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In this video Prof Chris Goto-Jones discusses stoicism.
In today’s session we’re going to be a little more provocative and suggest that we can gain meaningful and valuable insights into the idea and practice of mindfulness today. From traditions of thought that enjoyed little or no interaction with Buddhism at all. Today, we’re going to experiment a little with ancient Greece, a Stoicism. When we talk about Stoicism, what are we talking about? In general, we’re talking about the philosophical movement that emerged in the work of Zeno and the third to fourth century BCE. And then was developed by Seneca and Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius in the first or second century of the common era.
Unlike many other philosophical movements which treat philosophy as a theoretical abstraction or even as curiosity or past time the stoics understood philosophy primarily as a form of practice where’s the way of life. Philosophy is a kind of exercise as cases in which we engaged in order to make ourselves independent people. The premise here is that once we properly understand what the world is really like, we will find ourselves completely transformed. And this self transformation arises from the way that Stoicism brings together philosophical inquiry into the nature of things and psychological discipline and commitment to live in accord with that nature.
Hence classic texts of the Stoic traditions, such as the meditations of Marcus Aurelius, are often mixtures of philosophical exploration and psychological instruction. Explaining what kinds of exercises the author practices in order to live more closely in accord with the principles of nature. And often showing how the author reproaches himself, for failing to fully incorporate, that is bring into his body, the principles that he has reasoned to be true. In this way Stoicism emerges with a strongly therapeutic aspect. Not only for its readers, but also for the authors of those texts. Like the Buddhists and the Daoists, the Stoics disdain those philosophers who imagine that their ideas and their lives are different things.
Instead they imagine an ideal sage as one who’s philosophy is most perfectly expressed in their intentions and their actions every day. Philosophy is a way of life, not an abstract or purely academic pursuit. Indeed, the idea that philosophy can be abstracted from life is not only ethically dangerous but also nonsense. Philosophy that isn’t embodied just isn’t philosophy. A philosopher who doesn’t make his or her arguments with her being is simply failing to make their argument at all. Now this emphasis on practice and the incorporation that bringing into the body and self transformation through cognitive discipline is also basic to the concept of mindfulness as we’ve seen in many sessions.
Indeed, it’s basic to the discipline of cognitive behavioral therapy in general. And there is powerful evidence that the founders of CBT, including therefore MBCT, were strongly influenced by stoicism. And there’s increasing interest in it for this reason. One of the most often cited stoic maxims in the literature of CBT is this line from Epictetus. Men are disturbed not by things, but by the views they take of them. It’s possible that their simple maxim might sound familiar to you from module two in which we explored therapeutic deployments of mindfulness. As a technique to intervene in the way we attribute meaning to our experiences by opening ourselves to the possibility of direct or pure experience.
It’s also possible that this idea might sound familiar to you from earlier sessions of this module. In which we saw how various types of Buddhism and Taoism attribute a great deal of human suffering to the ways in which we inflict unnecessary pain on ourselves, through our attachments and desires. And our versions and fear, and through ruminations on these. We could save ourselves a great deal of suffering if we could awaken to the way things really are, and deal with them in their own terms. We are not disturbed by things themselves, but by the views we taken on them.
On the face of it then, there do seem to be some important and interesting points of contact between stoicism and mindfulness especially in their practical orientations and their therapeutic aspects. Indeed, it also seems at least at first glance that they might participate in similar epistemologies or theories of knowledge and similar ethical standpoints. In particular, Stoicism appears to invest in the idea that our greatest obstacle to flourishing and virtuousness is our imperfect ability to properly understand the world as it really is. Our understanding is constantly being sullied and perverted by our excessive impulses. Passions and emotions, appetites and pleasures, fears and distress. And by our tendency to ruminate on these and lose sight of the world.
Indeed, the characteristic Stoic prescription for a life of flourishing in virtue, a life without suffering is to live in agreement with nature or in the words of. To live in accordance with what the experience of what happens by nature dictates. So rather than trying to impose our will onto the world, virtue and flourishing result from observing the world properly, a quality the Stoics sometimes call watchfulness. Ascertaining how the world will develop because of the nature of the world itself and then acting in accord with rather than attempting to resist or overcome that natural flow. It follows from this position that some of the things that we value, health, money, status, even happiness are not in themselves the good.
Indeed, the Stoics call them the indifference which we can prefer when all other things are equal but which should not motivate our actions if we seek to live well. And living well means living in agreement with nature by cultivating a kind of watchfulness about how the universe works, including by engaging in various practices and exercises to cultivate this insight. For the Stoics one of the most common problems is that our emotions cloud our ability to watch the world properly, causing us to act on opinion, which means that we ascend to false impressions. Rather than on the basis of true agreement with nature, which would involve ascending to true impressions.
Emotions and opinions lead us to make false value judgments and ethical errors, leading to the suffering of ourselves and others, even when we’re unaware of this. One of the ways in which Stoics suggest that we can differentiate between false judgments and true judgments is by the way they feel to us. Unlike Plato and others who asserted that our thinking happens only in our heads, the Stoics maintain that our commanding faculty is actually in our hearts. Hence, they suggest that when we pay attention properly, we can feel when our opinion is mobilized by fear or aversion because there are sensations of contraction and shrinkage in our bodies.
When our opinions are mobilized by desire or delight, there are sensations of expansion and swelling. In other words, proper watchfulness for the Stoics not only involves paying careful attention to the external world around us in order to see clearly. The relationship between the one and the many, the particular and the universal, the instance and the system. But it also involves bringing careful attention to the internal sensations that co-arise with these events. Which can be felt bodily as vital elements in our awareness of the whole.
So while this account of watchfulness might sound rather a lot like mindfulness, we need to be a little careful about trying to force these concepts too closely together. In fact, they rely on radically different trajectories of the meaning and integrity of human self-hood. As we’ve seen, mindfulness in Buddhism and Daoism rests upon our ability to allow our rationality and discriminatory faculties to fall away. And thus reveal a form of pristine reality unsullied by our desires and fears. On the other hand, while watchfulness and stoicism also includes the shedding of excessive impulses, passions, and emotions. In order to enable a clear view of things as they really are, which is sometimes called the cultivation of apathy.
Stoics are absolutely clear that our ability to properly perceive, understand and act upon what we find in that state, relies entirely upon our command of reason and rationality. Rather than being one of the obstacles that must be cast aside in order to get down to things as they really are. Our rationality and our discriminatory faculties unclouded by excessive impulses are the basis of our human nature and thus of our proper place in the world. Hence, while the Stoic’s were often disruptive elements in ancient societies, because they challenged the specific hierarchies of values in those societies. Disparaging health, wealth, and power as legitimate goals of human flourishing. And instead showing them to be obstacles to human virtue and genuine happiness.
Unlike the Daoists, they did not challenge the very idea of human civilization, per se. While the Daoists and some of the the Buddhists, especially in Zen saw that cultivation and progression of rationality in human society. As a process of human decline from our essential nature as spontaneous and intuitive element of the natural order. The Stoics saw the development and refinement of rationality as a process of uncovering and deepening man’s natural place in the world. For the Daoists and the Buddhists, the natural world of which humans should be mindful is an organic and fluid place of impermanence and change, resistant to rational explanation because reason arises later as an artifact within it.
For the Stoics, the natural world is a fully rational expression of a rational God, and living in harmony with it requires cultivating our own rationality through progressively refined watchfulness and reason. In the end, then, it’s clear that while there appear to be some intriguing similarity. There are also some really important and significant differences between stoicism and the kinds of mindfulness that have been associated with Buddhism and Daoism. And this should not be a surprise given the radically different context in which these traditions have emerged and then developed. However, given that we have seen contemporary construct mindfulness has a continuously developing concept that draws upon ideas and resources because of they utility for particular populations.
Rather than because the historical continuity with Buddhism it is worth taking some time to think about how you feel about issues like rationality, discrimination value judgement and the principles of the natural world. Perhaps, contemporary mindfulness can make some use of stoicism to help some people find greater resonance with it. So in our next session, we’re going to flash forward in time to the turn of the 20th century in the USA to see how an influential modern philosopher and psychologist William James. Has grappled with some of these questions about the grounding of the study of consciousness, awareness and mindfulness in modernity itself.

In this video, I discuss the Ancient Greek tradition of Stoicism.

What are your thoughts of the philosophy of Stoicism as it relates to mindfulness? How do you relate to the concept of rationality?

Leiden University

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Demystifying Mindfulness

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