Stoic Week 2017 Report Part 3: The Impact of Stoic Week and SMRT by Tim Lebon

Previous reports have summarised the demographics of Stoic Week and the relationship (measured at the start of Stoic Week) between Stoicism, well-being and character traits.  This report addresses the effects of  doing Stoic Week, and in particular  attempts to answer whether the impact of doing Stoic Week was as positive as in previous years. In addition, for the first time,  the results of a 3 month follow up study performed on the SMRT course run by Donald Robertson in 2017 will provide the first empirically-founded answer to the question “do the effects of Stoicism last, even 3 months after taking part in a Stoic course?”

If you’d like to read the full 14-page version of the Stoic Week 2017 report (part 3), you can click here to download the report.

SMRT 2017 Follow-Up Study

 SMRT (Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training) is a four-week intensive training course in core Stoic psychological skills.  It requires about twenty minutes of commitment daily for 28 days.  SMRT was designed in 2014 by Donald Robertson.  Previous  analysis of a SMRT course run in 2014 showed significant improvements in well-being

This year, for the first time, we asked participants to complete the questionnaires three months after the end of the course, as well as at the start and end of SMRT.

Of the 907 participants who began the SMRT course, 254 completed  the course and  88 completed the 3 month follow-up questionnaires.

The results were as follows :-

Measure Start End % improvement 3 months follow-up % improvement
SABS 173.0 194.9 12.7 194.6 12.5
Flourish 40.8 47.0 15.0 47.0 15.1
SPANE+ 20.1 24.0 18.9 22.4 11.3
SPANE- -16.1 -12.9 -20.1 -13.3 -17.6
SWL 23.2 27.0 16.3 26.8 15.3

Table 1: SMRT 2017: Impact at end of  28 day course and 3 month follow-up

Participants were found to have significant improvements in all measures at the end of the course. Particularly of note is the 20% reduction in negative emotions (SPANE-).  The key  question we were looking to answer was “how much would these improvements melt away in the 3 months after SMRT finishe?” It was found that there was very little reduction in benefit even after 3 months. For SABS (measuring degree of Stoicism) and Flourish (measuring flourishing) there was barely any change. In terms of emotions and satisfaction with life there was a small reduction compared to the end of the course. This result suggests that practising Stoicism for as little as a month has a lasting impact.

Impact of Stoic Week 2017: Overall Findings

 In terms of improvements in well-being over Stoic Week, the results were consistent with those of Stoic Week 2016, 2015 and  2014 confirming a significant positive benefit.

Increases in well-being ranged from 10-16% in the week depending on the scale being used. This replication of previous findings gives us further increased confidence in the reliability of the findings.

Table 2 below shows the overall outcome results.[i]

  Stoic Week

2017

Stoic Week

2016

Stoic Week

2015

Stoic Week 2014
No of participants 2870 1803 2503 1953
Increase in Flourishing 10% 10% 10% 10%
Increase in Satisfaction with Life 16% 15% 15% 16%
Increase in Positive Emotions 11% 10% 10% 11%
Reduction in Negative Emotions 14% 14% 14% 16%
Increase In Stoic Attitudes and Behaviours 9% 11% 13% 12%
Completion Rate 24% 15% 29% 29%

Table 2: Impact of Stoic Week 2017

Impact on Flourishing

Participants reported on average a 10% overall increase in  flourishing. The average score for those who completed Stoic Week was 41 at the start of Stoic Week and 45.5 at the end, an increase in over 10%.

Table 3 below shows the impact of Stoicism which on each Flourishing theme.

Flourishing Scale Item 2017

%

2016

%

2015

%

2014

%

2013

%

Theme
1. I lead a purposeful and meaningful life. 15 15 16 14 10 Purpose and meaning
2. My social relationships are supportive and rewarding. 13 13 11 11 10 Relationships
3.  I am engaged and interested in my daily activities. 12 8 10 10 10 Engagement in activities
4. I actively contribute to the happiness and well-being of others. 10 10 10 8 8 Benevolent
5.  I am competent and capable in the activities that are important to me 8 6 7 8 5 Competent
6. I am a good person and live a good life. 8 8 8 9 8 Ethically Good
7. I am optimistic about my future. 11 10 12 11 18 Optimism
8. People respect me. 7 9 7 7 5 Respected

 Table 3: Impact on Flourishing

 As in previous years, results suggest Stoicism has a particularly large positive impact on purpose and meaning (item 1), with social relationships (item 2) also showing particularly  significant improvement.  Table 2 again refutes suggests that Stoicism is a pessimistic philosophy. Stoicism actually lead to a significant increase in optimism.

Impact on Satisfaction with Life

Participants reported an  average 14% increase in satisfaction with life overall as measured by the Satisfaction with Life Scale. Participants  who completed Stoic Week’s average score was 23  at the start and 26 after Stoic Week for Satisfaction with Life.

Table 4 below shows which aspects of Satisfaction with Life increased the most. As one might anticipate given Stoicism’s teachings, the theme of acceptance (question 5) showed by the biggest increase – 19%.

Percentage change by each question 2017% increase 2016  % increase 2015 % increase

 

2014 %

increase

2013 % increase Theme
1. In most ways my life is close to my ideal 16 10 20 15 18 Life is ideal
2.The conditions of my life are excellent 11 13 13 15 11 Externals met
3. So far I have got the important things I want in life. 10 10 13 13 11 Needs met
4. I am satisfied with my life 14 13 14 15 17 Satisfaction
5. If I could live my life over, I would change almost nothing 19 24 20 17 17 Acceptance

Table 4: Impact on  Satisfaction with Life

Impact on Emotions

There was a substantial increase in positive emotions and decrease in negative emotions as reported by participants who took part in Stoic Week.

  • Participants in Stoic Week’s average Positive Emotions score was 20 at the start and 22 after Stoic Week an improvement of  11%.
  • Participants in Stoic Week’s average Negative Emotions score was -16.5 at the start and -14 after Stoic Week an improvement of 16%
  • Participants in Stoic Week’s average overall SPANE score was 3.5 at the start and 8.5 after Stoic

There was a greater shift in negative emotions than positive emotions (16% as opposed to 11%) as measured by the SPANE. The positive emotions that showed the biggest changes in 2017 were “contented“ and  “joyful” (both up 14%). All the negative emotions  showed a significant reduction of between 12% and 16%.

Tables 5 and 6 below give all the details about the impact of Stoic Week on positive and negative emotions.

Positive Emotions 2017 % change 2016 % change 2015 % comparison 2014 % comparison 2013 % comparison
Average positive 11 10 10 11  

9

Contented 14 15 14 14 12
Joyful 14 12 13 13 12
Happy 11 7 11 9 9
Good 9 8 9 10 7
 Pleasant 9 9 9 10 8
Positive 9 10 8 13 8

Table 5: Impact on Positive Emotions

 

Negative  Emotions 2017 %

Change

2016 %

change

2015 % comparison 2014 %

comparison

2013 %

comparison

Average negative -16 -14 -14 -16 -11
Unpleasant -15 -17 -16 -17 -8
Bad -16 -12 -15 -17 -11
Negative -15 -16 -14 -17 -12
Angry -12 -13 -14 -15 -13
Afraid -14 -13 -12 -14 -10
Sad -13 -14 -12 -14 -10

Table 6:  Impact on Negative Emotions

Impact on Character Traits and Virtues

For the first time, we asked participants to complete the CIVIC questionnaire, which allowed us to measure changes in  positive character traits and what the CIVIC terms “character cores” (similar to virtues).  This finding should be treated with a certain amount of caution. One would not necessarily expect these features to be very sensitive to change, and only a small number of participants (37) completed the CIVIC both at the start and end of Stoic Week. With these caveats in mind, tables 7 and 8 give changes to character traits and character cores ordered by the percentage improvement during Stoic Week.

CIVIC Trait BEFORE AFTER % improvement
Zest 2.43 2.73 12.0 11.98
Hope 2.64 2.91 10.3 10.26
Meaning/Purpose 2.07 2.23 7.5 7.49
Persistence 2.89 3.05 5.7 5.72
Leadership 2.50 2.64 5.6 5.57
Self-Control 3.03 3.20 5.6 5.56
Emotional Awareness 2.72 2.86 5.1 5.07
Humor 2.73 2.86 4.6 4.58
Social Perceptiveness 2.53 2.64 4.2 4.16
Perspective-Taking 3.17 3.30 4.2 4.16
Humility 3.29 3.42 3.9 3.90
Gratitude 3.08 3.20 3.8 3.78
Perspective 2.94 3.03 3.2 3.25
Creativity 2.87 2.95 3.0 2.98
Authenticity 3.32 3.41 2.9 2.91
Kindness 2.79 2.87 2.8 2.83
Teamwork 3.15 3.24 2.7 2.74
Bravery 2.96 3.04 2.7 2.67
Spirituality 2.44 2.51 2.6 2.63
Forethought 3.08 3.16 2.6 2.56
Forgiveness 3.19 3.26 2.4 2.39
Love 3.26 3.33 2.2 2.22
Love of Learning 3.59 3.66 2.1 2.13
Trustworthiness 3.32 3.38 1.8 1.85
Curiosity 3.63 3.69 1.8 1.81
Fairness 3.40 3.44 1.1 1.12
Carefulness 3.23 3.26 0.8 0.81
Openness to Evidence 3.37 3.40 0.8 0.78
Appreciation Of Beauty 3.17 3.19 0.5 0.50

Table 7:  Impact of Stoic Week on CIVIC Character Traits

Zest and hope improved significantly during Stoic Week, as did meaning and purpose, to a lesser extent. The finding regarding zest is particularly intriguing given that zest was also found to be the trait most associated with Stoicism at the start of Stoic Week.

Character core Before After Improvement (%)
FORTITUDE 2.7 2.9 9.1
TRANSCENDENCE 2.3 2.4 4.9
INTERPERSONAL CONSIDERATION 2.8 2.9 4.0
TEMPERANCE 3.0 3.1 3.4
APPRECIATION 3.2 3.3 3.0
SINCERITY 3.2 3.3 2.8
EMPATHY 3.2 3.3 2.2
INTELLECTUAL ENGAGMENT 3.3 3.4 1.8

Table 8:  Impact of Stoic Week on CIVIC Character Cores

Fortitude (which is closely related to the virtue of courage) improved by over 9%, with transcendence and interpersonal consideration also displaying quite large improvements.

Impact on Stoic Attitudes and Behaviours (SABS)

Comparisons in SABS scores before and after Stoic Week allow us to assess whether participants changed with respect to being Stoic taking part in Stoic Week. It also enables us to see in which ways they became more Stoic. Overall there was an 9% increase in assenting to Stoic attitudes and behaviour (SABS) scores from an average of 168 to 182.5.

Table 9 below gives the changes in average scores for those items that change most between the beginning and end of Stoic Week for 2017.

Item number      
SABS item  

Those items in italics have been reversed scored, so  a high score still indicates a more Stoic attitude or behaviour.

