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Elizabeth Smith: Stoicism and School Aged Children

Elizabeth Smith says she “creates curriculum and plays games – in an incredible learning environment – inspired and blessed daily by the most amazing children.” She works with children ages five to twelve, through the US Navy’s Child and Youth Program (CYP).

Elizabeth is a sculptor, illustrator, and has worked as an International Baccalaureate (IB) middle school teacher, teaching the subjects of art, reading, and approaches to learning. During her first-year teaching, she created an Art History/Art Program for 760 students (Grades K-5). She has an M.Ed. in Cross Cultural Teaching, holds a Professional Clear Multiple Subject Teaching Credential and a Supplementary Authorization in Art. For fun, she writes and illustrates children’s books.

Elizabeth also graduated from San Diego State University where she earned a BA in Art/Applied Design, with an emphasis on metalwork and jewelry design. She trained under artists Arline Fisch and Helen Shirk. She currently resides in California and is “the proud mother of a true artist.”

How did you become interested in Stoic philosophy?

I was introduced to philosophy through Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. As an art major, one of my favorite courses was on Ancient Roman Art History. I found the subject exciting, eccentric, and entertaining. I later found myself intrigued – and equally entertained – by Epictetus and Seneca. Stoicism touches my heart and calms my mind – it serves as an owner’s manual for operating one’s brain, and a light for finding one’s humanity.  

I am extremely interested in Stoicism. I am especially interested in the profound and unexpected way Stoicism has influenced the children I teach. I am interested in the impact Stoicism – if introduced to children at an early age – could potentially play in the positive development of humanity. 

To answer your question, I became interested in philosophy while playing on the playground.

I believe by introducing children to Stoicism at an early age – through play and recreation – we will find our children’s behavior positively shaped, and their character exude wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance.  

Elizabeth Smith

What is the most important idea that you promote through your work?

Young children benefit from learning about and practicing Stoicism in social settings. Children learn through play. I believe by introducing children to Stoicism at an early age – through play and recreation – we will find our children’s behavior positively shaped, and their character exude wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance.  

I work for the federal government serving military dependents, ages five to twelve. This summer, I created and implemented the nine-week camp program, Summer with the Stoics. As with much of our programing, this program was youth inspired. 

When I started teaching Stoicism to the youth, it was by accident. 

I find it important for the youth to see their teachers (adults in general) reading for enjoyment and recreation. Modeling my own enjoyment, I was reading Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, Epictetus’ Discourses, and Donald Robertson’s book, How to Think Like a Roman Emperor. As the children and I would sit outside, leisurely reading, they began to ask me questions about the books I read. When I told them about Marcus Aurelius they were instantly hooked. Fascinated by the ideas the books contained, some children would ask if they could take my books home to keep – despite their inability to read. I began to act out scenes from the books for the children. The children joined in – they were beyond intrigued.   

One day at snack time, two boys were debating over an issue and unable to come to an agreement, when a third student {called X, age 7) looked towards my direction and asked, “What would Marcus Aurelius do?” I could not contain my surprise and replied, “He would probably bake you a plate of warm cookies because you just melted your teacher’s heart.” His smile was priceless, as was this inspiration. The children were giving me so many inspirational moments, due to their interest in the Stoics, I began creating games. 

Sculpture of Marcus Aurelius as a youth

I had to create the games, activities, and program. The type of Stoicism program I was looking for did not exist. Not finding anything online, and looking for guidance, I contacted two of my favorite philosophers, Donald Robertson and Massimo Pigliucci. Each confirmed that Stoicism resources for children were limited. Still determined, I began looking for something exciting, eccentric, and entertaining. 

I found what I was looking for out on the playground. 

Children learn through play, as well as meaningful social interactions with peers and adults. They are social beings searching for wisdom and are naturally at one with nature. Children are open minded, enthusiastic, and receptive. Our program’s youth have taken to Stoicism not just because they love a good game of Zeno Tag, enjoy having philosophical conversations, or are excited about the Marcus Aurelius Fan Club’s Friday raffle…They have taken to Stoicism because it is useful for navigating life on the playground. 

The practice of Stoicism enhances resiliency and develops strength of character. Through the philosophy of Stoicism, the children have learned to observe their playground problems from a different view – the view from above (one of their favorite practices). They ease the pain of an injury by noting that it is only a small part of their body that is hurt – not their whole body.  In the morning, some youth find the courage to face their day by practicing Marcus Aurelius’ morning ritual… preparing themselves for the types of people they may encounter on the playground. Some children, during a fierce game of dodge ball, find it helpful to utilize the same anger management strategies as their favorite Roman emperor. 

Through daily practice, analyzing social situations, and humorous interactive games, such as – The Dichotomy of Control – with YOUR Host Epictetus, our youth have developed an amazing grasp for what is inside and outside of their control.

To introduce the dichotomy of control, I walked around the playground with several thumbs up/thumbs down paddles. As I came upon children experiencing some type of conflict, I would point out what was inside of our control and what was outside of our control. A common frustration for many, “They don’t want to play with me!”

While addressing this concern, I immediately take out a thumbs up/thumbs down paddle and say, “Welcome to your favorite gameshow The Dichotomy of Control – with YOUR Host Epictetus – guest staring Rosey Rose (age 6)” At this point, upon hearing the intro, many children approached to join the game. I gave all the children paddles. “Rosey Rose’s friend does not what to play with her. Is that inside or outside of Rosey Rose’s control?”

Many children, including Rosey Rose, flipped their paddle to the thumbs down.  “That’s right, boys and girls. What people think about us, their opinions, what they say about us…IF they want to play with us – is OUTSIDE of our control. And because it is outside of our control, we are not going to spend a lot of time and energy worrying about it – WE are going to focus on what is INSIDE of our control.”

At this point of the game the children start offering suggestions, while using the thumbs upside of the paddle, “Yes! Looking for other friends to play with is INSIDE of Rosey Rose’s control.” 

We have a second version of the game where we call a guest up to the front of the group to act out a scenario. “Welcome, Glitter Sparkle (I have let the children choose their own fake names for my writing purposes) I am so glad you have joined me on this trip to Disneyland. What ride shall we go on first?” At this point, I asked the audience, and Glitter Sparkle, if this decision is inside or outside of her control. The children answered by using the paddles. We continued our journey encountering long lines and ride closures. As a group we explore what is inside and outside of our control in the Magic Kingdom. 

The children love these games. The games have eased their perceptions regarding disappointment, intense social situations, and future expectations. As they navigate the playground, practicing an awareness for Stoicism, the dichotomy of control has empowered the children to focus their attention on their choices and actions rather than their feelings of disappointment. 

The children now use this thought process effortlessly. A fellow teacher reported to me that Bismarck (the 7-year-old boy – not the German battleship) had approached her asking to join her cookie project. The teacher had to tell Bismarck that the activity had just finished. She did not expect Bismarck to take the news well, as he loves cookies.  Instead, Bismarck replied, “Ok. That’s outside of my control.” Calm as could be Bismarck set sail to find another activity. 

Another little girl, Jennanana (age 6), hurt her finger in the Marcus Moments raffle prize box, “Ooooutside my control. It’s ok it’s just my finger that hurts not my whole body.”  I have had other children report their injures in this way as well.  Very interesting.    

Summer with the Stoics was an eye-opening experience. I learned through our many philosophical discussions, and games, that children crave philosophy – specifically Stoicism. Despite their young age, children can contribute to the field of philosophy through their philosophical insights, energy, and unique observations. This summer I witnessed children as young as six years old practicing Stoicism with more recall, flow, consistency, and enthusiasm than most adults. I see them for the children they are – but I also see them for the adults they will soon become. I would like for those future adults to have had an upbringing in Stoicism. Not just for the quality of their own lives – but for the sake of humanity. 

Military youth (dependents) often grow up to serve in the military. I see a certain percentage of my children as potential military officers, politicians, world leaders, and policy makers. Mick Mulroy (Senior Fellow for the Middle East Institute, ABC News National Security Analyst, and a co-founder of the Lobo Institute) and Donald Roberson have spoken – as well as written – extensively on the importance of teaching Stoicism and its place in the U.S. military. They write, “The U.S. military must inject this concept of wisdom, and flexible thinking, at the earliest possible stage.” I absolutely agree, and the earliest possible stage is childhood not bootcamp. Children are flexible. Their brains are built for Stoicism. Marcus Aurelius was proof.

“That is inside of your control. You can take good care of yourself, make good choices…Make your life last longer. You can try. Trying is inside of your control. Good idea. But what happens if the freezer gets unplugged or the electricity goes out?”

The children thought this was funny. “The ice cream melts.”

“Just like life.” many added; that it was outside of our control and that’s ok.  

What do you think is the best piece of practical advice we could give to our children to help them through the rest of life?

Practice the four virtues while embracing the dichotomy of control. 

Through games and storytelling this advice is well received by the youth in our program. The four virtues serve as our center’s rules and are reinforced by our Marcus Moments incentive program.

