‘Stoicism and the Environment’ by Chris Gill

Stoicism and the Environment

by Christopher Gill
(Emeritus Professor of Ancient Thought, University of Exeter)

Sourced here.

Sourced here.


Can Stoic ethical ideas help us respond more effectively to the current environmental crisis, especially global warming, which seems to be largely a product of human action? This suggestion might seem implausible at first sight. The ancient Stoics had no experience of a crisis of this kind; so we cannot refer to their own discussions in the way we can on other topics. However, there are several Stoic ideas we can draw on to inform and deepen our own response to this crisis. My focus is on the ethical framework we should use for this purpose, rather than on the specific practical measures we can take, and on our response as individuals, rather than on government action. But I assume that the ethical framework we apply can help us to determine the specific measures we should take and that our response as individuals underlies what we urge governments to do on our behalf.

Of special value for this purpose is the Stoic ideal of the brotherhood of humankind, and the Stoic beliefs that human beings form an integral part of nature as a whole and that human ethical life should consist in part in bringing our life into harmony with nature. However, to show how these ideas can be useful for this purpose, we need to put them in their context in Stoic ethics. Also, there are some more general features of Stoic ethics that are potentially valuable in this connection.

Thinking about environmentalism in terms of virtue and happiness

The Stoic ethical framework, as in most other ancient philosophical theories, and some modern ones, is couched in terms of virtue and happiness (or ‘flourishing’, eudaimonia); it also gives a central place to development, conceived as a life-long process. The contemporary moral dilemmas generated by the environmental crisis are often formulated in terms of the question where our duty lies or whom (or what) we should benefit above all. Does our duty lie above all in doing what is best for our present way of life (our comfort and convenience and that of our families and businesses, as these currently function)? Or should our overriding duty be to the environment, or the planet, or future generations – actually not much in the future now that the signs of global warming are already obvious? Alternatively, should we benefit ourselves, our families and our businesses by continuing to act in our habitual way or should we modify our lifestyles in ways that will benefit humanity more generally, as well as other animals (now and in the future), by helping to reduce damage to the environment we all share?

However, an alternative (and perhaps compatible) way of framing the dilemma is in terms of virtue and happiness. Arguably, we should see the exercise of the virtues (analysed by the Stoics as subdivisions of wisdom, courage, self-control and justice) as including actions designed to minimise damage to the environment. This involves some extension to the normal way we think about the virtues, since we tend to think about them in terms of our relationship to other human beings. However, the environment crisis has a direct effect on other human beings and on ourselves: global warming carries the threat of massive disruption to existing modes of human life and resources and, in the longer term, to the maintenance of human life at all on earth. So this is a natural extension to the way we should think about what virtuous action involves.

What is the advantage of reflecting on this question in terms of virtue and happiness? One powerful reason for doing is that it can help to promote the motivation to act in an environmentally responsible way and to do so consistently. According to a number of ancient and modern ethical approaches, our happiness or flourishing, as moral agents or human beings, depends on developing and exercising the virtues. Stoicism holds this view in the strongest possible form, maintaining that happiness, or the best human life, consists in developing and exercising the virtues. Things other than virtue, such as health, property and a stable family life, while naturally pursued by human beings, are not integral to our happiness in the same way. So, if we accept that virtuous action includes acting in an environmentally responsible way, we will come to see such action as contributing to our happiness and the best human life. We will not see our situation as one in which we are forced to choose between acting in a way that promotes our own happiness and acting in a way that minimises harm to the environment or which benefits future generations of human beings. This is one advantage of adopting a virtue-ethics approach to this question, and especially of adopting in this context the Stoic view of the relationship between virtue and happiness.

The relevance of the Stoic theory of development to this topic

Stoic thinking on virtue and happiness is closely linked with a well worked-out theory of development (understood as ‘appropriation’ or ‘familiarisation’, oikeiōsis). The Stoics set the bar for virtue, and thus happiness, very high, while still maintaining that all human beings are fundamentally capable of carrying out the developmental process that leads to virtue and happiness. Hence, in Stoic theory, ethical development is seen not just as a phase of human life (a normal part of growing up) but as a potentially life-long process. Put differently, ethical life (or just life, properly lived) is an on-going project of aspiration towards virtue and happiness.

How is the Stoic view of ethical development relevant to the question how we should respond to the environmental crisis? There are several relevant features. One is that, if we accept Stoic ideas about human psychology (though these have often been challenged in ancient and modern times), ethical development carries with it a progressive transformation of emotions and desires. By contrast with Platonic and Aristotelian thinking (and with comparable strands in modern thought), human psychology is seen as functioning in a unified or holistic way, so that changes in belief affect emotions and desires directly without the need for a distinct process of habituation of non-rational parts. On this view, changing our beliefs about what constitutes virtue and happiness brings with it a unified motivational response that shapes our actions directly. Hence, coming to believe that virtuous action (and the happy life) involves acting in an environmentally responsible way carries with it motivational change, which feeds directly into the actions we take.

