Friday, March 27, 2020

Stoicism in Six Points

Often, people ask me for the summarized version of Stoicism.  The intent of this post is to get right to the heart of the Stoic disciplines without compromising the framework as a whole.  While the how is far more important, you will have a greater appreciation for Stoicism if you understand the why.  In this post, I will try to explain the why.  Then, in another post, I will explain the how.

the goal

First off, the goal of Stoicism, is to seek a flourishing, fulfilling life through excellence of character (arete).  It is also said the goal and end is eudaimonia, which is defined as happiness or well-beingThis is the summum bonum of philosophy, including the philosophy of Stoicism.

the framework

The framework of Stoic philosophy includes logic, physics and ethics; and this framework must be kept whole, to derive the full benefit of the philosophy.  It has been compared to an egg as well as a garden.

In the egg analogy, the logic is represented by the shell, keeping faulty reasoning from entering the garden.  Physics is represented by the egg white, which provides the nurturing power by way of knowledge of the world and bodies and ethics is represented by the yolk, the ultimate practice of Stoicism.

In the garden analogy, the logic is represented by the fence physics is the dirt and ethics is the fruit produced from the garden.

Furthermore, each branch of Stoic philosophy is associated with a discipline.  These disciplines encapsulate practices, which when coupled with the demonstration of virtues, the Stoic lives arete (excellence) in his art of living.

With this framework in mind, I'll lay out how each branch of Stoic philosophy is related to a discipline.  With the three branches and three related disciplines, the why of Stoic philosophy can be explained in six points - hence the #StoicSix.


Stoic logic is important because it lays out the foundation for how humans learn (cognition).  Related to cognition is perception of experiences and impressions.  If we understand how humans perceive and how perceptions, impressions and value judgments are made, then we begin to understand what truly is in our control.

The key thing you need to understand is the process of the four stages of assent.  Below is a summary of those four stages based on John Sellars book Stoicism on page 67.
  1. “a perception of an external event or state of affairs”
  2. “an almost involuntary and seemingly unconscious value judgement that is made about the content of the perception”
  3. “the presentation to the conscious mind of an impression in the form of a proposition that is composed of both the perceptual data received from the outside and the unconscious value judgement”
  4. “the act of assent or rejection of the impression”
For a fuller treatment on Stoic logic, see my notes here.

discipline of assent

The discipline of assent is the process of strengthening our hegemonikon to assent (agree) with only valid impressions and to disagree or ignore invalid or incorrect impressions.

The world is filled with external events.  We are confronted with and bombarded by these events incessantly.  These events "propose" an idea or opinion to us and then we have to decide if we agree or not with that proposition.  But before we agree or disagree, we need to deconstruct events and things.

The best way to practice this discipline, is to lengthen the pause between event/thing and your impression of it; and then decide to agree or disagree.

Epictetus said, "Don’t let the force of an impression when it first hits you knock you off your feet; just say to it, 'Hold on a moment; let me see who you are and what you represent. Let me put you to the test'" (Discourses 2.18).

Another quote that I quite like goes, "Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom."  I've heard this has been attributed to Viktor Frankl, but I'm not sure if that is confirmed or not.

In other words, we must mind the gap between perception and assent.  The more we can 'slow' that four stage process down, and the more we practice it, the better position we are in to make wise and accurate assents to a valid impression.


From Stoic physics we gain an understanding of Nature.  We learn and understand our own nature as human beings - that we have both a physical and rational nature about us, and that we are part of a social order, which is a part of the cosmos - which is Nature itself.

From Stoic physics, we learn of fate, both simple fated and conjoined fated.  Simple fated things are “necessary and [are] a product of the essence of a thing.”  An example would be death – all mortals will die.  Conjoined fated things are more complex and involve “two types of causes” called internal and external.  External causes would be things external to human nature that would impact the outcome.  Internal causes are things inherent to human nature (see Sellars, p. 104).

We also learn of differing levels of tension, which relate to an order of organisms, with nearly inanimate beings at one end of the spectrum and human beings at the other end of the spectrum.  The key idea here is that humans' true nature is that they are rational beings and that they must put their rational self-preservation above their physical self-preservation to truly live according to their unique nature.

As rational beings, humans are tasked with the responsibility to live according to and in harmony with both their own nature and Nature (with a capital N).

