I've been studying stoic philosophy lately and I have incorporated more of the calmness and de-stressing elements of it into my daily life.

However, I have noticed that I also do not seem to try hard to do certain things or at least, I don't put in that hurried energy to get things done like I used to.

This culminated in me missing a very important opportunity, due to me being late. The reason I was late was out of my control, but I didn't try to hurry or get stressed either when I noticed that it was getting late. I feel that had I been stressed and hurried more, I would have made it to my opportunity.

While I do not regret missed opportunities as I would have, this event did question something in this philosophy. How can I consolidate the two conflicting approaches to life?

  • Generally, what we have available to us today are "lifestyles" and "attitudes". E.g. The Christian lifestyle, or attitude, stoic attitude, etc. The "true believer" is disruptive of commerce.
    – Gordon
    Commented Nov 20, 2017 at 13:53
  • Under present-day analysis it would go something like this: why did x choose the Stoic way? Aha! She must suffer from anxiety, let us treat the anxiety and make her "functional".
    – Gordon
    Commented Nov 20, 2017 at 14:09
  • You may have hit on the reason why the Chinese government became so friendly to the Christian religion when setting out to become a commercial superpower. The NT's lilies of the fields have given way to a demanding work-ethic. It seems to me you were complacent and I don't think Stoicism recommends this. Or maybe it reveals that you weren't sure it really was an opportunity. These things cannot really be unpicked except by the person involved.
    – user20253
    Commented Nov 20, 2017 at 18:12

3 Answers 3


I think you fell for a common misunderstanding about what it means to "let go of things out of your control". To be more specific, you accepted things to be out of your control when they were really not and you accepted failure for the sake of not caring.

Let's look at your situation and fit it onto a stoic viewpoint.

You spoke of "being late" so I will just assume you were invited for a job interview. It won't matter.

When you got invited it is completely in your control to get there in time. You know it days/weeks I'm advance, so usually there is plenty of time to prepare.

A stoic would definitely call this "in your control". So do something! Take a bus earlier, get up earlier, walk faster, ... .

Being stoic does not mean to not care for the sake of not caring. That's apathy.

When you chose to not do any of these things and accepted to either arrive late, or at least have a chance of arriving late, you gave it out of your hands. And there is actually no problem with this. At least if you accept the possibility of your failure and recognize your part in it.

If you could have walked faster you should have done it, if you wanted to arrive on time. When you made the decision to not do so, you should have said to yourself "It is under my control to arrive on time. I choose not to, because I do not feel like walking faster. I accept the trade of a successful interview against the pleasure of walking slowly.".

A little example I really like:

Let's say you messed up a test in school and now you are going to get a bad mark. There is another test ahead.

An apathetic person does not care about the marks at all. Bad, good, it doesn't matter. This person is not going to do anything again.

A stoic person would recognize the part they had in the bad mark. Did they not study enough? Did they not understand it? Did they have a bad day? Were they overloaded with other work? And so on. Just as the apathetic person, the stoic person will not care about the bad mark in the previous test. However the stoic person does not care about it because there is nothing they can change about it now - the mark will count. If you were unhappy with the mark in the last test, try to fulfil the things in your control for the next one and you will get a better mark.

A stoic could say: "I do not care about the mark I will get in the next test.". A lot of people say this, but for the stoic this also includes "I accept the bad consequences that come from it."

Non-stoics do not accept this trade and will be bothered by the mistakes they have made in these trades.

Like you: You made a deal to trade the job interview against slow walking. You gladly accepted your end of the bargain but you seem to regret not getting the interview in the long run.

You were not ready to accept the deal after all. And now you are unhappy or at least bothered by it.

What if it actually was out of your control?

Let's say you took a train 3 hours early, just to arrive on time. The train breaks down and you are stuck for 4 hours. Being bound to normal societal norms you won't have much of an option as to wait it out. Many people will react with anger and frustration. Understandable, but not for the stoic. What good is screaming, being angry and frustrated? It won't serve you well. It will make you unhappy and that's what stoics wanted to prevent. So accept the situation for what it is: unchangeable, out of your control. You won't arrive on time for you interview, but you did everything that could reasonably be expected from you, so there is no point in being angry at yourself.

Stoicism is not about "not caring", it is about accepting the inevitable.

The final point I want to mention is that you do not start off being calm and then go to accepting. You accept the inevitable, and what you could have done, and as a result of that you are supposed to realize that there is no reason to be distressed. You will be calm.


I have noticed that I also do not seem to try hard to do certain things or at least, I don't put in that hurried energy to get things done like I used to.

tl;dr: If that's how you experience Stoicism, then you are almost certainly "doing it wrong," as they say. My argument is in three parts:

  1. Stoicism actually calls you to an intensely active and productive life: that's what differentiates them from Cynics and Epicureans.

