In Praise of Chronic Pain: A Stoic Meditation by Marco Bronx

In Praise of Chronic Pain: A Stoic Meditation

by Marco Bronx

Main Epictetus Quote

He was a man of such a kind that when he was struck by any difficulty, he would write in praise of it; if fever was his lot, in praise of fever, if disrepute, in praise of disrepute, if exile, in praise of exile. – Epictetus

When I first read Epictetus’ quote above, I knew I had to revive this stoic exercise for myself. Just 5 years ago I’d been at the point of suicide. And both stoicism and suicide taught me the same lesson: gratitude is the art of living. 

The last time I thought of suicide was on November 6th, 2011. It was our 3rd anniversary together with my girlfriend Haley and we celebrated with a dinner at Morton’s Steak House. I didn’t want to think of suicide, but I just couldn’t help myself. The excruciating pain in my neck, shoulders and jaw muscles wouldn’t let me think of anything else. It dominated the past three and a half years and it only seemed to be getting worse. 

If you looked at the Facebook photo from that night, you’d see Haley sitting in a chair with a huge smile on her face and I’m standing behind her, my hands on her shoulders with a faint, weak smile trying desperately to hide the torrential feelings of misery overwhelming me inside. Despite that, we still got the obligatory Facebook likes, comments and congrats from friends and family.   

What if I have to live like this for the rest of my life? Will I have to suffer every day, ever hour, every minute, every second for the next 40 years??

What if it continues to get worse and I become bedridden? How will I earn a living? How will I make any girl happy? Will I become dependent on Haley or my family?

I’d rather die than having to face a lifetime of endless and maddening chronic pain every moment.  To wake up to another day of this kind of intense, relentless pain was terrifying to think about. It was becoming downright debilitating and with it, came a shameful new view of myself.

If that’s all I had to look forward to, then joy for me was an impossibility. For the past four years, all previous attempts to improve my condition had failed, and with it, the last of my remaining hope.    

My future was bleak.  

So there was Haley, smiling as she always does, radiating joy like the angel she is and proud to be by my side for three years – and completely oblivious to the fact that at that very moment, I was quietly yet soberly considering ending it all. With several undergrad degrees, she wasn’t slow or insensitive. I just refused to be honest with her or myself about the reality – and that reality was knocking louder and louder.

Of course, I loved her and happy to be with her, but how much longer could I keep this going? She was the one bright spot in my life, but if it meant a lifetime of physical pain with no relief in sight, then even love wasn’t enough. 

That’s what the photo from 2011 represented to me – the opposite of everything I was before then. I grew up with Tony Robbins, Napoleon Hill, Steven Covey, Dale Carnegie and other similar authors as a teenager. I used to walk into random offices and restaurants as a college student in New York and convinced them to sign profit-sharing contracts with me. I also ran several businesses by the time I was 29. I was fearless.

I believed in the magic of thinking big and the power of positive thinking. I was that confident, outgoing, successful entrepreneur you read about in magazines… but suddenly, all that was in a past life.

Now, against my own will, I began to think seriously about how to end it. At first, I tried really hard not to… but after a short time – no matter how hard I tried – all my thoughts turned to black.

When I saw myself in that photo the next day, the stark contrast of it all – the unbearable inauthenticity of the moment – just killed me. It broke my heart.

It was the day I finally died inside. 


What brought me to this point?

I’m still not sure, but near as I can figure it started in 2007 when I was working a stressful full-time job as a mortgage broker (yes, THAT 2007), and while managing an already matured real estate business and a start-up. You could say it was like juggling 2-3 full-time jobs. That’s when the pain in my left jaw started and began to get worse as the years dragged on. And after almost four years of this, I wasn’t being very effective in any business venture.

When the brain is overwhelmed with stress, it activates the amygdala and sends the mind and body into fight or flight mode. For survival reasons, our brain has evolved to overwhelmingly respond to pain – real or imagined – versus pleasure. If it senses pain or danger intensely enough and for long enough periods, the brain can get stuck in this stress mode – like a light switch that’s stuck in the “on” position.

Dealing with chronic physical pain is like performing a high-wire act. Your muscles are wound tight and so is your mind…it requires all of your focus and concentration to stay calm and balanced and if you slip slightly left or the right, you fall…but there’s no safety net. And in this case, falling means a cycle of severe pain and a long recovery period that can last days.

So to say chronic pain often brings anxiety is to put it mildly. Try watching TV while walking on a tightrope, or try socializing with friends while performing this balancing act, or working on your computer or enjoying a Mendelssohn ballet. It’s near impossible to focus on anything else at times and it’s exhausting.

Even when you get better at it, the tension of the rope changes day by day, sometimes moment to moment and you’ll fall off no matter how hard you try. But try you must. And even though the fear of falling fades a little – just like the fear of falling – it’s an instinctual reaction. Chronic pain sends danger signals to your brain and you can learn to dampen the signal but the physical pain is still there, constant and very real. 

Chronic pain sends danger signals to your brain and you can learn to dampen the signal but the physical pain is still there, constant and very real. 

After that night in 2011, a part of me died, but another part of me woke the hell up. It was the will to live. A deep, primal anger that I’d found myself in such a stupid, terrible situation that could end my life. If I somehow got myself into this I thought, then I can dig my dumb ass out… it was the belief that deep down, I was still better than this. 

Thus began my journey to recovery. So I put everything else in my life on hold and single-mindedly focused on getting better. I told myself to just give it one more day. And then the next day, I told myself to give it one year and see what happens. Surely if I put my everything into getting better for the next 12 months, I’ll gain some improvement right?

I resolved to be more honest with myself and Haley about my struggle. That’s when I researched more seriously and within a couple weeks, found what I thought was a real diagnosis. That my pain was really TMJ pain. Soon after that, a dentist confirmed it. I also suspected I had Generalized Anxiety Disorder. And wouldn’t you know it –  I found a psychologist to confirm that diagnosis too!

Since then, I’ve been diagnosed with Temporomandibular Joint Disorder(TMJD), Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and, I strongly suspect, Cervical Dystonia (although I can’t confirm this diagnosis due to insurance reasons). TMJ symptoms are often overlapping Cervical Dystonia symptoms that bring tight, painful muscles in the jaw, neck, shoulders and back. And they both bring about a fair amount of anxiety, social anxiety, and mental stress.

But after several doctors and tests, I stopped looking for another diagnosis and focused only on what I could control physically and mentally. On the physical side, this lead me to a physiatrist that used dry needle trigger point therapy, where he used a syringe to repeatedly stab trigger muscles into submission. I thanked him and paid him hundreds of dollars each time. The interesting thing was, as I finally experienced some physical relief, lots of my severe GAD symptoms and social anxiety began to clear up along with it!

On the mental side, I took a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Training (MBSR) course. I learned that focusing on the breath to clear the mind also brings with it a certain freedom and control over negative, ruminating thoughts… and learning to clear some of that inner dialogue brought about some mental relaxation…. and experiencing mental relaxation brought with it some physical relaxation. So I continued my mental training with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and found it was inspired and based on Stoic Philosophy, which I studied in earnest. 

