books stoic stoicism


One of her favorites was about the Greek general Xenophon. Late one night, as a young man, he was walking through an alleyway between two buildings near the Athenian marketplace. Suddenly a mysterious stranger, hidden in the shadows, blocked his path with a wooden staff. A voice inquired from the darkness, “Do you know where someone should go if he wants to buy goods?” Xenophon replied that they were right beside the agora, the finest marketplace in the world. There you could buy any goods your heart desired: jewelry, food, clothing, and so on. The stranger paused for a moment before asking another question: “Where, then, should one go in order to learn how to become a good person?” Xenophon was dumbstruck. He had no idea how to answer. The mysterious figure then lowered his staff, stepped out of the shadows, and introduced himself as Socrates. Socrates said that they should both try to discover how someone could become a good person, because that’s surely more important than knowing where to buy all sorts of goods. So Xenophon went with Socrates and became one of his closest friends and followers.
CBT is a short-term therapy, a remedial approach to mental health issues like anxiety and depression. Everyone knows that prevention is better than cure. Techniques and concepts from CBT have been adapted for use in resilience building, to reduce the risk of developing serious emotional problems in the future. However, I believe that for many people a combination of Stoic philosophy and CBT may be even more suited for use as a long-term preventive approach.
The Stoics can teach you how to find a sense of purpose in life, how to face adversity, how to conquer anger within yourself, moderate your desires, experience healthy sources of joy, endure pain and illness patiently and with dignity, exhibit courage in the face of your anxieties, cope with loss, and perhaps even confront your own mortality while remaining as unperturbed as Socrates.
Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be; just be one.
To learn how to die, according to the Stoics, is to unlearn how to be a slave.
Everyone from Alexander the Great right down to his lowly mule driver ends up lying under the same ground. King and pauper alike, the same fate ultimately awaits everyone
As long as we can grasp the truth firmly enough that certain misfortunes are inevitable, we no longer feel the need to worry about them.
As death is among the most certain things in life, to a man of wisdom it should be among the least feared.
They felt the pain of loss but did not succumb to it. Marcus has been bereaved so many times, has practiced his response to it so often, that he no longer weeps uncontrollably. He no longer cries “Why?” and “How could this happen?” or even entertains such thoughts. He has firmly grasped the truth that death is both a natural and inevitable part of life.
Never say that anything has been lost, they tell us. Only that it has returned to Nature.
“Go to the rising sun,” he said, “for I am already setting.”
Xenophon’s Memorabilia of Socrates.
The ancient philosophy of Cynicism focused on cultivating virtue and strength of character through rigorous training that consisted of enduring various forms of “voluntary hardship.” It was an austere and self-disciplined way of life.
His followers believed that studying philosophical theory, or subjects like logic and cosmology, can be good insofar as it makes us more virtuous and improves our character. However, it can also be a bad thing if it becomes so pedantic or overly “academic” that it diverts us from the pursuit of virtue. Marcus learned the same attitude from his Stoic teachers. He repeatedly warned himself not to become distracted by reading too many books—thus wasting time on trifling issues in logic and metaphysics—but instead to remain focused on the practical goal of living wisely.
Zeno founded his own school in a public building overlooking the agora known as the Stoa Poikile, or “Painted Porch,”
our character is the only thing that ultimately matters and that wisdom consists in learning to view everything else in life as utterly worthless by comparison.
They’re not always completely indifferent. For Stoics, virtue is still the only true good—the Cynics were right about that—but it’s also natural to prefer health to sickness, wealth to poverty, friends to enemies, and so on, within reasonable bounds. External advantages such as wealth may create more opportunities but in themselves they simply don’t have the kind of value that can ever define a good life.
Chrysippus, one of the most acclaimed intellectuals of the ancient world.
A few generations after Augustus, the Stoic philosopher Seneca was appointed rhetoric tutor to the young Emperor Nero, later becoming his speechwriter and political advisor—a position that clearly placed a strain on Seneca’s Stoic moral values as Nero degenerated into a cruel despot. At the same time, a political faction called the Stoic Opposition, led by a senator called Thrasea, was attempting to take a principled stand against Nero and those subsequent emperors whom they considered tyrants. Marcus would later mention his admiration for Cato, Thrasea, and others associated with them, which is intriguing because these Stoics had been famous opponents, or at least critics, of imperial rule.
Epictetus is the most quoted author in The Meditations.
Nearly five centuries after Zeno the dye merchant founded the Stoic school, Marcus Aurelius was still talking about dyeing things purple. He warns himself to avoid dyeing his character with the royal purple and turning into a Caesar, instead aspiring to remain true to his philosophical principles.
The most influential texts we have today come from the three famous Roman Stoics of the Imperial era: Seneca’s various letters and essays, Epictetus’s Discourses and Handbook, and Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. We also have some earlier Roman writings on Stoicism by Cicero and about a book’s worth of fragments from the early Greek Stoics, as well as various other minor texts.
goal of life. For Stoics, that goal is defined as “living in agreement with Nature,” which we’re told was synonymous with living wisely and virtuously. Stoics argued that humans are first and foremost thinking creatures, capable of exercising reason.
If “virtue” sounds a bit pompous, the Greek word for it, arete, is arguably better translated as “excellence of character.” Something excels, in this sense, if it performs its function well. Humans excel when they think clearly and reason well about their lives, which amounts to living wisely.
Socratic division of cardinal virtues into wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation.
if we could put virtue on one side of a set of scales, it wouldn’t matter how many gold coins or other indifferent things piled up on the opposing side—it should never tip the balance. Nevertheless, some external things are preferable to others, and wisdom consists precisely in our ability to make these sorts of value judgments. Life is preferable to death, wealth is preferable to poverty, health is preferable to sickness, friends are preferable to enemies, and so on.
Most important of all, the pursuit of these preferred indifferent things must never be done at the expense of virtue. For instance, wisdom may tell us that wealth is generally preferable to debt, but valuing money more highly than justice is a vice.
“ruling faculty” (hegemonikon).
Some pains have the potential to make us stronger, and some pleasures to harm
Also, when people talk about being stoic or having a stiff upper lip, they often mean just suppressing their feelings, which is actually known to be quite unhealthy. So it’s important to be very clear that’s not what Marcus Aurelius and other Stoics recommended. Stoic philosophy teaches us instead to transform unhealthy emotions into healthy ones. We do so by using reason to challenge the value judgments and other beliefs on which they’re based, much as we do in modern rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT) and cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).
Marcus Annius Verus,
Hadrian nicknamed the boy Verissimus, meaning “truest” or “most truthful,” a play on his family name of Verus, which means “true.”
Teachers of rhetoric, the formal study of the language used in giving speeches and part of any young aristocrat’s curriculum in those days, were known as Sophists, reviving a Greek tradition that went back to the time of Socrates. They often included moral lessons, bits of philosophy, and other aspects of intellectual culture in their lessons. Hence our word “sophistication,” which is loosely what they sought to impart. As Socrates had long ago observed, although Sophists often sounded like they were doing philosophy, their underlying goal was to win praise by displaying verbal eloquence rather than attaining virtue for its own sake.
However, the emperor was clearly on very good terms with Epictetus’s most famous student, Arrian, who wrote down and edited The Discourses and Handbook.
not to confuse academic learning with wisdom
Rhetoric is a form of entertainment, pleasant to hear; philosophy is a moral and psychological therapy, often painful to hear because it forces us to admit our own faults in order to remedy them
Epictetus taught a form of Stoicism that held aspects of Cynicism in particularly high regard. It’s said he was known for the slogan “endure and renounce” (or “bear and forbear”). Marcus seems to recall this saying in The Meditations when he tells himself that he must aim to bear with other people’s flaws and forbear from any wrongdoing against them, while calmly accepting things outside of his direct control.
cold showers are popular with those influenced by Stoicism today.
“Greek training” in enduring voluntary hardship. The French scholar Pierre Hadot believed that this phrase alluded to the notorious Spartan training, aspects of which may have influenced the austere lifestyle adopted by Cynic philosophers and some Stoics.
Epictetus’s lectures and were studying The Discourses transcribed by Arrian. In The Meditations, Marcus names Epictetus as an exemplary philosopher alongside Socrates and Chrysippus,10 and quotes him more than any other author.
In early 138 AD, on the day of his adoption, young Marcus Annius Verus assumed Antoninus’s family name, becoming forever known as Marcus Aurelius Antoninus.
He believed that true strength consisted of one’s ability to show kindness, not violence or aggression.
Herodes Atticus and others trained him extensively in Greek, the language he would use to write The Meditations.
We’re told that Plato’s saying was always on Marcus’s lips: those states prospered where the philosophers were kings or the kings philosophers.
the imperial palace, the House of Tiberius,
Their philosophy contained within itself a moral and psychological therapy (therapeia) for minds troubled by anger, fear, sadness, and unhealthy desires. They called the goal of this therapy apatheia, meaning not apathy but rather freedom from harmful desires and emotions (passions).
We find it in The Attic Nights, a book of anecdotes written by Aulus Gellius, a grammarian who was a contemporary of Marcus Aurelius.
Epictetus reputedly told his students that the founders of Stoicism distinguished between two stages of our response to any event, including threatening situations. First come the initial impressions (phantasiai) that are imposed involuntarily on our minds from outside, when we’re initially exposed to an event such as the storm at sea. These impressions can be triggered, says Epictetus, by a terrifying sound such as a peal of thunder, a building collapsing, or a sudden cry of danger. Even the mind of a perfect Stoic Sage will initially be shaken by abrupt shocks of this kind, and he will shrink back from them instinctively in alarm. This reaction doesn’t come from faulty value judgments about the dangers faced but from an emotional reflex arising in his body, which temporarily bypasses reason. Epictetus might have added that these emotional reactions are comparable to those experienced by non-human animals. Seneca, for instance, notes that when animals are alarmed by the appearance of danger, they take flight, but after they have escaped, their anxiety soon abates and they return to grazing in peace once again.16 By contrast, the human capacity for thought allows us to perpetuate our worries beyond these natural bounds. Reason, our greatest blessing, is also our greatest curse.
In the second stage of our response, the Stoics say, we typically add voluntary judgments of “assent” (sunkatatheseis) to these automatic impressions. Here the Stoic wise man’s response differs from that of the majority of people. He does not go along with the initial emotional reactions to a situation that have invaded his mind. Epictetus says the Stoic should neither assent to nor confirm these emerging impressions, such as anxiety in the face of danger. Rather, he rejects them as misleading, views them with studied indifference, and lets go of them. By contrast, the unwise are carried away by their initial impression of external events—including those that are terrible and to be feared—and continue to worry, ruminate, and even complain aloud about a perceived threat.
“You are just an impression and not at all the things you claim to represent,” or “It is not things that upset us but our judgments about them.”
The Stoic likewise tells himself that although the situation may appear frightening, the truly important thing in life is how he chooses to respond.
We shouldn’t try to resist them, but rather we should accept their occurrence as natural, as long as we don’t allow our mind to add the judgment that the things we’re experiencing are good or bad.
This is important, because people who confuse “Stoicism” with “stoicism” (i.e., having a stiff upper lip) often think that it’s about suppressing feelings like anxiety, which they view as bad, harmful, or shameful. That’s not only bad psychology, it’s also totally in conflict with Stoic philosophy, which teaches us to accept our involuntary emotional reactions, our flashes of anxiety, as indifferent: neither good nor bad.
What matters, in other words, isn’t what we feel but how we respond to those feelings.
According to Stoic philosophy, when we assign intrinsic values like “good” or “bad” to external events, we’re behaving irrationally and even exhibiting a form of self-deception. When we call something a “catastrophe,” for instance, we go beyond the bare facts and start distorting events and deceiving ourselves.
According to Diogenes Laertius, Stoic rhetoric identified five “virtues” of speech: 1. Correct grammar and good vocabulary 2. Clarity of expression, making the ideas easily understood 3. Conciseness, employing no more words than necessary 4. Appropriateness of style, suited to the subject matter and apparently also to the audience 5. Distinction, or artistic excellence, and the avoidance of vulgarity
Indeed, one way of understanding the contrast between Stoic philosophy and Sophistic rhetoric is to view Stoicism as the practice of a kind of antirhetoric or counterrhetoric. Whereas orators traditionally sought to exploit the emotions of their audience, the Stoics made a point of consciously describing events in plain and simple terms. Cutting through misleading language and value judgments and stripping away any embellishments or emotive language, they tried to articulate the facts more calmly and soberly.
The way we talk and think about events involves making value judgments, which shape our feelings.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet exclaims, “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” The Stoics would agree that there’s nothing good or bad in the external world. Only what is up to us can be truly “good” or “bad,” which makes these terms synonymous with virtue and vice. Wisdom therefore consists in grasping external things objectively, as indifferent in this regard.
If you stick with the facts and don’t unnecessarily extrapolate from them, you will put paid to many anxieties in life.
Zeno coined the Stoic technical term phantasia kataleptike to refer to this Stoic way of viewing events objectively, separating value judgments from facts. Pierre Hadot translates it as “objective representation,” which is the term we’ll use.29 However, it literally means an impression that gets a grip on reality and thereby prevents us from being swept along by our passions. It anchors our thoughts in reality.
you should begin by practicing deliberately describing events more objectively and in less emotional terms.
“What, realistically, will most likely happen next? And then what? And then what?”
When their friends were struggling emotionally, Stoics sometimes wrote them letters of consolation, helping them to view events in a less catastrophic, more constructive way. Six consolation letters written by Seneca exist today.
You can start training yourself in this Stoic practice of objective representation right now by writing down a description of an upsetting or problematic event in plain language. Phrase things as accurately as possible and view them from a more philosophical perspective, with studied indifference. Once you’ve mastered this art, take it a step further by following the example of Paconius Agrippinus and look for positive opportunities. Write how you could exercise strength of character and cope wisely with the situation. Ask yourself how someone you admire might cope with the same situation or what that person might advise you to do. Treat the event like a sparring partner in the gym, giving you an opportunity to strengthen your emotional resilience and coping skills. You might want to read your script aloud and review it several times or compose several versions until you’re satisfied it’s helped you change how you feel about events.
Exercicio 1
Cognitive therapists have likewise, for many decades, taught their clients the famous quotation from Epictetus: “It’s not things that upset us but our judgments about things,”
However, there are also many other cognitive distancing techniques used in modern CBT, such as these: •  Writing down your thoughts concisely when they occur and viewing them on paper •  Writing them on a whiteboard and looking at them “over there”—literally from a distance •  Prefixing them with a phrase like “Right now, I notice that I am thinking…” •  Referring to them in the third person, for example, “Donald is thinking…,” as if you’re studying the thoughts and beliefs of someone else •  Evaluating in a detached manner the pros and cons of holding a certain opinion •  Using a counter or a tally to monitor with detached curiosity the frequency of certain thoughts •  Shifting perspective and imagining a range of alternative ways of looking at the same situation so that your initial viewpoint becomes less fixed and rigid. For example, “How might I feel about crashing my car if I were like Marcus Aurelius?” “If this happened to my daughter, how would I advise her to cope?” “How will I think about this, looking back on events, ten or twenty years from now?”
The Handbook actually opens with a technique to remind ourselves that some things are “up to us,” or directly under our control, and other things are not. Modern Stoics sometimes call this the “Dichotomy of Control” or the “Stoic Fork.”
Socrates wasn’t afraid of death. Although he may have preferred to live, he was relatively indifferent to dying as long as he met his death with wisdom and virtue. This used to be known as the ideal of a “good death,” from which our word “euthanasia” derives.
The Stoics taught Marcus that anger is nothing but temporary madness and that its consequences are often irreparable,
Marcus probably meant the Discourses recorded by Arrian, which he quotes several times in The Meditations. As we’ve seen, Arrian was a student of Epictetus who transcribed eight volumes of his philosophical discussions, only four of which survive. We also have his shorter summary of Epictetus’s sayings, the Handbook, or Enchiridion
As a young man, Galen wondered why the Delphic Oracle’s maxim to “know thyself” should be held in such high regard. Doesn’t everyone already know himself? He gradually came to realize, though, that only the very wisest among us ever truly know ourselves.
This is illustrated by one of Aesop’s fables, which says that each of us is born with two sacks suspended from our neck: one filled with the faults of others that hangs within our view and one hidden behind our back filled with our own faults.
The New Testament likewise asks why we look at the tiny splinter of wood in our brother’s eye yet pay no attention to the great plank of wood obscuring our own view (Matthew 7:3–5).
One of the most famous legends about Diogenes the Cynic tells how Alexander the Great sought out the philosopher. It’s a juxtaposition of opposites: Diogenes lived like a beggar, and Alexander was the most powerful man in the known world. However, when Alexander asked Diogenes if there was anything he could do for him, the Cynic is supposed to have replied that he could step aside, as he was blocking the sun. Diogenes could speak to Alexander as if they were equals because he was indifferent to wealth and power. Alexander is said to have walked off and returned to his conquests, apparently without having gained much wisdom.
For instance, Alexander of Cotiaeum, his childhood grammarian, made a lifelong impression on Marcus by the tactful way he would correct those making a verbal error.9 If someone used a word incorrectly, Alexander would not overtly criticize the speaker. He never interrupted them or challenged them on the spot. Instead, the grammarian had a more artful and indirect way of steering them in the right direction. Marcus noticed that Alexander would subtly drop in the correct expression while replying or discussing some other topic. If the real goal for Stoics is wisdom, then sometimes just blurting out the truth isn’t enough. We have to put more effort into communicating with others effectively.
Most men are eager to point out their neighbors’ flaws, he said, whether we ask them to or not. So instead of resenting it, we should welcome criticism from others as one of life’s inevitabilities and turn it to our advantage by making all men into our teachers. Galen therefore says that if we desire to learn wisdom, we must be ready to listen to anyone we encounter and show gratitude “not to those who flatter us but to those who rebuke us.”
Marcus had trained in philosophy for over three decades by the time Rusticus passed away. So as he began writing The Meditations, he was probably well prepared to enter the next phase in his psychological development as a Stoic.
The term “mentor” comes from Homer’s Odyssey. Athena, the goddess of wisdom and virtue, disguises herself as a friend of Odysseus named Mentor so that she can counsel his son Telemachus, who is in grave danger.
Your first step is to write down the virtues exhibited by someone you respect. Listing the qualities you most admire in another person, just as Marcus does in the first book of The Meditations, is a simple and powerful exercise.
Exercício 2
Writing down your ideas about what makes another person admirable, mulling them over, and revising them gives you an opportunity to process them. With practice, you will be able to visualize the character traits you’re describing more easily.
Writing down the virtues possessed by a hypothetical wise man or woman, or those we aspire to ourselves, is usually a very beneficial exercise. It may also be useful for you to formulate descriptions of two or three specific individuals and compare these to a more general description of an ideal. These could be real acquaintances from your life, historical figures, or even fictional characters. The important thing is to process the information by reflecting on it and revising it where necessary. Allow some time to pass and then come back to review and improve your descriptions. Consider how specific virtues, such as wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation, might be exhibited by role models you’ve chosen.
Exercício 3
“What would Socrates or Zeno say about this?” You can imagine your personal role model—or even a whole panel of Stoic Sages—giving you advice. What would they tell you to do? What advice would they give? What would they have to say about how you’re currently handling a problem?
What would the consequences be if you acted as a slave to your passions? 2. How would your day differ if you acted more rationally, exhibiting wisdom and self-discipline?
Allow not sleep to close your wearied eyes, Until you have reckoned up each daytime deed: “Where did I go wrong? What did I do? And what duty’s left undone?” From first to last review your acts and then Reprove yourself for wretched acts, but rejoice in those done well.
What did you do badly? Did you allow yourself to be ruled by irrational fears or unhealthy desires? Did you act badly or allow yourself to indulge in irrational thoughts? 2. What did you do well? Did you make progress by acting wisely? Praise yourself and reinforce what you want to repeat. 3. What could you do differently? Did you omit any opportunities to exercise virtue or strength of character? How could you have handled things better?
É como uma retrospectiva do Scrum mas sobre a vida diária.
What do you want to be remembered for after you’re dead? •  What sort of person do you most want to be in life?
Exercício 4
What would you want written on your tombstone?
Another useful values clarification technique for students of Stoicism involves making two short lists in side-by-side columns headed “Desired” and “Admired”: 1. Desired. The things you most desire for yourself in life 2. Admired. The qualities you find most praiseworthy and admirable in other people
Exercício 5
the fundamental goal of life for Stoics, the highest good, is to act consistently in accord with reason and virtue.
As Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
there’s nothing wrong with pleasure unless we begin craving it so much that we neglect our responsibilities in life or it replaces healthy and fulfilling activities with ones that are not.
Wickedness can be had in abundance easily: smooth is the road and very nigh she dwells. But in front of virtue the gods immortal have put sweat: long and steep is the path to her and rough at first; but when you reach the top, then at length the road is easy, hard though it was.
Not surprisingly, Hercules was the mythic hero most admired by Cynic and Stoic philosophers. His labors embodied their belief that it’s more rewarding to face hardship voluntarily and cultivate strength of character than to take the easy option by embracing comfortable living and idleness.
The Hercule choice (parágrafos a cima)
Nevertheless, a man’s worth can be measured by the things upon which he sets his heart.5 Enjoying the suffering of others is bad. Taking pleasure in watching men risk death or serious injury would therefore be considered a vice by the Stoics. In contrast, enjoying seeing people flourish is good. You might think that’s obvious; however, we can be blinded by pleasure to its consequences for both others and ourselves.
When doing what feels pleasurable becomes more important than doing what’s actually good for us or our loved ones, though, that’s a recipe for disaster.
Stoics distinguished between the sort of pleasure (hedone) we get from “external” things like food or sex or flattery and the deeper sense of inner joy (chara) that Marcus is talking about.
The Stoics tended to view joy not as the goal of life, which is wisdom, but as a by-product of it, so they believed that trying to pursue it directly might lead us down the wrong path if it’s sought at the expense of wisdom.
Joy in the Stoic sense is fundamentally active rather than passive; it comes from perceiving the virtuous quality of our own deeds, the things we do, whereas bodily pleasures arise from experiences that happen to us, even if they’re a consequence of actions like eating, drinking, or having sex.
Contemplating virtue in others. Marcus also tells himself that when he wants to gladden his heart, he should meditate on the good qualities of those close to him, such as energy, modesty, or generosity.
Welcoming your fate. Marcus also tells himself that rather than desiring things that are absent, as many do, he should reflect on the pleasant aspects of things he already has before him and contemplate how he would miss them if they were not there.
The Stoics wanted to develop a healthy sense of gratitude in life, unspoiled by attachment. So they practiced calmly imagining change and loss, like a river gently flowing past, carrying things away. The wise man loves life and is grateful for the opportunities it gives him, but he accepts that everything changes and nothing lasts forever. Marcus therefore wrote that it is a characteristic of the Stoic Sage “to love and welcome all that happens to him and is spun for him as his fate.”
Friedrich Nietzsche: amor fati, or love of one’s fate.
We can observe Marcus employing this method, asking himself what each action means for him and wondering whether he’ll have cause to regret it in the future.
In “The Choice of Hercules,” likewise, there are basically two paths forward: 1. The path of vice, or following excessive desires and irrational emotions (unhealthy passions) 2. The path of virtue, or exercising self-discipline and following reason and your true values in life
Keep a written daily record of the situations in which you notice the desire emerging. This can be as simple as tallying each time you sense even the slightest inclination to engage in the habit, the first inkling of the desire. It could also be a more detailed record sheet, including rows with columns for the date/time, the external situation (“Where were you?”), the early warning signs you notice, and/or a rating from zero to ten of the strength of the urge and possibly also the level of actual pleasure you experienced if you gave in to it.
Exercício 6
The same principle, that self-awareness disrupts the automatic quality of the behavior, can be very helpful when you actually want to break a bad habit.
“You are just a thought and not at all the thing you claim to represent”
“It’s not things that make us crave them but our judgments about things.”
Socrates, as it happens, was careful about his diet and preferred to eat modestly. He thought that self-control was more important than pleasure, as we’ve seen, and if we avoid overeating, we will obtain more enjoyment from our food anyway.
Stoic indifference, or apatheia. It has a very specific meaning—freedom from harmful desires or passions—that the Stoics distinguished from ordinary indifference.
People often talk about the things they crave in language that’s bound to excite their own desire, even when they realize they’re fostering unhealthy habits: “I’m dying for some chocolate. Why is it so good? It tastes like heaven! This is better than sex.” (It’s mainly vegetable fat, some cacao, and a load of refined sugar.) That’s another example of rhetoric working against you. On the other hand, when you describe food, or anything else you crave, in down-to-earth language, you can feel detached from it.
He also briefly mentions having sexual desires that he considered it better not to act upon. In book 1 of The Meditations Marcus says that, looking back, he’s grateful he chose to preserve his sexual innocence for a few years into his adulthood.21 He’s also thankful that when he was later troubled by strong sexual cravings, he overcame them and “never touched Benedicta or Theodotus”—possibly a female and male slave in the household of his father, the Emperor Antoninus. We can see that Marcus applied depreciation by analysis to sexual desires. At one point, for instance, he described sex to himself, perhaps as an ancient physician might, as merely the rubbing together of body parts followed by a convulsion and the ejaculation of some mucus.
The point isn’t to obliterate all desire but rather to moderate unhealthy or excessive desires, which place too much importance on certain types of pleasure.
Marcus says we typically praise the virtue of self-control or moderation in others, which stops us from being carried away by our pleasures.23 We don’t normally admire anyone for how much junk food they’ve eaten, but we praise their strength in overcoming bad habits such as eating too much junk food.
What about the joy Marcus says we can obtain by contemplating the virtue of others? That’s related to what we’ve been saying about modeling the attitudes and behavior of others. You might want to set aside time to write down a description of the qualities you most admire in other people, as Marcus does in book 1 of The Meditations, or visualize them in your mind’s eye. Contemplating the virtues of people who are close to you may have the added benefit of helping to improve your relationship with them. Also, how does thinking about the qualities you admire in others affect you, and how might you learn and benefit from this experience?
Finally, remember what Marcus said about feeling gratitude instead of desire. In a sense, to desire something is to imagine having what you don’t have, the presence of something that’s absent. Gratitude, on the other hand, comes from imagining the absence of things that are currently present: What would it be like if you didn’t have this? If we don’t occasionally picture loss, reminding ourselves what life might be like without the things and people we love, we would take them for granted. Keep a journal of people and things that you’re grateful for, perhaps also focusing on what you can learn from them.
Exercício 6
Stoics try to avoid that by reminding themselves that external things, and other people, are not entirely under our control, and one day they will be gone. The wise man is grateful for the gifts life has given him, but he also reminds himself that they are merely on loan—everything changes and nothing lasts forever.
Euripides: “Such things accursed war brings in its train.”
The Epicureans believed that the goal of life was pleasure (hedone). They described pleasure, though, in a notoriously paradoxical manner, as consisting mainly of a state of freedom from pain and suffering (ataraxia).
Marcus quotes this letter and then exhorts himself always to act as Epicurus did: remain focused on the pursuit of wisdom even in the face of illness, pain, or any other hardship. This advice, he says, is common not only to Epicureanism and Stoicism but to all other schools of philosophy. Our main concern should always remain the use we are making right now, from moment to moment, of our own mind.
Epicurus coined the maxim “a little pain is contemptible, and a great one is not lasting.” You can therefore learn to cope by telling yourself that the pain won’t last long if it’s severe or that you’re capable of enduring much worse if the pain is chronic. People often object to this by saying that their pain is both chronic and severe. However, earlier in The Meditations, Marcus paraphrased the same quote from Epicurus as follows: “On pain: if it is unbearable, it carries us off, if it persists, it can be endured.”
Why exactly did the ancients find this particular strategy so helpful as a way of coping with pain? When people are really struggling, they focus on their inability to cope and the feeling that the problem is spiraling out of control: “I just can’t bear this any longer!” This is a form of catastrophizing: focusing too much on the worst-case scenario and feeling overwhelmed. However, Epicurus meant that by focusing instead on the limits of your pain, whether in terms of duration or severity, you can develop a mind-set that’s more oriented toward coping and less overwhelmed by worry or negative emotions about your condition.
“Pain is neither unendurable nor everlasting, if you keep its limits in mind and do not add to it through your own imagination.”
“You are giving way to pain.”
You could call this a form of stress inoculation: you learn to build up resistance to a bigger problem by voluntarily exposing yourself repeatedly to something similar, albeit in smaller doses or a milder form.
The most important thing he observed in those individuals who coped well was their ability to “withdraw” or “separate” their mind from bodily sensations. We’ve already introduced this Stoic technique, which I’ve called cognitive distancing.
Instead, he uses his disability as an example to teach his students about coping with illness. Disease is an impediment to our body, he tells them, but not to our freedom of will unless we make it so.
Like Epicurus before him, he believed that complaining and chattering too much about our problems just makes them worse, and, more importantly, it harms our character. Marcus agreed that collective whining is bad for the soul: “No joining others in their wailing, no violent emotion.”
We should be wary of telling ourselves “This is unbearable!” and so on, because that’s usually just hyperbole that adds to our sense of despair.
He summed up his practical advice by telling his students to respond to troubling events or unpleasant sensations by literally saying This is nothing to me. This perhaps overstates things. Stoics can still “prefer” to avoid pain and illness when possible. Once it’s already happening, though, they try to accept the fact with indifference.
Separate your mind from the sensation, which I call “cognitive distancing,” by reminding yourself that it is not things, or sensations, that upset us but our judgments about them.
Remember that the fear of pain does more harm than pain itself, or use other forms of functional analysis to weigh up the consequences for you of fearing versus accepting pain.
View bodily sensations objectively (objective representation, or phantasia kataleptike) instead of describing them in emotive terms. (“There’s a feeling of pressure around my forehead” versus “It feels like I’m dying—an elephant might as well be stamping over and over on my head!”)
Analyze the sensations into their elements and limit them as precisely as possible to their specific site on the body, thereby using the same depreciation by analysis that we used in the previous chapter to neutralize unhealthy desires and cravings. (“There’s a sharp throbbing sensation in my ear that comes and goes,” not “I’m in total agony.”)
View the sensation as limited in time, changeable, and transient, or “contemplate impermanence.” (“This sensation only peaks for a few seconds at a time and then fades away; it will probably be gone in a couple of days.”) If you have an acute problem like toothache, you’ll have forgotten what it felt like years from now. If you have a long-term problem such as chronic sciatica, you’ll know it sometimes gets worse and so at other times it must be less severe. It makes a difference if you can focus on the notion that this shall pass.
Let go of your struggle against the sensation and accept it as natural and indifferent, what is called “Stoic acceptance.” That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take practical steps to deal with it, such as using medication to reduce pain, but you must learn to live with the pain without resentment or an emotional struggle.
Remind yourself that Nature has given you both the capacity to exercise courage and the endurance to rise above pain and that we admire these virtues in other people, which we discussed in relation to contemplating and modeling virtue.
“It’s not events that upset us but our judgments about events.”
As Nietzsche said, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”
Stoics calmly envisaged different types of misfortune on a daily basis as part of their contemplative training, learning to view them with relative indifference.
In essence, it means undertaking any action while calmly accepting that the outcome isn’t entirely under your control. We learn from Seneca and others that it could take the form of a caveat, such as “Fate permitting,” “God willing,” or “If nothing prevents me.”
Later, Christians would take to adding D.V. (Deo volente, “God willing”) to the end of their letters, and Muslims likewise say inshallah to this day.
New Testament: Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.”
Stoics treat their own judgments and actions as the only thing truly good or bad. That inevitably shifts focus to the present and lessens emotional investment in the past and future. The worried mind is always getting too far ahead of itself; it is always in suspense over the future. The Stoic Sage, by contrast, is grounded in the here and now.
We could also simply describe this as “adopting a philosophical attitude” toward the outcome of our actions: being resigned to whatever happens and remaining unperturbed come what may.
They might picture themselves already in exile, in poverty, bereaved, or suffering from a terrible illness. As we’ll see, going one step further and anticipating your own death plays a very special role in Stoicism. The technique of exposing yourself to stressful situations repeatedly in small doses so that you build up a more general resistance to emotional disturbance is known in behavioral psychology as “stress inoculation.”
Begin the morning by saying to yourself, I shall meet with the busy-body, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial.
The Stoics defined fear as the expectation that something bad is going to happen, which is virtually identical to the definition originally proposed by Aaron T. Beck, the founder of modern cognitive therapy. Fear is essentially a future-focused emotion, so it’s natural that we should counter it by addressing our thoughts concerning the future. Inoculating ourselves against stress and anxiety through the Stoic premeditation of adversity is one of the most useful techniques for building general emotional resilience, which is what psychologists call the long-term ability to endure stressful situations without becoming overwhelmed by them.
However, your general emotional resilience can be developed by training yourself in advance to cope with a broad enough range of situations. That’s precisely what the Stoics did through the premeditation of adversity strategy.
One of the most robustly established findings in the entire field of modern psychotherapy research is the fact that anxiety tends to abate naturally during prolonged exposure to feared situations, under normal conditions. That’s been the basis of evidence-based phobia treatments since the 1950s, and it’s also an integral part of modern treatment protocols for other, more complex forms of anxiety, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
The Stoics realized that exposure to imagined events can lead to emotional habituation in this way, allowing anxiety to abate naturally.
Aesop’s fable “The Fox and the Lion” shows that people have long grasped this phenomenon, but it’s still quite remarkable to discover a philosophical therapy employing it over two thousand years before it was rediscovered by modern behavior therapists.
For example, someone who is anxious about losing their job might visualize being called into their boss’s office, told that they’re being sacked or made redundant, and later clearing their desk and leaving, etc. They’d picture this as a short movie, perhaps repeatedly on a loop. As noted, the actual amount of time required varies, but anxiety should have reduced to at least half its initial level before ending the exercise. The most common reason for failure is that people terminate these sorts of exposure exercises before their emotions have had enough time to habituate. It takes patience, in other words.
Marcus tells himself that he doesn’t literally need to get away from it all because true inner peace comes from the nature of our thoughts rather than pleasant natural surroundings. He tells himself that resilience comes from his ability to regain his composure wherever he finds himself. This is the “inner citadel” to which he can retreat, even on the frigid battlefields of the northern campaign.
In order to achieve this sense of inner peace, Marcus tells himself to frequently retreat not to the hilltops but to his own faculty of reason, thereby rising above external events and purifying his mind of attachment to them. He believes that to do this effectively he must reflect, in particular, on two concise but fundamental Stoic principles:11 1. Everything that we see is changing and will soon be gone, and we should bear in mind how many things have already changed over time, like the waters of streams flowing ceaselessly past—an idea that we can call the contemplation of impermanence. 2. External things cannot touch the soul, but our disturbances all arise from within. Marcus means that things don’t upset us, but our value judgments about them do. However, we can regain our composure by separating our values from external events using the strategy we’ve called cognitive distancing.
The Inner Citadel
perhaps quoted from a previous author,
Demócrito, fragmento 115, Diels
The universe is change: life is opinion.
Gaining cognitive distance is, in a sense, the most important aspect of Stoic anxiety management. This is what Marcus meant by “life is opinion”: that the quality of our life is determined by our value judgments, because those shape our emotions. When we deliberately remind ourselves that we project our values onto external events and that how we judge those events is what upsets us, we gain cognitive distance and recover our mental composure.
As it happens, most people find it easier to visualize a scene if they write down a description of it first and perhaps review it later.
Asking yourself “What next?” a few times can move your focus past the most distressing part of the scene and take away its catastrophic appearance.
Stoics acknowledged that our initial emotional reactions are often automatic. We should accept these as natural, view them with indifference, and accept them without a struggle rather than try to suppress them. On the other hand, we should learn to suspend the voluntary thoughts we have in response to these initial feelings and the situation that triggered them.
“It’s not things that upset me but my judgments about them.”
Marcus assumes that at some level Cassius believes he is doing the right thing: he acts out of ignorance of what is genuinely right and wrong, for, as Socrates and the Stoics taught, no man does wrong knowingly.
According to the Stoics, individuals are bound to make moral errors, because the majority do not have a firm grasp on the true nature of good and evil. Nobody is born wise, but rather we must become so through education and training.
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Indeed, an entire book by Seneca titled On Anger, which survives today, describes the Stoic theory and treatment of this passion in great detail.
Self-monitoring. Spot early warning signs of anger, to nip it in the bud before it escalates. For example, you might notice that your voice begins to change, or that you frown or your muscles tense, when you’re beginning to grow angry, or you may think of someone’s actions as unjust or in violation of a personal rule. (“How dare she say that to me!”) 2. Cognitive distancing. Remind yourself that the events themselves don’t make you angry, but rather your judgments about them cause the passion. (“I notice that I am telling myself ‘How dare she say that,’ and it’s that way of looking at things that’s causing me to feel angry.”) 3. Postponement. Wait until your feelings of anger have naturally abated before you decide how to respond to the situation. Take a breath, walk away, and come back to it a few hours later. If you still feel like you need to do something, then calmly decide upon the best response; otherwise, just let it go and forget about it. 4. Modeling virtue. Ask yourself what a wise person such as Socrates or Zeno would do. What virtues might help you to respond wisely? In your case, it might be easier to think of a role model you’re more familiar with, like Marcus Aurelius or someone you’ve encountered in your own life. (“A wiser person would try to empathize, put themselves in her shoes, and then exercise patience when they’re responding…”) 5. Functional analysis. Picture the consequences of following anger versus following reason and exercising virtues such as moderation. (“If I let my anger guide me then I’ll probably just yell at her and get into another argument, and things will get a lot worse over time until we’re not speaking anymore. If I wait until I’ve calmed down and then try to listen patiently, though, it might be difficult at first but it will probably start to work better with practice, and once she’s calmed down maybe she’ll begin listening to my perspective.”)
“guarding against being angry with others.”
Stoic doctrine that rational beings are inherently social, designed to live in communities and to help one another in a spirit of goodwill. As such, we have a duty to live wisely and harmoniously with our fellow humans in order to fulfill our natural potential and to flourish.
In one of the most famous quotes from The Meditations, the opening passage of book 2 mentioned earlier, Marcus describes mentally preparing himself each morning to deal with troublesome people. He adds, “Nor can I be angry with my kinsman nor hate him for we have come into being for co-operation,” and that to obstruct one another by feeling resentment or turning our back on others goes against our rational and social nature. Indeed, he says that the good for a rational creature lies, partly, in having an attitude of fellowship toward others. Marcus also goes so far as to claim that ignoring our fellowship with others is a form of injustice, a vice, and an impiety because it goes against Nature.
We should not meet disagreeable people and enemies with anger, but treat this as an opportunity to exercise our own wisdom and virtue.
We exist for one another, says Marcus, and if we can’t educate those who oppose us, we have to learn at least to tolerate them.6
Eulogium on Marcus Aurelius, an eighteenth-century work of historical fiction closely based on the Roman histories,
He considers how they can be arrogant, overbearing, and angry, but he also contemplates times when they’ve been enslaved by other desires.
Marcus says that in addition to putting yourself in the other person’s shoes, you should analyze their character in a manner that gets straight to the core questions: what kind of people do they want to please, for what purpose, and through what kind of actions? What are their guiding principles in life, what do they busy themselves doing, how do they spend their time?
It’s a statement of one of the central paradoxes of Socrates’s philosophy and was embraced by the Stoics: no man does evil knowingly, which also entails that no man does it willingly.
Epictetus therefore advised his students simply to repeat this maxim to themselves: “It seemed right to him.”
He actually recommends that whenever we’re offended by the faults of another, we should treat it as a signal to pause and immediately turn our attention to our own character, reflecting on the similar ways in which we go wrong.
As Marcus puts it, if you let go of the opinion “I am harmed,” the feeling of being harmed will disappear, and when the feeling is gone, so is any real harm.
The Stoics liked to consider how ugly and unnatural anger looks—a scowling face, grimacing, turning puce with rage, like someone in the throes of a horrible disease.
Ironically, anger does the most harm to the person experiencing it, although he has the power to stop it.
“Does another do me wrong? That’s his business, not mine.” He who does wrong does wrong against himself; he who acts unjustly acts unjustly to himself, because he harms only himself, he says. The wrongdoer damages his own character; you shouldn’t join him in his misery by making the value judgment that he has offended and harmed you too.18
Likewise, you shouldn’t start to harbor the sort of opinions the wicked hold or those they wish you to hold. In short, the best form of revenge is not to sink to their level by allowing yourself to become angry with them.19
The main antidote to anger for Marcus is the Stoic virtue of kindness, which along with fairness makes up the cardinal social virtue of justice. Whereas the Stoics viewed anger as the desire to harm others, kindness is essentially the opposite: goodwill toward others and the desire to help them.
“To be angry is not manly but rather a mild and gentle disposition is more manly because it is more human.”
However, Marcus believed that in reality someone who is capable of exercising gentleness and kindness in the face of provocation is stronger and more courageous than one who gives way to their anger,
Epictetus: “Only a madman seeks figs in winter.” Such is one who pines for his child when his loan has been returned to Nature.
Leaves that the wind scatters to the ground, Such are the generations of men.
It’s vanity to worry about how history will record your actions.
Death, when I rode in triumph through the streets of Rome alongside Lucius, were you with me then? The slaves stood with us in the chariots, holding golden wreaths above our heads, whispering at our backs “remember you must die.”
Indeed, to learn how to die is to unlearn how to be a slave.
philosophy is a lifelong meditation on our own mortality.

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