What Would Stoics Say about the U.S. 2016 Election? by Temma Ehrenfeld

On the morning after the United States election this year, like many people I know, I was afraid to get out of bed.

But I had had good fortune. At “Stoicon” in New York in October, I’d picked up The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living, by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman, and had begun reading a quote each morning.  So, still in bed, I read the day’s entry: “All is fluid.” “The universe is change. Life is opinion.” (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.3.4b)

It could hardly have been more apt. Over the coming months, I came to believe that the decisive issues in this election are also the most important issues in Stoicism.

“Life is opinion” is a vague phrase, but it had an obvious painful meaning now. The morning before, people had been visibly elated on the streets around my local polling place on the Upper West Side. I overheard a conversation in which someone said, “I can’t wait until I can ignore Donald Trump.”

For decades we New Yorkers knew him as a shady tycoon with bad taste. On my morning bike ride, I pass a row of mammoth apartment buildings he owns. When people from out of town asked me about Trump, I’d report a visit to a friend who had just moved into one of those buildings. As the elevator stopped on her floor, she was saying, “Wait until you see the view,” when we all walked out and saw a large turd in the hallway.

In my circle of opinion, Trump couldn’t win. How could so many Americans hold opinions we thought unthinkable? Because “life is opinion.” My brief life, and their brief lives.  Nothing I thought certain was certain. What could I count on? “The universe is change.”

The pundits say that Americans elected Trump because he promised “change,” desirable unto itself, startling the entire world with their choice.  Human beings both crave and fear change. Donald Trump has become the epitome of that ambivalence.

The Stoics teach that change in itself is neither good nor bad—yet inevitable. It isn’t wise to choose a candidate who has never held political office for the mere sake of change, but wise to make your peace with change when it comes.

If you are excited at the prospect of a Trump administration, now is not the time to gloat for the same reason “Blue State liberals” shouldn’t despise you. The wheel will turn, and turn again.

I continue to read a Meditation every day, and the habit has served me well. On November 17, Seneca: “Let philosophy scrape off your own faults, rather than be a way to rail against the faults of others.” (Moral Letters, 103, 4b-5a) No, I wasn’t allowed to rail about idiots who had elected a protofascist. November 27, Marcus Aurelius: “How satisfying it is to dismiss and block out any upsetting or foreign impression, and immediately to have peace in all things.” (Meditations, 5.2). I stopped reading news about the transition that day.

Two days later came more permission to hide from the news, if only for a time: Marcus Aurelius: “Don’t lament this and don’t get agitated.” (Meditations, 7.43.) Ryan and Stephen spoke to me like dear friends: “There’s that feeling we get when something happens: It’s all over now. All is lost. What follows are complaints and pity and misery—the impotent struggle against something that’s already occurred….[what’s coming next] could be the darkness before the dawn. If we’re Stoic, there is one thing we can be sure of: whatever happens, we’re going to be OK.”

It’s as if they knew that November 2016 would be rough for much of the country. But of course, any month can be rough, as the Stoics knew especially well.

“To read or not to read” the news became a question much discussed on Facebook and elsewhere. As some of my friends were saying (and the Stoics agree), we have a duty to be engaged citizens, to love our country. I received urgent messages from people I respect asking me to make phone calls or sign petitions demanding a recount or urge electors to change their votes.

The Stoics also teach us to avoid distractions. I chose to stay out of those protests; they seemed clearly to be ways of coping. To me, the real question was “What did the voters who chose Trump mean to tell us?”

Stoicism has much to tell us on that point. Donald Trump does not do well on Stoic measures, except for one: he scorned the approval of official approval-givers. As the song goes, he did it “My Way.” We all should note the power of that stance. (To be honest, it makes me uncomfortable. I myself believe in approval from respected sources and crave it—Stoicism is an antidote).

The public discussion focused on character, a choice the Stoics would applaud. People disliked both candidates for perceived greed and dishonesty, serious faults to Stoics. However, the outcome didn’t turn on the character of the candidates. It turned, I argue, on our sources of self-respect.

As a celebrity, our President-Elect benefited from a special kind of familiarity: people trusted him because they’d seen him for years in their homes on their television screens. Hillary Clinton was also familiar, but from the despised world of politics and policy-wonks, the “insiders.”

If the pundits are correct, voters who felt that they had been treated as “losers” and “outsiders” saw a man of fame and fortune, a “winner,” who was also paradoxically an “outsider” like themselves, declaring himself on their side.

The Stoics teach resoundingly that this logic is wrong. Fame and wealth, they say, are fleeting and worthless, victories in a war not worth winning. In any case, you can’t get respect, or self-respect, by association.

In the present moment, we hear, too many Americans and British feel like “losers” because of declining income and respect for their traditional work. So they blame immigrants. The Stoics are right here, too: they insist on the value of meaningful work. If your industry is in decline, and you can’t earn a good living or you don’t have a job, life is harder. But if you are doing what you can you are not a “loser.” You are also not an “outsider.” You are inside the circle of your own judgment and bonds to your community and loved ones.

How I wish we all felt this in our bones.  Stoics don’t cuddle up to celebrities. They also don’t bathe in self-pity within bubbles.

Soon after the election, I attended a party full of people lamenting Trump’s victory. I wandered into a back room, where I found the hostess—call her Nancy–sitting alone. I’d met her only once before. She invited me to sit beside her. I asked her if she was having a good time. With a strange look on her face, she said, “Do you really want to know?”

I nodded. “I voted for Trump,” she said. “You’re the first person I’ve told.” I nodded.

“I’m so hopeful,” she said. “I think he’ll really make a difference.” She glowed like a woman in love.

The Stoics teach us to spread wisdom rather than seethe inside when we disagree. But they also teach us to be kind.  Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 9.6: “All you need are these: certainty of judgment in the present moment; action for the good in the present moment; and an attitude of gratitude in the present moment for anything that comes your way”

I knew what to do. As a journalist, I’m trained to listen to people with whom I don’t agree. I was genuinely grateful for the opportunity to do what I do well. I was also grateful to be at her party, which was warm and fun. My judgement: to listen, which would build good in the present moment and express my gratitude. I kept my face welcoming and listened to her reasons for deeply admiring Donald Trump.

I did make one, indirect, attempt to teach my wisdom: I told her that my monthly health insurance cost had dropped by $100 a month when the Affordable Care Act passed, and I was scared it would go up again. She said, “Don’t worry; he’s going to make health insurance better.”

The Stoics teach us to be careful to whom we extend our friendship. I choose to keep up friendships with people despite disagreements about politics. Should you drop those friends? Should you avoid family members whose politics offend you? If the disagreement is profound, one can find quotes in the Stoic literature to make either case. But the message is clear: first, tend your own garden.

You might think, “My Dad always thought my brothers deserved more freedom and respect than I did, so he’s proud to have as his President a man who thinks it’s OK to boast about assaulting women.” Or, “My sister can’t handle debt and she blames Mexicans for our financial troubles.”

Remember Epictetus, Enchiridion, 1.1-2: “Some things are in our control, while others are not. We control our opinions, choice, desire, aversion, and, in a word, everything of our own doing. We don’t control…everything not of our own doing.”

As I read Epictetus, he would advise you to monitor your own attitudes about women and men and to let your Dad keep his. You might take more responsibility for your own finances, knowing that you may soon have to help out your sister. While we school ourselves not to fret over things we can’t control, we must also anticipate the worst. Know that calamity can come to you and act accordingly.

Taking a role in public life is also a Stoic value. I recently chose to write an op-ed that ran on the opinion page at the Wall Street Journal. I write for other conservative publications. I say what I think, and if my audience disagrees with me on other matters, that’s okay. Perhaps my words will get through. We all can choose how to best use our abilities to be useful during this political season.

The Stoics often suffered exile. That—and other influences, as well as all the talk of fleeing to Canada—inspired me to begin applying for my Canadian citizenship card (my mother was Canadian and my brother holds dual citizenship). I got only half-way through the process, during the election and then afterwards, began to worry that Canada would tighten up the rules. Next time, I will be more diligent. Stoic lesson learned.

I’ve pursued the application, which is taking some effort. Is this a good use of my time or a distraction? One could argue either case. I want to be prepared for a calamity when leaving my home becomes the best option. The Stoics embraced exile, a time to pursue philosophy. The truth is that I’m lucky; I can write anywhere. Writing is what I do best, though sometimes I am sick of it and want to be a dancer, a photographer—anything else. Love your fate, the Stoics say. Joy comes from practicing your virtues.

Our Stoic teachers insist that we can be happy in a world that feels unsafe. But I believe that a Trump administration will cause many other people to suffer more than they might have. It’s true I don’t know whether the total amount of suffering is bound to increase over the long run as a result of the recent turn of events, though it strongly seems that it will.

I asked Gregory Sadler, editor of Stoicism Today, what he thought about the question of others’ suffering. In an email, he responded that Stoics recognize that intentionally harming others or simply taking actions that make harm foreseeable is “morally wrong.” Indeed, people who act unjustly are also damaging themselves. Many people I know intuitively agree; they think that as our President, Trump will bring about his own undoing.