Over the next two years, I continued my recovery with a lot of body work and learned the Alexander Technique as well as Feldenkrais. Doing this helped me train my body to release muscular tension and I became aware of my bad habits.

Awareness of my body grew to a deeper level than I ever thought possible and I’ve distilled these lessons to a 20-minute body and mind meditation ritual that I perform every morning, twice a day. Sometimes it’s like a miracle I pull off, reconditioning and reorienting my muscles in a way that eases the overly tensed muscles for most of the day. It doesn’t always work, but it’s helped give me some control – and my life – back.

It doesn’t always work, but it’s helped give me some control – and my life – back.

Whenever you lose something external, what are you acquiring in exchange for it?  And if it should be more valuable, never say, “I’ve lost out.” – Epictetus

Today, while I still live with chronic pain, I can never say I’ve lost out because I learned so much in the process. If it’s true I’ve had more physical fortune in the past, then today I have more mental fortune.

And the most important thing I’ve learned from this is that if there’s anything you want to change in your life, change your relationship with it. In fact, this is the only way to change anything. No, I can’t get rid of all my bad habits, thoughts, emotions or physical pain, but I can – and did – change my relationship with them all.

I also created a better relationship with my body, my work and with Haley, who became my wife last year – and yes, she’s still the same radiant angel of joy as ever. Together we moved from New York to Fort Lauderdale, Florida and enjoy a healthy balance of work, friends and hobbies.

I learned how to cope with stress better and achieved a minimum satisfactory level of functionality. I decided to focus only on the real estate business and simplified it dramatically – it still grew almost two times over the past five years (or maybe because of it…?).

Finally, I learned the stoic lessons that have given so much to me. And like Epictetus spoke about above, I wanted to follow an ancient stoic tradition and write in praise of chronic pain. I still struggle with pain every single day, I still have very bad days and I’m still human, with many failings, weaknesses, and faults.

But this is a stoic meditation, an exercise to help me continue changing my relationship with chronic pain and to give proper recognition to its rewards. 

Some words are mine, and some I’m paraphrasing from the best-known stoics like Epictetus and Seneca, or from the Marcus Aurelius Meditations

If you find any of it helpful or inspiring, then I encourage you to go read up on them right away.


Freedom is not attained through the satisfaction of desires, but through the suppression of desires. . . now as you have toiled for those other things, stay up at night so as to acquire a judgement that will set you free. – Epictetus

Because of chronic pain, I’ve learned the importance of restraint in my actions, my beliefs, and my thoughts. Restraint of the mind brings not only freedom from desires, but freedom from despair. And freedom from despair brings a space for peace in my life. How many more opportunities has my condition given me to toil in the name of freedom?

FM Alexander called restraint in the body inhibition, and because of chronic pain, I’ve worked tirelessly to learn this skill. Physical inhibition has given me the power to melt down many of my muscular tensions through the power of thought, desire, and awareness directly and indirectly.

These experiences taught me the value of both mental and physical vigilance. Likewise, no great virtue is ever attained without a constant vigilance. Therefore, be wary of the easy path. As Sri Ramakrishna said, “do not seek illumination unless you seek it as a person whose hair is on fire seeks a pond.”

Because of my journey with chronic pain, I’ve had an endless source of spiritual fire to find my inner well of peace and tranquility not just in my body but in my mind.   

This journey has humbled me and taught me the dangers of self-importance. Excessive pride should be avoided. As William Irvine correctly observes, misfortune weighs most heavily on those who expect nothing but good fortune. I’m not immune to bad luck.

Good fortune brought me face to face with how my sense of self-importance leads to anger. Illness makes us irritable and prone to anger. Acting on anger always leads to sorrow or regret. I’m grateful to Seneca for teaching me that every weakling is naturally prone to complaint and therefore to take each moment as an opportunity to practice patience to build my inner strength and character.

It is easier to banish dangerous passions before they begin than to rule them afterwards. Just as in the body, the same is true in the mind.

What I’ve lost in physical capacity and comfort, I’ve gained something back in mental ability and courage. This path has taught me that the most difficult decision I’ll ever have to make in life is to accept it. By welcoming my illness, I’ve learned to simplify every area of my life internally and externally. Simplifying my inner life has taught me not to desire more than is necessary and to avoid the excesses of fame, fortune, and vanity.

Desires always lead to more desire, so I will never be satisfied until I’m courageous enough to accept this moment, as it is. And if I can’t accept this moment as it is right now, I can never have peace. Never trade your inner peace for something you have no control of.

Because of my condition, I’ve chosen as my friends only good-natured, patient friends that are less likely to be angry or to provoke my anger. This has lead me to my wife Haley, where there is no better example of good nature, patience, and peacefulness. In turn, my wife Haley has lead us to live where there is warmer weather and sun. The moderate climate helps support my good spirits, even when things are not going my way.

Seneca wisely observed, “it is useful for a man to understand his disease, and to break its strength before it becomes developed.” While I’ve done this unknowingly in my life, this new understanding has validated the importance of self-compassion… to forgive what I have no control over and to support and comfort my weaknesses, rather than punish them. 

The path of chronic pain has also taught me the importance of continually testing my limits, beliefs and assumptions. Just as self-compassion requires self-forgiveness, compassion also requires the continual exercise of mind and body. Strengths and weaknesses change day by day, moment by moment – and without the exercise of mind and body – both can become weaker and more susceptible to my condition.

Just as a mother willingly bears the severe pain of childbirth for the greater purpose of bringing new life into this world, may I too find greater purpose in my daily struggle to bear willingly what’s naturally mine.

Consider those who’ve accepted the loss of their freedom when they know they’ve committed a crime and consider, like so many others before you, how many times you’ve failed to resist the harsh judgement of others, to resist speaking badly about friends or family, or act selfishly or hurtfully to those who did you no wrong. And yet, I walk free.

If I’m truthful to myself and my greater nature, I can certainly decide that I’ve committed moral crimes that deserve a harder measure than they’ve received. Many crimes escaped punishment simply because I wasn’t discovered or because the person I’ve hurt was more merciful than me, better in character or more forgiving.

Therefore, whenever I feel unfairly punished, let me contemplate on the wrongs I’ve never admitted to or never apologized for but that I know exists deep down. Let me apologize for all of that, and for all the wrongs I’ve yet to commit. If I still can’t remember my own misdeeds, may I remember when others have done me wrong and I failed to forgive them and let my apology stand in its place. 

May these apologies prevent me from repeating my mistakes and purify my thoughts, for the purpose is great.

Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others – Cicero

Finally, my good fortune has lead me to earnestly search for wiser teachers, which I found in the ancient stoics. From them I’ve discovered the art and science of living with gratitude.

To find happiness by embracing a small measure of sorrow and to keep it always close to my heart. Just as cold water causes the body to heat up, heavy weights cause muscles to grow and losing something brings an increased appreciation. Nature seeks to adapt contradictorily.

