Who, Then, Is a Stoic?
Who, then, is a Stoic?… someone who has been fashioned in accordance with the judgements that he professes… someone who is ill and yet happy, in danger and yet happy, dying and yet happy, exiled and yet happy… one who is in the process of formation, one who is tending in that direction… a man who wants to be of one mind with God, and never find fault with God or man again, and to fail in none of his desires, to fall into nothing that he wants to avoid, never to be angry, never to be envious, never to be jealous. (Epictetus, Discourses 2.19.23-26)
In Discourses 2.19, Epictetus addresses “those who take up the teachings of the philosophers for the sake of talk alone.” His protreptic style is on full display here. To students sitting in his classroom, this must have been an uncomfortable lecture. It should be no less so for us moderns who wish to self-identify as Stoics and attempt to follow the Stoic path. Stoicism is popular today, and that popularity has positive benefits because it is reintroducing the long-forgotten concept of virtue ethics to a world much in need of it. Nevertheless, some seek more from Stoicism than popularized versions of Stoicism and social media sites provide. After their first taste of popular Stoicism, some thirst for more. However, those first steps into the deeper waters of Stoicism can be discouraging because of the impossibly high moral standards of the ancient Stoics. Certainly, our lack of virtue contrasted with the Stoic ideal should be humbling, if not humiliating. Nevertheless, we must not allow our distance from the goal to deter us from the Stoic path.
The immediate task of Stoic practice is constant attention to the path we are on. If we pay constant attention to our judgments about things and events in nature, vigilantly uncover and uproot our desires and aversions, and take care that our actions are appropriate, then we will make progress toward the goal of moral excellence. Nevertheless, this requires training and practice. As Epictetus points out in this Discourse, intellectual knowledge alone is insufficient to accomplish the task. We must walk the talk of Stoicism to make progress. After pointing out the limitations of philosophical discourse alone, Epictetus asks his students:
Why do you pride yourself on qualities that you don’t possess? Why do you call yourself a Stoic? (Discourses 2.29.19)
Then, Epictetus points out a truth to his students that applies equally to us moderns:
Observe in this way how you conduct yourselves in all that you do, and you’ll find out what philosophical school you belong to. For the most part you’ll discover that you’re Epicureans, or a few of you that you’re Peripatetics, and pretty feeble ones at that. (Discourses 2.19.20)
Yes, the truth is that most moderns, like their ancient counterparts, are Epicureans or Aristotelians; moderns are accustomed to desiring externals to make them happy. This passage does not serve as a criticism of Epicureans or Aristotelians, per se; it is, however, a criticism of those who live as Epicureans or Aristotelians while calling themselves Stoics. It should also provide a cause for reflection on the part of moderns who wish to bend, distort, mix-and-match, or abandon the traditional Stoic doctrines to support their preexisting worldview and the bias against anything divine it entails, while simultaneously self-identifying as Stoics. Certainly, this lecture must have been as uncomfortable for Epictetus’s students as it is for moderns. There are fundamental differences between Stoicism and other philosophies that Epictetus could use to reproach his students for claiming to be Stoics while living as Epicureans and Peripatetics.
In 2.19.21-22, Epictetus makes it clear he is looking for the transformative effects of philosophical training as an indication his students are living as Stoics. He is not interested in their ability to “recite all the arguments of the Stoics.” How, he asks, are they demonstrating they consider virtue to be the only good? It is easy to declare one believes virtue is the only good. Epictetus wants to see evidence of that belief in their lives. At this point in the lecture, Epictetus gets specific by asking and then answering the direct question “Who, then, is a Stoic?” (2.19.23).
Who, Then, Is a Stoic?
In the opening of his answer to this question, Epictetus refers to the fifth-century sculptor Phidias, who designed the statue of Athena for the Parthenon, and that of Zeus for Olympia. This example highlights the Stoic ideal that self-examination and moral development are our individual responsibility. We are each the designers and sculptors of the moral character, which determines the quality of our individual lives. We fashion our moral character from the raw material of our unique instantiation of human nature—the personal characteristics fate hands us—using the events life presents to us. Stoicism teaches us that we are the sculptor of our soul (psyche) and are thereby the co-creators of our fate.
Epictetus then provides a list of characteristics he is looking for to determine “who, then, is a Stoic.” Interestingly, the items on the list correspond nicely with the three topics of Stoic theory (logic, physics, and ethics) and their associated disciplines of assent, desire, and action.
