Stoics added a vital ingredient to our understanding of selfhood.
By Roy Hornsby

The fundamental question in ancient ethics was, “How ought I to live?”[1] or, “What should my life be like?” These are questions which any person may put to themselves, but many people choose not to be reflective. This could be because an individual may be satisfied with convention or perhaps be too busy to question whether they are as they should be or how they might better themselves. Today there is an enormous amount of literature and psychology concerning how individuals might reflect upon their lives and while there are several ready answers available, perhaps an intelligent and reflective individual may only be satisfied with answers that emerge from a study of ethical philosophy (Annas, J. 1993).

Stoicism offered a philosophy of ethics that held virtue (aretê) as a singular expression and its possession by an individual as a matter of all or nothing. The stoic view is that, since aretê requires right judgment, the good man is also the wise man who is a citizen of the universe; his relation to other collectives is secondary and accidental. Stoicism stands against the physical and political circumstance while at the same time is in conformity with nature. Aretê finds purpose in the divine life and the cosmic order, the individual needs to do what is right for its own sake without any eye to a further purpose. In Stoicism, the plurality of the virtues and their teleological arrangement in the good life, as both Plato and Aristotle had understood them, are replaced with a simpler monism of virtue (MacIntyre, A. 1984). The purpose of this paper is to discuss the elements of Stoic philosophy that underpin our fundamental understanding of selfhood.

Similar to its two rival philosophical schools, the Epicureans and the Skeptics, Stoicism claimed that the philosophical art of soul-healing when correctly developed and duly applied, is both essential and satisfactory for attaining the highest ends of human life. Cicero’s interlocutor declared,

“Be convinced at least of this, that unless the soul [animus] is cured, which cannot be done without philosophy, there will be no end to our afflictions. Therefore, since we have now begun, let us turn ourselves over to philosophy for treatment; we shall be cured, if we want to be”[2].

This medical analogy of ‘soul healing’ is important because, for the Stoics, philosophy is regarded as the ‘doctor’ ministering to urgent human needs. However, the patient must not remain purely dependant and receptive; the patient must become the doctor of its own soul (Nussbaum, M. 1994).

The central and guiding outlook of Stoicism is its great respect for the reliability of each person’s own powers of reasoning. It is reason that marks humans as supremely higher than animals and worthy of boundless respect and self respect. However, reason is not just the most important thing about humans, but it is also something that is completely one’s own and only within one’s power to cultivate and control. In Stoicism, reason is essentially associated with sound choice and avoidance, and the making of distinctions between good and bad in the field of action. Furthermore, a searching self-examination of culture and belief enables an individual to take charge of their own thinking, consider alternatives and choose the most appropriate action. Stoic teachings stated that a person needed to defer customary responses and turn the gaze upon themselves, becoming watchful and critical of all things. Epictetus said, “Right from the start, get into the habit of saying to every harsh appearance, ‘You are an appearance, and not the only way of seeing the thing that appears.’ Then examine it and test by the yardsticks you have”[3] (Nussbaum, M. 1994).

Ethical arguments considered in association with their underlying influence had practical value for the Greek Stoics but this became even more prominent with the Romans. The Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca is reported to have said that “you should make yourself better every day” and that philosophy “shapes and constructs the soul, orders life, guides conduct, shows what is to be done and what omitted, sits at the helm and guides our course as we waver amid uncertainties”[4]. Stoicism viewed the soul as a site that is both spacious and deep and much of what goes on inside of it as escaping the person to whom it belongs. Thus, the Stoic idea of learning is one of increasing vigilance as the wakeful mind learns to reclaim its own experience from the miasma of habit, convention and forgetfulness. This the soul must do by itself through its own daily practices of self-scrutiny (Nussbaum, M. 1994).

Seneca and the Stoics maintained that aretê can be obtained, that the individual must acquire the art of wisdom by a progression from the unawareness of a child to the attainment of adult virtue. Seneca’s prose is full of metaphors that view an individual’s life as a journey, a journey that requires motion, alteration and accomplishment. As Aristotle had pointed out, any issue in which an individual is involved may be organised as ‘art’ and may be dealt with systematically. Seneca became like a travel guide and his writings like maps to demonstrate to the individual the road from ignorance to knowledge. Throughout Seneca’s writings is displayed a passion to enlighten the pilgrim and to share knowledge on the high road to virtue and happiness. (Motto, A. 1973).