When I get up in the morning, I wonder what would it be like if I didn’t have more than this hour left to live? How much would be left undone for myself and others? Or what if this were my last day with Haley and after tomorrow she was no longer in my life? How much joy would I never experience because my beloved wife was missing in it? How great would my emptiness be even years later?

Throughout the day, there are countless miracles I get to appreciate. What would it be like if I didn’t have running water? How many other millions right now have to walk great distances for clean, drinkable water and don’t have the luxury to let it flow so freely and thoughtlessly?

What would it be like if I had no arms, or no legs or no eyes or ears? Who would I have to rely on to help me leave the bed or leave my apartment, drive to places or feed me food? Could I endure such dependency for the rest of my life or the financial burdens it required? Could I learn to accept living without hearing the aching beauty of a Chopin nocturne or hear my wife’s voice and laughter? How long would it take me to safely move even small distances without sight or to do so without overwhelming fear? What could possibly replace the joy in my life of seeing the brilliant fire colors of the sky during a sunset from our balcony or driving along the I95?

In this way, everything I interact with throughout the day is a chance to practice gratitude. When I speak, I’m grateful I still have a voice to connect with anyone I desire. When I write, I’m grateful I have the time and opportunity to create something that may last. When I search the internet, I’m amazed the whole of human knowledge is so quickly accessible to me where others are grateful to have even a single book. And when I say goodbye to a friend, I’m grateful to have another memory together, even if it’s destined to be our last – or more especially, because of it.

May each daily experience bring such thoughts, until every moment becomes a moment of gratitude and inner prayer. For it is in my power of choice to think such thoughts and there’s much to be celebrated. And if there’s any advantage to be drawn from illness, it’s this: that it calls you to dig deeper into your soul and to find a spiritual satisfaction where the physical is lacking.

And if there’s any advantage to be drawn from death, it’s that it calls you to live a good life. Because a good life equals a good death, no matter how long or how short. And so when death overtakes me, may I be writing such thoughts, reading such thoughts and thinking such thoughts.

Marco Bronx grew up in the Bronx and has been an entrepreneur since he was seventeen. is a place where he writes what seems “worthy”. He sometimes writes personal development advice, meditations or thought experiments just to play Satan’s advocate and challenge your beliefs. What’s the truth? You decide. 

Announcing Stoic Week 2016

Zeno of Citium
Zeno of Citium, copyright the Trustees of the British Museum. Reproduced with permission.

Stoic Week is an annual event aimed at encouraging public engagement with classical Stoic philosophy, by applying Stoic ideas and practices to the challenges of modern living.  Stoic Week is an international and online event: anyone can take part.  It is now in its fifth consecutive year and has grown steadily in popularity year on year.  Stoic Week is organized by a multi-disciplinary team we call Stoicism Today.

Stoic Week 2016 will take place from Monday 17th – Sunday 23rd October.  The theme for this year will be: Stoicism and Love.  It follows the Stoicon conference, which will take place in New York on Saturday 15th October.  During Stoic Week, participants will have the opportunity to live like a Stoic by following our seven-day Stoic Week Handbook, which contains reading, audio, video, and group discussions.  It includes daily practical exercises, which combine elements of ancient Stoicism and modern cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).  The main version of Stoic Week is an online course.  However, offline versions are also made available, which can be used on mobile devices, using the PDF, EPUB, and MBI (Kindle) e-book formats.

Last year, over 3,200 people from around the world took part in Stoic Week.  We collected data from over 2,500 participants, which was published by Tim LeBon in the Stoic Week 2015 Report available online.  Since it began, Stoic Week has been covered extensively by the media around the world and features heavily in social media discussions and blog posts.  You can follow Stoic Week and Stoicism Today on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.

Stoicism and the Art of Archery by John Sellars

Stoicism and the Art of Archery

by John Sellars


The Stoic philosopher Antipater is reported to have drawn an analogy with archery when trying to explain the goal of Stoic ethics. The good Stoic, Antipater suggested, is like an archer: he does everything he can to hit the target, but his happiness does not depend on whether he hits the target or not (Stobaeus 2,76,11-15). What matters is shooting well, for whether the arrow hits the target or not depends on other factors outside of the archer’s control.

In the ancient literature this led some to characterize the Stoic’s art – the art of living – as a stochastic art, like navigation or medicine, meaning that the outcome depends in part on factors other than the practitioner’s skill (Alexander, Quaest. 61,1-28). It also led to concerns about whether Stoicism in fact had two slightly different goals: to live a good life and to do everything one can to live a good life (Cicero, Fin. 3.22). In his discussion of this point Cicero wrote:

“Take the case of one whose task it is to shoot a spear or arrow straight at some target. One’s ultimate aim is to do all in one’s power to shoot straight, and the same applies with our ultimate goal. In this kind of example, it is to shoot straight that one must do all one can; none the less, it is to do all one can to accomplish the task that is really the ultimate aim. It is just the same with what we call the supreme good in life. To actually hit the target is, as we say, to be selected but not sought.” (ibid.)

For the Stoic, then, what matters is not always hitting the target but rather becoming an expert archer, with archery understood as a special kind of art in which expertise does not always guarantee success.

This Stoic idea shares something in common with the account of learning the Japanese art of archery in Eugen Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery (London, 1953). Herrigel’s book is a personal memoir recounting his own experience of trying to learn the art of archery from a Japanese master, something he tried to do in order to deepen his own understanding of Zen. Along the way Herrigel makes a number of remarks about Zen and archery that resonate with Antipater’s image of the Stoic archer and may offer a fresh perspective on it.

Herrigel begins by reflecting on the artificiality of learning a medieval military art taken out of its original context and turned into a hobby for people who have no need to learn how to shoot arrows. Archery is no longer a matter of life and death. Yet, he comments, “archery is still a matter of life and death to the extent that it is a contest of the archer with himself” (p. 15). It has become a “spiritual exercise” in which “the marksman aims at himself” (p. 14). The modern Zen art of archery “can in no circumstance mean accomplishing anything outwardly with bow and arrow, but only inwardly, with oneself” (p. 18). The goal, then, is ultimately one of self-transformation.

One of the greatest challenges Herrigel faced was to relax. His master made the art look effortless, and for him it was. The more Herrigel tried to achieve the desired result (hitting the target) the more he failed. It was a classic case of making a strenuous effort to keep relaxed. The key, his master told him, was to stop caring about the arrow: “what happened to the arrow was even more a matter of indifference” (p. 40). The less one cares about hitting the target, the more smooth and relaxed one’s shot will be, which paradoxically will increase one’s likelihood of hitting the target. So not caring about reaching the goal will in fact improve one’s chances of reaching it.

Far more important, though, is a shift in the very goal itself. The real goal should not be hitting the target at all; the real goal is something internal, not external. This “the right art [of archery] … is purposeless, aimless” (p. 46). One must become purposeless, on purpose. One must aimlessly aim the arrow. This will enable one to reach both goals, internal and external: to perfect the art of archery and to hit the target, but wanting to hit the target now looks like part of the problem rather than contributing to either goal.