A second relevant feature of Stoic thinking about development is this. Stoic theory presents the movement towards achieving virtue and happiness as highly demanding (one we are unlikely ever to complete), while stressing that all human beings are fundamentally capable of developing in this way. Also, according to Stoicism, determining the specific actions in which virtue is properly expressed is not straightforward and is not subject to codified, exception-free rules or laws. Rather, a progressive movement towards gaining a better understanding of virtue forms an integral part of the process of ethical development. These features of Stoic thinking are also potentially relevant to our response to the environmental crisis. Although it is sometimes suggested that this crisis can be somehow managed in a relatively effortless way by technological progress, this seems to me largely wishful thinking. It seems much more likely that an effective response to this crisis will involve all of us in substantial changes in lifestyle, affecting how we travel (and how much), how we heat our houses (and how much), what we eat (and how much), and a great deal more. The Stoic view of ethical development as, on the one hand, demanding in its aspirations, and, on the other, requiring us to work out for ourselves the specific actions that virtue involves, thus offers a good general framework for an effective response to the environmental crisis.

The brotherhood of humankind

The Stoic theory of development also provides the framework for the two ideas which are potentially most useful for this question: the idea of the brotherhood of humankind and the belief that nature as a whole provides a moral standard. One of the two principal strands in ethical development is a social one, which takes its start from what Stoics see as a primary animal instinct (parallel to the instinct for self-preservation), namely the desire to benefit others of our kind. The clearest illustration of this instinct is parental love for offspring, which is shared by human and non-human animals. During human development, this is transformed into a more rational and structured pattern of motivation, with two main outcomes. One is reasoned engagement in family and community life, and the other is coming to recognise that all human beings are our brothers or sisters, or our fellow-citizens, in so far as they share this in-built capacity for rational ethical development. These two outcomes are not mutually exclusive (though we need to work out carefully the proper relationship between them). Rather, our commitment to our family and community is conceived as one aspect of the fellowship we have with humanity as a whole.

This idea is potentially valuable for us now as we reflect on the ethical challenges posed by global warming and related environmental problems. On the one hand, it makes good sense for us to work out strategies which can help to maintain the viability of our own families, communities and businesses (although the way these operate may need quite substantial modification, as already noted). On the other hand, our planning needs to take account of the global nature of the problem, and of the fact that decisions taken in any one context have serious implications for others. Also, and crucially, we need to recognise that human beings as such have a legitimate claim on our ethical concern, and not simply those human beings that fall within the current boundaries of our family, community or nation. Otherwise, appeals to act in an environmentally responsible way for the sake of humanity as a whole or for future generations will have little hold on us. Of course, adopting this view is highly demanding, and it still requires us to work out with care the specific actions with follow from it. But, as already stressed, these points are in any case fully recognised by the Stoic ethical framework; and taking effective action in this respect depends on our making ethical progress in general, including gaining a better understanding of what virtue and happiness involve.

Taking nature as a whole as an ethical norm

The second Stoic idea that has special value in this connection is that nature as a whole constitutes an ethical norm for human beings. ‘Naturalism’, in some sense, is a prevalent feature of ancient ethical thought. Aristotle, for instance, in a famous passage (Nicomachean Ethics 1.7), argues that, to understand what constitutes happiness (eudaimonia), it is useful to reflect on what is distinctive of human beings, so that we can define more exactly what counts as human happiness. However, the Stoics go further in this direction than Aristotle, claiming that, in reflecting on virtue and happiness, we should see ourselves not just as part of the human species but of the natural universe as a whole. They also maintain that the natural universe embodies characteristics which we should take as exemplary for our own lives and that we should work towards bringing ourselves into line with these features.

Determining just what the Stoics mean by these claims is not easy and has been much debated by scholars. I offer a possible interpretation, which is designed to show how these ideas can contribute to our efforts to respond properly to the environmental crisis. I think that the Stoics see nature as a whole as exhibiting two main characteristics which are also expressed in human life, at its best. One is order, rationality and structure, and the other is providential care. The Stoics think that nature as a whole embodies order, rationality and structure. They see this as manifested most clearly in the regular patterns of nature (the movements of the planets, cycle of seasons and so on), and in the seamless web of causes and effects that operates throughout the universe. Stoics also see order, rationality and structure as properties of human life at its best. These properties are expressed, for instance, in the virtues (seen by the Stoics as a coherent, interconnected set of qualities) and in the ordered structure of human life and happiness when these are consistently based on the virtues. The Stoics also believe that nature as a whole embodies providential care; this is manifested, for instance, in the fact that certain component parts of nature (human and non-human animals) are instinctively inclined to preserve their own lives and to care for their offspring. The distinctively other-benefiting motives that are characteristic of fully developed human beings (including ethical concern for human beings as such) are seen as an extension of the providential care that is in-built in nature as a whole. Ethical development thus enables human being to embody features that are characteristic of nature as a whole, and also to form a better understanding of those features and to use them as models for shaping their own lives and actions.

These are quite complex ideas and they may seem alien or unconvincing to us today. People may feel that the Stoic view of nature is not compatible with the modern scientific world-view – though that is a large question that would need separate consideration. However, it is worthwhile reflecting on these Stoic ideas to see how much of them we can accept and how far they help us to address the environmental crisis. In the first instance, it is useful to be reminded that human beings form an integral part of nature, even though we often act in the modern world as if we were somehow separate from nature or as if we relate to nature only as its master. It is also helpful to be confronted with the idea that nature as a whole should figure as part of our moral horizon and that morality is not just a matter of our relationship to other human beings. But the potential value of these Stoic ideas may go further, even if we have reservations about the credibility of the Stoic world-view. For instance, we may see the force of the idea that providential care for others is in-built in nature, as manifested, for instance, in the animal (and human) instinct to care for one’s offspring. And we may also accept the idea that ethical development, in its social strand, results in the expression of providential care for others (those who share our lives and also human beings more generally), and that this is an extension of a more general feature of nature. Indeed, we may also take this idea rather further than the Stoics themselves did, though in a direction consistent with their thinking. We may see the exercise of providential care by human beings as something that should be appropriately extended to nature as a whole, taking into account our special natural capacities for rationality, social organisation and technological skill. Regarding the environmental crisis, we have a special reason for doing so since our exercise of providential care is a matter of trying to repair the damage that we have done to the natural environment, above all in generating global warming by human action.

Similarly, we may feel able to accept the Stoic view that virtue and the happiness that depends on virtue constitute a kind of inner rational structure and order. We may also accept that this inner structure is characteristic of human nature at its best and that in this sense it is natural for us to develop this structure. We may also see the force of the idea that for human beings to develop in this way reflects a kind of structure and order in-built in nature as a whole (even if we have reservations about the credibility of this Stoic view in other respects). If, again, we extend this idea further than the Stoics did, though consistently with their approach, we may see this internal moral structure as one that is incomplete and deficient if it leaves out of account the fact that human life is situated within the natural environment as a whole. Virtues, in other words, need to be expressed in actions that affect nature as a whole and not simply those that affect human lives. In this sense, we need to work towards a view of virtue and happiness that is consistent with our understanding of nature as a whole and of our human life as an integral part of nature as a whole.

None of these ideas are easy or straightforward; but then neither is the situation in which we currently find ourselves, as we struggle to get to grips with the enormity of the threat to humanity and nature posed by global warming. My proposal is that there are several Stoic ideas on which we can draw to supplement and deepen our ethical response to this crisis, by adopting or extending Stoic ideas for this purpose.

Background Reading

I am not aware of any previous attempt to apply Stoic ideas to the environmental crisis. I list reading which relates to the various Stoic ideas used here for this purpose. On Stoic ideas about nature as a whole (as ordered and providential), about development, virtue and happiness, emotions and political ideals (including the brotherhood of humankind), see A. A. Long and D. N. Sedley, The Hellenistic Philosophers (Cambridge, 1987), sections 54, 57, 59 D, 61, 63, 65 and 67 (also Cicero, On Duties 1.11-14 and 53 on development and the brotherhood of humankind). On development and ethical ideals, see C. Gill, The Structured Self in Hellenistic and Roman Thought (Oxford, 2006), pp. 129-66; also on these ideas, and nature as a norm, as understood by Marcus Aurelius, see C. Gill, Marcus Aurelius: Meditations Books 1-6, translated with introduction and commentary (Oxford 2013), pp. xxxiv-xlix, lxiii-lxvii. For an accessible overview of Stoic philosophy, see J. Sellars, Stoicism (Chesham, 2006), esp. chs. 4-5 on Stoic physics and ethics.

Chris Gill is Emeritus Professor of Ancient Thought at the University of Exeter. He has written extensively on ancient philosophy. His books which focus on Stoicism include The Structured Self in Hellenistic and Roman Thought and Naturalistic Psychology in Galen & Stoicism

‘On Epictetus and Post-Traumatic Stress’ by Leonidas Konstantakos

On Epictetus and Post-Traumatic Stress

by Leonidas Konstantakos

Leonidas Konstantakos

‘I have told my sons that they are not under any circumstances to take part in massacres, and that the news of massacres of enemies is not to fill them with satisfaction or glee.’         – Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five

Writing this piece is one of the most personal things I’ve ever been asked to do, and perhaps one of the most difficult as well. When discussing Stoicism and its therapeutic effects on persons with post-traumatic stress, what could I add to the new Stoa that Donald Robertson hasn’t already covered with his Stoic cognitive behavioural therapy? Or to the work of Thomas Jarrett, who applies Stoic principles in his mental-health course, Warrior Resilience and Thriving, which helps instil ‘post-traumatic growth’ in our warriors so that they may move forward with their lives? Let alone to the heroic account of the Stoic fighter pilot James Stockdale, who underwent a brutal, Epictetan experience for years as a prisoner of war in Hanoi. I might, however, be able to participate in the Stoic dialectic by adding another first-hand account of one more former soldier who, lost and reaching out from the abyss, found a hand grabbing mine in that spiralling chasm of anger, despair, and grief. One more person who, in reading Epictetus, took the hand of a crippled and scarred former slave- a hand that slowly began pulling me out of the darkness. If this is the story I was asked to tell, then lead me, Zeus, and begin the way you see fit.

I couldn’t sleep well for years after the war. I took night jobs and ruined relationships. I was stone-faced and ‘unfeeling as a statue’ when I did, and yet would sometimes cry uncontrollably at scenes of injuries from explosions and gunshot wounds in documentaries. Not all gunshot wounds though; just the ones from the AK-47. Similarly affected, some of the soldiers I had served with had believed they found some vestige of respite in drugs and alcohol. I had a close comrade who, one night a few months after being kicked out of the Army for drug abuse, took too much of both. To say it was suicide would suggest some thought-out intention, an act of will- an answer to Albert Camus’s only serious philosophical problem. Rather, it was one last random desperate act in a short post-war life full of random desperate acts.

Is there balm in Gilead? Is there philosophical life after post-traumatic stress from the war? Can the Stoics convince us that virtue is the only good? That vice is the only evil? That all else is indifferent? Even if that ‘all else’ means being burned, being maimed, seeing others mangled and torn? Their ears burned off and their eyes blinded by fire and explosives, staring vacantly, asking us if they ‘can go to sleep now’? Even if that ‘all else’ means children too charred to scream? Or the Iraqi woman, quietly hovering over her limp, mangled child, somehow impossibly still standing on her own shrapnel-shredded legs? Or that recurring memory of the road-kill we run past that we realize is in fact the top half of someone’s head, blown a block away by the winds of war? Soldiers are tough and bold, and we make light of it all at the next meal, getting it out, seemingly unaware that there’s still someone else’s blood on our uniforms, our hands, underneath our fingernails. We forget for the moment.

If the intellect is convinced and one accepts the doctrine of adiaphora (indifference of externals), and the mind is shown by reason that it is in the nature of animals like the ones we are to die, to be killed, and to burn like the flesh of any other mammal, that any piece of earthenware eventually breaks and returns to dust, then what do we make of those moments in the night years later, when we wake up fighting for breath and life and can’t remember why? Or alone, staring at walls, when we remember how beautiful our comrades were in life, in all their rough edges and profanity and stubbly dirty beards. The soul jerks and wrenches. When the thousandth memory surfaces, the sand in our mouths, the steaming sweat flowing from underneath the helmet and armour in those years in the relentless desert heat, those shrieking women’s voices in an unintelligible idiom in their grief or confusion, do we still hold the doctrine of the ancients to be true, or no? And if so, is it only possible to be understood by the rare phoenix that is the Stoic sage- that person of the rank of Odysseus, Socrates, and Diogenes among us? Here Epictetus shakes us awake, and pulls us further from the darkness of our thoughts:

‘Things seen by the mind, whereby the intellect of man is struck at the very first sight of anything which penetrates to the mind, are not subject to his will, nor to his control, but by virtue of a certain force of their own thrust themselves upon the attention of men; but the assents, whereby these same things seen by the mind are recognized, are subject to a man’s will, and fall under his control. Therefore, when some terrifying sound comes…or something else of the same sort happens, the mind of even the wise man cannot help but be disturbed, and shrink, and grow pale for a moment, not from any anticipation of some evil, but because of certain swift and unconsidered motions which forestall the action of the intellect and the reason.’ – Gellius, 17.19 [Oldfather’s translation, slightly modified].

As a slave, Epictetus had been crippled by a cruel master, and his many references to chains, sword, rack, and scourging in his few discourses is a window to what his former life may have been like and what he had witnessed done to others. I doubt very much that he would not have been affected, at some level and early in life, with some semblance of what we moderns call post-traumatic stress. What he guides us with in these matters is this: for those of us grappling with these symptoms – hypervigilance, the first stirrings of grief, of anger – we might accept that we have them, perhaps ‘cannot help but be disturbed’ by them at first, and yet come to terms and realize that these impressions are not in themselves terrible. Nor must we necessarily accept that they represent something terrible. If, as the Stoics say, ‘the business of life is being a soldier’ and ‘life itself is warfare,’ then we can accept that we may now, and perhaps always, have these recurring thoughts and feelings of our formidable ‘sojourns in a foreign land’ that “thrust themselves” upon our attention. The first Stoic, Zeno, with an admirably resilient dismissive attitude, calls these ‘lingering scars.’ Seneca even suggests they can be lessened over time. But what are they, for a Stoic like Epictetus? Impressions. Impressions and nothing else. Not the impressions of something morally good, or morally bad, but merely impressions of past trauma. What did we expect to happen in life and war?

Life is chemistry: if we want to see what something is made of, we test it – we burn it, we stretch it, we crush it. For these brilliant philosophers, so it is with these impressions. And with enough time and practice, the soldier’s ‘winter training’ of doctrines attested by the warrior-emperor Marcus Aurelius, the slave-philosopher Epictetus, and Seneca (that household tutor of the brutal, unhinged Nero), we can yet start to see these memories and impressions as nothing more than bogeymen scurrying in the dark, with power only to scare children and fools. They need not make us irascible, bloodthirsty, unfeeling, miserable, or cowardly. We mustn’t let them. For Epictetus, there is a way out of our post-traumatic abyss, and it begins by testing our thoughts and feelings:

‘Soon, however, our wise man does not give his assent, but rejects and repudiates them, and sees in them nothing to cause him fear. This is the difference between the mind of the fool and the mind of the wise man, that the fool thinks the cruel and harsh things seen by his mind, when it is first struck by them, actually to be what they appear, and likewise afterwards, just as though they really were formidable, and he confirms them by his own approval; whereas the wise man, when his color and expression have changed for a brief instant, but keeps the even tenor and strength of the opinion which he has always had about mental impressions of this kind, as things that do not deserve to be feared at all, but terrify only with a false face and a vain fear.’ (Ibid.)

We often choose to assent to these ‘cruel and harsh’ impressions. We allow ourselves to mistakenly believe that death is an evil, that injuries and pain are evils; that comrades should not die. That something bad has happened when nature, Zeus, calls his elements back to himself – whether those elements are momentarily in soldiers or children. To believe all this is unreasonable and, to keep with the ancient pantheism, impious. It is to fall in love with fantasies and externals; to fail to understand necessity and nature- our own and the world’s.

We can, however, accept that a certain type of animal, with a certain neurochemistry and disposition, may perhaps necessarily experience something of the sort after a traumatic event. We can, and perhaps will, shake, become pale, perhaps occasionally even weep. There is no shame in this when it is beyond our control. But we, the rational animals, can also do this without experiencing a violent passion, without assenting that something bad has happened to us. We need not identify with our impressions. The ancient Stoics show us that a rational animal can accept necessity, and to some extent comprehend the web of causality – the mind of Zeus. We can grow past our once-painful experiences and become better people because, in themselves, these impressions are nothing of moral value. Whether we will or not is up to us.


Oldfather, William Abbott (1998) (Trans.) Epictetus: The Discourses as Reported by Arrian, the    Encheiridion, and Fragments. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Leonidas Konstantakos became a special education teacher after the Army, has a Masters in Liberal Studies from Florida International University and adjuncts philosophy at night. He has more papers on academia.edu if anyone wants to read further. 

‘Dis-ease (Mental Health)’ by Zachary G. Augustine

Dis-ease (Mental Health)

from Philosophy for Any Life: an open-source self-help book

Augustine Book Proper

by Zachary G. Augustine

Editor’s Note:  This piece follows on from Zachary’s previous post.  The book is freely available to download at philosophyforanylife.com.


Today I escaped from anxiety. Or no, I discarded it, because it was within me, in my own perceptions – not outside.
—Marcus Aurelius[i]

There is a real danger in focusing too much on learning about techniques as opposed to implementing them. The goal of therapy aims to break the linguistic circle of reading-and-thinking, ad infinitium, and to prompt a shift toward action.

Those who experience anxiety know unpleasantness of thinking too much. An apt description of anxiety is one of ‘rumination’. Those with social anxiety may ruminate on what could go wrong in a social interaction, or endlessly repeat inconsequential events. Those with more generalized anxiety may ruminate about nearly anything. The word itself refers to the digestion method of large grazing animals (like cattle) that ferment cellulose by holding it in a special, extra stomach for a long period of time. Cattle must sleep standing up because the slurry of grass and digestive juices would otherwise spill into their other stomachs.

Not that cattle aren’t infinitely interesting, but the point is that rumination has a negative connotation, one of referring to the lower animals. That is, while humans are distinguished in our ability to pause and think through problems (as no one has ever seen a cow ponder), we are also responsible for deciding, that is, stopping thought and resuming action at an appropriate time. Ultimately, humans are distinguished by action in combination with thought, not either alone. And action without thought is worse than ignorance, for the base form of judgment is one of blindly trusting the desires and judgments of the body. This leads to consequences that you would not otherwise accept. The opposite is also true: Thought by itself moves nothing.[ii]

Treatment depends on honest and good judgment of oneself. A key factor is the recognition of your own anxiety-producing practices. You must find their root, which tends to be mental and verbal in origin.[iii] Problems can seem large when they are dealt with in an excessively verbal manner – anyone who has sat in on a bureaucratic meaning can attest to the damaging powers of bloated words. Rather, you will feel relief if you can develop your own techniques to break the verbal cycle. To get outside of your own head, so to speak. The techniques themselves vary based on the situation, but fundamental to all of them is correctly identifying that your recovery is within your own control, the acceptance that it may be difficult and a willingness to try in spite of this, and a responsibility to take your recovery into your own hands. Kabat-Zinn summarizes the importance of this disposition:

“The deciding factor…is the willingness of the patient to try to do something for himself or herself to cope with some of the pain, particularly when it has not responded fully to medical treatment alone. People whose attitude is that they just want the doctor to ‘fix it’ or to ‘make it go away’ are not good candidates. They won’t understand the need to take some responsibility themselves for improving their condition. They might also take the suggestion that the mind can play a role in the control of their pain to mean that their pain is imaginary, that it is ‘all in their head’ in the first place.[iv]“

The notion that pain is real but mental is crucial to the whole effort of recovery. This is not to deny that pain feels bad or can impact our lives. But it to deny, firmly and absolutely, that we can do nothing about it. While we cannot outright ‘cure’ our mental ailments, we can minimize them to the point of nonexistence. Even more so, we can learn from them and grow into a stronger, more loving person than had we never experienced that kind of pain. In the end, any ailment ends up being an impetus to change, an opportunity for growth. But it is only an opportunity, one you have to actively take. The ailment itself is changed through this realization, just as you are changed by the ailment, and changed again by acceptance of the ailment: in all three cases, suffering ceases the moment it acquires meaning.[v] You may find that the pain itself lessens once you stop fixating on it. (This was certainly my experience.) Instead, a positive outlook actually and physically makes your situation easier to bear. The key is to direct your energy toward other activities, almost as if you are distracting your mind, long enough to show yourself that you can think about other things besides an unpleasant situation. And once you begin to think that, it will become easier and easier to distract yourself until you no longer feel compelled to think of the pain as a hindrance.

Mental health treatment must be viewed as an ongoing process of change, not merely just a cure delivered to an otherwise static patient. As patients, we often want doctors to change our bodies in order to relieve our minds. But relief often only comes from the opposite: we must make up our minds, and then our bodies will follow. Doctor’s simply won’t say this, because it defies their job description, and the ideal we hold of them. It is a matter of shifting the locus of control from an external antidote to an internal one already contained within your mind. Realize truly what is within your control, and what is without. Here especially, be patient as you learn to accept these things. You will feel frustrated. Things you wish you could be now, ideas yet unfulfilled, shapes you can see the outlines of but never materialize, a thought you grasp for only a moment before it disappears and is replaced by the nagging pain of knowing that you’ve forgotten. This is frustration. But you can teach yourself not to accept frustration and work through it. You can cultivate the muscle of patience and understanding, through forgoing false judgments in favor of reality and all its flaws. This is because, “the value of attentiveness varies in proportion to its object. You’re better off not giving the small things more time than they deserve.”[vi] And the pain you feel is outside of your control, and thus not something worth focusing on.[vii]


When your mind becomes obsessed with anything, you will filter everything else out and find that thing everywhere.

You can’t change the fact that this obsession exists. For you, it’s real. Don’t waste energy denying that.

But you can modulate your response.

This is the problem I felt most acutely. I developed irrational fears about things that never used to bother me. I knew they were irrational but I couldn’t stop. That was the worst of all.

I became fixated on ways I might accidentally or intentionally hurt myself. I was afraid that I might hurt myself. Through that fear, I became afraid that I might want to hurt myself. This fear grew and I ended up causing myself a lot of emotional suffering. My fear of suffering directly caused my suffering, because I was stuck in certain mental feedback loops. It is illogical, ironic, and borderline insane. But through simply feeling fear, worrying about fear, and worrying about worrying about fear, I spiraled downward and watched as I let my obsessions begin to impact my daily life. (This happens to be a good litmus test for looking more objectively at the state of your own problems – to what extent do your problems impact your life on a daily and long-term basis?)

I developed an irrational fear of knives, scissors, heights, and driving. I knew it was ridiculous – I had no intention of ever hurting myself – but in spite of this knowledge I could not stop worrying that one day I might. If any of those situations presented themselves, I froze. If I was cooking in the kitchen, I was watching the knives. I would sweat constantly, my heart stuttering as I walked up a tall staircase for fear that this time I would lose control entirely, have a mental breakdown, and throw myself off.

These obsessions carried over into my personal relationships. It became difficult to drive to see my friends. I became worried about trivial matters, like small sums of money or arguments with strangers on the Internet. These were ways that I could express my desire for control, in however small a way. I was so afraid of losing control that I lost it. Now, I am at peace with the fact that much is outside of my control.

So believe me when I say even some of your own thoughts are outside of your control. That’s a horrible feeling – to lose control of yourself. But it is manageable, I promise.  Don’t get discouraged, “Don’t let your imagination be crushed by life as a whole. Don’t try to picture everything bad that could possibly happen. Stick with the situation at hand, and ask, ‘Why is this so unbearable? Why can’t I endure it?’ You’ll be embarrassed to answer.”[ix] Take that feeling of embarrassment, and focus on that. Laugh at how strange your mind works, how silly sometimes you are. Don’t invalidate the way that you feel or the things that grab your attention. But see the humor in it, and take them for that they are worth. How things that seemed urgent a moment ago now don’t make much sense.


If you look for the light, you can often find it. But if you look for the dark, that is all you will ever see.—Iroh[x]

Depression is the inability to imagine a future.[xi] It is the assumption that your current mental state will continue indefinitely, and that such a continuation would be bad. Why would it be bad? Because your current mental state feels unpleasant, you don’t want it to continue. It would be bad because it is bad to have your current feeling continue indefinitely. It is a vicious feedback-loop. It is illogical. But, it is nonetheless real.

Depression can occur by itself or in tandem with other conditions. Often, more fundamental problems such as anxiety, phobias, or other chronic conditions wear you down. They may weaken your overall health, and leave you more susceptible to other things: difficulty sleeping, worsening eating habits, weakened immune system, etc. It is often in situations like this that one can begin to feel discouraged. And that is the breeding ground for depression, a capstone added on top of your health problems when your back was already strained. You didn’t ask for this, but you have to face it nonetheless. If you begin to feel depressed for other reasons, you obviously have to deal with the root problem. Learning to handle your anxiety or OCD can take the edge off of growing depression before it becomes a full-blown problem.

That said, depression can have no other illnesses exacerbating it. It may seem that there is no physical reason for it; this may be true. In that case, it is important to get help. It could be as simple as not getting enough vitamin D, or it may be an issue that needs to be talked through. The only way you can know is if you get help. But in any case, reasonable or unreasonable, physical or mental, you can construct your own sense of meaning in your life. This meaning can be anything you can think of. And having some sort of focus, even if it appears simple or is just a hobby, will always make your condition easier to bear. And before you know it, you’ll feel much better.

Chronic conditions

Nothing but what you get from first impressions. That someone has insulted you, for instance. That – but not that it’s done you any harm. The fact that my son is sick – that I can see. But ‘that he might die of it,’ no. Stick with first impressions. Don’t extrapolate. And nothing can happen to you.
—Marcus Aurelius[xii]

It’s important to stay positive, and it is always possible to do so. Those words mean little by themselves. But behind them is a deep truth relevant to all of our lives. Living is painful, and often for no good reason. But life in itself is reason enough to keep going – it is always worth it, and it is always possible to believe as much, if you choose.

Take every step you can to improve your overall well-being. Any positive change you make will also have effects on your ailment. There is no reason for your pain; it is random, or unlucky, or unforeseeable. But there is always a reason to endure pain. It acquires meaning when you choose to endure it. For pain only becomes suffering when you cease to endure it. That word is important; it is active, it is everlasting, it is optimistic. It says that you have within you a willpower that you can always stretch further than before, and always replenish quicker than last time. It may not get better, but it will get easier.

Despite your ailment, you will wake up every day with determination, energy, and hope. It may not feel like it now, but it will. To wake up every day and face a new set of challenges is wonderful. You just happen to have more challenges than some people. But you also have less than other people, and for that you should be thankful. There was no way to know where you would end up on the random spectrum of what life has dealt us. And even now, although things may seem bad, there’s no way to know where you’ll end up. Won’t it be interesting to find out.[xiii]

It may end as quickly as it began, or not at all. It could stop and come back. But the answer in every case is the same: do the best you can. Don’t let yourself get discouraged by a lack of external progress, for the only progress that matters is internal.

Often these kind of things are what you have to learn to live with. And when you finally feel defeated and are about to give up, you resign to the fact that this is something you will have to get used to. You will just have to deal with it, and make the best of it. Then, at that precise moment, it passes. Paradoxically, when you stop trying to get rid of it, it disappears. This is something that requires suffering to realize. You have to go through it to understand: it didn’t go away. It’s still there. Only, now, it doesn’t bother you. What you did instead was learn that it doesn’t need to bother you. You learned how to get around, despite the obstacles. Only by fully and honestly submitting to the reality of the situation can you come to live with it in the best way possible.


Pain is neither unbearable nor unending, as long as you keep in mind its limits and don’t magnify them in your imagination.
—Marcus Aurelius[xiv]

A positive attitude is integral to your recovery. What if what was holding you back this entire time, preventing your recovery, was your negativity? What if just by changing your mindset – which is always within your power – you can change your life? Then you have nothing left to fear. Often, paradoxically, it is our behaviors that sustain our illnesses. Like the addict who realizes his deteriorating condition and wants to change, but lacks the resolve to do so yet. Perhaps that addict is used to feeling this way. Perhaps he has come up with behaviors that no longer give him comfort, but are simply familiar. And so the addict continues, not because he enjoys it anymore, but because he’s frightened of change. As Aurelius says

Frightened of change? But what can exist without it? What’s closer to nature’s heart? Can you take a hot bath and leave the firewood as it was? Eat food without transforming it? Can any vital process take place without something being changed? Can’t you see? It’s the same with you – and just as vital to nature.[xv]

As difficult as it may be, you need to want to change. What you want to do is suspend the doubts of your mind for long enough to act positively. Action has great positive changes on the body; this much is well known. If you change your physical state, if you achieve a basic state of physical health and activity, your mind will follow. And if you change your mental state, it will be easier to change your physical state in the future. And then you know how it works, and that it can be done, and it becomes much, much easier.

This takes time. Be patient with yourself.  There will be times when it feels hopeless, when the pain is unbearable. When it would be easier to return to your old ways. This is good! It shows that your body is resisting the changes you are trying to implement. This means that you are close to overcoming the body’s resistance. Feel the pain (don’t deny that it’s there) but don’t give into it fully. “Unendurable pain brings its own end with it. Chronic pain is always endurable: the intelligence maintains serenity by cutting itself off from the body, the mind remains undiminished. And the parts that pain affects – let them speak for themselves, if they can.”[xvi] Maintain control of your mind despite the pain – always keep a bit of yourself pulled back a bit to watch what’s happening to yourself. Just watch.

Through this act of self-observation (metacognition) your pain will lessen as you come to understand yourself better. You will reinforce a self-imposed divide between body and mind, one that nature would rather do away with, reducing you to little more than an animal. But as anyone who can endure great pain can tell you, the body cannot rule the mind; they should never converge to the same entity.

Do not hesitate to ask for help; for your worries about appearing burdensome are a just another internal barrier you have erected to bar your own recovery. You are far more conscious of your own faults in this regard than anyone else – it is just as likely that those close to you want to help, but don’t know how or are afraid to ask. It is your responsibility to ask for help, and you will be floored by the support that you receive. The stigma surrounding mental health issues is already disappearing rapidly, and what little that remains is mostly imaginary. Your problems, however, are real, and any barrier to your recovery must be overcome. Any stigma is then useless or illusory, and can be safely ignored. Do not be afraid; everyone you could possibly encounter during your recovery wants nothing more than for you to succeed.

Do not be discouraged if progress is slow. As Hemingway says, “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places. But those that will not break it kills.”[xvii] It is okay to be broken, for you will always heal stronger. And to break in some areas and recover is infinitely better than the alternative. I want everyone to become strong at the broken places, and I hope that this book will help you in some way. But these words are no substitute for serious medical help, if that is what you require. So please, ask for help when you need it, because there are some things that are outside of your control.

In the end, you will find yourself stronger than had you never faced any difficulties. You will look at yourself and be proud of who you became. And you would do it all over again if given the chance. Because if you didn’t, you wouldn’t have learned anything. You wouldn’t be as strong as you already are now, or nearly as strong as you will become. It will all be worth it. Always.

Friends and Family

We must not force crops from rich fields, for an unbroken course of heavy crops will soon exhaust their fertility, and so also the liveliness of our minds will be destroyed by unceasing labour, but they will recover their strength after a short period of rest and relief: for continuous toil produces a sort of numbness and sluggishness.
—Seneca, On Peace of Mind

There is a constant tension between asking those close to you for help and remaining silent. You need support more than anything, but it can be impossible to communicate something you don’t fully understand or even accept yourself – so how is anyone else supposed to? And that feeling of burdening those close to you never quite goes away. But I have been on both sides of that emotional support system, and I can guarantee you that there’s nothing they would rather do than help you. So please reach out to them. It will be as relieving for them to help you as it will be for you.

If you know someone who is struggling, you must understand they are already beyond frustrated with themselves. They already feel immense lot of guilt, shame, embarrassment, and helplessness. Constantly they feel as if they are a burden. So you must take great care to not add to this weight.

Also recognize that they express this internal frustration outward, and often to those closest to them. So take any negativity they express with reservation, for surely it does not reflect upon you and your actions. Even if you treat them with nothing but kindness, you will inevitably receive responses from them that are unwarrantedly negative – from your perspective. If only they could see that things aren’t as bad as they’re making it out to be. From theirs, the world is drained of its color, and you would have to be blind to not see it. Keep that in mind.

If this happens, reflect that you have far more perspective, willpower, and patience than they do in their current state. Don’t criticize their behavior, which is a direct representation of their mental state, which they have little control over (at this moment in time). To criticize any of this – to express your frustration or empathy or pity for their sorry state – is to further degrade their already minimal self-worth. You may feel frustrated that they can’t exit their slump. But surely they feel this same frustration ten times more strongly. It’s not that they don’t see it, it’s that they feel powerless to do anything about it. It is a compulsion, a necessity. And an unfortunate byproduct of that is you will have to shoulder some unpleasant encounters, reassurance, and complicated or otherwise stressful situations. Be patient, for your patience is one thing you can do to help.

Don’t take how they treat you personally; they may feel so trapped that they likely don’t have much else they can do other than lash out at you in this way. Remember that your willpower goes ten times as far as theirs. In their state, it is almost as if they are a different person.

With your support, they will emerge stronger than they were going into the ordeal. And when they come through the other end – and they always will – they, with their newfound perspective, will be incredibly thankful for how you helped them. The previous feelings of guilt and shame will be replaced with only love. The sense of burdening one another fades, instead replaced by an image of the posts of a new foundation: what weight would crack one alone is effortlessly supported by multiple. While similar things would be crushing alone, they are that much easier to bear when we rely on each other. It will be because of you they succeeded, and they, too, will help you to succeed. That is what a meaningful relationship is, and it is perhaps the strongest thing there is.

Zachary G. Augustine is a student of philosophy and history at the University of Chicago. Besides writing, Zach does contract work and teaches as a graphic designer and is an advocate for open content, tech education, and mental health. Take a look at his work or send him an e-mail at zacharyaugustine.comZachary has written an open-source self-help book, based on Stoicism, which you can find at http://philosophyforanylife.com.


[i]Ibid., IX.13.

[ii]Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics.

[iii] “There is evidence within the CBT literature that a preponderance of verbal processing in the form of rumination is associated with a range of psychological symptoms, overgeneral memory, and poor problem solving (e.g. Watkins, 2008). Conversely, the ability to flexibly integrate verbal and sensor/perceptual information may be the hallmark of more adaptive processing.” Richard. Stott, Oxford Guide to Metaphors in CBT: Building Cognitive Bridges, Oxford Guides in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 19.

[iv] Kabat-Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living, 287.

[v]Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning.

[vi]Aurelius, Meditations, 2002, IV.32.

[vii] A theme repeated often in the excellent Richard Carlson, Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff – and It’s All Small Stuff: Simple Ways to Keep the Little Things from Taking over Your Life, 1st ed. (New York: Hyperion, 1997).

[viii]Darren Aronofsky, Pi, Drama, Thriller, (1998).

[ix]Aurelius, Meditations, 2002, VIII.36.

[x]The Legend of Korra, Animation, Action, Adventure, (2012), bk. 2 Episode 10: A New Spiritual Age.

[xi]Steven Soderbergh, Side Effects, Crime, (2013), http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2053463/. This movie may be disturbing for those with mental health illnesses, but this phrase taken alone sticks with me as an accurate depiction of depression.

[xii]Aurelius, Meditations, 2002, VIII.49.

[xiii]The Legend of Korra, bk. 4 episode 2: Korra Alone.

[xiv] Aurelius, Meditations, 2002, VII.64.

[xv]Ibid., VII.18.

[xvi]Ibid., VII.33.

[xvii]Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms, 1st Scribner classics ed. (New York: Scribner Classics, 1997).