For the Stoics, life becomes a project. To realise the full potential of human capacities life needs to be made a task that is similar to an object or a work of art. This is nowhere more clearly evident than in the writings of the Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher, Marcus Aurelius. Aurelius kept a personal journal during the last years of his life which was an informal record of his reflections, observations and self-criticisms. He called the journal To Himself  because he wanted to better understand who he was and how he should best work and live with others. Centuries after he wrote it, the journal came to be called The Meditations. Throughout The Meditations Aurelius continually reminds himself to slow down and create moments of serenity in order to be able to withdraw and reflect. He wrote, “Do the things external which fall upon thee distract thee? Give thyself time to learn something new and good, and cease to be whirled around.”[5] And again “those who do not observe the movements of their own minds must of necessity be unhappy”.[6] Aurelius tells himself;

“Men seek retreats for themselves, houses in the country, sea-shores, and mountains; and thou too art wont to desire such things very much. But this is altogether a mark of the most common sort of men, for it is in thy power whenever thou shalt choose to retire into thyself. For nowhere either with more quiet or more freedom from trouble does a man retire than into his own soul, particularly when he has within him such thoughts that by looking into them he is immediately in perfect tranquility; and I affirm that tranquility is nothing else than the good ordering of the mind. Constantly then give to thyself this retreat, and renew thyself; and let thy principles be brief and fundamental, which, as soon as thou shalt recur to them, will be sufficient to cleanse the soul completely, and to send thee back free from all discontent with the things to which thou returnest”.[7]

It is evident that Marcus Aurelius subscribed to the Stoic tenet of self examination in order that he might live a happier and more fulfilling life than had he done otherwise and that for him, life was a project.

Marcus’s search for lived truths through the scrutiny of others is also evident when he uses phrases such as “he showed me” and “he was living proof” and “through him I came to see”. Marcus examined how people truly lived and acted not just what they said (Badaracco, J. 1997) and this probing insightful enquiry was typical of Stoic philosophy.

Stoicism was not simply an episode in Greek and Roman culture but rather it was a pattern for all of those later European moralities that invoked the notion of law as central to displacing notions of the virtues (MacIntyre, A. 1984). It is evident that the Stoic principle of ‘life as a project’ has been taken up by some modern philosophers and The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius could well be the ancient counterpart to Nietzsche’s modern-day appeal to “become who you are.” In the Myth of Eternal Recurrence Nietzsche gives advice for reflection on an imagined best life by suggesting that an individual should think over and over again and forever about decision making and living a certain type of life;

“The greatest weight. – What if some day or night a demon were to steal after you in your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life, as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence – even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself”.[8]

Nietzsche also felt that individuals had the capability of creating their lives and themselves as works of art, indeed as sculptures of the self;

“One thing is needful. – To ‘give style’ to one’s character – a great and rare art! It is practiced by all those who survey all the strengths and weaknesses of their nature and then fit them into an artistic plan until every one of them appears as art and reason and even weaknesses delight the eye. Here a large mass of second nature has been added; there a piece of original nature has been removed – both times through long practice and daily work at it. Here the ugly that could not be removed is concealed; there it has been re-interpreted and made sublime”.[9]

It should be no surprise that Stoicism would have appealed to not only the leaders of the Roman Empire but also more latterly to the British Empire and indeed any ideology that held as a principle that of military conquest and rule. It is desirable in such an ideology that soldiers show no fear and that your citizenry show a ‘stoic’ resolve in times of hardship that may be caused by military action brought about by the leaders who wish to stay in power. This may help to explain why Stoicism seems to have been the ancient philosophy that has continued to influence Western European thought in modern times.

The task that Stoicism sets itself is to reflect actively against the grain of one’s passions until they are devalued and neutralized, in fact that they might come to be seen as being unreal. Stoic control over the passions was achieved by the restraint of responsive habits and above all by eliminating the part played by surprise and suddenness. The stoic explanation noticed language as an act of the will by the means of which the world is viewed in such a way that experience is intercepted in a fixed manner. Therefore, to learn to use different words is a way to reposition the self’s angle of intersection with ongoing life. This is born out by the words of Marcus Aurelius when he describes the word ‘loss’ as meaning no more than ‘change’, thus diffusing the impact of a word of primary distress. Aurelius said; “Loss is no other than change; this is a source of joy to the nature of the whole and all that happens in accordance with it is good”.[10]Additionally, the advice of Epictetus in his Manual, is an example of self-preparation and re-picturing that would make the self immune to passionate response once the blows of experience occurred;

“Never say of anything ‘I lost it,’ but say, ‘I gave it back.’ Has your child died? It was given back. Has your wife died? She was given back. Has your estate been taken from you? Was not this also given back?”[11]

Stoicism sought the imperturbability of imagining itself surrounded by indifferent things bringing about a hard won calm against the passions (Fisher, P. 2002).

It is suggested that Stoicism allows that passions are the means by which the world can become ‘my’ world by remaking language away from the centred and simultaneously away from the passions. The language of this possessed world may seem to be the language of experience, and the perception that shapes it would appear to be instinctive. If that were the case, Stoic practice would become a violent and unnatural decentering of the world. However, Stoicism can here seize the word ‘natural’ for itself and see the everyday world as ‘unnatural’ as it is not in accord with the laws of nature taken as a whole. Change, not loss is a natural fact (Fisher, P. 2002).

In Stoicism, the self has to be reminded to be itself, to be recalled to itself. The Stoic assault on the passions affirmed the interdependence of humanism and the centred self, each of which insists on a centred world. A division of the self can occur that can actively pit certain aspects of the self against one another and the self must be called back to a steady state known as character. Character is meant to be a crafted object that has been set in place by training and philosophical self education, and then carefully maintained (Fisher, P. 2002).

Nussbaum indicates that the Stoics viewed the business of teaching as one of waking up the soul and causing it to take charge of its own activity. This is in line with the Socratic ideal that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’.[12] Furthermore, the Stoic ideal of selfhood is demonstrated most succinctly by the teachings of Epictetus when, insisting that the student “Become yourself, both your own pupil and your own teacher”, he mocks the passivity of the needy student with harsh language; “Yes, but my nose is running.” “What have you hands for then slave? Isn’t it so that you can wipe your own nose?”[13]This emphasis on the independent and thinking self is further reinforced by Epictetus when advising students on the use of the great philosophical books,

“don’t just say that you have read them; show that through them you have learned to think better, to be a more discriminating and reflective person. Books are like training weights for the mind. They are very helpful, but is would be a bad mistake to suppose that one has made progress simply by having internalised their contents.”[14]

Schopenhauer seemed to reinforce this Stoic theme when he wrote; “Reading is merely a surrogate for thinking for yourself; it means letting someone else direct your thoughts”.[15] And again “Fundamentally it is only our basic thoughts that possess truth and life, for only these do we really understand through and through. The thoughts of another that we have read are crumbs from another’s table, the cast-off clothes of an unfamiliar guest”.[16]

If it is the commitment to rational argument that set philosophy apart from religion, dream interpretation and astrology, then it was Stoicism’s very particular commitment to the individual’s own active exercise of argument that set it apart from other forms of philosophy. The Stoic was suspicious of external authority for authority’s sake and revered only reasoning itself in its commitment to the fostering of rationality in the self and in the world as a whole. The motivation behind the whole Stoic philosophy was to show respect for what is most worthy in oneself and for what is most truly oneself. This cannot be achieved by anything but good argument. The understanding that it is one’s own capabilities that are in charge of what is most important is what frees the individual from external links of hierarchy and convention (Nussbaum, M. 1994).

In conclusion, perhaps Nussbaum best sums up the Stoic underpinning of the self when she says; “For the Stoic, reason stands apart, resisting all domination, the authentic and free core of one’s life as an individual and a social being. Argument shapes – and, eventually, is – a self, and is the self’s way of fulfilling its role as citizen of the universe.”

[1] Posed by Socrates in the first book of Republic (352d). back

[2] From Cic. TD 3.13 as cited in Nussbaum, M. 1994, p.317. back

[3] From Epict. Ench. 1.5 as cited in Nussbaum, M. 1994, p.328. (Italics added). back

[4] As cited in Nussbaum, M. 1994, p.329. back

[5] From Aurelius, M. 1980, ‘The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius’ in The Harvard Classics, Long, G. (trans), ed Eliot, C., Grolier Enterprises Corp., Connecticut, pp. 191-301. back

[6] Ibid. back

[7] Ibid. back

[8] From Nietzsche, F. 1974, The Gay Science, Kaufmann, W. (trans), Vintage Books, New York, 341, p. 273. back

[9] Ibid., 290, p 232. back

[10] From The Meditations (9.35) as cited in Fisher, P. 2002, p.220. back

[11] As cited in Fisher, P. 2002, p.220. back

[12] Nussbaum, M. 1994, pp.344-5. back

[13] Ibid. back

[14] Ibid. p.346. back

[15] From Hollingdale, R. (trans) 1970, Arthur Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms, Penguin Books, London, Aphorism 4, p.90. back

[16] Ibid. Aphorism 3, p.90. back


Annas, J. 1993, The Morality of Happiness, Oxford University Press, New York.

Badaracco, J. 1997, Defining Moments, Harvard Business School Press, Boston, Massachusetts.

Fisher, P. 2002, Vehement Passions, Princeton University Press, New Jersey.

Hollingdale, R. (trans) 1970, Arthur Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms, Penguin Books, London.

Nietzsche, F. 1974, The Gay Science, Kaufmann, W. (trans), Vintage Books, New York.

Aurelius, M. 1980, ‘The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius’ in The Harvard Classics, Long, G. (trans), ed Eliot, C., Grolier Enterprises Corp., Connecticut, pp. 191-301.

MacIntyre, A. 1984, After Virtue, University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, Indiana.

Motto, A. 1973, Seneca, Twayne Publishers, Inc., New York.

Nussbaum, M. 1994, The Therapy of Desire, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey.

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