“Wait and see” say my most serene confidantes, my 87-year-old father and my mother’s best friend, a 70-something economist.

What will happen? No one knows.

“If the breaking day sees someone proud,
The ending day sees them brought low.
No one should put too much trust in triumph,
No one should give up hope of trials improving.
Clotho mixes one with the other and stops
Fortune from resting, spinning every fate around.”
– Seneca, Thyestes, 613

Temma Ehrenfeld is a ghostwriter and journalist in New York drawn to psychology and philosophy. Her journalism has appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, Reuters, and Fortune and her literary work in Michigan Quarterly Review, The Hudson Review, Chicago Literary Quarterly, Catamaran Literary Reader, and Prism International. She blogs at Psychology Today and is shopping her first novel, The Wizard of Kew Gardens.  See more of her work and reach her through her website. 

The Triteness and Hypocrisy of Marcus Aurelius: Thoughts on Mary Beard, SPQR and Stoicism by Kevin Kennedy

Like many other members of the new Stoicism movement, I have a great interest in ancient Roman history. The Roman Empire is not only a fascinating subject in its own right, but knowledge of it also can help us gain a more profound understanding of Stoic philosophy. One of the world’s foremost experts on Roman history today is Mary Beard, professor of classics at Cambridge university. In her books and her BBC documentaries, Beard presents the complexities of ancient Roman society in a way that is not only educational but also entertaining. So it was with tremendous joy that I recently found myself able to sit down with her latest work, a general history of Rome titled SPQR (Senatus Populusque Romanus:  “The Senate and the People of Rome”).

To be sure, I began reading SPQR  with a few caveats in mind. I knew that this was going to be a book that focused more on the politics, society, economy and everyday life in Rome than on its schools of philosophy, Moreover, I was aware that Beard was no fan of Stoicism. Whenever I see her name, I still have to think about a review she wrote several years ago of three biographies of the Roman statesman and Stoic philosopher Seneca: “How Stoical was Seneca?” The reviewed authors all viewed Seneca as a hypocrite and Beard agreed with them. For her, Seneca only affected a virtuous life to divert attention from his involvement with the tyrant Nero and from his amassment of enormous wealth by dubious means.

Beard even mocked Seneca’s suicide. (Nero believed Seneca was part of a conspiracy against him and commanded that he kill himself.) After failing to draw enough blood by slashing his veins (“he was so old and emaciated the blood hardly escaped”), Seneca took hemlock, offering a libation to Jupiter. This was, so Beard, an obvious attempt to emulate Socrates’ legendary death. But the poison also failed to achieve the desired effect, so Seneca ordered his servants to bring him into a hot bath, where he suffocated in the steam. Beard saw something comical in all this. For a philosopher who had devoted so much of his writing to preparations for death, she writes, he made a very bad job of it when his own turn came. Seneca was for Beard a poor exemplar of Stoic philosophy, which she seemed to dislike as much as she disliked him:

Hard-line Stoicism was a deterministic, fatalist doctrine that valued a virtuous life (and death) beyond almost everything else, with very little room for human frailty indeed.

And yet, with all this in mind, I was still not prepared for what I discovered in SPQR:

There are occasional examples of outstanding imperial virtue too. The philosophical Thoughts of the emperor Marcus Aurelius, cliché as much of it is (‘Do not act as if you were going to live 10,000 years. Death hangs over you’) still finds many admirers, buyers and advocates today, from self-help gurus to former US president Bill Clinton.

In truth, it is not necessary for a scholar to sympathize with Stoicism in order to write a first-rate history of ancient Rome (which is what SPQR is). What a reader can expect, however, is that a historian has some understanding of Stoicism before comparing it to contemporary self-help literature or former American presidents with obvious self-control issues. Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations contain trite observations which are repeated over and over?  Well duh! The repetition of philosophical principles was necessary, the Stoics taught, because we tend to keep forgetting them.

As those of you reading this now know, my  initial response to Beard’s comment was a decidedly non-Stoic one. I felt a twinge of anger and responded in a mocking tone. Had I remembered my Stoic principles, however, I would have realized that it was my own self who had decided that Mary Beard had somehow offended me and all modern-day Stoics. I also would have considered how to respond in a more mature manner. Now that I have taken a moment to regain my composure (cognitive distancing: another trite Stoic principle), I will attempt  to do just that.

When Marcus Aurelius was writing what came to be known as his Meditations or “Thoughts”, he was not composing a philosophical treatise intended for academic discussion; instead he was keeping a private journal intended to help him live a more virtuous life. This was (and remains) common Stoic practice. Epictetus, one of the greatest Stoic philosophers, stressed the importance of this exercise to his students: Let these things be ready at hand, night and day. These things write, these things read: of these things talk both to yourself and to others. (Discourses, 3:24). The purpose of this practice is described well by the writer Jules Evans. As he put is, Stoics keep journals full practiced a form of “autosuggestion”:

The student memorises these sayings, writes them down in their journal, repeats them to themselves, and carries them around – that’s the point of a handbook, so the teachings are procheiron, or “close at hand”. We repeat the maxims until “through daily meditation [we] reach the point where these wholesome maxims occur of their own accord”, as Seneca put it. We assimilate them into our inner dialogue, and make them a “part of oneself”. The teachings become merged with our “tissue and blood”, part of our “body”. We become the Logos made flesh.

Another passage of SPQR which might irritate modern-day Stoic readers comes when Beard discusses Marcus Aurelius’ military exploits:

And some of the modern admirers of the gentle philosopher-emperor Marcus would be less admiring if they reflected on the the brutality of the suppression of the Germans, proudly illustrated in the scenes of battle that circle their way up the commemorative column that still stands in the centre of Rome; though less famous, it was clearly intended to rival Trajan’s and was carefully built just a little taller.

First, as a scholar of German history, I wince every time other historians use the term “the Germans” in this anachronistic way. “The Germans,” as a distinct ethnic-cultural nation, did not emerge until the Middle Ages, at the earliest.  “Germanic” would be more accurate for the ancient world. But I digress. More important is Beard’s suggestion that, since Marcus Aurelius engaged in brutal warfare, he violated his Stoic principles and was therefore, like Seneca, some kind of a hypocrite.

Marcus Aurelius was not always a mild-mannered philosopher, but an emperor and a general who also committed acts of violence that would make us blanch today? If I may be allowed one more un-stoical response: Another shocker! Anyone who has devoted any amount of serious study to the history ancient Rome knows this. Marcus Aurelius was responsible for things that today would get him sent to the International Court of Criminal Justice at the Hague. But Marcus Aurelius did not reign in the twenty-first century. He was a man of his time, and the ancient world was a very violent place.

In contrast to many other Roman emperors, however, Marcus never prosecuted wars of conquest. His wars were purely defensive — and necessary. Several times in the course of his reign, Germanic tribes invaded the Roman empire, pillaging and murdering local populaces, and setting off a wave of panic that reached the city of Rome itself. As a Stoic, he knew that the gods or the fates have entrusted each one of us with certain duties and responsibilities which we must carry out as best we can. As emperor, it was Marcus’ chief duty to protect the empire. He  discharged his duty, trying to maintain his humanity as far as possible.

While it is true that  his armies repelled the invaders with great brutality, the ancient accounts report that Marcus was also magnanimous to the Germanic tribes once they had been subdued. It is also important to remember that, despite certain similarities, Stoics are not Christians. Being a Stoic does not mean that one has to be a pacifist as well. (Christians themselves, like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, have also historically honored Christ’s pleas for love, peace and forgiveness more in the breach than in the observance.) Perhaps this is why Stoicism has traditionally found a receptive audience within the military. In any case, by guiding his troops into battle, Marcus was honoring his Stoic principles, not betraying them.

If I may conclude on another digression: While Mary Beard herself may be no admirer of Stoicism and the Stoics, she has, in the past few years, exhibited some public behavior which Epictetus, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius would have found commendable. In 2013 Internet trolls reacted to some of Beard’s television appearances with vile, obscene, misogynist comments on Twitter. Beard responded by publicly naming and shaming them. Most remarkably, however, she later forgave her trolls and even befriended some of them. As she said, people shouldn’t be punished forever for solitary acts of stupidity: In general, I am more concerned to be sure that people don’t use the internet in this way (or don’t do so again) than to seek ‘punishment’. Mary Beard’s dignified and generous response to her tormentors is worthy of a philosopher. Perhaps, somewhere along the way of her decades spent studying ancient Rome, she acquired some Stoic habits of mind after all.

And I would highly recommend all fellow modern Stoics to buy a copy of SPQR. Not to learn about the ancient Roman Stoics, but to discover the fascinating world in which they lived.

Kevin Kennedy is a German-American historian, writer, lecturer and commentator. He lives with his Swedish partner and their two children in Potsdam, Germany and Kungsbacka, Sweden. His academic specialty is eighteenth-century Prussian history. He discovered Stoicism some twenty years ago, but it has only become a part of his daily life since the first Stoic Week in 2013. He can be reached at kevin.alterfritz@gmail.com.

Stoicism Today Is Relocating by Gregory Sadler

As the editor of Stoicism Today, I’m very pleased to announce that, after considerable planning and preparation, the Stoicism Today blog is officially moving to this new virtual location.  This decision wasn’t taken lightly – after all, it is quite a bit of work to move an established blog! – but there are some compelling reasons for making this shift, which I’ll discuss below.

First though, I’d like to stress that, although the aesthetics of the blog are somewhat different on this new site where it is hosted, Stoicism Today remains the same blog.  All of the previous entries over the last four years have been migrated over to this new location.  In fact, for most of them, all of the discussions carried out in the comments have been imported as well.  The continuity extends to the staff as well – it’s still myself as editor, and Tom McConnell as editorial assistant – and the input we get from the editorial committee.

Why change anything then?  Why move to another location?  It is really a matter of exercising prudence, when it comes down to it.  The Stoic community has been growing in numbers and in  the complexity of its interconnections worldwide over the last decade, especially in the last five years.  “Stoicism Today” – both as the blog itself, and as the loose organization that originated and supports Stoic Week, Stoicon, and a number of other initiatives – has also been developing in the process.

The project group is assuming a more formal and official structure as an organization, Modern Stoicism, a charitable incorporated organization based in the UK, with an associated core group (the “steering committee”) worldwide who work out decisions by consensus – the people who you’ll see listed on the “Modern Stoicism Group” page on this new hosting site.

There are a number of main activities this group is routinely involved in.  The Stoicism Today blog is one key part of that.  You see members of the group occasionally contributing pieces to the blog, but they actually do considerably more than that behind the scenes, advising me as the editor, sending good prospects for entries my way, and collaborating to publicize events and classes.  The annual Stoicon conference itself is one prime example of that, but we also strive to promote other events where people can learn about, discuss, and practice Stoicism.  The two flagship online classes – the Stoic Week class, and the Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT) – are another main area, involving a lot of work and collaboration (the lion’s share of which falls upon Donald Robertson).

As the community of people interested in Stoicism has built up online (with a lot of healthy connections to face-to-face meetings, events, and groups), it hasn’t just grown in sheer numbers of people involved, or even the number of different venues – it’s also a matter of the complexity of the overlaps, interconnections, shares, and so forth between people, organizations, and forums where interactions take place.  Members of the “Stoicism Today” (or “Modern Stoicism” – whichever you like) project group are quite often, if not at the center of things, certainly playing significant roles.  You’ll also notice quite a few of the guest contributors to Stoicism Today similarly involved in the contemporary Stoicism community.

One main goal is for Stoicism Today/Modern Stoicism to remain just as centrally involved in the ongoing – and very exciting – activities, conversations, and developments of the larger contemporary Stoic community.  So, it was decided by a good deal of conversation, thought, and eventually consensus, that now would be a particularly propitious time to reorganize and restructure matters.

In some cases, this also involves consolidating matters that were originally based on different online platforms.  And that’s precisely what we’re doing in this case.  You’ll now be able to read the Stoicism Today blog itself on the same site that you’ll use to participate in the Stoic Week or SMRT courses, or to check for events, or look for resources – or even (hint, hint) to donate and support the ongoing work of the organization.

To bring this last entry here to a close, on behalf of Stoicism Today, I’d like to express a bit of gratitude. Thanks to the University of Exeter for hosting this excellent and needed online publication from its inception to now!  Thanks to the previous editor, Patrick Ussher, and to Tom McConnell, for all of their hard work building up this important forum for contemporary Stoicism!  Thanks to the members of the Stoicism Today project team for thought-provoking articles, organizing events and classes, and for invaluable advice!  Thanks to all of the guest contributors who labored over their own posts, enriching the ongoing conversation of this forum!

A last set of thanks must go to all of you readers of this blog.  We’re happy that Stoicism Today has drawn such a faithful and engaged audience over these last four years!  Now, as we cross the threshold into a new year, we invite you to follow us over to the new site where Stoicism Today will continue to publish weekly posts for the modern Stoic community.

Stoicism Over The Holidays by Greg Sadler

It’s that time of year, when the world falls in love.
Every song you hear seems to say, Merry Christmas.
May your New Year dreams come true.

By now, you’ve perhaps heard that old Frank Sinatra tune, the Christmas Waltz – whether on the radio, while shopping, piped in somewhere as background – at least several times this holiday season.  It expresses a rather optimistic ideal for what the holidays could be like, but goes further than that, presenting an imaginary image in three lines to the listener as revealing the true and underlying reality of “that time of year”.  The experience most (perhaps all) of us have, each successive holiday season, does not always match up to this.

Fortunately, for many, the holidays do provide moments or periods of joy, of reconnection, of excitement, of giving and receiving genuine affection (not to mention, for many, gifts or presents).  But it is also quite often – even for those looking forward to them – a stressful time.  Bringing one’s family together for a common meal, for exchanging and opening gifts, for celebration carries with it risks of all sorts.  Disagreements, disappointments, tensions, even all-out-holiday brawls (when you have them, it is better to conduct the “sharing of grievances” earlier during Festivus!)

Renewed (or more acutely felt) grief at being reminded of the absence of those who have passed away – which some feel more acutely during the holidays – is just one common mode of sadness or pain that arises for some during the holidays.  Loneliness is another that descends upon many who don’t have a strong circle of family or friends to share fellowship with.  Some are estranged, others bear hidden grief, anger, sadness, or fear which they feel they must keep to themselves.  The holidays can also be a very busy time, filled with parties, last minute shopping, decoration, meals, travel, each of which can produce its own stresses and frustrations, particularly when our expectations run high.

As I blocked in the schedule for posts in Stoicism Today months back, and saw that we would be publishing on the 24th, Christmas Eve, I thought it might be fitting for me to author a piece on Stoicism and the holidays.  There were several reasons, to which a particularly personal one has recently been added.  To start with, there have been some discussions and queries about what Stoicism might have to say about various holidays in the Facebook Stoicism group, so I pledged that I’d write something on that topic.  But, it also struck me that precisely because of the holidays – and given that a good bit of our readership does tend to be from countries where Christmas does get celebrated (at least with parties, and time off from work), guest authors might be less enthusiastic about having their post run on a day it might draw less readers.

As it turns out, for several reasons, this year we will be having a rather low-key Christmas in our own household.  And so, a good bit more of the Stoic advice and reflections I’d intended to provide here ends up being personally needed and applicable this time around.  It’s a busy time, not only because of holidays, but because it is the end of the year itself, so for those who have their own businesses (at least of certain types), not to mention other obligations and commitments, there’s a lot of work yet left to finish.  We still have yet to put up, or even unpack, any decorations as I write this, days before Christmas.  There have also been some ongoing medical issues of various severity on one side of our family, which mean some of the celebrating will likely occur in the hospital.  On the other side of our family, the manners in which the holidays and everyone’s schedule fit into the calendar rules out any big family gathering we could participate in.

 

Which Holidays Do I Mean?

There’s a first issue, I think, that bears being mentioned, and that can be put precisely as that question – which (and whose) holidays am I discussing here?   Over the last hundred or so years, Christmas effectively became what we might term a “joint-use” holiday, celebrated by most of those for whom it was a central occasion of the liturgical year, Christians – there’s a long, complex story to be told about that, which I skip over here – but also by many other people as well.  As always, someone will no doubt feel the need to pedantically point out that Christians coopted an already existing Roman holiday, the Saturnalia.  What is interesting about that is not who gets to call “original dibs”, metaphorically speaking, on the day of the year, but that Saturnalia and Christmas thereby already provide an example of an earlier, similar “joint-use”.

You see, for many in our contemporary culture, Christmas long ago became a “secularized” holiday, quite literally, an aspect of the age and its dominant culture.  It involves a whole host of festive symbols and decorations, to be sure, that can be traced back into Christian usages and innovations – sometimes deliberate reinterpretations of pre-Christian, pagan customs (the whole issue of evergreen boughs, wreaths, trees, and the like, involves a murky and complicated tale) – but many people enjoy those with little to no reference to Christianity.  Many, if not most, people get some vacation time, get invited to parties and gatherings, watch at least some “Christmas special” content, end up hearing Christmas songs (some of which have clearly religious origins and themes, and others of which focus on other aspects of the season and holidays).

There are also a number of holidays celebrated by other religions, groups, and communities in our multi-cultural societies.  I’ll undoubtably leave someone out in just naming a few here, and no offense is intended in not attempting a comprehensive list.  The Jewish holiday time of Hanukkah begins this year on this very day, the 24th.  The African-American holiday time, Kwanza, begins its celebrations on December 26. the Winter Solstice, celebrated by people ranging from neo-pagans to secular humanists, occurred back on the 21st.  Festivus – the recently coined holiday “for the rest of us” – took place yesterday on the 23rd.

