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Aristotle: Happiness is an Activity

by April 24, 2022

Written by Van Bryan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

“For contemplation is both the highest form of activity (since the intellect is the highest thing in us, and the objects that it apprehends are the highest things that can be known), and also it is the most continuous because we are more capable of continuous contemplation than we are of any practical activity.” ~ Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics

Our five-week-long inquiry into ancient moral philosophy naturally culminates with Aristotle and his philosophical text known as the Nicomachean Ethics. As we will see, Aristotle asserts ideas that are reminiscent of the Stoics, putting emphasis on attainment of virtue within our lives. However, unlike the Stoics, Aristotle does not rely on a divine cosmology to make his case. Instead, he leans heavily on formalized logic (something he is credited with discovering) and what might be considered a rudimentary form of the scientific method.
At the opening of Book X of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle asks us “…what kind of thing is pleasure?” A notion that we might take for granted, it is very essential to Aristotle’s moral philosophy that we adequately answer this question.
Aristotle at Freiburg
Bronze statue, University of Freiburg, Germany, 1915
Aristotle concludes that pleasure is not a process or a state of being. Instead, he asserts that pleasure is an activity, something that we do. More precisely, pleasure is the thing that completes an activity. The philosopher makes a point to say that pleasure completes an activity so long as the subject and the object of the activity are in a suitable condition.
If we were to examine a shipbuilder, for example, we would first have to conclude that the shipbuilder is appropriately healthy and suitably prepared to partake in the activity of shipbuilding. Also, we would have to be sure that the object of the activity (the ship) is constructed from appropriate materials that are in good condition. If we can conclude both of these things, then we can safely assume that the shipbuilder will be capable of building his ship; at the completion of this activity, there will be pleasure. A shipbuilder, insofar as he is a shipbuilder, will inevitably find pleasure in building ships.
So we have seen that pleasure is the natural end of an activity. Different people will certainly enjoy different activities more than others. The lover of philosophy will find the activity of philosophizing pleasurable, the lover of music will find music to be pleasurable, and so on.
flute player
Youth playing the flute and riding a dolphin. Red-figure stamnos, 360–340 BC. From Etruria. According to Aristotle, the lover of music can even find pleasure playing the flute on the back of a dolphin!
Aristotle then tells us that life is an activity and, as is true with all activities, pleasure should be the natural end for life. Finding the appropriate pleasure for our lives means arriving at a happy life, which Aristotle believed was synonymous with a good life.
And so we seem to have concluded that finding the appropriate pleasure within our lives as human beings will lead us to happiness, which will lead us to a good life. But this, rather obviously, leads us to another question: What is the appropriate pleasure?
Recall that the hedonists believed bodily pleasures were our ticket to a happy life. Aristotle considers this but ultimately rejects the notion. Does it seem rational to say that all of our struggles, our fears, our hardships, and our miseries are suffered only so that we may eat and drink as much as we please? Aristotle thought such an idea implausible.
Aristotle also did not agree with the Ethical Egoists, who declared that a pleasurable life is one where we conquer our fellow man and assert ourselves above society. While some might find pleasure in this, Aristotle believed that certain pleasures were better than others. We should make a point to find these most perfect pleasures.
Bust of Aristotle. Marble, Roman copy after a Greek bronze original by Lysippos from 330 BC; the alabaster mantle is a modern addition.
To do this, Aristotle asks us to imagine a hypothetical man who is perfect in every way imaginable. This ideal human would find pleasure in that which is most perfect. What is this pleasure that is most noble and honorable? Aristotle tells us that it is the active expression of virtue.
A happy life and a good life are synonymous. We only find a happy life if we find our most appropriate pleasure as rational beings. Our most appropriate pleasure is the active expression of virtue. Finally, we must ask, which virtue is the truest, the most honorable, and the noblest? Believe it or not, not all virtues are created equal.
Aristotle makes a point that some virtues are self-sufficient while other virtues require external things in order for that virtue to be realized. For instance, generosity is only possible if we have an excess of resources and other citizens to receive our generosity. Justice, although important, requires other citizens to receive our just acts. Virtues such as these are not self-sufficient.
Then we arrive at wisdom, which requires nothing external to be realized. We may pursue wisdom for our own pleasure and we require nobody else to have this virtue realized. Additionally, learning is the one activity that we may consistently do throughout our lives. While variables may interfere with our abilities to be generous or just, there is no reason why we should ever stop pursuing wisdom.
plato and aristotle
The School of Athens by Raphael (1509–1510), fresco at the Apostolic Palace, Vatican City.
Aristotle also appeals to the gods to make his case for a life in pursuit of wisdom. He states that the gods are most assuredly all-knowing, and so by pursuing a life of wisdom we come closer to the divine.
Aristotle does note that some may disagree with this, saying that we are mortal and should, therefore, think mortal thoughts; he dismisses these notions. Instead, the philosopher urges us not to settle for mediocrity. We ought to pursue that which is most important, most pleasurable, and most divine.
We must not listen to those who urge us to think human thoughts since we are human, and mortal thoughts since we are mortal; rather, we should as far as possible immortalize ourselves and do all we can to live according to the finest element within us—for if it is small in bulk, it is far greater than anything else in power and worth. ~ Nicomachean Ethics
You may now be realizing that Aristotle and the Stoics arrived at similar conclusions. Both tell us that a life in pursuit of wisdom is the best type of life. However, the Stoics believed that we ought to pursue wisdom for the sake of duty. Aristotle, rather simply, tells us that we ought to pursue wisdom because it will make us happiest. We need no other reason than this. Additionally, we need not accept the divine cosmology of the Stoics in order to live a good life. Aristotle’s philosophy is based upon systematic logic and empirical observations that many would agree with.
Aristotle and Seneca
Aristotle (above) and Seneca (below).
Therefore, it can be concluded that the Nicomachean Ethics is the most accessible and the most all-encompassing of the moral philosophies presented in this series. It remains a cornerstone of ancient ethical philosophy, leading those who might seek happiness toward enlightenment and a life well-lived.

Ancient Sophistry & The Car Salesman

by April 20, 2022

By Jacob Bell, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
My recent venture into the world of car sales caused me to realize that sophistry, in its most shameful guise, is still alive and well today. I am speaking of the sophistry that seeks to deceive in order to profit… either in sales or politics.
During the second half of the fifth century B.C.E., sophistry began to gain its reputation as a means of rhetorical persuasion. It was, and still is, used in politics, and speaks to the emotions, often leaving logic out of the conversation. Plato and Aristotle regarded sophistry with disgust because for them, the term signified the “deliberate use of fallacious reasoning, intellectual charlatanism, and moral unscrupulousness.”
Illustration of Plato Gorgias
Gorgias is a Socratic dialogue written by Plato around 380 BC. The dialogue depicts a conversation between Socrates and a small group of sophists at a dinner gathering.
Is this starting to sound like your last car salesman?
Although the term sophist is derived from the word sophia, meaning wisdom, “sophia” was often used, long before the rise of the Sophists, to describe “disingenuous cleverness.” To be fair, in other circles the Sophists were known for their poetic ability, and were paid to teach the youth how to speak with authority and persuasion. The distinction between sophistry and philosophy wasn’t quite as distinct as one might imagine, and in Aristophanes’ play titled The Clouds, Socrates is depicted as a Sophist. Some of the prominent Sophists of Ancient Greece included Protagoras, Gorgias, Antiphon, Hippias, Prodicus, and Thrasymachus.
Illustration of Socrates and Gorgias
The Philosopher Socrates with the Sophist Gorgias
Whatever controversy there might be regarding sophistry then, today I am interested in the type of sophistry that seeks to poke and prod at your emotions in order to persuade you to make a decision that logic might not permit… The kind that Plato and Aristotle characterized as fallacious, charlatanistic, and immoral…. The kind that gets politicians elected and car salesmen sales.
As noted above, the Sophists were paid teachers of rhetoric. They would teach someone how to speak to the emotions, and how to profit from this persuasive speech. In short, it is the same sort of training in rhetoric that I have received since becoming a car salesman. These teachers of rhetoric aren’t stupid, but they aren’t intelligent in the formal sense, either. They have an insight into human nature. They understand the power of the emotions, and they know how to invoke the passions. It is both impressive and frightening at the same time.
In clear opposition to Plato, the Sophists claimed that truth was relative, and they didn’t seem very interested in defending that claim. They were more interested in winning an argument or debate without much regard for the truth of the matter. In Plato’s dialogue titled Euthydemus, Euthydemus and his brother Dionysiodorous “deliberately use egregiously fallacious arguments for the purpose of contradicting and prevailing over their opponent.”
This was a deceitful method of argumentation used by many Sophists, in which they would force their opponents to abandon their position or accept both positions by establishing a contradicting argument. This is the confusing art of deceitful speech. Yes, in a way it is an art. It takes practice, skill, and a bit of natural ability to wield words that not only breakdown logic, but cause one to forgo logic in favor of the emotions.
Socrates teaching
Crop of Alcibiades being taught by Socrates, by Marcello Bacciarelli c. 1776
I have seen such a Sophist single handedly disarm a defensive consumer with such language. I have witnessed logic leave the conversation in such a profound manner that an unaware customer signed to purchase a vehicle without even knowing the final price! These are modern Sophists with decades of practice in the skill of deceitful speech, and for many of us, we will encounter them at some point during our lives.
I might suggest a few preparations if you find yourself in this situation… and for the sake of brevity, I will generalize. Write down your questions, stipulations, and requirements, and then write the answers and responses in the appropriate place. Don’t accept vague answers, demand the specifics. Follow these guidelines and you may survive the Sophist’s onslaught of slimy speech.
picture of a car salesman
Know how to talk to a car salesman/sophist…
Appealing to the emotions, removing logic from the conversation, and profiting from rhetoric… is it all bad? I don’t think so. Just like any tool, it can be used for good or evil. Our emotions and passions are integral to life. They help us navigate the world, and help us make decisions. If we can learn something positive from the Sophists, it is that sometimes we must appeal to the emotions in order to succeed within a conversation. But we must do this with a guiding moral principle, else we may find ourselves deceiving our fellow man for personal gain.

Healthy Skepticism for Better Debates

by April 20, 2022

By Jacob Bell, Associate Editor, Classical Wisdom
One would have thought that in this age of information, logical fallacies would cease to exist. But, amazingly, the exact opposite has happened despite our incredible access to information. After all, we can open up an internet browser and within a few minutes we have thousands of pages filled with data and arguments for some position or the other. The problem is, we can find thousands of pages of data and arguments in support of the opposing view, too.
A healthy dose of skepticism might do us some good…
The ancient skeptics varied in their particular doctrines, but they converged on the idea that it is a good thing to question both our beliefs and our ability to gain knowledge of the world. Much of Greek philosophy contains skeptical elements, but the term ancient skeptic generally refers to a follower of Pyrrho, who lived from 365 to 270 B.C.E., or to a member of Plato’s Academy during its skeptical period, which began sometime around 273 B.C.E., and began to fade around the 1st century B.C.E.
The ancient skeptic Pyrrho.
The term “skeptic” is derived from the Greek word skepsis, which means examination, inquiry, and consideration. Ancient skepticism included two fundamental starting points:
1. Examination of our epistemic limitations.
2. A thesis regarding the suspension of judgment.
Examination of our epistemic limitation is just a fancy way of saying “examination of the limits of knowledge.” In other words, the skeptic attempts to take a step back from what we believe to be true knowledge, and asks a few questions regarding what we take to be true or certain knowledge.
Confused yet? Let me give you an example…
Some of the things the skeptic might ask include: What are we referring to when we use the words knowledge and truth? How can I be certain that what I believe to be true, is in fact true? How did I gain this perceived knowledge or truth? What are the reasons for this particular belief? What are the reasons against it?
The skeptic believed that by asking such questions, we could uncover weaknesses in our reasoning capabilities, and discover the fallibility of the senses in providing true knowledge of the perceived world.
Another famous skeptic.. Augustine of Hippo by Sandro Botticelli
Still with me? Great… so basically, the skeptical idea of suspension of judgment claimed that we should rid ourselves of our beliefs regarding certain knowledge and truth. For instance, if I believed the earth was spherical, I should suspend that judgment and examine honestly both the idea that the earth could be spherical or flat. The idea is to take both sides of the debate seriously, examine evidence for each side, and develop the strongest argument possible for each position.
Moderate skepticism would allow that upon completion of an honest and serious examination of both sides of the debate, I could then restore my belief.
Radical skepticism, on the other hand, would claim that no truth is possible, and would argue that no amount of evidence or honest inquiry would settle the matter. The radical skeptic could never restore a belief in anything. Is your anxiety setting in yet? ‘Cuz mine is…
Radical skepticism claims that we can never have true knowledge of the world. You can breathe a sigh of relief, however, because the position is doomed from the start. One could simply argue that because the radical skeptic claims that we cannot have true knowledge of the world, his statement regarding our inability to gain knowledge could not be true, either. It is a self-defeating position, and not very useful in our day-to-day lives. After all, if I was in constant suspension of judgment, I would be stuck and unable to live my life. I would die from inaction because we need basic beliefs and judgments in order to live in the world… like what to eat for dinner.
Moderate skepticism, however, is a powerful tool in establishing what we take to be knowledge and truth. It pushes back our knee-jerk reaction to something we might read on the internet, and provides us with a mode of calm and honest inquiry into the matter. This type of skeptical inquiry is more of a practice or activity, as opposed to a set of doctrines. It is the kind of skepticism that Sextus Empiricus claimed to be useful in life.
Who was this fellow Sextus, I hear you cry? Empiricus, as I like to imagine he preferred to be called, belonged to the Pyrrhonian skeptical tradition, and lived from 160-210 C.E.
Image of Sextus Empiricus
Sextus Empiricus, a skeptic of the Pyrrhonian tradition.
For Sextus Empiricus, skepticism was the act of discovering opposing arguments of persuasive force. This basically entails a time of judgment-free reflection, which leads to a peaceful acceptance of the conclusion. Empiricus would have us examine the reasons for supporting a claim, and the reasons for opposing it. He would have us steel-man (as opposed to straw-man) the opposing argument, thereby establishing the strongest position possible for both sides. By doing this, we can minimize our emotional investment in an argument, and focus instead on getting at the truth of the matter.
Although it might not be possible to suspend judgment entirely, and true objectivity seems impossible due to our subjective nature, perhaps through a concerted effort, our arguments and debates can become a bit more truth seeking, tranquil, and honest.
Image of angry person in debate
We should seek a tranquil conversation, as opposed to an angry debate.
So, next time you find yourself in an emotionally charged debate, whether it’s on some controversial topic like vaccines, climate change or whether Japanese organizing consultant and author Marie Kondo can ‘tidy up’ the Israeli-Palestinian mess, think back to Sextus Empiricus. Look at the argument from the perspective of your conversational sparring partner, examine their reasons honestly, and try to get at the truth of the matter…

Ancient Philosophy As a Way of Living: Cynicism

by April 18, 2022

By Jacob Bell, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
I’ve made some rather strange and unexpected decisions that fall outside of the social and economic norms of our 21st century. The American Dream, at least for me, is dead… and in a way, I may be loosely following the Cynic dream instead. I say loosely because the Cynics of Ancient Greece were a very radical group.
The school of philosophy known as the Cynics emerged sometime around the 5th century B.C.E., and began to fade out nearly one thousand years later, in the 5th century C.E. The Cynics played an important role in influencing several other schools of philosophy, such as the Stoics, who adapted and evolved many of the core tenets of Cynicism (and left out much of the craziness, such as public defecation…)
Statue of a Cynic
Statue of an unknown Cynic philosopher from the Capitoline Museums in Rome. This statue is a Roman-era copy of an earlier Greek statue from the third century BC.
As opposed to the speculative philosophy of figures such as Plato and Aristotle, Cynical philosophy was a lived philosophy. The Cynics developed philosophical theories as a means to living well, and they disregarded the majority of abstract philosophy.
The Cynics argued against a superficial life, in favor of “a life lived in accord with nature.” For them, living in accordance with nature meant following a path of self-sufficiency, freedom, and lucid reasoning. They believed that social conventions had the ability to hinder the “good life,” and could lead to corruption by, “compromising freedom and setting up a code of conduct that is opposed to nature and reason.” Kinda sounds like the hippy at the house party if you ask me…
Flower power girl
Are Hippies Cynics?
For the Cynic, nature could provide plenty of entertainment and pleasure. They found comfort and happiness in simple pleasures such as going for a walk, feeling the warmth of the sun, and drinking a glass of cool water on a hot day.
All of which I agree with by the way… except I would swap out the water for a nice cold craft beer, which would probably be too pretentious for the true Cynic. Oh well.
This is because the Cynics denounced luxury and wealth. They believed that in its pursuit, man had to busy himself day in and day out with unnecessary tasks. For the Cynics, a life of frantic action for the sake of wealth or power was absurd. This sort of living would cause both the ancient and modern man to stray from nature, and would instill in him a need for superficialities that would never be satisfied. Never being satisfied, and always wanting more, man would become a slave unto his desires.
The most famous among the Cynics was a man named Diogenes of Sinope, often referred to as Diogenes the Dog due to his radical behavior, including public defecation. Clearly, he took Cynical philosophy to the extreme. He embraced pain, hardship, and poverty. He lived in a ceramic tub, ate scraps, and gained most of his goods through begging. Diogenes the Dog passed the time by making fun of social convention, and calling attention to the absurdity of robotic-like behavior by those around him (even to the likes of Alexander the Great!)
“Alexander and Diogenes” by Caspar de Crayer. Diogenes once asked Alexander the Great to stand out his light.
Diogenes viewed much of mankind’s pursuits in a Sisyphean manner. That is, just as Sisyphus carried the boulder up the mountain day in and day out, just to have it roll back down, man’s pursuits for wealth and power were just as futile and meaningless.
We needn’t follow the exact values set forth by the Cynics in order to benefit from their wisdom, because, well, that would be following a social convention and would defy the whole idea of Cynical philosophy! Instead, we can see the benefit in simplicity, and we can look inward to our own values. We can unchain ourselves from restrictive social convention, and cultivate a life that we find fulfilling, and which brings us meaning.
I’m not suggesting that you quit your day job, or that you pursue an ascetic life. In staying true to the Cynics, it would be wrong for me to tell you how to live. But it’s not necessarily a bad idea to take a Cynical perspective and reevaluate things from time to time in order to pursue what you find internally fulfilling and meaningful. After all, no matter our state of wealth or poverty, none of us gets out of this alive, and so we might as well be the ones to choose the boulder that we carry up the mountain day in and day out.

Old Ideas Renewed: Science, Philosophy, and Perception as Illusion

by April 15, 2022

By Jacob Bell, Associate Editor, Classical Wisdom
Plato, along with his instructor Socrates, are often recognized as the minds which began the western philosophical tradition as we know it today.
Plato’s theory of forms and the Allegory of the Cave are not only interesting within the history of philosophy, but hold relevance in regards to both contemporary philosophy and science. So relevant, in fact, that a new theory in physics postulates a concept quite similar to Plato’s.
