Musonius-esque living, Cynicism, Hercules, and the Pseudo-Lucian.


I recently read “The Cynic,” by the Pseudo-Lucian.  This work is a dialogue between Lycinus and an unnamed paragon of Cynicism.  The dialogue has a Socratic feel, being mostly one of questions and answers.  Also, Lycinus begins with the (mistaken) belief that he already knows a thing or two about a thing or two.  Our Cynic, however, proves to him that he holds contradicting beliefs, which cannot stand with each other with integrity upon examination.

There is a marked difference, in my estimation, to the Socratic dialogues, in that the Cynic also believes he knows something.  These sorts of essays written under the auspices of other philosophers, often have a proselytizing component, as most of the Cynic Epistles did.  For this reason, it’s not surprising then that our Cynic is in fact teaching explicitly.

The Cynic explains after Lycinus’ first question, that he is no condition of want, his needs are fulfilled, and he is healthy.  Lycinus then jumps into a description which I think lines up well with the modern person’s misconstruing of preferred indifferents (προηγμένα) in Stoicism.  I’ve seen folks who seems to think the Stoic position prompts the pursuit of wealth, pleasure, and other things which a Cynic would call typhos (τυφώς), and then make similar arguments.  This is not the case, by my reading, although it may allow for projects in these realms secondary to virtue.  Yet, I still prefer that these projects ought to be built so as to train us for virtue, a point to which we will return shortly.

Lycinus’ position is wrapped up in a strange theological argument; that to deny the bounty of nature and the ability of our bodies to take pleasure in these things which are provided is in fact a sort of impiety.  Immediately after, however, he gets to the meat of it:  he doesn’t like to go without the things he like.

“To live without all these would be miserable enough even if one could not help it, as prisoners cannot, for instance; it is far more so if the abstention is forced upon a man by himself; it is then sheer madness.” Lycinus says.

The Cynic responds with a point which is well at home in the world of Stoicism, that the manner in which we use these things is not in and of itself valuable, but only instrumentally so.  The things are indifferent, but our intent and actions can have a moral component for our own virtue.  We cannot inculcate σωφροσύνη (moderation, sort of [Wiki], [MS on food] ) if we don’t actually act out the virtue.

The Cynics makes his point with a metaphor that should not be novel to a student of Stoicism.  We also see it in Epictetus: the dinner party:

Remember that you must behave in life as at a dinner party. Is anything brought around to you? Put out your hand and take your share with moderation. Does it pass by you? Don’t stop it. Is it not yet come? Don’t stretch your desire towards it, but wait till it reaches you. Do this with regard to children, to a wife, to public posts, to riches, and you will eventually be a worthy partner of the feasts of the gods. And if you don’t even take the things which are set before you, but are able even to reject them, then you will not only be a partner at the feasts of the gods, but also of their empire. For, by doing this, Diogenes, Heraclitus and others like them, deservedly became, and were called, divine. 

— Epictetus, Enchiridion 15

The Cynic takes it a bit further, expounding on the idea and pulling back the curtain on the illustration which in the Enchiridion is hinted at.

… [T]he hospitable entertainer is God, who provides this variety of all kinds that each may have something to suit him; this is for the sound, that for the sick; this for the strong and that for the weak; it is not all for all of us; each is to take what is within reach, and of that only what he most needs.

All of this goes to underscore the point that the Cynic’s goal is “enough” not a surfeit.   He explains that his cloak meets his needs, his feet fulfill their function unshod, his body is adorned as a man’s ought to be, and the needs of his stomach met easily.

It’s important that we also note a difference here between the Cynic school, our mother school, and the Stoic.  Cynicism was descended from the Cyrenaics, where pleasure is held to be a good.  It might seem strange at first that a school which held up ἡδονή (pleasure) as a good would chose to live as the Cynics did.  Yet we see a parallel in the Epicureans, who espoused a more meager sort of pleasure, a simple kind.  At this point our schools diverge, on the underlying moral values.  The reasoning, though, is similar as it’s presented here.  How we handle material, external, indifferent things has a moral component and matters in the practice and progress of our own virtue.

Image result for murexThe Cynic then proceeds to attach several luxuries in succession, pointing out the same rule, that a lack of want and glut are not the same.  Afterwards, he turns Lycinus’ false piety on its head, and discusses the same purple dye we see from Zeno through Epictetus to Marcus: the murex and its blood. He states that to misuse this creature, not as food, but to color their clothes for aesthetic reasons is an impiety.

