On ἀρετή and troubling translations


The most common English translation for the Koine word ἀρετή that you’re likely to come across is ‘virtue.’  This translation presents a couple of problems, which I’ll address.

Firstly, the word virtue in English has lots of baggage from its use in the Judeo-Christian tradition.  Secondly, on top of that, there are certain conotations which make the word less than dynamic.  Generally, when we hear virtue, even in a philosophical context, the conotation relegates the topic to moral and social applications.  While it’s true that there is a moral and social component, it is not the entire story.

The next most common translation is ‘excellence,’ and this one does quite a bit better.  In Diogenes Laertius 7.90, he says “Excellence (ἀρετή) is in a general sense the perfection of each thing.”

For humans, as rational critters, that means the perfection of our rational faculties.

In, The Stoic Sage by Brouwer (which I’m reading currently), the ‘dispositional definition’ of ἀρετή is discussed.  The dispositional definition has to do with character, and for this case, the measure is consistency.

It’s a pretty well-known standard that excellence is a kind of knowledge (Gr:  ἐπιστήμη).  In the case of moral virtue, that can be cloudy.  What does it mean to know a virtue?  However, when viewed through the dispositional lens of ‘consistent character’ and ‘excellence’ the knowledge and praxis components of ἀρετή are more clear.

Stoic Monasteries, request for help!


Stoic communities have been an interest of mine, and I came across this reference that ‘monasteries’ were firstly a Stoic development. I chased down the following lineage of this info, but ran into a wall. If anyone is interested, please feel free to help.

Dr. Olson, in her book “Daily life in a Medieval Monastery” makes this claim:dllm

“Monasterium is the Latinized version of a Greek word (monos, alone; monachos, one who dwells alone, whence the word “monk”) that was coined by pre-Christian Stoic philosophers to denote a place set apart where the lover of wisdom could retreat from worldly distractions to study and meditate.”

But, there was no source. So I wrote her, and she referred me to her immediate source for that statement that was Maxwell Staniforth’s introduction to his translation of Marcus Aurelius’ ‘Meditations’ (Penguin Classics, translation first published 1964), p. 26, which reads:

“A notable Stoic contribution, too, to the manners of the Church, and one which has had a lasting influence, was the practice of asceticism. Christians who desired to follow counsels of perfection took the Stoic sage and his way of life as their formal exemplar. The coarse garment, the untrimmed locks and beard, were adopted as the badges of aspiration to sanctity. Just as the Stoic professor was accustomed to withdraw from society and meditate in solitude, his Christina imitators not only followed his example but appropriated his terminology. In the Stoic vocabulary one who went into retreat was an ‘anchorite’; one who practiced self-discipline was an ‘ascetic’, those who lived apart from their fellows were ‘monachi’, and the place of their retreat was a ‘monasterium’. Each of these borrowed expressions has retained its place and significance in the language of the Church to this day.”

But there the trail ends, as that is also not cited. So, any further help would be awesome. Anyone feel like doing some sleuthing?

This is from another thread in our BookFace Group:

Physics => Philosophy: On Piety


I was flipping through the Discourses, and came across the opening of Discourses II.23. We often get asked how empirical observation leads to philosophical conclusion.

Epictetus lays this out in the vein of piety, which may not hold as much water for some as it does others, but still hits the mark regarding observation and conclusion, so stick with me on this:

“… Of an impious man, because he undervalues the gifts which come from God, just as if he would take away the commodity of the power of vision, or of hearing, or of seeing. Has, then, God given you eyes to no purpose? and to no purpose has he infused into them a spirit so strong and of such skillful contrivance as to reach a long way and to fashion the forms of things which are seen? What messenger is so swift and vigilant? And to no purpose has he made the interjacent atmosphere so efficacious and elastic that the vision penetrates through the atmosphere which is in a manner moved? And to no purpose has he made light, without the presence of which there would be no use in any other thing?”

Now, we moderns have a different conception, it’s actually 180 degrees the other way around, the the eye functions as it does precisely because the environment is conducive to that development, and the trait is probably tied to reproductive success.

Yet still, *that* process is one in which we could find gratitude and humility. Remembering, that the Stoic god is the god of nature and nature’s providence, not a personality in the way we’re familiar from the Abrahamic faiths.

The humility we might feel under the auspices of such a system, I think, Epictetus would recognize as piety. [Interpretative speculation.]

This is indicative of why Stoicism, even if you eventually come to some other conclusion, needs to be viewed with its own lens of its own teleology. The perspective of the ancients lacks a crucial point if it is ignored. You can pull away some tricks, but you’re missing out on the systemic integrity, and the exhaustiveness of the School otherwise.

Now, that doesn’t obligate us as individuals, it’s not a sin or a heresy to disagree, but it’s reasonable to view it as close to they way they did if we want to understand it more fully. Once we’ve covered this groundwork, we’re free to disagree and do our own philosophizing from there.

My conception of piety has changed significantly from that of a person raised in the west under an Abrahamic model, to being exposed more thoroughly to this one; and my experience and understanding is deeper because of it.

That, in and of itself, is no small thing.

Heraclitus’s Logos, and the foundation of Stoic Physics


A sometimes-neglected part of studying Stoicism, is the unitary nature of the school. Even if you discard their beliefs, knowing about them and the attempt at an exhaustive ontology is worth the investment.

Stoic Physics is indebted to the work of Heraclitus, of which we have only fragments today. Heraclitus is known for his development of the Logos from it’s more base meaning of ‘word’ or ‘reason’ to that more specialized connotation of the ‘ordering principle of the cosmos.’

If you haven’t read Heraclitus, the near-mystical quality of the fragments are well-worth the time, I think.

This PDF and others are available at the College’s Library Page if you’re interested:



On the Stoic Dichotomy… or is it Trichotomy?


The Enchiridion begins with this line:

τῶν ὄντων τὰ μέν ἐστιν ἐφ᾽ ἡμῖν, τὰ δὲ οὐκ ἐφ᾽ ἡμῖν.

Long translates this as:

“Of things some are in our power, and others are not.”

Higginson translates it as:

“There are things which are within our power, and there are things which are beyond our power.”

Carter as:

“Some things are in our control and others not.”

White as:

“Some things are up to us and some are not up to us.”

The Koine ἐφ᾽ ἡμῖν translates literally as “on us,”  and thus the variety of interpretations in English.  In modern English we’re apt to say, “No, that’s ‘on you,‘ meaning it’s your responsibility or prerogative.

In modern Stoicism there is a trend, which if I recall correctly goes back to Irvine, to set-up a Trichotomy of Control, which is: things which are up to us, things which are up to us somewhat but not entirely, and things which are not up to us.

Strictly, under the Dichotomy of Control, the only things which are up to us are opinion,  movement towards a thing or impulse, desire, and aversion.  Basically, our intent and moral will.  And that hard line with which we circumscribe these very small number of things necessarily excludes all else.  This is the traditional, orthodox position.

Irvine’s heterodox interpretation seems to me to stem from the experiential observation that while we cannot guarantee how are our actions will end in the world, we can influence some part of it, more or less.  I can intend to help someone out, and I can influence someone to do so with me.  Although their choice is not up to me, I can plant the seed, and arrange the environment in such a way as to be conducive to that end.  Seems reasonable.

Philosophy comes to bloom in Ethics.  It was the primary focus of the Roman Stoics, and it is often the sole focus of the modern practitioners.  The ethics and the teleology matter, no question there.  I suspect that this is crux of the issue with the Trichotomy.

For the traditional Stoic, she can rest content knowing her actions had a virtuous intent even if they fall short of “doing good” from an outside perspective.  This seems to be a generally distasteful position for the modern Westerner.

We see this a lot in social situations, especially in instances of perceived power and perceived oppression:  “I don’t care what you meant, I care what you did.”  This post-modern perspective holds each person’s opinion and emotional response up as a rule for other folks’ actions… something which the traditional Stoic would likely deride.

I suspect that this move to a Trichotomy is a reasonable attempt at divorcing traditional Stoicism from its theological and teleological bent, and place it in a tract more conducive to modern atheistic Stoicism.  While we are all endeavoring to transplant a 2000 year old philosophy into the modern world without 2000 years of tradition and development; we must be cautious in what and how much we change.  At some point, if we change enough things, intellectual integrity should require that we change the title of thing.  You might not be wrong to change it, but is it still Stoicism after the change?

Irvine’s position allows for the perspective that doing external actions will take a place equal to keeping our own moral will in line with the Logos and laws of reason.  It represents a core and significant change to traditional Stoic doctrine… which Epictetus himself called “δόγματα/dogmata,”  the basic tenets of our school.

While it is observably true that this seems to be the case, is it a good mental model for the practicing Stoic?  Is it a good doctrinal position?  Let’s examine that.  If there is this third class of things, and the Stoic is frustrated in their attempts there, have they lost a ‘good-per-se’?  This is the necessary and proper question to ask.  If we have an influence there, then this thing must necessarily influence our own virtue.  It must be treated to some degree as a good-in-and-of-itself.

Accepting the Trichotomy will have cascading tiers of effects within Stoic thought.  If it’s a good-per-se, and we fail in these endeavors, what does that say about our progress to virtue?  If we intended to good, but didn’t do enough ancillary things to bring it about, have we in fact done something anti-virtuous?  At this point, have we arrived at a conception of virtue which is closer to the Peripatetics and Academics than it is to the Stoics and Cynics?  A position which requires some material and external factor in Stoic virtue ethics?

I would argue, that indeed such is the case.  If we accept the Trichotomy of Control, we will necessarily shift our conceptions of virtue (if we’re to maintain intellectual integrity) to things which are outside of our control; and this is an unacceptable consequence when seen with the lens of the core tenets of Stoicism.  Therefore, the Trichotomy should be denied, and the traditional Dichotomy of Control as noted by Epictetus and others maintained.

Massimo aruges for the Trichotomy in his piece from March of this year.  In it, he quotes Irvine:

“Stoics would recommend, for example, that I concern myself with whether my wife loves me, even though this is something over which I have some but not complete control. But when I do concern myself with this, my goal should not be the external goal of making her love me; no matter how hard I try, I could fail to achieve this goal and would as a result be quite upset. Instead, my goal should be an internal goal: to behave, to the best of my ability, in a lovable manner.”

However, there is an error here, a misreading.  What is being focused on is still the intent, what’s “up to us.”  To intend to be a good partner is up to us.  You might do things which you think will make your wife love you, but that’s actually a weird, economic position on love.  How many unrequited lovers in the ‘friend zone’ treated their would-be-partners as love-machines which convert kind acts to love?  The fact is, you can’t make your wife, or anyone, love you; and thus, reasonably, you must focus solely on the intent of being a good partner and/or friend… or at least a good person will do so.

There’s nothing here which extends to an intermediary state of intent, so while arguing for the third, heterodox category, the example given still falls within the traditional Dichotomy.  In every instance of focusing on the intermediary state of intent, the proponent of the Trichotomy points to something which rightly falls under the Dichotomy.  As such, the Trichotomy is an illusion which only points to something in the Dichotomy.

How we set about to fulfill our obligations and roles under the paradigm of οἰκείωσις/oikeiôsis is an internal action.  It is a question of intent and moral will.  To suggest that since most of the classical Stoics we know about were “men of action” shows that they valued these external things is also an error.

First, we are likely only to know about those who had great effects, public renown, and/or elicited strong emotions from their contemporaries.  Second, these folks believed they had roles and obligations to their peoples.  Whether one succeeds at those roles is not however necessarily of consequence to the philosopher.

Now, many folks who are ‘men of action’ do value those external things.  But we’re not talking about those men, we’re talking about philosophers.  It is simply a necessary step that a philosopher whose intent is to execute an obligation will try to do it excellently, even if they fail.  In the instance in which it doesn’t fail, they are then perceived by the wider and untrained people as men of action, which does not refute the traditional position.

The Trichotomy is untenable in Stoic though under these two conditions, both unacceptable consequence to virtue, and the fact that it still points to intent under the Dichotomy.

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.

Ask A Stoic: First 10 episodes!


I have posted ten videos at Ask a Stoic.  You can view them Ask a Stoicin a playlist, or individually.

Please remember, that you can submit your own questions either as a comment on a video, or at the main Ask a Stoic sub-page through the form.  Thanks!


Individual videos:

Indifference? But I **like** this thing!


There’s a crucial difference in appreciating something, and in being so swept up so you lose control of your faculties.

Can a Stoic sing, dance, make art, and fight? Yes, of course. But he or she should do so fully in control of their inner state.  The Stoic should be attentive, and mindful, in the manner of prosoche.

Like Epictetus says, if someone gave away your body you would be upset, but every person with an evil word takes our minds and we are not upset.

If we practice against these types of losses, shouldn’t we also be concerned with “good” ones?

Remember the Spartan boy to whom pain seemed more of a good that pleasure, since pleasure can weaken us and our resolve and pain fortifies it.

We are talking about a fundamental shift in viewing the world from the way most everyone else does.  Oftentimes the concept of ‘preferred indifferents’ is skewed for new students.  They think, wrongly, that since it doesn’t have an apparent moral quality, that they should indulge in all manner of vices.

But this is wrong thinking.  Every time we indulge, we train ourselves in indulgence.  Our likes very easily become passions.  Just as we do in times of trial, saying “this is indifferent” we must also do in times of pleasure.  But how much harder is that!

I see a lot of hedonist Stoics (can such a thing truly be?)  on the internet.  I’d urge you to look at those things which so easily and thoughtlessly enslave the will.  Are there contributing to your good?  If not…. they’re not a preferred indifferent.