But before we get to that, let’s take a quick moment to revisit Plato’s theory of forms
Depiction of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave
Is Reality an Illusion?
For Plato, the world as perceived isn’t the ultimate reality. The objects of everyday life are but shadows of the forms. In the Allegory of the Cave, Plato relates our false perception of the world of experience to the idea of shadows on a wall.
Imagine that you were chained up in a cave in such a way that you could only look at the wall in front of you. You couldn’t look behind you or turn your head in any direction. Behind you, in the distance, is a roaring fire. In front of the fire are a variety of objects. The shadows of those objects are displayed on the wall in front of you.
Not only would you be bored out of your mind, you would also be living in illusion…
If you knew no other life than that of the cave, the shadows would seem to constitute real objects of reality for you. They wouldn’t be simple phantoms or shadows of something which is more real, they would seem to be the most real, and they would make up your reality. For Plato, this is similar to our everyday experience.
Bust of Plato
In the same way that the shadows on the wall don’t constitute the ultimate reality of the objects from which those shadows are derived, the objects of everyday experience aren’t a true or perfect reflection of ultimate reality either.
The Forms
The forms, being the ultimate reality, are universal, timeless, and perfect. The objects of experience are imperfect imitations of the forms. For example, a mathematical triangle is perfect in abstraction, but no perfect triangles can be found in nature. The triangles of our experienced world are but imperfect reflections of the ideal form of a triangle.
Just as the triangles of experience are but imperfect reflections of the true form of a triangle, it is the same with every object of perception, including things like beauty. Beauty has an ideal form of which the beautiful things that we perceive are but imperfect reflections. Therefore, the world as we perceive and experience it to be, is but an imperfect reflection of the ultimate reality of forms.
Informational Realism
Although this is an ancient theory, contemporary physics has renewed the idea in a radical way. The idea is called information realism and was recently covered in an article by Scientific American.
Information realism claims that the objects of everyday experience are not a part of ultimate reality, but that they are perceptual illusions… Instead, what is considered to be the true or ultimate reality is the underlying mathematics or information itself.
The matter which allows us to perceive objects in everyday experience is merely derived from the underlying information. The information which underlies the objects of experience is the ultimate reality. Everything else is but a perceptual illusion.
Information Realism, just like Plato’s theory of forms, uses the epistemological method of rationalism, as opposed to empiricism, to come to such conclusions. Rationalists claims that true knowledge of the world is derived through the use of reason – independent of experience. Empiricists claim that true knowledge of the world is gained through experience and the use of our senses.
Science and Philosophy
Taking all of this into consideration, is the theory of information realism a scientific one, or a philosophical one? I would argue that it is philosophical in nature. In fact, many theories in contemporary physics seem to be more philosophical than scientific. Then again, philosophy and science were at one time a joint discipline – and even the great Isaac Newton was considered to be natural philosopher.
Some of the challenges that have been raised against the theory of forms, could also be raised against information realism. One such challenge regards the idea of an ultimate reality that is beyond any possible experience as unknowable in itself.
Is the world as experienced an illusion?
In other words, if ultimate reality exists in a world beyond ours, or if true reality is somehow beyond our scope of experience, how can we say anything meaningful about it?
How do we know what this ultimate reality is if we cannot study it in experience? How do we even know that there is an ideal world or ultimate reality which exists beyond ours? How do we know that such a reality is more than an abstract or mathematical artifact? How can we test these theories if the world posited by them is seemingly inaccessible?
It is difficult to make sense out of such theories, which posit a reality beyond our experience. It is difficult to say anything meaningful about an ultimate reality which is supposedly more real than our world. But it is ideas like these that inspire movies such as The Matrix, give philosophers more to think about, and may eventually reunite science and philosophy.