% Change Average Score at start of Stoic week (completers only) Average score at end of Stoic Week
2 It doesn’t really matter what other people think about me as long as I do the right thing 30 3.5 4.5
22 I spend quite a lot of time dwelling on what’s gone wrong the past or worrying about the future 29 4 5.2
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 21 3.9 4.7
6 If bad things happen to you, you are bound to feel upset 19 4.6 5.5
26 Recognising that only virtue matters enables me to face life’s transience and my approaching death 18 3.8 4.4
29 Happiness depends on things going well for me and my family 16 4.8 5.6
25 Viewing other people as fellow-members of the brotherhood of humankind helps me to avoid feeling anger and resentment 16 3.7 4.3
35 My good name and what other people think about me matters a lot. 15 4.4 5.1
18 I am good at controlling my urges and impulses when that’s better for me in the long run [this item is excluded from SABS total as items 32 and 33 better measure a specifically Stoic concept of self-control] 15 4.9 5.7
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. 14 5 5.7
12 To flourish as a human being all you need is rationality and a good character; things like money, status, health and good luck are not essential 14 4.8 5.4
15 I  try to anticipate future misfortunes and  rehearse rising above them 14 3.4 3.9
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 14 4.8 5.4
19 I try to contemplate what the ideal wise and good person would do when faced with various misfortunes in life. 13 4.2 4.8
3 It can sometimes be a good thing to get angry when people are really rude, selfish or inconsiderate 13 5.2 5.8
23 I make an effort to pay continual attention to the nature of my judgments and actions. 12 4.8 5.4
27 I do the right thing even when I feel afraid. 11 2.9 3.2

Table 8:  Impact of Stoic Week on  Stoic Attitudes and Behaviours (items with most change)

The SABS items that showed the biggest increases are  strongly related to improved mental health.

  •   Doing the right think regardless of what others think((item 2)
    • This will not only help people be virtuous, it could also be expected to reduce social anxiety.
  • Cognitive Distancing & Stoic Mindfulness (item 24).
    • This is important because it allows people to take a step back, not automatically assenting to unhelpful judgements.
  • Reducing rumination (item 22)
    • Dwelling on negative thoughts for a long time is strongly associated with depression.

All SABS items moved in the expected direction with the exception item 34, an item  added in SABS v3.0 which measures a utilitarian concept of practical wisdom. Perhaps the reason for this item not changing in the expected direction is that the utilitarian concept of practical wisdom incorporates some ideals to  which Stoics would assent   – such as reflection and benevolence.

The 9%  change in Stoic Attitudes and Behaviours overall is significant in that it supports the view that it is changes in level of Stoicism that is mediating the change in well-being rather than other variables, such as the placebo effect.

Completion Rate

The completion rate in 2017  was 24%[ii] , more than only 15%  in 2016.  This may have been due to improvements in the materials or more attempts to encourage participants to complete the questionnaires at the end of Stoic week, or possibly other factors.

[i] These are calculated using only those people who completed Stoic Week. If the averages for the beginning of Stoic Week were to include those who dropped out, the improvement would be slightly greater, since those who dropped out tend to start with slightly lower scores on well-being.

[ii] The completion rate figure includes a number of completers whose data was excluded from the analysis for various reasons, such as incomplete data.

 

Tim LeBon is the author of Wise Therapy and Activate Your Potential With Positive Psychology.  He can be contacted via email at  tim@timlebon.com.  His website is  http://www.timlebon.com

Save The Date – Stoicon 2018 In London!

Big news everyone – After two years in North America (Toronto last year and New York City in 2016) – Stoicon is returning back across the Atlantic to London this year!

The world’s largest gathering of modern Stoics is slated to take place on Saturday, September 29, at Beveridge Hall in Senate House, London. John Sellars has taken the lead in organizing Stoicon 2018.  The conference is co-sponsored by the Institute of Philosophy and the Institute of Classical Studies of the University of London.

Three invited speakers have been confirmed at this point:

Our keynote speaker this year will be a familiar name to everyone engaged in serious study of Stoic philosophy, A. A. Long!  He is probably best known to many of our readers as the author of EpictetusA Stoic and Socratic Guide to Life, but has been making major contributions to study of ancient philosophy for nearly half a century.

Antonia Macaro is our second invited speaker.  She will be discussing selected themes from her recent book More than Happiness: Buddhist and Stoic Wisdom for a Sceptical Age.

Kai Whiting, an interdisciplinary researcher who has been adapting Stoicism to sustainability issues, will speak about Stoicism in relation to material possessions, consumerism, sustainability, and environmentalism.

We will be announcing the full roster of speakers and the specific titles of their talks as more details get sorted out.  You can also expect, however, that members of the Stoicism Today team will be there, some of them to provide short plenary talks, and others to give longer, more in-depth workshops and talks in the break-out sessions.

As in past years, International Stoic Week will follow Stoicon, running from Monday, October 1 to Sunday, October 7.  That’s an excellent time to schedule or to attend Stoic Week events (we’ll be listing all of them here on the Modern Stoicism site and in the Stoicism Today blog).

So if you belong to a local group, institution, or organization, and you’d like to have something to attend with other people interested in Stoicism during Stoic Week, now might be a good time to put the proverbial “bug in their ear” – suggest that they organize an event, or have their membership work through Stoic Week together.

We are also hoping that – as in previous years – there will also be a host of smaller Stoicon-X events around the same time for those who can’t attend Stoicon, or who want to get in on still more Stoic gatherings.  Stoicon-X events took place on four continents last year – Australia, Europe, South America, and North America!

If you’re interested in putting together a Stoicon-X event for the Fall, you should take a look at the guidelines and helpful suggestions drawn up by the Modern Stoicism team.  It’s also great to know that the Stoic Fellowship is also there to support organizations that want to host a Stoicon-X event!

Much more information will be coming out over the course of the next eight months leading up to Stoicon and Stoic Week (and hopefully, a lot of Stoicon-Xs and Stoic Week events).  But for the present, save the dates on your calendar!

Stoicism, Erotic Love, and Relationships by Greg Sadler

Valentine’s Day is coming up in just a few days, a holiday devoted in principle to all things romantic.  For many the time leading up to the day – or more often, the evening – can involve a heady and confused mixture of emotions, expectations, imaginations, plans, capped off by elation or disappointment.  It’s not unknown for couples to break up over how one or both of them (mis)handle Valentine’s Day.  Some people take being alone – not in a romantic relationship – as a sign that there is something wrong, damaged, or missing in themselves (or in some cases, in others).

What should contemporary Stoics make of Valentine’s Day?  That’s an interesting question by itself, but it depends upon and raises a number of other broader questions.  What is the Stoic approach to relationships, romantic and otherwise?  What does an ideal romantic relationship comprise or involve?  How should a Stoic view sexual pleasure and desire, as well as other pleasures and desires infused by eros?  Is there a Stoic approach, or guidelines, for matters ranging from old-fashioned courtship to late modern hookup apps, from flirtation to dating to committed relationships, and more?

Valentine’s Day offers us an excellent occasion to examine issues that really concern the entire year.

When we consider these issues, and bring in ancient Stoic texts and thinkers to help us think them through, cultural differences from classical antiquity to the late modern present become prominent.  We can survey what ancient Stoics had to say about erotic love and desire, relationships, the body, and sexuality (which I plan to do here, at least in part).   But a good bit of that is arguably dependent upon taking cultural assumptions made by those ancient writers as constants of nature (at least ideal human nature).  And given the concerns of the present, there are understandably many gaps in the matters on which Stoic authors provide helpful advice or useful guidelines.  Seneca doesn’t know smartphones or dating apps, for example.  Epictetus didn’t discuss blind dates or workplace romances.

That is not to say, of course, that these classic Stoic thinkers don’t have anything useful to contribute.  Were they brought into our present day – after they recovered from massive culture shock! – these authors would likely have a lot to tell us, derived from the same basic principles and practices their works teach us, but adapted to new situations, conditions, and challenges.

Classic Stoic Discussions of Erotic Love

“Love” is one of those words that in English covers a vast range of meanings.  It has become a commonplace – spurred not least by C.S. Lewis’ The Four Loves, but also by entire bookshelves of other popular literature pushing that point – to claim that the ancient Greeks rigorously distinguished between different sorts of love, denoting them by different names, and conceiving of them as having different bases.  There is some truth to that – friendship (philia) is something distinguishable from erotic desire (eros) – but anyone who reads around in the many discussions of love in Ancient Greek literature quickly realizes that matters are much more muddled than that, conceptually and linguistically speaking.  Those supposedly entirely different types of love blur and bleed into each other, and even the same term may be used in multiple ways by the same author.

One interesting example, particularly germane to Stoicism, comes from Arius Didymus’ Epitome of Stoic Ethics, where he tells us that the wise person – because that person lacks none of the virtues – not only behaves “sensibly” (nounekhtikos) and “dialectically” (dialectikos), but also “convivially” (sumpotikos) and . . . “erotically” (erotikos, 5b9).

He explains:

For the erotic person is also spoken of in two senses.  In one sense [the person is called “erotic”] with regard to virtue as being a type of worthwhile person, in the other with regard to vice as a reproach, as in the case of the person mad from erotic love.  [Worthwhile] erotic love is [for friendship].

[T]hey also say that the person who has good sense will fall in love.  To love by itself is merely indifferent, since it sometimes occurs in the case of the bad person as well.  But erotic love is not [simply] appetite, nor is it directed at some bad or base thing; rather, it is an inclination to forming an attachment arising from the impression or appearance of beauty. (5b9, 10c, 11s)

This likely sounds odd to modern ears in some respects, but familiar in others. According to Arius, the Stoics distinguished between good and bad forms of love, setting them within an already long tradition (you will find, for example, discussing of this distinction from several different perspectives in Plato’s Symposium).  We too often distinguish between different modes of this affect, that we may call by all sorts of names – love, attraction, desire, lust, passion, just to name a few – and many do make that distinction along moral lines of good and bad.

Notice another similarity – the good type of erotic love leads toward another closely related type of affection, i.e. friendship.  The Stoic wise person – at least according to Arius – does not need to like or desire a person solely for his or her personality.  Physical attractiveness can provide a starting point, a spark that ignites the flame of love.  But the character, the personality, the moral condition of the one loved or desired – that provides the fuel to sustain a both rational and affective relationship.

Erotic love as an “inclination to forming an attachment arising from the impression of beauty” – that’s not a definition many of us would naturally come up with.  It does appear to be one that Stoics consistently used.  You will find a very similar formula in Diogenes’ Laertes summary of Stoic doctrine (7.13), varying just a little in the wording (though English translations diverge from each other considerably).  Cicero also confirms this formula in the Tusculan Disputations – in fact, the Latin translation makes any ambiguity of meaning in the Greek perfectly clear.  It is an endeavor to form a friendship (conatum amicitiae faciendae), and it arises from the appearance of beauty (ex pulchritudinis specie, 4.34)

When we compare them, an interesting tension arises from these three discussions, which may reflect disagreements or at least worries in the Stoic school about this emotion or affect of erotic love.

Diogenes Laertes sets out what we might call a pessimistic position.  He tells us that the Stoics thought that erotic love was just one of the modes of desire (epithumia) – Stoic classifications of affect make desire, fear, pleasure, and pain the four main passions or emotions – and that good people will not feel this emotion.  It is only the rest of us who are affected by it.  Given this, the Stoic prokopton then will simply have as little to do with erotic love as feasible.

Cicero expresses a more nuanced position.  He affirms that the Stoics do think the wise person will be lovers (and presumably feel erotic love), and suggests that this love will be “free from disquietude, from longing, from anxiety, from sighing” – disentangled from all sorts of negative emotions and their characteristic signs – and thereby entirely distinct from the affect of lustfulness (libido).  He considers this type of pure love rare, and says that most examples of “love” are really simply the passion of lust.  )Even many instances of “love of friendship” (amor amicitiae) are really infused with lust(33.  He cautions against the “madness” (furor) of love, and says that there is no disturbance of the mind so violent (45).  Erotic love might remain within limits, but those are limits that it gives to itself. (33)

As we have seen, Arius expresses a much more positive evaluation of eros.  He distinguishes between two distinct senses of erotic love.  The problematic one that is among the desires, he qualifies as “violent cases of erotic love” (erotes sphodroi, 10b).  When it comes to the better type of erotic love, it is not merely something a good person or wise person can feel and be motivated by.  Love is not simply understandable, or even “normal”, but ultimately an indifferent.  As Arius represents the Stoics, they teach that the wise person ought to have “erotic virtue”.  In fact, he says:

The wise person is erotically inclined [erotikon einai] and will fall in love with those who are worthy of erotic love [axieraston]. (11s)

Which of these three perspectives on the place erotic love might have in Stoic philosophy and practice should we adopt?

Stoic Views on Love and Relationships

How the Stoic should conduct him or herself within the context of romantic or erotic relationships, once they are established, is another area that is rather underdeveloped in the classic Stoic literature we do possess.  We can’t be sure what teachings or discussions might be found within lost texts like Zeno’s Of Life According to Nature or Chrysippus’ Of the Good, and it’s not entirely clear what we ought to make of claims that Zeno advocated a community of wives and children in his Republic.

We do know (from Diogenes Laertes) that Zeno’s students did thematically study the matter.  Ariston authored a Dissertations on Love, and Cleanthes works Of Marriage, Of Love, and Of Friendship.  The latter’s own student, Sphaerus, reportedly wrote Dialogues on Love.  If we possessed these writings, no doubt, we would have a much more complete picture of Stoic teachings about erotic love and relationships.

Still, we do possess some useful discussions. For instance, in lecture 13 Musonius Rufus focuses on the “chief end” (or you might say, “main point”) of marriage.  A hasty read of this lecture might construe Rufus as subordinating sexual desire and intercourse entirely to the purposes of procreation.  But let’s look closely at what he does say:

[T]he primary end of marriage is community of life with a view to the procreation of children. The husband and wife, he used to say, should come together for the purpose of making a life in common and of procreating children, and furthermore of regarding all things in common between them, and nothing peculiar or private to one or the other, not even their own bodies.

What a committed relationship ought to involve – a relationship that really is “in accordance with nature” – is a developed and ongoing intimacy, a common life lived and experienced together.  In fact, as he points out, you don’t even need a marriage to make babies.  Just having heterosexual sex will do that

The birth of a human being which results from such a union is to be sure something marvelous, but it is not yet enough for the relation of husband and wife, inasmuch as quite apart from marriage it could result from any other sexual union, just as in the case of animals.

What else is needed?  He tells us a good marriage involves companionship, mutual love, and a constancy of action and affection

Where, then, this love for each other is perfect and the two share it completely, each striving to outdo the other in devotion, the marriage is ideal and worthy of envy, for such a union is beautiful.

By contrast:

But where each looks only to his own interests and neglects the other, or, what is worse, when one is so minded and lives in the same house but fixes his attention elsewhere and is not willing to pull together with his yoke-mate nor to agree, then the union is doomed to disaster and though they live together, yet their common interests fare badly; eventually they separate entirely or they remain together and suffer what is worse than loneliness.

In Rufus’ view – and I think this can be regarded as a more general Stoic view – this requires character and commitment on the part of both members of the relationship.  One’s family or birth, one’s wealth or possessions, even whether one is physically attractive or not – these do not matter so much.  In fact, just being healthy or being of “normal appearance” is good enough.  What then is important?

With respect to character or soul one should expect that it be habituated to self-control and justice, and in a word, naturally disposed to virtue. These qualities should be present in both man and wife.  For without sympathy of mind and character between husband and wife, what marriage can be good, what partnership advantageous?  How could two human beings who are base have sympathy of spirit one with the other?  Or how could one that is good be in harmony with one that is bad?

When it comes to love, erotic relationships, and friendship, there is considerably more that could be drawn out and discussed in a systematic way from other Stoic thinkers and texts.  Cicero, Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus each have some points to contribute.  Even Persius the poet – among other sources – might have something interesting to incorporate. For the sake of brevity, I’m going to leave that project for another time.  What is most relevant here is that Stoics maintain scope for erotic desire and enjoyment within relationships.

A relationship will not be durable, deep, or even (in other respects) enjoyable, if all one or both of the partners have to contribute lies entirely on the level of sexuality desire, attraction, activity, or pleasure.  But within the framework of an erotic or romantic relationship, it is possible – or better put, desirable – to integrate the sexual side of the relationship with companionship, moral character, and friendship.  This is where the good kind of erotic love – and perhaps even “erotic virtue” – would have its opportunity to develop most fully.

What does all of this have to say to us in the present?  Some of us might take this Stoic ideal of an excellent marriage between a woman and a man and extend it in two directions.  On the one hand, it might be extended beyond the limits of heteronormativity to encompass a range of other coupling relationships in which sexual attraction and activity are carried out within a context of intimacy.  On the other hand, perhaps it does not require being a legally married couple but just long-term committed partners, to live that sort of common life.

Stoicism For The Single Person

What about those who have not found a suitable person with whom to build and enjoy that sort of relationship?  What would the Stoics have to say to the single person?  This is an important question, and it raises many others.

For example:  Is feeling and acting on erotic love something good or bad for the single person?  Is sexual desire something to be indulged?  Or is it a distraction?  What about being the object of someone else’s desire?  Is that something one ought to desire, view as indifferent, or even be averse to?   Are we better off being in a relationship that includes or might involve sexual desire and activity?  Is it problematic from a Stoic perspective to simply “hook up” or to have “friends with benefits”.  Should a Stoic put him or herself “out there,” in the proverbial pool, going on dates?

You’ll notice that in classic Stoic literature, there does tend to be a wariness about sexual desire and pleasure.  The body, after all, is supposed to be an indifferent.  And pleasure – although it does accompany the proper activities of our nature, both body and mind – is not the good.  We can easily be led astray, into vice, unfreedom, being disturbed, finding ourselves “hindered”, when we allow our minds and bodies to be drawn along by natural sexual desire.  Add in the effects of human culture, which interfuse sexual desire and pleasure with all sorts of other matters presented as goods or evils to us, and things get even messier.

Several passages in Epictetus’ Enchiridion that bear directly on sexuality.  He tells us, for instance:

In the case of everything that happens to you, remember to turn to yourself and see what faculty you have to deal with it.  If you see some attractive man or woman, you will find self-control as the faculty to employ. (10)

And he counsels:

When it comes to matters of sexuality [aphrodisia], keep yourself pure as much as you can before marriage.  If you do indulge, then do so only in those pleasures that are lawful.  But don’t be offensive or critical with those who do use [those sexual pleasures].  Nor make frequent mention of the fact that you yourself don’t use them. (33)

The governing idea is that sexuality is something to be properly managed by the Stoic.  It is not something necessarily to entirely dissociate oneself from, but one ought to maintain it within a rational perspective in relation to more important priorities.  There are many other passages just from that short work that can be readily applied to contemporary dating, desires, relationships, and to the emotions and thoughts that frequently arise from erotic love (and again, a fuller treatment would similarly incorporate and interpret passages from Epictetus’ longer Discourses, as well as works of Seneca, Musonius, Marcus Aurelius, Cicero, and others).

Consider for example how easily some people get hurt feelings when matters don’t go the way they would like, or expect, or hope.  A common example of this is when one person is attracted to another, and proposes a relationship, or perhaps just a date, or (setting the bar lower) “hanging out” – and the other person is just not interested.  Another common example happens with “nice guys” (or girls) who invest a lot of time and effort into what they hope will become eventually a romantic relationship, but end up getting “friend-zoned”.  What advice might Epictetus give?

Remember that you ought to behave in life as you would at a banquet. As something is being passed around it comes to you; stretch out your hand and take a portion of it politely. . .  Or it has not come to you yet; do not project your desire to meet it, but wait until it comes in front of you. (15)

Relationships are similarly offered to us, and although our own choices and efforts can play a catalyzing role, they occur with the rhythm and on the timetable of their own development.  Patience coupled with receptive readiness – rather than actively trying to take or push for the desires one allows to run far out ahead of one – may be precisely what one needs.

Has someone been honored above you? . . . Now if these matters are good, you ought to be happy that the person got them; but if bad, be not distressed because you did not get them; and bear in mind that, if you do not act the same way as others do, with a view to getting things which are not under our control, you cannot be considered worthy to receive an equal share with others.  (25)

Imagine you are attracted to someone, but they prefer another person, to whom they are attracted.  Does it make sense to view the other person as a rival, to think they have in some way harmed you, or to look at the object of your erotic love as depriving you of affection?  From a Stoic standpoint, the answer will inevitably be No – though it certainly might require a good bit of work and time to arrive at that point for some people.

This is also a good passage to reflect upon when one feels or exhibits a sense of entitlement to the affection or desire of other people.  Has one earned it?  Keeping in mind, of course, that human beings are not actually automatons whose buttons we can just push, activating their programming – if it really is the case that this or that person feels erotic desire towards those who have assets, talents, or capacities to offer that one doesn’t, then isn’t it irrational to expect that person to feel and exhibit the same sort of affection towards us?  As he says a bit later in that same chapter:

You will be unjust, therefore, and insatiable if, while refusing to pay the price for which such things are bought, you want to obtain them for nothing.

As a last example, let us come back to a common concern that becomes intensified for some on Valentine’s Day but which can plague a person throughout the year – the feeling that not being in a romantic relationship reflects that there is something wrong with oneself.  Of course, some people do possess traits or make assumptions that do tend to push away potential romantic partners – for example, heading into dates complaining about how “all men” or “all women are . . . ” – but people do have the potential to change those sorts of “deal-breakers”.

What I’m referring to is the person who feels bad about him or herself because they are not (as far as he or she knows) the object of anyone else’s erotic desire.  They may feel unattractive, unloved, isolated and lonely.  This can be particularly difficult when one is single after a relationship ends, with a breakup or a divorce.  There are two passages that might be particularly helpful to bring up here.

It is not the things themselves that disturb people, but their judgements about these things. . . When, therefore, we are hindered or disturbed , or grieved, let us never blame anyone but our ourselves, that means, our own judgements (5)

Notice that Epictetus is not suggesting that a person simply get down on him or herself, but that instead he or she examines their own judgements, which include and result from lines of reasoning.  The second passage is about examples of mistaken lines of reasoning.

These statements represent bad reasoning: “I am richer than you are, therefore I am superior to you”, or “I am more eloquent than you, therefore I am superior to you”.  But the following conclusions are better: “I am richer than you are, therefore my property is superior to yours; or “I am more eloquent than you, therefore my elocution is superior to yours”.  But you are neither property not elocution. (44)

A person might reason badly along similar lines with him or herself.  “I don’t have a romantic partner, so I’m inferior to others who do.”  Or for those who are in a relationship, “my partner is not as attractive, or as witty, or as (substitute whatever you like here) as someone else’s partner, so I’m inferior to that person.”.  Or, “my life is not as good as that person’s,” or “I’m missing out” – one might come up with all sorts of similar lines of reasoning, all of them equally flawed from the Stoic perspective.  Liberating
oneself from those erroneous assumptions, inferences, and conclusions doesn’t just make one feel better – or at least less bad.  It also gets the person a bit closer to developing the virtue of prudence, a genuine good for one’s life.

To bring this already long post to a close – admittedly, just scratching the surface of a complex and rich topic about which Stoic philosophers have much to contribute – what can we say by way of conclusion?

Classical Stoics did view romantic or erotic love – at least in some cases, and as felt by some people – as something good and worthwhile.  One can, however, live a good life by Stoic standards whether one does find an attractive partner and form a lasting relationship, or not.  What really is key is the cultivation and living out the virtues, the development of one’s moral character and capacities, and that – in the Stoic view – is what renders a person truly desirable.

 

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 tutorial, coaching, and philosophical counseling services, and producing educational resources.  He has created over 100 videos on Stoic philosophy, regularly speaks and provides workshops on Stoicism, and is currently working on several book projects.

“Being Nobody”: The Stoic “Loser” by J. B. Bell

Don’t allow these thoughts to upset you: “I’ll live unhonoured, and be nobody anywhere.” For if it is a bad thing to be unhonoured, you cannot be in a bad state as a result of anyone else’s actions, any more than you can be brought into shame in that way. It is no business of yours, surely, to gain a public post or be invited to a dinner party? Certainly not. So how can this still be a source of dishonor? And how will you be “nobody anywhere” if you only need to be somebody in those things that are within your own power, and in which it is possible for you to be a man of the highest worth? (Enchiridion, 24.1, Robin Hard translation)

The idea of the “loser” in contemporary culture is a shadow cast by tales of winners—of money, power, and fame. The usual biographies offered in our modern books on Stoicism lengthen this shadow, by focusing on “success” in ordinary terms accomplished by the use of Stoic methods. This misses the mark. I propose a pair of tonics: remembering the anonymous “Stoic loser”, and remembering death, not only for ourselves, but our heroes.

What is a “Loser”?

“Loser” is one of the most powerful insults deployed without using invective directed at some minority anyone would lay claim to. In modern society we commonly reject (or say we reject) insults based on race, disability, sex, sexuality, gender expression, and other bases that society has judged as unjust. “Loser” persists—it’s not polite, but it’s not impolitic.

What is this word “loser” about? What contest is lost, that we heap contempt upon the loser? A loser without qualification implies someone who loses at life: the loser fails to earn our respect because they fail on so many fronts, or enough important ones, that they can be dismissed, humiliated, subordinated, even exiled from the tribe. The loser is a drain: on patience, on resources, even on pity. The loser has lost socially. They are perhaps the ultimate out-group, wanted by no one.

Usually the loser’s ultimate loss, in short, is status. Yet, along with wealth, health, and even life, it is to the Stoic an “indifferent”: something it might be nice to have, but never to be traded for the power to make decisions first and foremost for virtue’s sake. For the Stoic there is but one contest: keeping one’s thoughts, words and deeds “in harmony with nature.” Whatever else may befall one, where integrity is preserved, the Stoic is a winner. A Stoic may lose a game, their house, their friends, their family, their health, their very life itself, and yet claim victory, and even count these sorry events as advantageous, so long as they serve as tests of virtue, to strengthen it and weaken the grasp of attachment to things outside their control.

Some History

A Stoic today or in the ancient past would recognize easily that the “loser” so-called by most is not necessarily a loser as they would understand it. With virtue as the sole good—perhaps the one non-negotiable Stoic tenet—the only loser is one who fails to maintain it because they don’t even try to.

This inversion of the usual values is not unique to Stoicism, though it does seem to be mainly the province of religion and philosophy.  Christianity, until relatively recently, valorized the meek and the poor as those who would inherit its ultimate good, the kingdom of heaven. Buddhism taught a life of renunciation as the only path to escape the cycle of birth and death. The appeal of the externals and human nature, however, conspire to corrupt even their harshest critics, though, bringing us today’s “prosperity gospel” and sales of amulets that bring wealth, health, and all the rest.

Our Heroes

Stoics have always had heroes, often shared with other philosophers, going back to Diogenes the Cynic, Socrates, Plato, and before them characters like Heracles, a paragon of courage, and Homer’s heroes, Achilles, Patroclus, Hector, and Odysseus. (The warrior-heroes of Greek myth and legend, celebrated mainly for courage, are complicated to justify as Stoic, and warrant their own treatment). In modern life we are fortunate to have accounts that are not only astonishing but well verified. James Stockdale survived eight years’ imprisonment and periodic torture as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. he coordinated a resistance in perilous secrecy to maintain not only his own virtue but that of his fellow-prisoners, sustaining a united front in the face of temptations to betray each other to gain some comfort, or at least a lessening of suffering.

More recently Susan Fowler exposed the rampant sexual harassment endemic to the corporate culture of Uber. Her blog post had seismic effects there, with shockwaves felt in the entire Silicon Valley and beyond. Her writing was notable for its measured, well-reasoned style, and Fowler cited Stoicism as giving her the courage and sense of duty needed to take what can be a punishing professional and personal risk.

Still, Stockdale has enjoyed a long Congressional career, and Fowler is now an editor at Stripe, with every sign pointing to a successful future in technology writing. What about the ones who didn’t make it?

Survivor Bias

Our heroes share a necessary trait: we have heard of them. “Survivor bias” refers to a mistake in thinking that comes from over-valuing reports of success. If I tell you that megadosing on vitamin C cured my cancer, and you hear many others with the same tale, it may at first blush seem believable. But when you consider that you don’t hear from all those who tried vitamin C and died of their disease anyway, skepticism is in order.

Our Stoic heroes (and all heroes) also have this problem: we are a lot less likely to hear about the unsung masses who, unlike Stockdale and Fowler, bore up or spoke out, but whose merely mortal bodies could not sustain the effort.

Of course, there is an exception: the tragic heroes. These shining paragons inspire a deep reverence, or at least, few are willing to call them “losers” out loud. These lucky ones (though not many would wish for their kind of fortune) have witnesses to their sacrifices. Although nameless, the Spartan boy who dashed his own brains out on a wall rather than be enslaved has his story preserved in legend. Who had heard of the man who threw his own life preserver to other survivors of an airplane wreck, over and over, eventually dying in the freezing water, before his noble deed? What else is he remembered for?

My concern is that, in the repeated emphasis on captains of industry, sports figures, military leaders—in short, winners at life in the conventional sense—we paint an incomplete picture of Stoicism, which excludes many from its benefits, and that attracts those who are unlikely to properly embody its most vital precepts.

A Reminder and a Memorial

To counteract the survivor bias in our heroes, we could remind each other of how they end up: ” . . . and not so long after, they died,” or “and one day, they will die, and in time, no one will even remember their name.” The instruction for memento mori isn’t “think on death sometimes,” but to bear it in mind constantly, every day.

In a sense, we’re all losers, since no amount of “winning” can ever be enough. We might also, then, remember the Stoic “loser” who “fails” even at leaving enough trace to be a known hero.

There’s no need for self-flagellation or public and pious denial of all advantages and honors. Humility is the internal manifestation of justice—measuring one’s life in correct proportion. This is why the Stoic attitude to being a “loser” in the popular sense is indifference, since the correct measure of a life is whether it has been lived in accordance with nature: did I choose wisely, understanding my circumstances accurately and valuing my options according to whether they support true flourishing? If so, it doesn’t matter what others have to say about it. If they have found some actual fault in my choices, then it’s for me to accept that correction graciously and alter my behavior accordingly.

Adopting this attitude means freedom from being assailed by opinion and circumstance—things that are outside our control. Holding a place of honour in myself for the unknown Stoic, I can have a shrine on the grounds of my inner citadel; not a battlement, but a refuge. Let us have a cenotaph, then, for the unknown Stoic, bravely cleaving to virtue with no hope of reward and not even any witness. For they must have existed, and almost certainly there are many more of them than the heroes we know of.

A Conclusion

It isn’t wrong to want heroes and Stoics have our exemplars like many other traditions do. But in the end, virtue is its own reward, and it’s well to remember that it’s not a “life hack” to improve our access to or enjoyment of indifferents. We can soberly remind ourselves of the fleeting, changing nature of all accomplishments, even those of virtue, to keep a proper measure, and to appreciate what each moment brings, in hopes of improving the next, for those moments are all anyone may truly lay claim to.

 

JB Bell is an IT professional with a lifelong interest in philosophy. He also does stand-up comedy with Stand Up for Mental Health (www.smhsociety.org), and is Vice President of the British Columbia Humanist Association (which opinion he does not necessarily represent in this article).

Stoic Week 2017 Report (part 2) by Tim Lebon

A strong positive relationship between Stoicism and well-being has been documented in previous Stoic Week reports.   This year the emphasis has shifted to quantifying the relationship between Stoicism and positive character traits. To this end we asked the thousands of people who took part in Stoic Week to complete the CIVIC character scale in addition to the four scales previously used.

2860 people filled in questionnaires measuring degree of Stoicism (SABS 3.0), Life Satisfaction, Positive and Negative Emotions and Flourishing. In addition, 820 people filled in the CIVIC questionnaire which gave us a large enough sample to draw meaningful conclusions.

This article excerpts from the findings derived from analysing questionnaires from the start of Stoic week. Upcoming reports will discuss the effect of taking part in Stoic Week (part 3), summarise participant feedback and suggest future directions of research.

If you’d like to read the full 27-page version of the Stoic Week 2017 report (part 2), you can click here to download the report.

Stoicism and Positive Character Traits

If you are a Stoic, you would certainly hope that there is a strong relationship between being a Stoic and having positive character traits. For the Stoics, eudaimonia is based on possessing core positive character traits called “virtues”, particularly the four cardinal virtues of wisdom, courage, justice and self-control (or moderation).

If you are a Stoic you might well also expect there to be a strong relationship between being Stoic and having the virtues. However, to my knowledge this is the first time anyone has tried to show that this is actually the case.

We chose to use the CIVIC scale (discussed in the full report) for our research this year and are grateful to its co-author, Vincent Ng for his co-operation and assistance. The CIVIC Scale identifies 29 positive character traits (similar to Peterson and Seligman’’s “strengths”) and 8 character cores (similar to virtues).

Before you go any further, please take a moment to consider these 3 questions.

  1. How many of these 29 character traits do you think are positively associated with Stoicism?
  2. Which of these 29 traits do you think is most positively associated with Stoicism?
  3. Which of the 29 traits do you think is most negatively associated with Stoicism?

I asked a number of experts on Stoicism these 3 questions. The consensus was as follows:-

  1. Most if not all of these character traits will be positively associated with Stoicism.
  2. Emotional Awareness is likely to be most positively associated with Stoicism. Fairness, Self-Control, Perspective-Taking, Gratitude, Bravery, Meaning/purpose and Persistence should also feature well.
  3. Probably none are negatively related to Stoicism, though perhaps spirituality and humour might not be so closely linked as others.

In examining the data from Stoic Week, we found that

  1. All of 29 positive character traits in CIVIC are positively associated with Stoicism
  2. Zest is the character trait most positively associated with Stoicism
  3. Trick question, they are all positively associated! Humour is the least positively associated, but note that even the lowest ranking trait is still positively associated. This means that the caricature of the Stoic as dour and humourless is not supported. The more Stoic you are, the more humorous you are likely to be.

Stoic “Zest”?

So the Stoic experts got it right, mostly. . . . Stoics are likely to possess more than the average person of all of these positive traits, and emotional awareness is amongst those most highly correlated with being Stoic.  However none of the experts suggested “zest” would be strongly associated with Stoicism. This finding merits closer examination.

What exactly is meant by  “zest”? The dictionary defines zest as “great enthusiasm and energy”. The CIVIC scale identifies zestful individuals using these 12 questions or prompts:

  • I typically look forward to each new day.
  • I feel excited to start each day.
  • I am brimming with excitement about life.
  • I always look forward to what the day brings.
  • I have great enthusiasm for life.
  • I eagerly anticipate each day’s activities.
  • I try to live each day to the fullest.
  • I typically feel ready to take on what life has in store for me.
  • I hardly ever feel half-hearted about my activities.
  • I typically don’t dread starting my daily activities.
  • I generally approach my daily activities with energy.
  • I have enthusiasm for my daily activities.

These seem to capture very well both enthusiasm and energy, perhaps with a touch of joy and resilience thrown into the mix. Significantly, zest has been identified as one of the more important character traits, being positively associated with life satisfaction, positive emotion, engagement and flow and meaning (LeBon (2014), p. 71).

We have, of course, identified a correlation, rather than a causal connection, so we cannot say whether being Stoic causes great enthusiasm and energy, or vice-versa, or perhaps something else causes both Stoicism and zest. The next report, on the impact of Stoic week, may shed some light on whether Stoicism plays a causal role in increasing zest. If so, this would be a significant and novel finding.

Stoicism and the Virtues

CIVIC also measures 8 broader character qualities, which they call “character cores”, which have a number of constituent character traits.

Some of these CIVIC character cores clearly bear some resemblance to the Stoic cardinal virtues, though this resemblance should not be overstated. All of these character cores were found to be quite strongly and positively with Stoicism

Rank CIVIC Character Core Association with Stoicism
1 EMPATHY 0.51
2 FORTITUDE 0.48
3 TEMPERANCE 0.46
4 SINCERITY 0.43
5 APPRECIATION 0.39
6 INTERPERSONAL CONSIDERATION 0.37
7 TRANSCENDENCE 0.35
8 INTELLECTUAL ENGAGEMENT 0.34

Stoicism, then appears strongly positively associated with each positive character traits as well as every broader character cores (virtue). There remains the question of whether Stoicism is strongly linked with virtues in general.

A correlation coefficient of .6 was found to exist between SABS scores (measuring the degree of Stoicism) and an overall measure of character or virtue (as measured by adding up a participant’s CIVIC item scores). This compares favourably with the  correlation coefficients for life satisfaction, emotions and flourishing, which in past years have been found to be .37, .42 and .46 respectively.

Stoicism and Well-Being

The relationship between Stoicism and well-being has been well documented in previous reports. This section summarises the findings and answers questions that interested readers are likely to ask.

Q: In the past you’ve found significant correlations between Stoicism (as measured by SABS) and the various well-being measures. Has this been replicated?

A: Yes, indeed it has.

  Flourishing Emotions (SPANE) Life Satisfaction (SWL) Average well-being
STOIC ATTITUDES AND BEHAVIOURS 0.47 (.46) 0.43 (.42) 0.36 (.37) 0.48 (.42)

Table 6 Overall association of Stoic Attitudes and Behaviours with various scales

Table 6 above gives the overall correlations between total SABS scores and the various well-being scales (2016 results are in brackets). This result has now been replicated with large samples over 4 years.

Q: OK, so that looks like a solid finding, at least for the sort of people who take part in Stoic Week.  Stoics are still happy. I remember that in previous years you also listed how Stoicism was associated with particular emotions, as measured in the SPANE scale. What were these results this year?

A: As in 2016, there is a significant positive association between Stoicism and each positive emotion and a negative correlation between every negative emotion and Stoicism. There is some variation between this year and last in terms of the relative size of the correlation for each emotion, so we should not be too confident in saying which emotions are most associated with Stoicism, though it seems pretty clear that the association is large for contentment and relatively small for fear.

Q:  All this talk of correlation coefficients is a bit confusing for me. Can you just tell me how much difference it makes to my happiness whether I am Stoic or not?

A: Remember that these findings do not necessarily imply causation, so we can’t say that being more Stoic makes you more happy. However we can look at the group of people who are in the top and bottom 10% in terms of Stoicism and compare their well-being scores on the various scales.  

Q: Last year you found quite a strong relationship between age and Stoicism – the under 18s were by far the least Stoic and Stoicism increased gradually with age, with the over-55s being the most Stoic. Has this been replicated?

A:  This relationship has been repeated in 2017, although the under 18s are not quite as un-Stoic as they were last year, as illustrated in Table 9 below.

This year we also looked at the average well-being of each age group. A similar pattern emerges, with the over-55s being the happiest and the under 18s being the least happy.

Q:  Last year the USA proved to be the most Stoic and the UK least. Is this still true in 2017?

A: Once again the Americas proved to be the most Stoic, though (admittedly from a small sample) South America took over No. 1 spot from USA.  The UK and Europe is a few points behind. To put this into context, the difference between regions is not that great, as shown in table 10.

Region Average SABS score 2016 Comparison % Average well-being
South America 170 165 2 23
USA 166 166 44 22
Canada 165 164 10 23
Australia 166 161 5 23
Europe 162 162 19 22
Africa 162 161 1 21
UK 161 159 15 22
Asia 159 160 3 20

 Table 10: Relationship between geographic region and degree of Stoicism

Q: Have gender differences changed at all?

A: Data from 2016 suggested that men were marginally more Stoic, averaging 164.5 on the SABS scale as opposed to 161.5 for women. In 2016 this gap of 3 points had reduced to 2 – the figures in 2017 were 165 and 163 respectively

Q: Finally, in the past you’ve told provided a big table suggestive of the “active ingredients” of Stoicism. Did you do that again?

A: Yes, the full details are in Appendix E.  These are the most active Stoic ingredients in terms of correlation with average well-being.

Conclusions

These findings replicate previous research about the relationship between Stoicism, life satisfaction, flourishing and the emotions. For the first time we can also say that there is evidence to support the view that Stoicism is associated with virtues and positive character traits, as measured on a validated contemporary scale, the CIVIC.  A surprising, but very positive, result is that zest turns out to be the character trait most associated with being Stoic.

Tim LeBon is the author of Wise Therapy and Activate Your Potential With Positive Psychology.  He can be contacted via email at tim@timlebon.com.  His website is  http://www.timlebon.com

From The Three Petaled Rose by Ronald Pies

This post is a summary of Dr. Ronald Pies’ talk at the STOICON 2017 conference.

My book, The Three-Petalled Rose, attempts an analysis and synthesis of three great spiritual traditions: Judaism, Buddhism, and Stoicism. Somewhat tongue-in-cheek, I have called this synthesis “JuBuSto.” This was also the topic of my presentation in Toronto this past Fall. I began my book by proposing that “…the synthesis of Judaism, Buddhism, and Stoicism can create a healthy, fulfilled and flourishing life.” Here, I review the main themes explored in my book and lecture.

First, I discussed a theme common to all three traditions; namely, that our happiness and fulfillment in life is critically dependent on the quality of our thinking.  I suggested that, in effect, we create our own happiness by thinking “good” thoughts– and create our own misery by filling our minds with “bad” thoughts.  More specifically, Judaism emphasizes rational understanding, without which we are spiritually and emotionally “lost”. Thus, I cited the Talmudic teaching of Rabbi Elazar that,  “…any person who lacks understanding eventually goes into exile…” Similarly, the Buddhist text, the Dhammapada teaches us that “we are what we think…..with our thoughts we make the world.”  I also cited the Thai Buddhist Master, Ajahn Chah (1918-92) as saying,

We want to be free of suffering…but still we suffer. Why is this? It’s because of wrong thinking. If our thinking is in harmony with the way things are, we will have well-being.

In the Stoic tradition, too,  pride of place is given to thinking clearly.  Epictetus reminds us that

It is not he who gives abuse….who offends us; but the view that we take of these things as insulting or hurtful…” and urges us “….not to be bewildered by appearances.

Moreover, all three spiritual paths emphasize that we often sabotage our chances for living the “good life” through our own distorted thinking. Echoing the views of many modern cognitive-behavioral therapists, Rabbi Dr. Joseph Gelberman tells us that, “Of all the tyrants in the world, our own attitudes are the fiercest warlords.”

Similarly, the Buddhist monk, Chagdud Tulku teaches that

Hell is the reflection of [the] mind’s delusion, of angry thoughts and intentions and the harmful words and actions they produce.

He adds—once again sounding much like our modern cognitive therapists:

It’s our failure to understand the essential nature of an emotion as it arises that gets us into trouble. Once we do, the emotion tends to dissolve.

Indeed, we are often our own worst enemies, as the great Buddhist sage, Santideva (7th c. AD), put it:

Eager to escape sorrow, men rush into sorrow; from desire of happiness, they blindly slay their own happiness, enemies to themselves.

I went on to discuss “the common bond of humanity” as an idea central to all three of our traditions. Thus, Judaism teaches us that we are all created “in the Divine image”, and that, as Rabbi Moseh Lieber puts it,

 …we must treat people properly because all people play a role in God’s plans; nobody was created for naught, be it a fool, an ignoramus, or even an evil person. They are all part of the Divine Scheme…

Similarly, Buddhism emphasizes the essential unity of mankind, and, indeed, all sentient beings. This attitude is expressed in the concepts of Buddha nature, suffering, and compassion. As B. Allen Wallace puts it,

…all sentient beings, including humans, are endowed with Buddha-nature…[defined as] the potential for full awakening…

All human beings experience suffering (dukha), and thereby have the opportunity—indeed, the obligation—to cultivate compassion for every other human being. This concept is also stressed in Stoicism, and is given a rather spiritualized treatment in the writings of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations:

All things are woven together and the common bond is sacred…for there is one Universe out of all, one God through all, one substance and one law, one common Reason of all intelligent creatures, and one truth…

The importance of moral obligations appears as a prominent theme in all three traditions, and is intimately connected with the achievement of a “flourishing life.” That is, living ethically is not merely an obligation; it is also a kind of portal into the realm of self-realization. To put it in more colloquial terms, if you live ethically, you will live well and fully. Thus, the Talmud teaches us that “The reward of a good deed is a good deed”—in effect, behaving ethically is its own reward. Furthermore, as Rabbi Alexander Ziskin observes, fulfilling a commandment “…is a time to feel great joy at your relationship with God.”

Among the elements of Buddhism’s “Eightfold Path” are right speech, right conduct, and right vocation,  all considered under the rubric of sila (the code of conduct that leads to virtue). Sila, in turn, is the key to living the fulfilled life, according to Buddhist teachings.  As Wallace succinctly puts it,

The Buddhist view is simple: non-virtuous behavior leads to misery, virtuous behavior leads to joy.

The Tibetan Buddhist nun, Thubten Chodron defined the essence of the Buddha’s teachings with equal brevity: “…it is to avoid harming others and to help them as much as possible.”

For the Stoics, too, the key to living “the good life” lies in living the morally responsible life. Every other notion of “the good” proves to be illusory. Thus, Seneca writes in one of his letters, “A good character is the only guarantee of everlasting, carefree happiness.” Similarly, Epictetus argues that “The good for human beings lies in this one thing alone: for each of us to perfect our moral character…” In sum, the JuBuSto tradition emphasizes that only by living ethical lives can we achieve genuine happiness and become fully human.

All three of our traditions stress the importance of reducing, or modulating, what I have termed “desires and attachments.” While none of the traditions argues for the total elimination of desires, each admonishes us to “detach” ourselves from intense and overwhelming cravings. From the Jewish perspective, probably nobody has put the matter more clearly than Maimonides (ca. 1135-1204), in The Guide for the Perplexed: “All the difficulties and troubles I meet [in daily life] are due to the desire for superfluous things…the more I desire to have the superfluous, the more I meet with difficulties.”

Maimonides the rationalist is joined by Nahman of Bratslav (1772-1810), the mystic, in pointing to the dangers of excessive attachments and desires. Nahman tells us that, “Worldly desires are like sunbeams in a dark room. They may seem solid, but the person who tries to grasp a sunbeam finds nothing in his hand. The same is true of all worldly desires.”

The Buddhist tradition is, if anything, even more focused than the rabbis on the dangers of “grasping onto things” (upadana). As Ajahn Chah puts it,

The extraordinary suffering is the suffering that arises from what I call upadana, grasping on to things.  This is like [receiving] an injection with a syringe filled with poison.

At the same time—and in this, the rabbis would  concur—Buddhism teaches that there’s nothing inherently wrong in enjoying life’s pleasures, or even indulging in an occasional luxury. In fact, as Tibetan Buddhist nun, Thubten Chodron, points out, “…it’s attachment that makes us restless and prevents us from enjoying things.” In effect, we become so fixated on the object of our attachment that we can barely appreciate it.

Buddhism goes on to teach us that the way to reduce excessive attachment is by realizing the impermanence of everything—including, of course, our own lives.  As Aitken Roshi tells us, “Renunciation is not getting rid of the things of this world, but accepting that they pass away.” (italics added)

The Stoics, too, emphasize simplicity, lack of pretension, and non-attachment to fame,  fortune and status symbols. For the Stoics, the only real “good” in life is virtue. As Marcus Aurelius puts it,

There is but one thing of real value—to cultivate truth and justice, and to live without anger in the midst of lying and unjust men.

It follows, then, that acquiring possessions, wealth, honor, prestige, and influence are merely illusory goods. But like the rabbis and the Buddhist sages, it is not “things in themselves” that are judged unworthy of the fully-developed person; rather, it is our intense attachment to these things. Thus, in describing his father, Marcus Aurelius writes,

 My father enjoyed, without pretension or self-indulgence, the luxuries that his fortune lavished upon him; but when these were not available, he never seemed to miss them. (1.23).

I next discussed the attitude of the three traditions toward impermanence and mortality. All three recognize that our earthly existence is alarmingly short (though a proper understanding of life might lead us to be far less “alarmed”). In the Jewish tradition, we are put here on earth in order to refine our moral character and serve God. As Rabbi Moshe Lieber teaches us,

Life is a fleeting opportunity to gather [spiritual] treasure; once the time is up, [one] can no longer earn anything.

Given that we never know when our “time is up,” we must treat every day as if it were our last. Thus, as Rabbi Lieber puts it, the righteous person

…must always assume that today is the last day of his life and not push off his repentance. Hence, he will spend all his life in perpetual self-improvement.

Similarly, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel teaches us that,

Life’s ultimate meaning remains obscure unless it is reflected upon in the face of death…[Judaism’s] central concern is not how to escape death but rather, how to sanctify life.

This teaching is very close in spirit to the Buddhist teaching in the Dhammapada:

Neither father, sons nor one’s relations can stop the King of Death…[One] who is virtuous and wise understands the meaning of this, and swiftly strives with all his might to clear a path to Nirvana.

Buddhism, however, takes a somewhat different attitude than Judaism when it comes to placing value on our earthly existence. Whereas in Judaism, life is sanctified and valued as an opportunity to perfect ourselves in God’s ways, Buddhism sees earthly existence in more detached terms—not fundamentally different than other things governed by anicca (impermanence). Thus, Ajahn Chah writes,

Suppose you were sick and had to go into the hospital. Most people think, “Please don’t let me die, I want to get better.” That is wrong thinking, [and] it will lead to suffering. You have to think to yourself, “If I recover, I recover; if I die, I die.” This is right thinking…

Though this is not the typical attitude of Judaism—at least in modern times—I noted a similar sentiment in the viduy prayer in Judaism, said when the person is near death; i.e., the righteous Jew says to God, “May it be Your will to heal me. But if death is my lot, then I accept it from Your hand with love.”

 Thus, both Judaism and Buddhism share with Stoicism a certain reserve toward earthly existence, as expressed by Marcus Aurelius: “[T]he one who lives longest and the one who will die soonest lose just the same.” But for Marcus, as for the rabbis and Buddhist sages, this equanimity does not relieve us of our ethical responsibilities. Marcus admonishes us,

Since it is possible that you may depart from life this very moment, regard every act and thought accordingly.

By this, Marcus means that we must live honorably, reasonably, and in accordance with Nature, at all times. He cautions us,

Don’t act as though you’ll live to be a thousand…in what remains of your allotted time, while you still can, become good. (4.17).

Seneca sums up the Stoic view of mortality when he writes, “The man whom you should admire and imitate is the one who finds it a joy to live, and in spite of that, is not reluctant to die.”

I went on to explore the importance of gratitude in the three traditions, and found that each places great importance on this quality of mind. In the Talmudic tradition, gratitude is expressed for whatever one has been allotted in life, as when Ben Zoma asks, “Who is rich?” and replies, “One who rejoices in one’s portion.”

Perhaps reflecting a much earlier Stoic teaching, the 13th century sage, Jacob Anatoli taught that, “If a man cannot get what he wants, he ought to want what he can get.” (Toperoff 1997, p. 197). In the Jewish tradition, it is impossible to conceive of “the flourishing life” without the capacity to feel thankfulness and gratitude. I cited the Yiddish proverb about being grateful: “If you break a leg, be grateful that you didn’t break both legs!” Or, as a cartoon by Mankoff in the New Yorker put it—showing a woman standing next to her worried-looking husband—“But why not be happy about all the diseases that you don’t have?”

In Buddhism, too, gratitude (katannuta) is a foundational virtue. This is summed up in the saying attributed (perhaps spuriously) to the Buddha:

Let us rise up and be thankful, for if we didn’t learn a lot today, at least we learned a little; and if we didn’t learn a little, at least we didn’t get sick; and if we got sick, at least we didn’t die; so let us all be thankful.

And, as Phillip Moffit observes, gratitude yields additional rewards. It becomes part of a “virtuous cycle” and is an integral part of the flourishing life:

Cultivating thankfulness for being part of life blossoms into a feeling of being blessed, not in the sense of winning the lottery, but in a more refined appreciation for the interdependent nature of life. It also elicits feelings of generosity, which create further joy

 For the Stoics, gratitude is summed up in Seneca’s teaching, which sounds remarkably like Jacob Anatoli’s comment:

It is in no man’s power to have whatever he wants; but he has it in his power not to wish for what he hasn’t got, and cheerfully make the most of the things that do come his way.

And, I took note of Cicero’s gratitude, in the midst of his old age, for the “…supreme satisfaction to be derived from an old age which has knowledge and learning to feed upon…”

Finally, I explored the foundational value of self-restraint, and in particular, the necessity of controlling our anger. All three of our traditions would concur in arguing that no one who seeks a flourishing life can give vent to uncontrolled anger. The rabbinical tradition emphasizes the virtue of being slow to anger, and recognizes that the total elimination of all angry feelings is virtually impossible for all but a few saints and sages—and even some sages doubt that the complete eradication of anger would be entirely a good thing. The rabbis also recognized the element of narcissism in unbridled anger, which is compared to “worshipping idols.”

Similarly, in the Dhammapada, the Buddhist tradition holds that,

A man is not on the path of righteousness if he settles matters in a violent haste. A wise man calmly considers what is right and what is wrong, and faces different opinions with truth, non-violence, and peace.

Buddhism holds that patience is the antidote to anger and aggression, and urges us to look deeply within ourselves to find the real cause of our anger. As Thich Nhat Hanh observes, “You yourself may have created the hell inside you.”

The Stoics, too, saw intense anger as a genuine evil—even one that could “beget madness,” as Epicurus put it.  Furthermore, the one who is overcome by anger forgets important truths about our place in the overall order of things. As Marcus Aurelius observes,

I cannot be angry with a brother or resent him, for we were born into this world to work together like the feet, hands, eyelids and lower rows of teeth…

Moreover:

Whenever you lose your temper or become upset about something…you’re forgetting that everything is what your opinion makes it, and that the present moment is all you have, to live and lose.

Modified and condensed from The Three-Petalled Rose (iUniverse), 2013. References available upon request to the author (piesr@upstate.edu).

Ronald Pies is the author of Everything has Two Handles: The Stoic’s Guide to the Art of Living and The Three-Petalled Rose.

 

The Dispassionate Life by Margaret Graver

This post is the transcript of Professor Gravers’ plenary address at the STOICON 2017 conference

Remembering the conference theme, let’s start with the word “professional.” What associations do we have with this word? What expectations does it place on us? Are those reasonable and fair expectations, and if so how do we equip ourselves to meet them? These are questions I invite you to reflect on during the talk.

Meanwhile here is another set of words to think about. Unmoved, apathetic, calm, impassive, serene, unflappable, tranquil, unfeeling, placid, unsentimental, unemotional, unruffled.

Where are we on these words? If you are like me and like my students, you can easily identify several of these words as negative words that you would not want to hear applied to yourself. Others are more complimentary; some might even be neutral. But the point of interest here is that if you make the effort to strip away the positive or negative valence of these words, all of them mean pretty much the same thing: they describe a person who doesn’t respond emotionally in situations where many people would. So this is the first challenge for this group. Let’s see if we can make the effort to get past some of those preconceived notions of what people ought to be like, and think clearly about what concepts underlie our words.

My topic for this afternoon is the dispassionate life, defined for the moment as a life that is not susceptible to usual emotions (anger fear grief) in the kinds of situations that most often trigger those responses. My objectives are two.

First, I want to probe this very notion of a dispassionate life. What actually does it mean? I maintain that although this idea of a dispassionate life sounds like just one idea, in fact it is more than one. I want to go back to the origins of this idea in Greek philosophy, show you a little of the history of it, and begin to sort through the different things “dispassionate” can mean. I think this operation is extraordinarily important for the group that’s assembled here. Some people may be here precisely because they are interested in getting closer to a life free of emotional disturbance. Others may be sceptical about Stoicism precisely because they think such a life would be wrong. Either way, we need some clarity on what the ancient Stoics had in mind when they put forward their claim that the best human life would be dispassionate.

Second, I mean to share some information about techniques that were on offer in ancient texts for bringing oneself closer to the dispassionate life. These hold considerable theoretical interest, whether or not we think that any of them would actually be helpful for a modern person.

It’s worth pointing out that while virtually all the Greek philosophers were strongly interested in mental health, they weren’t the equivalent of our mental health professionals. They were theorizing about human beings generally, not about people who were in crisis or were having highly unusual emotional problems. So what I say here should be thought of as relating to ordinary mental health.

With that said, let me take you back to ancient Greece. In the next thirty minutes or so, I want to walk you through three different groups or schools of philosophers, each of which advocated for its own version of the dispassionate life. First will be the Cynics, kynikoi or dog-philosophers, associated with Diogenes of Sinope; second the Epicureans and their predecessor Democritus; and third the Stoics.

Ancient Terms For Emotion

We’re going to need some terminology. Our word “emotion” is a class term, it names the category whose members are anger, grief, fear, delight, eagerness, and whatever else we think is of that kind. If we look for equivalent words in Greek as spoken in the fourth century B.C.E., we find two possibilities.

One is pathos, etymologically ‘a way of being affected’; corresponding to the Latin word affectus. The other is tarache, etymologically ‘a disturbance’, for which the Latin equivalent is perturbatio.

In what follows I will not attempt to distinguish these two terms. Some authors favor one or the other, but as far as I can tell the meaning is the same or at least near enough to allow for the comparisons we’ll be making here.

The same goes for two terms that are derived from the emotion words: apatheia, from pathos, which I’ll usually translate “impassivity” and similarly ataraxia, from tarachē, which I’ll usually translate “non-disturbedness”. For our purposes today, both these terms mean essentially “absence of emotion.” These two terms alternate in the record for the three philosophies we’ll be looking at.

An Objection

Now, before I go any further, let’s check in with the opposition. Not everybody in the ancient world favored the idea of a dispassionate life. The philosophers who called themselves Peripatetics had objections to it, and so did many of those who called themselves Platonists—though Stoics were also heirs of Plato in their own way. A leader of the post-Platonic Academy, a philosopher by the name of Crantor, put the case against apatheia in terms we can all recognize.

Crantor was writing around 300 B.C., in a consolatory essay—that is, a kind of open letter addressed to someone recently bereaved, offering them the comforts of philosophy. Crantor’s consolation must have said, as most of these pieces do, “it’s OK to cry for a while, anyone would”—but then he turns philosopher and adds,

I cannot by any means agree with those who extol some kind of impassivity (apatheia). Such a thing is neither possible nor beneficial. I do not wish to be ill, but if I am, and if some part of my body is to be cut open or even amputated, let me feel it. This absence of pain comes at a high price: it means being numb in body, and in mind scarcely human.

For Crantor, then, the experience of emotion is both a necessary and a desirable part of being human: eliminating it is “neither possible nor beneficial.” We need to have sensations of grief when calamities befall us, just as we need to feel pain when our bodies are injured. Otherwise we would have lost the responsiveness to stimuli that is essential to human nature: we would be “numb in body, and in mind scarcely human.” This is a powerful objection. It’s one that has occurred to me and I’m sure equally to you and to everyone who has an interest in ancient Stoicism. As we go forward, I want you to keep that objection in mind.

The Cynics: the Thickened Skin

Let’s get started then with our dog-philosophers. Kynes are ‘dogs’; hence kynikoi or Cynics. The English word “cynical” is related but not at all helpful in trying to understand these people.

What you need to know is that there was a succession of public personalities showing up in various Greek cities under this label: Antisthenes, a pupil of Socrates, is often named as an important influence, but Diogenes of Sinope was the iconic figure, and others followed in his footsteps including Crates of Thebes and his life-partner Hipparchia, Bion, Menippus, and various others on into the Roman empire.

These are mostly solitary figures, not a school as such, and not a fully developed system of philosophy either. What held them together was a handful of slogans and practices that point to a distinctive ideology. The Cynics imitated Diogenes in living what they considered to be a life according to nature. That is, a completely no-frills life, with possessions at an absolute minimum: no house, clothing only as required by the cold, the simplest possible food, such as can be acquired by begging in the street. Sleeping on the ground. No shoes, ever. No career, no religion, no use of money, no marriage: all of those things are products of convention, not of nature. It is the life of a dog, completely unembarrassed, all the body functions performed in public, unconstrained by any cultural expectations.

What’s to be gained by this sort of life? Positive ideals for the Cynics are expressed in terms like karteria, toughness; ischus, strength; sophrosyne, self-control; autarkeia, self-sufficiency; parrhesia, speaking one’s mind – but above all, karteria. Going without shoes wasn’t just a matter of avoiding all the cultural baggage that shoes represent. If you walk barefoot long enough, eventually the skin of your feet will become hard and tough, and you won’t feel the stony ground.

And along with those, over and over, apatheia, the very hallmark of Cynicism. Antisthenes imitates Socrates’ impassivity and thus becomes “the first founder of Cynicism”; Diogenes of Sinope is characterized by impassivity more than any other trait; Bion of Borysthenes takes up the accoutrements of the Cynic and thus is converted to impassivity.

What sort of impassivity is this? We can take our cue from the exercises Cynics used in training. There were physical exercises – for instance embracing marble statues in the dead of winter, to train one’s body to endure the cold. Analogous to these were the mental exercises. My favorite: requiring a pupil to carry a stinky piece of cheese through a crowded city street, until he learns not to be embarrassed by it. In a word, manageable discomforts, regularly repeated, as a means of toughening oneself up, to a point at which even much greater calamities are no longer felt.

The approach reminds me quite strongly of a practice that’s known to have been around in Athens at the same time as Diogenes, though not specifically linked to him or any of the Cynics. This is the pre-rehearsal of future ills, an idea known already to the playwright Euripides, as you see in this fragment preserved from one of his lost plays. No doubt it was old even for him – “I learned this from a wise man,” says the character, as if it had already been around for a long time. In this technique, one is supposed to ponder daily every calamity that can happen — the premature death of a family member, the loss of one’s home, and so on – the idea being that if some such event comes to pass, one will be ready for it and not emotionally destroyed by it.

Those familiar with modern cognitive behavioral therapy will recognize the idea of desensitizing oneself to a stimulus by repeated exposure to it under controlled circumstances.  So this is one version of the dispassionate life. We can refer to it as “the thickened skin”. Apatheia in this conception is a matter of hardening the boundaries of the person, to make us less responsive to stimuli. It is the psychological equivalent of the toughened feet of the Cynic, and it is an important part of what Diogenes was after.

This brings me back to the objection of Crantor, to the view that apatheia is neither harsh nor beneficial, that it’s better to be able to feel things. What do the Cynics have to say to this? Do they concede that their approach “means being numb in body and in mind scarcely human”?

Quite the contrary! Their response is to turn the tables. Why should anyone say that the feet of human beings are naturally tender, as if we were all born wearing shoes? Why not say rather that toughness is our natural state? For them, the asceticism that restores that toughness is “a short-cut to happiness”: if people find that road too difficult, it may not be the Cynic apatheia that is to blame, but the softening influence of our cultural institutions. Such is the Cynic conception of impassivity.

The Atomists

The goal of Democritus’s ethics was a good state of mind, euthumia, defined as “a calm and stable existence, not disturbed by any fear or superstition or any other emotion.” Notice the terminology: a state free of both emotion, pathos and disturbance, tarache; also, the emphasis on fear and superstition as the main sources of disturbance. But there’s another word here that interests me: calm. That word is actually a metaphor in Greek: calm, galene, is the condition of a lake or the sea when it is without waves, not stirred by any gale or storm. That metaphor is used also by Epicurus, and I maintain that it is the key to the atomists’ approach. For this reason my nickname for Dispassionate Life #2 will be STILL WATERS.

Let’s reflect for a minute on this image of the tranquil lake. Why are the waters still? Is it because there is a hard shell on the lake that protects it from anything that might stir it up? No, the water is open to the sky. It could be moved, if some gust of wind sprang up – but in fact there is no wind, not today.

And that is the Epicurean contention. The vast majority of Epicurus’s arguments were aimed at convincing the hearer of four things: first, that there is no reason for superstitious fear of divine powers – gods do exist, but not the sort of gods that could ever hurt us or even interact with us. Second, that death cannot harm us: we merely cease to exist, and what’s the harm in that? Third, that everything we really need for life is obtainable without strenuous effort, and fourth, that poverty, physical discomfort, and even pain are not such a big deal that we need to be anxious about them.

The scientific side of Epicureanism, their theories about atoms and void, are all directed toward these ends. For instance, using atomic physics to supply explanations for lightning and thunder, so that we don’t need to believe that God is out to get us; or explaining what happens at death in terms of the physical dissolution of the human psyche, so that we see how little we have to worry about.

That’s just a quick sketch of Epicurean thought, but it’s enough to give us a sense of how Epicurus might respond to the objection put by Crantor. Crantor’s complaint had been that the dispassionate life is a bad idea because it makes us insensitive, “numb in body and in mind scarcely human.”

Epicurus can respond that on his understanding of ‘dispassionate,’ the natural sensitivity of the human being is still fully operational. It’s just that the Epicurean has a correct understanding of the world and realizes that there is no reason be disturbed by it. The Epicurean mind is a quiet pool not because it can’t feel the wind, but because it realizes that no wind is blowing.

In fact Epicurus needs that water to be able to move with the breezes, for two reasons: first, because we rely on sense-perception to give us information about the world, and second because we rely on our capacity for pleasure and pain to guide our actions.

And this leaves us with a question. Given that the Epicurean’s mind is capable of being distressed, what if something happens that even Epicurus recognizes as a real source of mental pain. Because such things can happen in his world. At the very least, the death of friends or family members is a real loss to the Epicurean. Can Epicurus say, then, that the dispassionate life remains available in all circumstances?

Well, it seems there was a back-up plan. We have it in a passage of Cicero, talking about the Epicurean approach to grief management. The term is “redirection”.

As for the means of easing distress, Epicurus holds that there are two: distracting the mind from the thought of suffering, and redirecting it to the contemplation of pleasures. For he claims that the mind is capable of listening to reason and following where reason leads. Reason forbids us to direct our attention toward what is troubling, draws us away from painful thoughts, and dulls the vision with which we contemplate our sufferings. From all of this it sounds the retreat, and urges us rather to concentrate on pleasures of every sort.

In a word, Epicurus relies on a kind of visualization technique, drawing on our capacity to manipulate our inner attention. It is in a way the inverse of the old pre-rehearsal of future ills strategy. Rather than confronting painful thoughts in an attempt to desensitize oneself, Epicurus favors turning the mind away from them and focusing on the pleasurable elements of our experience.

Impassivity and the Stoics

I now want to set both Dispassionate Life #1 and Dispassionate Life #2 in relation to the Stoic conception of apatheia or impassivity. Of course that very phrase brings to mind the notion that’s out there in the culture of what it is to be a Stoic. We’ve all heard it, how Stoics are or want to be impervious to pain, something like the rock of Gibraltar, or my personal favorite, J.C. Taylor’s “Stoic pig.”

That reading of Stoicism and emotion was around even in the Roman world. The portrait of Cato in Lucan’s Pharsalia is a kind of parody of that sort of stoical Stoic – not very different from the “Stoic pig”. But the real Stoics didn’t see it that way. Here’s Seneca in one of his essays:

There are things that strike the wise person even if they do not overthrow him, such as physical pain, loss of a limb, loss of friends and children, and during wartime the calamity of his fatherland in flames. I do not deny that the wise person feels these, for we do not endow him with the hardness of stone or of iron. To endure without feeling what you endure is not virtue at all.

Seneca is very clear that the rock-of-Gibraltar notion of impassivity is the Cynic notion and not the Stoic conception at all. For Seneca, the Cynic position does indeed “go beyond human nature.”  In the Letters on Ethics, he draws an explicit comparison between Stoic and Cynic understandings of apatheia:  

Our position is different from theirs, in that our wise person conquers all adversities, but still feels them; theirs does not even feel them.

And in fact Seneca frequently goes out of his way to remark that the wise person “feels” not just adversity but all kinds of things. His is a sage who blushes, trembles, laughs and cries, gets irritated and can turn white as a sheet. Often what Seneca is talking about is involuntary feelings that occur in the absence of assent, sometimes called ‘pre-emotions’, ‘protopassions, or ‘first movements.’

I should explain that the early Stoics worked with a careful analysis of mental events in terms of the beliefs one is committed to with each type of response. Even the simplest action reflects a judgment that one’s situation calls for a certain kind of response. And affective responses, which include the emotions, likewise reflect a judgment that ones situation calls for such a response because there is value in it — because something good or bad for oneself has just occurred or is about to occur. But some reactions occur without any judgment having been made at all.

Fans of Epictetus will find the same idea in Fragment 9, where he says that “even the wise person’s mind necessarily responds and is contracted and grows pale for a little while” but  “not because he opines that something evil is at hand.”

So this gives a kind of answer to Crantor’s complaint.  But so far it is only a partial answer. A response that doesn’t commit you to anything is unobjectionable but necessarily also brief, trivial and ineffectual. That’s not all of what Crantor is after when he says “let me feel it.”   It also doesn’t touch the depth of Stoic concern about the ordinary emotions.

To get the real answer, we have to talk about the value term that is implied in affective response. And now at last we are ready to talk about dispassionate life #3, and to give it its name …

The Well-Placed Heart

A well-placed heart is a heart that is set upon those objects that are of genuine value for a human life. What are those objects of value?  The Stoic position, and a constant theme in Seneca and Epictetus, is that there are two different classes of object that matter to a human being, but that they matter in very different ways.

One thinks first of what are called external objects, which is to say, objects  external to one’s own sphere of control, also called indifferents. Examples include the money and resources a person controls, what other people say about them, and in general how people around them might behave.

This kind of object will often be quite appropriate for a Stoic to try to get or to avoid, following what accords with our nature or is contrary to it. But it is a central postulate of Stoic ethics that external objects are neither intrinsically good nor intrinsically bad for us. They do not in themselves make the difference in what sort of life a person has. For this reason they are also referred to as indifferents.

In contrast to these are things within our sphere of control, what I like to call integral objects of concern. Integral objects are features of one’s own character and conduct: whether one is kind, whether one is fair, whether one behaves well in whatever situation presents itself. It is this sort of object that Stoics regard as the true goods and bads of human life.

Now, a basic descriptive claim of Stoic psychology is that it is the external objects that are the typical objects of the emotions we experience. The experience of fear necessarily involves thinking that something outside your sphere of control is a threat to your well-being. Grief necessarily registers a loss that you can’t do anything about.

The ancient Stoics reasoned that because these kinds of objects are not the true goods of human life, the ordinary emotions are simply wrong and stand in need of correction.

On the other hand, if the response is toward integral objects, it can be fully justified. The objection isn’t to the feeling itself—the ability to feel things is part of our design. The problem is the misjudgment of value that underlies typical emotional reactions. It’s like the old saying: “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

The Stoic sage, what I refer to as the Person of Perfect Wisdom, has this right, doesn’t react emotionally to things that aren’t integrally important, but does experience deep and urgent feelings when the object is own activity and that of friends. These are the feelings designated “good emotions” or eupatheiai. It seems that the Stoic sage had not only the trivial pre-emotions but also quite a range of vigorous, full-scale affective responses toward integral objects of concern, objects both within herself and within her perfected relationships. The ancient reports list numerous examples: various forms of joy in response to the many good aspects of the wise person’s life; powerful motivations to do good or to form good relationships; aversions from any action that doesn’t belong in a good life.

But is that category of feeling accessible also to us? Can a person who isn’t the sage, who hasn’t perfected her rational nature, train her sights on those proper objects of concern and respond to those in the way that the Stoic sage would?

In the first instance, the answer has to be no. After all we aren’t people of perfect wisdom, and our friends aren’t either. Even our best ideas and efforts are still susceptible to error; they have to be different from what a perfect mind would experience. But this is a place where I think the modern Stoic might push back against the ancient position.

In the last chapter of Stoicism and Emotion, I take the view that even if the original Stoics didn’t fully articulate this part of their philosophy, the position they take on the emotions does have room for ordinary people to have some powerful and important feelings about the integral objects of concern.

Because the fact is, the emotions of familiar experience are not solely concerned with objects external to our sphere of control. Very often they are directed also, or even primarily, at integral objects, through a phenomenon that I’ll call “compounding.”

This is something I can access from my own inner experience as I imagine you do in yours. My grief for the loss of my mother is very much compounded with sorrow over the ways I might not have come through for her. My frustration at meeting resistance from a colleague is very much compounded by  distress that I haven’t been able to establish good communication with that person. And I wonder whether that integral component might not be the real driver in many if not all of our most serious anxieties and griefs, even angers, just as it is in some of our greatest satisfactions.

But we’re a mess: our motives are always very mixed, and often unknown to us. What we have on our hands, then, is not a project in eliminating or shielding ourselves from circumstances that tend to trigger emotions. It’s rather about purifying our response to them. And that’s not going to come about just through desensitization or visualization exercises.

Affective response implies a judgment of value: If I read the system correctly, the only viable approach within Stoicism is to work on the way we make judgments – that is, to take up the challenge of improving our reasoning abilities.

We’ve heard the word “reason” a lot today – and as far as I’m concerned we can hardly hear it too much. It’s a much needed corrective to what’s coming at us from the surrounding culture, where appeals to reason are scarcely to be heard anymore. For Stoics, ancient and modern, reason is the most essential of all our capacities, it’s the central fact about human nature and the only thing that can make us happy.

And while we are none of us perfectly rational, it is quite possible to improve our rational activity, through study, through self-examination, through  values clarification of the kind Chris Gill was talking about earlier.

The nightly self-examination that Seneca describes in writing about the management of anger is just one element of a process that requires a great deal of work in every moment of our lives.

As we begin to think more clearly about what really matters for a human being, the emotions begin – at least begin— to fall into line.

So there is a certain kinship with the Epicurean approach. We’ve seen how Epicurus taught his followers to think of their mind as a calm lake, realizing that the usual objects of fear are not really anything to worry about. Similarly, it is very important for the developing Stoic to come to the realization, through philosophical reasoning, that many of the things we might have thought were major concerns really aren’t that important.

And, remarkably, the Cynics are here as well. You remember that positive values for the Cynics included especially karteria or toughness and its correlate, ischus or strength.  You remember also the Cynic claim that it is the strong and tough condition that is the natural one for human beings. These claims have their counterpart within Stoic thought, in the way that Stoics think about how reason operates.

A central concept of Stoic physics is that of tonos or “tension”: the tight connections among those rational principles that hold the very universe together. But there is also tonos within the human mind. That psychic “tension” is understood as a grasp of central truths and values and as the ability to establish relations between those truths and values and our action-guiding beliefs.

As a characteristic of persons, Chrysippus speaks of eutonia or “good tension,” or more colorfully, of “having good tendons.” He writes,

In the case of the body we speak of tensions which are either ‘lacking in tension’ or ‘good tensions,’ referring to the way our tendons are when we are or are not able to perform tasks. In the same way, perhaps, the tension of the mind is called a ‘good tension’ or a ‘lack of tension.’ For…. by analogy, there is some such way for the tendons to be in the case of the mind. It is in this connection that we say, metaphorically, that some people are ‘without tendon’ and others ‘have tendons.’ One person retreats in the presence of what is frightening, another slackens and gives way when rewards or penalties are offered, and there are many similar cases ….

“Tension” here is a metaphor. We’re not talking about strength of body, nor even about strength of will as that phrase is usually understood. The essential Stoic idea is not about suppressing feelings that you have, but about learning to care more about the things that are worth caring about. Strength of reason gets the priorities right, and therefore gets the emotions right. That is a quite distinct understanding of what it is to live a dispassionate life.

In closing I’ll take us back to our word “professional.” I hope that in the talk today I’ve given voice to some of the thoughts that occur to you when you read this word professional: thoughts maybe about being calm and focused on what you’re trying to achieve; thoughts about your own abilities and the things you can control; thoughts about what really matters.

I wish you all well as you consider the ways you might take something back from this conference to your own place of work, and I thank you for your attention.

Margaret Graver is Aaron Lawrence Professor in Classics at Dartmouth College.  She is the author of Stoicism and Emotion and Cicero on the Emotions: Tusculan Disputations 3 and 4, and the translator of Seneca’s Letters on Ethics .  She gave the keynote address at Stoicon 2017.