Nature is the Stoic god.  It is not a Christian, Islamic or Hindu or any other deity in the religious sense.  Rather, Nature is the cosmos.

For a fuller treatment on Stoic physics, see my notes here.

discipline of desire

Your desire for self-preservation needs to be grounded in your nature as well as the desire of Nature

The desire of Nature is found in macro/global/universal events that are out of your control.  You should work to align your desires with the desire of Nature (the cosmos).  This can be difficult in some circumstances, but the Stoics would say, "Universe, your harmony is my harmony: nothing in your good time is too early or too late for me. Nature, all that your seasons bring is fruit to me: all comes from you, exists in you, returns to you." (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 4.23)

Pierre Hadot puts a unique perspective on this by making macro events exceptionally personal.  In his book, The Inner Citadel, he writes,
This brings us back to the theme of the present. A particular event is not predestined for me and accorded with me only because it is harmonized with the World; rather, it is so because it occurs in this particular moment and no other. It occurs in accordance with the kairos ("right moment"), which, as the Greeks had always known, is unique. Therefore, that which is happening to me at this moment is happening at the right moment, in accordance with the necessary, methodical, and harmonious unfolding of all events, all of which occur at their proper time and season.
To will the event that is happening at this moment, and in this present instant, is to will the entire universe which has brought it about. (see p. 143, as well as p. 75, 260)
Regarding your personal desire, you should desire and yearn for opportunities to practice virtue and excellence of the human soul.  Arete (virtue/excellence) is the sole good, according to the Stoics.  Therefore, in every event and circumstance, you should desire and be motivated to practice some virtue (wisdom, justice, discipline, courage) according to the how the situation and context dictates.  This demonstrates how excellent your soul is, given a fated circumstance.

When this is connected to the discipline of assent, we learn to lengthen that pause, we then need to ask ourselves, "what can I learn from this?  What virtue can I exercise given the situation?"

By practicing the discipline of desire, we place our rational nature above our physical nature and we learn to see our proper place in Nature (the cosmos).  Successfully practiced, our soul is content and at peace, leading to eudaimonia.


Stoic ethics is the action or the practice the philosophy.  It is based on how humans are oriented - namely that human beings have an impulse for self-preservation.  And the ultimate self-preservation for human beings is to preserve their rational nature by living a life of arete.

In ethics we learn that arete is the sole good.  It is demonstrated with virtue, such as wisdom, justice, courage and temperance.  It is also demonstrated by avoiding vices.

Anything that does not fall into the categories of virtue or vice, falls under the category of indifferents - things that do not ultimately matter.

One thing that set the Stoics apart from other philosophy schools was their division of indifferents into preferred and non-preferred.  Preferred indifferents generally support the self-preservation of the body, such as health.  But even without preferred indifferents in a Stoic's life, he can still seek after the sole good of virtue and attain eudaimonia.  Cynics reject the notion of preferred indifferents and take a stauncher approach to virtue as the sole good.  Aristotelians lean in the other direction and support the seeking of preferred indifferents in the pursuit of happiness.

So what does all of this have to do with ethics?  Remember, the basis for action is self-preservation.  Humans share the need for physical self-preservation with all animals, but what makes our nature truly unique, is our rational nature.  We preserve our rational self when we pursue a life of virtue and excellence.  Therefore, all our actions should be viewed through the lens of arete.  Just as drinking clean water is good for the body, so to is living a life of arete good for your soul (your rational nature).

The other important idea regarding Stoic ethics is social oikeiosis.  Once a Stoic understands how to truly preserve himself (rational self-preservation), he will extend that circle of care and compassion to those nearest him.  From there, he casts a wider net of concern for his neighbors, then to strangers and other people in the world and he continues to cast a wider net of concern until he see himself as a true cosmopolitan of Nature.

For a fuller treatment on Stoic ethics, see my notes here.

discipline of action

Having lengthened your "pause" in judgement and having learned proper desire, you are now willing to act.

I am not well versed in Epicureanism, but I have heard and read many other aspiring Stoics discuss the differences between Stoicism and Epicureanism.  The Epicureans believed pleasure was the sole good and believed the best way to accomplish this was to "to live modestly, to gain knowledge of the workings of the world, and to limit one's desires." (source)  One way to achieve this was to disengage with society and seek tranquility in a garden or peaceful place.  Indeed this sounds wonderful and peaceful; however Stoicism offers this same peace and tranquility while engaging with society.  For the Stoics, virtue is the sole good and the only real way to practice virtue is in society.  One cannot practice discipline, courage, wisdom and justice unless there are other human beings around, who would give the aspiring Stoic opportunities to practice said virtues.

