Jonathan Newhouse, Stoic CEO of Condé Nast

Jules Evans interviews Jonathan Newhouse CEO of Conde Nast, about his practice of Stoic philosophy….

As part of my continued fascination with how people use ancient philosophies in modern life, I went to interview Jonathan Newhouse, chairman of Conde Nast International, which publishes the non-US editions of magazines like Vogue, GQ, Vanity Fair, Glamour and House and Garden. How, I wondered, did Jonathan follow Stoic philosophy in such an image-focused industry? And how did it help him with the pressures of being born into one of the most affluent and successful families in America? Unlike the stars who adorn his magazine covers, Jonathan is a very private person, and this is the first time he’s talked about his love of Stoicism, but he was kind enough to share his thoughts. 

How did you get into Stoicism?

It was 1999. I ran into Alain de Botton in a restaurant. He was having dinner with a friend of mine. He said he was working on a book of philosophy, and mentioned Seneca, who I’d never read. I went out and brought Seneca’s Letters From a Stoic. And it just blew me away. I found it impeccably logical. That led me on to Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus.  I read just about everything I could. Now I usually take one of the Stoic books with me when I travel. I incorporated it into my thinking and it’s shaped the way I think and interact with the world in a very positive way.

How?

What struck me was the irrefutable logic of it. People devote a lot of time and emotional effort to things that are beyond their control – what other people do, how other people react to them, even the weather. And they set themselves up for pain, anxiety, disappointment and fear. The Stoics recognised that it was foolish, or counterproductive, to attach oneself to things that are beyond one’s control, when there are things within one’s control – one’s thoughts, attitudes and moral purpose.

I loved the idea that you could make your goal to live a life of moral purpose. I was very taken with the ethical and moral point-of-view of Stoicism. When you read the Stoics, you often come across the word ‘virtue’. They saw the goal of the wise person as to lead a virtuous life. Today, the word ‘virtue’ is almost never heard, except ironically. If you asked 100 people what their goal was in life, hardly any would say leading a virtuous life.

Can you give some practical examples of how you might use Stoic ideas?

Marcus Aurelius, the Stoic philosopher and emperor of Rome

I found I had a more satisfactory way of dealing with disappointment, opposition…For example, I had children, who are grown up now and in their twenties. Parents care a lot about their children and what they do, and it’s very easy to get upset when they don’t behave as you would wish them to. Stoicism makes you realise you can’t control people, not even your own children. It’s liberating. The essence of Stoicism is that you have to accept what you can’t control. I’d get upset or disappointed when things didn’t go my way or when someone didn’t do what I wanted, but I learnt to step back and say ‘what’s going on? Does it involve my moral purpose?’ If it does, then as a wise person you have a path to follow, which is to follow the path governed by reason and virtue. And if it doesn’t involve your moral attitude, then it’s probably not that important. Let me read you one of my favourite quotes from Marcus Aurelius:

They cannot admire you for intellect. Granted—but there are many other qualities of which you cannot say, “but that is not the way I am made”. So display those virtues which are wholly in your own power—integrity, dignity, hard work, self-denial, contentment, frugality, kindness, independence, simplicity, discretion, magnanimity. Do you not see how many virtues you can already display without any excuse of lack of talent or aptitude? And yet you are still content to lag behind.

What he’s saying is you can make your goal to live in a dignified way, a virtuous way based upon reason. It is within your power. How many people do that? Where people get screwed up is there are a lot of things that appear to be in our control – whether we achieve something we want to achieve, whether a relationship works out the way we want. The fact is we can influence them, but ultimately a lot of these things are beyond our control. Even our health.

But isn’t that a heresy in the world of business philosophy, where most people think success is all down to your own efforts. You seem to be saying that some of these things involve fortune and luck.

Fortune and luck play a huge part in everything. Stoicism doesn’t mean passivity – you can care and you can be passionate. Let’s say you’re a writer — your duty is to write the best you can. But it’s out of your control whether your book becomes a bestseller or not. Other people have to buy it, a publisher has to publicise it, maybe you have to get on a TV talk show. But nothing can prevent you from living according to the precepts of Stoicism.

Is it easier to be Stoic when you’re well off?

A lot of things are easier if you’re well-off, and probably a few things aren’t as easy. Marcus Aurelius was emperor of Rome, hugely powerful. And Epictetus was a slave. So I don’t think Stoicism is just a luxury for advantaged people. Any person can learn from it.

Marcus was emperor of Rome, which must have been an incredibly complex and stressful job. You also, in some ways, are at the top of an empire, a media empire, which must also be very complex. Does Stoicism help you in that?

Newhouse with Vogue execs at Milan Fashion Week

I don’t think it impacts how I run the business, to be honest. I don’t look at the business every day and think ‘what’s the Stoic way to do a certain thing’. What it does do is help me manage myself and my own feelings. There’s not very much that disturbs my equanimity. I can have a detachment and calmness in doing what I do. I don’t get offended if someone I do business with lets me down, I just recognise this is the way some people behave. It reminds me of a quote from Marcus Aurelius I was looking at this morning:

Whenever you are offended at someone’s lack of shame, you should immediately ask yourself, ‘is it possible for there to be no shameless people in the world?’ It’s not possible – do not ask for the impossible. This person is just one of the shameless inevitably existing in this world.

If someone is behaving in a rude way, step back and say ‘OK that’s their problem. What’s my responsibility? Mine is to follow the precepts of truth, justice, courage and self-control’. Nothing can prevent you from doing that. If you ask most people, do you think you can achieve your goal, people would say, maybe I will, maybe not. If your goal is to live according to reason and virtue, then that is always achievable. I’d never thought of that.