By this time of year, at least here in the USA, there has usually been some unpleasantness and discord over precisely whose holidays the season is supposed to be about.  It tends to center primarily around whether we refer to Christmas or to “The Holidays.”   For instance, is it proper to wish someone “Merry Christmas,” when one is a Christian and the other person is not?  Or must one instead go with the more inclusive “Happy Holidays”?  People do get quite worked up over these matters.  And as an added complication, there’s debate over the role of Santa, the propriety of gift-giving, what sort of decorations are appropriate, and so on.

I’d like to suggest that a practicing Stoic would deliberately steer clear of involvement in those intractable and perennial disagreements.  There’s little point, nothing to gain, and plenty to lose, in getting involved in the issue, whether in face to face conversation, in various online media, or even just within the play of one’s own emotions.  If other people want to contest what we might call the “holiday space”, using their time at the end of the year in that way, that is something up to them, and doesn’t have to be taken on as a concern for a Stoic.  It is just as possible to go into a situation in which people deliberately wish each other greetings intended to push each other’s figurative buttons and press their claims, as it was in Epictetus’ time to enter the public baths, reminding oneself that what one really wants to do is maintain one’s interior dispositions in accordance with nature (as best one can!).

Wishing another person well, by whatever greeting one chooses to employ, can be taken by the recipient in a way that focuses on the fact that another person is wishing him or her well.  Alternately, it can be taken by the recipient as an attempt by the holiday well-wisher to foist values and beliefs the recipient does not share onto him or her.  This is a prime example of the famous dictum of the “two handles.”  One has a choice about which handle to take, and the Stoic exercising prudence will take the handle the matter can be successfully carried by.

 

Participating In the Festival

Whatever holiday one has in mind during the holiday season, there’s typically quite a few things that, from a Stoic perspective, may strike one as irrational, silly, focused far too much on externals,  even a waste of one’s time, or an imposition upon one.  Interestingly, Epictetus discusses situations like that in several passages of the Discourses.  In one, he says:

When the children come up to us and clap their hands and say “Today is the good Saturnalia,” do we say to them, “All this is not good?” Not at all, but we too clap our hands to them. (1.29)

This is an analogy, adduced in order to suggest how we can approach those who we think would be better off taking a Stoic point of view, but who are not ready to do, or perhaps who will always be resistant to it.  But we could take it more literally.  There’s no point to being a morose, lecturing spoiler, insisting on playing a role of the austere, joyless Stoic (which is, after all, not really what Stoicism is about) when it comes to holidays.  One can participate in the “holiday spirit” cheerfully without thereby losing oneself or abandoning one’s established way of life.

Epictetus draws upon the Saturnalia in another analogy a bit earlier in book 1.

At the Saturnalia a king is chosen by lot.  The king gives commands: “You drink, you mix wine, you sing, you go, you come” I obey, so as not to be the one to break up the game. (1.25)

He sees a value there in “not breaking up the game,” one that can easily be transferred to holiday rituals, traditions, and celebrations.  In fact, later in book 4, Epictetus notes that taking part in a festival is not just a matter of not disrupting or denigrating it in ways that might affect others, but can also offer its own enjoyable experience.  Immediately after once again reminding us about the need to focus on what lies within our control, what is a matter of moral purpose or the faculty of choice (prohairesis), he says to the person who complains because he has to live his life out in the midst of a turmoil:

Imagine that you are in Olympia, regard the turmoil as a festival.  There too, one person shouts this and another that; one does this and another that; one jostles another; there is a crowd in the baths.  And yet, who does not take delight in the Olympic festival and leave it with sorrow.  . . . If you fall in with a crowd, call it games, a festival, a holiday, try to keep holiday with the people.  For what is pleasanter to a person who loves his or her fellow human being than the sight of large numbers of them? (4.4)

Simply put, a Stoic following Epictetus’ advice will be at antipodes from a Scrooge (at least the one at the start of A Christmas Carol) .  He or she might think some of what is going on is “humbug”, but won’t feel the need to make an issue of that at the time, and will participate with good cheer in the festivities.

 

Celebrating The Holidays

By the time I write this, those who have those temptations thrust in their faces have hopefully made it through the notorious office holiday parties.  Sometimes they can be great fun with one’s colleagues and co-workers.  In other cases they can prove a dull obligation, but what one really has to watch out for are those parties where the drinks flow freely, people indulge past the point of moderation and conviviality, and craziness ensues.  From a Stoic perspective, of course, that’s just one occasion where whatever level of the virtue of temperance a person has developed needs to be drawn upon during the holiday season.

There are usually ample opportunities to indulge oneself.  Candy, cookies, and other sweets become nearly ubiquitous at this time of year.  This is also a time when all sorts of other traditional dishes and treats get bought, prepared, and consumed (in our family, it tends to be meat-pie, i.e. tourtiere, with oyster soup, and sometimes smoked salmon).  With parties and other festivities also often comes a potential for overindulgence in all sorts of other things that provide pleasures of the body as well.  It’s useful to keep in mind Seneca’s advice about Saturnalia conduct in his 18th Letter to Lucilius:

[T]his is just the season when we ought to lay down the law to the soul, and bid it be alone in refraining from pleasures just when the whole mob has let itself go in pleasures; for this is the surest proof which a man can get of his own constancy, if he neither seeks the things which are seductive and allure him to luxury, nor is led into them. It shows much more courage to remain dry and sober when the mob is drunk and vomiting; but it shows greater self-control to refuse to withdraw oneself and to do what the crowd does, but in a different way, thus neither making oneself conspicuous nor becoming one of the crowd. For one may keep holiday without extravagance.

Notice that he frames the Stoic attitude in two possible ways.  One can refrain entirely, hold oneself aloof from the physical accoutrements of shared celebration.  Or one can enjoy them, but in a reasonable, moderate manner.

It isn’t just the attraction to these-days-easily-accessible pleasures that may pose a challenge to the committed Stoic during the holidays – one made a bit more difficult by the very departures from the everyday routines that accompanies this end-of-the-year interval of time.  For many, the holidays involve getting together with friends and family.  And while in some cases, those get-togethers are very enjoyable – even something one eagerly anticipates in months prior – for many others, those interactions prove much less enjoyable, edifying, or even healthy.

This is where the Stoic “reserve clause” can come in very handy.  That’s shorthand for deliberately and sometimes explicitly saying “fate willing” as a reminder that many things lie outside of our control.  Within the matrix of the family – particularly for those whose main face to face contact with their family occurs largely at occasional events and holidays – there are common pitfalls for which the reserve clause can prove useful.

Some place unduly high expectations upon how things will pan out over the holidays, raising their hopes that, for example, “This Christmas is going to be the best ever!”  Considered closely, that set of expectations seems likely to be disappointed, as plans go awry, people don’t react as one would like, or in short, events go contrary to expectations.  All of these provide occasions to remind oneself that some things are indeed outside of one’s control, and that one’s genuine good or bad lie involves what is within one’s control – or as Epictetus likes to frame it, what lies within the domain of one’s faculty of choice.

Here also, I think, is where it becomes useful to keep in mind the Stoic understanding of duties and their connection with roles and relationships.  As human beings, we exist within a matrix of relationships, many of which we find ourselves saddled with because of matters that we had little to no choice about.  Much of our family relationships are of this sort.  We do, however, have some measure of choice in how we live out our roles and relationships.  We don’t get to decide, of course, how others will behave towards us.

We are prone to disappointment – particularly over the holidays – over gulfs that emerge between the relationships we do experience and the relationships we might like to imagine, or to hope for, with our family members (or sometimes with friends as well).  But in certain respects, that’s up to them.  If a sibling, a parent, a child – or extending these considerations beyond the family, a friend, a colleague, a neighbor –  doesn’t choose to live out (or even understand) the role that comes with that relationship, then from a Stoic perspective that is indeed something bad.  But it’s not primarily bad for you.  It’s bad, as Epictetus says, for the person who damages or even destroys that person with him or herself, for example the parent, the sibling, the friend, or the neighbor.  What is up to us, however,  is how we conduct ourselves, how we choose to think about the situation, and thereby also what we feel.

 

Being Alone Over the Holidays

There can be stresses, conflicts, and disappointments that mar one’s pleasant (but not realistic) hopes and expectations about what the holidays will hold.  But for some people in particular, there is much less to look forward to, and those days and nights might even become something one comes to dread, or to want to get through as quickly as possible.  There are a number of people who find the holidays difficult for a variety of reasons.

Foremost among these, perhaps, is loneliness.  Feeling isolated from others, particularly at a time of year when relationships, parties, family, traditions, and the like receive so much stress – not only in actual life but also in the songs, movies, and shows about the holidays – can produce a painful sense of being alone, even being the one person you know who is on his or her own, forgotten, cut off from others.  That certainly is a painful condition – something that I think not only I and many others can say from experience, but also a matter the classic Stoic authors likely could relate to at some point in their own lives.

Although I don’t expect that it provides an immediate or easy consolation, what Epictetus has to say about solitude may prove helpful, at least to some.  He writes, arguably from his own experience, about a state of eremia, which can be translated as “solitude,” “forlornness”, or “loneliness”.  When we feel this way, what underlies it is a sense that we are bereft of those from whom we might get some help, share something, find some personal connection.  Epictetus notes that this can occur, even when we are surrounded by other people (3.13).

This is a point where reminding ourselves that we are not entirely on our own can be useful. Contemporary Stoics are not all theistic in their worldview, but can at least appreciate the idea that a human being is part not only of whatever community he or she happens to live in, but also a larger, more universal community that Epictetus declares is one of “gods and human beings” (2.6).  So although we may be in some respects on our own, and feel lonely, Stoicism offers a perspective from which we can view ourselves as integrated parts of a larger whole of humanity.

There’s much more that could be said, but these reflections seem like a fitting place to bring this post to a close.  So, let me wish all of you readers, on behalf of the entire Stoicism Today team, a holiday season in which you enjoy what the good emotions have to offer, you find the best part of yourselves through successfully living out your roles and relationships, you manage to maintain your moral purpose, and during which relaxation readies you for facing the new year to come!

 

Gregory Sadler is the Editor of the Stoicism Today blog.  He is also the president and founder of ReasonIO, a company established to put philosophy into practice, providing tutoring, coaching, and philosophical counseling services, and producing educational resources.  He works as an executive coach and ethics trainer for Priority Thinking, produces the Half Hour Hegel series, and is a team member of (Slow) Philosophies.

Are Stoics Happy? Stoic Week 2016 Report part 2 (of 4) by Tim LeBon

“For what prevents us from saying that the happy life is to have a mind that is independent, elevated, fearless, and unshakeable, a mind that exists beyond the reach of fear and of desire, that regards honour as the only good and infamy as the only evil, and everything else as a trivial collection of things, which come and go, neither subtracting anything from the happy life nor adding anything to it, and do not increase or diminish the highest good? It is inevitable that a man with such a grounding, whether he wills it or not, will be accompanied by continuous cheerfulness and a profound happiness that comes from deep inside him, since he is one who takes pleasure in his own resources and wishes for no joys greater than those of his own heart.”
– Seneca, On the Happy Life 4. (translated J. Davie)

“‘I wonder if I might draw your attention to an observation of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius? [Jeeves] said. “Does anything befall you? It is good. It is part of the destiny of the universe ordained for you from the beginning. All that befalls you is part of the great web.’”
I breathed a bit stertorously. ‘He said that, did he?’
‘Yes, sir.’
‘Well, you can tell him from me he’s an ass.’”
– P.G. Wodehouse The Mating Season

 

Introduction

Are Stoics happy? When reading Seneca, you may become convinced that a profound happiness must accompany anyone who has developed the independent, elevated and fearless mind of a Stoic. The novelist P.G Wodehouse provides a different perspective. Who is right? Armchair philosophising cannot provide the answer. It is an empirical matter and in the twenty-first century we have access to methods of investigation that were not available to the Roman Stoics. For several years the Stoicism Today project has been working on this question – this article provides an update on some of the latest findings.

The focus in this article is what we can learn from the results of the questionnaires given to participants at the start of the Stoic Week that took place between Oct 17th and 23rd, 2016. Stoic Week has become an annual event in which anyone with access to the internet is invited to “live like a Stoic” for a week. To do this participants download and read a free booklet and audio materials carry out Stoic exercises daily and, if they are kind, help us with our research by filling in questionnaires at the start and end of the week.

This year participants completed the SABS scale (the Stoic Attitudes and Behaviours scale v3.0), a measure designed by the Stoicism Today team to measure someone’s level of Stoicism and three validated well-being scales which measure Satisfaction with Life, Flourishing and Positive and Negative emotions respectively. In this way it is possible, by using the statistical method of correlation, to ascertain whether Stoic attitudes and behaviours go with happiness, as Seneca would have us believe – or perhaps not, as P.G. Wodehouse implies.

 

Your questions answered

This year the main findings are being presented as answers to questions people have asked in past years. Detailed facts and figures can be found in the appendices at the end.

Q: Are Stoics happy?
A: Our analysis suggests that in general the more Stoic one is the happier one is too.

Taking an average of the 3 well-being scales, there is a correlation coefficient of .4 between Stoicism and well-being. Given the size of the sample (nearly two thousand), the chances of this association being accidental is less than one in a million.

Of course, correlation does not necessarily imply causation. It could be that the association exists because the happier one is, the more Stoic one is, or possibly something else (such as income) could be driving both higher levels of happiness and Stoicism. However, once this strong correlation between well-being and Stoicism at the start of Stoic Week and a significant increase in well-being during Stoic Week (which has been found to be the case in previous years, this years findings will be reported in part 3 of this report) , it would not be unreasonable to infer some causation going in the direction of practising Stoicism and being somewhat happier. This seems to be true however we define happiness, though we should also note that the association is stronger for flourishing (happiness in the round) than for life satisfaction.

Seneca 1 P.G Wodehouse 0?

 

Q: Hold on, Isn’t Stoicism all about being virtuous and not about happiness? Don’t Stoics go so far as to say that happiness is a “preferred indifferent”. So why are you bothering to do this research?
A: It’s true, the convinced Stoic would say that this finding itself is a preferred indifferent. They would doubtless be pleased that Stoicism goes with happiness, but would argue that this isn’t the main reason you should be Stoic.

However this is not the whole story. We have the testament of Seneca (quoted above) as well as Epictetus who often pointed out that Stoicism leads to greater happiness and more tranquillity. They realised that many of their audience were not convinced Stoics. Practical wisdom necessitated pointing to Stoicism’s positive side-effects (happiness and tranquillity) to win over converts. I would argue that   today we are in much the same situation as the Roman Stoics. Most of our audience are not convinced Stoics either. But their interest may be piqued when by learning that Stoicism may make you happier. Certainly they will also be reassured by learning that Stoicism is unlikely to make you miserable or emotionless. If we would like Stoicism to be promoted in companies, government and within the NHS, these findings about the relationship between Stoicism and well-being become all the more important.

Q: I can believe that Stoics are less unhappy, but you’re not claiming that Stoicism actually goes with positive emotions too, are you?
A: Actually our analysis suggests that Stoicism does go with positive emotions as much as with the reduction of negative emotions.

The SPANE scale allows us to measure the relationship of Stoicism with various emotions, positive and negative. Table 1 shows the correlation coefficient[i] between emotions and Stoicism.

Emotion Correlation with Stoic Attitudes and Behaviours
Contented 0.35
Good 0.32
Positive 0.31
Pleasant 0.30
Negative -0.29
Bad -0.28
Happy 0.28
Sad -0.26
Joyful 0.26
Afraid -0.26
Unpleasant -0.24
Angry -0.24

Table 1 : Correlation of SABS 3.0 scores and SPANE items

So perhaps Seneca is exaggerating only a little when he says that Stoicism leads to “continuous cheerfulness and a profound happiness”

Seneca 2 P.G Wodehouse 0?

 

Q: Are those who know a lot about Stoicism (without practising it) happier?
A: No. There is only a weak association between stated knowledge of Stoicism and average well-being (a correlation co-efficient of about .1) , whereas it’s nearly four times higher for people who practise Stoicism. 

Q: Which has more impact on happiness, Stoic behaviours or attitudes?
A: Behaviours are significantly more impactful – a coefficient of .38 as opposed to.29 for attitudes.

Q: You previously published a report on the demographics of Stoic Week 2016. Can you now tell us anything about which groups are most and least Stoic?
A: Yes, absolutely, what would you like to know?

Q: Do you get more or less Stoic as you get older?
A: Interestingly, there seems to be quite a strong relationship between age and Stoicism. The under 18s (admittedly a very small group) were by far the least Stoic. The over 55s were the most Stoic and in general the older people are, the more Stoic they are. The average SABS scores for each age group are as follows:

Age Average SABS score
over 55 168.6
46-55 165.3
36-45 165.3
26-35 162.10
18-25 159.00
Under 18 148.50

Table 2: Relationship between Age and degree of Stoicism

 

Q: Which area of the world is most Stoic?
A: The Americas win . The UK (stiff upper lip notwithstanding) trails the field.

Region Average SABS score
USA 165.9
South America 165.4
Canada 163.7
Europe 162.1
Australia 161.5
Africa 161.2
Asia 160.1
UK 158.7

 Table 3: Relationship between geographic region and degree of Stoicism

 

Q: Are men or women more Stoic?
A: Our data suggests that men are marginally more Stoic, averaging 164.5 on the SABS scale as opposed to 161.5 for women.

Q: In what ways are people most Stoic?
A: The items which score highest are given in table 4 below.