Furthermore, Stoics would bring others into their circle of care by wanting others to flourish.  The technical Greek term for this is social oikeiĆ“sis.  It can be roughly translated as "familiarity" or "affinity".  Practically speaking, it means each of us as individuals, are naturally programmed to care for ourselves, physically and logically.  While we practice to be better at that, we can also extend our circle of affinity to those closest to us, then on to an ever-widening circle, until we have that same affinity to all citizens of the cosmos; we become true cosmopolitans.

Albert Einstein provides a great visual for circles of compassion:
A human being is part of a whole, called by us the “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.
With these two principals in minds, (acting with virtue in the context of society and viewing all people as "in our circle of care"), Stoicism gives us the tools to enter the world every day and engage with others and keep our tranquility.

action required: stoic exercises

The ancient Stoics, especially Epictetus, were very keen on putting their doctrines into practice.  Musonius Rufus made it clear regarding which was more important: theory or practice.  He asked people if they would rather be healed by a physician who can expound on all sorts of medical theory, but lacks vital experience, or would they rather be healed by an inarticulate doctor with loads of experience and a good track record.  It's rather clear, that most would prefer the experienced over the inexperienced (see p. 33, Sellars, Stoicism).

Similarly, Epictetus made the point using an athletic analogy.  "Come now, show me what progress you're making in this regard.  Suppose I were talking with an athlete and said, Show me your shoulders, and he were to reply, 'Look at my jumping-weights.'  That's quite enough of you and your weights!  What I want to see is what you've achieved by use of those jumping-weights" (p. 11).

In sum, Stoics need to walk the talk, and they demonstrate the walk with Stoic exercises or practices.  Then, as you make these exercises a habit in your life, you will begin to see the benefits as you go through the day by day events and you will be prepared for life altering events - both preferred and non-preferred.  You will be an artist whose media is lived experience.

Stoic exercises help you make the transition from theory to a lived philosophy, in all that you do.  For a detailed treatment on Stoic exercises see my post Stoicism in Practice.


I know I may have taken a bit more time to explain all that, but hopefully the read wasn't too long.  If you want more in-depth analysis on this, I suggest you read my blog post On Happiness - Part Two: Stoic Style.

Also, I highly recommend The Path of the Prokopton Series by Chris Fisher.


Saturday, March 14, 2020

Notes on Stoic Ethics from Stoicism by John Sellars

The beginning, the foundation and basis for Stoic ethics is oikeiosis.  This is “the nature of living beings.”  Roughly translated into English, it means ‘orientation’ and ‘appropriation’ (see p. 107, Sellars).

The theory of oikeiosis is that animals, including human beings, first and foremost have a desire and impulse for self-preservation – they love to physically exist and wish to protect that desire.

With this innate impulse to survive and to continue existence, humans will ascribe good and bad values to things that will help them preserve their existence.  Platonism, alternatively, “posits the existence of an absolute, transcendent concept of ‘the Good’ to which all value ascriptions may be referred” (p. 108, Sellars).  It is on this basis that Platonism looks to in order to understand everything else.  The Stoics, on the other hand, will honestly and seriously consider “the primitive behavior of animals and human beings, and [they do] not try to pretend that selfish motivations are not at the heart of most people’s actions” (p. 108, Sellars).

As discussed in the previous chapter on physics, we learned pneuma has different levels of tension; and the levels of tension increase in complexity from cohesion up to having a soul.  The nature of humans is unique in that self-preservation not only exists for the physical body, but it also exists for our rational nature.  As Sellars states, “If I am to survive as a rational being and not merely as an animal then I must pursue those things that will help preserve my rationality as well as those things that will preserve my body” (p. 108).  And furthermore, humans will put a higher priority on their rational existence over their physical existence.  Therefore, if an individual’s freedom as a rational being is put at risk with the threat of physical death, then the rational choice may be to commit suicide rather than give up rational independence.  This was the choice Socrates, Cato the Younger and Seneca faced, and all chose suicide.

