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Farnam Street helps you make better decisions, innovate, and avoid stupidity.
With over 350,000 monthly readers and more than 87,000 subscribers to our popular weekly digest, we've become an online intellectual hub.
A memorable passage from Epictetus in The Discourses.
Be not deceived, every animal is attached to nothing so much as to its own interest. Whatever then seems to hinder his way to this, be it a brother or a father or a child, the object of his passion or his own lover, he hates him, guards against him, curses him. For his nature is to love nothing so much as his own interest; this is his father and brother and kinsfolk and country and god. At any rate, when the gods seem to hinder us in regard to this we revile even the gods and overthrow their statues and set fire to their temples, as Alexander ordered the shrines of Asclepius to be burnt when the object of his passion died. Therefore if interest, religion and honour, country, parents and friends are set in the same scale, then all are safe; but if interest is in one scale, and in the other friends and country and kindred and justice itself, all these are weighed down by interest and disappear. For the creature must needs incline to that side where ‘I’ and ‘mine’ are; if they are in the flesh, the ruling power must be there; if in the will, it must be there; if in external things, it must be there.
If then I identify myself with my will, then and only then shall I be a friend and son and father in the true sense. For this will be my interest—to guard my character for good faith, honour, forbearance, self-control, and service of others, to maintain my relations with others. But if I separate myself from what is noble, then Epicurus’ statement is confirmed, which declares that ‘there is no such thing as the noble or at best it is but the creature of opinion’.
The Stoic way of life is the expression that encompasses the Stoic’s attitude toward practical affairs. It really is “an anachronism,” writes Ludwig Edelstein in his book The Meaning of Stoicism.
It was Pythagoras who first taught a “way of life.” The Stoics usually speak of an “art of life,” an ars vivendi, not in the sense of any inspirational action but in the sense of a settled disposition, which makes man act with the certainty of an accomplished craftsman, which teaches him how to do things in an unvarying order.
From the very beginning Stoic teaching was interested in man in the context of his community.
Perhaps it is true that classical ethics taught man how to shape himself, that is, to shape his being as an artist shapes a statue. The harmonious personality was the aim of Epicurus also. Yet one often gets the impression that these ancient moralists thought of man as if he were isolated from others. This is not so of the Stoic, for whom man is a social being and can perfect himself only within the community of man and not just the community of citizens either. The highest ideal of the Stoic way of life, therefore, was to live with others. While it was the dream of the Epicurean sage to live hidden from the world, it was the duty of the Stoic sage to understand that he could never consider himself a private individual. Social obligations take precedence over individual tasks, and individual ethics is ipso facto social ethics. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why Stoicism exercised such profound influence on Christianity.
Generally speaking we owe much to Stoic ethics as they “imbued man’s actions with a new respect for human dignity.” For example, the Stoa first recognized the equality of husband and wife. They also believed that children were free to choose their own path and that slaves were people. At the time, these beliefs cut through the established Greek philosophical guard.
Not only did they hold that men and women have one virtue and that beyond and above the manly virtues there are human virtues which are valid for both men and women, but they considered matrimony to be much more than a community of the body, to be a community of the soul. The wife is the husband’s other self, his truest friend. He will, therefore, not marry for money or for family connections or even for beauty. What is important about married life is what contributes to the human qualities of both partners, the use of their common life. Nothing is further from the stoic attitude … than the point of view expressed by Shakespeare’s Petruchio “I will be master of what is my own; she is my goods, my chattels.”
Thus the first step is taken in acknowledging the dignity, the rights, and the humanity of the other person; and what is true of the husband’s attitude toward his wife is true also of his attitude toward his children. Their rights must be respected and especially their right to educate themselves and choose their own way of life. When Epictetus was confronted by a son who did not have his father’s permission to study philosophy, he was not afraid to defend the son against the father. The father’s rights and prerogatives are limited by the rights of the son, or rather the obligations of the one as well as of the other must be respected.
So what of slaves then?
This respect for the inalienable and indefeasible rights of the individual appears most clearly in the attitude prescribed with respect to the slave, the third member of the family in addition to parents and children. The slave, said Chrysippus, is a man hired for life. Slavery is nothing but subordination to the master; if it turns into possession of the slave by the master, it is lordship, and this is evil. As human beings, free men and slaves are equals.
The Stoic defense of the workman, or laborer, is fascinating. The prevailing view at the time was that work was not disgraceful or dishonorable, it was a necessity. This necessity however gave you a free pass on virtue because you were, in effect, a servant of others. The Stoa changed this view and in the process created a precursor to professional ethics.
Whether or not the preclassical centuries were free of contempt for manual labour, by the end of the classical era it had become something contemptible in democratic and oligarchical societies alike. Socrates’ defence of the workman on the ground that work brings neither disgrace nor dishonor is quite revolutionary, and so is the Pythagorean theory of work and workmanship. What is much more characteristic of the common attitude is Aristotle’s remark that the artisan is subject to limited servitude while the slave is subject to unlimited servitude. Between the two, then, there is only a difference of degree. Surely, in all early centuries there is no idealization of work as such. It is considered to be a dire necessity rather than an ennobling activity; and, most important, it precludes man from practicing moral virtue.
Stoic philosophy attributed to work a value of its own, however. Work is a natural human occupation and does not exclude man from a virtuous life; it is compatible with the moral order and forms a part of it, for morality can be realized not merely in performing the duties of the citizen but also in any other human action. Aristotle had allowed that workmanship may be noble or ignoble depending on the degree of virtue that it requires as an accessory; but he had declined even to discuss the question in detail in his Politics because that would be ungentlemanlike. For the Stoa it was axiomatic that in whatever station man may find himself it is possible for him to live up to moral rules.
… In terms of economic theory it means that the arts and crafts are no longer distinguished as less noble than the possession of wealth. Worker and capitalist are on the same level, so to speak. The relation between them becomes that of two rich men, equally independent, making use of their wealth, the wealth of the one being his skill or manual strength and the wealth of the other his money. There is also a change in the attitude toward the product of wealth and toward the worker. The classical age was concerned only with technical proficiency in the artist and with the product of his art or craft. Now the human qualities of that craftsman, his inner relation to his achievement and to his customer, his reliability, his wish to do right in the widest sense of the term, are made the main content of appreciation. This point is especially important. Aristotle can still put the aporia: will it not be necessary for artisans to have virtue, since they frequently fall short in their tasks owing to intemperance? But he decides that nothing can be done about this. While the owner of a slave is educated and becomes virtuous, the artisan who lives in limited slavery is outside the control of his employer; his virtue is personal concern.
Through Stoic teaching, work is moralized, however. A sense of responsibility toward it is enjoined upon everybody. How one behaves in the performance of one’s work is no longer a matter of indifference. The more character must, so to speak, shine through one’s doings; Soberness and temperance must shine through every activity. Thus an ethos of work and workmanship arises, unknown before or known at most to the political theorist who can speak of the official as a servant of the state or of the law.
Most important perhaps, the rehabilitation and the reshaping of men’s attitude toward manual work eventually leads to a more general theory of calling or vocation. The classical age knew nothing of what can be properly called professional ethics. That is, it was not understood that each profession imposes specific duties. For example, the physician must help his patient, be he free or slave, friend or enemy, and on no condition is he permitted to do any harm. The judge is not allowed to show favor to anybody, not even to the friend who may appear before him; impartiality is his specific virtue. These duties are imposed upon the member of the profession by the role he plays in life.
Forget Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, how about capital in the 4th century BC.
In the Stoic’s opinion, business too has an ethics of its own. To make as much money as one needs is fair but to steal from another what is his is against the human law, said Chrysippus (one of the main Stoics).
… Stoic philosophy initiated a reversal of the attitude of the wealthy to the poor and infused the ideal of humaneness with the virtue of generosity. …
Generally speaking, the thesis of the Stoics was that he who has money does not have it for himself, does not possess it or own it anymore than he owns his wife or his children or anything else. You have money for the benefit of your children, of your relations, of your friends, or the state, say Seneca. The rich man, to put it succinctly, is but the trustee of his wealth. Such a position was maintained by the Stoics without in any way casting doubt on the right of private property. Private property is a natural good; it is guaranteed by justice, which gives to everybody his own. The world is a theater with different seats, and one must not complain if one does not sit in the front row nor claim that one has a right to do so. Rights differ as men differ. The Stoa, therefore, opposed socialism and communism as they were preached in Hellenistic utopias, but it does not condone a theory of the laissez faire, to which Aristotle had already objected.
The Stoics were not exactly for the invisible hand either. Their approach, built on the foundation of community, is worth visiting, and learning from.
[T]hey asked the individual to learn that it is necessary for him to live for others and that he is born for human society at large, of which he must always feel himself to be a member rather than a fragment separated off. Here in humanity and not in the state, in the moral company of man, he is truly at home. He must take care of present and future as far as social problems are concerned; and the greatest sin of a human being is to say après nous le Déluge or, as the Stoics put it in the familiar words of a Greek poet, “it is wicked and inhuman for men to declare that they care not if when they themselves are dead, the universal conflagration ensues.”
We can add The Meaning of Stoicism to our growing collection of Stoic wisdom.
You know the section after the last chapter that everyone ignores? Well that’s one of the first things I read. This is how I read a book. This is part of systematic skimming and allows me to get a feel for the author’s vocabulary, a sense of what the book is about, how arguments are structured, and references and sources. It’s also a good place to find new reading material.
I received a pre-release copy of Ryan Holiday’s new book, The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph, in the mail this week. The book comes out in a couple of weeks. In the back I came across something I wish I had found a few years ago when I first started reading philosophy, a stoic reading list.
The Big Three.
Stoicism is perhaps the only “philosophy” where the original, primary texts are actually cleaner and easier to read than anything academics have written afterward. Which is awesome because it means you can dive into the subject and go straight to the source.
1. Meditations by Marcus Aurelius.
I loved this book. I had read it before but it wasn’t the Hays translation, which made a world of difference for me.
There is one translation of Marcus Aurelius to read and that is Gregory Hays’s amazing edition for the Modern Library. Everything else falls sadly short. His version is completely devoid of any “thou’s” “arts” “shalls.” It’s beautiful and haunting. I’ve recommended this book to literally thousands of people at this point. Buy it. Change your life.
Seneca or Marcus are the best places to start if you’re looking to explore Stoicism. Seneca seems like he would have been a fun guy to know—which is unusual for a Stoic. I suggest starting with On the Shortness of Life (a collection of short essays) and then move to his book of letters (which are really more like essays than true correspondence).
Of the big three, Epictetus is the most preachy and least fun to read. But he will also from time to time express something so clearly and profoundly that it will shake you to your core.
But wait … there’s more.
Holiday points us to some other great authors too, who are in line with some stoic thinking.
To which we can add
Other Books that Holiday Recommends:
Some articles and online resources:
I’d also add — thanks to the hundred or so emails I’ve received on this — two books that keep popping up. First, Pierre Hadot’s Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault. Second, William Irvine’s A Guide To The Good Life.
Over to you. Comments are open.
What’s on your stoic reading list? Any good resources not mentioned here?
The Enchiridion (“The Manual”) is a short read on stoic advice for living. Epictetus’ practical precepts might change your life.
What’s in our control and what’s not
Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.
Work, therefore to be able to say to every harsh appearance, “You are but an appearance, and not absolutely the thing you appear to be.” And then examine it by those rules which you have, and first, and chiefly, by this: whether it concerns the things which are in our own control, or those which are not; and, if it concerns anything not in our control, be prepared to say that it is nothing to you.
What disturbs us
Men are disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions which they form concerning things. … When therefore we are hindered, or disturbed, or grieved, let us never attribute it to others, but to ourselves; that is, to our own principles. An uninstructed person will lay the fault of his own bad condition upon others.
How to be happy
Don’t demand that things happen as you wish, but wish that they happen as they do happen, and you will go on well.
Epictetus, like Holocaust-survivor Viktor Frankl, believed in the fundamental ability to choose how you respond.
Sickness is a hindrance to the body, but not to your ability to choose, unless that is your choice. Lameness is a hindrance to the leg, but not to your ability to choose. Say this to yourself with regard to everything that happens, then you will see such obstacles as hindrances to something else, but not to yourself.
What to do when someone provokes you
Remember, that not he who gives ill language or a blow insults, but the principle which represents these things as insulting. When, therefore, anyone provokes you, be assured that it is your own opinion which provokes you.
If a person gave your body to any stranger he met on his way, you would certainly be angry. And do you feel no shame in handing over your own mind to be confused and mystified by anyone who happens to verbally attack you?
When you become familiar with something…
Like an ape, you mimic all you see, and one thing after another is sure to please you, but is out of favor as soon as it becomes familiar. For you have never entered upon anything considerately, nor after having viewed the whole matter on all sides, or made any scrutiny into it, but rashly, and with a cold inclination.
Silence is golden
Be for the most part silent, or speak merely what is necessary, and in few words.
When you hear of someone speaking ill of you
If anyone tells you that such a person speaks ill of you, don’t make excuses about what is said of you, but answer: “He does not know my other faults, else he would not have mentioned only these.”
On decision making:
Deliberate much before saying or doing anything, for you will not have the power of recalling what has been said or done.
Attempt on every occasion to provide for nothing so much as that which is safe: for silence is safer than speaking. And omit speaking whatever is without sense and reason.
How to live free from sorrow:
If you wish to live a life free from sorrow, think of what is going to happen as if it had already happened.
Before deciding if someone is acting ill
… unless you perfectly understand the principle from which anyone acts, how should you know if he acts ill?
The Enchiridion is well worth a read.
I wanted to share with you some wisdom from Sharon Lebell’s contemporary interpretation of Epictetus’ The Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness, and Effectiveness.
Those who are dedicated to a life of wisdom understand that the impulse to blame something or someone is foolishness, that there is nothing to be gained in blaming, whether it be others or oneself.
Embrace what you get
Events happen as they do. People behave as they are. Embrace what you actually get. It is not things that disturb us, but our interpretation of their significance. … Remember to discriminate between events themselves and your interpretations of them.
We are ultimately controlled by that which bestows what we seek or removes what we don’t want. If it’s freedom you seek, then wish nothing and shun nothing that depends on others, or you will always be a helpless slave. … Most people tend to delude themselves into thinking that freedom comes from doing what feels good or what fosters comfort and ease. The truth is that people who subordinate reason to their feelings of the moment are actually slaves of their desires and aversions.
If someone were to casually give your body away to any old passerby, you would naturally be furious. Why then do you feel no shame in giving your precious mind over to any person who might wish to influence you.
When we blather about trivial things, we ourselves become trivial, for our attention gets taken up with trivialities. You become what you give attention to.
The wise do not confuse information or data, however prodigious or cleverly deployed, with comprehensive knowledge or transcendent wisdom.
Popular perceptions, values, and ways of doing things are rarely the wisest. Many pervasive beliefs would not pass appropriate tests of rationality. Conventional thinking — its means and ends — is essentially uncreative and uninteresting. Its job is to preserve the status quo for overly self-defended individuals and institutions.
Take care not to casually discuss matters that are of great importance to you with people who are not important to you. … Most people only know how to respond to an idea by pouncing on its shortfalls rather than identifying its potential merits. Practice self-containment so that your enthusiasm won’t be frittered away.
From Sharon Lebell’s contemporary interpretation of Epictetus’ The Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness, and Effectiveness
Don’t just say you have read books. Show that through them you have learned to think better, to be a more discriminating and reflective person. Books are the training weights of the mind. They are very helpful, but it would be a bad mistake to suppose that one has made progress simply by having internalized their contents.
|Still curious? Epictetus was born into slavery about 55 ce in the eastern outreaches of the Roman Empire. Once freed, he established an influential school of Stoic philosophy, stressing that human beings cannot control life, only their responses to it. By putting into practice the ninety-three witty, wise, and razor-sharp instructions that make up The Art of Living, readers learn to meet the challenges of everyday life successfully and to face life’s inevitable losses and disappointments with grace.*|