A Marcus Moment is much more than a raffle ticket. It is a moment for self-reflection, appreciation, and pride. With every ticket given we explain to the receiving youth that Marcus Aurelius had many moments in life, as they do, where he practiced -or had to call upon – the four virtues (wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance). Each ticket lists the four virtues. There is space provided on the ticket to write the child’s name, brief description of child’s action/situation, circle the virtue(s), and for the giver to sign their name. The Marcus Aurelius Fan Club (which was started by a child while I was on a lunch break) holds a weekly Friday Marcus Moment Raffle. For each ticket drawn, we read the virtue(s) and description out loud to the group prior to announcing the winner’s name. We post the Marcus Moments on the wall as they are earned. Throughout the week – the wall gets fuller – children love looking at the Marcus Moments on the wall.   

We use Marcus Moments not only to celebrate desirable actions, but for redirection. Two children might be having a disagreement, “Wow, it looks like you both are having a Marcus Moment.” At this point the children are made aware that the moment they are experiencing – regardless of the perceived difficulty – can be addressed through their actions/the four virtues. We have had such success with this form of redirection. Some children need only to hear a virtue gently mentioned and they immediately pause to self-reflect. French Toast (age 8) responds well to the word temperance. This word serves as a subtle reminder for French Toast to be mindful with his friends when Lego domination starts to occur in the building area. 

Youth often come up to tell me, “I had a Marcus Moment just now…” and not just because they would like a raffle ticket but because they wish to discuss the details of their moment. Other children have pointed out Marcus Moments occurring in movies we’ve watched, and the books we’ve read. The children love looking for Marcus Moments. With that said, the children give Marcus Moment tickets to their friends and teachers. 

A “practical advice for life” art project the children really enjoyed was an art installation we created as a group, Epictetus Dichotomy of Control Ice Cream Sundae Party.  Working with three children at a time, each child made a fake ice cream sundae. I stared off by giving each youth a clear plastic dessert cup. “This cup is your life. I know it is your life because I just wrote your name on the bottom with a Sharpie. In life you have control over your wishes, hopes, and desires – the syrup.”

The youth were encouraged to use the chocolate and strawberry syrups (acrylic paints) to coat the inside of their cups. They would ask me how and I would reply, “Anyway you would like. These are your hopes and dreams… it’s in your control.” Right as they were just getting going, I would interrupt their process and fill their cups with white caulking foam spray. “Your life will be filled with things outside of your control. That’s the ice cream. Maybe you don’t like vanilla. Maybe you were hoping for chocolate. This is outside of your control.”

The children began talking about their favorite flavors of ice cream. A few children said vanilla ice cream was their favorite. I congratulated them, “That’s wonderful. Sometimes things that are outside of our control turn out to be exactly what we wanted.” Others did not like vanilla ice cream. I pointed out to them, “The ice cream is outside of your control – so we will not be spending time worrying about what is outside of our control. What is inside of your control?” The youth then made the connection, seeing assorted glitter bottles and beads. They replied, “The toppings!” I commended them, “Yes. Those are your choices, your actions… the four virtues.” 

After they were finished with their toppings, I presented the youth with plastic spoons, “This spoon is your philosophy, without it life could get messy. You will want to make sure to put your philosophy deep into your life.” The children carefully placed their spoons deep into their sundaes. Daboss (age 9), asked that she receive three spoons because she wanted a lot of philosophy. I gave them all fake plastic cherries to place on top, telling them the thing you value most in life is the cherry – it goes on top. Many of the children said the cherry was their family, a talent, or a hope. 

Their sundaes were still changing and expanding because of the foam. They were surprised to see their sundaes were looking so different from what they expected. I assured them that this was nature – everything changes. I asked them, “What happens to ice cream?”

“It melts,” they replied. “Yep, that’s the nature of ice cream. That’s what it does. What should you do with ice cream?”

They all knew what to do with the ice cream, “Eat it up!”

“Yes. Just like life. Enjoy it. Eat it up.”, I advised.  I then added a twist, “What if you want the ice cream to last longer – what could you do?” They suggested that the ice cream be put in the freezer.  I told them that was an excellent idea, “That is inside of your control. You can take good care of yourself, make good choices…Make your life last longer. You can try. Trying is inside of your control. Good idea. But what happens if the freezer gets unplugged or the electricity goes out?”

The children thought this was funny. “The ice cream melts.”

“Just like life.” many added; that it was outside of our control and that’s ok.  

The ice cream sundaes were displayed on a large birthday party looking table. Red plates were set with Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius quotes written on them, as well as the philosophical description of our sundaes. Photos of the children with messy whipped cream faces were placed next to their sundaes. The table had balloons and bright colored party hats. The children had fun showing their parents the Epictetus art installation at our art gala.  

Stoicism is more than a philosophy or a way of life. It is common ground. In this world, we need common ground.  

Elizabeth Smith

We have been following your progress over the summer, the work you are doing is inspirational. Now that Summer with the Stoics has ended, and the school year is upon us what are your plans?

Thank you, I appreciate your interest.

Next up – School Year with the Stoics, of course. I am also working on creating Stoicism curriculum in the hopes that we can have our curriculum implemented throughout Navy CYP. That would be a dream come true. I am working with Donald Robertson, with the goal of providing the high standard of trainings required to bring our Navy CYP professionals onboard. Donald Robertson’s contributions to the fields of philosophy, cognitive behavioral therapy, as well as his work with the military (Stoicism – resiliency trainings) make him the best choice for bringing this goal forward. 

When I consider 45,000 youth are served by my place of employment… I see an exceptional opportunity to bring the benefits of Stoicism to a diverse population of people – our children, families (service men and women), and childcare professionals.  Stoicism is admirable in the eyes of the right, as well as the eyes of the left. Stoicism does not offend the religious nor insult the agnostic. Stoicism is more than a philosophy or a way of life. It is common ground. In this world, we need common ground.  

In the fields of education and youth programing, the recent spotlight has been on STEM. The fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics have actively increased their outreach efforts in the desire to attract children to these fields. Universities, tech companies, and STEM related professionals are addressing a widespread future concern for establishing a workforce, highly proficient and dominant, in the STEM fields. The countries with such workforces will secure relevance. It’s like the space race but with children. 

With technology and science progressing at an exponential rate it is crucial we use Stoicism to develop our children’s minds so as they can ethically handle complex responsibilities and navigate a future world of rapid change. They will need resiliency… The four virtues are essential. Now is the time for the field of philosophy to follow the lead of the STEM fields and seriously focus on youth outreach.  

Do you have a favorite philosophy quote?

It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare, it is because we do not dare that things are difficult.

Seneca

What advice would you give someone who wanted to learn more about the work you are doing?

Put down the philosophy books and play. Take what you have learned throughout your study of Stoicism and creatively apply to all recreational opportunities that you may encounter. 

To learn more about my work – games and activities – I am in the process of writing, Zeno Tag: A Stoic’s Guide to the Playground.

Suppose you were able to give a talk or workshop at the original location of Plato’s Academy, how would you feel about that?

Beyond thrilled. Without a doubt it would be a privilege and an honor.  What an amazing and beautiful space to contemplate humanity and engage in a fierce game of Zeno Tag. So many wonderful people discussing incredible ideas, while wearing running shoes…or barefoot.  How fun.   

Socrates as Sergeant Major

Antonio Canova - Socrates Rescues Alcibiades

The ancient Greek philosopher and war hero

By Donald Robertson and Mick Mulroy

Antonio Canova - Socrates Rescues Alcibiades

[Socrates] was the first to go out as a soldier, when it was necessary, and in war, he exposed himself to danger most unsparingly.

Epictetus, Discourses, 4.1

The Peloponnesian War

The Peloponnesian War was fought between the two most powerful city-states in ancient Greece, namely Athens and Sparta, and their allies, known as the Delian and Peloponnesian Leagues, respectively.  During this time, the Mediterranean region was engulfed in one of history’s longest and most brutal wars, spanning almost three decades.  At the outbreak of the war, in 431 BC, Socrates, the famous Athenian philosopher, was aged forty, and would already have seen intermittent military service as a citizen-soldier, fighting in minor conflicts since his early twenties.

At the outset of the Peloponnesian War, Athens, Greece’s dominant naval power, and Sparta, with her legendary infantry, were evenly matched adversaries.  However, Persia’s involvement and the growing confidence of the Spartan navy, led to the catastrophic destruction of the Athenian fleet by the Spartan general Lysander, at the Battle of Aegospotami in 405 BC. The city of Athens was blockaded and, before long, forced to surrender, leaving Sparta as the controlling power in Greece.  With both Athens and Sparta significantly weakened, though, during the 4th century BC, the way was clear for a new power, the Macedonian Empire of Alexander the Great, to rise and gradually take their place.

Socrates went on to become a veteran of at least three major battles of the Peloponnesian War.  Indeed, he was well-known in Athens not only as a philosopher but also, to some extent, as a war hero.

Socrates the Soldier

At the end of his life, Socrates cited his military service, and reputation for bravery, during his trial, as recounted in Plato’s Apology.  The experiences he had in war clearly shaped his perception of the world, and his philosophy.  

At eighteen, he would have taken the sacred oath of the Ephebic College, through which he received his basic training:

I will never bring reproach upon my hallowed arms, nor will I desert the comrade at whose side I stand, but I will defend our altars and our hearths, single-handed or supported by many. My native land I will not leave a diminished heritage but greater and better than when I received it. I will obey whoever is in authority and submit to the established laws and all others which the people shall harmoniously enact. If anyone tries to overthrow the constitution or disobeys it, I will not permit him, but will come to its defense, single-handed or with the support of all. I will honor the religion of my fathers. Let the gods be my witness, Agraulus, Enyalius, Ares, Zeus, Thallo, Auxo, Hegemone.