“Zeno divided things that exist into three groups:” (p. 110, Sellars)

  1. good / virtue / arete / and things that participate in virtue
  2. bad / vice / kakia / and things that participate in vice
  3. indifferents / adiaphoron – things such as life, reputation, health, poverty or wealth, external objects

arete / virtue is the only good.  A broader translation would be “excellence” or “an excellent disposition of the soul … perfect rationality” (p. 110, Sellars).

Just as food is valuable because it ensures the viability of our physical body, virtue is valuable because it “contributes to our survival as rational beings” (p. 110, Sellars).

There are three reasons why virtue is the only good: (see p. 110-111, Sellars)

  • First, as the basis of self-rational-preservation, exercising excellence in rationality preserves this unique trait in rational beings.
  • Second, indifferents are a means to an end – either for good or for bad, therefore they are not inherently good.
  • Third, externals cannot guarantee happiness in rational beings.  But virtue can.

Indifferents were divided into three categories: (see p. 111, Sellars)

  1. preferred
  2. non-preferred
  3. indifferent

It is natural to prefer wealth, health and respect to the non-preferred indifferents of poverty, illness and ill repute.  In a sense, these things bring value to physical well-being of rational beings.  They can also bring an added measure of happiness in one’s life.

There are no varying degrees of vice.  If something is bad, it is all bad (see p. 112, Sellars).

The Cynics, Stoics and Aristotelians are on a rough spectrum when it comes to what brings happiness in a rational being’s life.  On the one end, the Cynics strictly adhered to the notion that virtue is the sole good and “they would reject any attempt to prioritize among the indifferents.”  One the other end, the Aristotelians “argued that such things [indifferents] are necessary along with virtue for a happy life.”  The Stoics do not go to either end of the spectrum, and say externals are not necessary for a happy life – that virtue alone is sufficient – but they do recognize that preferred indifferents add to the value of a physical life (see p. 112-113, Sellars).

Epictetus categorized the good, the bad and the indifferent into two categories: things that are “up to us” and things that are “not up to us” (p. 113, Sellars).

Epictetus said that spending time and effort choosing between preferred and non-preferred indifferents was not a good use of time and energy.  We would be much better off if we spent “all our attention on developing the only thing that is genuinely good, namely our virtue or excellence.”  Furthermore, he would contend that there is a slippery slope from “frustration to a violent emotion” for those people who would pursue preferred indifferents (see p. 114, Sellars).

The one thing that is good (virtue / arete / excellence) is also found completely within our control by means of “our faculty of ‘choice’ (prohairesis)” (p. 114, Sellars).  This means, we can always choose virtue and live virtuously, no matter the circumstance or what preferred or non-preferred indifferents we possess.

Zeno held emotions to be the product of judgments instead of thinking emotions are judgments (as Chrysippus contended).  Zeno’s reasoning is more reasonable due to the notion that people’s actual emotions of an event (say a death of a parent) will usually fade over time.  But, the person’s opinion of the death of their parent may be that the death was still a terrible thing, even years later.  Therefore, if we assume judgments are emotions, then it would stand to reason the emotion from an event, should be just as strong (years later) as at the time of the event.  But since this is usually not the case, we can conclude the judgement causes emotion instead of judgement being emotion.

The process leading to the formation of an emotion (p. 115-116, Sellars):

  1. “receive impressions that present external objects to us” over which we have no control
  2. “we make a judgment” and “sometimes we add an unconscious value judgement to our impressions”
  3. “if we assent to impression that includes one of these unconscious value judgments then we shall create an emotional response”

First movements are “immediate physical responses” people will sometimes experience “before they have had a chance to form a judgement about what is happening” (p. 116, Sellars).

The difference between first movement and a genuine emotion is the gap in time and thinking of the presentation of the external event or object.  Seneca notes that genuine emotion is in the act of surrendering to these snap, unconscious judgments (see p. 116, Sellars).

The more often we practice proper reasoning, in order to avoid mistaken judgments and “assents to impressions that include unwarranted ascriptions of value” the better off we can control our emotions.  And since our rationality and ability to judge and assent are entirely within our control, our emotions can be entirely within our control (see p. 117, Sellars).

The three good emotions are: joy, caution and wishing (p. 118, Sellars).

