Stoicism and the Afterlife: You Only Live Once!

Life is like a play: it matters not how long the show goes on but by how well it is acted. It makes no difference where you stop. Stop wherever you please; just make the ending a good one.

—Seneca, Letters to Lucilius, 77.20.

The ancient Stoics rejected a permanent afterlife, and were agnostic about even any kind of temporary afterlife. The afterlife did not play any role at all in their value system or the argument they made for their ethics.

In fact, the opposite is true: it is specifically because we will all die and we don’t know what happens after death that the Stoic life is so urgently needed.

Do not act as if you had ten thousand years to live. The inescapable is hanging over your head. While you have life in you, while you still can, make yourself good.

—Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.17.

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The Best Argument Against (and for) Stoicism

Stoicism is a pretty big tradition, and one can’t fully defend it (or debunk it) without addressing a rather long list of questions and counter-objections (I gave the beginnings of such a list in this post).

But if I had to choose just two arguments, one for and one against, I’d go with these two:

  1. Socrates’ argument that virtue is the highest good, and
  2. Crantor’s (and Martha Nussbaum’s) argument against the Stoic view of emotions.

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Why I Became a Modern Stoic


I came to Stoicism as an atheist and former Christian looking for a well-developed ethical system that could give me a way to “do work on myself” on a regular basis—or “spiritual exercise” (to use Pierre Hadot’s lovely term).

Do not act as if you had ten thousand years to live. The inescapable is hanging over your head. While you still can, while you have life in you, make yourself good.

—Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.17.

I like the idea that personal growth can be a training process (askesis in Greek—the root of ascetic”), just as intentional and intense as athletic training. So I’m attracted to the idea of building self-discipline, studying practical inspirational texts, and trying to develop moral character through the steady accumulation of good habits.

(The Stoics often compared ethics to training for an olympic competition.)

Just like with physical exercise, though, it can be hard to develop focused goals, stay motivated, and make actual progress unless you have a personal trainer or follow a well-defined training program.

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What is Stoic Logic?

And this is what the Stoics are like in logical matters, so they can maintain that the wise man is always a dialectician. For everything is seen through consideration of it in arguments: both what belongs to the topic of physics and again what belongs to ethics.

—From Diogenes Laertius, our major surviving source for Stoic logic.

Logic” for the ancients included anything that was remotely connected to rational thought. It was the huge, messy toolbox that allowed us to make progress in the the other two branches of philosophy—“physics” and “ethics.”

The Stoics famously compared logic to the wall that surrounds a field (ethics was the fruit, and physics was the land), or to the shell of an egg (with physics and ethics inside).

(Diagram by Massimo Pigliucci)

In its broad sense, then, ancient “logic” included all of what we now call rhetoric, grammar, semantics, logic proper, and epistemology. So Stoic logic involved quite a bit, some of which was extremely influential on later thinkers: Continue reading “What is Stoic Logic?”