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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

Secrets of a Roman Emperor

by August 6, 2021

Plato once wrote that there wouldn’t be peace until philosophers were kings. But what about Emperors?
If you’re reading this, you’ve probably already heard of Marcus Aurelius; Roman emperor, philosopher, and author of the much beloved Meditations.
Perhaps no other book quite captures what we mean by ‘Classical Wisdom’ than the Meditations, the insights of an emperor on daily life. In our information-saturated, multimedia world, the words of Marcus Aurelius have even MORE potency than in his own day, as he reminds us, ‘Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself in your way of thinking.’
Marcus Aurelius has had an enormous surge of popularity in recent years. Yet how much do we really know about the philosopher and emperor? How can we understand not just his life, but his inner life? And what can he teach us about today?
Donald Robertson’s fantastic and enormously popular book How To Think Like A Roman Emperor brings vividly to life the mind of this great thinker. We come to know the details of his life, but more than that, we learn the secrets that gave him his famous Stoic resilience, and how to apply them to our own lives.
These secrets speak to us through the ages and are every bit as relevant as they were in the days of Marcus Aurelius (if not moreso!).
As a cognitive psychotherapist and one of the founders of Modern Stoicism, Donald Robertson is uniquely able to illustrate how philosophical doctrines and therapeutic practices together can build emotional strength so that anyone can endure tremendous adversity. Following the life of Marcus Aurelius, readers can learn these ancient techniques and put them to use for themselves.
When Plato spoke of peace, he meant the affairs of states and nations. Marcus Aurelius offers us something perhaps even more valuable: the spirit of inner peace. 
“Look back over the past, with its changing empires that rose and fell, and you can foresee the future too.” These profound words once written by Marcus Aurlieus illustrate the importance of our upcoming Symposium where Donald Robertson will be speaking LIVE on the topic of Stoicism and the Imperial Rule of Marcus Aurelius.
Don’t miss this rare opportunity to see Donald Robertson, alongside a host of the world’s most renowned experts on Ancient Greece and Rome.
Taking place August 21/22 – this will truly be a once in a lifetime opportunity.
Reserve your tickets HERE!
Want wine with your tickets?? Get into the Spirit of the Symposium with our exclusively sourced Mediterranean collection… but you’ll need to ACT FAST. This offer closes August 10th!
Get your wine HERE!

