Stoic Themes

Memento Mori | Adversity

There are several key themes that pervade the works of the ancient Stoics and arise from the fundamental doctrinal ground of Stoic philosophy. One cannot underestimate the value of these core structural (doctrinal) principles in Stoicism and at times we will be required to root out and reject our ‘commonly shared’ opinions about the world; some of the distorted teachings we might identify in a modern worldview.

This theme is developed in Seneca’s ‘Moral Letter to Lucilius- Letter 95’, where he writes-

“Men seek pleasure from every source. No vice remains within its limits; luxury is precipitated into greed. We are overwhelmed with forgetfulness of that which is honourable…

Amid this upset condition of morals, something stronger than usual is needed, – something which will shake off these chronic ills; in order to root out a deep-seated belief in wrong ideas, conduct must be regulated by doctrines. It is only when we add precepts, consolation, and encouragement to these, that they can prevail; by themselves they are ineffective.” (33-34 Letter 95).

Already we see the prescription of a therapeutic for the soul and it involves a knowledge of Stoic doctrine.

Seeking to drive the message home, Seneca exhorts us to critique our wayward and ambivalent opinions and to replace them with the constancy and coherence of the Stoic worldview-

” Conduct will not be right unless the will to act is right; for this is the source of conduct. Nor, again, can the will be right without a right attitude of mind; for this is the source of the will. Furthermore, such an attitude of mind will not be found even in the best of men unless he has learned the laws of life as a whole and has worked out a proper judgment about everything, and unless he has reduced facts to a standard of truth. Peace of mind is enjoyed only by those who have attained a fixed and unchanging standard of judgment; the rest of mankind continually ebb and flow in their decisions, floating in a condition where they alternately reject things and seek them. And what is the reason for this tossing to and fro? It is because nothing is clear to them, because they make use of a most unsure criterion – rumour. If you would always desire the same things, you must desire the truth. But one cannot attain the truth without doctrines; for doctrines embrace the whole of life.” (57-58 Letter 95).

With this in mind I will offer up some of the themes that appear in the structural makeup of the Stoic philosophical worldview. This will be a work in progress and I will add to it as themes occur to me. But first I want to reflect on the shortness of life and its appearance in Stoic doctrine.

Memento Mori

Put simply ‘Memento Mori’ means remember that you have to die. This realisation does not have to be a grim or depressing acknowledgement, rather acceptance of mortality can allow us to put our affairs into perspective. We might ask ourselves- If we can’t take external stuff with us and if every comfort or discomfort is transitory then what is worth striving for? The Stoics require us to confront reality and to embrace it. Such a commitment to reality involves being consciously aware of our mortality and governing our affairs accordingly with an appropriate concern for what actually matters- namely ‘that which is up to us’ (see Epictetus, Enchiridion 1 for detail on ‘what is up to us’). This concern for ‘what is up to us’ involves an understanding that part of the deal for us, is that everything is on loan and has to be returned at some point in the not so distant future. It would be wise for us not to hang on too tightly to what will be returned but to be gentle in our grasping and to enjoy tenderly the things gifted to us.

The Stoics recognised the value of keeping one’s impermanence and relative insignificance before their eyes, as they understood that an objective view of reality is required to make appropriate judgements. In short, where impressions are recieved by us we should inquire into whether we have added anything to them. We may find that we are projecting onto impressions additional cognitive material that often fails to recognise the impermanence and therefore the wise treatment of the object in question. Recourse to the objective view which includes an awareness of our finitude will go some way to protecting us from the viccissitudes of life and retraining us to place our attention where it is most needed- in cultivating our character towards virtue!

Next when you are confronted with a difficult (or even pleasurable) impression ask yourself “how would a Stoic behave”? Lets turn to them and seek their counsel-

Marcus Aurelius

“Of human life the time is a point, and the substance is in a flux, and the perception dull, and the composition of the whole body subject to putrefaction, and the soul a whirl, and fortune hard to divine, and fame a thing devoid of judgment. And, to say all in a word, everything which belongs to the body is a stream, and what belongs to the soul is a dream and vapour, and life is a warfare and a stranger’s sojourn, and after-fame is oblivion.