It’s interesting to me how this little shellfish dances through the Stoic canon and related works.  If future Stoics are looking for an emblem of sorts, this little guy might make an interesting one.  An interesting spin on Epictetus’ be the purple, maybe?  I’ve chosen my own icon, but there is room for others.

After this, we get another look at one of Seneca’s Sages, Hercules.  In many ways, next to Socrates, Hercules is the patron of both the Cynics and Stoics, and Pseudo-Lucian shows us why.  He closes with a long monologue, no longer fielding questions, but teaching as if a lecture, or public pedagogue.  Image result for hercules statue lion

These externals that you pour contempt upon, you may learn that they are seemly enough not merely for good men, but for Gods, if you will look at the Gods’ statues; do those resemble you, or me? Do not confine your attention to Greece; take a tour round the foreign temples too, and see whether the Gods treat their hair and beards like me, or let the painters and sculptors shave them. Most of them, you will find, have no more shirt than I have, either. I hope you will not venture to describe again as mean an appearance that is accepted as godlike.

Most of this discourse would be at home in the lectures of Musonius or Epictetus.  The Cynic heritage which Zeno introduced into his philosophy continues to be of relevance.  To me, this pieces asks us to examine the externals of our lives and weight them against our moral training.  The manner in which we eat, dress, sleep, and comport ourselves is training: but it is training us towards virtue?  That is the operative question.  You may not need to wear a thread-bare and simple cloak (τρίβων) or lion’s skin.  You may not need to subsist on lupine beans (which are expensive where I live, but were cheap for Diogenes).  You may not need to live without home, spouse, or work.  But you may need to address how you do those things in light of our philosophy’s ideals.  I certainly do, and the Cynic seems to know that as well:

… [T[he fact being that you in your own affairs go quite at random, never acting on deliberation or reason, but always on habit and appetite. You are no better than people washed about by a flood; they drift with the current, you with your appetites.

On other people’s evils


I saw this post in a Facebook group today, and I replied to it in a short way. I suggested the author must have misunderstood the nature of Good and Evil in Stoicism. To be clear, I think that the person’s response is actually indicative of a compassionate nature. However, strictly within stoicism that response is incorrectly placed and speaks to incorrect beliefs about the nature of Good and Evil, and thus an incorrect judgment/emotion as a result.  If this were just a random post on Facebook, I would not think it was a place to expand on these ideas.  Since it is taking place in a group at least nominally dedicated to the topic of Stoicism, it seems useful and reasonable to discuss it within that context.

I think that the post above is referencing an incident in current events in which it appears that U.S. immigration officials have been separating parents from children after they have illegally crossed the U.S. border for some number of years. There have been questions about the quality of those detainments and the morality of doing it at all. Regardless of one’s political persuasion, this discussion is important for a nation and a people to have, especially knowing it has been going on for quite some time.  (Aside:  breaking news at the time of this writing, the White House has announced that this practice will be terminated).

I do not intend to weigh in on the topic at hand, since it is a little bit off topic for the blog, but I do want to reference how this sort of current event is viewed through a Stoic lens. It is also not my intention to call out the original poster for their post, which is why I have redacted their name profile picture. I really want to address the philosophical issue at hand and not muddy it in some other way, or imply some sort of ad hominem against the poster. So, with those caveats in place…

Don’t be prideful with any excellence that is not your own. If a horse should be prideful and say, ” I am handsome,” it would be supportable. But when you are prideful, and say, ” I have a handsome horse,” know that you are proud of what is, in fact, only the good of the horse. What, then, is your own? Only your reaction to the appearances of things. Thus, when you behave conformably to nature in reaction to how things appear, you will be proud with reason; for you will take pride in some good of your own.

— Epictetus, Enchiridion 6.

In most people’s preliminary introduction into Stoicism, they read the Enchiridion in which we see the above quote. It is clear then from the beginning, that a Good must be solely up to us. However, the unspoken parallel there is that an Evil must also be only up to us.

We use these words, Good and Evil, casually in English and in everyday conversation but they both have clear and restricted definitions for the classical Stoics. Above all else (and I really mean all), Stoicism is concerned with virtue and an appropriately functioning προαίρεσις. There are two important axioms at play here which come to us from the ancients:

1. That virtue is the only good, and vice the only evil.

2. That the good and the evil have to be “up to us.” (ἐφ᾽ ἡμῖν).

The nature of Good and Evil in Stoicism runs counter to the average Westerner’s expectation. We are trained, compassionately, to see things in the world and say “what a tragedy, what an injustice!” These may very well be excellent avenues for us to form projects and attempt to influence the world for the betterment of our neighbors in the spirit of οἰκείωσις and cosmopolitanism.  But Evils, they are not.

Famine, war, disease, starvation, improper handling of criminals, and children whose parents move them from one place to another and are then mistreated: all of these things seem unfortunate to us, and present themselves as inustices, as evils.  Keeping in mind that we may still choose to act to influence them to some degree, they are not, however, actual Evils from the Stoic perspective.

This is the kind of statement that might make someone think “then the Stoics are wrong,” or “then this isn’t for me.” Either of which might be true, but let us look at the issue from that perspective first, and for the moment delay judgment (ἐποχή).

The left chart (click to embiggenate) shows the world divided by a couple of rules. Roughly speaking, they are things which are in accordance with nature and those not in accordance with nature, and things which are up to us and things which are not up to us. It is a bit more complicated than that, but if you will permit me to use some license here and overly simplify it, it will make it easier to highlight the substance of the division that were talking about.  Most folks will draw parallels to “positive things” and “negative things,” and that might be okay for this instance, but is still a little squishy.

With that in mind, an Evil has to be both against the nature of things, and up to us. Nature is also a difficult topic in Stoicism, but in this case we are talking specifically about humankind’s social nature.  So let’s shelve that issue for later, and focus on this social component.  Furthermore, according to this taxonomy when we see a “negative” thing if it is done by others it is an external and therefore a dispreferred indifferent (ἀπροηγμένα), and when done by us is a moral evil. The very same action has two different moral classifications and philosophical classifications depending on the agent or actor.  If we take the size of the various circles as indicative of frequency of occurrence, we see that these moral questions, while at the core and thus most important, are not the majority of impressions.

This seems nitpicky, and in a sense it is. However, when we as προκόπτωντες are attempting to make progress in our practice so philosophy, it behooves us to think of them correctly within the school that we have subscribed to.

Again, to reiterate, this does not imply passivity or that we must simply allow those things to go on as they are. If we feel a moral imperative to get involved and change the state of things, that is a prohairetic action (προαιρετικός) which contains a moral component and this is a valid avenue for us to act.  “It’s wrong for me to do nothing about this.”  This is fine, as long as you realize that your ability to influence it lies solely in the motivation and intent aspects.  You may well be thwarted along the way, and fail.  This is why the Dichotomy of Control is still a better Stoic position than the so-called Trichotomy.

Despite that, the thing which occurs is not Evil from a Stoic perspective. It could be, if and only if, you were the one making the plan/program or actively doing the thing which is repulsive to your conscience. It may be, that your action or inaction in this case, has a moral component for you. To choose a project one way of the other would have moral effects on you. In which case it would be to your own Good or Evil to act in accordance with that.

The Stoic lens can seem to be a strange one, distorting more than it focuses.  But for the practiced user, its ability to finely focus a narrow field is invaluable.  Part of using it appropriately and correctly is using the proper terms and connotations of the things we are observing.  It is very difficult, maybe impossible, to test impressions well if the measure is skewed by incorrect labels and markings.  The Good and the Evil need to be accurately calibrated, and that is the point of this of discussion.  In keeping those marks firm and accurate, we have benchmarks as moral actors for our intent.

Socratic meditation


After a post in Donald Robertson’s facebook group on meditation sucked me into a comment thread, I noted a statement by my friend Yannos that piqued my interest.  In discussing the topic, I had mentioned that there’s no account of sitting or breathing meditation in the Stoic corpus, like we see in Buddhism, for example.  Yannos commented something like, “No, they were standing.”  I had not heard anything like this before.

In speaking with him privately, he gave me some reading homework to do.  In Plato’s Symposium there are two accounts of instances in which Socrates in engaged in a behavior which seems to be a meditation or a trance of some sort, and in both he’s standing still.  It’s also clear that he’s not praying, as in the one account he prays afterwards.  I tend to go to Xenophon for my Socrates-reading, and (perhaps embarrassingly) haven’t read too much of Plato.

Time to correct that, it seems.

The two passages in question are: 174d175c and 220c-d.  I will briefly paraphrase them here.

Plat. Sym. 174d175c

Socrates invites his friend Aristodemus to a dinner party which is hosted by Agathon.  Along the way, Socrates begins to lag behind, and he waves his friend onward.  Upon arriving to the house, he takes up a post at the neighbor’s porch, and stands meditating.  Aristodemus enters the house, and Agathon asks where Socrates is, and sends a servant to collect the man.  When asked by the servant to come in, he refuses.   When the servant reports the happening, Agathon orders him to continue to pester Socrates until he comes in, at which point Aristodemus intervenes and asks the host to let Socrates be, as this is a habit of his which he does frequently, regardless of time and place; and that he will be along shortly.  Agathon agrees to do this.  A short time later, proving Aristodemus correct, Socrates enters.  The mark of wisdom is clearly visible to Agathon, who asks Socrates to share it with him.  Socrates declines, and says that if such a thing were possible, to shift wisdom from one to another as a wick will move a liquid, he would.  But alas, it is not so.

Two things are worthy of note here, the first is that in this state, at least in the beginning, Socrates can and does interact with others.  He speaks to Aristodemus and to the servant of Agathon.  The second being that this occured frequently enough for others to know of it as a habit of his.  It is a practice or exercise which Socrates engages in often.

Plat. Sym. 220c

Alcibiades tells the dinner guests of another such time Socrates stood, but this was not short venture as the one of early this evening.  At Potidaea, in the Peloponnesian War, Socrates “joined his thoughts with himself” (συνεννοήσας), and stood still from morning, through lunch and the evening, and all through the night until the next morning.  Alcibiades states that we would not give up, suggesting a commitment to the process despite outside pressures.  It was such a sight, that others brought their bedrolls outside to watch.  In the morning, he greeted the sun with prayers for the new day.

In this instance, Socrates stood for 24 hours in this practice.  Most translations will say that Socrates was “thinking over some problem/issue,” but Yannos showed me that the word in question is συνεννοήσας, “συν+ ἐν + νοέω, from νοῦς” so I’ve used ‘joined his thoughts with himself.’  For folks interested, the other Greek words in question to discuss this activity in Plato are: συννενοέω, σκοπέω, φροντίζω τι, and προσέχω τὸν νοῦν.  As Yannos noted, “All this is done while standing and away from everybody else (ἀναχωρήσας).”

From the words above, we can look at some English words which help us see what Socrates is doing inside, he’s turning his thoughts inward, examining himself, contemplating, inspecting, looking out for something, etc.  His practice involves him standing, sometime shortly, other times for a very long time, and engaging in this work.  He stands away, so it’s personal, but he does it wherever he happens to be, so it’s not private, and it is without concern for time or the events of others, so it is not a public display. I hope this delimits the practice somewhat.  Additional, this Greek Word Study Tool is useful as you can look up words in their full, inflected form without knowing the nominative/dictionary form.

In the beginning, at least, Socrates can and does speak to others. Later he seems to ignore other people, but it’s unclear to me whether he cannot, or simply does not do so. In the Alcibiades passage, his commitment to seeing the practice through is evident. Alcibiades states that Socrates would not give up, and he stood there contemplating for a day and a night. Quite a mental and physical feat.

Neither passage tells us what Socrates has gained from the practice, we only see it through the eyes of others like the three mentioned before. I have not found much scholarly discussion on this topic. This paper, which is partially on topic for us and partially off, states that the event is a trance.  I’m not convinced this is the case.  It seems to me to be a meditative and contemplative exercise, but I could be misconstruing what’s meant by trance as the author uses it.  Also, in my preliminary readings, I came across a Google-scan of an old book which I cannot now find again, where the author laments that this passages is an example of many scholars cramming their own ideas into ancient texts, eisegisis (a word Chris Fisher recently taught me).  This book notes two sources, one who uses this passage to state that this is evidence Socrates was a Pythagorean mystic, and another who uses it to claim that Socrates was figure of Science (with a capital S, clearly).  It’s worth noting that this is a real and present risk in the kind of work we’re engaged in here, so the reminder is timely and helpful.

HadotIt does seem fair to me that this practice can be classed as a “spiritual exercise” as Hadot would label it, and that it could be a valid practice for contemporary Stoics of any stripe.  For me, this sort of evidence, while a bit thin, is an interesting line of investigation which I prefer to porting over a practice from some other school or religion.  I will be making use of it in the coming weeks and months, and will report back any findings of note.

Normally, I would detail a plan or instructions for others. But as I’m writing this before engaging in a long-term experiment with the practice, I think that such a thing will be a future post after some experimenting is done.  So, I apologize for the lack, mea culpa.  If you decided to add this Socratic Meditation to your practice of Stoicism, please report back in the comments.

ἐπιμέλεια ἑαυτὸν


There’s been a trend with many some modern Stoic writers, and with commenters and various blogs and groups, that the main focus of ancient philosophy, specifically of Stoicism, can be shifted from virtue and wisdom, to Justice. I’ve even seen it explicitly stated that we can get rid of the other three cardinal virtues and focus solely on Justice.

This is a strange perspective, one couched in the typical morality of the modern world, and I think that you’ll see that it is not based in the Stoic school. If we look at Stoic thought and exercises we will see that we have two tools for acting justly in the world: οἰκείωσις, and using social roles as a way to determine appropriate actions.

However, we have many exercises, tools, and prescriptions for, as Hadot calls them, spiritual exercises. All of these amount to ἐπιμέλεια ἑαυτὸν, or as Foucault translates as “care of the self.” This disparity alone should tell us that the place of importance is shifted in one direction.  Indeed, those outward actions, of roles/duties are merely descriptors of things the Sage does.  It’s just a nice benefit to virtue, not the end of it.

It should be a non-controversial statement, that Stoics are more concerned with the intent of the thing, then the consequences of a thing. The Dichotomy of Control clearly is a tool allowing us, nay, mandating us to pick and choose between what is up to us and what is not up to us. The consequences of our actions in a cosmos which is rigorously, mechanistically, causally controlled and Providentially ordered is clearly not up to us. The internal project, the intent, the work of the προαίρεσις is. Our social roles are not goods in and of themselves. Our duties are not goods. They are expressions of the good which is within, of virtue. Stoic ethics/morality is self-centered. By this, I mean focused on the self. From Socrates, through the Cynics, to the Stoics and beyond the focus has been on the inward turning of the individual.

Epictetus orders us to “turn back to yourselves” (ἐπιστρέψατε αὐτοὶ) (Disc. III.23.39). Marcus reminds himself to “turn your thoughts on yourself”(εἰς ἑαυτὸν ἐπιστρέφου) (Meditations IX.42).  We see this sort of language over and over again in the Stoic canon.

Rather, then seeing Stoicism as one more branding for popular social action or someone’s political agenda; we should look at it, as the Ancients did.  We should see it as an order for care of the self: to work on ourselves, to secure individual virtue. This trend has existed throughout Western Civilization, even though it is almost always subsumed by collectivist structures. For example, we see it in Christianity, we have both the good works mandate, and the admonition to remove the plank from our own eyes, before touching the speck in our neighbors. So too do we see Stoicism. The commandment of γνῶθι σεαυτόν (know thyself), is sometimes reorganized as ‘recognize thy self,’ (Scalenghe) and is a reminder to realign ourselves to the rational divinity of the soul. We are instructed to seek personal virtue and through that we benefit others. So while we bring people one Circle closer in Hierocles’ ordering of the cosmos, we are still ever working on ourselves and to better ourselves.

The call of ancient philosophy is not one of  “come as you are,”  but to recognize your own nature, change what needs to be changed about you, and strive towards the human excellence that you were formed by nature to be worthy of possessing.  The cost may be high, however.  It may be our current way of life, our livelihood, our beliefs, and more besides.  This facet is entirely lost in modern, academic philosophy where the only thing required to learn a specific set of patterns to get closer to truth.  The Ancients require that you change, not merely learn.  The call, then, of the Stoics is while we have duties and obligation in the world polis, the primary focus is on progressing toward virtue. It’s important not to lose sight of that amidst worldly concerns.

Stoicism tells us to work on ourselves to make a difference in our community. Rather than giving the community a partisan, a voter, or one more outraged and offended voice, it is within our power to give them a good person, a good family member, a good citizen.

Your virtue is the best thing you can do for your community.

Cynic παρρησία isn’t always welcomed.


Phil Somers, posted in one of the Stoicism fb groups with a caustic but pertinent critique of consumerist Philosophy.  

He has this to say:

“So I have been slow to realise the fact that Stoicism is just a commodity that can be exploited. I used to believe it was this noble philosophy, but now I see it is so much more. So here is a preview of my new e-Book on Stoicism. Pricing to be announced shortly…”

 Some folks took umbrage with his post, but as is often the case, Phil has an ability to cut through the surface of the issue and strike at its heart. 

Deciding to make money from philosophy is not something one does lightly if they’re doing it with a full heart, and I think most are.  It’s a narrow edge to walk.  The best way, I suppose, would be to put out whatever you’re doing and if remuneration happens, it happens.

A danger exists if sales becomes an end, or a goal.  If the desire to bring in dollars shapes the discourse, then we can wonder quite far from the path.  Of course lots of money can be made by saying “use this philosophy to get money, sex, and prestige.” It is probably significantly harder to make money saying, “virtue is the sole good, the results of your action have no moral worth only your intent does, give up worldly desires, and align yourself consonant with nature.”

That’s a much harder sell.

Even philosophers have to eat, and most of us don’t live in a ceramic jar.  Musonius talks about right livelihood, and other Stoics have as well.  Teaching classes is an endorsed career  for a philosopher, and selling books seems decidedly in that vein. 

I took Phil’s reminder to keep the goals of Philosophy in mind, stay humble, and hold yourself to a high standard. The Stoics and Cynics are sibling schools, and the παρρησία of our closest relative can only make us better philosophers.

Thanks, Phil.

Plutarch: On Curiosity


I have just finished reading the section of Plutarch’s De Moralia “On Curiosity.” The Greek word in question is a bit difficult to translate, so you also see “On Being a Busybody” used.

You can read it here:*.html

The thrust of the essay, is an argument against the sort of curiosity which feeds on knowing the failings of others.  The gossipy nature, the uncovering of secrets, etc.  So the essay both argues against this, showing how this nature is at the extreme leading to things like adultery; and it offers a therapy to undo these habits.

 The fact that gossiping and nosiness are habits is an important one.  If you will permit the liberty, I’ll transpose some of his exercises to the utility of today as well as note the examples given.

Plutarch suggests that we not read every bit of graffiti, or signage that we pass.  That this little intrigue reduced our ability to study and descent important things, and trains the moral will into insinuating ourselves into things not our business.

He suggests that when we’re walking, we don’t peek in the doors of neighbors.  We might also practice not checking out the workspace of our colleagues, and keeping our attention outside of their offices, cubes, or desks where we might work.  Turn the gaze inward, to the self, and not to others.

Plutarch suggests that when a letter arrives, we delay opening it for a time.  This can be true for email, push notifications for smart phones, and the other ten-thousand digital intruders of the day.  We may even block those things into chunks: to check email once or twice a day, turn off the push notifications from Facebook, YouTube, or our favorite Stoic blogger, and instead only give a set amount of time to these things each day.

One of the things which Plutarch mentioned, is that the person who loves to uncover secrets also loves to share it.  I suspect that the second part is easier to wrangle than the first.  We might adopt an purposeful silence, not sharing the social tidbits which we might uncover.  This will lead in time to a reduction in the former.

I suspect that part of the allure of sharing gossip is being perceived as the person “in the know.” Restricting such speech, then, will immediately curtail this feedback.

Plutarch remarks that the very people who seek out such knowledge are the ones we hide it from, and so the work of the gossip is twice as hard.

While not a Stoic work per se, this fits nearly into many philosophical settings.  It’s short, and I recommend it to your reading.

It is important to remember how we train the moral will, and what small things lead to greater.

Seneca Reading plan, redux!


About this time last year, I packed up my earthly belongings and hauled them about 1300 miles across the country.  In that moving, my Seneca reading plan fell by the wayside.  I’ll be picking it back up from where I left off, in week 27 of the reading plan.

So, those sorts of posts may become more frequent.

In a side note, I’m also doing some more reading on Stoic ἄσκησις, so expect some thoughts and posts in that vein.