Stoicism at the Academy

The Academy’s name is synonymous with the philosophy of Plato but it also plays a part in the history of Stoic philosophy. Zeno of Citium studied at the Platonic Academy for at least a decade before founding his own Stoic school, located in the Agora of Athens. Toward the end of his life a monument was erected in the grounds of the Academy. It was a pillar with an inscription commemorating Zeno’s exemplary virtue and temperance, and honouring his contributions to philosophy.

The Academy was one of Athens’ ancient gymnasia or recreational grounds. It contained a wrestling school, libraries, shrines, etc. (It was described as a pleasant wooded grove, until the Roman dictator Sulla cut down its trees to rebuild his siege engines in the 1st century BC.) The Academy was most famously associated with Plato’s philosophy, with which it quickly became synonymous after he set up his school and began teaching there. However, other philosophers also taught in the grounds of the Academy. Socrates appears to have walked there discussing philosophy, while Plato was still a young student of his, and his rivals the Sophists probably gave speeches there.

You do not escape my notice, Zeno, slipping in by the garden door, stealing my doctrines and clothing them in a Phoenician style!

Polemon of Athens

Centuries later, Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism, spent ten years attending lectures in the Platonic school at the Academy, which at that time was headed by a successor of Plato called Xenocrates of Chalcedon. Over the years, Zeno began to build a reputation himself as an expert on dialectic, however, he continued to attend lectures at the Academy, delivered by Xenocrates’ successor, Polemon of Athens, a rebellious youth who turned his life around and became renowned for his temperance as a philosopher. Zeno was therefore admired for showing intellectual humility by attending the public lectures of a famous rival philosopher. Nevertheless, Polemon is said to have joked: “You do not escape my notice, Zeno, slipping in by the garden door, stealing my doctrines and clothing them in a Phoenician style!” In other words, he borrowed ideas from Polemon’s Academic philosophy and incorporated them into Stoicism.

After founding the Stoic School, Zeno earned such a reputation as a teacher and role model to the youth that when he reached an advanced age, the Athenians passed a decree publicly honouring him and had it inscribed on two stone pillars “one in the Academy and the other in the Lyceum”. It begins with the words:

Whereas Zeno of Citium, son of Mnaseas, has for many years been devoted to philosophy in the city and has continued to be a man of worth in all other respects, exhorting to virtue and temperance those of the youth who come to him to be taught, directing them to what is best, affording to all in his own conduct a pattern for imitation in perfect consistency with his teaching, it has seemed good to the people – and may it turn out well – to bestow praise upon Zeno of Citium, the son of Mnaseas, and to crown him with a golden crown according to the law, for his goodness and temperance, and to build him a tomb in the Ceramicus at the public cost.

This information seems to be derived by our source, Diogenes Laertius, from an earlier author Antigonus of Carystus, whose Successions of Philosophers was written in the 3rd century BC, shortly after Zeno’s death. Antigonus of Carystus adds that to the inscription were added the words “Zeno of Citium, the philosopher”, as Zeno had insisted that his status as a foreign immigrant at Athens should not be forgotten.

Articles on Stoicism

You’ll find several articles on this website from leading academics and well-known authors who specialize in Stoic philosophy.

The Honor of a Nation

soldiers in line to get in a plane

A Case for Stoicism in Foreign Policy

by Michael “Mick” Patrick Mulroy, Adam Piercey, and Donald J. Robertson

George Washington was influenced by Stoicism. He was so fond of the Stoic philosopher and Roman statesman, Cato the Younger, that he actually arranged for a play about him to be performed for his soldiers before the battle of Valley Forge. Perhaps the most famous line in that play was:

Better to die ten thousand thousand deaths,
Than wound my honor. 

Jospeh Addison, Cato, a Tragedy

A founding father, the first General, and the first President of the United States, Washington understood the importance of honor.
The Stoics derived four virtues from the teachings of Socrates as the fundamental principles of their philosophy. These were wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation. They believed that people who exhibited all of these principles were honorable.

These four main aspects of virtue or excellence (arete in Greek) each held a specific value for the different activities that a Stoic would carry out in their day-to-day lives.

  • Wisdom was not just knowledge but also the opposition of folly or thoughtlessness, and included the pursuit of reason.
  • Justice meant lawfulness and integrity but also included acts of public service and opposition to injustice or wrongdoing.
  • Courage (or fortitude) was meant to represent brave-heartedness and endurance, but also the opposition of cowardice.
  • Moderation stood for the opposition of excess, and the pursuit of orderliness.

A Stoic would hope to embody all of these traits in their day-to-day activities as they strove to pursue a life of good, and right. As Stoicism became more widespread, the actions of its followers grew in influence, including in the political sphere. As each person’s actions cause effects in those around them, they begin to see the impact of those actions on a greater scale.

The reputation of a nation is made up of the collective actions of its leaders and its people. Does it uphold the principles set out above, how does it treat its allies and partners, does it keep its word? If it does not uphold these principles, it will never be a great nation; if it does not treat its allies and partners with respect, it will soon be without any; and if it does not keep its word it, will have no standing as a leader in the international community.

Promises Made

The attacks in New York and Virginia on September 11, 2001, by the terrorist group Al Qaeda from Afghanistan, mobilized international support for the United States. The Star-Spangled Banner played in capitals around the world and NATO united behind the U.S. where it matters the most, going to war.

This led to the invasion of Afghanistan and the overthrow of the Taliban who had allowed Al Qaeda to operate there. The invasion included the Northern Alliance, the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Italy, New Zealand, and Germany. These other countries were not attacked. This threat if left unchecked could become a serious problem for them, but they went to war because they had made a promise to do so. They kept their word and they did so for twenty years.

The “graveyards of empires” is a quote many have heard about Afghanistan.

They then started to build the Afghan military, intelligence service, and police force. Afghans had seen superpowers come and go throughout history, from Alexander the Great to the British, the Soviet Union, and now the United States. The “graveyards of empires” is a quote many have heard about Afghanistan. Afghans have heard it as well. It was difficult to get them to trust us, but they did.

Would the U.S. and its allies be there for the long haul? America had promised that if we were to leave the country, and Afghans met the standards we laid out, they would have the opportunity to come to the United States. These standards included risking their lives fighting along with U.S. forces, against those who would oppress their people, and for the human rights of all. Would the U.S. honor its promise, though? Thousands took that chance.

Courage and Justice is Honor

Acts of courage alone are not inherently honorable, they must instead take into account two things: the reason for the action, and the intended effect of the outcome. As Marcus Aurelius wrote:

Let it make no difference to you whether you are cold or warm if you are doing your duty. And whether you are drowsy or satisfied with sleep. And whether ill-spoken of or praised. And whether dying or doing something else. For it is one of the acts of life, this act by which we die. It is sufficient then in this act also to do well what we have in hand. 

Meditations, 6.2

To do what is right is what matters, and whether or not you are praised or pummeled is irrelevant.

In any organization with strict ethical and honor codes, a prevailing culture of the men and women serving in that organization will be focused upon protecting and providing refuge or assistance to those in need. As Tamler Sommers, a professor of philosophy at the University of Houston, put it in a recent interview with Ryan Holiday:

Honour cultures tend to attach great value to acts of courage that benefit the group. 

Tamler Sommers

The culture of these organizations to oppose wrongdoing and injustice shows virtue, and it is the duty of that organization’s members to carry out those actions.

Aiding and protecting those in need is certainly an important part of honor cultures, but there is also a secondary practice within those cultures as well; to honor and uphold the agreements formed by those organizations. Sometimes, agreements can be positive and provide added value, or be beneficial to both sides. Other times, agreements can be challenging, one-sided, or even costly. However, the presence of an agreement, pact, or partnership means that those participating parties must act to uphold the terms of that agreement. To do something with integrity, especially in the pursuit of public service and to uphold those agreements made before, is honorable, and must be pursued as best as possible. To break from an agreement would mean to bring dishonor on an organization, and that dishonor can have rippling effects into the future.

The Standard set by Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius led the Roman Empire for 19 years, until his death in 180 CE. Throughout that time, Marcus would face serious challenges in the empire including plague, uprisings, and war but he would do so with honor and integrity. Upon taking the throne, Marcus inherited an empire whose borders surrounded much of Europe, bringing with them the dangers of warring tribes and enemies on several fronts. During his reign, Marcus’ experiences spoke much to the honor and reputation that an organization can gain or lose through its actions.

At many points in the wars between Rome and the tribes of northern Europe, Marcus found himself dealing with tribal leaders with whom Rome had existing agreements. Marcus did not tolerate allies who broke treaties and failed to keep their word. For example, when several Germanic tribes proposed an armistice with Rome, during the First Marcomannic War, Marcus did not trust them, viewing the armistice as a ruse - something that would only have remained in place while it was convenient for the enemy. Marcus was proven right to be skeptical as the tribes kept aiding one another in raids against Roman provinces. When the time came to dole out the rewards from the wars or seek new agreements, you can bet that Marcus had trepidation towards those with poor reputations.

At other points, Marcus would be faced with the difficult position of having to decide whether to push for a peace treaty or pursue Rome’s enemies and continue fighting at the cost of more troops and resources. When fighting a Sarmatian tribe called the Iazyges, Marcus faced this dilemma and needed to decide whether to grant peaceful terms or continue to fight. Ultimately, Marcus chose to continue fighting and by the war’s end, these enemies returned an incredible number of Roman captives back to Rome. If Marcus had just agreed to peace and walked away, over a hundred thousand captured Roman subjects would have been abandoned, left as slaves of the enemy. We can infer from this outcome that Marcus chose to fight on in hopes that he could rescue those Romans, and not leave them behind even though peace would have been much easier.