Caution can be a good emotion as “rational avoidance” in counter to fear.  Caution is good (wise) as one takes measures “to prevent the loss of ones’ virtue” (p. 119, Sellars).

The three good emotions produce six good emotional states as follows:

  • joy --> mirth and cheerfulness
  • caution --> modesty and reverence
  • wishing --> benevolence and friendliness

A rational being preserves oneself as a rational being “by cultivating virtue” (p. 120, Sellars).

The names of the two types of appropriate actions (kathekon) that one should pursue are middle or intermediate (meson kathekon) and perfect or completely correct (katorthoma) (see p. 120-121, Sellars).

According to Stoics, non-rational animals can pursue appropriate actions, but they cannot pursue completely correct actions (see p. 121, Sellars).

When two people perform appropriate actions throughout their life, in exactly the same way, but the first person does so “without much conscious thought or consideration” and the second person acts consciously and deliberately and has “come to a firm conclusion that these are the most appropriate actions to undertake” then the second, ‘conscious’ person is said to have taken “completely correct” action and their behavior would be preferable to the first person’s.  Furthermore, the second person would be able to explain exactly why they have taken appropriate action – they would be able to explain their art and craft of living and would be able to sustain their way of life in the future (see p. 121-122, Sellars).

Sellars writes, “Being virtuous is good because in some sense it is good for me to be virtuous” (p. 122).  Returning to the basis of Stoic ethics is the idea of self-preservation both physically and rationally.  Not only should rational beings not harm themselves physically or rationally, but they should do what must be done to promote well-being within themselves in both the physical and rational sense.  In other words, they would want to flourish physically and rationally.  Therefore, choosing a life based on arete and striving for that excellence in living is good for (beneficial for) the rational being.

“The Stoics, like the vast majority of ancient philosophers, are “eudaimonists.”  Eudaimonia has been translated to mean ‘happiness.’  “It refers to a substantive well-being in one’s life … [and] is sometimes translated as ‘well-being’ or ‘flourishing’” (p. 123, Sellars).  Ancient philosophers considered eudaimonia to be universally desired and therefore there was no reason to explicitly state that the end of all philosophy was to achieve eudaimonia.  They simply viewed it to be “the summum bonum, namely that ‘for the sake of which everything is done but which is not done for the sake of anything else’” (p. 123, Sellars).

Regarding the translation of arete to ‘virtue’ – it would be better to simply use the word arete as there is no precise translation and the meaning is much broader than ‘virtue’ alone.  Sellars defines it as “an excellent disposition of the soul” and sometimes the translation is shortened to ‘excellence.’  In sum, one should educate himself of the full definition and meaning of the word and use the word rather than simple English translations.

Eudaimonia (translated as happiness) is the end-all of philosophy.  It is not some external benefit (i.e. preferred indifferent) like health and wealth.  Since the Stoic can act with excellence of soul and thus possess eudaimonia, and this effort is entirely within the control of the rational being, happiness, therefore, is not an external benefit – it is the end.

The Stoics, beginning with Zeno, have stated that to achieve the summum bonum one must live in harmony or consistently with Nature.  There are three aspects to living according to Nature (see p. 125, Sellars).

  1. “living harmoniously with oneself … living consistently and free from internal emotional conflict”
  2. “living in accordance with one’s own nature … as a rational being” and actively pursuing this rather than “passively reacting to external forces”
  3. “bringing oneself into harmony with Nature as a whole”

There are two aspects to human beings: the physical and the rational.  Sellars only discusses the rational.  But one could say that a human should live in harmony with their physical nature.  Choosing to live free from external physical conflict by doing what should be done to promote a healthy, sound physical body.  Sellars gets close to addressing this on page 128 when he writes, “Thus it is in harmony with Nature (my own nature) to choose those things that will contribute to my own self-preservation, things such as health and wealth …”  And he goes on to clarify that it is in the choosing that we remain in harmony with Nature, and that actually obtaining those things is beyond our control.

We become cosmopolitan when we widen our circle of self-preservation to those nearest to us and then extending that concern outward to neighbors, communities, cities, states, nations, then eventually the world and the universe.  This is known as “social oikeiosis” (p. 131, Sellars).

Albert Einstein shared a similar sentiment when he consoled a grieving father who lost his young son to polio.  Einstein wrote, “A human being is part of a whole, called by us the “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty” (source).