During these years, Socrates learned to serve as a heavy infantryman or hoplite, using the sword and spear as a member of the phalanx, the standard Athenian military unit. His weapons and equipment would have weighed around 66 pounds.  He had to travel great distances bearing these, with little sleep, camped outside in the elements, eating basic soldier’s rations, just to engage the enemy in brutal physical combat where few would escape injury or death.

Socrates went on to become a veteran of at least three major battles of the Peloponnesian War.  Indeed, he was well-known in Athens not only as a philosopher but also, to some extent, as a war hero.  His circle of friends included several military veterans and elected generals.  Indeed, Xenophon and Plato, our two main sources, both portray Socrates being consulted by the officer class about military questions, including training, strategy, and tactics. 

He saved the life of a young officer (and future general) called Alcibiades, who had been wounded during the Battle of Potidaea.  As a consequence, Socrates was nominated for the “prize of pre-eminent valor” but declined to accept the award.  He was also known for protecting general Laches, who had been unhorsed during the retreat from the Battle of Delium, when the Athenians were being sorely harassed by the enemy.  Laches reputedly commented on the high regard he had for Socrates “ever since the day on which you were my companion in danger and gave a proof of your valor such as only the man of merit can give.”  

All three major battles in which Socrates participated ended in defeat for Athens.  According to Plato, nevertheless, Alcibiades said of Socrates’ courage: “when you behave as he did, then the enemy does not even touch you; instead, they pursue those who turn in headlong flight.”  Laches is likewise portrayed as saying that if every man under his command at Delium had fought as bravely as Socrates, their enemy would have erected no victory statues.  Xenophon, another famous general, said that Socrates was the most disciplined man he knew in terms of his appetites, that he had built up his endurance of extreme hot and cold weather, and other such hardships, and had learned to be self-sufficient and content with minimal possessions. 

The last major battle he fought was at Amphipolis, in northern Greece, in 422 BC.  Socrates, by this time, was aged forty-eight, and still trekking over hills with heavy weapons and armor, to stand his ground in the phalanx, alongside much younger men.  He appears to have been the type of soldier who would be selected as a centurion in the Roman army, or a Ranger or Green Beret today – he would be a perfect Sergeant Major.  Socrates became the most famous philosopher in history, though, and his reputation as a thinker, therefore, eclipsed his renown as a warrior.  We remember him as a philosopher rather than a soldier. Perhaps it should be as a philosopher-soldier, though. How, indeed, might Socrates’ experience as a soldier have shaped his views as a philosopher?

Temperance (Self-Discipline)

Socrates was renowned for his mental and physical endurance. He was said to be stronger than most men.  He could go longer than anyone without food, water, or rest. He would even volunteer to take other soldiers’ watches, so they could get some sleep. He was obviously a natural leader and set an example for the younger infantrymen to emulate.  Socrates thought it should be self-evident that true leaders require self-control. A military officer, for example, who is easily swayed by desire, cannot be trusted, for that reason, to act consistently in accord with his knowledge and expertise. However, “just as those who do not exercise their bodies cannot carry out their physical duties, so those who do not exercise their characters”, by developing self-control, “cannot carry out their moral duties.”  

It was also Socrates’ belief, though, according to Xenophon, that self-discipline itself is a question of knowledge and that those of us who lack self-control invariably also lack a sort of wisdom.  Temperance, or moderation, comes from having a clear understanding of what is good for us.  He said that “all men have a choice between various courses, and choose and follow the one which they think is most to their advantage.”  We must train ourselves to look beyond appearances at the underlying reality, to see more clearly what is in our own interest and in the interests of our society. 

Socrates’ military service had taught him to risk his life for the sake of his moral values. 

Justice (Fairness)

During his trial, for alleged impiety and corrupting the youth (by teaching them philosophy), Socrates brought up his military service.  He reminded the jurymen that he had stood his ground in the phalanx, under the command of the elected generals, facing mortal danger alongside his fellow hoplites at Potidaea, Delium, and Amphipolis.  Nobody questioned his bravery or honor when risking his life in this way.  Some people, however, thought it was ridiculous for Socrates to risk his life in court by insisting on practicing philosophy.  Socrates told them that the opposite was true.  

He believed that the god Apollo, whose commandment was “know thyself,” had, like a general, given him orders that he was duty-bound to obey.  His mission was to question his fellow Athenians about the nature of wisdom and virtue.  It would be even more dishonorable and ridiculous for him now to desert that post.  What point was there risking his life to defend the city of Athens against Sparta if he was not prepared to do the same to preserve the moral character of the city he loved and the citizens within its walls?  In other words, Socrates’ military service had taught him to risk his life for the sake of his moral values.  Back in civilian life, this actually brought him into conflict with powerful political figures, and it came to a head because he was willing to risk his own safety as an individual in the name of justice to preserve the moral integrity of the city.  

Fortitude (Courage)

Socrates was fascinated by the concept of courage and discussed it in depth with several Athenian generals in Plato’s Laches.  Did his experience of military service contribute to his questions about the nature of courage?  When Socrates asks Laches for a definition of courage, he begins by offering a conventional Greek military example: that it consists in standing one’s ground, i.e., remaining in phalanx formation, when facing the enemy.  He’s describing what courage among infantrymen looks like from the perspective of an external observer, such as their commanding officer.  

Socrates questions this narrow definition very thoroughly and arrives at an alternative account focused more on mental attitude: courage is knowing what it is and is not appropriate to fear.  In Plato’s Apology, after mentioning his military service, Socrates likewise goes on to raise some very radical questions about whether or not it is wise to fear death.  He said that only a fool would embrace a known evil in order to evade something whose dangers are unknown.  He, therefore, arrived at the typically paradoxical conclusion that we should be more afraid of committing injustice than we are of our own death.  When the jurymen voted in favor of the death sentence at his trial, he reputedly said that his accusers, Anytus and Meletus, could kill him but they could not harm him.  He meant that although they could take away his life, they could never take away his honor.   


About the Authors

Michael “Mick” Patrick Mulroy is a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East, a retired CIA officer, a Senior Fellow at the Middle East Institute, an Analyst for ABC News, on the board of directors for Grassroots Reconciliation Group, a co-founder of End Child Soldiering, and the co-founder of the Lobo Institute. He writes and speaks often on Stoicism. For other publications please visit here.

Donald J. Robertson is a cognitive-behavioural therapist and writer, living in Athens, Greece, and Ontario, Canada. He is the author of six books on philosophy and psychotherapy, including Stoicism and the Art of Happiness, and How to Think Like a Roman Emperor.

Erlend D. MacGillivray: Epictetus and the Lay People

Dr. Erlend D. MacGillivray gained his PhD from the University of Aberdeen, Scotland. During his time at Aberdeen, he was an academic tutor in New Testament Studies, early Church history, and Greco-Roman history, and also helped to coordinate the Divinity school’s distance learning program. In 2015 he was a visiting Professor of New Testament Exegesis at Asian Theological Seminary in Manila. He is published in academic journals such as Journal of Greco-Roman Judaism and Christianity, Novum Testamentum, Journal of Ancient History, The Ancient World, and Apeiron.

His critically acclaimed book Epictetus and Laypeople: A Stoic Stance toward Non-Stoics explores the understanding that ancient philosophers had towards the vast majority of people at the time, those who had no philosophical knowledge or adherence—laypeople. After exploring how philosophical identity was established in antiquity, this book examines the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, who reflected upon laypeople with remarkable frequency.

How did you become interested in this area?

I came to study ancient philosophy as a historian. Initially, I wrote academic articles on various aspects of Roman society, especially the patron-client relationship. I was planning to complete a doctorate related to the topic but I had an epiphany of sorts. Scholars usually try to write on an area, or a perspective that has not been fully explored. Ancient philosophy was, I realized, one such area. Although the teachings of the philosophical schools have understandably been studied at length, ancient philosophy was more than just a series of intellectual commitments and doctrines. It was also a social movement. Ancient philosophers exhibited the attributes of a community. This aspect of ancient philosophy though has not received much attention.

I became particularly interested in what we could know about the demographics of ancient philosophy. Who was attracted to it? What segments of society were exposed to various levels of philosophical teaching? How did philosophical allegiance change over time and why? These are, I believe, fascinating questions, but they are rarely explored by historians in great depth.

To cut a long story short I started studying the Epicurean school. That resulted in my writing two peer-reviewed journal articles on the philosophy: one on how popular Epicureanism was in Late-Republican Rome, and another on how Epicureanism, rather distinctively, tried to spread its philosophy across ancient society and to reach relatively unlettered people. After that, I had to make a decision. Either keep exploring this topic and write a book on the Epicurean school or take the same sets of questions and look at a different school. I chose the latter and I decided to explore the philosophy of the Stoa. That was, I am pleased to say, a successful research project and it led to my writing the book Epictetus and Laypeople.

Our broader culture does little to let people know that ancient philosophy explores issues that they are interested in, e.g., who should have power in a state, how do I establish what is true…?

Dr. Erlend McGillivary

What’s the most important concept or idea that you teach people?

For the past few years, I have taught students ancient philosophy as part of a wider ancient history course. We read through parts of Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Nicomedian Ethics, and Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. There are a couple of important ideas I want to impress upon them. Firstly, the value that ancient philosophy has. Often, they have the preconception that ancient philosophy is a needlessly obscure, pointless, arcane subject. Were these texts not assigned as part of a curriculum I doubt they would have ever have picked them up. Our broader culture does little to let people know that ancient philosophy explores issues that they are interested in, e.g., who should have power in a state, how do I establish what is true, what should my guiding principles in life be, is there a creator, how can I control my temper? I’ve never met a student who isn’t interested in exploring at least one of these questions.

The main concepts I teach them is that whatever issue they want to consider, search and see. They might very well tap into a rich stream of philosophical insight about the topic. Secondly, for more academic circles I think my work’s emphasis on viewing ancient philosophy as a social movement is an important one. The schools have fascinating histories that are still to be fully uncovered and detailed.

…make sure that your reasons for studying ancient philosophy are not just purely intellectual ones.

Dr. Erlend McGillivary

What do you think is the most important piece of practical advice that we
can derive from your work?

Most ancient philosophers were very aware that people might approach philosophy just to look or sound smart. Epictetus, a Stoic philosopher from the first-second century C.E., continually scolds his listeners if he thinks they are just there for intellectual reasons. For example, to one such onlooker, he said: “Why do you dress in a philosopher’s garment that is not yours, and walk around in it, as thieves and robbers who have stolen titles and properties that do not belong to them?” Diss. II.19.28. The point I would make, which other scholars/writers on ancient philosophy have made better than I have (and organizations such as Plato’s Academy do) would be to make sure that your reasons for studying ancient philosophy are not just purely intellectual ones.

Do you have a favorite quote that you use?


A quote that I often tell myself is from a well-regarded first-century philosopher in Rome named Musonius Rufus. To paraphrase he said that “what is difficult to achieve will endure and the discomfort will pass, what you do with pleasure and dishonour, the pleasure will pass but the dishonour will remain.” His advice holds not just for hard work involving our careers but anything that requires effort or nurture to flourish. Be that our occupations, our family life, hobbies etc.

What advice would you give someone who wanted to learn more about
what you do?

At the moment probably the best place to find my work is from my academia.edu page. It has many of my articles that are free to read. My book on Epictetus is also thankfully now out in paperback, so it is more readily available to the general public. I’m also co-writing a workbook on logical fallacies which is aimed at high schoolers.

My next big project though is a popular-level book on Epictetus and his world. My aim is to use my knowledge as someone with an interest in Roman history to provide greater context to his lectures and to help readers feel they know him and his world better. For example, the place where he taught, Nicopolis, is one of the largest archaeological sites in Greece. We can actually visit some of the buildings that he references. Some types of coins he mentions in passing that are fairly obscure we have examples of etc. So, for anyone interested in what I am doing I would say wait for that to come out.

Suppose you were able to give a talk or workshop at the original location
of Plato’s Academy, in Athens.

I would be honoured! When I was a PhD student, I was fortunate to spend some time in the British School in Athens. It is fairly close to the Lyceum where various philosophers used to gather, the most famous being Aristotle. It was enthralling to be there. I really felt though that the sites of the schools, e.g. the Lyceum, the Academy, the Stoa, should be more utilized and highlighted. They seemed rather forgotten about, almost ignored and over- grown. I think what Plato’s Academy is doing is wonderful!

Francis Gasparini: Inspiring Change

Francis Gasparini has been a writer for more than 30 years and has worked with Karen “Duff” Duffy for most of that time. With Duff, he’s written the New York Times bestseller “Model Patient”, “Backbone,” and now “Wise Up.” He’s also had extensive experience in documentary film and television.  He has worked with documentarians including Michael Moore, RJ Cutler, Davis Guggenheim, Fernando Andrade, and Ryan White; Gasparini’s films have premiered at Sundance and SXSW.  He lives in Los Angeles with his wife
Jennifer Wise, daughter Maria Lucia, and a crazy dog named Petunia.

How did you become interested in this area?

I came to it through my collaboration with my writing partner, Karen Duffy, aka Duff. Stoicism has always been a part of her life and it’s been a part of our work from the beginning, but it really flowered with our latest book, “Wise Up.” I don’t consider myselfany kind of expert in Stoicism, but I approach it in the way I make documentary films—my writing with Duff is an opportunity to learn about something that engages me and apply my craft to it.

What’s the most important concept or idea that you teach people?

I mean the dichotomy of control is the beginning middle and end of it, isn’t it? But Duff and I are now working on a new project inspired in part by Marcus Aurelius’ words “Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one.” Broadly speaking, we’re looking to inspire people to take action and make changes. Some people make fun of this line as being tautological and I understand that criticism, but I choose to interpret it as “Stop dithering and act on what you already know!” Useful advice at any time.

What do you think is the most important piece of practical advice that we can derive from your work?

When I write with Duff, I often access an almost ecstatic sense of celebrating life and its possibilities, and I hope that comes across to readers. Yes, life is hard and has more than its share of disappointments and cruelty and sadness, but there is always also beauty and joy. I hope that we’ve been able to communicate that Stoicism is a practical way to recognize and embrace those beautiful aspects of life.

Do you have a favorite quote that you use?

Epictetus’ maxim “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.” This comes up a lot with my daughter, who is 15. As a nascent adult she runs across a lot of situations that aren’t ideal and we’ve always encouraged her to take action in response rather than accept them or just complain. Without getting into detail, she just had an unpleasant experience and took it upon herself to take action. She’s understood that she can’t change what happened, nor should she wallow in emotion—but she can take action in response. I was really proud to see her exercise the control she could in a pretty tough situation and thrilled to see how confident she was in herself.


Karen Duffy & Francis Gasparini – Wising Up

Control how you respond—and maybe that response is “this cruelly phrased criticism is actually valid.”

Francis Gasparini

What advice would you give someone who wanted to learn more about what you do?

When it comes to writing, the most banal but truest advice is that you learn by doing, over and over and over and over. I was a creative writing major in college, which was extremely useful in that it gave me an outlet to write a lot and get a lot of bad writing out of my system. Needless to say, you don’t need to study creative writing in college to write a lot and hone your craft, but it did give me a structure. Also, the absolute pettiness and bottomless factionalism of zero-consequences college writing seminars helped me develop a thick skin about what I knew was good.

Another thing that helped was many years of writing for television, in which no one cares about your feelings or how hard you worked on something, it either works (for someone else!) or it doesn’t. I don’t think you need to suffer through all of that to be a good writer, but you do need to learn how to take criticism and distinguish what’s worth listening to. The dichotomy of control comes into play here too! Control how you respond—and maybe that response is “this cruelly phrased criticism is actually valid.”

Suppose you were able to give a talk or workshop at the original location of Plato’s Academy, in Athens. How would you feel about that?

Um, overwhelmed and unworthy? The serious answer is that I’d be excited to talk about my creative process and how Stoicism has come to inform it. I write in collaboration with Duff. There is a great deal of tapping on the keyboard, but the most important part of the work is the lively discussion of what we want to say, what the Stoics say on the subject, and what crazy anecdote perfectly illustrates what we’re trying to communicate. In Stoic
terms, we never run into “writer’s block.” We rethink, we ruminate, we shoot the breeze, we digress, and in the end, as Marcus Aurelius says, “What stands in the way becomes
the way.”

Gregory Lopez: Discussing vs. Practicing

Gregory Lopez is the co-author of Live Like a Stoic and A Handbook for New Stoics. He is also founder and facilitator of the New York City Stoics Meetup, and cofounder and board member of The Stoic Fellowship. In addition, he is a Modern Stoicism board member and co-facilitates Stoic Camp New York with Massimo Pigliucci. He is also lead editor for Examine.com and editor in chief of the Examine Research Digest.

How did you become interested in this area?

I first got into philosophy the same way a lot of American moody ex-religious high schoolers do: through Ayn Rand, Nietzsche, and Russell’s Why I am not a Christian. While that’s pretty stereotypical, trying to think more deeply about religion led to my interest in learning more about logic and epistemology: it’s one thing to roll one’s eyes at things like Anselm’s ontological argument, but it’s another to figure out where it may be going awry and –importantly — why

My philosophical interests were further bolstered when taking a year-long introduction to humanities course on ancient Greek and Roman culture in college and continued through a few optional courses on metaphysics and the philosophy of science along with some Chinese philosophy during a Chinese humanities class. 

However, much of this was theoretical at the end of the day. My interests in practical philosophy formed from two confluent sources. 

The first was discussing Buddhist philosophy with a friend. I didn’t have much initial interest in Buddhism because of my initial impression that it required too much metaphysical baggage to be of use to those who didn’t buy into it. But discussion, reading, and taking a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course convinced me that it was indeed practical.

The second source of my interest in the more practical aspects of philosophy came from looking for some rewarding volunteer work. I came across SMART Recovery, which helps people apply techniques from cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) to addictive behaviors, whether they involve a substance or not. SMART Recovery leans heavily on one of the original forms of CBT created by Albert Ellis: Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT). I learned that REBT was heavily inspired by Stoicism. I read some Seneca back in college alongside Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and several works of Plato, but I realized that I didn’t know a whole lot about Stoicism, so I decided to look for resources.

