 1653.

So, we should not let the enormity of the task deter us. It is our happiness—true happiness—that is at stake!
“Now he who exercises his reason and cultivates it seems to be both in the best state of mind and most dear to the gods. For if the gods have any care for human affairs, as they are thought to have, it would be reasonable both that they should delight in that which was best and most akin to them (i.e. reason) and that they should reward those who love and honour this most, as caring for the things that are dear to them and acting both rightly and nobly. And that all these attributes belong most of all to the philosopher is manifest. He, therefore, is the dearest to the gods. And he who is that will presumably be also the happiest; so that in this way too the philosopher will more than any other be happy.” ~ Nicomachean Ethics, Book X, ch. 8
Perhaps such a life is difficult if not impossible for human beings to attain. Yet, with Aristotle, we should respond that, we must “do everything to live in accord with the element in us that is most excellent.” And, along with the seventeenth century philosopher Benedict de Spinoza, we should acknowledge that, “all things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.”

Meditations on the Rise of Stoicism

by January 17, 2020

Written by Alex Barrientos, Associate Editor, Classical Wisdom
Stoicism, as a philosophy of life, has become increasingly popular amongst the general public.
With practical lessons on how to control our temper, how to have good friendships, prioritizing what’s important, facing death, avoiding the pitfalls of consumer culture, and how to live the good life, it is no surprise that Stoicism would have much to offer those of us living in the 21st century.
I myself have improved much in my life due to my readings of Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius.
Though there is some excitement at this reemergence of Stoicism, there is room for concern as well. Excitement, because there is indeed much that the Stoics said that can and should be applied in our daily lives; concern, because perhaps behind this reemergence is the fact that people are feeling less and less in control of the world around them.
In the political realm, for instance, the feeling that “my individual actions won’t make a difference anyways” is becoming more widespread, especially amongst youths who notoriously fail to turn out to vote as it is.

Bust of Marcus Aurelius

This feeling is, of course, a self-fulfilling prophecy: if you believe you can’t make a difference anyways, and so don’t do anything at all, you will, in fact, not make a difference… shocking!
Whether all individual actions in the political realm really make a difference or not, and to what extent they make a difference is beside the point; it is not some well-reasoned, statistical analysis that leads people to feel this way, but the feeling of impotence itself.
They emphasized what they sometimes referred to as a retreat into the self. In other words, focus on what’s in your power and be indifferent toward what is not. All that is in our power are our thoughts and actions and, even in the case of being physically restrained, they argued, a free mind is never in chains.

Artistic impression of Epictetus, including his crutch

“Of all existing things some are in our power, and others are not in our power. In our power are thought, impulse, will to get and will to avoid, and, in a word, everything which is our own doing. Things not in our power include the body, property, reputation, office, an, in a word, everything which is not our own doing.”
This is, on the surface and for the most part, helpful advice for many people. In our modern world we do often get tossed about too much: bombarded by social media and television, concerned about having the latest technology, running to the stores to buy the latest fashion.
These are all things which the Stoics thought cause us much inner tumult and which we should be far less concerned with. Their main concern was with living a tranquil and virtuous life, and they saw focusing too much on external things as inherently opposed to tranquility and virtue.
Here are just several examples of some of the advice the Stoics had to offer:
“What disturbs men’s minds is not events but their judgments on events… And so when we are hindered, or disturbed, or distressed, let us never lay the blame on others, but on ourselves, that is, on our own judgments.” Epictetus, Enchiridion, 5
“Ask not that events should happen as you will, but let your will be that events should happen as they do, and you shall have peace.” Enchiridion, 8

Artistic impression of Epictetus

“What difference does it make how many masters a man has? Slavery is only one, and yet the person who refuses to let the thought of it affect him is a free man no matter how great the swarm of masters around him.” – Seneca, Letter XXVIII, Letters from a Stoic
“…how pleasant it is to ask for nothing, how splendid it is to be complete and be independent of fortune.” Letter XV
“Everything hangs on one’s thinking” Letter LXXVIII
“A man is as unhappy as he has convinced himself.” Letter LXXVIII
 “Remove the judgment, and you have removed the thought ‘I am hurt’: remove the thought ‘I am hurt’, and the hurt itself is removed.” Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 4:7
“Withdraw into yourself. It is in the nature of the rational directing mind to be self-content with acting rightly and the calm it thereby enjoys.” Book 7:28
“If your distress has some external cause, it is not thing itself that troubles you, but your own judgment of it – and you can erase this immediately.” Book 8:47
“That all is as thinking makes it so – and you control your thinking. So remove your judgements whenever you wish and then there is calm…” Book 12:22
As we can see from these passages, much of what the Stoics had to say was often deeply inspiring and memorable. They are the type of sayings that you keep with you throughout your life. But the underlying assumption the Stoics made—their stark distinction between what is and is not in our power—can, and often does, lead people to apathy and seems in some cases to provide an excuse for those who feel they have no obligation to be concerned with the state of society or political matters.
Death of Seneca

The Death of Seneca by Domínguez Sánchez, Manuel

Furthermore, and this is the heart of the concern, in a political climate where people feel helpless and powerless as it is, Stoicism becomes a philosophical justification for inaction and retreating into the self.
Stoicism seems to reveal itself as a practical philosophy when it is no longer practical or no longer feels practical to change the things around us. Striving to change the things we can no longer accept gives way to accepting the things we cannot change.
But what we can and cannot change, what depends and what does not depend on us, and what is and is not in our control are difficult lines to draw.
The Stoics, Simone de Beauvoir thought, were at least right in acknowledging that we are not oppressed by things. As she wrote,
“[M]an is never oppressed by things; in any case, unless he is a naïve child who hits stones or a mad prince who orders the sea to be thrashed, he does not rebel against things, but only against other men.”
de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir, 1946 (Photograph: Henri Cartier-Bresson)

She continues,
“Certainly, a material obstacle may cruelly stand in the way of an undertaking: floods, earthquakes, grasshoppers, epidemics and plague are scourges; but here we have one of the truths of Stoicism: a man must assume even these misfortunes, and since he must never resign himself in favor of anything, no destruction of a thing will ever be a radical ruin for him, even his death is not an evil since he is man only insofar as he is mortal: he must assume it as the natural limit of his life, as the risk implied by every step.”
Indeed, this is one of Stoicism’s greatest strengths. Some of the most beautiful and useful passages the Stoics have to offer are on accepting the natural limits of life and the things that are out of our control.
Yet, if we have established that the natural world and the limits set on us by nature do not oppress us, and furthermore that we must learn to accept these events and limitations rather than thrash the sea, what is it, then, that we should concern ourselves with?
What can, in fact, oppress us and deserve to be given our attention, maybe even our resentment and hatred?
Only man can be an enemy for man,” de Beauvoir writes,
“It is here that the Stoic distinction between ‘things which do not depend on us’ and those which ‘depend on us’ proves to be insufficient: for ‘we’ is legion and not an individual; each one depends upon others, and what happens to me by means of others depends upon me as regards its meaning; one does not submit to a war or an occupation as he does to an earthquake: he must take sides for or against, and the foreign wills thereby become allied or hostile. It is this interdependence which explains why oppression is possible and why it is hateful.”

Second thoughts … Simone de Beauvoir at home in 1957.
Photograph: Jack Nisberg/Sipa Press/Rex Features

In other words, our interdependence on others interferes with any Stoical distinction between things that do and do not depend us; in our relations with others, all depend on us and we depend on all. Oppression by our fellow human beings is not some natural order of the world that we must assent to; the tyrant who rides into town declaring himself ruler is not akin to a flood or an earthquake, and thus need not be accepted as such.
Hegel also had a critique of Stoicism which gets even more at the heart of my concern. As noted so far, the Stoics praised an inward freedom, a retreat into the realm of thought and individual action. Herbert Marcuse, quoting Hegel, explains that,
“‘The essence of this [Stoic] consciousness is to be free, on the throne as well as in fetters, throughout all the dependence that attaches to individual existence…’ Man is thus free because he ‘persistently withdraws from the movement of existence, from activity as well as endurance, into the mere essentiality of thought.’”
As Marcuse explains, Hegel did not view Stoic freedom as real freedom, but rather as “the counterpart of ‘a time of universal fear and bondage.’” This analysis is important, and can help partially explain the reemergence of stoicism. It is no coincidence, Hegel would argue, that as wealth, and thus power, have become concentrated into fewer and fewer hands, many have turned to a philosophy that encourages retreat from the external world.

Portrait by Jakob Schlesinger, 1831

Be indifferent to that which is indifferent; only your own thoughts and actions are within your control, therefore that is all you should concern yourself with; accept all that happens to you since it is not under your control. What philosophy conforms more perfectly to the feeling of impotence in modern democratic societies? What surprise, then, that it should become so popular.
We cannot entirely blame this failure entirely on the Stoics themselves, since all philosophical thought is situated within a certain time and place. And though it is a rather unfair criticism to accuse Stoicism of leading to political apathy (considering that many of the Stoics themselves, notably Marcus Aurelius and Seneca, lived very political lives), encouraging people to only focus on what is under their control—defining that as being simply our own thoughts and actions—can have an apathetic effect.
What is and is not in our control is blurrier today than it was for those living under the aristocracies, oligarchies, dictatorships, and slave societies of ancient Rome and Greece. This aside, as I mentioned above, some of the finest lessons and teachings undoubtedly can be found amongst the writings of Aurelius, Seneca, and Epictetus. I myself have been profoundly impacted by their words. But we are not without justification to pause and wonder: why now? Perhaps the rise of stoicism will be a positive thing. But perhaps Hegel is right, that it is also indicative that we are living in “a time of universal fear and bondage.”