No. SABS Item Average score (0-7)
5 Peace of mind comes from abandoning fears and desires about things outside our control. 5.97
8 The only things truly under our control in life are our judgements and voluntary actions 5.78
2 It doesn’t really matter what other people think about me as long as I do the right thing 5.65
10 Virtue (or human excellence) consists in perfecting our rational nature, through cultivating wisdom 5.59

Table 4:  The ways in which participants are most Stoic

 

Q: If you had to ask one question to find out if someone was Stoic that didn’t mention the word “Stoic” what should it be?
A: Surprisingly, I should ask them whether they believe that “Recognising that only virtue matters enables me to face life’s transience and my approaching death” (item 26). This has a correlation coefficient of .6 with the SABS scale as a whole, higher than any other SABS item.

Q: Surely PG. Wodehouse was right about something? You have to agree that there are some parts of Stoicism which seem pretty implausible these days – like destiny and “the great web”. Does your research shed any light on this?
A: It is indeed possible to dig deeper and find the associations between specific elements of Stoicism and well-being. Table 5 below shows the items most associated with well-being.

No SABS Item

(non-Stoic items in italics, these are reverse scored)

 

 

Theme

Correlation with average well-being
22 I spend quite a lot of time dwelling on what’s gone wrong the past or worrying about the future Non-Stoic Rumination and worry (reverse scored) 0.47
27 I do the right thing even when I feel afraid Stoic Courage 0.31
24 When an upsetting thought enters my mind the first thing I do is remind myself it’s just an impression in my mind and not the thing it claims to represent Cognitive Distancing 0.29
31 When making a significant decision I ask myself “What really matters here?” and then look for the option that a good and wise person would choose Stoic Practical Wisdom 0.26
19 I try to contemplate what the ideal wise and good person would do when faced with various misfortunes in life Ideal Stoic Advisor 0.24
13 I consider myself to be a part of the human race, in the same way that a limb is a part of the human body. It is my duty to contribute to its welfare Stoic Humanity Connected 0.24
25 Viewing other people as fellow-members of the brotherhood of humankind helps me to avoid feeling anger and resentment Stoic Brotherhood on Humankind 0.24
11 I think about my life as an ongoing project in ethical development Stoic Ethical Development 0.23
28 I care about the suffering of others and take active steps to reduce this ( Stoic Compassion 0.23
23 I make an effort to pay continual attention to the nature of my judgments and actions Stoic Mindfulness 0.22
17 If I was honest I’d have to admit that I  often do what is enjoyable and comfortable rather than doing what I believe to be the right thing Non-Stoic Short- term hedonism (reverse scored) 0.22
26 Recognising that only virtue matters enables me to face life’s transience and my approaching death Stoic coping with death 0.21
32 I sometimes have thoughts or urges it would be unwise to act on, but I usually realise this and do not act on them Stoic Self Control 0.20
6 If bad things happen to you, you are bound to feel upset Non-Stoic Upset is Inevitable (reverse scored) 0.20
21 I treat everybody fairly even those I don’t like or don’t know very well Stoic Fairness 0.20

Table 5:   SABS 3.0 Items most associated with well-being
As in previous years, the SABS with by far the strongest association with well-being (however it is measured) item 22 , asking about ruminating and worrying. Stoic virtues also do very well, with courage, practical wisdom , compassion, self-control and fairness all scoring highly. Cognitive distancing (item 24) scores well, as does using the Stoic Ideal Advisor and items to do with seeing humanity as connected and Stoic Cosmopolitanism.

No SABS Item

(non-Stoic items in italics, these are reverse scored)

Theme Correlation with average well-being
16 I often contemplate the smallness and transience of human life in relation to the totality of space and time View from Above 0.09
10 Virtue (or human excellence) consists in perfecting our rational nature, through cultivating wisdom Virtue is Wisdom 0.10
8 The only things truly under our control in life are our judgements and voluntary actions What we can control 0.11
5 Peace of mind comes from abandoning fears and desires about things outside our control Focussing on what we can control 0.13
14 The cosmos is a  single, wise, living  thing Wise Cosmos 0.13

Table 6: SABS 3.0 Items least associated with well-being

 

The above 5 items all have a positive association with well-being, but it is fairly weak relationship. Contemplating the smallness and transience of human life in relation to the totality of space and time (item 16) as in the View from Above is not especially associated with well-being, despite the popularity of the View from Above meditation. Item 14, “The Cosmos is a single, wise living thing” most closely resembles the Stoic idea satirised by PG. Wodehouse. To be fair to Wodehouse it is one of the least strong predictors of well-being, although it is still a positive association. Perhaps on this one point, we should concede a tie.

The final score – Seneca 3 PG. Wodehouse 1

[i] A correlation coefficient of 1 would indicate a perfect relationship, 0 no relationship at all – a negative number indicates an inverse relationship

For a PDF file of the full report, including appendices, click here.

Tim LeBon can be contacted via email on tim@timlebon.com. His website is http://www.timlebon.com

Can you be a Stoic and a political activist? by Christopher Gill

The answer to this question is certainly ‘yes’, as I’ll go on to explain. It might seem puzzling why anyone should think there is a contradiction, but people sometimes do think that. For instance, at the 2015 Stoicon, Vincent Deary, a British health psychologist and well-known writer, was critical of the idea of modern Stoicism. Deary assumed that being Stoic, under modern conditions, meant accepting your situation in life, whatever this was, even if this was the result of social injustice. He praised a client of his, an elderly widow, who responded to her situation in a rebellious and angry spirit, because she saw it as the result of injustice, rather than what he saw as the ‘Stoic’ response of putting up with this. The ancient Stoics did urge us to accept, in a calm spirit, things that are genuinely inevitable – above all, the fact of our own future death and that of other people, including those close to us. But this does not mean that we should accept unjust situations, which are not inevitable and are the result of deliberate human action. On the contrary, the Roman Stoics, in particular, were well-known for challenging what they saw as political injustice – in that sense, they were well-known for being political activists and they can provide models for us in this respect.

The key to understanding Stoic thinking on political involvement – like much else in Stoic ethics – is their theory of ethical development. The Stoics believe there is a pattern of life-long ethical development that is natural for human beings – that expresses human nature at its best – and we should do all we can to take this process forward. This pattern consists in two, interconnected strands. In one strand (centred on value), we gradually gain a better understanding of the virtues, what these involve, and how to embed these in our lives. (The Stoics thought there were four generic virtues: wisdom, courage, justice, and self-control, and that these were interconnected and inseparable.) Also, we gradually recognize that living in line with the virtues is what really matters in human life – what brings us real happiness.

The second strand of ethical development centres on our relationship to other people. The Stoics believed that, alongside the natural motive of self-preservation, there is a second natural motive, namely to care for others of our kind. The instinct, found in all animals, including human beings, to love and care for our children, is a clear example of this motive. As we develop, human beings express this motive in more complex and rational ways, which also express a growing understanding of the virtues. This leads to two main kinds of outcome. One is social involvement (in family, communal, or political life), in a form that expresses understanding of the virtues. Another is the recognition that all human beings – because they are all capable of this process of rational, ethical development – are, in a sense, brothers and sisters to us, or fellow-members of a single world-community. Although different Stoic sources emphasize one or other of these outcomes, they are often seen as compatible or mutually supporting. Social or political involvement in a specific, local context is achieved in the best way (the way that expresses the virtues), if it is combined with recognition of the fundamental kinship or co-citizenship of all human beings as rational agents.

This Stoic theory of ethical development makes sense, I think, of their thinking on political involvement. Our evidence for their ideas on this topic is rather limited, and, as with other topics, different Stoics seem to have interpreted these ideas in somewhat different ways. But there are some consistent themes. First of all, the Stoics thought that, other things being equal, we should get involved in community and political life in our specific or local context – unlike the Epicureans, for instance, who thought such involvement was likely to undermine our own peace of mind. Secondly, our involvement should be carried out in a way that also expressed and promoted our understanding of the virtues (wisdom, courage, justice, self-control). Thirdly, our involvement at a local level should also reflect the recognition that, although different kinds of people have different claims on us, all human beings as such have a kinship and in a sense co-citizenship with us. These principles have a direct bearing on the sense in which Stoicism encourages us to be political active; it also has a bearing on how far one can be a Stoic and also a political activist, which usually means challenging the established political order in some way. I’ll give some examples of how the ancient Stoics put these ideas into practice and then discuss how they might help us to formulate our own approach now.

First, were ancient Stoics active in politics and if so how? In looking at this question it’s worth bearing in mind that, for much of the time that ancient Stoicism was most active (from the third century BCE to the second century CE), Greece and later Rome were ruled by kings or emperors, even though at other times, Athens had been a democracy and Rome a republic. It’s also worth noting that, for the most part, and unlike some other ancient philosophies, Stoicism did not consistently recommend one form of government as the best one absolutely. Rather, they maintained that, whatever context we find ourselves in (with exceptions noted shortly), we should be involved politically in a way that is consistent with our specific situation in life, character and talents, and our ethical principles. In Hellenistic Greece (that is, third to first century BCE), the main options were either involvement in local or community politics or being a philosophical advisor to a king, and some Stoics played both these roles.

Also, simply being a philosophical teacher in Athens was regarded as a kind of public or political role. It’s worth remembering that this often meant teaching and arguing in a public place, such as the colonnade or Stoa after which the school was named. In Rome, a number of members of the political élite adopted Stoicism as their philosophy, and combined this with various forms of political involvement. These included being a leading politician and general under the Republic (Cato the younger, first century BCE), advising an emperor (Seneca, advisor to Nero, first century CE), and being the emperor himself (Marcus Aurelius, second century CE). At the other end of the social scale, Epictetus, an ex-slave (first-second century CE), took on the role of a philosophical teacher; he had no direct involvement in politics, but taught many students who went into political life. So, ancient Stoics seem overall to have practised what they preached, and to have become involved in politics to the extent that was feasible in their context and personal situation.

How far did this involvement express distinctively Stoic values? And did it lead them to engage in political activism, that is, challenging political authority on the grounds of injustice? This is, in fact, a very well-marked feature of political life in the late Roman republic and Empire. It mainly took the form of exemplary gestures, designed to signal moral disapproval of a given political ruler or regime, typically a dictator or emperor. Although Stoicism did not reject sole rule as a constitutional form (or indeed any given constitutional form), they rejected tyrannical abuse of power, seeing it as an exercise of injustice in the political sphere. This is the common thread underlying a series of famous exemplary gestures.

Cato committed suicide (in 46 BCE), in a very deliberate and obvious way, rather than submit to what he saw as Julius Caesar’s illegitimate and unjust replacement of the Roman republic by dictatorship. A number of Roman senators, such as Helvidius Priscus and Thrasea Paetus (both first century CE), signalled their disapproval of the injustice of the emperor in power, for instance, Nero or Domitian. They did so by refusing to attend the senate, by remaining silent there, or walking out in protest – and these gestures were recognized as challenges to the regime and often led to exile or execution. (There was in fact a general expulsion of philosophers in 89 CE under Domitian, in response to this kind of attitude.) Seneca’s attempt to retire from his role of Nero’s adviser, when it was clear his attempt to control Nero’s excesses had failed, was taken as a gesture of disapproval and led to his enforced suicide in 65 CE. These are clear cases where Stoic principle (the refusal to be complicit in an unjust political order) led certain Romans from being politically active to being political activists, using exemplary gestures in the way that Gandhi did successfully in his campaign of passive resistance to the British rule of India which he saw as unjust.

This passage of Marcus Aurelius Meditations sums up the two features of Stoic political thought considered so far. ‘… through him [Severus] I have come to understand Thrasea, Helvidius, Cato, Dio, Brutus, and have grasped the idea of a state based on equality before the law, which is administered according to the principles of equality and freedom of speech, and of a monarchy, which values above all the liberty of its subjects’ (1.14). Marcus refers to a number of the well-known Stoic activists I have just discussed. Marcus also sums up his own credo as an emperor. Although not all Stoics would necessarily have shared this approach, it clearly represents a Stoic type of ideal, namely Marcus’ attempt to play his role in life (as an emperor) in a way that was consistent with expressing the virtues in a political context.

What about the Stoic idea of the brotherhood of humanity or co-citizenship in the world? What role did this play in their political thinking? Sometimes it provides a kind of objective or broader framework for more localized political action, placing this in a broader moral framework: as in this quotation from Marcus. ‘As Antoninus, my city and fatherland is Rome, as a human being, it is the universe. It is only what benefits these cities which is good for me’ (6.44.6). At other times this idea is brought more directly into moral or political decision-making. Antipater, one of the Hellenistic heads of the Stoic school (in 159-129 BCE), argued that when we are doing business, for instance, selling a house, we should be open and honest about the faults of the property, even if we make less money, bearing in mind that all those involved are members of the brotherhood of humankind and deserve just treatment (Cicero, On Duties 3.52). Cicero (106-43 BCE), though not a Stoic himself, sometimes adopted Stoic principles; he maintained that anyone who becomes a tyrant (unjust ruler) puts himself outside the brotherhood of humanity or the ‘body’ of rational human agents. More controversially he maintained that this principle justified the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BCE (On Duties 3.22-28, 32). These examples give us some idea how the idea of the brotherhood of humankind was used to support both political involvement and social and political activism in the sense I am considering here.

Finally, what lessons can we learn from Stoic thinking and practice on this subject that might help us today? I would not want to suggest that Stoic political principles provide a straightforward answer to any given political question, for instance how we should have vote in the British referendum on our membership of the EU (June 2016) or the recent US presidential election (November 2016), but they certainly can provide ideas on which we can reflect in making such decisions. In particular, I think the Stoic idea of the brotherhood of humankind or co-citizenship of the world has a special value for us in the present political climate. Many of the most intense debates today on both sides of the Atlantic centre on how we should respond to the claims of refugees from war-zones, how we should respond to people who want to become immigrants in our country, or how we should treat people whose religion is different from our own, or from that prevalent in our country.

I think the Stoic idea of the brotherhood of humankind can help to place these questions in a broader perspective and can lead us to recognize that treating whole classes of people who differ from us in one of these ways as somehow less than human or wholly outside the boundaries of our ethical concern is morally unacceptable. More generally, I believe the Stoic approach of locating questions of political involvement and activism within the broader framework of human ethical development is a helpful one. I think there is considerable value in trying to view one’s life as an on-going project of ethical progress, centred on bringing together our growing understanding of the virtues and of how to treat other people better; and that this view can help us to adopt a more thoughtful and constructive view of political engagement than is often held.

Further Reading

A. Long and D. N. Sedley, The Hellenistic Philosophers, Cambridge, 1987: sections 57, 67, also 59D.

Chapters by M. Schofield (ch. 22) and C. Gill (ch. 29) in C. Rowe and M. Schofield, The Cambridge History of Greek and Roman Political Thought, Cambridge, 2000.

Griffin, Seneca: A Philosopher in Politics, Oxford 1976 (1992).

 

This post is the transcript of Professor Gill’s presentation at the STOICON 2016 conference.  The video of talk can be viewed here.

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

Hard Truths and Happiness by John Sellars

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There is an Australian podcast you can find online with the title ‘Philosophy Can Ruin Your Life’. The motivation behind the deliberately provocative title is, I assume, to challenge the way in which some people have tried to co-opt philosophy into what is sometimes called ‘the happiness industry’. There are all sorts of ways in philosophy might make people miserable. Ignorance, so the saying goes, is bliss; people regularly concoct fictitious narratives and explanations to make themselves feel better about their lives and their place within the world. By contrast, philosophical truths, to the extent we might find any at all, may turn out to be far from comforting.

Many people interested or involved in the popular revival of Stoicism will say that Stoicism can help us to lead better and happier lives. At first glance that might lead us to think that the current revival of interest in Stoicism is part of ‘the happiness industry’. For the dissatisfied, disillusioned, or depressed who have searched in vain for something to lift their spirits, perhaps Stoicism is the next thing to try that might help overcome their gloom and restore their joie du vivre. If we talk about Stoicism as a form of therapy or as having therapeutic elements within it this can certainly contribute to this impression: Stoicism offers therapy, but therapy for what? It seems natural to assume that the answer is therapy for unhappiness. Thus Stoicism looks like it has happiness as its main concern. Indeed, the ancient Stoics aimed at eudaimonia which is usually translated as ‘happiness’.

What I want to do is to challenge or at least to qualify that view. Stoicism will not make you happy – at least not in the sense that ‘happiness’ is often used in the culture of modern self-help. It is not about thinking in a certain way in order to have a warm, fuzzy feeling inside.

Let me say straight away that I do not mean to attack or to reject anything that anyone else is planning to say. Stoicism is a philosophy that is guided by the idea that people want to live well, to have what Zeno the founder called ‘a smooth flow of life’, and Stoicism thinks it can help people to reach that goal. And Stoicism is explicitly therapeutic, in both its early Athenian and later Roman versions. The point that I want to stress is that Stoicism is not merely a therapy aimed at making people feel better; it is also and indeed primarily a philosophy. As a philosophy it is committed to trying to understand the world and it makes a whole series of truth claims about the world. Whatever positive impact it might be able to have on the quality of someone’s life will be dependent upon those claims it makes about the world and our place in it.

In order to develop this further we might consider a popular critical image of Stoicism: a Stoic is someone who is powerless in the real world and so pretends that his or her happiness is something completely internal and within their own control. Got no money? Easy, just say that money is unnecessary for a good life and the problem is solved. According to a long line of modern critics of Stoicism from Hegel onwards, the Stoic is someone who lies themselves out of reality in order to feel happy in otherwise unpleasant circumstances. It is an example of what Nietzsche called a ‘slave morality’, ultimately grounded in powerlessness and an inability to face up to some hard truths about life.

