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Marcus Aurelius and his Mentors

by November 10, 2021

by William B. Irvine, Professor of Philosophy, Wright State University
Marcus Aurelius was arguably one of the greatest Roman emperors.  He is also the author of one of the primary Stoic texts, the Meditations.  As far as scholars can tell, it was intended as a private journal, in which he recorded his observations about the people around him, as well as advice to himself on how to deal with those people. 
For someone curious about what it means to behave in a Stoical manner, Book One of the Meditations is essential reading. In just a few pages, Marcus tells us what he has learned from the various mentors he has been blessed with in the course of his life.
One of these mentors was Stoic philosopher Maximus, who had mastered, Marcus says, “the art of being humorous in an agreeable way.”  From him, Marcus learned the importance of maintaining “cheerfulness in all circumstances, as well as in illness; and a just admixture in the moral character of sweetness and dignity, and to do what was set before me without complaining.”   So much for the common belief that the Stoics were glum, pessimistic, emotionless individuals!  This was a man, says Marcus,  about whom “everybody believed that in all that he did he never had any bad intention.”
From Catulus, another Stoic philosopher, Marcus learned not just to love his children but to love them “truly.”  He also acquired useful strategies for dealing with other people.  He learned, for example, that when a friend unjustly blamed him of something, he should not get angry but should instead try to restore that friend to “his usual disposition.”  Along similar lines, the Stoic philosopher Rusticus taught him that when someone insulted him or wronged him, he should “be easily disposed to be pacified and reconciled, as soon as they have shown a readiness to be reconciled.”  If you can’t tolerate the occasional vexatious behavior of friends, you probably don’t have any!
From Diognetus, the philosopher who introduced him to Stoicism, Marcus learned not to busy himself about “trifling things.”
From an unnamed tutor—he refers to this individual as his “governor”—Marcus learned “endurance of labor, and to want little, and to work with my own hands, and not to meddle with other people’s affairs, and not to be ready to listen to slander.”
Depiction of Sextus of Chaeronea
Depiction of Sextus of Chaeronea, one of Marcus Aurelius’ teachers
From the philosopher Sextus, he learned “to look carefully after the interests of friends, and to tolerate ignorant persons, and those who form opinions without consideration.”  Sextus, he tells us, “never showed anger or any other passion, but was entirely free from passion.”  This makes Sextus sound like a wooden being, but this apparently wasn’t the case, inasmuch as Marcus also describes him as being “most affectionate.”
Although Sextus possessed considerable knowledge, he did not display it in an ostentatious manner, a trait that Marcus thought was admirable.  Along similar lines, Marcus appreciated the subtle but effective manner in which the scholar Alexander corrected the speech of those he encountered.  If they uttered “a barbarous or solecistic or strange-sounding expression,” Alexander would not mock them; he instead attempted “dexterously to introduce the very expression which ought to have been used,” so the person could learn the correct usage without having been chided for misusing language.
Marcus’s mentors also taught him that, besides not flaunting his own knowledge, he should not begrudge others their knowledge.  He notes that Antoninus Pius—who was both Marcus’s adoptive father and emperor of Rome just ahead of Marcus—was “most ready to give way without envy to those who possessed any particular faculty, such as that of eloquence or knowledge of the law or of morals, or of anything else; and he gave them his help, that each might enjoy reputation according to his deserts
Coin with Antoninus Pius on one side, and Marcus Aurelius on the other
Coin with Antoninus Pius on one side, and Marcus Aurelius on the other
From the philosopher Alexander, who was a Platonist rather than a Stoic, Marcus learned not to form the habit of telling people that he had no time for leisure, or of continually excusing neglect of loved ones by claiming that he had important business to attend to.
One last comment is in order: it was the practice of Stoicism that led Marcus to actively seek out mentors.  A Stoic takes his life to be a work in progress, so he is grateful for any insights other people can provide him.  Most people don’t seek mentors, for the simple reason that they don’t think they have any important lessons left to learn.