When Illness Becomes the Way: Stoicism as a Way through Chronic Illness and Disability

by April 12, 2022

by Lia Pas

What happens to each of us is ordered. It furthers our destiny.

Marcus Aurelius[1]

We never know when our lives might be changed suddenly and irrevocably. 2015 was one of the most successful years of my career as a multidisciplinary artist and vocal coach. I was teaching privately and at our local university and collaborating with several other performing artists. My largest project was writing and performing libretto and music for an upcoming dance opera. After a three week intensive with the dance opera company, my collaborator came down with a virus. I gently hugged her aching body and said goodbye. The next day I was sick. I still haven’t recovered.
Stoicism has been of great help in managing my mental and physical health while living with chronic illness. I also believe Stoicism has the potential to shift how society views those disabled by chronic illness—from burdens to human beings capable of flourishing—and to offer the support necessary to make that happen.
My story of becoming sick with a virus and not recovering is becoming more common as the aftereffects of the COVID pandemic sweep the world. Numerous people who were sick with a mild version of COVID are still sick with “long COVID”, experiencing similar symptoms to what I was diagnosed with: Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS). 56% of Canadians with COVID report symptoms long after infection.[2] 962,000 people in the UK are still unwell.[3] Most of them, like I, are too sick to work, and have no approved treatments.
My initial symptoms were tingling all over my body and overwhelming fatigue. Not the fatigue from pulling an all-nighter, but where going from couch to bathroom wears you out for hours. Where chewing is so exhausting you subsist on liquid meals. Where conversing, reading, or writing sets your brain into a deep fog. Where you shave your head because showering is too exhausting. That sort of fatigue.
About two months into this ordeal, my doctor brought up the possibility of ME/CFS. Until we ruled out other causes I was to rest and not exert myself in any way. After three months, I told my collaborators and voice students I was too sick to work.
© Lia Pas
© Lia Pas
ME/CFS has abysmal research funding and the diagnostic criteria isn’t taught in medical schools. Current treatments are limited and only work for some. Up to 60% of ME/CFS (and likely long COVID) patients are women[4] and many aren’t believed when they describe their symptoms because all their tests, like mine, come back normal. People with moderate ME/CFS—like myself—function at about 50% of their previous capacity if they pace themselves well. People with severe ME/CFS are bedridden, live in darkness and silence because of severe sensory sensitivities, and some must be fed through J-tubes directly into their digestive systems.

You mustn’t forget that this body isn’t truly your own, but is nothing more than cleverly molded clay.


In illness everything is laid bare. We suddenly understand just how much we take our bodies for granted. Our ability to work, breathe, walk, write, listen is ripped away. We are an ill thing burdened with aches, pains, and other symptoms. Sometimes the symptoms are so intense we cannot do anything but experience them. Like the box of pain in Dune,[6] we are forced into an initiation that breaks us down into our discrete parts. We drown in sensation.
How Illness Became My Way

You have to assemble your life yourself —action by action. And be satisfied if each one achieves its goal, as far as it can. No one can keep that from happening.

 Marcus Aurelius[7]

What does a composer who can’t listen to music do? A performer who can barely stand or speak? A writer who can barely read? I lost my income and my ability to create art. I knew if I did not manage to find some way to create I would fall into a deep depression on top of being so physically ill.
I don’t remember what triggered a need to read more Stoicism, but I got a copy of Ryan Holiday’s The Daily Stoic and found the short entries concise enough for my fatigued brain to handle. Each day I read a page and wrote down one line. There were hours in the day I needed to remain absolutely still and so I contemplated—not ruminated, contemplated—on how I might use Stoicism to help manage my mind since my body was utterly outside my control.

The impediment to action advances action.

What stands in the way becomes the way.

Marcus Aurelius[8]

Since I could hardly move, I needed to embrace a slow and sedentary creative medium. Writing wasn’t possible since brain fog and aphasia (trouble finding words) were major issues. I saw a period drama in which a woman was told to “take to her bed to work on her embroidery.” I had taken to my bed. I had done some Ukrainian cross stitch in the past. I had created some text/image pieces before I got sick. I slowly gathered embroidery supplies and started stitching.
© Lia Pas
© Lia Pas
I continued contemplating Stoic maxims throughout the day and now had an activity to do while resting. I began to love my life again. My illness gave me the gift of time—something all artists desire—and my brain could rest in the slow, deliberate art of hand embroidery.
A deepening of the concept of ‘the obstacle is the way’ and of the practice of embroidery happened a couple months after I started stitching: as I meditated—my nervous system pinging, tingling, and sparking viscerally through me—I focused in on those sensations. I made them my meditation. As I honed in, I saw each discrete sensation as designs, colours, and stitches. After this experience, I began to stitch my neurological sensations as I experienced them.[9] Because of this exquisite attention, the symptoms became my creative practice—the obstacle became the way in an even deeper way, and so began my symptomatology series. I found I loved my fate, my days, my new creative practice. I felt the power of Amor Fati.
© Lia Pas
© Lia Pas
Virtues as Supports
ME/CFS is a disease with few options for treatment and few doctors who understand it. Many patients fall into depression and some commit suicide. Our society sees illness as amoral—blaming the ill for their sickness instead of seeing health as a preferred indifferent.[10] To blame someone for catching a virus is illogical at best, and ableist at worst. The four Stoic Virtues offer principles through which we can make positive changes both as a society and as chronically ill individuals.
We live in a capitalist society where the worth of a person is wrapped up in their ability to work and/or make money. When one is ill—especially with fatigue—such work is near impossible. We cannot contribute to capitalist society and are seen as burdens. This—paired with abysmal social supports for disabled people—causes extreme wealth inequality. It is expensive to be disabled. We require help with basic necessities like shopping, cooking, cleaning, and sometimes washing ourselves. We require mobility aids. Capitalism is a punitive system for the disabled and chronically ill.
The virtue of Justice is what ME/CFS and long COVID requires. Justice asks: With so many people becoming too disabled to work, what are the options for them? What could healthy people and society do to better support this ever-growing section of the population?
Even if/when we are able to recuse ourselves psychologically from the idea that work = worth, we are left with the cultural pressure to do more than our bodies are capable of. This is where the virtue of Moderation or Temperance comes into play.

If you seek tranquility, do less.

Marcus Aurelius[11]

One of the best ways to manage fatigue is through pacing ourselves. If those of us with ME/CFS exceed our limits, we fall into post-exertional malaise (PEM)—flu-like symptoms—for days to months depending how far we have pushed ourselves. People have gone from mild ME/CFS to bedridden after following the advice of ignorant doctors who recommend exercise.
Learning to love doing less—to be temperate by creating routines with ample rest and recovery time—means we can flourish as individuals. We can create meaning and self-worth in ways that honour and accommodate the needs of our bodies. I did this through embroidery, and contemplation on the virtue of Moderation can help others find ways that work for them.
© Lia Pas
To use the discretion of Moderation without falling into laziness requires Wisdom. To turn philosophy into a life well lived in the midst of debilitating symptoms requires Wisdom. Wisdom is key.
Anathema to Wisdom is hubris, and I would be remiss not to mention a major issue facing those with ME/CFS and long COVID: disbelief. There is a cohort of psychiatrists who believe—despite biomedical proof to the contrary—that these illnesses are purely psychiatric.[12] Some doctors have put severely ill people with ME/CFS into psychiatric institutions. Through advocacy work, psychiatric interventions and exercise are no longer listed as treatments for ME/CFS by the CDC, but doctors still recommend them. Funding must be channeled into biomedical research towards viable treatments for these illnesses.
It takes Courage to delve into medical papers to gain information necessary to advocate knowledgeably for oneself. It takes courage to challenge a psychiatric misdiagnosis that overshadows your very physical symptoms. Being adversarial towards—fighting against—our illness doesn’t serve us. Acceptance and seeing where we have agency does.
Eudaimonia (Flourishing)
My life is now calm, ordered, and balanced. The exquisite attention I offer in my symptomatology embroideries is a way of dissecting, understanding, and being compassionate about my symptoms. I am overjoyed and grateful I am significantly less symptomatic since the onset of ME/CFS in 2015, but I am also aware how the many self-compassionate and temperate changes I’ve made in my life due to my Stoic practices help me listen deeply to my body’s needs.
Surviving a major illness changes people. The Stoic virtues of Justice, Moderation, Wisdom, and Courage tied together with the concept and practice of Amor Fati have helped me flourish within my limitations, even though an outside observer may not have that impression. I now reach for these practices when overwhelmed by symptoms, medical appointments, and demands on my limited energy.
Stoicism gives us a way through life’s most challenging situations, and has the potential to shift unhelpful views about chronic illness and disability on a much larger scale. We need more witnessing of this truth. Stoicism gives us the tools to do so.
Lia Pas is a Canadian multidisciplinary artist who works in image, text, and sound exploring body and states of being. She has published one book and two chapbooks of poetry and a few personal essays. She focused on performance-based work until 2015 when she became disabled with a chronic illness. Since then her work has focused on text and fiber arts.

[1] Marcus Aurelius, Meditations. trans. Hays, Gregory. Modern Library, 2003. Book V, section 8, page 56.
[2]Statement from the Chief Public Health Officer of Canada on July 7, 2021
[3] Marshall, Michael. The four most urgent questions about long COVID. Nature. June 9, 2021.
[4] Valdez, Hancock, et al. Estimating Prevalence, Demographics, and Costs of ME/CFS Using Large Scale Medical Claims Data and Machine Learning. Frontiers in Pediatrics. Jan 8, 2019.
[5] Epictetus, Discourses, Fragments, Handbook. Trans. Hard, Robin. Oxford World’s Classics, 2014. Discourses Book I, Chapter 1, verse 11, page 5.
[6] In Frank Herbert’s science fiction novel, Dune, the main character, Paul Atreides, is put through an initiation where he must place his hand in a box that causes extreme pain. If he removes his hand from the box, he will be killed instantly by a Bene Gesserit priestess holding a “Gom Jabbar,” a needle tipped with cyanide.
[7] Meditations. VIII, 32, pg 107. Trans. Hays
[8] Meditations, V, 20, pg 60. Trans. Hays
[9] The image in this paragraph is Body Map (2016). Embroidered cotton thread on linen by Lia Pas.
[10] The Stoic indifferents—things we have no control over—include health, wealth, property, and social standing.
[11] Meditations IV, 24, pg 42. Trans. Hays
[12] The most infamous case of this is Michael Sharpe’s now disproven PACE Trial results. Entry on Michael Sharpe and the PACE trial on MEAction’s Myalgic Encephalomyelitis Encyclopedia.