Probability as Stoic Fate, Providence.


Stoicism is made up of several core axioms.  Among them is the idea that the universe is conscious and providential.  I’ve argued for the traditional perspective of the conscious cosmos before, and today I’d  like to examine the idea of Fate a bit more.

moiraiClassically, Fate can be understood in a variety of ways.

1) A general fate  for the cosmos.  A big picture.
2)  A personal Fate for each individual.
–  Either Fated events or
–   A single Fate: the day of one’s  death.
3)  Fate as a personality and divine force, (Zeus. Moirai, Clotho, etc.).

Today, the concept of Fate is out of favor… sort of.  The common western perspective is that we live in a mechanistic universe where specific causes yield  specific effects.  Common sense supports this, if I push a glass off the edge of the counter, it will fall to the ground unless stopped.  Several causes are involved.

  1. Me the pusher, is one cause.
  2. Gravity’s effect on the glass.
  3. Inertia of glass.
  4. Friction of various sorts.

Causal determinism is form of Fate, albeit a very mild one.  There is a Non-Stoic chreia about Fate that I quite like:

A rich and mighty Persian was walking in his garden with one of his servants. The servant cried that he had just encountered Death, who had threatened him. He begged his master to give him his fastest horse so that he could make haste and flee to Teheran, which he could reach that same evening. The master consented and the servant galloped off on the horse. On returning to his house the master himself met Death, and questioned him,
“Why did you terrify and threaten my servant?” he asked.
“I did not threaten him; I only showed surprise in still finding him here when I planned to meet him tonight in Teheran,” said Death.


In Stoic terminology, the glass and the Persian servant both have Fates, but they are co-fated with several causes.  In the case of the glass, if all of these are present except ‘me the pusher’ the glass is fated to rest on the counter top.  If ‘me the pusher’ is present, and I do so, it is fated to fall.dice
We could assign numbers to the liklihood of each of these fates, and to the liklihood of each of the contributing causes.  Because the Stoic doctrine of Fate contains the ideas of “co-fatedness,”  a modern might look at this and say, “We’re discussing probability.”

Additionally, since for the Stoics we have the idea of causa sui, with the rational creature as a ’cause of itself’ we can see something like Conditional Probability in Stoic theory as well.

Personally, I rather like the utility of the mental model of Fate as a challenge or test:  the idea that an unending chain of causes going back to the beginning of the cosmos has been brought about for this particular instance for me to show virtue.  This seems more useful to me on a day by day basis.

My point being, there is a modern trend to cut away seemingly anachronistic parts of traditional Stoicism, but as I continue to argue, the traditional perspective is not usually opposed to the modern one.  How much of what we believe today has parallel, albeit in romantic or poetic language, in the theory and cosmology of the classical Stoics?

I would heartily suggest that one reinterprets those parts of Stoicism which they may have discarded, in favor of this view.  Instead of asking what we can cut away, let us ask, how much of this can we keep?

New Undertaking: ἡ κοινὴ διάλεκτος


This weekend I started out with a tutor to learn Koine Greek. Hopefully this time next year I can read the classical sources for myself.  I think my studies are at the point where being able to read the works in their native language would be helpful.  Working in translation is not bad, it got me here.

But this way, at least when I’m working with a translation I’ll then have two opinions on the definitions: theirs and mine.  As of now, I rely on a “priestly class” of translators to make philosophy accessible to me.
Just trying to cut out the middle man.
There’s a long way to go to get there, though.


On Exile and the Cosmopolis


Epictetus mentions exile quite a bit in the Discourses and also in the Enchiridion.  Considering that he was himself exiled, and exile was a fairly common occurrence during his time, this is not surprising.  We don’t have exile in the traditional sort so much these days in the west.  We have imprisonment, death, sickness, and many of the other plights of men.

But exile, not so much.

Or is that true?  Maybe we still have exile, but of a different sort.  Surely, very rarely are we banished from our country, stripped of the rights of citizenship and sent away as a foreigner to a foreign land… right?  If one travels from Maine to California, every place you stop will have McDonald’s and the dollar.  They share governmental structures, taxes, and the like.  The language is passingly similar.  But the countries and the people are not non-different.