The Man Who Made Stoicism Cool

by August 4, 2021

Sure, Stoicism is a household term these days. 
Pundits toss the word about, vloggers casually mention the concepts and tweeters of the world find inspiration from neatly encapsulated Stoic memes.
You can discuss Stoicism with your hairdresser, taxi driver and most certainly your gym instructor. 
But it wasn’t always that way…
Back when Dr. Anthony Arthur Long (Tony) began delving into the subject in the 60’s and 70’s, it was considered passé. You could even go so far as to say it was obscure. Just another ancient philosophy tucked away in the corners of the history books. 
Overlooked and ignored. 
Tony’s interest and exploration of the subject is what brought it out to the limelight. Indeed, he is often credited with spearheading the modern Stoic movement.
Yup, Dr. Long made Stoicism cool again. 
Just imagine how many folks around the world he has helped by bringing this ancient philosophy to the surface! It is for this reason we are overjoyed to welcome this philosophical legend to our Sunday night (August 22) Symposium Panel. 
Today we’d like to introduce one of this weekend’s Symposium Panel Members, the highly respected and renowned philosopher, A.A. Long.
Anthony Arthur Long is a British and naturalised American classical scholar and Chancellor’s Professor Emeritus of Classics and Irving Stone Professor of Literature Emeritus, and Affiliated Professor of Philosophy and Rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley.
He has had a fascinating career, complete with a plethora of books and a specialization in stoicism in the face of disaster. 
(You can hear all about it in his last year’s interview on the Classical Wisdom Speaks Podcast, below:)
In the year 62, citing health issues, the Roman philosopher Seneca withdrew from public service and devoted his time to writing. His letters from this period offer a window onto his experience as a landowner, a traveler, and a man coping with the onset of old age. They share his ideas on everything from the treatment of enslaved people to the perils of seafaring, and they provide lucid explanations for many key points of Stoic philosophy.
Translated with an Introduction and Commentary by Margaret Graver and A. A. Long, this selection of fifty letters brings out the essentials of Seneca’s thought, with much that speaks directly to the modern reader. 
Above all, they explore the inner life of the individual who proceeds through philosophical inquiry from a state of emotional turmoil to true friendship, self-determination, and personal excellence. 
But that’s not all from Dr. Long! His contributions to the modern Stoic movement continue with his excellent book, How to be Free: An Ancient Guide to the Stoic Life.
Born a slave, the Roman Stoic philosopher Epictetus (c. 55–135 AD) taught that mental freedom is supreme, since it can liberate one anywhere, even in a prison. In How to Be Free, A. A. Long—one of the world’s leading authorities on Stoicism and a pioneer in its remarkable contemporary revival—provides a superb new edition of Epictetus’s celebrated guide to the Stoic philosophy of life (the Encheiridion) along with a selection of related reflections in his Discourses.
How to be FREE has been translated into German and Greek. Translations of Epictetus into other European languages are forthcoming, and also into Arabic,Turkish, Korean, Japanese, and most recently Indonesian.
Next year will see the publication of Seneca, Fifty Letters of a Roman Stoic, jointly by Margaret Graver and Tony, and his translation and study of Plotinus, On Matter.
Watch Dr. A.A. Long Speak LIVE
On Sunday, August 22nd, Tony will once more partake in a panel discussion, along with Donald Robertson and William B Irvine at this year’s Classical Wisdom Symposium. 
It is the first time the three of them will be in a conversation together. They will discuss the control one has at the end of empires… and what we need to do to prepare for the fall of Nations. 
In fact, Dr. Long has a very unique perspective on this. As a British born, American naturalized citizen, Tony has personally witnessed the fall of one empire and the rise of the next. Combined with his philosophical expertise, you can only imagine how valuable his insights on the matter will be… 
It will be a truly important and fascinating conversation!
Whether you can watch LIVE on the day, or enjoy the videos whenever it’s convenient, you will have FULL access to the event.

Marcus Aurelius and the Sophists on Justice

by August 4, 2021

by Donald Robertson, author of “How to Think like a Roman Emperor”
What is it, then, that arouses your discontent? Human wickedness? Call to mind the doctrine that rational creatures have come into the world for the sake of one another, and that tolerance is a part of justice… (Meditations, 4.2)
The virtue of justice is one of the main themes that runs throughout The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. For Stoics, this is a less formal concept than the English word implies and really refers to social virtue in quite a broad sense. Justices entails the exercise of wisdom, kindness, and fairness in our relationships with others both individually and collectively. However, it’s also bound up with Stoic pantheism, the belief that everything in the universe, including every human being, is part of a sacred whole. We’re all in this together as citizens of a single world-city – a notion sometimes referred to as ethical “cosmopolitanism”. More than that, though, the Stoics believed that nature intended human beings to actively help one another. We’re fundamentally designed to co-operate for our own mutual benefit – and malice or conflict between us, though common, is against our true nature.
Marcus, like other Stoics, assumes that human nature is inherently reasoning – we are essentially thinking creatures – and that we therefore have a duty to apply reason consistently to our lives. Doing so would culminate, of course, in the virtue of wisdom. However, there’s a less well-known assumption in Stoicism, which holds that humans are not only essentially rational but also social. “Now every rational being,” writes Marcus, “by virtue of its rationality, is also a social being” (Meditations, 10.2). From this it follows that in order to truly flourish and fulfill our own natural potential, we should excel in terms of our social relationships. Doing so would culminate in the virtue of justice. Humans are naturally rational and social creatures – the Stoic wise man (or woman) is therefore someone who excels in both regards, exercising both wisdom and justice consistently in his (or her) life.
Marcus tells himself that the supreme good of every creature lies in the goal for which it is naturally constituted and that the supreme good for a human must consist in kinship with others, and the exercise of social virtues such as justice, as it has “long been proved that we were born for fellowship” (Meditations, 5.16). Indeed, he goes as far as to say that whoever commits an act of injustice acts impiously against the most venerable of gods “since universal nature has created rational creatures for the sake of one another, to benefit their fellows according to their deserts and in no way to do them harm” (Meditations, 9.1).
He therefore reasons that as he is part of the social system, his every action should be dedicated toward improving society, which he tends to call the goal of seeking “the common welfare of mankind”. Any action which does the opposite “tears your life apart”, in a sense, by alienating us from the rest of mankind and preventing us from experiencing a sense of oneness with the rest of humanity – “as does the citizen in a state who for his own part cuts himself off from the concord of his fellows” (Meditations, 9.23).
Bust of Marcus Aurelius
Bust of Marcus Aurelius
Indeed, Marcus repeatedly argues that because humans are essentially social creatures our individual welfare necessarily depends upon the welfare of our society, and ultimately the welfare of our species – the great city or society of humankind as a whole. “What brings no benefit to the hive”, he says, “brings none to the bee” (Meditations, 6.54). Elsewhere he explains more literally “What causes no harm to the city causes no harm to the citizen” (Meditations, 5.22). He actually advises himself to respond to every impression of having been harmed by affirming to himself that: “If the community is not harmed by this, neither am I”. He adds that if the community really is harmed he should not be angry with the person who is responsible but rather show him what he has failed to see.
Elsewhere Marcus goes further and states that only what harms the laws can truly harm the city presumably if they are rendered unjust (Meditations, 10.33). He reasons that those things the majority of us ordinarily complain about as misfortunes in life – such as illness, poverty, or persecution from others – do not themselves corrupt the laws, and can therefore bring genuine harm neither to the city nor to its citizens.
If I remember, then, that I am a part of such a whole, I shall be well contented with all that comes to pass; and in so far as I am bound by a tie of kinship to other parts of the same nature as myself I shall never act against the common interest, but rather, I shall take proper account of my fellows, and direct every impulse to the common benefit and turn it away from anything that runs counter to that benefit. And when this is duly accomplished, my life must necessarily follow a happy course, just as you would observe that any citizen’s life proceeds happily on its course when he makes his way through it performing actions which benefit his fellow citizens and he welcomes whatever his city assigns to him. (Meditations, 10.6)
Protagoras of Abdera /Painting by Ribera -
Protagoras of Abdera, Painting by Ribera
Although Marcus undoubtedly inherited these ideas from his own Stoic teachers there’s also a much earlier source for the notion that humans are designed to work together by exercising social virtues such as justice, kindness, and fairness to one another. It comes from a speech called The Great Discourse by the first great Sophist thinker, Protagoras. It originated about six centuries before the time of Marcus Aurelius but remained very well-known in the ancient world because Plato recorded a version of it in his dialogue named after Protagoras. What follows is a rough paraphrase of the speech’s content…
The Great Discourse of Protagoras
At first there were gods but no mortal creatures. When the time came, the gods fashioned countless animals by mixing together the elements of fire and earth. Zeus commanded the titan Prometheus to assign different abilities to each living thing.
Some creatures were slow moving and so to make up for this he gave them great strength. Others were weak and so to these Prometheus granted speed. Some he armed while others were given various forms of protection. Small creatures were granted the capability for winged flight or for concealing their dwellings underground. Large beasts had their size for protection. And he took care to grant all creatures some means for their own preservation so that no species should be in danger of elimination by others.
Prometheus creates man
Prometheus creates man
Having equipped them to survive among each other in this way Prometheus then granted them protection against their environment and the harshness of the seasons. He clothed some with dense hair or thick skin, sufficient to endure the heat of summer and ward off the cold through winter months. To some he gave strong hooves, to others claws and hard bodies that were not easily wounded. And every creature was assigned its own source of food. Some pastured on the earth, others ate fruits hanging from trees or roots from beneath the ground. Yet others were predators who fed upon certain types of animals for their meat. To the predators he assigned fewer offspring whereas their prey were more abundant so that there would always be enough to serve as food.
Once he had finished assigning to each species its own special capabilities, however, Prometheus was left with the realization that he had nothing left to give the race of man. Humans are born naked, unshod, unarmed, and with no bed in which to lay their head and rest safely. They were more vulnerable than other creatures and seemed bound to perish. Not knowing what else to do, in desperation, Prometheus stole the technical expertise of the gods Hephaestus and Athena and gave that to mankind, along with the gift of fire.
Once human beings were granted these divine gifts, however, they sensed their kinship to the gods and began praying and building altars to them. They invented clothing, bedding, dwellings, agriculture, and even the use of language to express their thoughts and acquire learning. Men lived apart at first but finding themselves beset continually and harassed by wild beasts they sought to build cities for their own mutual protection.
Prometheus steals fire
Prometheus steals fire
However, the wisdom that concerns our relations with others belonged to Zeus alone, king of the gods and patron of friendship and families. No sooner than men gathered together trying to save themselves, being lawless, they began instead to wrong one another and fighting broke out among them. Scattering once again from their failed cities, they continued to perish in the wild.
Looking down upon this chaotic scene with dismay, Zeus feared for the destruction of the entire human race. He therefore sent Hermes, the messenger of the gods, to teach mortals about justice and also to instill in them a sense of shame concerning wrongdoing as a deterrent against injustice. By this means Zeus now granted mankind a unique capacity to unite themselves in cities governed by law and the principles of justice, maintaining order through the bonds of friendship and fostering their sense of community.
Hermes asked Zeus whether he should distribute justice and the various social and political virtues among men in the same way as technical knowledge concerning the other crafts had been shared. One man who possesses the knowledge of medicine, for example, was enough to benefit many other men. However, Zeus decreed that every human being must be granted at least some rudimentary knowledge of justice and the arts needed to unite society. He even laid down the law that anyone who was found unable to respect justice and the rule of law should be put to death to prevent them from becoming a pestilence in the city.
Statue of Zeus
Statue of Zeus
For this reason, said Protagoras, although we seek the advice only of those few who are experts with regard to crafts such as medicine or carpentry, concerning justice we allow every citizen to have his say. Further, if someone boasts of being an expert in playing the flute or some such art but is found to be nothing of the sort then he is merely ridiculed as a fool. However, anyone found incapable of respecting justice should be expelled from society because each and every citizen is expected to share at least somewhat in this capacity, so that he may live harmoniously in the company of others.
The Sophist Protagoras originally expressed this doctrine that humans are naturally social creatures in the guise of a myth. According to the tradition that followed, we are obliged to realize our potential for wisdom by exercising the gift of reason to the best of our ability. So we are also obliged, as Marcus Aurelius said many centuries later, to fulfill our natural potential for friendly collaboration with others by exhibiting the virtue of justice.
Donald Robertson is the author of How To Think Like A Roman Emperor.
He will also be appearing LIVE at our online Symposium in August. Get your tickets HERE.

Women’s Voices can be heard in Stoicism (We just need to listen to them!)

by July 9, 2021

By Kai Whiting and Leonidas Konstantakos, Co-Authors of ‘Being Better: Stoicism for a World Worth Living in
Professor Nancy Sherman recently stated that contemporary forms of Stoicism have become an industry. And a mega-industry at that. While many of these forms have little to do with Stoic philosophy, she is right. It is also clear that most modern-day popularizers and academics linked to Stoicism happen to be men (in fact, we are two men). In extreme cases, fans of popularized Stoicism even champion the misogynist idea that only men can be virtuous (within the Stoic community we call this group the “Broics”). Yet the ancient Stoic philosophers themselves, such as Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, and Seneca the Younger make it clear that the ability to act virtuously is not contingent on one’s sex or gender identity.
Musonius, in particular, advocated for women to be taught philosophy so that, like men, they too could progress towards a life well-lived. He did so because he believed that women had received the same cognitive abilities and natural inclinations towards virtue as their male counterparts. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given Musonius’ views, the feminist philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft was influenced by Stoicism. She likewise emphasized the overarching goal of, and human capacity for, a flourishing life. Like Musonius, she believed that all humans could learn to act rationally and morally.
The Roman historian Plutarch and the biographer Diogenes Laërtius also highlight that the quest for virtue doesn’t only concern men. Plutarch documents the stories of the powerful Spartan queens Agiatis, Archidamia, and Agesistrata[i]. His point was to illustrate the fact that these women led by example when attempting to bring about much needed socioeconomic and land reforms in Hellenistic Sparta.
Similarly, Diogenes Laërtius dedicated time and effort to recording the story of the Stoic founder Zeno of Citium’s philosophical foster-mother and Cynic philosopher, Hipparchia[ii]. Diogenes also highlights the fact that Stoic philosophy owes its very existence to the wisdom of the Oracle, one of the most powerful of women’s voices in all of history[iii]. Zeno spoke with the Oracle, and her words inspired him to read the wise texts of the ancients, which then led him to teach what became Stoicism, on the Painted Porch (Stoa Poikile).
The fact that there is so little ink dedicated to any of these women in contemporary Stoic books, blogs, and social media posts suggests, to us at least, a lack of knowledge, not a lack of interest. So, let’s play our part in changing that.
The Oracle at Delphi
What did the Ancient Stoics say about women?
In his Discourses 3.1, Musonius Rufus very explicitly states that there is no difference between men and women in terms of their ability to act rationally and virtuously:
Women have received from the gods the same reasoning power as men—the power which we employ with each other and according to which we consider whether each action is good or bad, and honorable or shameful… In addition, a desire for virtue and an affinity for it belong by nature not only to men but also to women[iv].
He explained, in the very same lesson, the value of being a philosophically educated woman. Specifically, he stated that a woman who has studied philosophy is a better manager of the estate and is more likely to be happy and self-reliant. He also labeled women who truly understand philosophy as “philosophers,” not simply as “educated.” Clearly, Discourses 3 lies in direct contrast to any contemporary claims which hold that Stoicism is only for men, or that it is only of value if you happen to be a man! In Discourses 4.3, Musonius justifies his claim for equal education:
Someone might say that courage is an appropriate characteristic for men only, but this is not so. It is also necessary for a woman—at least for a most noble one—to be courageous and free from cowardice so that she is overcome neither by pain nor by fear.
It isn’t just Musonius who expects women to receive a philosophical education. Epictetus too, albeit in a much more matter-of-fact tone, also makes it clear that women (and men) should be taught philosophical principles[v], if they are to understand what constitutes an “appropriate act” (kathekonta). He evidently sees no reason why women cannot be philosophers. Seneca also shares similar sentiments when it comes to the education of his mother. Far from wishing to deny her a good education, or thinking that it was inappropriate for her to have obtained one, he writes in a public letter to her (Consolation to Helvia 17):
“If only my father, who really was the best of men, had resisted the tradition of his ancestors and let you make a thorough study of philosophy, rather than just a smattering! Thanks to your keen intellectual appetite, you learned more than one could have expected in the time[vi].
Of course, we should highlight that these examples of discussions about women are being held entirely by men. It is important that we acknowledge this if we are to be intellectually honest about Stoicism’s past and work towards equality in the future. We aren’t raising these examples to suggest women in philosophy need the validation or approval of ancient philosophers, but rather to dismiss those who would invoke these same philosophers for sexist and exclusionary reasons[vii].
Bronze statuette of a young Spartan woman
Queen Agiatis’ Story
Agiatis, the 3rd century BCE Spartan Queen, plays a significant role in Stoicism’s history. Yet, while the Sparta of Hollywood holds center stage amongst contemporary Stoic groups, she is barely mentioned. This is despite her role in standing up against a murderous oligarchic regime, and passing socioeconomic and land reforms in the name of justice. We highlight this irony in our book Being Better: Stoicism for a World Worth Living In, for what could be more Stoic or Spartan than having the courage to take the fight to the powerful, even at great personal cost?
Agiatis accomplished all this when her world was turned upside down following the murder of her husband, King Agis IV, and her in-laws by Leonidas II. This left Agiatis with little option but to marry the son of Leonidas II, the future king Kleomenes III. As we explain in our book:
Even though Agiatis, out of love and devotion to the memory of her dead husband, Agis, grieved deeply over his demise, she agreed to marry Kleomenes and become his wife. She did her royal duties well and showed genuine affection to Leonidas’ son, who equally doted on her. However, Leonidas didn’t count on Agiatis’ loyalty to Sparta and her commitment to bring Agis’ social, political, and educational reforms into fruition. He also severely underestimated her ability to keep the ball firmly in her court and beat him at his own game. Agiatis countered Leonidas’ power moves by encouraging Kleomenes to become the hero who would restore Sparta to its former glory. Kleomenes eagerly listened to her, and he often asked her about Agis’ character strengths and flaws and his notions for reform. Before long, Agis’ plans became Kleomenes’ vision.
We told Agiatis’ story precisely because it is such a strong example of Stoicism. It also proves the ancient Stoics claims that an educated woman who courageously stands up for justice is an asset to her community, her family, and herself.
New Female Stoic Stories
We feel that it is particularly appropriate to briefly mention how women are contributing to Stoicism and moving the philosophy forward today. Firstly, it is not coincidental that we used Cynthia King’s or Emily Wilson’s translations of the classic Stoic texts. Equally, we could have chosen a passage from Sharon Lebell’s extremely accessible re-interpretation of Epictetus’ words in her book Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness, and Effectiveness. We might have also chosen to highlight Liz Gloyn’s work on The Ethics of the Family in Seneca or Julia Annas’ excellent book Intelligent Virtue.
Outside of academic endeavors, women are increasingly contributing to the conversation about, and application of, Stoic principles in everyday life. Kathryn Koromillas and Brittany Polat just organized the first all-women Stoic conference, which had a peak attendance of 220 people. Eve Riches and Brittany Polat run Stoic Car, an initiative that gives caregivers Stoic-based tools to better handle the pressures that teaching, volunteering and formal/informal forms of personal care typically involve. Meredith Kuntz provides help and support to parents who want to practice Stoicism in the family home. Kellys Rodriguez is the leader of the Madrid Stoic group and has begun to work with us to develop contemporary Stoic material that is written in the Spanish language and built upon Hispanic culture. All these initiatives highlight the fact that women are increasingly at the forefront of developing practical tools that are rooted in Stoic philosophy. In short, Stoic women are finding their voices and it’s about time they were heard.
Kai Whiting is a co-author of Being Better: Stoicism for a World Worth Living in. He is a researcher and lecturer in sustainability and Stoicism based at UCLouvain, Belgium. He Tweets @kaiwhiting and blogs over at StoicKai.com  
Leonidas Konstantakos is a co-author of Being Better: Stoicism for a World Worth Living in. He teaches in the international relations department at Florida International University.

[i] See Plutarch’s Life of Agis and Life of Kleomenes.
[ii] See Lives of the Eminent Philosophers 6.96-98
[iii] See Lives of the Eminent Philosophers 7.2
[iv] All translations of Musonius Rufus’ Discourses are from Cynthia King (2011)
[v] Specifically  Discourses 3.24.22
[vi] Taken from: Emily Wilson’s (2015). Seneca: A Life. Penguin UK.
[vii] See Donna Zuckerberg’s (2018) Not All Dead White Men Harvard University Press for more information.