The first characteristic of a Stoic offered by Epictetus relates to the Stoic theory of knowledge and our assent (agreement) to the way things happen in nature. The practice of Stoicism relies on an accurate conception of the way things are in nature. If our judgments are erroneous, we cannot live excellent lives. Epictetus describes this as:
Someone who has been fashioned in accordance with the judgements that he professes. (2.19.23)
This characteristic implies both an accurate model of reality and a life lived in agreement with that model. As Epictetus points out, the truth about which philosophical doctrines we assent to is revealed by the way we live. Our lives reveal our shortcomings and hypocrisy.
The Stoic theory of knowledge (epistemology), which is part of logic in Stoic training and practice, rests on the assumption that our senses provide us with accurate information about the world in which we live. Therefore, the Stoic theory of knowledge acquisition can be characterized as “commonsense realism” or “naïve realism” according to Håvard Løkke, Norwegian professor of philosophy and expert in Stoic epistemology. That means the Stoics believe we can trust our senses to understand the world to the extent necessary to live morally within it. As Løkke summarizes:
The gist of this [Stoic epistemology] is the contention that we can come to know all that we need to know in order to live good lives because we can rely on the way things normally appear to us.
This assumption cannot be proven, of course, and the ancient Sceptics disagreed with it. They argued we cannot know anything with any degree of certainty. Nevertheless, the Stoics placed great emphasis on our assents to sense impressions about the nature of reality; they considered these critically important to our moral progress.
The second characteristic of a Stoic offered by Epictetus relates to the Stoic model of reality (physics). The unique model of reality assented to by the Stoics—that of a cosmos that is divine and providential—enables the Stoic to be happy regardless of external circumstances. Therefore, Epictetus is looking for,
Someone who is ill and yet happy, in danger and yet happy, dying and yet happy, exiled and yet happy. (2.19.24)
This aspect of Stoic practice, derived from the axiom that “virtue is the only good,” is counterintuitive without the Stoic model of the cosmos. To seek “virtue as the only good” and believe that happiness is detached from all externals like health, money, reputation, etc., requires an entirely different understanding of what is “good” and “bad.” As classics scholar and recognized expert on Stoicism A.A. Long argues,
To live virtuously and to be happy as a Stoic, you need an understanding of nature which presupposes the truths of Stoic theology and physics.
Therefore, Long argues it is “a serious mistake” to “tone down the cosmic dimension” of Stoicism as some modern scholars have attempted to do. He further argues that any version of Stoic ethics that ignores divine providence “will be broken-backed.” That is why Stoicism does include such a conception of the cosmos as divine and providential. This model of reality empowers Stoic ethical principles to effect change in the lives of Stoicism’s practitioners and makes its otherwise counterintuitive claims intelligible. As William Hyde, American college president and Congregational minister, wrote nearly a century before the rise of “modern” Stoicism:
Modern apostles of the essential Stoic principle incline to paint the world in the roseate hues of a merely optional optimism. They want to be well, and happy, and serene, and self-satisfied; they think they are; and thinking makes them so. If Stoicism had been as superficial as that, as capricious, and temperamental, and individualistic, it would not have lasted as it has for more than two thousand years.
Those are lofty ideals. Nevertheless, Epictetus assumes that the task of becoming the Stoic he describes in this passage is possible. This passage might be incredibly discouraging for anyone attempting to practice Stoicism if not for one key phrase offered by Epictetus in the midst of that list of ideals:
Show me, at least, one who is in the process of formation, one who is tending in that direction (2.19.25).
Epictetus emphasizes the path rather than the goal in this passage. His point is that one does not have to be a sage to claim the title Stoic; one simply needs to be traveling the Stoic path. This consolation is repeated by Epictetus in Discourses 4.12.19, where he asserts, “So is it possible to be altogether faultless? No, that is impracticable…” The goal of the Stoic prokoptōn is continual progress. The Stoic sage is the ideal that orients the prokoptōn toward virtue as he practices the disciplines of assent, desire, and action. A.A. Long points out the following about Epictetus’ teaching:
His pedagogical stance shows that what really counts in his interpretation of the Stoic art of life is not achievement but the minute-by-minute aspiration to shape oneself, irrespective of one’s natural gifts (1.2.35), into an excellent person (kalos kai agathos).
In the final passage of this diatribe, Epictetus asks, “Who, then, is a Stoic?” His answer draws on the Dichotomy of Control found in Discourses 1.1 and Enchiridion 1, and the relationship between human nature and divine Nature found throughout the Stoic texts.
It is a human soul that one of you should show me, the soul of a man who wants to be of one mind with God, and never find fault with God or man again, and to fail in none of his desires, to fall into nothing that he wants to avoid, never to be angry, never to be envious, never to be jealous (2.19.26).
The Stoic characteristic Epictetus mentions in this passage—a man who wants to be of one mind with God—may appear curious, odd, or even objectionable to some moderns. It may appear curious or odd to those unfamiliar with this aspect of the Socratic tradition. Additionally, some moderns may reflexively object to the concept of God. I will not address the latter since that is a bias each person must deal with on their own. The apparent oddity of this language can be overcome with some knowledge about the concept of divine mind in Greek philosophy, which can be traced back to Hesiod’s Theogony.
For our purposes, Plato and Aristotle demonstrate the existence of the concept of divine mind in Greek thought just before the Stoics. For both, their conception of divine mind is inexorably linked to the most important question in the Socratic tradition: how should we live? In fact, the differences between the ethical thought of Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics might “plausibly be viewed as disagreements over the nature and activities of the divine mind.” The metaphysical differences between Aristotle’s prime mover, Plato’s Demiurge, and the Stoic’s logos inevitably lead to differences in their ethical theories. That difference is even more pronounced for the Epicureans, who saw no need for a divine mind. These examples highlight the Stoic argument for the necessary connection between a model of reality (physics) and a model for reality (ethics). Before we can answer the question, “How should we live in this world?” we must create a model of the world that reflects reality.
The Stoic model of reality includes a divine and providential cosmos, which entails the conception of divine mind. The Stoics refer to this divine mind as universal Reason or logos. This Stoic divinity is not transcendent; instead, it is immanent. Divine mind, in the form of pneuma (the active principle), permeates the entire cosmos. For the Stoics, pneuma is the divine force that creates order in the cosmos. It is present in all entities; however, particular configurations of pneuma create the hierarchy of existence we see in nature from inanimate objects, to biological organisms, to sentient beings, to rational humans. That configuration in humans is called the rational faculty or hegemonikon, and it is considered a fragment of the divine. This rational faculty allows us to be spectators of the works of God—to observe and interpret them (Discourses 1.6.19). Likewise, it is this fragment of the divine that provides us humans with the unique ability to judge impressions accurately and modify itself (self-examination) to achieve moral excellence (Discourses 1.1.1-9).
Although the Stoics used the metaphors of Zeus and other mythological gods, they did not believe in anthropomorphic gods. The Stoic conception of the divine is quite different from those proposed by Abrahamic religions, and those willing to consider it with an open mind may not find the philosophical God of Stoicism as objectionable as they might expect. As A.A. Long points out, “Epictetus generally speaks as though God were purely mind.” Therefore, the Stoics thought the entire cosmos was a conscious being of which we are a part. Our human reason is the creation of universal Reason, and our interdependent nature provides us humans with the ability to understand and live morally excellent lives in harmony with the cosmos. As Håvard Løkke notes,
The early Stoics are often regarded as followers of Socrates, and rightly so… I think it is fair to say that Stoicism relies on two basic assumptions, both of which owe something to Socrates, as the Stoics saw him. The assumptions I have in mind are (1) that human beings are at home in the world and (2) that it is only by using our rational abilities that we can successfully orient ourselves in this world.
Løkke argues the connection between human reason and universal Reason (divine mind) is essential to Stoic epistemological theory and human understanding. He writes,
The oikeiosis terminology serves mainly as a reminder of the fact that the Stoic world is not a hostile environment where evil powers are at work, or a lonely place where things happen by chance. It is instead a well-organized home for human beings that is providentially governed by a divine reason. The importance of this reminder can hardly be over-emphasized, mind you, for as a matter of fact we cannot fully understand early Stoic epistemology unless we realize that, according to the Stoic, the world is governed by a divine providence whose rationality we internalize.
Epictetus uses the word daimon (divine spirit) to identify the fragment of divine mind which resides in each of us. This connection between the divine and the human mind “gives human beings a special status in the universe,” because it highlights our “kinship” with the divine and our relationship to other people who are likewise “divine spirits.”
One Who Wants to Be of One Mind with God
Now we can turn back to our original question: What does Epictetus mean when he suggests a defining characteristic of a Stoic is the desire to be “of one mind with God?” In essence, this is a theological expression of Zeno’s “life in agreement with nature.” Chrysippus articulated this as “life in accordance with nature, or, in other words, in accordance with our own human nature as well as that of the universe” (DL 7.87). French philosopher Pierre Hadot argues,
What defined a Stoic above all else was the choice of a life in which every thought, every desire, and every action would be guided by no other law than that of universal Reason.
For the Stoics, human rationality was not an accidental product of serendipitous collisions of atoms, as the Epicureans believed. For the Stoics, human rationality is a fragment of its source, which is divine mind or logos. The origin of human rationality is critical to the Stoic conception of Nature and the prescription for an excellent life. As Hadot points out,
All the dogmas of Stoicism derive from this existential choice. It is impossible that the universe could produce human rationality, unless the latter were already in some way present within the former.
Here lies the fundamental distinction between Stoicism and Epicureanism and the justification for the necessary connection between cosmic Nature (a divine and providential cosmos) and human nature in Stoic theory and practice. The assumed preexistence of rationality within the cosmos, combined with the assumption that the cosmos is providential, empowers Stoic practice. These assumptions are the basis for grateful agreement with the way things happen in Nature. They differentiate mere submission to necessity from the Stoic attitude of gratitude so evident in the Stoic texts. This attitude is exemplified by Marcus Aurelius,
Everything suits me that suits your designs, O my universe. Nothing is too early or too late for me that is in your own good time. (Meditations 4.23)
And by Seneca,
In everything that seems hostile and hard I have trained myself to be like this: I don’t obey God, I agree with him. I follow him by my own choice, not because I must. (Letters 96.2)
Willing agreement with events as they happen in Nature, combined with an attitude of gratitude toward those events, is the essence of the Stoic path toward virtue and happiness. Epictetus offers this combination in his prescription for psychological resilience, found in Discourses 1.6.1-2. This prescription empowers the Stoic to live an excellent life, fulfilling their duty to their families, societies, and the cosmos as a whole, in spite of life’s vicissitudes. The opposite model—that of a random universe in which the gods either do not exist or have no concern for humans—leads to the entirely different ethical theory and practice of the Epicureans who seek pleasure disconnected from familial and social duties.
Epictetus makes it clear in Discourses 2.19, one characteristic of a Stoic is this: he wants to be of one mind with God. According to Epictetus, this characteristic leads toward the psychological state where the practitioner will never “find fault with God or man again.” Likewise, the Stoic will “fail in none of his desires” nor “fall into nothing that he wants to avoid.” Ultimately, this will lead toward the relinquishment of anger, envy, and jealousy (2.19.26). Therefore, if you find you are hindered by unfulfilled desires, haunted by fears, angry at God and humankind, envious, and jealous, it is reasonable to assume you are not currently on the Stoic path. Maybe you stumbled off the path. Maybe someone pointed you toward a path that is substantially different from what Epictetus and the other Stoics described. Or, maybe this is the first time you have heard of the Stoic path toward moral excellence and psychological well-being. Regardless of where you are now, the Stoic path is available to you. It is not an easy path; it requires great effort. Nevertheless, for many past and present, the payoff makes the effort worthwhile.
Stoicism has one goal—the perfection of our moral character. That goal is the ideal toward which the Stoic path leads. We all fall short of that ideal; nevertheless, we must not be discouraged. As Stoic practitioners, we need to glance up at that ideal of conformity with the mind of God occasionally to ensure we are headed in the right direction. However, like a mountain climber during an ascent toward the summit, we must keep in mind that too much focus on the goal, rather than on the path under our feet, can be discouraging and dangerous. Like the climber, we must pay vigilant attention to the path that leads toward the summit. Thereby, one step at a time, we make progress along the Stoic path of the prokoptōn, toward agreement with Nature and the resulting psychological well-being. Remember,
Even if you’re not yet a Socrates, you ought to live like someone who does in fact wish to be a Socrates. (Enchiridion 51.3)
 Håvard Løkke, Knowledge and Virtue in Early Stoicism (New York: Springer, 2015), ix–x.
 John M Cooper, “Eudaimonism, the Appeal to Nature, and ‘Moral Duty’ in Stoicism,” in Aristotle, Kant, and the Stoics: Rethinking Happiness and Duty (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 271.
 A. A Long, Stoic Studies (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1996), 188.
 A. A Long, Epictetus: A Stoic and Socratic Guide to Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 23.
 Long, Stoic Studies, 201.
 William DeWitt Hyde, The Five Great Philosophies of Life (New York: Macmillan, 1904), 68.
 Long, Epictetus, 125.
 Allan Silverman, “Contemplating Divine Mind,” in Ancient Models of Mind: Studies in Human and Divine Rationality (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 75.
 Long, Epictetus, 310.
 Løkke, Knowledge and Virtue in Early Stoicism, 2.
 A. A. Long, Greek Models of Mind and Self (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015), 182.
 Pierre Hadot, The Inner Citadel: the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), 308.
 Ibid., 308–9.