Recent essays, #20

Most of my original writings now appear over at Figs In Winter, my Patreon site devoted to practical philosophy. The most recent posts are behind a paywall (monthly subscription levels at $1, $3, and $5), but the majority of the material is free to read. Here are some of the most recent entries:

Stoicism in three simple steps. Stoicism is a philosophy of life, no different in that respect from a religion. True, Epictetus was not a god, and the Enchiridion is not Scripture. But all religions come with the same two fundamental components that characterize any philosophy of life: a metaphysics, that is, an account of how the world hangs together; and an ethics, that is, an account of how we should live in the world — given the way it hangs together. The major difference between Stoicism and an actual religion, say Christianity, is that Stoics feel free to keep updating and reinterpreting the ancient texts, and that the respective metaphysical axioms are different: naturalism and universal cause-effect for the Stoics, supernaturalism and a creator God for Christians. (continue to read)

The Delphic Commandments.

Four years ago, as part of my sabbatical devoted to writing How to Be a Stoic, I spent a few days in Greece with the primary intent of going after Epictetus. I visited Nicopolis, the Roman town where he went after he was exiled by Domitian in 93 CE. There he established his school and eventually died, probably around 135 CE, when he was about 80.

On my way to Nicopolis (modern day Preveza, in the Epirus region of northwestern Greece), I rented a car from Athens and drove the 370 or so kilometers with my friend Tunc, stopping at Delphi. I had been there before, but the place truly is magical, and was certainly worth a visit on our way to the Ionian coast. (continue to read)

Epictetus: 263 selected quotes

New e-booklet! Epictetus: 263 Selected Quotes. I began to practice Stoicism in 2014, and my first encounter with the philosophy was through the reading of Epictetus. It simply blew my mind. Or rather, the way Epictetus comes across through the writings of his student Arrian of Nicomedia, blew my mind, since Epictetus himself never wrote anything. And moreover, we have apparently lost half of Arrian’s Discourses, having been left with only four of the original eight volumes.

Epictetus was born a slave in Hierapolis (modern day Pamukkale, western Turkey) in the year 55 CE, and died in Nicopolis (western Greece) in 135 CE, having become the most famous teacher of practical philosophy of his time. His influence has reverberated through the millennia, as his Enchiridion (the Manual) was used as a training handbook of spiritual exercises by Christian monks during the middle ages, and has he influenced Renaissance scholars and philosophers, as well as generals and statesmen (including both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson).

Epictetus is blunt, his presentation of philosophy accompanied by a sharp sense of humor that borders on sarcasm (and sometimes clearly and willfully crosses that border!). He speaks frankly to his students, and to us, telling us all that if we don’t practice what we learn we are just wasting our time — and his. And remember, this is the only time allotted to us by the cosmic web of cause-effect that the ancient Stoics called “god.”

This booklet is not a commentary, but simply a selection of what I personally find to be Epictetus’ most powerful quotes, each sourced so that the interested reader can trace it back to its broader context. Use this booklet as a continuous source of inspiration, as life in the 21st century isn’t that different, in many respects, from that of 1st century Rome. Enjoy and reflect.

Table of Contents:

  • Introduction
  • Epictetus, selected quotes: Discourses, volume I
  • Epictetus, selected quotes: Discourses, volume II
  • Epictetus, selected quotes: Discourses, volume III
  • Epictetus, selected quotes: Discourses, volume IV
  • Epictetus, selected quotes: Enchiridion
  • Epictetus, selected quotes: Fragments

24 Stoic Spiritual Exercises

New e-booklet: 24 Stoic Spiritual Exercises, culled from the writings of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. Stoicism is a practical philosophy of life, and while I enjoy writing about its history and theory, it is the practice that has so far had a significant impact in my life. I assume it is the same for most readers too. That’s why in this booklet I collect a number of passages from the ancient Stoics where they explicitly advise certain practices or exercises. (Thanks to my friend Greg Lopez for helping curating the collection, on the occasion of Stoic Camp-New York). The first list is distilled from Epictetus’ Enchiridion (the aptly titled “Manual”), while the second list is derived from Marcus’ Meditations (again aptly, a diary that the emperor wrote for his own personal use).