What then is that which is able to conduct a man? One thing and only one, philosophy. But this consists in keeping the daemon within a man free from violence and unharmed, superior to pains and pleasures, doing nothing without a purpose, nor yet falsely and with hypocrisy, not feeling the need of another man’s doing or not doing anything; and besides, accepting all that happens, and all that is allotted, as coming from thence, wherever it is, from whence he himself came; and, finally, waiting for death with a cheerful mind, as being nothing else than a dissolution of the elements of which every living being is compounded. But if there is no harm to the elements themselves in each continually changing into another, why should a man have any apprehension about the change and dissolution of all the elements? For it is according to nature, and nothing is evil which is according to nature” (Meditations, 2.17).

“Think continually how many physicians are dead after often contracting their eyebrows over the sick; and how many astrologers after predicting with great pretensions the deaths of others; and how many philosophers after endless discourses on death or immortality; how many heroes after killing thousands; and how many tyrants who have used their power over men’s lives with terrible insolence as if they were immortal; and how many cities are entirely dead, so to speak, Helice and Pompeii and Herclanum, and others innumerable. Add to the reckoning all whom thou hast known, one after another. One man after burying another has been laid out dead, and another buries him; and all this in a short time. To conclude, always observe how ephemeral and worthless human things are, and what was yesterday a little mucus, to-morrow will be a mummy or ashes. Pass then through this little space of time conformably to nature, and end thy journey in content, just as an olive falls off when it is ripe, blessing nature who produced it, and thanking the tree on which it grew” (Meditations, 4.48).


“If you are a sailor on board a ship that makes port, you may decide to go ashore to bring back water. Along the way you may stop to collect shellfish, or pick greens. But you always have to remember the ship and listen for the captain’s signal to return. When he calls, you have to drop everything, otherwise you could be bound and thrown on board like the livestock. So it is in life. If, instead of greens and shellfish, you have taken on a wife and child, so much the better. But when the captain calls, you must be prepared to leave them behind, and not give them another thought. If you are advanced in years, don’t wander too far, or you won’t make it back in time when the summons reaches you” (Enchiridion, 7).

“Remember that you are an actor in a drama, of such a kind as the author pleases to make it. If short, of a short one; if long, of a long one. If it is his pleasure you should act a poor man, a cripple, a governor, or a private person, see that you act it naturally. For this is your business, to act well the character assigned you; to choose it is another’s” (Enchiridion, 17).

“Do not seek for things to happen the way you want, welcome events in whichever way they happen: this is the path to peace” (Enchiridion, 8).

“Keep the prospect of death, exile and all such apparent tragedies before you every day – especially death – and you will never have an abject thought, or desire anything to excess” (Enchiridion, 21).


“Life is long enough if it is well-spent” (Letters from a Stoic, Letter LXXVIII).

“It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it” (On the Shortness of Life).


-Peter Paul Rubens ‘The Death of Seneca’.

As we have already heard from Seneca, many of our current opinions regarding what is true or false, good or bad and therefore worth pursuing may be false. These opinions may be based on the ‘common opinion’- the opinion of the many, but majority agreement is not necessarily correct opinion.

It is uncontroversial to say, following the example set by Socrates, that the Stoics were critiquing the ‘common opinion’ held by the many, that sense data (prior to rational reflection) was a reliable criterion for knowledge. They also held as equally suspect the social transmission of knowledge.

Stoic philosophy is ultimately eudaimonic, meaning that it is directed towards a certain kind of happiness. It is likely a different kind of happiness to what the continental psychoanalysts insist has been ‘invented by the Americans’ (See the Lacanian reading of psychoanalysis) but instead bespeaks a good and healthy inner spirit- which is made so given its alignment with Nature. Eudaimonia, appears as a consequence of the human being’s aptitude for applying reason to specific instances; knowing what these instances (or impressions) entail, the value of their items, and how to act in accordance with such knowledge.

This kind of knowledge is called Virtue and is the only good from the Stoic perspective. The pursuit of this knowledge and its application is called the ‘right use of reason’, is always up to us (within our power) but the problem is that we hold false beliefs that often prevent us from having Virtue. The entire goal of Stoic philosophy is to remove these false beliefs and to consistently assent to the truth of impressions. Sounds simple, but the Stoics recognised that there exists an almost overwhelming tendency to view external things as if they really have the kind of value that our senses (e.g., sensual responses) suggest they have. Holding beliefs that external things have any real value prevents us from fulfilling our rational ends, which is to maintain our rational integrity- to have Virtue. Such beliefs also expose us to a life of harmful passions (corrosive to our rational ends and moral character). Once we believe that external things have actual or inherent value, we begin to imagine a life which is defined by dependency to things and situations outside of our power. We become potential (or perhaps inevitable) victims of the vicissitudes of life. Our otherwise guaranteed contentment and tranquillity is traded for intermittent pleasure at the cost of anxiety and ultimately unhappiness.

Recalling the beginning of this article, Seneca has already expressed concern about the power of false impressions and tells us that precepts, consolations, and encouragements alone will fail if conduct is not regulated by doctrine.

In ‘On Providence’ Seneca provides an impressive demonstration of how Stoic doctrine is to be employed in the stamping out of false belief-

“I am constrained to nothing, I suffer nothing against my will, nor am I God’s slave, but his willing follower, and so much the more because I know that everything is ordained and proceeds according to a law that endures forever. The fates guide us, and the length of every man’s days is decided at the first hour of his birth: every cause depends upon some earlier cause: one long chain of destiny decides all things, public or private.

Wherefore, everything must be patiently endured, because events do not fall in our way, as we imagine, but come by a regular law. It has long ago been settled at what you should rejoice and at what you should weep, and although the lives of individual men appear to differ from one another in a great variety of particulars, yet the sum total comes to one and the same thing: we soon perish, and the gifts which we receive soon perish.

Why, then, should we be angry? why should we lament? we are prepared for our fate: let nature deal as she will with her own bodies; let us be cheerful whatever befalls, and stoutly reflect that it is not anything of our own that perishes. What is the duty of a good man? To submit himself to fate: it is a great consolation to be swept away together with the entire universe: whatever law is laid upon us that thus we must live and thus we must die, is laid upon the gods also: one unchangeable stream bears along men and gods alike: the creator and ruler of the universe himself, though he has given laws to the fates, yet is guided by them: he always obeys, he only once commanded.

“But why was God so unjust in His distribution of fate, as to assign poverty, wounds, and untimely deaths to good men?” The workman cannot alter his materials: this is their nature. Some qualities cannot be separated from some others: they cling together; are indivisible. Dull minds, tending to sleep or to a waking state exactly like sleep, are composed of sluggish elements: it requires stronger stuff to form a man meriting careful description. His course will not be straightforward; he must go upwards and downwards, be tossed about, and guide his vessel through troubled waters: he must make his way in spite of fortune: he will meet with much that is hard which he must soften, much that is rough that he must make smooth. Fire tries gold, misfortune tries brave men. See how high virtue has to climb: you may be sure that it has no safe path to tread.”

Seneca’s use of doctrine to combat false belief calls on Stoic Physics- from the outset of his reasoning, he recognises that the Cosmos is a benevolent living God. He affirms that if he employs what is in his power; his rational capacity, then he will never be a slave of the law by which Being unfolds in its particularity. Rather, he will be a follower understanding and assenting to the principle that our lives are embedded in a causal chain of events. His attitude will be one of relative acceptance (but this does not require passivity) in which everything that is given will be an opportunity for him to exercise the right use of reason- which involves the correct understanding of the value of external things.

The Stoic may then be able to welcome adversity as an opportunity to practice their understanding of Stoic doctrine and to overcome the false beliefs that adversity is a bad thing for one to experience. Seneca even suggests that with the right eyes one may even (to some rational degree) look forward to these opportunities. He writes of a certain Demetrius-

“No one”, said he, “seems to me more unhappy than the man whom no fortune has ever befallen. He never has had an opportunity of testing himself” (On Providence).