What Stoicism Isn’t

by November 9, 2021

by William B. Irvine, Professor of Philosophy, Wright State University
Stoicism has gotten a bad rap.  People think of the Stoics as emotionless beings—as grim, wooden individuals whose goal in life was to stand mutely and take whatever life could throw at them.
This perception, however, is quite mistaken.  When we read about the Stoics or read their works, what we encounter are individuals who can best be described as cheerful.  They were very good at finding life’s sources of delight and savoring them to the fullest.  They had friends and spouses.  They were loved and in turn requited the love they received.
It wasn’t emotion that the Stoics were opposed to; it was negative emotions, such as anger, anxiety, jealousy, and fear.  They had nothing against positive emotions such as delight and even joy.  Thus, the phrase joyful Stoic is not the oxymoron many people take it to be.
Although Stoicism was invented by Zeno of Citium, a Greek, the doctrine was subsequently modified by the Romans, including, most prominently, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Musonius Rufus, and Epictetus.  The writings of Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, and Epictetus are not only readily available, but can often be found at the top of Amazon’s ancient philosophy best-seller list.  The writings of Musonius Rufus used to be difficult to obtain, but my colleague Cynthia King and I tried to remedy that by publishing a translation of them.  (Cynthia did the translating; I did the editing and publishing.)  It is the writings of the Roman Stoics that I, as a 21st century Stoic, find most useful.
Another misconception is that Stoicism is a religion.  Although the Stoics routinely make reference to the gods in their writing, theirs was a philosophical rather than religious doctrine.  Religions are primarily concerned with our having a good afterlife.  Stoicism, by way of contrast, is primarily concerned with our having a good life.  What Stoicism offers us is a philosophy of life or, as it is sometimes called, a philosophy for living.
In this philosophy, the Stoics tell us what in life is most worth having and provide us with a strategy to obtain it.  What is most worth having, they tell us, is tranquility, and what they mean by this is an absence of negative emotions in our life.  In their strategy to obtain this tranquility, they provide us with various psychological techniques that I describe in my Guide to the Good Life.
Although Stoicism is not itself a religion, it is compatible with many religions.  It is particularly compatible, I think, with Christianity.  Thus, consider the “Serenity Prayer,” commonly attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr:
     God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
     The courage to change the things I can,
     And wisdom to know the difference.
It echoes Epictetus’s observation that some things are under our control and some things are not, and that if we have any sense at all, we will spend our time dealing with the former group of things.
It is important to realize that Stoicism is not some kind of cult.  To practice it, you will not have to turn over your worldly goods to a guru.  You will not have to give up your day job.  You will not have to dress in an unorthodox manner—although practicing Stoicism, by making you re-evaluate the way you are living, might affect the way you dress.  All you have to do to practice Stoicism is put Stoic strategies to work in your life.
And even this can be done in an incremental manner.  You can try a strategy and see if it works.  If it does, you can move on to the next strategy.  If it turns out, though, that Stoicism is not to your liking, you can abandon it.  And if you have practiced your Stoicism in a “stealthy” manner—which is what, in my Guide, I recommend that you do—no one need be any the wiser.

Putting the Greek Back into Stoicism

by November 4, 2021

by William B. Irvine, Professor of Philosophy, Wright State University
It was the Greeks who gave us the word “crisis”. It is derived from the Greek krinein, meaning “decide”. Besides giving us our word for crisis, the Greeks also provided us with a splendid strategy for dealing with crises: the philosophy known as Stoicism.
Contrary to popular belief, Stoicism does not advocate that we keep a stiff upper lip – that we stand there mutely and impassively, and take whatever the world throws at us. It instead provides us with a number of specific strategies which, if practised, can make our days go better, in both good times and bad.
One component of the Stoic strategy is to distinguish between things we can control and things we can’t. Our life, say the Stoics, will be miserable if we spend our time worrying about things over which we have no control. That time and energy is far better spent thinking about things we can affect. To quote Roman Stoic Marcus Aurelius, “Nothing is worth doing pointlessly.”
Marcus Aurelius on horseback
Marcus Aurelius on horseback
One of the things we have no control over is the past. We cannot alter it. We therefore need to decide whether we are going to spend our life filled with regret over choices we have made in the past, or whether we are going to let go of that past and instead focus our attention on the choices that lie ahead. It ought to be an easy decision to make. It is also a decision that many people, tragically, fail to make.
The Stoics have a simple technique for making our days go better: we should think about how they could have been worse. Notice that I didn’t say dwell on how they could have been worse; that would be a recipe for a miserable existence. Instead, we should allow ourselves to entertain flickering thoughts about the loss of our friends, money, lover, job, health – all the things we value.
If we do lose any of these things, we will have been prepared by our negative thinking, and this will likely lessen the blow of our loss; we will, in a sense, have seen it coming. And if we don’t lose these things, we will find ourselves far more appreciative of them than would otherwise have been the case.
A life filled with people and things that we appreciate is easy to enjoy. The Stoics were smart enough to realise that we have it in our power to appreciate the life we find ourselves living if we can just bear in mind that things are a lot better than they could have been.
The Stoics valued self-control, as did most ancient philosophers. If we have self-control, we control ourselves; lack it, and it is someone or something else that controls us. Do we really want to spend the one life we have controlled by someone or something else?
The Stoics thought people could develop self-control by engaging in acts of self-denial. They didn’t advocate anything extreme: it was their philosophical rivals the Cynics who suggested doing such things as hugging statues on cold winter days. The Stoics instead advocate that we periodically go out of our way to make ourselves somewhat uncomfortable. Fail to do this, and we will lose our tolerance for discomfort, meaning that the slightest inconvenience will have the power to ruin our day. Those inured to discomfort, the Stoics realised, are almost always happier than those who lead a pampered existence.
When life throws an obstacle in their way, Stoics do their best to take it in their stride or even to profit from it.
Zeno of Citium was a merchant who found himself in Athens as the result of a shipwreck. While there, he took an interest in philosophy and ended up founding his own school, which became known as the Stoics because he gave his lectures at the Stoa Poikile, a colonnade in the Agora of Athens.
Regarding this turn of events, Zeno subsequently commented that “I made a prosperous voyage when I suffered shipwreck.”
Zeno of Citium
Zeno of Citium
The Roman philosopher Musonius Rufus is another example of a Stoic who profited from what others would take to be misfortune. This occurred after he somehow managed to annoy Emperor Nero (Tacitus says it was because Nero envied his fame as a philosopher) and was banished to the Greek island of Gyaros, in the Aegean Sea. The island was desolate, bleak, and nearly waterless, a miserable place to be put; indeed, even in the 20th Century, the Greek government used Gyaros as a dumping ground for its leftist enemies.
Instead of letting himself be crushed by his circumstances, Musonius took an interest in Gyaros and its inhabitants, mostly impoverished fishermen. He discovered a new spring and thereby made the island more habitable. Those who visited him reported that they never heard him complain or saw him disheartened. He had transformed what could have been a personal tragedy into a personal triumph.
Three Stoical Strategies
• Focus on things you can control – get over things that you cannot control
• Bear in mind that things could have been worse
• Learn self-control through occasional acts of self-denial

Twenty Quotes from Stoic Philosophers

by September 28, 2021

by Bryan Maniotakis, Guest Poster, MindOfAStoic.com
One of the best ways to get a quick grasp on Stoicism and the principles it follows is through thousands of years of age-old quotations influenced by its teachings.
Across the centuries, many important people in history have made note of what has led them to success or failure.
Quotes attributed to famous celebrities can often be found dating back into antiquity. These provide guidance on almost every aspect of common human existence such as health, personal relationships, living harmoniously with others and with one’s self, family life, love and death.
Here are 5 of my favourite thoughts from some of the most famous philosophers of the ancient world.
Marcus Aurelius
Give yourself a gift, the present moment.
The things you think about determine the quality of your mind. Your soul takes on the color of your thoughts.
Look back over the past, with its changing empires that rose and fell, and you can foresee the future too.
Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one.
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.
Seneca
We suffer more often in imagination than in reality.
Life is long, if you know how to use it.
While we are postponing, life speeds by.
It does not matter how many books you have, but how good are the books which you have.
For many men, the acquisition of wealth does not end their troubles, it only changes them.
Epictetus
I cannot escape death, but at least I can escape the fear of it.
A ship should not ride on a single anchor, nor life on a single hope.
It is difficulties that show what men are.
Men are disturbed not by things, but by the view which they take of them.
Reason is not measured by size or height, but by principle.
Zeno of Citium
All the good are friends of one another.
Better to trip with the feet than with the tongue
No evil is honorable; but death is honorable; therefore death is not evil.
We have two ears and one mouth, so we should listen more than we say.
Happiness is a good flow of life.

Fate and Free Will – The Stoic Perspective

by September 8, 2021

by Mariami Shanshashvili        
It is no secret that ancient teachings of Stoicism have seen a massive revival in modern times. From academia to the general public, people have been closely rethinking Stoic philosophy.  One of the primary reasons behind this surging popularity of Stoicism, I would say, is the appeal of exercising a complete control over your mind. It is true that Stoic practices allow us the greater freedom over our psyche and emotions. One area, however, where Stoicism does not spoil us with as much freedom, is the freedom of will.
When it comes to fate and free will in Stoicism, a key debate exists beween what’s referred to as the ‘Lazy Argument‘ from critics of Stoicism, and the Stoic Response to the Lazy Argument developed by the Stoic philosopher Chrysippus. By examining this debate we can gain a better insight into the truth of the Stoic understanding of fate and freedom.
Chrysippus
Ancient Stoics believed in a causal or ‘soft’ determinism: a view that maintains that everything that happens has a cause that leads to an effect. Each and every event is a part of the unbreakable chain of cause and effect, which is dictated and steered by the gods’ providential plan of fate. Nevertheless Stoics, however, also assert that even in a deterministic world, our actions are ultimately ‘up to us’.
The Lazy Argument attacks this claim by attempting to show the futility of any action in the face of fate. The argument is formulated in the following way:
  • If it is fated that you will survive a snakebite, then you will survive whether you go to a hospital or not.
  • Likewise, if you are fated to not survive a snakebite, then you will not survive whether you go to a hospital or not.
  • One of them is fated.
  • On either alternative, it does not matter what you do because the fated outcome will happen anyway.
The essence of the Lazy Argument is to demonstrate how no action matters if every event is fated. And since your life is set to unwaveringly follow a determined track, there is no point to exert any effort or even think about the right course of action. Simply put, the Lazy Argument makes just being lazy an appealing choice.
The Stoic response, attributed to Chryssipus by Cicero in his De Fatō, is designed to show that the Lazy Argument is unsound, and our actions indeed do have a bearing on the outcome of events. According to Chryssipus, not all premises of the Lazy Argument is true. Ancient Stoics accept that everything is fated, but dismiss the rest the argument. To say something is fated to happen does not mean that it will happen regardless of what you do. Rather, to the Stoics it means that this event is a part of the unbreakable cause-effect chain in which some causal elements are crucial for bringing about the effect. Moreover, knowing that the outcome is fated does not give you any insight into what actions lead up to it.
Some events, claims Chryssipus, are co-fated, meaning that they are interconnected and conjoined to the others. The prophecy of Laius, the father of Oedipus, is a telling example of this concept: Laius was warned by the oracle that he would be killed by his own son. But this would not happen if he did not beget a child. Simply put, Laius’ end is co-fated with begetting Oedipus, which is in turn co-fated with having intercourse with a woman. It is not true that Laius will still meet the same end whether or not he has a child.
The course of fate, therefore, does not necessarily dispose of the causal relationship between the events. Quite the opposite, the Stoic fate is remarkably logical: it is operating under the sound logic of ’cause and effect’. Therefore, according to the Stoics, the claim of the Lazy Argument that a certain event will occur no matter what we do grossly overlooks the necessary connections between events. So, to put it another way, if we want to survive the snakebite, we really better go to a hospital.
The Death of Laius, at the hands of his son Oedipus
Some might argue that the objection of whether or not our actions are ‘up to us’ is a completely different objection. The Stoic response is taking the Lazy Argument as a question of mechanical correspondence between cause-effect, while what the argument is actually drawing on is how the absence of agency or choice over our actions renders any choice meaningless.
One way or another, Stoics have much more to say about the choice and agency. Let us consider the Stoic argument through the lens of objection raised by Stoic scholar Keith Seddon:
“Though seeing [two events being co-fated] doesn’t to any degree undermine the fatalist’s position, for just as your recovering was fated (if only you had known it), so was your calling the doctor! This might be how it happened, all right, but if the event of your calling the doctor was caused by prior circumstances (as all events are, according to the theory of causal determinism) then in what sense could you be considered to exercise your free will?” (2004, “Do the Stoics Succeed?”).
Stoics would say that the matter is more complicated, as the same phenomena can have different effects on different agents. Chryssipus illustrates this with the following metaphor: “if you push a cylinder and a cone, the former will roll in a straight line, and the latter in a circle (LS 62C)[1]. Similarly, different men will assent differently to the same push. And assent, just as we said in the case of the cylinder, although prompted from outside, will thereafter move through its own force and nature.”[2] Therefore, our internal nature shapes the way we respond to the external stimuli. Simply put, character is fate, with the further inference being that our character itself is determined.
I think the most successful Stoic response to the Lazy Argument is their dog analogy: “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.” (Hippolytus, Refutation of all heresies 1.21, L&S 62A). In other words, nothing is up to you, except the way you react to it. A very Stoic thought!
Bibliography
Tim O’Keefe, The Stoics of Fate and Freedom, the Routledge Companion to Free Will, eds. Meghan Griffith, Neil Levy, and Kevin Timpe, 2016.
“A. A. Long and D. N. Sedley, The Hellenistic Philosophers (Cambridge, 1987). ”
Cicero, On Fate 
Brennan, T. (2005-06-23). The Lazy Argument. In The Stoic Life: Emotions, Duties, and Fate. : Oxford University Press.

[1] “A. A. Long and D. N. Sedley, The Hellenistic Philosophers (Cambridge, 1987). ”
[2] On Fate 42–3 (SVF 2.974; LS 62C(5)–(9)).

The Journey To Stoicism:

by August 16, 2021

A Guide to a Good Life
We write to you today from the Mediterranean, about an hour from the port of Piraeus, en route to the ancient Minoan stomping grounds of Crete. 
It’s hard not to feel inspired by the wine-dark seas, the fading tips of the nearby islands and the gentle rocking of Poseidon’s domain. 
Yes Dear Reader, we have made the journey to Greece in time for our upcoming event next week, to really get into the spirit of the Symposium.
After all, this is the very spot where so many great ideas began… 
The inspiring Aegean…
In fact, it was during his voyage from Phoenicia to Piraeus, our very point of departure, that Zeno of Citium found himself shipwrecked. The wealthy merchant from Cyprus then did what may seem a bit odd to us now; he went to a local bookseller and found himself with Xenophon’s Memorabilia.
So pleased with the portrayal of Socrates, he sought out philosophers from which he could learn more and ended up under the tutelage of the Cynic, Crates of Thebes. Zeno took up the Cynic way of life as best his native modesty allowed… but with time developed his own way of thinking, creating a new guide to living a good life. 
Zeno taught this approach under the colonnade in the Agora of Athens, known as the Stoa Poikile, in 301 BC… and thus began the origins of the philosophy Stoicism. 
Today, Stoicism is enjoying a revival, helping individuals around the globe find a new perspective with this ancient wisdom, in huge part due to modern philosophers such as William B. Irvine and his wildly successful book, A Guide to a Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. 
Professor of philosophy at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, USA, and author of eight books that have been translated into more than twenty languages, Dr. Irvine’s work on Stoic Joy illustrates just how applicable and insightful Stoicism is in our modern era. 
Using the psychological insights and the practical techniques of the Stoics, Dr. Irvine offers a roadmap for anyone seeking to avoid the feelings of chronic dissatisfaction that plague so many of us. The book delves into Stoic techniques for attaining tranquility and illustrates how to put these techniques to work in our own life. 
It’s a fantastic read, and also remarkably practical… with tips on how to minimize worry, how to let go of the past and focus our efforts on the things we can control, and how to deal with insults, grief, old age, and the distracting temptations of fame and fortune. 
With Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, as well as the good Phoenician and founder of Stoicism, Zeno of Citium, as your guide, you can find the ancient art of Stoic Joy. 
Get Your Copy of A Guide to a Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, Here:
You can also watch Dr. Irvine speak LIVE on Sunday, August 22nd, during our second keynote panel discussion, along with Donald Robertson and A.A. Long, on what control we have over the Fall of Nations… and how we can prepare for their evitable end. 
Make sure to get your tickets now – and remember – you can pay what YOU WANT. Reserve your spot here: https://classicalwisdom-symposium-2021.eventbrite.ie
Get Tickets to Watch the panel LIVE Sunday night: https://classicalwisdom-symposium-2021.eventbrite.ie