Table of contents:


Epictetus, from the Enchiridion

I. Examine your impressions

II. Remind yourself of the impermanence of things

III. The reserve clause

IV. How can I use virtue here and now?

V. Pause and take a deep breadth

VI. Other-ize

VII. Speak little and well

VIII. Choose your company well

IX. Respond to insults with humor

X. Don’t speak too much about yourself

XI. Speak without judging

Marcus Aurelius, from the Meditations

XII. Morning meditation on others

XIII. Keep at-hand principles

XIV. Why am I doing this?

XV. Renunciation

XVI. Decomposition exercise

XVII. Acknowledging others’ virtues

XVIII. Take another’s perspective

XIX. View from above

XX. How did they (not) sin?

XXI. Keep change and death in mind

XXII. When offended…

XXIII. Rebutting thoughts

XXIV. Morning meditation on the cosmos

Recent essays, #19

Most of my original writings now appear over at Figs In Winter, my Patreon site devoted to practical philosophy. The most recent posts are behind a paywall (monthly subscription levels at $1, $3, and $5), but the majority of the material is free to read. Here are some of the most recent entries:

Book Club: The Inner Citadel, 9, Marcus Aurelius — the man himself. Well, it took a while, but we finally got to the end of Pierre Hadot’s The Inner Citadel: The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. It’s a long and difficult book, but it’s a crucial entry in the modern Stoic literature, which is why I spent so much time — and really put to the test my readers’ patience, I’m afraid — with this series. In this last post I will skip the short chapter 9, on “Virtue and Joy,” and focus on selected passages of the very long chapter 10, “Marcus Aurelius in his Meditations,” where Hadot does his best to glean the character of the man behind the philosophy. However, this isn’t just a biographical chapter, as Marcus’ character, life, and philosophy are deeply intertwined. Which means we are just as likely to learn about the man from his philosophy and life as we are about the philosophy by looking at how this extraordinary man attempted to put it into practice throughout his life. (continue to read)

Here you will find a full list of the essays concerning Pierre Hadot’s The Inner Citadel.

Book Club: The Art of Living, 1, The Skeptics don’t believe in the art of living. Or do they? John Sellars’ The Art of Living: The Stoics on the Nature and Function of Philosophy is one of the best books I’ve read recently about philosophy understood as a way of life, as distinct from (perhaps even opposed to?) a specialized academic discipline. Here is how the publisher described the book: Ancient philosophy was conceived as a way of life or an art of living, but if ancient philosophers did think that philosophy should transform an individual’s way of life, then what conception of philosophy stands behind this claim? John Sellars explores this question through a detailed account of ancient Stoic ideas about the nature and function of philosophy. He considers the Socratic background to Stoic thinking about philosophy and Skeptical objections raised by Sextus Empiricus, and offers readings of late Stoic texts by Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. Sellars argues that the conception of philosophy as an “art of living,” inaugurated by Socrates and developed by the Stoics, has persisted since antiquity and remains a living alternative to modern attempts to assimilate philosophy to the natural sciences. (continue to read)

Recent essays, #18

Most of my original writings now appear over at Figs In Winter, my Patreon site devoted to practical philosophy. The most recent posts are behind a paywall (monthly subscription levels at $1, $3, and $5), but the majority of the material is free to read. Here are some of the most recent entries:

Stoicism is 9 parts practice and 1 part theory. Simon Drew interviews Gregory Lopez and yours truly about Stoicism and our latest book: “A Handbook for New Stoics – How to Thrive in a  World Out of Your Control.” We discuss the fact that every philosophy of life, or religion, for that matter, is much more a question of practice than of theory. Which is why the book presents a whopping 52 exercises to get people to be Stoic, and not just talk about it. That said, a bit of theory is, of course, crucial. And A Handbook for New Stoics is organized around the famous three disciplines of Epictetus: desire and aversion, action, and assent. The first discipline trains us to re-orient our desires (and aversions) toward the sort of things that are under our control; the second discipline teaches us how to most effectively deal with other people and generally act in society; and the third discipline refines our ability to arrive at correct judgments about whatever matters we are considering. (listen to the podcast)