As emperor of Rome, Marcus also had to face sedition from one of his prized commanders, as a betrayal occurred when Avidius Cassius was declared emperor by his troops in Egypt and sought to take the Roman throne for himself. At that moment Marcus had a choice: crush the rebellion, or choose a more peaceful alternative. Instead of launching into outright war with Cassius, Marcus chose instead to offer a pardon to Cassius and his troops if they would lay down their arms. Cassius’ own officers turned against him and sent Cassius’ head to Marcus as an offer of penance. Marcus would honor his word and not punish the rebels for their actions. As emperor, it would only have taken Marcus one order to commit the entire army of rebels to death but he chose instead to act with restraint and clemency. Many times in history this restraint has been noted by historians and contemporaries as a true sign of Marcus’ character.

Veterans Step up and Step in

The U.S. decision to leave Afghanistan without leaving a residual force was against the advice of the military chain of command. Many veterans disagreed with that decision, but many did agree. Where there was almost unanimous agreement among veterans was the need to keep the promise made by their government to those Afghans who fought alongside U.S. troops. The chaotic withdrawal, the seeming lack of a plan, and the very real possibility that many would be left behind motivated many veterans to take action. They volunteered to do what they could and help those whom the U.S., not honoring its promise, was leaving behind.

These volunteer veterans formed groups with like-minded civilians and they soon were moving Afghan partners around Taliban checkpoints into the airport. Even when the final U.S. presence left, these groups did not stop, they moved to try to get people out by other means. They felt compelled to honor a promise made by their country. To them it wasn’t a political calculation, it was an oath.

The honor of a nation has to actually come from the nation, though, and its representatives. History will record it and our allies will remember it, as will our adversaries.

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, especially its applicability to the military. For other publications please visit here.

Adam Piercey is an Engineering Technologist living in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. He is currently working in the industrial, medical, and space industries, and has previously worked in green energy, and biometric security. Adam has been implementing Stoic practice into his career for over 8 years, has authored articles on Stoic practice, and is also the host of the Modern Stoicism Podcast, the official podcast of Modern Stoicism.

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.

Karen Duffy: Resiliency and a Stoic “Backbone”

Karen Duffy is a NYT bestselling author, television personality, and actress. Her memoir of her personal accounts on coping with chronic pain, Backbone: Living with Chronic Pain Without Turning Into One, is funny and profoundly inspiring. She passes on Stoic lessons from both living with a life-threatening disease and being a mother in her highly-anticipated upcoming release, Wise Up: Irreverent Enlightenment from a Mother Who’s Been Through It.

The qualities that the study of philosophy offers are profound; it creates a framework, a backbone of character. If you drift off course, it is a compass to navigate you back to your path to meaning.

How did you become interested in philosophy? 

I became interested in studying philosophy as a teenager. My brother and I are Irish twins (we were born within 13 months of each other). My brother is a polymath. Jim was always reading philosophy books and passing them on. When I read Meditations, Marcus Aurelius’ words reverberated through me like a cherry bomb in a cymbal factory. His work ignited my passion and my daily devotion to reading the Stoics. I’ve been at it for over 3 decades.

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

When I was in my early 30’s, I was diagnosed with an inoperable brain lesion. I live with chronic pain, a condition called “Complex regional pain syndrome”. My career as an actress, which was really starting to take off, was derailed. It was like I had built an airplane by hand, and just when I was going to take it off on the runway, I had to take it back into the hanger. I became uninsurable as an actor, as I cannot pass a pre-filming physical. I understood that we can’t control what happens, we can only control how we respond, the dichotomy of Control. I am a Recreational Therapist, a grief counselor at the 9/11 family assistance center and am a certified hospice chaplain in the Buddhist tradition. I am a patient advocate and I often share the life of Epictetus with my community. He wrote about living with pain, and his image often includes his crutch. He was beaten so savagely, his leg was broken and he lived in chronic pain. I love the words from Marcus Aurelius, “Look well into yourself, there is a source of strength which will always spring up if you will look”.

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

Philosophy is for everyone. It’s not just eggheads in black turtlenecks smoking Gauloises to the filter arguing over The Discourses. The wisdom of the Stoics reads as if the ink is still wet, yet it was written twenty-four centuries ago. Stoicism is enduring. The art of living in our modern age can be enhanced by reading the classics. The qualities that the study of philosophy offers are profound; it creates a framework, a backbone of character. If you drift off course, it is a compass to navigate you back to your path to meaning. The wisdom you need to follow your own way is readily available. As Epictetus said, it’s all up to you and your way of thinking.

Do you have a favorite quote that you use?

It is endlessly fascinating that our alphabet only has 26 measly letters. Yet when you line them up, you can create a sentence that will set off an explosion in your mind. Epictetus wrote that “Beautiful choices make a beautiful life.” Just 6 words, and it is the quote that illuminated the work of the Stoics.

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

I have a long, interesting career. I was a model/actress, MTV VJ, drugstore perfume pitchwoman and winner of the “Ernest Borgnine Look-a-Like” contest. I’m on People Magazine’s “Worst Dressed List” in the head-to-toe horror category. I am most proud of my work as a writer, mentor and patient advocate. I produce documentaries and coming in 2022, a huge Hollywood movie staring Russell Crow, Zac Ephron and Bill Murray. It is titled The World’s Greatest Beer Run.