I think that image of Stoicism is unfair to say the least. But not only do I think it is unfair, I think it is the polar opposite of what we actually find in Stoic authors such as Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. Rather than try to lie their way out of facing up to reality, I think that a central theme in the work of both these Roman Stoics is to force us to confront some hard and often uncomfortable truths about the way the world works. Let me try to flesh this out with some examples.

There is a notorious passage in Epictetus in which he says that each night when we kiss our children or loved ones before going to sleep we should remind ourselves that they are merely mortal: ‘what harm is there in your saying beneath your breath as you’re kissing your child, “Tomorrow you’ll die”?’ (Discourses 3.24.88; cf. Meditations 11.34). In another passage he compares the loss of a child to the breaking of a jug: ‘If you’re fond of a jug, say, “This is a jug that I’m fond of,” and then, if it gets broken, you won’t be upset. If you kiss your child or your wife, say to yourself that it is a human being that you’re kissing; and then, if one of them should die, you won’t be upset’ (Handbook 3).

Critics of Stoicism have jumped on these passages as examples of how cold and unfeeling Stoicism is, and many admirers have found them uncomfortable and have tried to explain them away. Instead I think we ought to take these passages very seriously. What is Epictetus trying to do here? He is certainly not – as some critics have rightly pointed out – saying anything that looks like it might make us feel happy. So what is he doing? He is simply trying to get us to face up to some hard truths. We are all mortal. Our loved ones are all mortal. They will all die. Our children will die. Many of us in the developed West do not fear that our children might die in their sleep each time we put them to bed, but in antiquity and indeed in many other parts of the world today this was and is a far more real possibility. And of course this does still happen in the developed world, often without any obvious explanation, to families who have had the full benefits of modern medicine. All our children will die. If we are lucky they will die after we do, but either way they are going to die.

This is a hard truth – perhaps one of the hardest truths – about the way the world works and it is one that Epictetus wants us to confront. And he wants us to confront it now so that should such a terrible thing actually befall us we might be in some way prepared to cope with it. It is an example of an ancient practice used by the Stoics known as premeditation of future evils, which suggests that we reflect on unpleasant things that might happen in the future so that we can be better mentally prepared to cope with them if they do happen. It is perhaps the most extreme case of such premeditation because of course it goes without saying that there can be few things worse than having to bury one’s own child.

Why does Epictetus want us to confront head on this hardest of truths? If we are looking for happiness this seems like the very last thing we ought be thinking about. (Ancient hedonists explicitly rejected the practice of premeditation of future evils because they thought it would only increase our pain.) The answer is simple: Epictetus is not a happiness coach, he is a philosopher, and as a philosopher he wants to understand the world as it really is, and then work out how best to cope with and live in it. Rather than lie his way out of reality, as some critics of Stoicism have suggested, Epictetus wants to stare it in the face, and he is proposing that we need to do the same if we are to learn to live well within it.

But Epictetus is not quite as brutal as all this suggests. There is a consolatory element at work here too. Yes we are all mortal and so are our loved ones but that ought not to lead us into nihilist despair about the meaninglessness of human existence. Instead we ought to try to understand this fact within the wider context of Nature as a whole. We ought to try to understand our mortality as but one fact among many about what it means to be a living being, an animal, a biological entity that has a life cycle. And we ought to try to understand ourselves as biological organisms within the wider context of the processes of Nature as a whole. In short we ought to become physicists in the ancient sense of the word, meaning students of Nature.

By thinking about death – even the seemingly unbearable death of one’s own child – within the much wider context of a series of natural and inevitable processes of birth and decay that permeate all aspects of the cosmos, from microbes to galaxies, we might be able to gain some consolation that this is simply part of a much larger natural order of things. Epictetus’s point in his seemingly harsh remark is that just as it is in the nature of earthenware jugs to smash so it is in the nature of people to die.

Let me now turn to an example from Marcus Aurelius. Marcus has also attracted a good number of modern critics, some of whom have characterized his Meditations as pessimistic and melancholic, and one scholar went so far as to suggest that his strange visions of the world must have been the product of opium addiction. The sort of thing these critics have in mind runs throughout the Meditations and there are many examples. Let me focus on just one:

When you have savouries and fine dishes set before you, you will gain an idea of their nature if you tell yourself that this is the corpse of a fish, and that a corpse of a bird or a pig; or again, that fine Falernian wine is merely grape-juice, and this purple robe some sheep’s wool dipped in the blood of a shellfish; and as for sexual intercourse, it is the friction of a piece of gut and, following a sort of convulsion, the expulsion of some mucus. (Meditations 6.13)

To some critics this sounds like someone deeply melancholic who can no longer enjoy the basic pleasures of life. The last comment about sex is, like Epictetus’s remarks on infant death, often put to one side as something probably best not to talk about. But Marcus is making an important point, and if it makes us feel a bit uncomfortable then that might be all the more reason to face it head on. The hard truth that Marcus wants to insist on is that all the things that we invest with so much value and significance are ultimately no more than lumps of base matter in motion. So again we are being invited to adopt a physicist’s perspective on the objects of everyday life. The passage I have just quoted continues:

Thoughts such as these reach through to the things themselves and strike to the heart of them, allowing us to see them as they truly are. So follow this practice throughout your life, and where things seem most worthy of your approval, lay them naked, and see how cheap they are, and strip them of the pretences of which they are so vain. (ibid.)

Elsewhere Marcus suggests that there are two fundamental ideas that we ought to keep ready to hand: first, that mental disturbances are the product not of things themselves but of our judgements about things, and second, that nothing is stable and everything passes, subject to continual change. He then summarizes these two principles as concisely as possible, presumably in order to help him remember them: ho kosmos alloiôsis, ho bios hupolêpsis, which we might translate expansively as ‘the cosmos is in continual change; the concerns of human life are the product of opinion’ (Meditations 4.3.4).

Both Marcus and Epictetus think that seeing things through this physicists’ perspective can be therapeutically beneficial, but the reason why they think this is beneficial is because they think it is true. You don’t think about these things in order to feel happy – indeed how on earth could reflecting on the death of our loved ones make us feel happy –; instead you think about these things because they express important but sometimes uncomfortable truths about the world. As philosophers, Epictetus and Marcus retain a deep commitment to truth no matter how focused they might sometimes seem to be on more practical concerns over theoretical questions.

What are the consequences of all this for people today who are interested in drawing on Stoicism in their daily lives? I think there are a couple that I would like to mention.

The first is that it is difficult to disentangle completely Stoic ethics from the physics. Both Epictetus and Marcus implicitly presuppose a whole range of claims about how the world is in their practical advice. In antiquity there were some who thought that questions about Nature were irrelevant to thinking about how best to live. Cicero expresses this view in his Republic, crediting it to Socrates, who was an important role model for the Stoics. Others such as the Epicurean Lucretius insisted on the study of Nature when thinking about how to live well, adding that the main reason to study Nature was for the therapeutic benefit it might offer. The Stoic view shares that Epicurean idea that the pursuit of a good life requires at least some understanding of Nature, although I suspect they would also be less instrumentalist than Lucretius and insist on the intrinsic value of studying Nature as well as its contribution to living a good life.

The second consequence is that if we are going to take seriously the idea of living a Stoic life then we might find ourselves having to commit to a number of ideas that might not be easily reconciled with our existing worldview. Of course one might still take bits and pieces of Stoic advice, as many people have over the centuries, but if we want to take Stoicism seriously as a philosophy that offers some sort of guidance for how to live it may challenge and sometime require relinquishing some of our existing beliefs. If we want to think about Stoic philosophy as a way of life then we need to get to grips with a lot more than just a few practical exercises; we also need to think about some of the bigger claims that the Stoics make about the nature of the world.

I am not suggesting we have to become true believers of the entirety of ancient Stoic physical theory; we don’t have to take as fact the claim that every 10,000 years or so the entire cosmos is consumed by flames and then reborn (although proponents of ‘big crunch’ theory might not have a problem with this). Indeed we ought not to become true believers of anything for, as I have been stressing, this is philosophy, not religion. Marcus Aurelius is an interesting case in point: in his version of Stoicism – and I think probably every ancient Stoic had their own subtly different version – he is happy to entertain the possibility that Epicurean physics of atoms and void might be true instead of the Stoic idea that all of Nature is a unified organism, but the one principle he insists on as fundamental is the one I mentioned earlier, namely that everything is ultimately matter in a process of continual change. That is not something to believe because it might make us feel better; it is something to believe because it is true. Part of learning to live well within the world involves understanding what it is and how it works.

This post is the transcript of the talk  Prof. Sellars had intended to provide at the Stoicon 2016 conference.  He was unfortunately not able to attend this year.

John Sellars is currently a Research Fellow at King’s College London. His principal area of research is Ancient philosophy, but he is equally interested in its later influence and have wide interests in Medieval, Renaissance, and Early Modern philosophy. He has written two books on Stoic philosophy: Stoicism and The Art of Living.  This article appeared originally in his blog, Miscellanea Stoica.  Read more about John’s work on his website.