We might find ourselves living far from our birth places, far from our people, and in countries strange to us.  So, maybe it is a good thing that Epictetus harps on exile as he does.  I know it’s currently relevant for me.

“I must be put in chains. Must I then also lament? I must go into exile. Does any man then hinder me from going with smiles and cheerfulness and contentment?”

— Epictetus, Discourses I.1

Suffering and distress are internal affairs.  While the outside actions and contexts of our lives may not be entirely up to us, the attitudes and the judgement we make about them are.  The layman is sent away from home for work or for some other purpose, separated from the people and land he loves.  He views himself injured, and he is distressed.

But it is up to us to determine if we are injured, diminished, or distressed.  So we must go, must we also go unhappy?  No.

“[T]o study how a man can rid his life of lamentation and groaning, and saying, “Woe to me,” and “wretched that I am,” and to rid it also of misfortune and disappointment and to learn what death is, and exile, and prison, and poison, that he may be able to say when he is in fetters, “Dear Crito, if it is the will of the gods that it be so, let it be so”. “

— Epictetus, Discourses I.4

Here is the crux.  We must study.  We have spent years and decades inculcating judgments about the world.  We’ve been training for our whole lives to make the wrong decision.  So we must train now, with the diligence of the truly dedicated to overturn these unnatural and learned defaults.

Epictetus’s teachings have a deeply religious character, for him, turning to philosophy is piety.  Religion is a comfort for many, and some a nigh-insurmountable obsticle.  Regardless, this “giving over” of things external has a lesson for the Stoic philosopher.  Let us leave those things which are not ‘up to us’ to others.

“[I]n a word, neither death nor exile nor pain nor anything of the kind is the cause of our doing anything or not doing; but our own opinions and our wills. “

— Epictetus I.11

How can we truly train for equanimity and wisdom in the face of death when something such as sickness or exile torments out souls?  How can we progress at the biggest thing, when the little things tear us down?  Exile does not make us unhappy, or opinions and our will do.  Stilbo, Epictetus, and all the others would have treated it an evil were it so.

“[N]o man sends a cowardly scout, who, if he only hears a noise and sees a shadow anywhere, comes running back in terror and reports that the enemy is close at hand. So now if you should come and tell us, “Fearful is the state of affairs at Rome, terrible is death, terrible is exile; terrible is calumny; terrible is poverty; fly, my friends; the enemy is near”; we shall answer, “Begone, prophesy for yourself; we have committed only one fault, that we sent such a scout.” “

— Epictetus, Discourses I.24

We look to our judgments of the world to help us navigate it.  Yet, we’ve trained our ruling faculty to react to every little thing.  This is not helpful for us.  Instead, we must teach ourselves to judge things aright, that we see clearly, and thereby choose projects and actions, or inactions, conducive to our own virtue.

“In the schools what used you to say about exile and bonds and death and disgrace?”
I used to say that they are things indifferent.
“What then do you say of them now? Are they changed at all?”
“Are you changed then?”

— Epictetus, Discourses I.30

It’s very easy to learn the theory.  It is much harder to practice it, and harder still to hold to it in the crisis.  But life happens in extremis.  It’s only at the edge of the envelope that we see what we’ve learned.  So have we changed?  Have we left the field over which philosophy can assist?  No, we have not.

“In what cases, on the contrary, do we behave with confidence, as if there were no danger? In things dependent on the will. To be deceived then, or to act rashly, or shamelessly or with base desire to seek something, does not concern us at all, if we only hit the mark in things which are independent of our will. But where there is death, or exile or pain or infamy, there we attempt or examine to run away, there we are struck with terror.”

— Epictetus, Discourses II.1

Despite our trainings, we still fall short.  When the precepts and values which we have learned have not yet been internalized, we are deceived.

“Let others labour at forensic causes, problems and syllogisms: do you labour at thinking about death, chains, the rack, exile; and do all this with confidence and reliance on him who has called you to these sufferings, who has judged you worthy of the place in which, being stationed, you will show what things the rational governing power can do when it takes its stand against the forces which are not within the power of our will.”

— Epictetus, Discourses II.1

One of the key features of Epictetus’s thought-model of the cosmos, is that the philosopher is appointed by the divine to his station.  He is a like a soldier on the wall, with clear duties and obligations.  He has a mission, and it is clear and explicit:  but not easy.  He has to rectify his soul.  He must correct his prohairesis (προαίρεσις) and hêgemonikon (ἡγεμονικόν), his moral will and ruling faculty.

“For if a man can quit the banquet when he chooses, and no longer amuse himself, does he still stay and complain, and does he not stay, as at any amusement, only so long as he is pleased? Such a man, I suppose, would endure perpetual exile or to be condemned to death.”

— Epictetus, Discourses II.16

The Great Banquet of Life is one of my favorite Stoic allegories.  Maybe because my family took table manners to be particularly important, I feel predisposed to understand how that microcosm can be representative of the cosmos-per-se.

A good dinner guest takes what he is served with gratitude and humbleness.  He does not stretch for his hand and take what is not presented to him.  He does not say that it is of poor quality or not to his liking.  He takes what he needs, and passes the rest on.

“Dare to look up to God and say, “Deal with me for the future as thou wilt; I am of the same mind as thou art; I am thine: I refuse nothing that pleases thee: lead me where thou wilt: clothe me in any dress thou choosest: is it thy will that I should hold the office of a magistrate, that I should be in the condition of a private man, stay there or be an exile, be poor, be rich? I will make thy defense to men in behalf of all these conditions. I will show the nature of each thing what it is.” “

— Epictetus, Discourses II.16

Epictetus is empowered by his piety, something which I can appreciate intellectually, but which escapes my experience.  He is brave, because he truly knows that what is his is untouchable by any power in the universe, his moral will and his judgments.  And his sense of piety restricts his desire to those things only.

“Show me a man who is sick and happy, in danger and happy, dying and happy, in exile and happy, in disgrace and happy. Show him: I desire, by the gods, to see a Stoic.”

— Epictetus, Discourses II.19

The Stoic is equanimous in the face of those things which break down lesser folks.  It is all to easy to fancy ourselves proficient when things are easy, yet here too we are deceived.  In the face of loss, sickness, privation, and exile how sure are we in our philosophy?

“Will you not, as Plato says, study not to die only, but also to endure torture, and exile, and scourging, and, in a word, to give up all which is not your own?”

— Epictetus, Discourses IV.1

To lose all the things which others value: country, citizenship, estate, title, wealthy, health, life.  To give back what is merely loaned, and to hold fast to that which is ours.  Simple.  Hard.

“Are you not the master of my body? What, then, is that to me? Are you not the master of my property? What, then, is that to me? Are you not the master of my exile or of my chains? Well, from all these things and all the poor body itself I depart at your bidding, when you please. Make trial of your power, and you will know how far it reaches.”

— Epictetus, Discourses IV.7

Epictetus was both a slave and an exile.  His is experience is vastly different from my own, but if I can learn what he learned through his experience and ideas:  that will be something.

“[A] philosopher should show himself cheerful and tranquil, so also he should in the things that relate to the body:
“See, ye men, that I have nothing, that I want nothing: see how I am without a house, and without a city, and an exile, if it happens to be so, and without a hearth I live more free from trouble and more happily than all of noble birth and than the rich. But look at my poor body also and observe that it is not injured by my hard way of living.” “

— Epictetus, Discourses IV.11

Epictetus often touts Diogenes of Sinope as his ideal Sage.  He uses similar language to describe the Cynic, a philosopher appointed by God to call many away from the obfuscating fog of Typhos to the clarity of philosophy.

It’s hard to teach these things, hard to learn them this way.  But to see the example makes it clear.  Here is a person who does what he says, who lives what he teaches.  Is he happy?

I’m in an exile of sorts theses days, here in Texas.  Far from my friends and family, the land that I know and love.  It’s hard for me to come to appreciate a new place, and in the back of my mind is simply the waiting to go back home.

Many of the judgement we make happen so quickly that they seem implicit.  And undoing a faulty judgment is not easy task.  While I know I can find happiness, virtue, and success here:  it is in the back of my mind a temporary thing.

But that cuts both ways.  It’s temporary, so I’m not overly concerned, but it’s not the temporary of a Stoic.  A Stoic would like at all of life as temporary, and for that reason is not distressed.  My perspective is not so broad.  I’m still making progress.

This drives home another seemingly paradoxical Stoic position:  that even through a Sage and non-sage might take the same action or view, the Sage’s action is perfect, katorthōma (κατόρθωμα), while the non-sage philosopher’s action is merely appropriate or in accordance with nature, kathēkon (καθῆκον).

This particular conundrum allowed me to really grok that for the first time, I think.  My understanding of this particular issue isn’t any closer to resolution, but I think I’m starting to really get perfect versus appropriate actions.

earth_2-jpgThe Stoics, as the Cynics before them, have the conception of the kosmopolitês (κοσμοπολίτης)the citizen-of-the-world.  The Stoic conception is fairly different from they Cynic, so far as I understand, oikeiôsis (οἰκείωσις) having a feature in the Stoic version.  This is another reason why we should not fear or be distressed in exile.  We are rational creatures, fellow citizens in the cosmic-city of the Logos.  How contrary to nature to scratch out a tiny plot of dirt, and choose to feel like a foreigner everywhere else?

It seems silly spelled out like that, but here I sit.  In exile, a foreigner, here the word is gringo.  
I guess I still have work to do.

Written in Exile,
— The MountainStoic

The classical Stoics and the beard.


Today is apparently National Beard Day, or some such thing.  There’s a hashtag to that effect currently overwhelming Twitter.  While the beard’s fashion waxes and wanes periodically, it has remained a powerful symbol in the West for quite a bit longer than the current trend.

Indeed, the beard came to symbolize many things to the classic philosophers that became the foundation for western intellectualism and spirituality. The classical Stoics generally took the position that men should not cut off the beard.  Some viewed the cutting off of the beard as religious impiety.  Others, as simply against the natural course, which might actually be one and the same, come to think of it.

Let’s look at the sources, and see why the beard was a focus for the Hellenic and Roman Stoics.

 *    *    *

But what is it, Epicurus, which pronounces this, which wrote about “The End of our Being,” which wrote on “The Nature of Things,” which wrote about the Canon, which led you to wear a beard, which wrote when it was dying that it was spending the last and a happy day? Was this the flesh or the will? Then do you admit that you possess anything superior to this? and are you not mad? are you in fact so blind and deaf?

— Epictetus, The Discourses II.23

The broader context for this excerpt is that Epictetus is speaking against some of the doctrines of Epicurus.  While the two Schools, the Stoics and Epicureans, were contemporaries and generally opposed on many philosophical precepts, it’s important to recognize that each believed the other to be philosophers, and not impostors, pretenders, nor sophists.  The beard, then, is already a cultural symbol of philosophy, ignoring the divisions of the Schools.

 *    *    *

And are you such a man as can listen to the truth? I wish you were. But however since in a manner I have been condemned to wear a white beard and a cloak, and you come to me as to a philosopher, I will not treat you in a cruel way nor yet as if I despaired of you, but I will say: Young man, whom do you wish to make beautiful? In the first place, know who you are and then adorn yourself appropriately. You are a human being…

— Epictetus, The Discourses III.1

Here, Epictetus is addressing a man who pays a conspicuous amount of attention to bodily pomp, coifing, and style.  It is Epictetus’ opinion that he is trying to make himself beautiful for the appreciation of others.  The injunction to know thyself, and the live (adorn yourself) appropriately is not a new one to any Greek or Roman who would have heard him.  Epictetus will go on to tell the young man, that while he dresses up this paltry body nicely, it can only dress up a corpse and a bit of breath.  Then, what will make a person beautiful is the refinement of his reason and social character, what’s up to him.  It’s a call away from vanities of the flesh, and to the higher realms of reason.

 *    *    *

‘What then? Is the body to be unclean?’
God forbid! but cleanse your true, natural self: let man be clean as man, woman as woman, child as child.
Nay, let us pluck out the lion’s mane, lest it be unclean, and the cock’s comb, for he too must be clean!
Clean? yes, but clean as a cock, and the lion as a lion, and the hound of the chase as such a hound should be.

— Epictetus, The Discourses III.1

Apparently, one of the challenges to men not cutting of their beards in Epictetus’ day is one we still see today, that it is somehow unclean or barbaric.  Epictetus first attacks the position by suggesting that the standard being used is inappropriate, let man be clean as man, he says.  He shows how such a position, that the man would have to be plucked for cleanliness, is on the face silly when the same rule is applied to other creatures like the lion and the rooster.

 *    *    *

What, then, is the material of the philosopher? Is it a cloak? No, but reason. What is his end? is it to wear a cloak? No, but to possess the reason in a right state. Of what kind are his theorems? Are they those about the way in which the beard becomes great or the hair long?

But even the philosophers themselves as they are called pursue the thing by beginning with things which are common to them and others: as soon as they have assumed a cloak and grown a beard, they say, “I am a philosopher.” But no man will say, “I am a musician,” if he has bought a plectrum and a lute: nor will he say, “I am a smith,” if he has put on a cap and apron.

— Epictetus, The Discourses IV.8

Here, we’re given the careful and poignant reminder that it is not the beard and cloak which make a philosopher.  Ultimately, these are mere symbols.  We do no call a man in jeans and work shirt, with tool belt and tools a carpenter because he’s dressed like one, we say that only when he can do the work of carpentry to a certain and specific degree.  The same is true for our profession. 

*    *    *

Neither should the beard be cut from the chin (for it is not superfluous), but it too has been provided for us by nature as a kind of cover or protection. Moreover, the beard is nature’s symbol of the male just as is the crest of the cock and the mane of the lion; so one ought to remove the growth of hair that becomes burdensome, but nothing of the beard; for the beard is no burden so long as the body is healthy and not afflicted with any disease for which it is necessary to cut the hair from the chin.

Nowadays there are even men who cut their hair to free themselves of the weight of it and they also shave their cheeks. Clearly such men have become slaves of luxurious living and are completely enervated, men who can endure being seen as womanish creatures, hermaphrodites, something which real men would avoid at all costs. How could hair be a burden to men? Unless, of course, one should say that feathers are a burden to birds also.

— Musonius Rufus, Lecture XXI

Musonius is an interesting figure, in that he argues women too should study philosophy, and that girl-children ought to be educated right alongside of sons.  While this stands out a testament to Stoic reason, Musonius does hold to a fairly traditional (and to his mind) natural division of gender roles.  This might displease some, but it’s my intent to present the classical sources as closely as I can, and not cover over politically incorrect beliefs.

All that being said, in the vast majority of humans, there is present, biologically, certain secondary sex characteristics and sexual dimorphism.  It is then, entirely appropriate to say that the beard is in fact nature’s symbol of the male.  This can even be tested, in a way, by the giving of androgenic hormones like testosterone to humans with XX chromosomal make ups.  The increased growth of facial hair will usually be the result.

Musonius would argue it’s inappropriate for the male to attempt to make himself like a female.  My reading of this is not that Musonius would say a person who can’t grow a beard is less manly, grow what you’re given, but the intentional modification of the body as such is not suggested.

 *    *    *

I heard a speaker from India once in response to a woman who asked why holy men and gurus have beards give a fantastic answer.  He said, as best I can remember, “Ma’am, I hate to be the one to tell you this.  You’ve lived 42 years on this earth and just now are learning this thing.  All men have beards.  Some of them cut it off.  I am as God made me.  Do not ask me then why I have a beard.  Ask them why they cut theirs off!”

Edit:  Found the video.

“But isn’t Stoic Physics really *meta*-physics?”


Nope.  (;

The word “physics” can be confusing for modern English speakers when we’re discussing the tripartite divisions of philosophy, to wit:  logic, ethics, and physics.  Today, Physics requires electron microscopes, crazy-intense lasers, Large Hadron Colliders, and other assorted machines and instruments.  Yet, these are pretty thin on the ground.COSMOS: A SPACETIME ODYSSEY: 

(photo credit: FOX)

Most of us don’t have access to such tools, nor did the classical Stoics.  So why do we call their study ‘Physics’ also?  The operative word in the Koine is Physis ( φύσις), and is commonly translated by the English word ‘nature.’  It has philosophical, theological, and scientific connotations.  We use the same word in English, it’s derivative “physics,” because we’re talking about similar intents:  the desire to study nature, or reality.

The classical study of Physics incorporated things that we might categorize as theology, cosmology, psychology, anthropology, biology, chemistry, etc.  It’s quite the range of areas of investigation.  But the crucial point is that they are investigations into the nature of the cosmos: of reality.

metaphysics1-300x238Metaphysics is a newer term, and it’s often applied retroactively to thought-models which are deemed to be outdated or untestable.  The morpheme ‘meta-‘ in English has the meaning of “beyond” or “above.”  So metaphysics postulates about things which are beyond current conventional ability to test.  While it might be acceptable in some academic disciplines to refer to certain positions of the classical Stoics as metaphysical, we who consider ourselves studying in the school usually will make use of the word “physics” as it’s closer to the vocabulary which they themselves used.

So, how come the Stoics don’t lay out statements like “Here’s our metaphysical position on ‘X-thing,'” ?  The first reason being, the term is new, so we’re not going to see it per the above.  The second is that the Stoic worldview is interwoven into the entire system.  By the time the classical Stoics were current, philosophy had become a system of schools, which had held common positions amongst themselves.  Of course, there are those who make individual contributions to the discussions, and some of them are heterodox to the mainline dogma:  nothing surprising there.  Thirdly, using the word “physics” places the things we’re discussing in a chronological context.  To understand modern science in the best way, it is advisable to at least learn about the understandings of previous generations.  To really understand why quantum mechanics is such a trip, esp. in the 1905, a firm understanding at some level of Newtonian physics is useful.  Context matters.

The classical Stoics are variously called materialists, vitalists, monists, physicalists, and more.  What we’re discussing here is not a proclivity for shopping, but rather their understanding of the cosmic nature.  The classical Stoics believed (or at least espoused) that all of existence is made up of one stuff, that it’s ordered by a universal reason, and that virtue is the only good and equivalent to eudaimonia.

These are metaphysical positions generally, as we understand it.

However, the Stoic ethics are predicated on its physics.  While recently this position has been challenged by some, the academic literature and the classical sources themselves are (to me at least) clear on this issue.  As such, to relegate them to the realm of the “metaphysical” does a disservice to the unity of the system for the modern student.

This is precisely because the classical position gives us an avenue for the modern practitioner to approach life.  If it is possible to divine ethical precepts based on a rational understanding of the universe (assumption), then we still have work to do.  The School is in progress.  The case of ethics is not closed.  The understanding of virtue is not closed.  These are open classes, and it is our responsibility as philosophers to continue that work.

Whether you call a certain sub-set of classical postulates and beliefs “physics” or “metaphysics” isn’t really an important-per-se issue; nor is it of a moral nature (thus an indifferent).  Within some circles one might be more prevalent than the other, the entirety and the length of the discussion is still one of value, however.

You won’t be kicked out of the Stoic tent (so far as I’m concerned) if you do not believe that universe is all matter surrounded by a cosmic void, or that it forever expands and is consumed in a cosmic fire.  You don’t have to believe that the soul of the Sage lives on for a short time (but not past the Ekpyrosis).  But it is important to be familiar with the classical beliefs that came along with the ethical and moral precepts of our School if you are to call yourself a Stoic.