Did you grow up with a particular religion?

I’m from the US, from the New York area. I grew up as a reformed Jew, with the Judeo-Christian moral precepts that most people are exposed to. I was never a seeker after truth.  I didn’t join cults or experiment with philosophies or sects. I wasn’t particularly looking for some kind of answer.

To what extent is the world of media and fashion in tune with Stoic values?

Not in tune. I don’t think there’s any particular awareness of it. In fact, the zeitgeist has been moving away from Stoic virtues. For example, the Stoics thought humans have the capacity for reason as well as passions. They saw passions as the antithesis to reason and kind of the wrong path. But today we put a great value on emotions, and living your emotions and experiencing them and giving into them. The idea of applying a reasoned approach is not in line with today’s thinking.

And also, you could say that media has led to a culture of external display rather than the idea of inner virtue?

Digital has made possible an incredible explosion of narcissism. Through Facebook and Instagram, people are displaying everything about their personal lives. I like the fact that Stoicism is private. I’ve never felt an interest in proselytizing it. I do, however, sometimes talk to close friends about it. For example, about a year ago, a friend of mine in the US lost his wife in a shooting accident. He was devastated.  I sent him a book of Seneca about consolation. He thanked me for it.  I don’t know if it touched him. But occasionally, when I’ve come across someone who I thought would benefit, I’ve given him a book.

For example, I noticed you stood by John Galliano in that whole furore.

Well, in that case I felt he’d been suffering from severe alcoholism, which is an illness. And he was taking steps to recover. And the right thing to do when someone is sick is to have compassion and to support their recovery.

Going back to the idea of proselytizing – Marcus Aurelius also clearly thought you can’t change people so there was no point trying to do ‘Stoic outreach’. Do you think then that we can’t promote these ideas or values through the media?

Individuals should do what they want. If people feel strongly about it, they should write a book, or talk about it. I have no intention of fighting any battle to spread Stoicism. It’s out there – you can walk into a bookshop and buy Marcus Aurelius. A lot of ancient philosophies have something to offer. What’s happened today, which is a shame, is that when people have problems and suffering, their instinct is to go to a psychiatrist and get a pill. Some misfortunes require medication, but pills aren’t the answer to all our problems.

I do think we should teach a whole range of philosophies in schools. In the 16th or 17th centuries, every educated household had a copy of Seneca in their library. Now it would be less than 1% who’d have a copy. They’ve been neglected.

Have you ever met other people interested in Stoicism?

No, there’s no other person I could discuss this with, apart from Alain de Botton.

Elle MacPherson named her son Aurelius after the author of her favourite book, Aurelius’ Meditations.

You must have met so many people. None of them were into Stoicism? Tom Wolfe for example? Elle MacPherson?

I’ve sat next to Elle at dinner parties. I didn’t realise this was one of her intellectual interests!  For me, it’s a private thing.

That’s quite different from, say, Judaism, where there’s so much emphasis on community.

Well, Stoics don’t all meet in church and worship. The Stoics make mention of God, but the deity does not play a major role. It’s a way of thinking, a philosophy, and you don’t need anyone else to share it with. I’m happy if someone else is interested in it. I’ve occasionally talked to friends about it and they nod and say ‘that’s nice’, but I don’t have friends that I hang out with in a bar and talk about Stoicism.

Do you believe in God?

That’s an interesting question. [Pause]. I guess…is there a God that is looking at every single detail of every life in the universe, you know, if Johnny is praying to pass his biology exam, is God listening to that prayer? I don’t know. To me, the principles that are embodied in Stoicism are akin to God. I’m not sure if God exists, but I prefer to live my life as though He does.

The Stoics believed in a moral universe. Do you?

Well, they’d say it all comes down to reason. They saw their moral values as stemming from reason, which enables us to live in a peaceful and harmonious way.

But they also saw a link between reason and the universe.

Yes they did. You know…I haven’t worked it out. This sounds terrible, perhaps, but I love the idea of God. For me, this philosophy itself is  godlike –  almost like a Higher Power, something greater than my own power, which is puny.

And what about the afterlife?

Well, I think when you’re dead, it’s probably like before you’re born. There’s no consciousness, no pain, no nothing. It’s frightening, but it will happen to all of us, and I can accept it. That’s the way God or Nature made the world, and to protest against it or to feel anguish is foolish and irrational, so why indulge it? You know when you jump into a swimming pool, there’s a moment when you know you’re going to go from one state to another, and then it happens. I think death is something like that. Except you won’t be swimming afterwards. Anyway, Stoicism has made me less afraid of dying.

I left with the impression of a man with a quiet and deep integrity. Of course, I still wondered if the media could perhaps play a role in trying to shape more positive values in our culture, but Jonathan is not alone among Stoics in being wary of proselytizing. Still, occasionally some Stoic philosophy sneaks into one of his family’s magazines – like in 1955, when JD Salinger published Franny and Zooey in the New Yorker. In the story, Zooey scrawls some Epictetus quotes across her school’s blackboards. Good going Zooey.

This article was first published on Jules Evan’s website in October 2013, and is reprinted here with his kind permission. 

 

'How Stoicism is Helping to Strengthen My Mind’ by Emma Young

How Stoicism is Helping to Strengthen My Mind

by Emma Young

IMG_1575

I knew I had a problem when my work became about me. Researching a story on the upsides of anger for New Scientist magazine, I found myself taking the opportunity to quiz academic experts on topics that were relevant not to the piece, but to my own life. After agreeing to be interviewed for another assignment, an American psychologist who has found that ‘loving-kindness’meditation can improve relationships and boost psychological wellbeing found herself so enthusiastically interrogated, it came across as aggressive. (I winced repeatedly while transcribing the recording of our conversation).

The thing is, I didn’t actually have a problem with anger. And my relationships with my family and friends were pretty good. What I did have was a more general mental ‘weakness’, for want of a better word. I had the kind of mind that would lay awake night after night, worrying about past ‘mistakes’(why didn’t I buy that flat, why did I leave that job, why did I say that to my friend?). I made diet and exercise plans, and abandoned them. I felt stressed out, and irritable, which affected not only me but my husband and my two young boys.

And so, I decided to change. I had a degree in psychology and 20 years’experience as a science and health journalist, so I set out to find strategies that could build a stronger mind. I researched meditation, exercise, diet, military and sporting mental toughness interventions – and also self-talk. And when it came to what I tell myself – and the most useful guidance in how to think – I’ve found that I’m most drawn to Stoicism – and it’s made a real difference.

I contacted the Stoicism Today group, and interviewed a founder member, Donald Robertston, asking him what livingly Stoically means, and how to do it. I’d just spent a few months immersed in the positive psychology literature, and I found what he had to tell me incredibly refreshing. He told me how, in preparation for exams he was about to take, he’d envisage failing, to prepare himself for that genuine possibility. How different this seemed to the ‘go-me!’, positive take on life. And yet, when it comes to things we’d really like in life – to the toughest goals we set for ourselves – of course, failure is a genuine possibility. In fact, I’m sure it happens more often than wild success. That’s certainly been the case for me. Robertson’s approach seemed so much more rational, and less likely to lead to debilitating self-criticism, especially when coupled with the fact, as he explained, that a core Stoic value is that the only things we have real control over are our thoughts and our actions – and that exam success is only partly in our control, because it is also in the ‘hands of fate’.

But if I had clear guidance, now, not to worry about things that are outside my control – whether that’s bad traffic or an ambiguous comment from a friend – I realised I’d also shirked a big responsibility: to be in control of my own thoughts. It felt like a serious challenge. But because I could now slough off the weight of so many pointless and destructive thoughts, I felt I had the mental space to focus on this. Faced with a person seeking a confrontation, for example, I could tell myself: don’t worry about what they’re saying and what they’re thinking, worry about what you’re saying and how you’re behaving. And I do try to, and I do feel this really helps.

Donald Roberston stressed to me that living Stoically is not easy – that it does require constant vigilance and effort, but that effort lessens over time, just as a physical challenge gets easier the fitter you become. I’ve been surprised by how easily I’ve managed to stop myself being upset by  anonymous challenges (like bad traffic, or a delayed flight). I find it harder to control my emotions and thoughts when faced with a person seemingly intent on disrupting them. But I know that every time I keep my temper and stay calm, I’m getting stronger. And it’s not just a theoretical improvement – I feel it, too.

See also the Elle review, June 2015: “Young won’t settle for any shoddy theories in her quest to develop a ‘comprehensive programme that could build basic mental strength’. She covers a lot of ground: meditation, exercise, diet, sleep, controlling negative thoughts, mental toughness and getting in touch with your senses. I tried out meditation because Young actually proves that it diminishes stress…Young says: ‘Getting upset about something outside your control is destructive. You can only control your emotions and your actions’. This is just what I needed to hear.” 

The book is available to purchase here.

Emma Young is the author of Sane: How I shaped up my mind, improved my mental strength and found calm, published by Hodder & Stoughton. Emma has a degree in psychology from the University of Durham and 20 years’ experience as a science and health journalist on titles including the Guardian, the Sydney Morning Herald and New Scientist

'On Happiness' by Tanner Campbell

On Happiness

By Tanner Campbell

Mr Happy

As I sit to write this it occurs to me how much I’ve evolved, philosophically and as a person, since I wrote “Happiness Through Fiction” a mere five months ago (a piece I still consider to be true but now view as impractical for use). Tonight someone in my life asked me a question that I was altogether unprepared to be asked, mostly because the assumption made in the question was both incredibly flattering and – to me – extremely far from reality. What follows won’t be a treatise on happiness, I’m in no position at this point in my development to write such a thing, instead it will be an explanation of how I find happiness… and how I don’t.

The Question

You seem to be a fairly level-headed and happy guy, [in spite of certain negatives in your life]. How do you pull that off?

The person who asked this question was really the perfect person to do so. I know this person well enough to feel moved by the fact that they would ask me for personal guidance on their own happiness, but we’re unfamiliar enough for me – at the same time – to be completely shocked that they would ask me something this important and be genuinely interested in my response.

Happiness vs. Contentment

First, my friend’s question is about contentment, not happiness. Happiness is temporary, happiness is always fleeting, happiness comes in fits and spurts, in singular moments. We’re happy when we buy something we’ve been saving for a long time to get, or when we get a gift or a surprise birthday party. We’re happy when we’re asked whether or not we’re happy, but only if we’re asked at the right moment. We’re happy during points of great ecstasy such as sexual climax, drunken bliss, or drug-induced euphoria. We’re happy when we’re recognized for our accomplishments and sometimes we’re even happy during moments of silent self-reflection, like watching the sun set, but no one is happy all the time.

The question “how are you such a happy person?” is malformed, it can’t possibly elicit a useful or truthful answer. When someone asks this question (at least in the sense of how it was asked to me) what they’re really doing is comparing their internal struggle to find contentment to your external appearance of happiness and then making the assumption that you’ve got contentment they haven’t got. For practical purposes contentment and happiness are used interchangeably (frequently) in the English lexicon but, in order to answer the question posed to me tonight, I feel it’s necessary to point out that happiness is a temporary emotion and isn’t what the questions “how are you such a happy person” or “are you a happy person” aim to learn more about. The question being asked of me is actually, “how do you find contentment within an imperfect life?”

How am I so content?

The truth is that I am not. I’m a long way from content and the frequency with which I experience happy moments is currently quite infrequent. That said, I experience unbroken streaks of contentment much more frequently than I did before I started the Epictetus is my Therapist project and – so long as we’re using the terms interchangeably and disarming language of its specificity – I’m a much happier person now as well. Stoicism has a great deal to do with that, but let me say more:

Needs and Wants

I believe contentment starts in understanding the difference between what you need and what you want. A person who wants a lot will find more frequent occasion to be dissatisfied with what they currently have as what they currently have is a reminder of what they do not yet possess. This isn’t to suggest that you shouldn’t want things or that you should be content in living in a cardboard box and eating out of dumpsters in an alley behind an old Italian restaurant (though contentment can certainly be found there as well). This is to suggest that contentment can be created fastest and most strongly when you strike a realistic balance between needs and wants which works for you. I’m relatively decent at this, it has come with a lifetime of practice, but I still sometimes find dissatisfaction with what I have because I want something more. When that happens I have to assess “the more” and figure out whether or not going after it will upset the balance I’ve created. If it will, I remind myself of the differences between need and want and move on… well-balanced. Full disclosure: sometimes I screw this up.

Emotional Reaction to Circumstance

Our reactions to the things that happen to us can have the strongest impact on our contentment. We lose a job, someone says something mean to us, a big truck cuts us off in traffic, we get a flat tire on the way to work, our significant other breaks up with us, our laptop crashes and we lose all our family photos… any of these things have the potential to easily disrupt our contentment. I’m occasionally guilty in this department as well.

Recently an employer called me incompetent and he said it loud enough for the whole office to hear. I was mad enough to toss him out a window and I stayed mad for about an hour. For the entire hour I was incredibly dissatisfied with my life. I hated my job, I hated my boss, I hated myself – I was miserable. I was the most unhappy guy you could ever meet during those sixty minutes. You know how I got out of it? How I regained my balance? I assessed the criticism. I assessed the criticism and found it to be accurate; I was indeed incompetent at the position I had at that time. Then I asked myself why the criticism upset me so badly if it was accurate and of course the answer was because I didn’t want to be incompetent at my job – and there I was at the crossroads of needs and wants. What would I need to do to get what I wanted? To not be incompetent at this position. Was it possible? Was it worth it? Was it something I wanted to put myself through for the sake of pride? No, it wasn’t. I stepped down from that position and into a position I currently enjoy much more and am really good at; balance regained.

That story was a really specific example but you can apply it to anything. X happens and you’re in control of how you react to it and what you do in response. Stoicism has helped me to train my mind to have less severe and less prolonged reactions to adverse (and even positive) events in my life.

Eudaimonia, human flourishing through virtue

I’ll permit Sharon Lebell to take this one, from her translation of Epictetus’s “The Art of Living”:

The flourishing life is not achieved by techniques. You can’t trick yourself into a life well-lived. Neither is it achieved by following five easy steps or some charismatic figure’s dogma. A flourishing life depends on our responding, as best we can, to those things uniquely incumbent upon us.

To live an extraordinary life means we must elevate our moral stature by culturing our character. The untrained brood about the constituent elements of their lives. They waste precious time in regret or wishing their particulars were different (“If only I lived in a  better house or town, had a different spouse, a more glamorous job, more time to myself…”). The morally trained, rather than resenting or dodging their current life situations and duties, give thanks for them and fully immerse themselves in their duties to their family, friends, neighbors, and job. When we succumb to whining, we diminish our possibilities.

The overvaluation of money, status, and competition poisons our personal relations. The flourishing life cannot be achieved until we moderate our desires and see how superficial and fleeting they are.

Virtue, that is to say a life lived in accordance with a high moral standard (and constantly using philosophy to determine what that standard ought to be), is at the very heart of a contented and happy life.

So to answer the question

Life is constantly disruptive, happiness is temporary, and maintaining prolonged contentment is only possible by disciplining your mind to constantly (and realistically) assess needs vs. wants, control its response to the aforementioned disruptions of life, and reason itself towards the most virtuous living possible. I’m a “happy” person because I’m constantly practicing this discipline.

Friends: It’s never to late to start.

The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts: therefore, guard accordingly, and take care that you entertain no notions unsuitable to virtue and reasonable nature. – Marcus Aurelius.

Tanner Campbell is an author, podcaster, small-business owner, and Stoic. He was host of the Epictetus is my Therapist podcast from 2014 to 2015 and now writes stoically-informed prose and poetry on his personal blog, “Write Mind”, located at TannerCampbell.net. Tanner is 32-years-old and lives in Boynton Beach, Florida with his dog Jupiter and his girlfriend Brittany.

'How to Become More Virtuous – and Less Like Basil Fawlty' by Tim LeBon

How to Become More Virtuous – and Less Like Basil Fawlty

by Tim LeBon

Illustrated by Matt Aldridge
Illustrated by Matt Aldridge

“I’ve heard a lot about virtue and its benefits today”,  commented an audience member at the Stoicism Today event at Queen Mary’s College, London last year. “So please can you tell me more about how in practice I can become more virtuous?  Great question. In this article I aim to answer it.

For many ancient Greeks and Romans, including the Stoics, becoming more virtuous is synonymous with developing the four cardinal virtues of wisdom, courageself-control and justice. Wisdom includes theoretical wisdom – knowledge of ethics, nature and all that matters- and practical wisdom, knowing how to bring about what matters most in a given situation. For the Stoics, a key part of wisdom is knowing the difference between what you can and cannot change and focussing your energies on the former – an idea memorably expressed in the Serenity Prayer. Courage and self-control are the dispositions to overcome fear and desire respectively to do what is right,  whilst justice means being fair regardless of whose welfare is at stake.

These definitions help us know the nature of virtue, but how do we become more virtuous in practice? How do we get to focus our energies only on what we can control,  become fairer and overcome fear and desire when it may lead us astray? My suggestion in this article combines three helpful ideas. The first is to listen to guided meditations.Guided meditations are increasingly a key component  of evidence-based 3rd-wave CBT therapies.  For example, many readers will probably be familiar with the recordings of Andy Puddicombe, founder of Headspace, which help you to develop mindfulness.

The Stoicism Today project has placed guided meditations at the heart of its “Live like a Stoic” experiments.  Donald Robertson has written and narrated some excellent meditations such as the early morning and evening meditations. Listening to Robertson’s early morning meditation, which invites you to imagine your day ahead and how you might  behave Stoically, is arguably more powerful than merely reading about Stoicism You  rehearse practicising Stoic ideas rather than reading about them passively. The second idea to help you become more virtuous is to bring to mind an ideally virtuous person (in Stoicism commonly called “the Stoic sage) and think about what they would do in this challenging situation. This suggestion is at least as old as Seneca who advised us to “cherish someone of good character and keep them always in your mind. Then live as if they were watching you, and order all your actions as if they saw them”.

We can combine these two ideas by thinking of a challenging situation, reflecting on how an ideal Stoic Adviser would respond and  then rehearsing in our mind’s eye behaving as the ideal Stoic Advisor would. This type of meditation  owes a considerable  debt to the work of  third-wave CBT psychologist Paul Gilbert, whose Compassion-Focussed Therapy (CFT)  includes guided meditations contemplating an ideal compassionate other.

The third helpful idea, which I believe has considerable motivational power, is to reflect on the problems we create if we don’t behave virtuosly. I can think of no better example of this than  Basil Fawlty thrashing his car

No-one wants to look as silly as Basil Fawlty, but if we lack self-control, wisdom, courage and justice that could happen.

You can download the Stoic Ideal Adviser Guided Meditation  recording  and script.

The Stoic Ideal Adviser Workshop presentation from the Stoicism Today event at Queen Mary’s College London, 2014 is also available if pdf format.

I hope that these resources prove useful.  Do remember though, that  the only person you can really control is yourself ….

Tim LeBon is a BABCP accredited CBT therapist and UKCP registered existential therapist, an APPA and SPP registered philosophical counsellor and is also trained as a life coach  and integrative counsellor.He is a past Chair of the Society for Philosophy in Practice (SPP) and the founding editor of Practical Philosophy. He is  the author of Wise Therapy (Sage, 2001) and Achieve Your Potential with Positive Psychology (Hodder, 2014) . You can read more about Tim’s work on his blogSocrates Satisfiedand his website.

'What Stoicism Taught Me About the Royal Marines' by Mark Hardie

What Stoicism Taught Me About the Royal Marines

By Mark Hardie

The famous 'yomp' across the Falklands.
The famous ‘yomp’ across the Falklands.

When I look back now to my time in the Royal Marines, some my most enduring memories are from my initial training. I spent 15 months with 20 other young men going through the crucible of pressure that is the Commando Training Centre. Just getting selected to start had been a challenge, and at least two people chose to give up after two days. I distinctly remember my Batch officer telling us to ‘Show some steel!’ imploring us to conceal the pain and fatigue that he had personally delivered us unto and he could see in the eyes of many of us.

“Show some steel!’ Others would call this your ‘game face’ – focus, determination, and composure – when the pressure is building. However, steel is not shown on the face, but in the eyes. Others Instructors would encourage us to be more stoic with the challenges we faced, but at this stage in my career that was as much ancient knowledge as I was going to be exposed to.

There is no excuse among professional officers for not having a 5000 year old mind.’ – Jay Luvaas

All soldiers are lucky in that if they ever encounter the writings of Xenophon for example, they can relate directly to the lives of those soldiers. The burden of equipment; the importance of social cohesion; the challenge of leadership, all are as valid today as they have ever been. Perhaps reaching back thousands of years is one of the many things that soldiers and philosophers have in common.

With my exposure to stoicism I can look at Generals like William Slim in a new light. Slim led the 14th Army through Burma in World war two. In 1952 he  spoke of moral courage as a rare but essential component of leadership. ‘Moral courage means that you do what you think is right without bothering too much about the effect on yourself.’

Stoicism taught me far more about the military than the military taught me about stoicism. It is only after I encountered stoic philosophy that I truly valued my time in the military.

The Royal Marines taught me about the value of the correct mindset then put me into situations where that mindset would be tested. I prepared thoroughly but recognised that my greatest strength during the action would be my ability to adapt. This mindset gave me mental distance as I operated and a well-prepared mind rarely goes blank. I reviewed each decision, thought about how I would do it next time, reflected.

The Royal Marines taught me about emotional self-regulation – recognising that anger can be a positive state, but that rage rarely is. To overcome failure, move on, not ruminate on those two fateful words “If only…” It is not that I did not feel emotions, more that I concealed them, or harnessed them because courage is as infectious as fear. Rational thinking under pressure is difficult. Most people who like to think things through in detail, do so because they are terrified of making a mistake, and what that might mean for them personally and for their career. Thinking quickly and thinking well is good, when there is time, but action should be the outcome and decisive action at the critical moment rarely comes from detailed methodical thought.[1]

Slim simplified this. No regrets – ‘Do not sit in a corner and say “Oh, If I had only gone to the left instead of the right…” You have done the best you could – it hasn’t come off. All right what’s the next problem? Get on with that.’

The Royal Marines taught me to operate in the harshest environments that nature offers. Not to ignore the cold, rain, heat or wind, but to recognise that I had no control over them, yet I would have to continue to function. I am lucky to have seen incredible sunrises and sunsets around the world, stood guard during electrical storms that made the fillings in my teeth buzz and been caught in a flash floods that had me knee deep in water within minutes. I have had ice form on my clothing as I moved and adapted my plans when nature chose to interrupt them. Marveling at nature may well be a human trait, but fighting nature rarely ends in our favour.

The Royal Marines taught me about control. It was an honour to be an Officer and to lead men who would always surprise me with their ingenuity and professionalism, and yet, when mistakes happened, they could be spectacular. I still have my handbook of notes and quotes and as I thumb through it now I find one of many by Robert E Lee which I felt was particularly appropriate for anyone in a position of authority.

“I cannot trust a man to control others who cannot control himself.”

It took me a long time to stop worrying about things I could not control, and I learnt the lesson during the most demanding job of my career. What that gave me was greater freedom to cut through the noise of other people and focus on what was important.

I know now that these lessons were available to me before I joined the Royal Marines, and a part of me wishes that I’d been exposed to this way of thinking far sooner. Yet there is another part of me that recognizes that in amongst ancient wisdom and ways of thinking is the fundamental requirement for us all to walk our own path.

Today, as I develop my career as a Resilience coach and read almost daily about grit and character being key components of resilience, I feel my anger surfacing (though of course I conceal this completely). For me, resilience comes from exposure to stress. However, it must be preceded by exposure to the impact of stress on your mindset, your emotions, your environment and your self-control or control of others. It is not enough to challenge people, to force them to endure without giving them skills first. It is not about enduring, but adapting with every step. As you move forward, you are not the person you were even one step before. It is only when you stop before your objective that you fail.

The Royal Marines gave me skills that I can see have their foundations in Stoicism, but Stoicism allowed me to look at the military in a new light, to recognise and value the human element as the critical part of the machine.

Today I am neither a soldier nor a stoic, but I have the skills to be both if I so choose.

[1]Greene, Robert, “The 33 Strategies of War”, Viking Adult, 2006

Mark Hardie MBEMark spent 14 years in the Royal Marines and now works as a Resilience Coach and Independent Consultant. 

Understanding the Stoic Response to Anger: A Talk by Greg Sadler

Understanding the Stoic Response to Anger

by Greg Sadler

Anger affects us all. Sourced here.
Anger affects us all. Sourced here.

In one manner or another, struggling with anger – my own and that of others — has been a component of my life nearly as far back as I can remember.  I first became interested in philosophical accounts about  – and resources for dealing with – anger two decades ago, in graduate school, for several reasons.   The analyses and advice provided by several classic philosophical schools seemed far more plausible, interesting, and effective for me than what therapy had provided.  There was a possibility, even a promise of valuable insight.  I was also struck by how acrimonious and bitter so many discussions among professors and fellow graduate students could quickly turn, and wanted to make sense of that as well.

The perspectives afforded by two ancient schools have been particularly illuminating for me on topics involved with understanding and managing the emotional response of anger – Aristotle’s Peripatetic school and the school of the Stoics.  On this issue, they were in fact great rivals, setting forth two powerfully and systematically articulated positions on many counts incompatible with each other.  Even a philosopher who was an eclectic in the best sense of the term, considering the contributions made by multiple schools, working them at times into a productive synthesis – Marcus Tullius Cicero – found himself having to come down definitively on one side.  He picked that of the Stoics, who consistently argued that there was no right amount or response of anger, that anything that anger might accomplish or facilitate could be done better and with less problems by rational choice.

This year, I’ve been providing monthly lectures – to be honest, more discussions than simply lectures – in a year-long series hosted by the historic Kingston Library.  Last year, the series was called Glimpses into Existence (if you’re interested, you can see the playlist of lectures here), and this year, we settled on Understanding Anger, in which we’re looking at perspectives on that emotion coming from ancient and medieval sources ranging from philosophy to epic poetry, from drama to religious texts.  We just had a session specifically on the Stoics a little over a week ago.  Here’s the video from the session:

While we did end up in quite a few interesting and on the whole worthwhile digressions, we made it through much of what I’d wanted to present:  the origin and historical development of the Stoic school; their views on emotion, rationality, and the good life; their general views on anger; and then specific teachings about the emotion from Seneca’s On Anger, Epictetus’ Discourses, and Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations (less on this, unfortunately due to time-constraints).

As a side-note, for those who are interested in these three texts and their discussions of anger, I created several videos last year’s Stoic Week:

The Understanding Anger series continues in the coming months, where the views of Epicureans, Plutarch, and early Christian thinkers are next on the docket – and we’ll actually finish the year with Chaucer and Dante.  Doubtless there will be some additional discussion referencing the Stoics, partly because some of the other perspectives take the Stoics as their opponents, and partly because certain perspectives actually end up developing disciplines quite similar to the Stoics.  If you’re in the Hudson Valley in New York, or even in the City and inclined to take a drive, you’re quite welcome to attend and participate!

Gregory Sadler is a philosophy professor, author, speaker, and philosophical counselor.  He also directs the Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences for the Global Center for Advanced Studies, and is the president and cofounder of ReasonIO, a company devoted to putting philosophy into practice.  He produces popular YouTube videos on philosophy, and his main academic channel recently passed 20,000 subscribers and 1.8 million views.

'Equanimity and Tech Overload' by Greg Milner

Equanimity and Tech Overload

by Greg Milner

Sourced here
OMG #twitterismylife. Sourced here.

Men have become the tools of their tools.

— Henry David Thoreau

Do external things which fall upon you distract you? Give yourself some time to learn something new and good, and cease to be whirled around. But then, you should also avoid going over to the other extreme. For they are triflers who have wearied themselves in life by their activity, and yet have no object toward which to direct every thought.

— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 2.7

monkey mind, from Chinese xinyuan and Sino-Japanese shin’en 心猿 [lit. “heart-/mind-monkey”], is a Buddhist term meaning “unsettled; restless; capricious; whimsical; fanciful; inconstant; confused; indecisive; uncontrollable”.  

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mind_monkey

The Importance of Focus

Most Hellenistic philosophies believe it’s good to have control not only over your mind, but also the mental processes that get you through the day. You also need to have control over your thoughts and emotions in a pinch, when the chips are down, in order properly and efficiently to suspend judgement so you don’t let spurious impressions wreck your day, or make you behave in ways you’ll regret later. Too much internet, and the mental overload common in modern technological society (“tech overload”) can work against this.

Why the Internet is Bad for Your Concentration

The Freedictionary.com defines “presence of mind” as “The ability to think and act calmly and efficiently, especially in an emergency. The ability to think clearly and act appropriately, as during a crisis.” Merriam-Webster says that it’s “Self-control so maintained in an emergency or in an embarrassing situation that one can say or do the right thing.”  Ernest Hemmingway called courage  “grace under pressure.” I have no doubt such definitions and explications go back to the Romans and even earlier. Most Hellenistic philosophies and Buddhism aspire to this type if equanimity. To be able to have enough control over your mind to be present and remain level-headed, even in times of crisis requires practice, and quality practice requires concentration and focus. Concentration should be what I call “effortless effort.” To routinely to be able to focus on, say a piece of long-form journalism like an investigative story in Rolling Stone, you have to be in the habit of doing so. It can’t seem like work. It almost has to be de rigueur, second nature — something you can just fall into.

Monkey Mind, a colorful term common to Buddhism, has been defined as  “the unruly mind, jumping from one object to another.” This is the opposite of concentration. It is what we who value concentration continually struggle against. The world, as it is organized for us in the modern technological West today, does everything it can to encourage a distracted mindset, to feed your mind monkey. I’m not necessarily saying  this is intentional. There are not rooms full of people at work, consciously saying, “Hey, how can we make people more addled?” But I do believe that, in a consumption-driven economy, the best consumers are the most impulsive ones.

The internet is driven by advertising, and advertising promotes distraction. But that’s not the only reason the internet promotes distraction, according to Nicholas Carr, in The Shallows, it’s in the very nature of hyperlinked media to “rewire” our brains to become more adept at sifting and filtering information, and hence less able to concentrate in-depth and for long periods of time. There’s a reason it’s called a browser.

I believe the type of mindset, the mental abilities, needed to understand philosophy, to be introspective, to concentrate, and to monitor ones thinking on an ongoing basis are hindered by repeated, ubiquitous overexposure to the constantly changing stimuli provided to us in our present-day, always-on interconnected, culture. And this isn’t just my opinion. Many studies cited in The Shallows and other texts and articles bear this out; the more time you spend hopping from screen to screen, the more your attention span comes to suffer. You are what you do, after all. If everyday mind is Monkey Mind, then adding social networking makes it Monkey-with-a-Whistle Mind.

We all know the symptoms of tech overload: focus problems; the inability to follow almost any long thread; difficulty reading more than a couple of minutes of text (if that); compulsive checking of devices, email, twitter feed, etc.; generalized anxiety. Whether you’re working toward Buddhist detachment, Epicurean ataraxia, or Stoic equanimity, the problems associated with tech overload will stand in your way. In today’s society, the first duty of the contemplative person is to gain control over the technology that threatens to run roughshod over our psyches.

Synchronous Versus Asynchronous Communication

First of all, it’s important to recognize the differences between synchronous and asynchronous communication. Conversation is synchronous, as is the telephone; both parties expect an immediate response. I am old enough to remember how disconcerting answering machines were when they first came out. We expected synchronous communication and that meant that by god, Bill ought to answer his damn phone! Instant messaging (IM) is on the cusp but is lately trending toward the synchronous, if your status shows as “available” people expect you to respond in under a minute. That’s why it’s called “chat.” Everything else (telegraphy doesn’t count), from the old “snail mail”  letter onward, is asynchronous. This includes email, Facebook messages and posts, blog post comments — all of it. Asynchronous means you can respond after a reasonable, socially acceptable time, but not necessarily immediately.

It seems to me that at least some of our problems with modern technology come from our inability  recognize this difference at a deep level. We tend toward making our communications synchronous if at all possible. Hence we feel the need to respond to a text we get while driving to work, or an IM we get when we are in the middle of writing some complex computer program. We feel the need to check our email more than 3 times a day — which is all you really need to check it, if you think about it.

The most important thing to realize about everything but a phone call, then, is “it can wait.” If it’s really important, they will call you. This holds true, even in the 21st century.


But it’s not just the drive toward synchronicity. Many researchers point to the idea that there may be something in our evolution that makes us go for the instant reward of quick response to an ever-changing environment — a little “dopamine squirt,” as I’ve heard it described — we get every time we check our mail or get an IM. Even so, being rational animals, this would not be the first time we have had to decide how to best deal with mindless responses to urges that might prove unhealthy in the long run. Nature is not fate, after all. So if you want to be a thoughtful person, less shallow, and more philosophical, take steps to do so — steps that involve gaining more control over the technology in your life.

What You Can Do

Over the last couple of years, after reading books such as Hamlet’s Blackberry, The Shallows, and In Praise of Slowness, I have developed some techniques I use to help me redevelop and maintain my powers of concentration. I have practiced most of these at one time or another and many I still do. Some have been shown by research to actually increase your attention span. I know they have  helped me.

If you are into social networks, pick one social network and subscribe to that. Only one. Not Twitter.

Cyber Sabbath. Pick one day a week (for me, it’s Saturday) and decide that it’s going to be tech-restricted in some important ways. Perhaps you have a Roku Box on your TV so you can’t say it’s really an internet-free day, but you can say it’s a browser/IM/email free day. Stick to it. Tell your friends you won’t respond on that day unless they call. Don’t have your daughter Google something for you. That’s cheating!

Meditate, or have some sort of contemplative practice that lasts at least 20 minutes per day, every day.

Read a BOOK at least 30 minute per day. Not articles. Not even long form journalism. A book — preferably a physical book. This has had a great effect on my attention span in the past year.

If you have a choice between digital and analog, choose analog. If you have a choice between a Kindle book, for example, or a paper one, go with the dead-tree version. Buy a magazine or newspapers at last once a month and read it.

Don’t use earbuds in the car. Listen to the radio. Get back in touch with your community.

Don’t look at your cell phone when standing in line. Look at the people. Notice your surroundings. This does wonders for your sense of patience.

Never look at a screen while eating.

Never look at your phone while someone is talking to you.

Turn off alerts on your phone, or at least turn them to every half hour.

Remember that email is asynchronous communication, and IMs can be made to be.

If you get IM’ed (Instant Messaged) more than once per hour, consider not using IM. Turn it off. Make people call you or email. Make them consciously decide between synchronous and asynchronous communication.

Any activity you do more-or-less every day, regularly, 20 to 30 minutes per day or more, will help combat Monkey Mind. Get a hobby. Take up woodworking or metal-sculpting.

Learn a musical instrument, if you haven’t already. Devote at least four 40-minute sessions a week to practice.

Take long walks, either without headphones or while listening to an audio book.

Learn a language — take a class. You cannot learn a language from any audio-only instruction, despite what they say at Rosetta Stone.

Develop your own methods for increasing your concentration. Maybe you want to get really old school and memorize some Shakespeare sonnets or poems of Neruda. Go for it. Do yoga. Whatever. Just pick something that is non-tech related and takes more than 20 minutes and do several such things consistently every day. Soon you’ll realize how much better it feels than Facebook or Snapchat or whatever the flavor-of-the-month brain-atrophying timewaster happens to be.  You’ll be a better thinker and a deeper person for it.

Greg Milner is a Database Administrator living in Austin, Texas. Fortune has blessed him with a wonderful wife, a stepson and three foundling cats. He is one of the hosts of the Painted Porch podcast, along with Mark Johnston (founder) and Matt Van Natta.

Stoicism and Early 20th Century Psychotherapy by Donald Robertson

Stoicism and Early 20th Century Psychotherapy

Copyright © Donald Robertson, 2013.  All rights reserved.

Dubois and Baudouin

Paul-DuboisThe earliest modern school of psychological therapy was arguably hypnotism, or “hypnotic therapeutics”, founded by the Scottish surgeon, James Braid, in 1841. Hypnotism spread to France after Braid’s death in 1860, where it gained popularity and the term “psychotherapy” was coined to describe hypnotic therapy and related methods. Hippolyte Bernheim, at Nancy, and Jean-Martin Charcot at the Salpêtrière hospital in Paris, set up rival schools of hypnotic psychotherapy, which flourished in the 1880s. Prior to developing psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud studied hypnotism, attending both Bernheim and Charcot’s lectures. Freud’s first book on psychotherapy,Studies in Hysteria (1895), described his hypnotic “catharsis” method, the precursor of psychoanalysis proper, which was essentially founded with his publication of The Interpretation of Dreams (1900). Psychoanalytic approaches, derived from Freud and his followers, largely supplanted hypnotism and dominated the field of psychotherapy until the late 1950s, when “humanistic” and “behavioral” approaches to therapy began to be developed.

There’s not much evidence of Stoicism having influenced psychoanalysis. However, the fame achieved by Freud has often obscured the fact that rival approaches to psychotherapy existed in the early 20th century. One of the most important of these was the “rational psychotherapy” or “rational persuasion” approach of the Swiss psychiatrist and neuropathologist Paul Dubois, author of The Psychoneuroses and Their Moral Treatment(1904). The impact of Stoicism during this period was mainly upon Dubois and those inspired, in turn, by his “rational” approach to psychotherapy. Dubois believed that psychological problems were due mainly to negative autosuggestion but rejected the technique of hypnotism in favor of a treatment based on the practice of “Socratic dialogue”, with the goal of rationally persuading patients to abandon the unhealthy ideas responsible for various neurotic and psychosomatic conditions. The influence of the ancient Stoics is clear from Dubois’ scattered references to them. He even prescribed reading Seneca’s letters to one of his patients as therapeutic homework (Dubois, 1904, p. 433).

If we eliminate from ancient writings a few allusions that gave them local colour, we shall find the ideas of Socrates, Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius absolutely modern and applicable to our times. (Dubois, 1909, pp. 108-109)

With practice, we can learn to monitor our thoughts and challenge the irrational ideas that cause unhealthy emotions and psychosomatic symptoms (Dubois & Gallatin, 1908, p. 56). Dubois therefore often speaks of his rational psychotherapy as involving a form of “stoicism” (with a small “s”) but he closely relates this to “Stoicism” (with a big “S”), especially as he found it in the writings of Seneca.

Continue reading “Stoicism and Early 20th Century Psychotherapy by Donald Robertson”