In similar fashion we are met with Epictetus’ observation-

“What would have become of Hercules, do you think, if there had been no lion, hydra, stag or boar- and no savage criminals to rid the world of? What would he have done in the absence of such challenges? Obviously, he would have just rolled over in bed and gone back to sleep. So, by snoring his life away in luxury in comfort he never would have developed into the mighty Hercules. And even if he had, what good would it have done him? What would have been the use of those arms, that physique, and that noble soul, without crises or conditions to stir him into action?” (Discourses, 1.6.32-34).

Rather than go out into the world and look for difficulties we can console ourselves with the realisation that adversity will sooner or later find us out. Don’t be anxious, you will soon have you chance to flex your muscles against fortune. But according to Seneca, the greatest adversities are reserved for the greatest of competitors-

 “Fortune… seeks out the bravest to match herself with, passes over some with disdain, and makes for the most unyielding and upright of men, to exert her strength against them” (On Providence).

Seneca goes so far as to say that those rare individuals who exercise Virtue in the face of great adversity and graciously contest her, go even beyond Gods power. For God is untroubled by misfortune but the human being that transcends misfortune has gone beyond the reach of evil. Perhaps from an existentialist perspective he has overcome him/herself, in such a manner that few ever do, by casting out the false belief that any harm can come in the form of an external thing. The true Stoic will be able to submit themselves to adversity and understand that they have, as a consequence of their use of reason, the power to disarm misfortune.

Of course, Seneca cautions us to remain on guard and to keep ourselves in shape, to have the attitude of a gladiator or competitor who is in training for the fight of our lives. He warns us not to become softened by luxury-

“Avoid luxury, avoid effeminate enjoyment, by which men’s minds are softened, and in which, unless something occurs to remind them of the common lot of humanity, they lie unconscious, as though plunged in continual drunkenness. He whom glazed windows have always guarded from the wind, whose feet are warmed by constantly renewed fomentations, whose dining-room is heated by hot air beneath the floor and spread through the walls, cannot meet the gentlest breeze without danger. While all excesses are hurtful, excess of comfort is the most hurtful of all; it affects the brain; it leads men’s minds into vain imaginings; it spreads a thick cloud over the boundaries of truth and falsehood. Is it not better, with virtue by one’s side, to endure continual misfortune, than to burst with an endless surfeit of good things?” (On Providence).

Coëtivy Master (Henri de Vulcop?) ‘Philosophy Consoling Boethius and Fortune Turning the Wheel’.

Recall that Stoicism is a critique of certain taken for granted ideas- what I have been calling ‘common opinion’. We would like to think that we can inoculate ourselves from the distress of misfortune by accruing as many resources as possible- but as the Stoics warn (and history amply demonstrates) external things will only every be unreliable and uncertain guarantees for happiness. They can be taken from us at any time, we can become dependent on their availability with a corresponding loss of freedom and beliefs in their value open us up to disturbing and distressing emotions.

Boethius from his jail cell also reflects on this theme as he faced great adversity- calling on philosophy, she spoke to him sweetly, consoling thus-

“Let the rich man increase his hoard- it is never enough.

All that gold, and all those Red Sea pearls

That hang from his pudgy neck, they only weigh him down.

Out in his fields, hundreds of oxen plow,

But still the furrows of care are deep in his creased brow,

and he worries about those riches he can’t take with him”.

(Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy)

Perhaps it is fair to say that one of the ideas we take for granted is that ‘it is unjust for us to suffer’ but according to the Stoics, Courage is the knowledge of what is appropriately endured (e.g., Arius Didymus). We may prefer not to suffer misfortune but to a great extent it is not what happens to us that matters but rather the views we have that matter. According to Epictetus-

“It is not events that disturb people, it is their judgements concerning them. Death, for example, is nothing frightening, otherwise it would have frightened Socrates. But the judgement that death is frightening- now, that is something to be afraid of. So, when we are frustrated, angry or unhappy, never hold anyone except ourselves- that is, our judgements- accountable. An ignorant person is inclined to blame others for his own misfortune. To blame oneself is proof of progress. But the wise man never has to blame another or himself” (Enchiridion, 5).

The Stoics are throughout consistent; the wise man blames neither himself or others because he uses reason correctly. He has taken to heart the Stoic doctrine to its fullest extent. He understands that the Cosmos is a benevolent living God, that externals have no power over him, that he exists to fulfill his purpose- to complete his end as a process in the becoming of the whole. He applies this belief (and much more) to the phenomenon of impressions and he is able then to accurately articulate the good and carry it through as appropriate action.

If our contemporary worldview has pathologized misfortune then it is up to us to recognize that its not what happens to us that matters but rather to offer a rational critique of our beliefs. Suffering is a highly subjective experience, and in a way it is a choice. In so much as it is dependent on our assent to the belief that a thing or situation has particular value to us, then the loss of it produces suffering: the experience of an evil thing. However, the only factually evil things derive from the misuse of reason. When we do so, we suffer – therefore we are the cause of our own suffering. Of course, there is much we can do to right wrongs (that is a different issue) but to call misfortune a disease, one that requires eradication, (supposing that is what ‘common opinion’ does) then we are fooling ourselves and seriously abusing reality. To live in a false reality is to become an abomination; as Marcus Aurelius himself writes-

“The soul of man does violence to itself, first of all, when it becomes an abscess and, as it were, a tumour on the universe, so far as it can. For to be vexed at anything which happens is a separation of ourselves from nature, in some part of which the natures of all other things are contained” Meditations, Book 3.16.

The Stoic requirement to live according to Nature, is another way of saying we must understand and live according to reality. To live with beliefs that are incompatible with what reality requires from us is to live a delusion. It is no wonder that social alienation, existential distress, addiction and all manner of psychological turmoil are prevalent, arising from a social and personal perspective that emphasizes the struggle of the individual’s needs over their fellows, the breakdown of effective and supportive communties, and rampant consumerism with its identification of externals as worthy and meaningful targets of acquisition.

Let us now look to what else the Stoics have to say about the appropriate perspective one should have towards misfortune or adversity-


“No tree which the wind does not often blow against is firm and strong; for it is stiffened by the very act of being shaken, and plants its roots more securely: those which grow in a sheltered valley are brittle: and so it is to the advantage of good men, and causes them to be undismayed, that they should live much amidst alarms, and learn to bear with patience what is not evil save to him who endures it ill” (On Providence).

“I am encouraged by these things with which you think to scare me: I long to stand where the Sun himself trembles to stand.” It is the part of grovellers and cowards to follow the safe track; courage loves a lofty path” (On Providence).


“Don’t hope that events will turn out the way you want, welcome events in whichever way they happen: this is the path to peace” (Enchiridion, 8).

“Welcome present circumstances and accept the things whose time has arrived. Be happy when you find that doctrines you have learned and analysed are being tested by real events” (Discourses, 4.4.45).

“You should thank the gods for making you strong enough to survive what you cannot control, and only responsible for what you can” (Discourses, 1.12.32).

“Every day you should put the ideas in action that protect against attachment to externals such as individual people, places or institutions – even your own body. Remember the law of God and keep it constantly in view: look to your own means, leave everything that isn’t yours alone. Make use of what material advantages you have, don’t regret the ones you were not allowed. If any of them are recalled, let go of them willingly, grateful for the time you had to enjoy them – unless you want to be like a child crying for her nurse or mother” (Discourses, 2.16.28).

“Bring on whatever difficulties you like Zeus; I have the resources and a constitution that you gave me by means of which I can do myself credit whatever happens”… “God has not merely given us strength to tolerate troubles without being humiliated or undone, but as befitting a king and true father, he has given them to us free from constraint, compulsion and impediment. He has put the whole matter in our control, not even reserving to himself any power to hinder us or stand in our way. And even though you have these powers free and entirely your own, you don’t use them, because you still don’t realise what you have or where it came from” (Discourse 1.6).

Marcus Aurelius

“Remove the judgement, and you have removed the thought ‘I am hurt’: remove the thought ‘I am hurt’, and the hurt itself is removed” (Meditations, 4.17).

To be Continued…






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