Stoic Week 2013: The Results!

Stoic Week 2013: The Results!

By Tim LeBon

All the questionnaires you submitted (thank you!) have been analysed and the verdict is: Stoicism really does appear to have significant benefits on happiness, flourishing and well-being.

Key headlines

1) The improvements in well-being after taking part in Stoic week that were found in 2012 were replicated with  a much larger sample.  Interestingly some very specific findings were also replicated, such as Stoicism being most associated with acceptance, optimism and a sense of purpose. We plan to send follow up  questionnaires in a few months time to see to what extent these benefits “stick”.

2) We have piloted a scale to measure Stoic Attitudes and Behaviours, the “SABS”. For the first time we now have  evidence of a positive association between well-being and Stoic attitudes and behaviours prior to any interventions. It does seem that being Stoic is good for you.  We also know which Stoic attitudes and behaviours are most associated with well-being and which are not. The  most “active ingredients” in Stoicism  appear to be :

A. I make an effort to pay continual attention to the nature of my judgements and actions.

B. 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.

C. I consider myself to be a part of the human race, in the same way that a limb is a part of the human body. It is my duty to contribute to its welfare.

There is also now evidence that the emotion Stoicism is most associated with is not so much indifference or passivity but – joy!

There’s a lot more detail, and also some qualifications to the headlines above in the full report (below) and also recommendations for next steps. Please post a comment if you have any thoughts about what you read, including possible next steps and applications for Stoicism, now that we are developing a much more substantial evidence base.

Click here for the full report on Stoic Week 2013.

A Plea for a Stoic Programmer

We know that many of you Stoics are logical and bright, so it wouldn’t
surprise us in the Exeter Stoic Week team if some of you know how to write computer programmes.

If so, you may be able to help us and thereby do your bit for Stoicism.

We currently use a free service to implement our questionnaires. One limitation of the free service is that it does not give the user any feedback, either of their scores or of their changes in scores after Stoic week. We would like to improve that. We believe that Google Forms combined with Google scripts can be used relatively easily to achieve what we want.

Do you have experience of using Google Forms and Google Scripts?
Would you like to help us?
We are afraid there is no budget available to pay for this work, but we would be very grateful and you would be making a significant difference to Stoic week.

If you think you may be able to help, please reply to me at stoic@timlebon.com and I will provide further details.

"Stoicism & Star Trek: Think like Spock – Act like Kirk" by Jen Farren

Stoicism Star Trek 

Jen Farren

 Kirk (left) & Spock (right)

The original Star Trek of 1966 was a TV show with big philosophical ideas. The show’s creator, Gene Roddenberry, was a humanist who wanted to show characters co-operating with reason and humanity. The show explored ethics, philosophy and politics, had a multi-racial cast and the first televised inter-racial kiss.

But the show also had its own take on Stoicism. Indeed, Gene Roddenberry said that he intentionally created a Stoic character, ‘Spock,’ asone of the three main characters alongside Dr McCoy and Kirk.

For us fans of Stoicism and (perhaps) of Star Trek, this raises an interesting question: how ‘Stoic’ is Spock exactly? Is he your genuine ‘Stoic sage’ or is he more of a ‘stereotypical stoic’, ignoring emotions and governed purely by reason?

In this article, I set out to find the answer, by exploring the philosophical underpinnings of Star Trek.

 Spock: Stereotypical ‘stoic’ or ‘Stoic’ sage?

Before we consider this question, let’s first look at what makes the ideal Stoic, in the words of Seneca:

‘The pilot’s art is never made worse by the storm nor the application of his art either. The pilot has promised you not a prosperous voyage, but a serviceable performance of his task – that is, an expert knowledge of steering a ship. And the more he is hampered by the stress of fortune, so much the more does his knowledge become apparent. The storm does not interfere with the pilot’s work, but only with his success. “What then,” you say, “is not a pilot harmed by any circumstance which does not permit him to make port, frustrates all his efforts, and either carries him out to sea, or holds the ship in irons, or strips her masts?” It is indeed so far from hindering the pilot’s art that it even exhibits the art; for anyone, in the words of the proverb, is a pilot on a calm sea…But the wise man is always in action, greatest in performance at the very time when fortune has blocked his way. For then he is actually engaged in the business of wisdom.’

Moral Letters, 85.

To summarize, the ideal Stoic must show resilience in crisis, know what he can and can’t control and show this by action.  As Seneca writes elsewhere: ‘No fortune, no external circumstance can shut off the wise man from action.’So which of the main characters in Star Trek can live up to this ideal?

On the face of it, there are two ways in which Spock might seem a genuine Stoic.

Firstly, he accepts reality, noting if something is in his control or not. He says: ‘What is necessary is never unwise.’ The Stoic belief is that if we fight what is necessary we will suffer conflict, whilst if we accept it, we can remain calm. Logic like this can simplify life greatly. Marcus Aurelius noted that much of what we say and do is unnecessary. Indeed, he often asked himself: ‘Is this one of the necessary things?’

Secondly, Spock observes without adding extra opinion: ‘Fascinating is a word I use for the unexpected.’ To follow the Stoic rule to only judge things in your control as good or bad, and all else as “fascinating” brings mental calm. It links with the Stoic idea that it is our judgements that upset us more than events. This is about simply stating facts and removing the opinion associated with them.

But both of these aspects are misleading and actually belie Spock’s ruthlessly logical character, something which pushes him towards being a small ‘s’, stereotypical ‘stoic.’

This is clear in his concern with emotional control: ‘Our principles of logic offer a serenity that humans rarely experience in full. We have emotions. But we deal firmly with them and do not let them control us.’ This isn’t easy for Spock at all. In the episode “The Crying Time”, for example, Spock is seen repeating ‘I’m in control of my emotions’, before bursting into tears. Most crucially of all though, from the point of view of the ideal Stoic being a man of action, Spock’s over-reliance on logic sometimes leads him to a kind of ‘logic-induced’ paralysis. He says: ‘I have insufficient information’ and ‘insufficient facts always invite danger.’ Therefore, logic tells him the least risk is best or that more facts will create better decisions, but this is a cognitive distortion as modern science tells us there is often no correlationbetween more information and accuracy. Indeed, Spock’s logic makes him defeatist when there is no identifiable logical option or chance of success: ‘In chess, when one is outmatched, the game is over, checkmate.’ For Spock, logic, and nothing else, is the most important thing.

All in all, Spock is hardly the Stoic sage. Although he has some Stoic leanings, he consistently falls short of being the man of action. Furthermore, in completely suppressing his emotions, he conforms to the stereotype of the Stoic, in contrast to the real Stoic who aims to cultivate positive emotions such as joy and wishing others well.

So if Spock is not your genuine Stoic, then what about McCoy?

McCoy is the polar opposite of Spock: emotion without reason, and as such he is even further away from the Stoic sage. He takes risks which put himself and others in danger.McCoy and Spock are at a stalemate and it’s no surprise that most episodes find Spock and McCoy arguing – should reason or emotion be their guide? Consider this exchange:

McCoy: ‘I’m sick and tired of your logic.’

Spock: ‘That is most illogical, it is more rational to sacrifice one life than six. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one.’

 

Interestingly, this dichotomy is echoed in modern neuroscience. Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow says the brain makes use of two systems: System 1 makes rapid decisions based on emotion, while System 2 makes complex decisions based on analysis and logic. Nevertheless, both systems can deliver the Stoic goal of acting for the common welfare. System 1 (McCoy) does this by automatic emotional responses that trigger actions to protect those in danger. He will risk his life for what he feels is right. System 2 (Spock) does this by deliberate analysis. He will risk his life if it is logical. To him it is illogical to kill without reason, but sometimes it is logical to kill – as such he is ready to sacrifice his life to protect the crew.This dichotomy is echoed in Koenig’sstudy of moral dilemmas about hypothetically harming one person to save many more. Three groups were tested, one of which had impaired emotional function. It found removing the conflict of emotion and reason saved more people as 40% of the group with impaired emotional function agreed to harm one person to save many compared to only 20% in the others.

But what about the last of the trio, Kirk? Is he in any way closer to the Stoic ideal? Kirksays that he doesn’t play chess – he plays poker: a game of great skill and risk, all about playing the cards which have been dealt well. Similarly, Epictetus talks about the ‘roll of life’s dice’, and making careful use of the dice that has been thrown: ‘Imitate those who play dice. Counters and dice are indifferent: how do I know what is going to turn up? My business is to use what does turn up with diligence and skill’ (Discourses 2.5).

In this way, Kirk tries to balance emotion and reason, but he never loses sight of taking action. His choices and actions make him take risks for the common welfare, even when the purely logical thing might be to do nothing. Perhaps he, as the perfect mixture of good emotions and ethical imperatives, a mixture, as it were, of the best of Spock and McCoy, is Star Trek’s real Stoic: the man of both action and contemplation. In the words of Captain Kirk himself: ‘Gentlemen, we’re debating in a vacuum, let’s go get some answers.’

But, of course, from the point of view of good cinema, it doesn’t matter that the real Stoic in Star Trek wasn’t the ‘stoic’ character. For that Spock should have been portrayed in such a way at all was actually crucial for the dynamics between the main characters in the show. Indeed, each episode explores the conflict of reason and emotion through Spock’s relationships with the other characters. Gene Roddenberry (in Edward Gross, 1995) says that he deliberately:

‘Took the perfect person and divided him into three, the administrative courageous part in the Captain (Kirk), the logical part in the Science Officer (Spock) and the humanist part in the Doctor (McCoy).’

It is in Star Trek, then, that this perennial source of inner conflict between reason and emotion plays out so clearly. Stephen Fry captures perfectly how Star Trek dramatized this clash of reason and emotion:

‘You have the Captain in the middle, who is trying to balance both his humanity and his reason. And on his left shoulder, you have the appetitive, physical Dr McCoy. And on his right shoulder you have Spock, who is all reason. And they are both flawed, because they don’t balance the two, and they’re at war with each other, McCoy is always having a go at Spock. And Kirk is in the middle, representing the perfect solution. And not only that, the planets they visit usually make the mistake of being either over-ordered and over-reasonable and over-logical (so they kill those who dissent, and they do it calmly and reasonably), and they have to learn to be a bit human. Or, they are just a savage race that needs reason and order.’

And if Spock had to be made the ‘stereotypical Stoic’, rather than the Stoic sage, to bring that perennial human conflict to the big screen sage, then so much the better for generations of Star Trek fans.

 

References:

Central Intelligence Agency. ‘Do you really need more intelligence?’: https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/csi-publications/books-and-monographs/psychology-of-intelligence-analysis/art8.html

Fry, S., ‘How Star Trek Ties into Nietzsche and Ancient Greece’: http://trekmovie.com/2011/07/04/video-of-the-day-stephen-fry-explains-how-star-trek-ties-into-nietzsche-and-ancient-greece/

Gross, E., Captains’ Logs: The Unauthorized Complete Trek Voyages. Little Brown & Co., 1995.

Kahneman D., Thinking Fast and Slow. Penguin, 2011.

Koenigs, Young et al., “Damage to the prefrontal cortex increases utilitarian moral judgement”, in Nature, 446, pp. 908-911, 2007.

 

Stoicism & Teaching: Part Three

In the last of a three part series, Michael Burton, a Canadian Secondary School teacher, asks how Stoicism can be applied to the teaching profession. Here, he focusses on preparing for adversity, and how an awareness of life’s impermanence could help inspire students to follow what they are really passionate about…

Emotions and Preparations for Adversity

The theme of emotions and preparation for adversity seems to directly oppose the theme of Stoic mindfulness. On the one hand it appears as if the Stoics advise us to guard against negative emotions and thoughts by recognizing them and dismissing them, then on the other hand, they ask us to actually focus our minds towards negativity in order to prepare ourselves, so we can embrace these events when they befall us.

I think there lies a very subtle distinction here that can allow us to simultaneously guard against negative thoughts while also embrace them without contradiction. I think this distinction rests on the principal that we must guard against irrational negative thoughts and embrace or practice those thoughts that seem unpleasant but are rationally feasible.

To put it another way, we know that during the course of our lives we will be struck with certain tragedies (such as sickness, pain, and death) and so we must anticipate these events in order to mitigate the affect they will have upon us. However, there exists other kinds of negative thoughts that can creep in and impact our attitudes that are not as certain (such as the feeling what we cannot complete a task, that we are not good enough, or that we should feel anger or frustration if something does not go our way). The latter of these events is our interpretation of how we think we should feel without the aid of stoic mindfulness, while the former are hard facts about the nature of our lives that we must prepare to embrace.

Continue reading “Stoicism & Teaching: Part Three”

Stoicism & Teaching: Part Two

In the second part of a three part series, Michael Burton, a Canadian Secondary School teacher, asks how Stoicism can be applied to the teaching profession. Here, he focusses on Stoic Action & The Reserve Clause, and how this can help students with examination nerves and stress…

Action and the Stoic Reserve

I think today’s theme is best applied towards students who suffer from anxiety or stress about their grades and assessments (whether they are of exceptional or poor quality) because often such students don’t have a good working understanding of success. Although many educators understand the difficulties of assessing student’s knowledge of a subject through the use of standardized testing and evaluation, many still continue to use these methods in formally grading their student’s abilities.

In an ideal educational setting, each student should be able to demonstrate their learning in a medium which best suits their individual strengths and interests, however until that day we are left with a system which only rewards a particular kind of learner (i.e. those who excel at factual recall and work well under the time constraints of a test period). Until educational assessment methods are changed, I feel it can be of enormous benefit to our students to share with them different ways of managing and coping with test taking even if these methods simply consist of changing their perspectives on what it means to be successful.

Normally before a test or examination review, I take time to discuss with my class how stoics view action and go over with them the trichotomy of control. I point out that achieving a perfect grade is neither something that they have complete control over, nor is it something that they have no control over. Events like tests and exams fall into the third category of control in that they represent something that a student can have some but not complete control over.

What I try to get across to my students at this point is that no matter how hard they may study on test day, they may face questions which they have no idea how to answer and to walk into a test situation with the mentality that they want or need to achieve a perfect (or even a high mark) is unreasonable.

Instead, each of them should focus on walking into a test situation and doing their absolute best to achieve the highest possible mark that is within their ability. Whether the mark is fifty percent, seventy-five, or ninety percent will depend on a combination of how well they understand the material, how much they studied, and the types of questions which comprise the assessment.

Continue reading “Stoicism & Teaching: Part Two”

The Value of Stoicism: A Student's View

Continuing with the theme of Stoicism in schools, we come to Sam Moleman (17), a secondary school student at the Hermann Wesselink College in Amstelveen in The Netherlands, who took part in Stoic Week 2013. In this piece, he reflects on how the Stoic emphasis on focussing on responding to reality well has implications for human happiness…

What has Stoicism to offer us today?

I think that Stoicism has a lot to offer us to improve the figurative quantity of happiness and welfare of humankind.

According to the Stoic school of philosophy, freedom and happiness, or the development to happiness, is possible for humankind, if individuals are able to change their way of reacting to reality. Whatever is going to happen, the freedom and (maybe eventual) happiness isn’t determined by the already determined reality, it is determined by your own process of dealing with this reality. Seneca put it like this:

“Pain is slight if opinion has added nothing to it; … in thinking it slight, you will make it slight. Everything depends on opinion; ambition, luxury, greed, hark back to opinion. It is according to opinion that we suffer. … So let us also win the way to victory in all our struggles, – for the reward is … virtue, steadfastness of soul, and a peace that is won for all time.”

— Seneca, Epistles, Ixxviii. 13-16 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apatheia)

For example, Stoics believed in something called apatheia. This is the state of mind wherein the individual is not affected by negative emotions/passions. While this ability may seem unattractive to most, I believe that this ability offers great flexibility and practical applications for daily life.

Continue reading “The Value of Stoicism: A Student's View”

Stoic Week at Hermann Wesselink College, the Netherlands

Promoting the Stoa in 2013: does that make sense?

Stoic week at Hermann Wesselink College Amstelveen

As part of their philosophy course, a group of 15 and 16 years old students of the Hermann Wesselink College participated in the International Stoic Week.  They learned about the stoic art of living, read in Epictetus Encheiridion and participated in stoic exercises such as: taking the outsider’s perspective, negative visualization and writing a diary.

To conclude the stoic week they wrote a plea for or against promoting the stoic lifestyle in 2013. Not everyone thought this was a sensible idea; this is a selection of the opinions of the students.

Continue reading “Stoic Week at Hermann Wesselink College, the Netherlands”

Stoicism & Teaching: Part One

In the first of a three part series, Michael Burton, a Canadian Secondary School teacher, asks how Stoicism can be applied to the teaching profession. During Stoic Week, he endeavoured to apply each day’s theme in the Stoic Week Handbook to the teaching trade….in this first piece he focusses on the Stoic circle of control….

Stoic Control

The Stoic notion of control is the idea that essentially in life there are three types of events that can befall an individual. Those that are completely under ones control, those which one has some but not complete control over, and finally those which one has no control over.

The Stoics advise us that the key to tranquility lies in being able to identify which of these events face us in our day-to-day lives and more importantly, to only concern ourselves with the first and second types of events. That is to say, those events which we have some or complete control over.

I believe that most people would agree that it is irrational to fret about things that you have no control over, however I think people fail to identify just how much of our lives are largely out of our control. Our gender, wealth, race, country of birth, appearance, sexual orientation, to name a few, are important factors in our lives that we have no control over.

When you add to this the things that we have some but not complete control over such as our academic abilities, our relationships with others, our general state of health and fitness, etc.. It can seem like there is almost nothing left for us to truly take pride in or be held responsible for.

Instead of falling into a complete existential crisis about how chaotic and meaningless life is in a world where we are the victims of random circumstances that are composed of events we have no control over; the stoics would advise us to find solace in the one thing that we can control, how we interpret these events.

Continue reading “Stoicism & Teaching: Part One”