How to do this? The answer is simple: stop thinking and simply let oneself be led by the moment (pp. 49-50), or led by Nature we might say. The master archer will have “no ulterior motive” and will be “released from all attachment” (p. 55). This involves an internal transformation that is central to making progress in the art. Thus, “more important than all outward works, however attractive, is the inward work which he has to accomplish if he is to fulfil his vocation as an artist” (p. 65). The archer performs “as a good dancer dances” (p. 77), which was another analogy also drawn by the Stoics (cf. Cicero, Fin. 3.24).

What matters, then, is the performance of the art itself rather than any further outcome, such as hitting the target. Herrigel’s master insists that “if you hit the target with nearly every shot you are nothing more than a trick archer who likes to show off … Put the thought of hitting right out of your mind! You can be a Master even if every shot does not hit” (pp. 78-9). If one does hit the target this is not significant in itself: “hits are only outward confirmations of inner events” (p. 80). Thus all attention ought to be focused on the internal practice of the art rather than the external result. One ought neither to grieve over bad shots nor rejoice over good ones. “You must free yourself from the buffetings of pleasure and pain, and learn to rise above them in easy equanimity” (p. 85).

Herrigel did make some progress in the art of archery. At the end of his training his master said to him “You have become a different person in the course of these years. For this is what the art of archery means: a profound and far-reaching contest of the archer with himself” (p. 90).

Does this help us to understand Stoicism? I think it might in the following way. The ancient charge that Stoicism becomes confused by proposing two goals – effectively trying to hit the target but also trying not to care if one misses – has not completely gone away. ‘Surely it is disingenuous to try to do something but then say you don’t care when it doesn’t work out.’ ‘If the Stoic is indifferent to the outcome of events, then why even try to do anything?’ What Herrigel’s account does is dismiss the first goal altogether: just forget about hitting the target. The real goal is not external at all; it is internal. It involves an internal transformation that, as it happens, will also improve one’s external successes, although that is now almost beside the point.

What matters is how one acts, not the outcome of those acts. According to Herrigel this involves a process of letting go, just acting rather than over thinking. At first glance this might sound very Zen but not very Stoic and perhaps the point at which any parallel breaks down. But we might translate it into a broadly Stoic framework by saying that the advice is simply to follow Nature, to act spontaneously, to embrace one’s natural instincts, rather than to over think about what the right thing to do is. The Stoics do encourage people to follow ‘reason’ but this is the reason or order within Nature, which is not necessarily the same thing as deliberative, instrumental rationality.

What the Zen art of archery and the Stoic art of living share is a seemingly paradoxical indifference to whether one is successful or not. What matters is mastering the art and practising it. In the case of Stoicism this means acting virtuously, with the right intentions, at all times and for its own sake. It is about cultivating the appropriate frame of mind that, as Herrigel’s master put it, enables one to enjoy an easy equanimity whether one hits one’s targets or not.

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

STOICON in New York, a Preview – Part I

STOICON in New York, a Preview – Part I

by Massimo Pigliucci


STOICON, the by now annual gathering of people interested in the theory and practice of Stoicism, is moving from London to New York, this year (and who knows where else in future editions, fate permitting). The event is scheduled for 15 October, and you can find more information here, tickets here, and even cheap accommodation with a fellow Stoic, here.)

The purpose of this post (and of a second one coming up in late summer) is to give you an idea of what the event will be like by introducing all our speakers and what they will be talking about, so that you can better appreciate some of the leading figures behind the Modern Stoicism movement (is that what it is?), as well as give your reasoned assent to the impression that this is a conference well worth attending…

I begin with Greg Sadler, the current editor of the very same Stoicism Today blog that you are reading. He lives and works in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, after being gone for 20 years — and very happy to be back there with his wife, Andi, a native of the place, like him. Greg started off as a more or less traditional academic (BA in Philosophy and Mathematics from Lakeland College, MA and PhD in Philosophy from Southern Illinois University), but rather unusually also did some teaching in a maximum security prison (no, he wasn’t an inmate). Over the years he has transitioned to a different career, still in philosophy, and occasionally still in the academy, giving talks, running workshops, or as a consultant, though he now more or less thinks of himself as a small business owner and entrepreneur.

Greg’s workshop at STOICON will focus on a classical Stoic theme: anger management. Anger remains just as problematic an emotion for us today as it was for those living in ancient times. Stoic philosophers provide us with a number of perspectives and techniques we can use to understand and address anger. Greg’s workshop will lead participants through examining, discussing, and applying insights drawn from Stoicism to deal with this troublesome emotion. He will talk about anger experienced by oneself, exhibited by others, and arising in our wider culture. (You can read one his essays on this, Other People’s Anger – Resources and Reflections From Epictetus.)

Next, I’d like to introduce you to Debbie Joffe Ellis, a licensed psychologist (Australia), mental health counselor (New York), and adjunct professor at Columbia University in New York City. She was born and raised in Melbourne, Australia, and is a well known public speaker and writer. For years Debbie worked with her husband, Albert Ellis, a renowned pioneer of modern cognitive therapies and the originator of the approach known as Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT). Debbie continues to present, practice and write about Ellis’ psychotherapeutic approach. Recognized as a world-renowned expert on REBT, she has been featured in a DVD produced by the American Psychological Association (APA) demonstrating and discussing the approach. The APA also published the book Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy that she co-wrote with her husband.

At STOICON, Debbie will give a talk in the morning and run one of the afternoon workshops. The talk is entitled “Albert Ellis: A model of Resiliency, Compassion and Stoicism in Action,” during which she will share some of the most significant events of the life of her husband, including a few of his most intense challenges and adversities — and the elegant and inspiring ways he applied his approach (influenced by elements of Stoicism) to enable him to cope, endure and overcome them. She will also show some rarely before seen video clips of him in his final years. Albert Ellis heralded in the cognitive revolution in psychology and psychotherapy, contributed to the changing of outdated and uncivil societal attitudes, and contributed to the well-being of countless millions of people through his writing, lecturing, counseling and example.

The workshop will be on “Introducing Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy: a Healthy and Empowered Way of Life.” Debbie will introduce the audience to the main aspects of REBT and its main techniques and applications. She will also give a live demonstration. As a consequence of learning the basics of this empowering, no-nonsense and compassionate approach, attendees will be able to recognize the inspiration and philosophy of Epictetus in the contributions of the Ellis’s, and be able to reflect on, compare and contrast their understanding of Stoicism with the wisdom of REBT.

Next up is my good friend Greg Lopez, who is very much interested in mindfulness. So, what is “mindfulness”? Sure, you may have heard of it, but can you define it off the top of your head? Give it a try now.

[pausing for you to give it that try, seriously…]

How’d you do? You probably got some aspects of it, but likely not all of it. Why? Because there is no one “mindfulness.” It’s a term with a lot of uses, and it means different things to different people. There’s not so much one “mindfulness” — but “mindfulnesses”!

At STOICON ’16, Greg, who is the founder of the NYC Stoics and a secular Buddhist, will go through two versions of mindfulness in both theory and practice: sati (Buddhist mindfulness as found in the earliest extant Buddhists texts) and prosoche (the Stoic practice of attention). Moreover, Greg will also be holding a special post-STOICON meetup. So if you’re from out of town, there’s reason to stick around!

One of our most esteemed academic speakers will be Julia Annas, a professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Arizona in Tucson. She has published a number of books, including Intelligent Virtue (Oxford University Press, 2009), in which she presents a new account of virtue and happiness as central ethical ideas, arguing that exercising virtue involves practical reasoning of a kind analogous to what we find when people exercise a practical skill. Annas also wrote Ancient Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2011) where she guides her readers through a number of ancient debates, moving away from the presentation of ancient philosophy as a succession of great thinkers, and giving a sense of the freshness and liveliness of ancient philosophy, as well as of its wide variety of themes and styles.

At STOICON Julia will give a talk on “Is Stoic virtue ethics as off-putting as it seems?” As we would surely agree, Stoic ethics has been found inspiring by many. But when we look at some of the claims that the Stoics make, particularly about virtue, they seem rather off-putting. We find that according to the classic Stoic doctrine only the wise person is virtuous, while everyone else is vicious, since there is nothing between virtue and vice. And to make things worse, the wise person is as rare as the phoenix. There are no degrees of becoming virtuous: it’s like being one foot under water, which is just as much below the surface as being 20 feet under. According to the Stoics, virtue is the only thing that is good (and vice the only thing that is bad), and it alone is sufficient for happiness. This position appears to be so extreme as to make it seem pointless even to start trying to become a virtuous Stoic. But Julia will examine some of these claims and show how they can be understood to be more reasonable in the context of other claims, and of Stoic theory as a whole. She will also address the issue of why the Stoics did present their ethical views in such very counter-intuitive ways.

Next up is long-time STOICON presence, Christopher Gill, a professor of Classics at Exeter University in England. Chris’ research area is ancient philosophy or thought, especially ethics and psychology. His most recent books are on Marcus Aurelius Meditations Books 1-6, translated with an introduction and commentary (Oxford University Press, 2013) and Naturalistic Psychology in Galen and Stoicism (Oxford University Press, 2010). Chris retired at the end of 2013, but remains active in research, publication, participation in conferences and public engagement. His main current project is a book on Stoicism and its potential contribution to modern thought; this is supported in 2015-16 by a Leverhulme Emeritus Research Fellowship.

At STOICON ’16 Chris will be giving a talk on “Can you be a Stoic and a political activist?” He will begin by challenging a common stereotype about what living a Stoic life involves. People sometimes suppose that Stoics thought you should accept with equanimity any situation in which you find yourself (including situations of political injustice) as being the result of Fate. Stoics do think you should accept situations which are genuinely inevitable, including your own eventual death and that of those close to you. But they do not think you should passively accept situations that you can reasonably try to do something about, even if this only consists in protesting against injustice. A good number of Roman Stoics, in fact, protested against what they saw as political injustice by the emperor in power at any one time; as a result they were often regarded as trouble-makers and sometimes killed or exiled. So, if we follow the ancient Stoics in this respect, there is no reason why we should not be a political activist, if we have a principled reason for acting in this way.

Finally, for this first installment, let’s turn to our keynote speaker, best-selling author Ryan Holiday, author of The Obstacle Is The Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph. Ryan is a media strategist and prominent writer on strategy and business — yeah, petty far from an academic philosopher, we like to mix things up that way. After dropping out of college at nineteen he went on to advise many bestselling authors and multiplatinum musicians. He served as director of marketing at American Apparel for many years, where his campaigns have been used as case studies by Twitter, YouTube, and Google and written about in AdAge, the New York Times, and Fast Company.

At STOICON Ryan will give the closing talk in the late afternoon. Drawing on a singular passage from Marcus Aurelius (“The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way”), Ryan will speak about the Stoic art of turning obstacle upside down. He will provide his insight into the success of some icons of history — from John D. Rockefeller to Amelia Earhart to Ulysses S. Grant to Steve Jobs — the use of an approach that let them turn obstacles into opportunities. Faced with difficult situations, they found their way to astounding success. Some of these figures had studied Stoic philosophy as young men or women — others understood it only intuitively. In any case, Ryan suggests, they were not exceptionally brilliant, lucky, or gifted. Their accomplishments came from the application of timeless philosophical principles that aim at excellence in any and all situations. He’ll also talk about how he came to Stoic philosophy and how he’s tried to apply it in his own life, in his writing and in his career in business.

Stay tuned for more STOICON ’16 speakers and topics coming your way soon…

'Dealing with One's Own Anger – Resources and Insights From Epictetus' by Greg Sadler

Dealing with One’s Own Anger – Resources and Insights From Epictetus

by Greg Sadler

V0009398 A frontal outline and a profile of faces expressing anger. E Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images A frontal outline and a profile of faces expressing anger. Etching by B. Picart, 1713, after C. Le Brun. 1713 By: Charles Le Brunafter: Bernard PicartPublished: [1713] Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

Two months back, I wrote a short piece setting out several insights and resources stemming from Epictetus’ Discourses, focusing specifically on how to understand and deal with anger felt, expressed, and acted upon by other people. I also promised a second piece, following up by setting out the practical wisdom Epictetus has to provide us bearing upon our own anger. Here in this blog post, I will partially make good on that promise, but also kick the proverbial can a bit further down the road by deferring some of the necessary discussion to a third and later post about Epictetus on the emotion of anger. In that piece, I plan to expand on the considerations and techniques for dealing with anger mentioned at the end of this post, and to examine the importance of reworking habits for managing anger.

The choice to confine this post to a manageable length is a deliberate one, and the main reason for it is that this topic (Epictetus, his discussions of anger, and their applications in the present) turns out to be one upon which a great amount can be said. After consideration of the resources for understanding and addressing anger contained in Epictetus’s works (not to mention Seneca, and to a lesser extent, Marcus Aurelius), I’ve embarked upon a new large-scale research and writing project, intended to culminate in what will be a (hopefully short) book on Stoicism and anger. Later on this Fall, I’ll be providing a workshop on that topic, including practical resources for managing anger, at Stoicon in New York City (and likely some additional workshops and talks on the topic during the Stoic Week that follows). For the present, here are some of Epictetus’ contributions to thoughtfully and productively dealing with anger.


Some Starting Considerations

There are numerous passages within the Discourses, in which Epictetus makes some reference to anger in one of its various aspects. Piecing these together provides a coherent and fairly systematic approach to understanding, controlling, lessening, and hopefully even ending one’s own anger. We are particularly fortunate, though, in that beyond those scattered discussions, there are actually several chapters of the book devoted specifically to Epictetus’ teachings about anger.

One of these is chapter 18 of book 1, titled “That we ought not to be angry with those who make mistakes.” That sounds like a sentiment that most of us can get behind, at least in principle. But, what sort of mistakes does Epictetus have in mind? Failing to hold the door open for someone laden down with packages, because one assumes they are going past the doorway? Failing to follow a recipe and serving a less than appetizing dish for dinner? Mixing up a coworker’s name with someone else’s in introducing him or her?

The sorts of mistakes or errors (hamartiai) Epictetus cautions us about in that chapter are wider and deeper reaching, reflective of mistaken viewpoints that fundamentally motivate a person. The kinds of people he has in mind are thieves, robbers, and adulterers. It seems natural to get angry at people like that, people who we think are not just making a small or innocent mistake, but actively doing wrong, and choosing to do so, often at considerable risk and despite the illegality, public condemnation, or possible consequences of their actions.

But why do they engage in the sorts of actions that they do? According to Epictetus, it is because they are either totally or at least partly mixed up about some fundamental matters, the sorts of things that Stoic philosophy ought to provide us with a better perspective upon. As a first point, he notes that these people

have gone astray and are mistaken about the most important matters, and in a state of blindness as well, not in the sort of vision that distinguishes between black and white, but in the judgement that distinguishes between good and bad things. (1.18)

Epictetus suggests that we ought to consider showing them how they have things wrong, to allow them an opportunity to get them right, fully understanding that many of the erring will not take that offered opportunity as such. He also notes that it doesn’t make sense for us to get angry with them, if we think matters through, when what would be more appropriate to the situation is to feel pity or compassion towards them (in his Greek, eleein, which could be translated by either term).

Second, he suggests that our own anger represents a failure on our own part to adopt the right perspective when faced with these kinds of situations, and these sorts of troublesome people.

If the loss of the greatest things is the greatest harm that that can happen to a person, and the greatest thing in a person is his or her faculty of choice [prohairesis], and if a person is deprived of this very thing, what ground do you still have for getting angry with that person? If you have to be put into a condition contrary to nature by the misfortunes of another, why don’t you pity that person instead, rather than hate that person? Let go of this readiness to take offense and the spirit of hatred. (1.18)

He asks a hard but necessary question to hear, when one is already angry or getting angry with people who not only one takes to be doing wrong, but who are in fact, doing wrong, and doing so quite often: “How is it that you have been so suddenly converted to wisdom that you get angry at foolish people?” From Epictetus’ Stoic perspective, anger on our own parts indicates to us that we ourselves either have not attained, or are straying from, the wisdom that we view as lacking in the “fools”.

Insofar as we are getting angry with them, we actually share some assumptions in common with the foolish or the morally bad, and this is an important third point Epictetus makes:

We admire the things of which these people rob us. After all, stop admiring your clothes, and then you’re not angry with the person who steals them. Stop marveling at your wife’s beauty, and then you’re not angry at the adulterer. Know that a thief or an adulterer has no place among the things that are your own, but only among those that belong to another, and that are not up to you. (1.18)

To many of us, uncompromising counsels of this sort are admittedly difficult to agree with entirely, despite whatever attraction or affinity we may have with Stoic doctrine as a whole. Notice though, what Epictetus follows this up with:

So long as you admire these things, be angry with yourself, and not with the people I’ve just mentioned. For consider, you have fine clothes and your neighbor does not. You have a window, and want to air them out. That person does not know what the good for human beings consists in, but thinks it resides in having fine clothes, the very same thing that you imagine. (1.18)

In Epictetus’ view, the emotional response of anger is always a sign and symptom of something going wrong on our part, not only within the particular situation, but in the overall structure of our thinking, feeling, valuing, and acting. In this chapter, he points out to us an irrationality involved our own responses and stances of anger towards those who are likewise behaving in fundamentally irrational ways.

We have the capacity to understand the irrationality, the mistakenness, the error involved in choices those people make that lead them to unjust, counter-productive, selfish, harmful, or unseemly actions – and indeed, ways of living and being. And since we have that capacity, it is up to us whether or not we exercise it. If we do, a more appropriate emotional response is pity or compassion (although it seems that from where Epictetus sits, that’s still a second-best response by comparison to not feeling any “contrary to nature” emotion). It may be difficult, but we can head off, lessen, or at least control our own anger by attempting to understand the other, and we are aided considerably in doing so by realizing that their own bad motivations mirror our own, those that lead us into anger at them.


Understanding How and Why Anger Arises

Why do we find ourselves getting – or already – angry? For the Stoics, this emotion is not some random, unforeseeable, occurrence that just happens to us. Nor is it merely an automatic response we have no control over, so that when someone does something offensive, harmful, threatening, or just plain wrong, we can’t help but react with anger. There are intelligible and general processes underlying specific situations in which particular people get angry. Understanding what those processes are, and how they work, is essential to managing or addressing anger over time.

Understanding anger as an emotional (and even bodily) response that is not just raw affectivity, but also has underlying thought-processes driving it, allows us to examine those thought processes. And that, in turn, can give us a certain degree of freedom, permitting us to recognize those processes at work, as well as to decide for ourselves whether those thought processes are as reasonable or as necessary as they present themselves to us as being. As Epictetus reminds us at numerous points in our work, our desires and aversions, our choices and denials, our assents, judgments, and assumptions are the sorts of matters that are in our power.

As a general rule, whenever we get angry, Epictetus would say, we have gone wrong not only in our evaluation of what is happening – quite literally in the “use” (khresis)  we make of external appearances or impressions (phantasiai) – but also in our practical reasoning about the matter in relation to other things. Put in other terms, anger arises because of what it is that we think good and bad, how we order and value things, and accordingly what we desire and are averse to.

For each of us, in our own case, if we are to understand, let alone to manage or even master our own emotions – particularly anger – we have to examine what it is that we do value, what it is that we do think to be good, and therefore desire (and correspondingly what we think to be bad, and are averse to). If we’re honest with ourselves, we may find (I know this is the case for me) that there are quite a few externals, matters that fall outside of the scope of our power, things that are strictly speaking neither good nor bad, that we treat as being genuinely good or bad. And we do this precisely because we do think and feel them to be good or bad, making some mistakes in those assessments.

In doing so, in many different ways, we make ourselves vulnerable to the world, and in particular to other people, most of whom one should not expect to be fully rational. In fact, as Epictetus points out, the one thing you can really count on them to do is to follow what seems to them – but likely isn’t in reality – rational.

In another chapter of book 1, he provides multiple examples derived from classical culture of persons who went tragically astray in their excessive anger – Medea, Achilles, and Agamemnon in particular. In each of these cases, the person was deceived about where the genuine good resided, thinking themselves deprived of what they took to be a good, and they responded to admittedly trying circumstances by becoming very angry and following the dictates of that passion. In Medea’s case, “she regards the gratification of her ire and taking vengeance on her husband as more beneficial than saving her children” (1.28), and she in fact kills her own children as a portion of the retribution she imposes upon Jason.

Medea’s is admittedly an extreme case, but whenever we get angry, according to Epictetus, we similarly allow ourselves to be drawn into mistaken lines of reasoning. These bring us to dwell upon certain key matters, getting them wrong in the process – what goods we have been deprived of, what bad things we have had to suffer, and most importantly what good is to be attained through imposing something bad upon someone else, as just retribution or as a merited reciprocal response.

How precisely do we get these matters wrong? The specifics will, of course, depend on particular persons in concrete situations. But there are some broad commonalities that can be picked out. One of the most central of these is the assumption that whatever has been done to, or happened to, us should not have occurred – perhaps, if we go even further, we might add that it should never occur, should not even be imagined, and so on.

What is the basis for this “should not” that we import, in our judgements and desires, to the situation? At bottom, it stems from wanting things to go our way – things that are, strictly speaking, out of our control, not up to us, but rather up to someone else. We want to keep or attain certain things that might be possible for us, but certainly don’t have to be ours. We also want to be treated by people in certain ways and not in other ways, not least because we view their actions and words as indicative of how they think and feel about us. In short, we want a world of people and events over which we have no real or lasting control to conform to our own desires about it – and when this does not occur, we feel ourselves wronged, get angry, and want to strike back.


Addressing Anger When It Arises

Developing a solid understanding of  he irrationality, the negative consequences, or the counter-productiveness of our anger certainly proves useful. For some people, those insights may even prove necessary, if they are to control or address their anger. But as many of those of us who research the emotion know all too well from experience, simply grasping certain weak points to one’s character, as well as the processes by which one consistently goes wrong, does not by itself change much.

A person can engage in analysis, self-scrutiny, or reflection interminably without necessarily addressing a problem. In fact, after a certain point, such theoretical or contemplative work can become a substitute for the practical effort required, much like the people Epictetus jokes about and criticizes, who confuse studying books of Stoic philosophy with actually putting it into practice (e.g. in 1.4  or 2.19). It’s also possible to go one step further, and still not address the problem. A person can make all sorts of resolutions, even work out quite complex plans, and still make no real progress with their anger.

Once a person realizes their emotional response of anger to be something bad for them, if they want to work upon their temper, he or she has to choose to do something about it. And there’s two main things to be said about this.  The first is that if the person really recognizes their anger as something bad for them, and truly does want to change it, that person has to choose some effective means towards that end. The Stoics offer a number of those means, but the real measure of their effectiveness is what happens when a person really does put them into practice.

The second is that when one does make that choice not just to examine and to face up to one’s own emotional response of anger, but to actually do something about it in order to improve one’s character, what that person is doing is using his or her faculty of choice, the prohairesis. This is a use of one’s capacity for choice that bears reflexively upon that very faculty, partly undoing and then reweaving the fabric of one’s character. Put in slightly different terms, we are able to use what we possess of freedom and rationality to increase that very freedom and rationality, thereby rendering ourselves more free, more rational through that very work.

At numerous points in the Discourses, Epictetus reminds us of the centrality of bringing and maintaining our prohairesis “in accordance with nature” as the primary good. Over and over, we are faced with making choices between the alternatives of keeping our prohairesis in accordance with nature or pursuing something else that we view as a good (or conversely avoiding something else that we take to be an evil). When we choose that something else, we would like to tell ourselves that the option before us is not an exclusive one, but Epictetus relentlessly stresses that it is, often using mundane examples.

Reminding ourselves what precisely is at stake is something that we can do to stiffen our resolve when we have to deal with our own anger, something that is admittedly difficult to do at first, since it means opposing a portion of oneself that is already pressing upon us, trying to direct our faculty of choice, to hijack our thinking, to dominate our feelings. If we’re making progress along the Stoic path, one recourse we have is to pause and consider that in giving in to anger, we direct our prohairesis away from a state of conformity to (not even to mention harmony with nature). In resisting it, in not allowing it to sweep us away or seduce our reasoning, we maintain our prohaireis in accordance with nature. Good or bad, what’s fundamentally good for us, or damagingly bad for us – that’s our choice.

Now though, that is rather abstract, isn’t it? When we are already agitated by anger, how many of us really find an appeal to the ideal of a prohairesis in accordance with nature all that compelling? Answering this requires a modicum of honesty about one’s own moral condition, because if the Stoics are right – and I think they are about this – such a consideration ought to be more compelling the more progress we have made. And if it isn’t all that helpful for us in actual situations in which we feel anger, then that is an index of the lack of progress we have made.

So, what else might we choose to do in order to manage our anger effectively? Epictetus does offer us a number of more concrete suggestions. Each of these, technically speaking, is a general way in which, whether we realize it or not, we do choose to bring or keep our faculty of choice in accordance with nature. In the aforementioned interests of keeping this post from becoming overly long, I simply list several of these more specific techniques or considerations here, with a brief description of each.

#1: Understanding Reasons Why – As noted earlier, people act the ways they do for reasons that we can understand. While people who engage in actions likely to anger us typically have irrational assumptions, thought-processes, emotional responses, desires, etc., what they do does seem rational to them. If we can see what they do as partly rational and partly irrational, it makes sense to us, and we then are less bothered by it.

#2: Distancing From the Appearance(s) – We are confronted constantly with all sorts of “appearances” (phantasiai) which suggest to us how they ought to be taken, and play into our own matrix of desires and aversions, opinions and assumptions. We don’t have to automatically assent to them, and this goes particularly for those that typically make us feel angry, for instance appearances having to do with whether we are being harmed or insulted, whether other people intend to harm or insult us, and so on.

#3: Reminding Ourselves of Our Humanity – When we fall into various moral failures, we metaphorically resemble certain classes of animals. Those having to do with anger are dangerous beasts of prey, engaging in behavior appropriate to them as animals, but not for us as human beings. Thinking along these lines, we can “bring before our eyes” what it is that we look like when we become angry (a classic anger management technique).  We can also remind ourselves that, as human beings, we possess capacities for choosing how we respond, and for approaching matters rationally.

#4: Removing Ourselves From Competition – If we take what other people view as goods (which are really externals and indifferents) to be genuine goods, we will inevitably be drawn into conflict (makhe) with other people over those goods (and also experience inner conflict as well – though that’s a separate topic). When we find ourselves getting angry – particularly when in contention with other people – we can remind ourselves about what status these externals have, and that we needn’t place ourselves into competition over them.

#5: Fulfilling Our Roles Towards Others – When we get angry with others, and particularly when we act upon that anger towards them, we typically transgress (at least in part) the role and the accompanying duties we have in relation to those people. We do have a choice whether we maintain, or even restore that role (being a friend, a neighbor, a fellow citizen, a family member, etc.) within ourselves, or whether we give in to anger. Conversely, we can also head off anger we might feel towards them when they don’t fulfill their own roles towards us, by realizing that this is their failure, and not up to us.

In a follow-up post here later on this Summer (or early this Fall), I’ll expand on each of these strategies, provide discussion of several additional approaches found in Epictetus’ Discourses, and also examine the role our habits play in addressing anger.


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

An Interview with Michael Connell about Stoic Comedy

An Interview with Michael Connell about Stoic Comedy

by Donald Robertson and Michael Connell


Donald Robertson recently interviewed the comedian Michael Connell in his SMRT 2016 site about Michael’s recent Stoic Comedy special, his practice of Stoicism, and his reflections upon his craft.

Q: How do you make use of Stoic philosophy in your comedy?

The Stoic Comedy special I just released was a bit of a passion project for me. I’d been doing stand up for a long time, discovered Stoicism and been delighted with how it had improved my life. Whenever I’m passionate about something I want to talk about it in my routine, but with Stoicism I found that hard at first.

Stand up is usually focused on the outside – cats are weird, mother in laws annoying – and all about getting emotional. Stoicism is so focused on being rational and not being lead astray by emotions that I couldn’t find the jokes at first. Eventually though I figured out the comedy was in my irrationality. I’m a long way from being a Sage and find myself acting unstoically all the time, and by looking inward (as Stoicism teaches) and laughing at my foolishness I found the funny. In the special I make fun of people for getting upset when the trains are late, but if I’m honest those “people” were me.

Outside of my material I use Stoic philosophy in my comedy career all the time. The Stoic approach of looking for solutions from within yourself, has been a huge help in dealing with the tough crowds and fickle gatekeepers of the comedy business. Stoicism helps me focus on what’s important – being a better comedian and improving my act – and ignore the rest. If I’d discovered it sooner I may have saved me years trying to win over industry figures I was never going to win over.

Q: How did you first become interested in Stoicism?

Comedy is such a competitive field that I’m always looking for ways to improve myself. I heard somewhere that Stoicism was a useful philosophy that could make you more effective at business (I think it might’ve been in a blog post by Tim Ferriss), and picked up a copy of William Irvine’s A Guide to the Good life.

Reading the book I was surprised at how familiar many of the ideas were; learning to do stand up I was taught to focus on what I could control, hardships made me a better performer, etc. What I’d never considered though was that these principles that I’d been using in my art could be made into an entire philosophical system and applied to my life.

Q: What’s your favourite Stoic saying or idea, and why?

“It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live” – Marcus Aurelius

In my life I’ve often played it safe, I was looking for security. I thought if I just did all the right things one day I’d find myself in a perfect position from where could do all the things I wanted to, or knew I should, do. I wanted to be secure because, ultimately, I was afraid of death. For example I was afraid of starting a business because I might lose money, and if I lost money I wouldn’t be able to buy food, and if I couldn’t buy food I’d starve and die. No, better to avoid all that and play it safe. What I’ve learnt though (partly through studying Stoicism) is that you can never really achieve security; there is no permanence in an impermanent world. Death is an inevitable part of live and will come one day no matter how much little risk I expose myself to. The “safe option” is actually not the safe option, it just stops you from fully engaging with the ever changing universe (which is really the only security you can have in this world). All this tends to be hard for me to remember though, so this quote is really useful.

It’s also fun to drop into conversations to make everything seem more dramatic.

Co-worker: “I want to go get a coffee.”

Me: “It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.”

Q: How has Stoicism affected the way you live your life?

How long have you got?

I love the “now what?” attitude that Stoicism has. When I was younger I used to get quite angry when things were unfair. After completing my university degree I was left owing quite a bit of student debt. I sat around thinking how unjust the world was that I, a brilliant artist, was saddled with this burden that stopped me from going out and enjoying life. Through reading Stoicism I came to see that complaining the situation was unfair didn’t help me solve it. I had this debt – now what?

I went out and got a job, moved into a very run down share house, and started living off rice and beans. I kept thinking about Epictetus’ advice (“Therefore when a difficulty falls upon you, remember that God, like a trainer of wrestlers, has matched you with a rough young man. For what purpose? you may say. Why, that you may become an Olympic conqueror.”) and Seneca’s habit of practicing poverty. The job was hard, the share house scary and the rice and beans pretty bland, but rather than feeling depressed I felt like I was slowly overcoming a mountain.

After a few years I managed to pay off the debt. I was very happy, not because I’d paid off the debt, but that I’d lived through this period of hardship without becoming depressed or angry (at least not for any significant amount of time). If I could live through gruel work, bad food and street crime (the share house was in a very rough area) I could face anything. By applying Stoicism I began to feel that no matter what the world throws at me I’m going to be OK.

Q: Chrysippus reputedly died laughing at one of his own jokes, about a donkey. Do you find much humour in the ancient Stoics’ sayings/writings?

Yes, I think the ancient Stoics are quite funny at times.

I often laugh at Epictetus because he’s so direct, he really doesn’t sugar coat any of his advice. He calls his students fools and blockheads (depending on your translation), and I imagine he’d be a pretty harsh teacher.

Marcus I think is funny when he’s making insights into human nature. He really didn’t seem to have a very high opinion of the people around him (“Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness” etc.), and anyone reading today might get a few chuckles of recognition. Seeing that he was emperor and had to put up with all these people pestering him for something all the time, I’m sure a good sense of humour about the foibles of his fellow man must’ve been part of his Stoic toolbox.

I’m sure the ancient Stoics had a sense of humour. The story you mention about Chrysippus has always fascinated me. If I’m remembering this correctly he is supposed to have got a donkey drunk on wine then fed it figs while joking about it. I don’t know what was so funny about that (kind of sounds like animal cruelty to me), but I plan to find out in my next comedy festival show; “Michael Gets your Ass Drunk”.

Q: If he could time-travel to the present day, what do you think Marcus Aurelius would make of your act?

I think he’d be surprised to see his face on the t-shirt I’m wearing during the special, but he’d be immune to the flattery. He’d probably be a pretty tough audience; as I was telling the good jokes he’d be mentally preparing for the bad ones that were inevitably coming.

Q: What have you learned from audiences’ reactions to your Stoic routines?

That people have a hard time letting go of the idea that external events cause their emotions, rather than their interpretations of the events.

Whenever someone starts heckling or talking during one of my Stoic bits, nine times out of ten it’ll be this idea they’re taking issue with. It’s a bit wearying, I always feel like saying “Sir, philosophers have been pointing this out for over two thousand years now, I doubt you’ve got anything new to bring to the table…”

For a long time I was working on a routine about how people think others can shape their emotions; “He made me mad”, “she’s making me depressed”, etc. I never quite figured it out because I just can’t seem to find a funny way to explain that no one can make you feel anything unless they’ve got some sort of mind control powers. It seems people just don’t want to accept that truth.

I suspect this is partly because people don’t want to see the truth. It’s easier to say that someone else is making you feel bad, and therefore it’s up to them to change, than to go through the messy process of dealing with your own thoughts and emotions. This might be why Stoicism isn’t more of a mainstream philosophy, people don’t want to take full responsibility for their lives.

Having said that there are people who DO get it and they are wonderful. Some of the messages I’ve got through Facebook and YouTube are really wonderful, and I’m very glad that I could create something so many people have found useful.


Donald Robertson is a cognitive-behavioural psychotherapist, trainer, and author who specialises in the treatment of anxiety and the use of CBT and clinical hypnotherapy. He is the author of many articles on philosophy and psychotherapy in professional journals. Two of his more recent books include Teach Yourself Stoicism and the art of Happiness (2013) & Build your Resilience (2012). Read more about Donald’s work on his blog, The Philosophy of CBT.

Michael Connell is a comedian, and MC, and a longstanding student of Stoic philosophy. You can watch his new stand up special, and find out all about his comedy and biography, on his website: