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Discipline: Lessons from the Ancient World

by May 22, 2020

Written by David Hooker, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Derived from the Latin discipulus, “discipline” has several shades of meaning.  It can mean a branch of knowledge or learning, or “a training that develops self-control, character, or efficiency,” or submission to an authority and a system of rules, such as those for military purposes, or a monastic order, to name a few.
Today I’m going to focus on the kind of discipline that instills in us those methods and practices that help to increase our personal self-control and efficiency, with the aim to make us better human beings and improve our psychology. Moreover, as we discipline ourselves in these ways, we become better at our chosen endeavors in life; maximizing our personal abilities, achievements, and productivity.
Discipline is one aspect of human life that is SO necessary, and one I believe is the bedrock characteristic of every successful human being.  It is that aspect that helps us – both individually and corporately – get through very tough times, such as we are experiencing now with a dangerous pandemic caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

Electron microscope image of the SARS CoV-2 pathogen

How can we achieve better discipline?   What methods can we look to and follow?  How can we inculcate these methods and practices into our innermost beings to get our emotions under control?  Importantly, what can we learn from the classical wisdom tradition and its world that can enlighten us?  As our wise readers know, the answer is: quite a lot!
There is much we can learn from taking a brief look at the military traditions of the Spartans and Romans.
Spartan Military Discipline
Like many of you I’m sure, I loved the 2007 film “300.”  (Admit it – you loved that lobster claw guy – in the initial wave of Persian invaders – as much as I did!)
With much artistic license, it chronicles the story of the Battle of Thermopylae (“the Hot Gate”) in 480 BC between the “300” Spartans, led by King Leonidas, and the vast invading Persian army led by King Xerxes.   (“Spartans – prepare for Glory”!)  The Spartans were famous for the degree of discipline their young military recruits were exposed to, and this is touched on in the film.
Spartan legislator Lycurgus (8th century BC) is credited with first founding the Spartan army, and proposed to reform Spartan society to develop a military-focused lifestyle in order to enhance the austerity, fitness, and strength (physical and mental) of Spartan males.

King Leonidas leading the 300 Spartans, from the movie “300”

Beginning in infancy, the males were inspected by the Gerousia (the Spartan Council of Elders) to properly weed out any babies deemed “weak” or having noticeable defects.  Those deemed fit entered the agoge regime at the age of seven, through which these young boys underwent intense and rigorous military training.
At age 12, the young men had to undergo harsher training and conditions, including going about barefoot and allowed to wear only a tunic – in both summer and winter – to build resistance to climatic extremes.
At age 20, after jumping through several “hoops” of the Spartan training regimen, the young men could become eligible soldiers and assigned to a barracks with a specified unit. Those passing the several years of thorough, multi-disciplinary training achieved full Spartan citizenship at age 30.  Finally, for these elite warriors, military service could last all the way up to age 60!
Plutarch made the amazing statement that the Spartiates (successful warriors achieving citizenship post-training) were “the only men in the world with whom war brought a respite from the training for war”!
Bravery and undivided focus in battle were ultimate virtues for these men, and dying in battle was an honor.  Their perfection as Spartan soldiers was obviously a product of many years of thorough and rigorous discipline.
Leonidas at the Battle of Thermopylae

Leonidas at Thermopylae, by Jacques Louis David, 1814. This is a juxtaposition of various historical and legendary elements from the Battle of Thermopylae.

Roman Military Discipline
The Romans also maintained a rigorous system for the training of their elite military.  An extant work, the De re militari, by late 4th century AD Roman writer Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus, describes the training regimen of the early Roman legionnaires.   
First, the recruits were immersed in strength and conditioning training.  Before ever handling a weapon, the potential legionnaires were taught gymnastics and swimming skills to build strength and fitness.  This intense training then was enhanced through the teaching of marching skills, which the legionnaires took great pains to master.
Recruits were expected to first master marching twenty Roman miles (roughly 29.5 kilometers/18.5 U.S. miles) within five hours (in the summer heat).  That’s an incredible pace!  They then graduated to marching (“full pace”) 24 Roman miles (ca. 35.5 km/22 miles) in five hours while carrying a load of 20.5 kg. (ca. 45lb).
After these impressive physical skills were mastered, the legionnaires then turned to the skills of handling their armor, shields, and weapons.  They first practiced thrusting with wooden swords and throwing their wooden spears (pilum) into a wooden dummy or stake, while wearing their full armor and carrying their shields (scuta).

Unit of Roman Legionnaires

Mastering the initial skills of the handling of these practice weapons, they then engaged in tactical sparring, or one-on-one training, with another legionnaire.  Finally, they graduated to the handling of real swords (the gladius) and spears (pilum) along with their armor and shields in practice battle formations.
After months of practice in all weather conditions, the Roman soldier became a well-oiled fighting machine in his own right. In addition to the long marches in full armor, they could swim across rivers if need be. Moreover, when they arrived at their destination of the day after a long march, they could build camps complete with a surrounding ditch and a wall of wooden, spiked stakes.
If you’ve read Julius Caesar’s book The Conquest of Gaul (De Bello Gallico), you’ve gotten a vivid picture of the skills of the highly disciplined and trained Roman legionnaires; specifically Caesar’s famous Tenth Legion. Each Legionnaire swore an oath to honor and protect the Emperor and the glory of Rome. Much like the Spartans, fighting – and very possibly dying – brought great honor to the Legionnaire.
Modern Military Discipline
From a young age, I’ve heard the sentiment expressed that “so and so should enroll in the armed forces” to 1) give the person “direction” in his life, or 2) to “teach him discipline and respect,” and/or 3) to “take the piss and vinegar out of him”!
No doubt, military training can do all these things if the person allows himself to be so disciplined.  I have a relative who, while in school, was sort of directionless.  He was also a scrawny and sort of sickly kid.  He did not enroll in college after graduating high school.  Instead, he eventually enrolled in the U.S. Marines.
Naturally, I was curious as to how he was doing, and, while on a business trip near to where his Marine base was, I phoned him expressing my wish to see him and see how he was doing.
I couldn’t believe my eyes. The scrawny kid I remembered had morphed – courtesy of rigorous Marine Corps physical training – into a fit, muscular young man with a new direction in his life!  (I thought to myself that it would be worth it to enlist in the Marines just for the benefit of going through their physical training process and getting in the best shape of my life!). Importantly, he had stuck with the training, and even advanced fairly quickly in rank to that of Corporal. I was very proud of him.
The Need for Mental Discipline
No doubt, military training – throughout the ages – has proven a great means to instill discipline, especially physical discipline into our lives. However, physical discipline is just one aspect of obtaining the personal discipline which allows us to succeed fully in our lives and chosen professions.
It is mental discipline which most of us really need to master.  In fact, this “mastering” is an ongoing process.  Are we not all maturing (at different rates, to be sure) and growing into the people we need to be in order to succeed? Readers of Classical Wisdom know what the answer should be, and it is a resounding “Yes.”
One of the reasons I enjoy reading the Stoics is because they focus so much on mental discipline.  While we can’t have control over all the physical, environmental, and circumstantial stresses that life throws at us (such as pandemics), we can practice – at our own paces – the difficult art of disciplining our minds to respond to these stresses in a positive way—weightlifting for our minds, if you will.  We can all go on our very own mental “twenty mile marches” as we contemplate, meditate, and concentrate our thoughts to respond to life’s challenges.
“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.” ~ Marcus Aurelius
Marcus Aurelius on Horseback

Marcus Aurelius on Horseback

As I so often do, I turn to Marcus Aurelius for inspiration as to mental toughness and discipline.  In his Meditations, recorded over the years 161-180 AD, he wrote 12 chapters of his thoughts, or “meditations,” on the vicissitudes and lessons of life in the arenas of relationships, fortune, leadership, and personal philosophy.
They are a treasure trove of observations that can sharpen our vision, resolve, and responses to the seemingly random happenings in our lives.  It is indeed how we respond to them that make all the difference.
We have choices:  we can sink to the level of the mundane, we can be defeated, or we can rise above.  I always want to choose the latter, no matter how difficult it can be at the time.  Perhaps my response will at first be unsatisfactory, but, with personal discipline, I can remedy that and seek a better outcome. The important thing is to get in – and stay in – the arena.
“Life is like a game of cards.  The hand that is dealt you is determinism; though the way you play it is free will.” ~ Jawaharlal Nehru (Prime Minister of India, 1947-64)
“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…” ~ Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 12:22

Nehru signing the Indian Constitution c.1950

Ever since human beings began to reflect critically on their ability to choose, the opposition of “free will” vs. determinism has loomed as one of the major philosophical conundrums.  I suppose we will continue to debate this issue for a long time to come.
I will admit that sometimes, when I’ve had to write a paper about the subject, or perhaps have read a challenging book or article, I go to bed at night still thinking about it and wrestling with it.  I conclude that we live in a universe where both aspects are part of its warp and woof.  Things do seem to happen in deterministic fashion, and yet how we humans respond to these events most often is explained by our free will.
A simple example:  I could choose to jump out of a fourth story window if I was daredevil enough.  Having free will and being a reasonable person, however, I choose not to do that.  I know beforehand, due to deterministic laws, that I would risk serious injury.  I’m definitely going to fall quite a ways, and the outcome will not be good.
Turning to a much larger arena, I conclude that quantum mechanics (the Uncertainty Principle, specifically) assures us that there is certainly a significant degree of indeterminacy woven into the fabric of our universe; therefore, there is a significant amount of chance to the happenings of our lives. Many folks want to say that “everything happens for a reason,” but I’m not convinced that this is universally true.
It could very well be argued that “free will” is something that exists only from our human perspectives, anyway (alluding to the above quotes from Nehru and Marcus).  I believe this is precisely what much of Stoic thought was centered on.  Plagues, pandemics, economic catastrophes, and personal reverses will happen, but we have to have the mental discipline – worked out assiduously beforehand – to respond to these things in a positive way.
“Never let the future disturb you.  You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.”  ~ Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Bust of Marcus Aurelius

“Everyone has a plan until you get punched in the mouth,” famously said heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson.  We’re learning that in dealing with the “punch in the mouth” the current COVID-19 pandemic has landed on our world.
We had “plans” in place prior to this, but we can surely do a better job going forward in having additional, more informed plans to address similar situations and have enough supplies (proper masks and gowns for medical personnel, for instance) to battle against such infectious contagions until a vaccine is produced.
The globe is much “smaller,” the population is higher than ever, our cities are more densely populated than ever before, and people travel the globe constantly for any number of reasons.  Juxtapose those facts with the fact that infectious viruses are among the oldest and most resilient life forms on the planet, with their own deterministic “wills” to survive, and you have a recipe for possible disaster going forward.
It is imperative, therefore, for us – like wise Stoics – to have the mental discipline and personal will to deal with these things and more thoroughly plan for them in advance, to the best of our ability.
“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” ~ Blaise Pascal, Pensées (“Thoughts”)

Blaise Pascal

I love the above quote from 17th century French polymath Blaise Pascal, one of my favorite figures from that era.  He compiled a list of his philosophical and theological “thoughts” into this work, Pensées (1670).  His thought about “all of humanity’s problems” is hyperbolic to be sure, but one gets the point.  It speaks of an undisciplined mind; one swayed by emotions and distractions that surely can lead to mischief and bad things.  Humans do have a problem with solitude and self-discipline.  We always seem to need to be “doing something,” when doing nothing might be the best course for a time.
This speaks to our global situation today, battling the spread of an insidious microscopic invader through our “social distancing,” “self-isolation,” and like measures.  I’m sure it must be very tough for most people.  But it is necessary for a time, at least to slow the spread of the disease.
My advice for people is to use this time wisely.  Study, create, listen to music, Skype friends and family members, love your children, spouses, and pets, and count your blessings.  It is amazing to have the gift of life.
Some perspective:  the most fatal pandemic in human history, the “Black Death” (bubonic plague) in the middle of the 14th century, killed at least one third (probably more) of Europe’s entire population!  It is estimated that 50 million people (globally) lost their lives in the deadly 1918 “Spanish Flu” outbreak.
History is replete with episodes of horrible death at the hands of microscopic pathogens, and classical wisdom lovers know of the Plague of Athens (430-426 BC) and the Antonine Plague (165-180 AD) which spread misery in Greece and Rome, respectively.  Just in the past decade, the world has dealt with outbreaks of the SARS-1, Ebola, Swine flu, and Zika viruses and come through.
Antonine plague

The angel of death striking a door during the plague of Rome; engraving by Levasseur after Jules-Elie Delaunay

With the incredible dedication and skills of our medical researchers and innovative biotech firms across the globe, I’ve no doubt we’ll develop a vaccine to this virus in due time.  Practicing to be patient will surely help.  Showing kindness and compassion for others will help us focus on the big picture, as well.
And while at home trying to figure what to do, we might enjoy some good films that address similar situations, such as an old classic like the 1971  Michael Crichton sci-fi film The Andromeda Strain, or a more modern one such as the 2011 thriller Contagion.
In the meantime, we can practice mental discipline a la the Stoics. Why not sit “quietly in a room alone” (to practice Pascal’s idea), enjoy a glass of tasty and heart-healthy red wine, and thumb through a copy of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations? Or any of the other great works of Classical Wisdom?  We’ve gone through this before;  we’ll get through it again. Better days are coming.

How to Eat Like a Stoic: The Ancient Diets of Cynicism and Stoicism

by April 22, 2020

Donald J. Robertson, Writer and Cognitive-behavioural Psychotherapist, author of “The Philosophy of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy”

The Early Stoic and Cynic Diet

Zeno of Citium, the founder of the Stoic school, had for many years been a Cynic philosopher. “Zeno”, we’re told, “thought it best to avoid gourmet food, and he was adamant about this.” He believed that once we get used to eating fancy meals we spoil our appetites and start to crave things that are expensive or difficult to obtain, losing the ability to properly enjoy simple, natural food and drink.

Eating with Attention and Moderation

Musonius also thought we should train ourselves to avoid gluttony:

Recipe for Stoic Soup

In Meals and Recipes from Ancient Greece, Eugenia Ricotti describes the following recipe called “Zeno’s Lentil Soup”. It’s a modern recipe loosely based upon ancient sources, including remarks attributed to Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoic philosophy, which are found in the Deipnosophistae (or “Dinner Experts”) of Athenaeus of Naucratis.

[First seen on]

Dale Carnegie and the Stoics: How to Handle Financial Worries

by April 15, 2020

Written by Alex Barrientos, Senior Editor, Classical Wisdom
In his book How to Stop Worrying and Start Living, Dale Carnegie recommends 11 rules to follow in order to lessen our financial worries. Most of the rules are purely financial:
Rule No. 3: Learn how to spend wisely.
Rule No. 4: Don’t increase your headaches with your income.
Rule No. 5: Try to build credit, in the event you must borrow.
Rule No. 10: Don’t gamble—ever!
These rules are in many ways still relevant and helpful. However, what caught my attention most was the 11th rule:

Rule No. 11: If we can’t possibly improve our financial situation, let’s be good to ourselves and stop resenting what can’t be changed.


Dale Carnegie. (Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt/Pix Inc./The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

This rule, perhaps unsurprisingly, has its roots in—you guessed it—Stoic philosophy! I say perhaps unsurprisingly because, when it comes to learning how to stop worrying, the Stoics are the heavyweight champions of putting our lives in perspective.
Carnegie begins explaining rule 11 by writing,
“If we can’t possibly improve our financial situation, maybe we can improve our mental attitude toward it.”
The Stoics, as you might know, thought this approach to be the best approach to life in general. As Epictetus began his Enchiridion,
“Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.”

Artistic impression of Epictetus

While there are certain aspects of one’s financial situation that are within one’s control, there are certainly many aspects that are not. And recognizing when we are in a financial situation that leaves us without the possibility of improving it through our own means, all we can do is focus on what is within our power—that is, our mental attitude toward the situation.
Yet, even people who are doing well with their finances face an issue: wanting more. Constantly wanting more is a recipe for unhappiness and distress. After all, as Carnegie puts it,
“We may be worried because we can’t keep up with Joneses; but the Joneses are probably worried because they can’t keep up with the Ritzes; and the Ritzes are worried because they can’t keep up with the Vanderbilts.”
In other words, the same people you want to have as much as—the same people you financially envy—want to have as much as someone else, and so on. And though one may climb this endless ladder, thinking greater wealth awaits them, all they will really encounter is the highest form of poverty. This is something the Stoics knew quite well:
“It is not the man who has too little who is poor, but the one who hankers after more.” ~ Seneca, Letter II
Death of Seneca

The Death of Seneca by Domínguez Sánchez, Manuel

And I’m not just inferring the Stoic connection here! Carnegie makes it explicit himself:
“If we can’t have all we want, let’s not poison our days with worry and resentment. Let’s be good to ourselves. Let’s be philosophical.”
Be philosophical… what did he mean by that? He meant what the Stoics meant by it. As Carnegie continues,
“And philosophy, according to Epictetus, boils down to this: ‘The essence of philosophy is that a man should so live that his happiness shall depend as little as possible on external things.’ Here is what Seneca said about it: ‘If you have what seems to you to be insufficient, then you will be miserable even if you possess the world.’”
From Epictetus we are reminded that happiness shouldn’t be tied to external things, and from Seneca we are reminded that to be unsatisfied with what we already have, is to be unsatisfied with whatever we might come to obtain.
But Carnegie drives the point home even further, in a way that I had never thought of before:
“And let’s remember that even if we owned the world with a hog-tight fence around it, we could eat only three meals a day and sleep in one bed at a time—even a ditch digger can do that; and he will probably eat with more gusto and sleep more peacefully than Rockefeller.”

Photograph of Dale Carnegie doing his NBC show, ‘How to Win Friends and and Influence People,’ January 25, 1938. (Photo by Underwood Archives/Getty Images)

Carnegie notes that to have more things in your possession is not to have more happiness. This is because happiness is not tied to external things, and simply having more stuff won’t make you happy if you weren’t happy with what you already had.
In fact, as his example illustrates, one who has learned to be happy with little will likely lead a more tranquil life than one who is unhappy with a lot; the ditch digger will probably sleep better at night than the Rockefeller.
I know many of us right now might be going through tough times, financially speaking and otherwise. I hope reading this helps. I hope that it also doesn’t offend. It’s certainly not intended as a, “Just get over it!”, type of article.
There is no “just getting over it” for something like this, but there are healthier and unhealthier ways to handle certain situations. I’m inclined to think that Carnegie and the Stoics are right here: that when something is no longer in our control, all that’s left to do is to focus on what is. It might not be the most comforting answer, but it might just be the one we need to hear.

The False Promise of Stoicism

by April 3, 2020

Written by Aaron Smith, Instructor and Fellow, Ayn Rand Institute
[The Ayn Rand Institute has granted permission to Classical Wisdom Weekly to republish this article in its entirety, originally published in New Ideal, but does not necessarily endorse the images accompanying it or other content on this site.]
Over the past decade, the ancient Greek philosophy of Stoicism has seen renewed public attention. Recent popular books are selling Stoicism as a guide to self-mastery, psychological resilience, inner tranquility and happiness. There is William Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy (2009); Ryan Holiday’s The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph (2014) and The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living (2016); and Massimo Pigliucci’s How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life (2017), to name a few. The philosophy has garnered the interest of CEOsentrepreneursSilicon Valley tech workers and professional athletes.
There are good reasons, however, to steer clear of Stoicism as a philosophy of life. For although the Stoics raised important questions and issues, which these recent books are surfacing, the answers the Stoics offered to these questions are, in the end, deeply problematic.
Seneca by Vorsterman

Seneca by Vorsterman, Lucas Datierung: 1610 / 1675

What is up to us and what is not

Popular treatments of Stoicism universally stress the Stoics’ point that some things are “up to us” and other things are not up to us, and that it’s crucially important to distinguish correctly between these. Many of today’s advocates of Stoicism cite the famous Serenity Prayer to capture what they take to be the essence of this point: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
In his book The Daily Stoic, entrepreneur and media strategist Ryan Holiday pitches this point as follows:
The single most important practice in Stoic philosophy is differentiating between what we can change and what we can’t. What we have influence over and what we do not. A flight is delayed because of weather — no amount of yelling at an airline representative will end a storm. No amount of wishing will make you taller or shorter or born in a different country. No matter how hard you try you can’t make someone like you. And on top of that, time spent hurling yourself at these immovable objects is time not spent on the things we can change.1
There is something right in this advice, as far as it goes. The problem, however, is that Stoicism endorses determinism — the view that our actions and choices are necessitated by factors beyond our control. So, strictly speaking, nothing is up to us. And if nothing is up to us, what use is Holiday’s advice or the Serenity Prayer or anyone’s advice for that matter? There is no philosophically consistent answer to that question, except: “None whatsoever.”2
Daily Stoic

The Daily Stoic Books by Ryan Holiday (as seen on

The chief theoretician of Stoicism, Chrysippus (ca. 280 – 206 B.C.), held that an action is “up to us” (or in our power), if it results, at least in part, from a cause that’s within us. But he also held that these internal causes (our judgments, values, motives and choices) are the inexorable result of a whole chain of prior (and equally inexorable) causes, which he called Fate. Whatever you do or decide to do — whether to get married, to leave your job or to order another round of sake — you had to do it; your decisions and actions were necessitated by factors preceding your birth. Despite his language of some things being “up to us,” Chrysippus is neither endorsing free will nor rejecting determinism.
The Stoics will often say that although events are not up to us, our judgments about events are. The implication, however, is that our judgments have nothing to do with what does or doesn’t happen to us. Every event is determined to occur precisely as it does, but we can choose to accommodate ourselves to events (rather than bemoan them) by viewing them as outside our control and, at least for the Stoics, as divinely ordered for the best. As one ancient writer, commenting on Stoicism, put the point:
They too [Zeno (334 – 262 B.C.) and Chrysippus] affirmed that everything is fated, with the following model. When a dog is tied to a cart, if it wants to follow it is pulled and follows, making its spontaneous act coincide with necessity, but if it does not want to follow, it will be compelled in any case. So it is with men too: even if they do not want to, they will be compelled in any case to follow what is destined.3

Bust of Chrysippus, Roger Fenton (English, 1819 – 1869). The J Paul Getty Museum

Stoic philosophy leaves us with no causal power to impact events, only at best the ability (so far unexplained) to voluntarily accept our leash and accommodate ourselves to the inevitable. This may provide a false sense of solace to some, but it isn’t exactly an empowering perspective on life.
For a philosophy to be useful as a guide, it must at least acknowledge that we have some genuine, volitional control over our actions and choices — actions and choices that make a difference to where we end up in life.
In his book How to Be a Stoic, philosopher of science Massimo Pigliucci seems to acknowledge this problem. But his way of handling this problem, and others, is to “update” Stoicism into something it never was.
Many of the particular notions developed by the ancient Stoics have ceded place to new ones introduced by modern science and philosophy and need therefore to be updated. For instance . . . the clear dichotomy the Stoics drew between what is and is not under our control is too strict: beyond our own thoughts and attitudes, there are some things that we can and, depending on circumstances, must influence — up to the point where we recognize that nothing more is in our power to be done.4
In addition to abandoning Stoic determinism, Pigliucci drops the central Stoic doctrine that a living, rational God pervades everything in the universe and providentially orders everything for the best — replacing it with atheism, Darwinian natural selection and a modern scientific notion of causation. Whatever the merits of these changes, what survives in How to Be a Stoic is not Stoicism.5
Massimo Pigliucci

How to Be a Stoic by Massimo Pigliucci

The pervasive determinism of Stoicism is likely what leads many of today’s popularizers to focus heavily on Epictetus (ca. A.D. 55 – 105), a Stoic of the later Roman Imperial period, who taught that the human faculty of judgment is completely free and unconstrained — unconstrained, says Epictetus, even by God. Whether Epictetus is introducing into Stoicism a notion of free will, however, is unclear.6
Relying on the Stoic doctrine that our souls are fragments of God, Epictetus asserted that just as God is completely free, so is our faculty of judgment. The question of how an unconstrained faculty of judgment could be consistent with the Stoic deterministic worldview does not seem to have been of particular concern to him.
The most likely interpretation is that Epictetus held that our judgment affects only our mental life, whereas events themselves happen as God (or Fate) would have them. In such a case, freedom, for Epictetus, is not a matter of possessing the ability to control or impact the events of our lives — it is about being free from the frustration and pain that comes from wanting events to occur other than they do.

Artistic impression of Epictetus

As Anthony Long, one of the leading scholars on Epictetus, writes:
Our responsibility as individual persons is solely over the area in which we are capable of being autonomous — the ‘proper use of mental impressions’ (I. 12.34). Everything else is God’s business; it concerns us only to the extent that we adapt ourselves to it by understanding its rationale within the world’s inevitable and providential system.7
So, although the Stoics raise the important question of what is in our control and what is not, they are unable to offer anything close to a satisfactory viewpoint on this issue.
Advice about distinguishing between what is up to us and what is not (and acting accordingly) rests on, and only makes sense in the context of, the fact that human beings have free will. Embracing this fact requires rejecting Stoicism’s basic view of reality: its deterministic framework, including its exhortations to willingly accommodate ourselves to events.

The Stoic approach to valuing

Consider another aspect of Stoicism that recent popular books are emphasizing. The Stoics insist, rightly, that your psychological well-being is deeply affected by what you value, and so you need to think carefully about what is truly valuable in life and what is not.

Chapter 1, page 1, of the Enchiridion of Epictetus, from the 1683 edition in Greek and Latin by Abrahamus Berkelius (Abraham van Berkel).

In his book A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, professor of philosophy William Irvine expresses the point, from a Stoic perspective, as follows:
As Epictetus puts it, “What upsets people is not things themselves but their judgments about these things.” To better understand this claim, suppose someone deprives me of my property. He has done me harm only if it is my opinion that my property had real value. Suppose, by way of illustration, that someone steals a concrete birdbath from my backyard. If I treasured this birdbath, I will be quite upset by the theft. . . . If I’m indifferent to the birdbath, however, I will not be upset by its loss. . . . My tranquility will not be disrupted. . . . Do the things that happen to me help or harm me? It all depends, say the Stoics, on my values. They would go on to remind me that my values are things over which I have complete control. Therefore, if something external harms me, it is my own fault: I should have adopted different values.8
Of course, if you accept determinism, then you have no control over what you value, and this advice is useless. Even if you grant the baseless idea that events are not up to you, but your value judgments about them are up to you, the Stoic view of what you should and should not value is as crippling to your life as its deterministic worldview.
As Irvine notes above, the Stoics hold that you should only value things over which you have control — and, for the relevant Stoics, this means primarily your judgments and, derivatively, your resulting emotions and moral character. If you value anything that is not under your control, you’ll cherish things fate may take from you at any moment, and that sets you up for a life of pain and frustration. As a result, they hold that the whole range of life-sustaining and life-enhancing values — wealth, art, technology, career success, family, etc. — must not be thought of as having any genuine value — and you mustn’t become attached to them or care for them as if they are truly important.9 To maintain this perspective, the Stoics advocate training yourself regularly to see such values as unimportant.
First english translation

First English translation of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations; 1634

Marcus Aurelius (A.D. 121 – 180) gives us a striking (and disturbing) example of such practice from his own life:
How useful, when roasted meats and other foods are before you to see them in your mind as here the dead body of a fish, there the dead body of a bird or a pig. Or again, to think of Falernian wine as the juice of a cluster of grapes, of a purple robe as sheep’s wool died with the blood of a shellfish, and of sexual intercourse as internal rubbing accompanied by the spasmodic ejection of mucus. What useful perceptual images these are! They go to the heart of things and pierce right through them, so that you see things for what they are.10
As Epictetus famously puts it:
Whenever you are devoted to something, don’t regard it as irremovable but as belonging to the class of things like a jar or a drinking glass so that when it is broken you remember what it was and are not disturbed. So in the case of love, if you kiss your child or your brother or your friend, never let your thoughts about them go all the way, and don’t allow yourself to be as elated as your feeling wants, but check it and restrain it . . . . Furthermore, at the very moment you are taking joy in something, present yourself with the opposite impressions. What harm is it, just when you are kissing your little child, to say: Tomorrow you will die, or to your friend similarly: Tomorrow one of us will go away and we shall not see one another anymore?11
From a psychological perspective, this approach to values is fundamentally an attempt to avoid pain, frustration and loss in a world in which everything you might want or love or care about is short-lived, easily lost and precariously kept. To the extent that you invest yourself in things over which you have no control, they hold, you will be perpetually unhappy.

Artistic impression of Epictetus, including his crutch

Now, it is true that intensely valuing life and the things you love involves the possibility of pain, loss and disappointment, sometimes acute. Stoicism’s advice is to steel yourself against that possibility by killing your capacity to value. This is not a recipe for inner peace; it is a recipe for destroying any possibility for happiness.
Realizing and accepting that your lifespan is limited is all the more reason to value your life intensely and to wring from it every moment of joy you can. This requires effort, emotional investment and the risk of pain. Yes, someday your child will die, but that does not mean that while she’s alive you should withdraw or even temper your attachment to her. On the contrary, to keep yourself from loving “too much” is to keep yourself from loving. To temper emotions such as love or elation or joy or passion is to kill one’s capacity to live. The Stoic viewpoint on values is, in the end, anti-value.12
In this regard, Marcus Aurelius’ private journal — referred to today as his Meditations — provides moving (if indirect) witness. On the one hand, he devoutly affirms the Stoic doctrine that everything that happens is divinely ordered for the best. But, given his Stoic approach to valuing, he finds that in this best of all possible worlds there is little to love. He frequently comments on the vanity of existence, the insignificance of life, the sheer pointlessness of so much of what makes up human existence. “Altogether, human affairs must be regarded as ephemeral, and of little worth: yesterday sperm, tomorrow a mummy or ashes.”13
Meditations title page

Titlepage of an 1811 edition of Meditations by Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, translated by R. Graves.

In the introduction to his translation of the Meditations, associate professor of classics Gregory Hays rightly notes that “Marcus does not offer us a means of achieving happiness, but only a means of resisting pain.” Hays continues:
The Stoicism of the Meditations is fundamentally a defensive philosophy; it is noteworthy how many military images recur, from references to the soul as being “posted” or “stationed” to the famous image of the mind as an invulnerable fortress (8.48). Such images are not unique to Marcus, but one can imagine that they might have had special meaning for an emperor whose last years were spent in “warfare and a journey far from home” (2.17). For Marcus, life was a battle, and often it must have seemed — what in some sense it must always be — a losing battle.”14
Marcus Aurelius adopted a philosophy that promised resilience and inner peace in what he regarded as a hostile world. But it was a false promise. From the perspective of philosophical essentials, the Stoic approach to life and valuing that he adopted was antithetical to happiness and set against everything that makes life worth living. Judging from the Meditations, it deadened him (and would deaden anyone) toward life.

Philosophy and the need to integrate one’s principles

One might ask: If Stoic philosophy, taken seriously, is that bad, can’t we adopt a kind of “cafeteria Stoic” approach picking up the few bits we find useful, modifying others, discarding the rest?
The answer is: Yes, of course we can. But it’s important to know, explicitly, that this is what we’re doing. Because to the extent that we’re taking this approach, we’re not practicing Stoicism. We are abandoning it and relying implicitly on different (and often unidentified) philosophic ideas. To really get the value out of philosophic guidance, we would need to identify our implicit ideas and integrate them to see if what we have at the end is a functional framework for living, or merely an inconsistent grab bag of useful tips, unsupported principles and falsehoods, which cannot move us consistently toward happiness.
To take seriously and to benefit from advice about what is up to us and what is not, we would need to reject any form of determinism (Stoic or modern) and embrace the fact that we have free will — and that requires thinking carefully about what precisely is within our power to change and what isn’t so that we can formulate our goals and orient our efforts rationally.
Likewise, to benefit from advice about pursuing genuine values, we would need a rational conception of what to value — not one that is wedded to a deterministic worldview in which, allegedly, the best we can do is accept our fate and unplug from our values to minimize pain. In fact, we would need to pursue precisely the kinds of life-sustaining, life-enriching values that Stoicism urges us to be indifferent to.
Death of Seneca

The Death of Seneca by Domínguez Sánchez, Manuel

My point, in the end, is that contrary to the Stoic worldview, we live in a universe in which the achievement of genuine happiness is possible, provided we understand what is required to achieve it and we put forth the thought and effort it requires. And thus life can be, and properly ought to be, an ambitious and unrelenting quest for personal happiness and joy because the pursuit and achievement of these values is what makes life meaningful and worth living.


  1. Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman, The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living (New York: Portfolio, 2016), 9.
  2. An accurate and clear-headed discussion of this tension in Stoicism by a writer sympathetic to the philosophy can be found in appendix 1 of Keith Seddon’s Stoic Serenity: A Practical Course on Finding Inner Peace (, 2006).
  3. A. A. Long and D. N Sedley, The Hellenistic Philosophers, vol. 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), sec. 62A, 386.
  4. Massimo Pigliucci, How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life (New York: Basic Books, 2017), 11.
  5. In a recent article, “Can Stoicism Make Us Happy?” Carlos Fraenkel, a professor of philosophy and Jewish studies at McGill University, rightly criticizes Pigliucci on just this point.
  6. For citations and a summary of the major scholarly interpretations on this point, see A. A. Long’s Epictetus: A Stoic and Socratic Guide to Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 229–30.
  7. Long, Epictetus, 153.
  8. William Irvine, A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 146–47.
  9. Many Stoics (though not all) conceded that some of these things, though they are not genuine values, are nevertheless naturally preferred — e.g., health over sickness, pleasure over pain. But they maintained firmly that one should not become attached to any of them as if they had any true worth.
  10. Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations, bk. VI.13 (translated by G. M. A. Grube).
  11. Epictetus, Discourses, 3.24, 84–88, in Long, Epictetus, 248.
  12. This is a point that Stoicism’s modern popularizers significantly downplay or rewrite.
  13. Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations, bk. IV.48 (translated by G. M. A. Grube).
  14. Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, translated with introduction and notes by Gregory Hays.

How Stoicism Cured My Depression

by March 10, 2020

Written by Pete Lewis, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Long ago and far away, laws of physics sent an asteroid hurtling through space. It collided with a planet in its equally predetermined orbit.
That is how the theory goes.
Neither the asteroid nor the planet is at fault for wiping out the dinosaurs. It was a purely natural event. Some might even say that it was almost destined to occur, due to the chain reactions that govern the universe.
As with physics, so it can be with personalities.
A person crashes into the life of another, rocking their world and wiping out some of their ‘dinosaurs’: the things that seem biggest and most powerful in their life, including happiness. Neither of the people is purely at fault: they just happen to cross paths and – given their individual natures and circumstances – something has to give; maybe it was always going to happen.

Gottfried Schadow, Fates Sculpture (1790). The three Fates spinning the web of human destiny, part of the tombstone for Count Alexander von der Mark; in the Old National Gallery, Berlin (Cr: Andreas Praefcke).

It took four years to arrive at that interpretation of what I call ‘people paths’ that may be as unavoidable as natural celestial events. That might sound a bit fatalistic, but it does help to cope with emotional trauma following such an event.
In 2014, I was diagnosed with severe depression. For four years, I was prescribed many kinds of medication and remedial therapy, including counseling and CBT (twice). CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) only worked in the short term and I believe that is because it could be fundamentally flawed. The last thing a person with depression needs is to focus their attention on the supposed causes of depression. It ultimately made it worse, for me…!
However, as it had been somewhat successful in the short term, twice, I began thinking that there must be something to it. Thus, I started researching and came upon Stoic Philosophy, which is – apparently – the theoretical basis of CBT.
Aaron Beck

Aaron Temkin Beck (born July 18, 1921), is the American psychiatrist widely regarded as the father of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

*NOTE: I do not recommend that anyone should do what I did next.
I am no Astro-physicist, Doctor or Philosopher but I could clearly recognise the benefits of a practical philosophy, from the very first time I read about Stoicism. Within days, against my doctor’s advice, I had stopped taking medication and was reading as much as I could find online about the ancient Stoic wisdom.
Support and healthcare workers could not believe how rapidly and profoundly I was changing for the better. The seismic shift in my core beliefs are what brought that initial change about – and it all began with “Some things are within our control and some things are beyond our control”; the basis of Stoic philosophy.
Seeing the world in that new perspective, I realised that I cannot change how other people sometimes collide with my life…but I can control my response and stop it from destroying me.

Artistic impression of Epictetus.

That was two years ago and I have not looked back since. I have had no medication, either for depression or for any of the psychosomatic disorders that accompanied it. Within two days of being medication free, I remember looking out of my bedroom window one morning and seeing features that I had not noticed before; it was a wonderful experience.
Around that time, I was sitting upstairs in a bus, traveling to an appointment with a support worker. What happened then was a momentous occasion for me because it was the first time since being diagnosed with depression that I found myself thinking of a future, instead of dwelling on my past. I suddenly realised that – in that moment – my long, dark day was over.
I met the support worker and the first thing I said went something like this…
“You know what, I’ve just been thinking to myself; it would be good if I could do something that I would do for nothing and still get paid for it”. She suggested that I should start coaching, using my lived experience of depression – and how I was dealing with it – to help others.

Baroque marble imaginary portrait bust of Seneca, by an anonymous sculptor of the 17th century. Museo del Prado.

Thus, I went home and devised a plan.
I wrote a short course. The course is called Positive Poetry. It begins with a basic description of Stoic fundamentals and then relates it to poetry. The poetry aspect introduces mnemonics, making the learning easier and longer lasting. It is designed to complement professional healthcare, not be a substitute for it. I plan to write more short courses in the future. First, however, I must get the fledgling venture – Zeno Coaching – up and running.
Oh! As for the depression? Well, it now seems like it was long ago and far away!

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!