During that search, I stumbled upon some people on the internet who were attempting to practice Stoicism in today’s world. However, there wasn’t much going on in the way of in-person learning and practice. My desire to learn more about Stoicism and how it can be practiced combined with the lack of in-person groups led me to found the New York City Stoics in 2013, and ultimately to co-found The Stoic Fellowship to help foster Stoic groups worldwide as well as to co-author a book on Stoic practice.

You are not everything that goes on in your head. 

Gregory Lopez

What’s the most important concept or idea that you teach people?

You are not everything that goes on in your head. 

From a Stoic perspective, there is only one small part of your mind that you completely control, which Epictetus calls prohairesis. Actually, it’s not quite accurate to even say that “you” control this part of your mind: instead, this part of the mind is you. Everything else is not you. 

When making this point, Epictetus often points to physical examples of what’s not you, like your hair or body, or sometimes external things like reputation or things you own. However, Stoic doctrine clearly implies that other aspects of your mind are also not necessarily you, including impressions (phantasiai; which I describe as your first feelings and thoughts about a matter that come up automatically) and proto-passions (propatheiai; the first stirrings of unhealthy emotions). These things go on in your head, but are not under your control. Instead, Stoic practice primarily — if not exclusively — consists in recognizing, analyzing, and questioning impressions and proto-passions that come up and then countering them using conscious and intentional, conscious thought and action that is consistent with believing that virtue is the only good. So the automatic stuff that pops up in your head doesn’t define you because it’s not you: instead, it’s grist for the mill of Stoic practice. 

And practice does not necessarily make perfect! Only the perfect Stoic practitioner (the sage) succeeds in working with their impressions and proto-passions every time, so Stoic practitioners will occasionally (or in my case: frequently!) screw this up. But Stoics realize that being a perfect practitioner is extremely difficult, if not impossible. So from a practical perspective, progress — not perfection — is a better goal to aim for. Even Epictetus aimed for the goal of progress. This is probably why he told people that he would be happy if he died during the third stage of Stoic practice (what Pierre Hadot called The Discipline of Assent); he didn’t say he wanted to die a sage!

But those novel concepts, mistaken notions, and forgotten principles are sterile if I don’t then go out and try to use them to improve myself.

Gregory Lopez

What do you think is the most important piece of practical advice that we can derive from your work?

Once you find a philosophical practice that makes sense and works for you, drill it for the rest of your life, unless you discover a major flaw along the way.

This addresses two of the major failure modes for people I see coming to practical philosophy:

  1. Enjoying discussing philosophy, but not putting it to use
  2. Flitting from practice to practice, but not consistently sticking with anything

The only way I know of to get better at something is to do the thing repeatedly and consciously, while paying attention to feedback along the way. And if you don’t put a philosophy to use, you aren’t doing anything — you’re discussing it. This likely won’t lead to improvement. Don’t get me wrong: I do find discussion, reading, and lectures valuable, but they’re only valuable up to a point: they help me learn new things, clarify mistaken notions I hold, and serve as reminders for principles I’ve forgotten to apply. But those novel concepts, mistaken notions, and forgotten principles are sterile if I don’t then go out and try to use them to improve myself.

I don’t really find myself falling into the second failure mode anymore, but it’s something I see pop up in people who are looking for life philosophies. I highly recommend exploring different ideas and practices before settling down on something that makes sense and works for you: I did it myself. But once I found a mix of Buddhism and Stoicism that worked for me, I’ve stuck with it. Of course, I vary how I practice and what I’m focusing on based on what problems are currently arising in my life. However, my practice no longer deviates from the core principles and practices of those philosophies — unless I slip in practice altogether, which definitely does happen! But when I do fall off that horse, I try to jump back on, instead of going back to the stables and browsing for new, prettier horses.

But that doesn’t mean people should necessarily stick with the same thing forever if they find something seriously wrong with it. Sometimes, after spending time consistently practicing, you may see that some aspect of the philosophy doesn’t work for you or may even be harmful. In that case, by all means jump off that horse! Just do so for better reasons than novelty-seeking.

Do you have a favorite quote that you use?

I don’t have a favorite quote, but I do have a favorite story I tell a lot that I slightly embellish for rhetorical effect. It’s from Epictetus’s Discourses 2.22, where Epictetus is challenging a student who is questioning a Stoic paradox about whether anyone, but the Stoic sage can be a true friend. 

There, Epictetus compares the friendship of non-sages to the friendship of puppies: while everything’s going well, a pen full of puppies will happily play together and get along just fine. But what happens when those puppies aren’t fed for a couple of days, and then you throw a scrap of meat into the pen? These previously friendly puppies will immediately turn against each other, biting and snarling in order to get the scrap all to themselves.

That’s not true friendship. To be a true friend means sticking with others through thick and thin. And only the Stoic sage could remain truly constant in their friendship. That’s why the Stoic sage is the only true friend: they would never turn on anyone, no matter what’s going on. 

This is my favorite story because I think it provides a clean and compelling reason for practicing Stoicism: all of us non-sages have our scrap of meat that will make us turn against those we claim to care about and love. 

But that’s not the best reason to practice Stoicism in my opinion. Instead, if Stoicism fulfills its promise, it will help you become more of a true friend and to truly love. I think that’s a lot more compelling, and a lot more beautiful.

Gregory Lopes

Most people seem to come to Stoicism because they want to feel better. And the surface-level, life-hack form of Stoicism is often packaged and sold with the promise to become “bulletproof” and “invincible”. Even the ancient Stoics sometimes portrayed Stoicism in this way to some degree. But that’s not the best reason to practice Stoicism in my opinion. Instead, if Stoicism fulfills its promise, it will help you become more of a true friend and to truly love. I think that’s a lot more compelling, and a lot more beautiful.

What advice would you give someone who wanted to learn more about what you do?

I have a bare-bones personal website where you can get in touch and learn more about me.

I’m also slowly building a couple of online courses for practicing Stoics who already know basic Stoic theory. You can sign up for updates here.

If you’re interested in finding or starting a local Stoic community, check out the non-profit I co-founded, Stoic Fellowship.

If you want to learn about Stoic practice, check out the book a Handbook for New Stoics, which I co-authored.

If you want to come to my meetups — some of which are held online.

You could also follow me on Twitter @GLopezPharmD. However, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it since I currently barely tweet and when I do, it isn’t always related to philosophy.

Suppose you were able to give a talk or workshop at the original location of Plato’s Academy, in Athens.

Both excited and unworthy. But those are both impressions for my prohairesis to work with. 

Anthony Opoka: A Stoic and Didn’t Know It

Anthony Opoka

by Mick Mulroy

Several years ago, after serving most of my career in warzones, I lived and worked in Uganda. One of the missions we had was to support what the United States called Operation Observant Compass, the joint effort between the U.S. and the Ugandan military to end the Lord’s Resistance Army  or LRA. 

The LRA is an insurgency group against the government of Uganda that was founded in 1987 by Joseph Kony, one of the most wanted persons in the world. The group is known for its widespread use of abducted children forced to be soldiers and commit atrocities such as murder and rape and would be killed for refusing to obey. Estimates vary, but 10 to 20 thousand children were forced into the LRA as soldiers. 

While serving in Uganda and working on this operation, I first met Anthony Opoka at a remote Base in the jungle of Central Africa. He was a ‘cultural advisor’ to the operation. I told Anthony that I had spent almost my whole career fighting alongside local militaries and militias in conflict areas. I was also very much a student and a practitioner of irregular warfare, including insurgencies and counterinsurgencies.

We became friends almost immediately, something that from my perspective usually takes more time. I asked him if he had an injury to his arm as I had noticed him holding his wrist. He said that he did have ‘big injury’ where he was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade.  I asked whether that happened while fighting the LRA, and he responded ‘No, I was LRA.’

Anthony single handedly talked dozens of child soldiers into defecting and leaving the fight, likely saving their lives. It was Anthony that positively identified Dominic Ongwen, the deputy of Joseph Kony, 2014 who was convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity including murder, rape, torture, and enslavement at the International Criminal Courts in 2021. 

One thing that most people recognize about Anthony is how easy it is to talk to him and how he puts you at ease almost immediately. He truly exhibits the ‘Stoic Calm’ that all of us Stoics seek in ourselves. He does it without effort. I started trying to emulate him. In addition to the counter-LRA mission, we had a significant counter-terrorism mission with the Al Qaeda affiliate Al Shabab from Somalia, posing a significant threat to Uganda and the Americans there. Including an attempt that we thwarted at the last minute.  

I started to see that everything that made a Stoic a true Stoic was right there in a person who had never even heard of the concept or the philosophy.

I started to see that everything that made a Stoic a true Stoic was right there in a person who had never even heard of the concept or the philosophy. The Cardinal Virtues that Stoics derived from Plato’s Republic of Courage, Justice, Wisdom, and Temperance. That and living in conjunction with nature were how to achieve eudaimonia.

Anthony was well known for his Courage. I began to interview many of them while researching the counter-insurgency efforts before the U.S. participation in the academic journal Center for the Studies of Intelligence. Everyone that served with him had stories of his bravery in combat (although in the LRA, the soldiers had an unusual bond to one another far above and apart from their allegiance to Joseph Kony). 

There were no awards for this, no accolades; he risked his life to save his friends because that is who he was. When Anthony asked his friend to smuggle his wife Florence and children out of the bush, he did so, thinking that he would undoubtedly be executed for that act. When I asked him if the decision at least gave him pause before deciding it, he simply said ‘no.’

Justice was something that was never afforded to Anthony. He was from a very rural village of mud huts with no running water or electricity. The government of Uganda treated the Acholi (the tribe of Anthony) as second-class citizens. They were brutal in their treatment, leading to multiple uprisings, including the establishment of the LRA. The same group ostensibly established to protect the people of northern Uganda soon turned on them, essentially enslaving them as a child army. 

In the LRA justice was swift, brutal, and at the whims of Joseph Kony, who could, with one decision, kill an entire village or turn on his own soldiers ordering their execution. Anthony was often on the receiving end of this brutality. When he finally escaped and had the opportunity to leave this horrible part of his life behind him, he didn’t. He became the leading person talking other LRA soldiers into escaping as well. 

After their escape, he and his wife were often the only support they had as many of their villages refused to take them back. Anthony became an integral part of the program to help them get accepted. A process that still exists today and is run by a organization called Grassroots Reconciliation Group, of which Anthony and Florence are still a part. They fought for justice for those who had never had it in a community that refused to provide it at first. Justice for Anthony was fairness tied to compassion.

Wisdom in the Stoic sense is beyond just knowledge of a subject; it is also genuine intellectual curiosity, ingenuity, and the ability to develop a position based on where the facts lead and not just where you want them to lead. Anthony had an uncommon wisdom. It did not come from former extended schooling, as that was limited and cut short with his childhood abduction. Anthony is the most clever person I have ever met. It likely saved his life many times over. 

When he was injured severely, he no longer could fully be a soldier. Something the LRA leadership may have considered a liability. He could have quickly been shot and discarded as not worth keeping around, but Anthony had a skill they needed more than ever. He could navigate by using the stars, a skill his father had taught him and one that the LRA required as they could only travel at nights as the Ugandan Army had begun indiscriminately targeting the LRA with helicopter gunships during the day, likely saving many of his fellow soldiers. 

After this, Anthony was chosen to be a radio operator and code-talker for the leadership to, include Joseph Kony because of his ability to learn new skills. These skills made Anthony valuable in assisting the mission to end the LRA as a viable insurgency and save countless future child soldiers that would have been forced into that organization. 

Temperance can often elude someone who has seen even a fraction of what Anthony had seen. Often, former child soldiers become the most violent of militia leaders and perpetuate the abuse that was inflicted upon them. Anthony somehow managed to avoid any of these problems.. 

Like others of my CIA generation, I had many friends killed in the Afghanistan, Iraq, and others wars. After leaving Uganda, more friends were killed, and my wife and I was part of the notification of the family. Families that were essentially our own. It was my conversations with Anthony that helped me get through this. Someone who knew what I was talking about, but also someone that had already become the rock for many, and now me.

My interest in exploring the pre-U.S. counter-insurgency effort soon became a fascination with Anthony and Florence’s personal story. I believe a story could inspire former child soldiers around the world or anyone who thought they faced overwhelming odds that were not worth fighting.  Their story proved that it was always worth the fight. 

I started an amateur documentary and recruited my friends to assist as I was required to have other Americans with me to travel to this area of Uganda due to the remoteness and potential hazards. Matt Sullivan, Brina Bunt, Cara Dana and my future business partner Eric Oehlerich who along with Mark Rausenberger put the eventual documentary together with me. 

At the time, it would take us six hours to drive to Anthony and Florence village. It was as remote as it was when they were there as children.  After filming the documentary (eventually called My Star in the Sky) every day with the villagers as the actors, we would sit around the fire and eat. Very basic food cooked over the fire, and watch people tell stories or sing. No TV, no iPads, no nothing but people and a camp fire. People laughing, talking, and just being there in that moment.  

I don’t want to overly romantize it. Its was a tough life, but everytime when were driving back to Kampala and the urban diplomat life, the American with me would comment on how surprised they were at how happy they all were. How they would love to sit around the dinner table and just talk with their kids without the distractions of modernity.  It was the last in the pillars, living in harmony with nature.  It showed me that what really matters in not what you own, its who you are.

 Anthony was by all accounts a ‘Stoic and didn’t know it.’ 


The story of Anthony and Florence will soon be available for all to know as award winning New York Times best-selling author Mark Sullivan is in the final stages of a book on their life. A portion of the proceeds will go to the charity End Child Soldiering, founded by Eric Oehlerich and the author.

About the author:

Michael “Mick” Patrick Mulroy, is the former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East, a retired CIA paramilitary operations officer from their Special Activities Center and U.S. Marine, an ABC News national security and defense analyst, a Senior Fellow at the Middle East Institute, a co-founder of the Lobo Institute and End Child Soldiering, on the board of advisors for Grassroots Reconciliation Group and on the board of advisors for Plato’s Academy Centre. He is also the godfather of two of Anthony’s son’s.  

Anthony Opoka

Bringing Ancient Greek Philosophy Back to Life

One of the goals of the Plato’s Academy Centre is to bring ancient Greek philosophy and literature to a wider audience by making it more relevant to modern life. This Prada advert directed by Ridley Scott shows one creative way that an ancient text can be brought to life:

The words are from Thunder, the Perfect Mind, a 3rd century Gnostic mystical text, discovered in Egypt and written in the Coptic language, but believed to have originally been composed in Greek.

In the video below, Akira the Don, has put the words of the Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius, from the Meditations, to music.

I think that there’s plenty of opportunity for other ancient Greek texts to be utilized creatively in ways that potentially introduce them to a new audience.

The lord whose is the oracle at Delphi neither reveals nor conceals his meaning, but shows it by a sign.

Heraclitus

Translators can play a crucial role in this, though, by working with artists to create new translations, or even paraphrases, of ancient texts, which are both faithful to the original but also complemented by the music. There are many ways we can, and should, continue to work with ancient texts to keep them alive by making them more accessible and relevant to a wider modern audience.

Aphorisms like the sayings of Heraclitus or poems like Empedocles’ On Nature or the work of the same name by Parmenides, perhaps lend themselves to creative modern presentations like those above.

It is all one to me where I begin; for I shall come back again there.

Parmenides

Street Art

Another interesting opportunity for keeping Greek philosophy alive and reaching a new audience is through street art, such as the large portrait of Solon, one of the Seven Sages, found in Metaxourgeio in Athens.

Images of Greek thinkers are great but it would be nice to combine these with some of their words. There’s a backstreet in Kypseli, Athens, where artists have covered the walls with quotes from ancient Greek literature.

The Plato’s Academy Centre could, for instance, organize events to raise funds for street art projects to celebrate Greek philosophy.

Feel free to comment below if you have any suggestions for ways in which music or artwork could be used to bring Greek philosophy to a wider audience. You may also want to check out our forthcoming virtual event: Ancient Philosophy Comes Alive!

Mick Mulroy: A Stoic Stand and the Fight for Ukraine

Vitaly Skakun Volodymyrovych

He who does not prevent a crime, when he can, encourages it.

Seneca

The British historian and politician Thomas Macaulay wrote a collection of poems in 1842 called Lays of Ancient Rome. These recount heroic episodes that go beyond the emperors, generals, and senators, to highlight the actions of ordinary footsoldiers, who otherwise would be lost to history.

One of the poems, called Horatius, is about Publius Horatius and two fellow soldiers who were assigned to hold the Sublician Bridge over the Tiber river from the Etruscan Army. These three elected to go forward and fight the enemy, allowing their fellow soldiers the opportunity to dismantle the bridge behind them, sacrificing their lives in the process.

From their President on down, Ukrainians have proven that courage and tenacity, though intangible factors, can have an exponential impact on the battlefield.

Mick Mulroy

This is such a moving poem that many, including Winston Churchhill, memorized every verse. But this type of heroism is not confined to ancient times. It is happening right now in Ukraine. From their President on down, Ukrainians have proven that courage and tenacity, though intangible factors, can have an exponential impact on the battlefield.

Going into battle takes courage. Many of my closest friends and I have done so on many occasions. We always went, though, with overwhelming force on our side. The courage to go into battle wholly outnumbered is of another kind. I believe it exemplifies the type of fortitude that the ancient Stoics held as one of their fundamental principles and cardinal virtues. It is courage in the face of oppression, in defense of liberty, even if death is the most likely outcome.

On February 25, 2022, the Ukrainian government issued a statement that Vitaly Volodymyrovych Skakun, a Ukrainian Marine combat engineer, had voluntarily undertaken a mission to mine the Genichesky Bridge near Kyiv before Russian forces could cross it. Vitaly did not have time to flee the blast zone before detonating the explosives. He informed his battalion, by text message, that he would be blowing it up regardless. He was posthumously awarded the Order of the Gold Star by Ukrainian President President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. He became, through his actions, a modern-day Horatius.

To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
Then facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his Gods.

Haul down the bridge, Sir Consul,
With all the speed ye may;
I, with two more to help me,
Will hold the foe in play.
In yon strait path a thousand
May well be stopped by three.
Now, who will stand on either hand,
And keep the bridge with me?

This type of heroism needs to leave behind more than a poem; it should inspire action. Ukraine is a young democratic country fighting to hold on to its freedom. Vitaly’s courage, his Stoic stand, is what the free world must remember to ensure that we do not return to the past.

About the author

Michael “Mick” Patrick Mulroy is a retired U.S. Marine, a retired paramilitary operations officer in the CIA’s Special Activities Center, and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East. He is now a national security and defense analyst for ABC News, a senior fellow for national security and defense policy with the Middle East Institute, a co-founder of the Lobo Institute, and on the board of advisors for Plato’s Academy Centre.

Mick Mulroy: The Stoic’s Mirror

A Case for Self Assessment

The four main principles of Stoicism — wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance — are best used to conduct self-assessments, not to “preach” to others. Stoics should therefore not insist that Stoicism is superior to other philosophies. Instead, these principles should be employed as personal markers to improve continually. 

With the hope of being helpful to others, the remainder of this writing details some things I have done and the standards that I try and hold to that help me do that. No matter where you are on your personal development, everyone is better off if we are all trying to better ourselves. Being a self-assessing Stoic will also help prevent you from becoming what may be the worst — a hypocrite

Wisdom

grayscale photo of human hand
Photo by Amine M’Siouri on Pexels.com

Wisdom is not just knowing lots of information. Artificial intelligence and Google are making that ability less and less important. Instead, true wisdom is all about the ability to be creative and innovative. To be creative and innovative, you have to be able to admit when you are wrong and adjust as you receive new information. 

Being adaptable is becoming a rare skill in today’s world, where people have developed immutable beliefs based on information pushed for political or self-serving reasons. If you cannot admit you are wrong, you will essentially never be innovative, especially when circumstances change. When was the last time you admitted you were wrong to someone?

Courage

Courage is knowingly deciding to act for the good of others regardless of the consequences to yourself — even if those consequences could be dire. I have seen courage in traditional settings (e.g., in the military and on the battlefield). But courageousness is found in many other capacities every day. 

Do you walk past the person being bullied or attacked on the street? Do you look the other way when someone is wrongfully discriminated against or do you stand up for them — even if it means those discriminating turn on you? Do you pull someone out of a burning car on the highway or do you standby watching it burn? Every day is a test, whether you like it or not. 

The true pursuit of justice should be for others regardless of whether they are like you or not. 

Mick Mulroy

Justice

Look at justice and your pursuit of it. What are you doing for others? Yes, you should fight for your rights and the rights of those like you. But, that is basically righteous self-interest. The true pursuit of justice should be for others regardless of whether they are like you or not. 

Human rights after all should be, by definition, universal. We should strive to promote human rights for others regardless of whether we personally benefit. This is what it means to be a true proponent of justice, to be a humanitarian. When is the last time you took a stand for something that did not benefit you for someone that wasn’t like you?

Temperance

As an Irish-American myself, I have a theory on the Irish. During the famine and the troubles in Ireland, many families had to send some of their children to the “New World” to try and make enough to survive for the whole family. 

Yet, the United States was not very receptive to the Irish. In fact, they it was in many ways hostile. Most Irish chosen to be sent across the ocean were selected based on their tenacity and boldness (there are other names I could use but I am trying to be polite). They weren’t necessarily sent abroad for their temperance.     

Whether this theory is true, I have always viewed temperance as the most challenging. Aristotle may have said moderation in all things, but that is easier said than done for many people, Irish or not. 

I have found that the best way to improve in this category is to well, cheat. If you eat and drink too much at night, go to bed early. If you turn hostile every time you talk politics with your parents or a certain friend, even after you tried to have a civil discussion, talk about something else. But a person’s temper may not be in their total control. 

Deciding to go into situations that trigger your temper is in your control. To be blunt, if it is your choice to avoid, then the consequences of not avoiding it are your fault. When was the last time you were the one that walked away from an unproductive argument?

Integrity

These principles are the building blocks that make up a more complicated whole — your integrity. Your integrity is the only thing that can’t be taken from you and is, therefore, the only thing you truly own. Self-assessment, if done honestly, is an investment in your integrity. 

Like climbing a mountain, there will be hardships, there will be peaks and valleys, and there may even be some false summits, but it is worth the effort for you and everyone you know. 

Whether you agree with or use what I utilize for self-assessment is not what’s important.  What is important is looking carefully at yourself in the Stoic’s mirror. Many people are their own greatest fans. Be your own harshest critic.  

Mick Mulroy, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, retired CIA officer, and U.S. Marine, on the board of advisors for the Plato’s Academy Centre.

Sir John Templeton on Stoicism

Sir John Templeton (1912 – 2008), an American by birth who later became naturalised as a UK citizen, was an extremely successful investor and fund manager.  He was also one of the 20th century’s most notable philanthropists, reputedly giving away over a billion dollars to charity.  In 1987, he founded The Templeton Foundation, describing its goal as follows:

We are trying to persuade people that no human has yet grasped 1% of what can be known about spiritual realities. So we are encouraging people to start using the same methods of science that have been so productive in other areas, in order to discover spiritual realities.

John Templeton

Templeton was a lifelong member of the Presbyterian Church.  He had a very diverse interest, though, in spiritual and philosophical classics from other traditions.  His writings are full of quotes from famous Stoics such as Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius.  He also quotes frequently from Cicero, an orator and Academic philosopher who was himself heavily influenced by Stoicism.  Templeton also liked to refer to Socrates, the most famous Greek philosopher of all, who preceded and greatly influenced the Stoic school. 

I counted about 22 references to Stoicism in Worldwide Laws of Life, his most popular book on Amazon.  To save me repeating “Templeton quotes xyz as saying”, incidentally, bear in mind that every one of the quotations below is used by Templeton in this book.   

John Templeton, Worldwide Laws of Life
John Templeton, Worldwide Laws of Life

Templeton derived two major themes from his reading of the Stoics, which run throughout his writings:

  1. Our own thoughts shape our character and emotions
  2. Our happiness depends upon having self-discipline, and living consistently in accord with our true values

We’ll explore each of these in turn before discussing a third Stoic theme, death reflection, which Templeton only touches upon indirectly.

1. “Your life becomes what you think.”

Templeton uses this quote from Marcus Aurelius as the title of one of his Worldwide Laws of Life. He also includes another quote, which better explains its meaning: “Such as are thy habitual thoughts,” says Marcus, “such also will be the character of thy soul—for the soul is dyed by thy thoughts.” Marcus is also quoted as saying:

The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thought: therefore, guard accordingly, and take care that you entertain no notions unsuitable to virtue and reasonable nature.

Marcus Aurelius

Marcus was steeped in the teachings of Epictetus, an earlier Stoic philosopher, whose most famous saying was:

Men are disturbed not by things that happen but by their opinion of the things that happen.  

Epictetus

Templeton quoted Epictetus because he understood that our emotional life depends much more on our opinions than we normally tend to realise.  Our spiritual progress requires taking responsibility for our own thinking, and bringing our actions more into alignment with the goal of living wisely and virtuously. 

Recalling that we can always view events differently helps us to cope with setbacks in a wiser, more constructive manner.  Epictetus is quoted as saying, “On the occasion of every accident that befalls you, remember to turn to yourself and inquire what power you have for turning it to use.”  One who has mastered this ability has overcome fortune.  

Happy is the man who can endure the highest and the lowest fortune. He who has endured such vicissitudes with equanimity has deprived misfortune of its power.

Seneca

Templeton also quoted with approval Epictetus’ remark:

Appearances to the mind are of four kinds. Things are either what they appear to be; or they neither are, nor appear to be; or they are, and do not appear to be; or they are not, and yet appear to be. Rightly to aim in all these cases is the wise man’s task.

Epictetus

We are unlikely to be deceived when things are as they appear to be. However, often the contrary is true. Something might be healthy, on the one hand, without appearing to be so. On the other, something may appear to be healthy, without, in fact, being so.  Appearances, in short, are distinct from reality, and can therefore be quite misleading. This might seem obvious but we’re naturally inclined to forget the distinction between appearance and reality. Philosophers like Epictetus want us to be more mindful of this distinction throughout our daily lives, as a safeguard against being deceived by superficial impressions.

We have to make a commitment to the truth as it requires intelligence and effort to see clearly, without letting our feelings get in the way. 

The great teacher Seneca said, “Eyes will not see when the heart wishes them to be blind.”

John Templeton

He also quotes Seneca saying “Live among men as if God beheld you; speak to God as if men were listening.”

The Pythia, or Delphic Oracle
The Pythia, or Delphic Oracle

Socrates, the godfather of Stoicism, as it were, was the first to really emphasize that we need to question our own thinking very deeply, every day, if we want to achieve wisdom and learn to see life clearly.  Templeton relates the famous story of the Delphic Oracle, or priestess of Apollo, also known as the Pythia. She once, controversially, announced that Socrates was the wisest of all men.  This prompted Socrates to respond by insisting that he was only wise because he realized that he knew nothing, at least nothing certain about things of great importance.  “Surely,” writes Templeton, “these are the words of a teachable man.” 

Socrates reputedly said at his trial “The unexamined life is not worth living”, words which Templeton also notes approvingly.  After the Delphic Oracle’s remarkable proclamation of Socrates’ wisdom, the Athenian philosopher dedicated his life to following the most famous prescription engraved outside her shrine. It consisted of two simple words: Know thyself.  For Templeton this was emblematic of Socrates’ mission to urged Athenians “to live noble lives, to think critically and logically, and to have probing minds”, although as we’ll see it also has another meaning.

2. “No man is free who is not master of himself.”

Templeton used this quote from Epictetus as another of his Worldwide Laws of Life. Philosophy, philosophia in Greek, literally means “love of wisdom”, including the wisdom that comes from studying our own nature.  Striving to truly know ourselves, following the maxim of the Delphic Oracle, is the essence of Socratic philosophy, and of Stoicism.  It means realizing that our minds shape our emotions and that our happiness therefore depends, fundamentally, upon our thinking, our beliefs, and our overall philosophy of life.  Knowing yourself is the key to your freedom, in other words.  Templeton quotes Seneca on this: “A good mind is lord of a kingdom.”  That’s because self-knowledge leads to self-control, which we need in order to free ourselves from our own unhealthy desires and emotions.  “No man is free”, according to Epictetus, “who is not master of himself.”

Ancient philosophy, particularly Stoicism, was not an abstract bookish or “academic” diversion but a whole way of life, similar in some ways to a religion such as Buddhism.  Templeton knew this and used the words of another Stoic to illustrate the point.

Wisdom does not show itself so much in precept as in life—in firmness of mind and mastery of appetite. It teaches us to do as well as to talk; and to make our words and action all of a color.

Seneca

Of course this requires an unusual degree of dedication to the goal of living wisely.  “No man”, says Epictetus, “is able to make progress when he is wavering between opposite things.”  We all too easily risk wasting our time otherwise.  “Part of our time is snatched from us,” as Seneca puts it, “part is gently subtracted, and part slides insensibly away.” Yet when we focus ourselves on our fundamental goal in life, the goal of attaining wisdom and virtue, we can achieve a great deal.  “Better to do a little well,” says Socrates, “than a great deal badly.”  Templeton also liked to quote Cicero, who was influenced by the Stoics, in this regard:

Diligence is to be particularly cultivated by us, it is to be constantly exerted; it is capable of effecting almost everything.

Cicero

The secret to achieving this level of diligence and focus lies in self-knowledge, though, and the realization that we already have an overriding goal in life: the goal of wisdom.  For Socrates and the Stoics, wisdom and virtue are the same.  The supreme goal in life is to become wise and good, or to improve and ultimately perfect ourselves.  Nature gave us the capacity for reason and self-awareness, and left us to finish her work by using these faculties well throughout life.  “A happy life is one which is in accordance with its own nature”, as Seneca put it.  We’re constantly tempted to stray from the path, though, by endless diversions in life.  “No longer talk at all about the kind of man a good man ought to be,” says Marcus Aurelius therefore, “but be such.”  We know we’re on the right track when we can look back on our life and feel that we’ve actually spent our precious time well.  “The life given us by nature is short,” said Cicero, “but the memory of a well-spent life is eternal.” 

The goal of life is to act consistently in accord with our fundamental goal, of seeking wisdom and virtue.  The Stoics doubted whether any mortal had ever achieved perfection but they still thought it was a goal worth aspiring toward, although we should be grateful for making even small steps in the right direction.  Templeton quotes a stunning passage from Seneca on this:

The greatest man is he who chooses right with the most invincible resolution; who resists the sorest temptation from within and without; who bears the heaviest burdens cheerfully; who is calmest in storms, and most fearless under menaces and frowns; whose reliance on truth, on virtue, and on god is most unfaltering.

Seneca

This is the famous “Sage” or Sophos of the Stoic philosophical tradition: their knowingly idealistic definition of the potential for greatness implicit in human nature.  

Templeton and the Stoics on Death

As we’ve seen, the words “Know thyself” were engraved at the entrance of the temple of Apollo at Delphi, near Athens. Inside was seated the Pythia, who not only spoke on behalf of her patron god, but channelled his very presence, so it was believed, through a form of possession. Those standing outside the temple were reminded, therefore, to show humility because they were about enter the presence of an immortal being, the god Apollo himself. In other words, the inscription “Know yourself” originally meant “Know your place” or “Remember that you are a mortal.”

Here’s a quote from the ancient Stoics, which you don’t find inTempleton’s books:

Those whom you love and those whom you despise will both be made equal in the same ashes. This is the meaning of that command, “Know thyself”, which is written on the shrine of the Pythian oracle. — Seneca, Moral Letters, 11

“What is man?”, asks Seneca. Nothing more than a potter’s vase, which can be shattered into pieces by the slightest knock.

You were born a mortal, and you have given birth to mortals: yourself a weak and fragile body, liable to all diseases, can you have hoped to produce anything strong and lasting from such unstable material? — Moral Letters, 11

Contemplation of our own mortality is a major theme in Stoicism.  It was known in Greek as melete thanatou, or training for death, following a saying of Socrates.  It’s better-known today, perhaps, by the Latin phrase memento mori meaning “remember thou must die”.  This phrase, as Epictetus noted, was one of several traditionally whispered in the ears of victorious Roman generals and emperors, by attendant slaves, in order to protect them against delusions of immortality and godhood.  The Stoics believed that by contemplating our own mortality on a daily basis, in the right way, we could overcome our fear of death, and this would liberate us from many other unhealthy desires and emotions in life.  

We can choose to flow gracefully or to resist and become immobilized in fear.

John Templeton

John Templeton does, in fact, describe a similar practice.  “Many people have a fear of change”, he says.  He therefore advises his readers that, in the form of a spiritual practice, they may come to accept change and loss, without upset, by learning to view such things as part of nature.  We should remember that “nature’s great scheme involves change”, as Templeton puts it.  This sounds just like Stoicism as does Templeton’s remark: “We can choose to flow gracefully or to resist and become immobilized in fear.”  In part, this comes from accepting change as natural and inevitable, as the Stoics say.  Our suffering can also be helped, according to Templeton, by viewing every ending as also a beginning.  

We generally like beginnings—we celebrate the new. On the other hand, many people resist endings and attempt to delay them. Much of our resistance to endings stems from our unawareness, or inability, to realize that we are one with nature. Often we don’t feel the joy of an ending, perhaps because we forget that in each ending are the seeds of beginning. Although endings can be painful, they are less so if, instead of resisting them, we look at time as a natural process of nature: as leaves budding in the spring, coming to full leaf in the summer, turning red and gold in autumn, and dropping from the trees in winter. It can be comforting to comprehend that we are an integral part of the great scheme of nature.

John Templeton

This leads to Templeton’s sage advice with regard to losses we experience in the course of life: “The more we allow ourselves to trust that every ending is a new beginning, the less likely we are to resist letting go of old ideas and attitudes.”  His own Christian faith, however, meant that he also viewed death as a new beginning, because he had faith, personally, in an afterlife.  He compares human life to the existence of a lowly caterpillar, and death to our soul’s emergence from a spiritual cocoon, into a more resplendent life in Heaven.

Yet, if you are willing to trust, as caterpillars seem able to do, the end of your life as an earthbound worm may be the beginning of your life as a beautiful winged creature of the sky.

John Templeton

Death is not something to be feared, therefore, because we may be reborn as beings of pure spirit, living on in a better place. 

We can see each ending as a tragedy and lament and resist it, or we can see each ending as a new beginning and a new birth into greater opportunities. What the caterpillar sees as the tragedy of death, the butterfly sees as the miracle of birth.

John Templeton

That belief is not as widely held today, though, at least in those countries where agnosticism and atheism are common.    

In the ancient world, perhaps surprisingly, a somewhat more agnostic attitude toward death was also quite common.  Socrates, in Plato’s Apology, expresses belief in the gods and hope that he will enjoy a happy existence in the afterlife.  However, he admits his uncertainty about such things, and adopts a philosophical attitude, preparing himself for the possibility that death may, instead, resemble an endless sleep, a state of total nonexistence or oblivion.   

Many people share Templeton’s interest in using “the same methods of science that have been so productive in other areas, in order to discover spiritual realities”. They don’t all share his Christian faith in spiritual life after death, though. Some of these individuals would struggle to interpret their own death as the “seeds of beginning” an afterlife in Heaven. I think this is an area where the Stoic position could arguably serve Templeton’s overall aim of a rational and “scientific” investigation of spirituality better.

As we saw earlier, Templeton used perhaps the most widely quoted of all passages from the Stoics… Epictetus says that it is our own opinions, ultimately, that disturb us. In the next sentence, though, Epictetus applied this insight to the fear of death, using the example of Socrates, because he considered this the most important fear of all to overcome.

Men are disturbed not by the things which happen, but by the opinions about the things: for example, death is nothing terrible, for if it were, it would have seemed so to Socrates; for the opinion about death, that it is terrible, is the terrible thing.

Epictetus, Handbook 5

It’s easier for some non-Christians, especially the atheists and agnostics, to accept uncertainty about life after death. The guidance they’re usually seeking from ancient spiritual traditions today is more about maintaining their values while coming to terms with that very uncertainty, and adopting a philosophical attitude toward their own mortality, such as the one exemplified by Socrates and the Stoics.