Cicero’s Academica, part I. Marcus Tullius Cicero is one of our best sources concerning the early and middle Stoas, i.e., the period of the evolution of Stoicism that goes from the founding of the sect by Zeno of Citium in Athens, circa 300 BCE, to the period of Panaetius (185-109 BCE) and Posidonius (135-51 BCE), the latter being one of Cicero’s teachers. Yet, Cicero himself was an Academic Skeptic, not a Stoic, despite his general sympathy for Stoic philosophy. The reason to look at Academica (“The Academics”), then, is to learn more about a different practical philosophy and how it differentiated itself from Stoicism. “Skepticism” is a rather vague term, which indicated a number of different philosophical positions in the ancient world, and that today refers mostly to so-called scientific skeptics, i.e., people who are critical of notions such as the paranormal, astrology, UFOs, and so forth. While I consider myself a skeptic in the latter sense, that’s not what we are going to talk about today. (continue to read)

Cicero’s Academica, part II. Academica is a treatise on Academic Skepticism and its differences with Stoicism, written by Marcus Tullius Cicero in 45 BCE, two years before he was killed on the order of Mark Anthony, and the same year his beloved daughter Tullia had died in childbirth. No wonder Cicero wrote, at the beginning of Academica: “Having been stricken to the ground by a most severe blow of fortune, and being discharged from all concern in the republic, I seek a medicine for my sorrow in philosophy.” (I.3) In part I of this essay I have covered book I of Academica, and we have seen what Cicero had to say on Stoicism from an Academic Skeptic perspective. I have also given a short introduction to the Skeptics’ philosophy, discussing in what sense skepticism about knowledge can lead to ataraxia, and therefore how Academic Skepticism is not just a theoretical position, but also a philosophy of life, on par with Stoicism, Epicureanism, and the rest. Here I will comment on selected quotes from book II, again with particular reference to what Cicero has to say regarding Stoicism. (continue to read)

Recent essays, #17

Most of my original writings now appear over at Figs In Winter, my Patreon site devoted to practical philosophy. The most recent posts are behind a paywall (monthly subscription levels at $1, $3, and $5), but the majority of the material is free to read. Here are some of the most recent entries:

Seneca to Lucilius: 42, good people are rare, sages exceedingly so.

The forty-second letter by Seneca to Lucilius begins by referring a common friend, who apparently went around arguing that he was a good man. Seneca is skeptical, as he thinks that it takes time to become, and to be recognized as, good. Then he adds: “You realize what sort of good man I mean in the present context: one of the second rank, for that other one is born perhaps once every five hundred years, like the phoenix.” (XLII.1) First-rank good people are the sages, and Seneca is hinting at the fact that they are exceedingly rare, no more common than the phoenix, the mythological bird that is reborn from its ashes every 500 years. The topic of the Stoic sage, his frequency, and his characteristics, was a hot one during the early Stoa, and René Brouwer devoted a whole book to it. But the sage isn’t the chief topic of this letter, so let’s set him aside for the moment. (continue to read)

Stand up, be a Stoic! “Show me someone untroubled with disturbing thoughts about illness, danger, death, exile or loss of reputation. By all the gods, I want to see a Stoic!” (Epictetus, Discourses II, 19.24) You may have noticed that we are going through what scientists have been predicting for decades now: a worldwide emergency due to climate collapse, in turn the result of human-triggered global warming. If you are still not convinced of this you either live under a rock, or do not understand what is going on. Or you get money from the energy industry, like many of our politicians. (continue to read)

Endure and Renounce

A new e-booklet has just been published by my personal imprint, so to speak, Figs In Winter. The title, “Endure and Renounce,” comes from a well known passage by Epictetus: “There were two vices much blacker and more serious than the rest: lack of persistence and lack of self-control … Endure and Renounce. (Fragments 10)

The e-booklet is a collection from the first year of my (now archived) blog, How To Be A Stoic. The first post came out on 3 March 2015, and ever since I have used that blog (and now Figs In Winter) as a sort of public diary tracking my explorations of Stoicism, both the ancient philosophy and its developing modern descendant, in terms of theory but especially of practice, which is what makes Stoicism so distinctive in the philosophical landscape.

“Endure and Renounce” collects the best 84 of the essays published from the beginning of the blog through December 2015, and features the following table of contents:

Part I: The historical perspective

A brief history of Stoicism
On the decline of (ancient) Stoicism
Ancient vs modern ethics: a comparison

Part II: Epictetus

Beginning the Discourses
On steadfastness
From Epictetus to Naso
How to do philosophy
Against the Academics and the Epicureans
Of love and friendship
On Cynicism
Epictetus, a bit of an anti-intellectual?
The Fragments
The Handbook

Part III: Marcus

Meditations, Book I
Meditations, Book II
Meditations, Book III
Meditations, Book IV
Meditations, Book V
Meditations, Book VI
Meditations, Book VII
Meditations, Book VIII
Meditations, Book IX
Meditations, Book X
Meditations, Book XI
Meditations, Book XII

Part IV: Ancient writings about the Stoics

Cicero’s De Finibus and the nature of Stoic philosophy, part I
Cicero’s De Finibus and the nature of Stoic philosophy, part II
Why Plato’s Euthydemus is relevant to Stoics
Diogenes Laertius on the Stoics, I: Zeno
Diogenes Laertius on the Stoics, II: Cleanthes
Diogenes Laertius on the Stoics, III: Chrysippus

Part V: Stoic theory

The three Stoic disciplines
Stoic epistemology
Stoic logic
Stoic natural philosophy
Stoic theology
Stoic determinism
Stoic cosmopolitanism and the problem of unmet friends
Stoic virtue ethics, part I
Stoic virtue ethics, part II
(more on) Stoic ethics
Stoic moral psychology
Apatheia vs Ataraxia: what’s the difference?

Part VI: Modern Stoicism

Is belief in God necessary to practice Stoicism?
The three pillars of Stoicism
Negative visualization
The dichotomy of control
The Rise of Stoicism
Stoic Psychological Techniques
Stoic self discomfort and control exercises
Stoic practical advice, I: duty and social relations
Stoic practical advice, II: on insults
Stoic practical advice, III: grief
Stoic practical advice, IV: anger
Stoicism and personal values: fame
Stoicism and personal values: on luxurious living
On surviving a change of place
Stoic old age
On becoming a Stoic
Stoicism reconsidered
On the effects of practicing Stoicism
Atoms vs Providence? Both, really
Don’t judge others, but don’t keep bad company
A New Stoicism, part I
A New Stoicism, part II
A New Stoicism, part III
A New Stoicism, part IV
A New Stoicism, part V
Virtue, Forrest Gump, and Wittgenstein
What Would a Stoic Do? Presidential candidates
What Would a Stoic Do? On terrorism
What Would a Stoic Do? I met a sophist, and it didn’t go well
What Would a Stoic Do? The Stoic’s decision making algorithm
The Stoics vs Ayn Rand
Kant vs Cato
Epictetus was right: modern cognitive science supports the Stoics’ conception of emotions

Part VII: Stoicism and other philosophies

Revisiting the similarities among Stoicism, Epicureanism and Buddhism
Neo-Stoicism and the relationship between Stoicism and Christianity

Part VIII: Stoicism and popular culture

Stoic movie review: Amy
Stoic movie review: The Martian
Stoic movie review: Bridge of Spies
Stoic movie review: Trumbo
What Would a Stoic Do? On entertainment
What Would a Stoic Do? Twitter edition