  2. The Stoic theory of healthy emotions can help you reclaim some of the motivation you're lacking.

  3. If you do have to give up some useful motivational emotions to become a Stoic, then it is because those emotions are morally problematic to begin with.

Your concern is a common one, and a lot of newcomers to Stoicism report the same issue: they worry that their normal human motivational system is somehow being weakened or damaged by Stoic practice.

People often encounter this problem when they focus exclusively on the "calm and de-stressing" elements of the philosophy, as you put it, but miss the Stoic call to value honorable behavior and to tirelessly pursue moral excellence at all costs.

But on the other hand, more advanced Stoic practitioners sometimes report the opposite problem: ancient Stoicism's call to benefit others, to be politically engaged, to be a hard worker and an excellent provider for your family, etc., seems to demand so much focus, so much pro-social action, and so much diligent effort on their part that they fear it leads them to an unhealthy and unreasonable amount of "hurried energy to get things done."

People encounter this problem when they (rightfully) interpret Stoicism as a radical system of virtue ethics, but leave its therapeutic elements underdeveloped and fail to recognize that self-care is also part of virtue ethics.

1. The Discipline of Action

Stoicism is a Middle Way

You phrased the question excellently:

How can I consolidate the two conflicting approaches to life?

That is a question the ancient Stoics asked themselves too, almost word-for-word, in fact (emphasis mine):

It is difficult, to be sure, to unite and combine these two states of mind, the vigilance of one who feels attracted by outside objects, and the composure of one who feels indifferent to them; but all the same it is not impossible. —Epictetus, Discourses, 2.5.9.

The truth is that Stoicism was never supposed to be a purely detached way of life. Zeno introduced Stoic ethics explicitly as a middle way between the detached extreme of the Cynics (who withdrew from society) and the worldly extreme of the Cyrenaics (who sought to maximize pleasurable indulgences).

Virtue Leads to Action

It is not in feeling but in action that the good of a rational, social creature lies.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 9.16.

Because they place virtue at the core of their theory of human worth, the Stoic view of human happiness is an extremely active one. Listen to how Seneca puts it in his book On Leisure (1.4):

Surely your Stoics say: ‘We shall remain in active service right up to the very end of life, without ceasing to apply ourselves to the common good, to help the individual, and to give assistance with an aged hand even to our enemies. We Stoics are the ones who grant no exemptions from service at any age, and as that most eloquent of poets puts it [Virgil],

“We clamp down the war-helmet on our gray hair.”

We are the ones who hold so strongly that there is no inactive moment before death that, if circumstance allows, death itself is not inactive.”

The Stoic call to action and kindness is famously illustrated by the Circles of Hierocles. We are taught to imagine ourselves at the center of a sphere of humanity, pulling everyone closer and closer to us, until we care about their needs the same as our own:

The 'Circle of Hierocles'

The Outcome is Neither Good nor Bad, but the Attempt is!

It's true, though, that in Stoic theory, it is said that external things are "neither good nor bad." We are taught to value what is within our control, and not to view things like professional success, wealth, or fame as being important to our capital-H Happiness.

But the attempt to pursue certain outcomes in absolutely within our control! The Stoics said that external things have a kind of "selective value" (depending on the situation), and that we cannot be virtuous if we do not exert ourselves in pursue of valuable outcomes (namely outcomes that benefit humanity).

They were quite serious about this point! In Cicero's De Finibus, we learn that the Stoics thought that people who treated external things as wholly indifferent and rejected even their selective value (namely the Cynics and Aristo of Chios) had destroyed the foundation of virtue. Action matters!

Cicero also gives us the famous metaphor of the Stoic Archer: the Archer's goal, he says, is to perform her art well. She shoots at many external targets (which have selective value), but her ultimate goal is simply to do her best. Other Stoics texts make similar analogies to Olympic athletes, pilots of ships, musical performers, and ball players.


The goal of Stoic life, then—the only thing that truly has real value—is to live a virtuous life. That life may require shooting for any number of specific goals. In particular, we should strive to excel in our roles as a parent, friend, employee, specialist, leader, etc. Doing so is very important for Happiness, love of hard work is a virtue (specifically, a kind of courage), and one of our highest callings in life is to benefit others, including in material ways.

These two things together—the indifference of external things, and the importance of working hard to make a positive social contribution—are a potent mix.

  1. Use indifference and mindfulness to cope with upsets and stressors, unjust behavior on the part of others, and your own tendency to procrastinate and be lazy or careless. Stoic therapy can help make your situation more palatable, despite the challenges Fortune throws your way.
  2. Use a love of virtue to push yourself away from lazy inaction, and instead cultivate healthy emotions that motivate you to kindness, activity, good habits, affection for others, generosity, and overall excellence in your work and craft as you pull the circles of the human cosmopolis closer into your sphere of concern.

The combination of these two elements are what allow modern Stoics to not just avoid being inactive and ineffective, but to really roll up their sleeves and get into the messy details of changing the world. See for example this modern Stoic blog post, with the perhaps counter-intuitive title "Why Stoicism is Great for Activism."

2. Emotional Motivation

I feel that had I been stressed and hurried more, I would have made it to my opportunity.

You've hit the nail on the head! What psychologists call approach-oriented and avoidance-oriented emotions are a fundamental part of our motivational machinery. Getting rid of them entirely seems like a pretty bad idea!

As we've seen, the Stoics do think that our actions are within our power, and that virtuous action is important. Rationally, then, having Stoic beliefs shouldn't lead you to be less active (quite the opposite).

But what about emotionally? Emotions help us remember things, they help us focus on what's important, and they give us that extra "tension" (as the Stoics called it) or "push" that helps us perform well.

The Stoics agreed! While they are famous for rejecting quote-unquote "emotions," in reality they divided emotions into three categories, and they only rejected one of them.

  1. Passions: cognitive emotions that involve judging something outside your control to be "good" (or "bad"), in the sense that they are what make your life (not) worth living. Passions are categorized as desire, delight, fear, and distress.

  2. Proto-Passions: subconscious emotional reactions and reflexes, that arise directly from your impression of a situation. These include reactions to physical pain, and spontaneously crying at the death of a loved one.

  3. Healthy Passions: cognitive emotions that involve judging something within your control to be "good" (or "bad"). These are categorized as wishing, joy, or caution, and include things like gratitude, affection for people, and a desire to help them.

Scholars have noted that healthy passions may be phenomenologically very similar to the other passions. The key difference is their cognitive content. They are often still approach-oriented or avoidance-oriented, in modern terms, so they still have a lot of motivational power!

As you can guess, the Stoics rejected the passions (1), but they viewed the proto-passions (2) as normal and healthy, and the healthy passions (3) as desirable and essential to the virtuous life. Our main source for these details of the Stoic emotional theory is again Cicero, in his Tusculan Disputations.

So yes, you do indeed need to exercise emotional caution in order to make your appointments! But a Stoic would say that this needn't arise from being "stressed," as much as from cultivating a passionate "wish" for virtue:

If you convince yourself of this, and fall deeply in love with virtue—for merely loving it is not enough!—then whatever virtue touches will be marvelously fortunate in your eyes, no matter how it appears to others.

—Seneca, Letters to Lucilius, 71.5

3. Passions are Morally Problematic

All this said, the Stoics do suggest that you may sometimes have to give up a competitive advantage in order to follow their way of life.

In Seneca's famous essay On Anger, for instance, he cedes that anger may indeed sometimes be "useful." But not only is it a dangerous ally (anger, he emphasizes, is extremely difficult to control), but anger is fundamentally immoral: in Greek philosophy, anger is defined as a desire to get revenge for a perceived wrong.

The Stoics didn't believe in vengeance. They believed that our response to conflict should be forward-looking: we can act to protect people, or to try and rehabilitate a criminal, but (following Socrates) we should always view even the worst of human beings as being infected by ignorance, the way a patient is infected by a disease.

The passion of anger (as opposed to its related proto-passions or healthy passions), for the Stoics, is fundamentally vicious. Since the whole point of their philosophy is that we should never, ever, trade virtue for vice, they are more than happy to sacrifice whatever utility anger offers in order to maintain their progress toward good moral character.

The same argument applies to every other emotion that the Stoics condemn. Passions are to be avoided, not just because they are unpleasant, but because by definition they involve a judgement that some external thing is valuable in the same way that virtue is valuable.

And that, for the Stoics, is a dangerous idea: once we admit that moral character may not be the highest good—that there might be something of equal value to it—then we open a slippery slope toward rationalizing away our duties and commitments.


Alexander, I believe, took Aristotle's dictum too far. Aristotle taught that if one fights nature, one will in the end become something else. Come to a new nature. Naturally there are limits to exercise, and to pushing oneself. If one, as Alexander did, takes the passionate road and produces a strong body, eventually one wants to exercise. The transformed body demands it, though before it was somewhat unpleasant. And likewise if one always sets oneself daring goals, one may succeeded in exposing oneself beneficially to a mode of life that is enviable. At the same time, what Alexander did not take into account, driving himself to a death at young age, with fever in a distant land, is that one might judge, from a detached perspective, the point where one races too hard, and so produces lopsided progress, which in fact was a road to necessary annihilation. So, I would say, by bringing balance, Stoical remove can temper infinite aspirations.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .