Interview with William O Stephens

William O. Stephens will be one of the invited speakers at the upcoming Stoicon conference in Toronto later this year.  His talk is entitled “Phobias, Terrorism, and Stoic Fearlessness”

How would you introduce yourself and your work to our readers?

I’m a professor of philosophy at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska.  My areas of expertise include ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, environmental ethics, and Stoicism and popular culture.  But my interest in Stoicism isn’t merely academic or scholarly.  I believe that the general Stoic outlook, nearly all doctrines of Stoic philosophy, and Stoic therapies for vanquishing fears, anxieties, and anger, promote mental and emotional health and happiness.  I regard myself as a student of Stoicism striving to make progress living as a Stoic.

How do you currently makes use of Stoicism in your work?

I write about Stoicism and I teach Stoic authors in my courses.  My two monographs are Marcus Aurelius: A Guide for the Perplexed and Stoic Ethics: Epictetus and Happiness as Freedom.   I’ve written a variety of articles, essays, chapters in edited collections, and book reviews about Stoicism.  My largest ongoing project is a manuscript titled Stoic Lessons in Liberation: Epictetus as Educator.

I teach Epictetus in my introductory level course Philosophical Ideas: Wisdom.  Years ago I created a course on the History of Hellenistic Philosophy (which includes a major unit on the Stoics).  I also developed a course entirely on Stoicism, in which we studied Lawrence Becker’s A New Stoicism (1998) and generous selections from the Roman Stoics.  In 2012 I introduced a course called “Stoics in Film and Literature” to Creighton’s Honors program.

The film and lit. course begins with selected poems about the figure of the stoic, including Emily Brontë, “The Old Stoic” (1846) and Rudyard Kipling’s, “If” (1895).  Then we study A Stoic (1916)—a charming short story by the British novelist and playwright John Galsworthy. The protagonist of A Stoic, Sylvanus Heythorp, is a decrepit old curmudgeon and firebrand who led his life as Kipling urges in his famous poem.  Heythorp is discovered to have taken a private commission in a business deal for the sake of endowing a modest trust for his needy grandchildren.  Against his doctor’s orders Heythorp deliberately consumes a huge meal, downs copious liquors, and exits life in order to escape being fired from his job and publicly humiliated by a petty attorney.  As a story about pluck, fulfilling one’s role as a guardian, and opting for suicide both to save face and to shed a doddering, deteriorating body, it is a terrific vehicle for teaching Stoicism.

Epictetus describes his ‘Open Door’ policy about suicide in the Discourses, which we study at length in the course.  Epictetus also teaches that the life of a Stoic is like the life of a soldier.  We read U.S. Navy Vice Admiral James B. Stockdale’s essay Courage Under Fire: Testing Epictetus’ Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behavior (1993).  He explains how the Stoicism he learned from the lame slave saved his sanity, steeled his endurance under torture, and preserved his dignity during more than seven years as a POW in the Vietnam war.  Stockdale led the other American POWs valiantly.  He was awarded the Medal of Honor and was a candidate for Vice President as Ross Perot’s running mate in 1992.

Next we read Tom Wolfe’s long and lively novel A Man in Full (1998).  The minor protagonist, Conrad Hensley, is a heroic young husband, father, and manual laborer who suffers a horrible streak of bad luck that results in him being unfairly charged with assault.  To preserve his honor, Hensley rejects a plea bargain and goes to prison.  There, by accident, he receives a copy of Epictetus’ Discourses at exactly the right time to become a Stoic convert.  Epictetus teaches him to respect himself, focus on what is up to him, act bravely, and use his strong hands to defeat a menacing inmate who is a serial rapist.  During an earthquake that destroys the prison, Hensley saves the life of his fellow cellmate and escapes.  Now a Stoic teacher, Hensley saves the novel’s main protagonist, Charlie Croker, from sacrificing his self-respect and losing his moral integrity merely to cling to his vast wealth.  Thus, Croker becomes Hensley’s Stoic disciple.  The novel has colorful Stoic and anti-Stoic characters.

I pair Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations with the film Gladiator (2000), featuring Richard Harris as the emperor.  An excellent analysis of the film is offered by John Sellars in his paper “Stoics on the Big Screen: Marcus and Maximus,” which we read with “Marcus, Maximus, and Stoicism in Gladiator (2000),” the appendix of my book on Marcus.

People who read one male Stoic author after another may think that Stoicism is a philosophy for men only.  To correct this misconception my students and I examine the performance of Jennifer Lawrence as Ree Dolly in Winter’s Bone (2010).  The course concludes with a look at Stoic ideas in Star Wars.  My students read my essay “Stoicism in the Stars: Yoda, the Emperor, and the Force” in Star Wars and Philosophy (2005) after watching selected scenes from Episodes II, III, IV, and V.  Yoda expresses a basic Stoic idea in his Jedi maxim: “Fear leads to anger; anger leads to hate; hate leads to suffering.”  I argue that Jedis resemble Stoics in many, but not all, respects.

So, obviously I use Stoicism a lot in my teaching and writing.

When and how did you first become interested in Stoicism?

When I was in high school I liked to read about ancient Greek and Roman philosophers in a 1972 World Book Encyclopedia set.  I wanted to study philosophy when I went to college.  After majoring in philosophy and Classics at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana, I was fairly certain that I wanted to specialize in ancient Greek philosophy when I went to graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania in 1984.  Knowing my interest in the Socrates of the early Platonic dialogues, my mentor at Penn, Charles Kahn, suggested that I read Epictetus, since Socrates is Epictetus’ biggest hero.  I had never read a Stoic author before.  As soon as I took up Epictetus, I was hooked.  The fervor with which Epictetus taught his students how to free themselves from fear, anger, envy, and self-pity was breathtaking.  I wrote my dissertation on Epictetus’ ethics.  When I began researching Epictetus I soon discovered that a scholar named Adolf Bonhöffer had written three entire books on Epictetus, none of which had ever been translated from German.  The second book was on Epictetus’ ethics.  So, I had to puzzle out a line by painstaking line translation of Bonhöffer’s Die Ethik des Stoikers Epictet (1894).  In 1996 Peter Lang published that translation under the title Adolf F. Bonhöffer, The Ethics of the Stoic Epictetus: An English translation.

What’s the most important aspect of Stoicism to you?  

Using the power of reason to dispel anger, conquer fear, gain wisdom, and live well.  Doing all I can to concentrate my energies on what is up to me and to remain calm about what is not up to me.  The most important aspect of Stoicism is seeing how becoming the best person I can possibly be is possible by applying Stoic wisdom to every challenge I face.

In what ways do you think Stoicism still matters today?

Stoicism matters for calm perseverance amidst conflict and calamity.  Stoicism matters for cultivating the virtues and becoming self-realized.  Stoicism matters for living peaceably and cooperatively with other people.  Stoicism matters for living in agreement with nature, which I believe means, among many other things, living sustainably and practicing ecological wisdom, veganism, and minimalism.  Stoicism matters for liberating people through education so that they can rid themselves of fear, hatred, bigotry, greed, and selfishness.  Stoicism matters in every way.

How has Stoicism affected the way you live your life?

Throughout my career in academia I have dedicated myself to educating my students in a liberal arts education.  According to this pedagogical vision, a well-rounded education in all the arts and sciences liberates the mind and transforms a human being into a well-rounded person, a person who becomes a lifelong learner, and a productive citizen in our democracy.  As a professional philosopher, when I teach Stoicism to my students I’m teaching what I believe is the best philosophy ever conceived.  There are certainly some serious criticisms of certain doctrines of ancient Stoicism.  Modern Stoics ought to take these legitimate criticisms to heart and revise their Modern Stoicism accordingly.  I encourage my students to think critically and creatively when exploring all philosophies.  They need to work out their own views and defend them using the best arguments they can construct.  But I’m a self-identified Stoic because, at the end of the day, I believe that Stoicism is a truer, more powerful philosophy than Platonism, Aristotelianism, Hedonism, Scepticism, Thomism, Cartesianism, Utilitarianism, Kantianism, Marxism, consumer-capitalism, and all the rest.

Outside the classroom, I play a lot of tennis.  I struggle to practice Stoic equanimity when opponents muff line calls and behave in unsportsmanlike ways.  I aspire to play tennis like a Stoic, but I have a long, long way to go.  I do better applying Stoic thinking when I’m behind the wheel of a car.  I also try to practice Stoicism in my personal and professional relationships.  It’s difficult but rewarding.

What’s one of your favourite Stoic quotations and why?

No carelessness in your actions.  No confusion in your words.  No imprecision in your thoughts.  No retreating into your own soul, or trying to escape it.  No overactivity.  They kill you, cut you with knives, shower you with curses.  And that somehow cuts your mind off from clearness, and sanity, and self-control, and justice?  A man standing by a spring of clear, sweet water and cursing it.  While the fresh water keeps on bubbling up.  He can shovel mud into it, or dung, and the stream will carry it away, wash itself clean, remain unstained.  To have that.  Not a cistern but a perpetual spring.  How?  By working to win your freedom.  Hour by hour.  Through patience, honesty, humility. (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations viii. 51; Gregory Hays’ translation)

Water is the most supple and yielding of elements.  Yet over time waves wear down the rocks along a shore line.  Over time a stream can carve out a huge, deep canyon.  Persistence, patience, and a calm, steadfast purpose are waterlike virtues Marcus admires.  Don’t we all admire these virtues?

What advice would you give someone who wanted to learn more about Stoicism?

Buy my books and read them!  Even better advice is to read Seneca, Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius.  There are very good recent translations of the works of all these Stoics.  Also, everything Tony (A.A.) Long has ever written about Stoicism is absolutely first rate.

Do you have anything else that you wanted to mention while we have the chance?

I invite your readers to email me any questions or comments about Stoicism that they have.  I’m eager to meet and talk with fellow Stoic enthusiasts at Stoicon 2017 in Toronto.

 

Applying Stoicism: The Struggle for Self-Sufficiency by Travis Hume

Many persons today face an unforgiving journey to become financially independent. For numerous entry-level positions in various fields, obstacles may include a requirement for prior work experience, multiple degrees, or a combination of both. As it is difficult to obtain an entry-level position without prior work experience, more advanced or specialized degrees or inadequate-paying internships become the equalizer. Additional education demands greater financial risks for uncertain returns.

Some may be able to afford more education without taking on debt, largely leaving time and effort as remaining costs. For others, outside financial support or graduating with substantial debt is necessary. Depending on the desired field, the advanced degree will not always be an advantage; the degree may instead place one’s chances for consideration on even ground with other applicants. For a significant advantage, familiar obstacles need to be overcome, multiplying the costs accordingly. Some may also possess an edge in the form of social contacts, networks, or favor trading.

Each individual’s experience with this cycle will vary depending on many interweaving events. It may well be that the cycle ends as hoped for, and an individual lands the sought-for position. It may end when an individual reaches self-prescribed limits on the time and money they were willing to risk. An individual may end the cycle at a seemingly appropriate time, yet the position nevertheless seems continuously out of reach. Finally, an individual may choose not to face the cycle at all, deeming the risked investment too great without some guarantee of future stability.

If an individual believes another person (e.g. another applicant or employer) represents a barrier or means to something good, they are more likely to behave in ways that are counter-intuitive to their goal. For example, they may go out of their way to choose words that appear knowledgeable, or change their body language to appear very confident. They may be more likely to embellish their resume, overstate their work experience, or exaggerate personal stories during interviews. If they’re offered a position, they must continually work to maintain any intentionally false appearances created from the outset.

The miscellaneous risks of pursuing an advanced degree are commonly not the only considerations in play: Costs of living vary by location, currently held job(s), debts owed elsewhere, supporting dependents, healthcare expenses, and other elements. If one or more of these considerations becomes financially untenable, the effects often cascade. An individual’s career goals may be suspended indefinitely as a result, perhaps by months, years, or decades.

Common responses to these developments include resignation, despair, anger, indignation, fear, disgust, anxiety, self-deprecation, among others. As it is common for employers (at least in the United States) to be vague in their reasoning for turning down an applicant, the individual may take it upon themselves to fill in the blanks: “Maybe I just don’t have what it takes.” “I deserved that way more than whoever got it!” “I gave 110% – it should have been enough.” “Those people obviously don’t know who they’re passing up, and they’ll be sorry when they find out.”

These resentments are borne from judgments of what is good or evil that have been shaped and reinforced over a lifetime. To many, a career represents something good due to the material benefits thought to accompany them. A sense of ownership is gradually projected onto potential job offers in the act of pursuing it intently. If the position isn’t offered, it is accordingly deemed these benefits are “lost.” Depending on one’s disposition, the emotional response may be turned either inward or outward towards the person(s) and company believed responsible. The career goals of many are repeatedly raised, changed, maintained, or impeded through a complex weave of causes.

The ancient philosophy of Stoicism asserts that these judgments are changeable. Accordingly, our consideration of what is good or evil can be changed. The Stoics suggest that greatly valuing external things is a mistake and a disservice to us, given our capability for reason and choice – a capability unique to our species. Investing value and effort in choices that are consistent with our distinctive nature as social and rational animals is held to be the only true path to becoming happy; notably, happiness that is independent of the external obstacles interfering with financial self-sufficiency:

Remove desire for empty fame, the reputation of a philosopher, or to have lived your whole life as a philosopher. The plan of your life opposes it. Discard concern for how others see you and be content to live the remainder of your life without distraction, directed by your nature. You have experienced many wanderings without finding happiness; not in syllogisms, nor wealth, nor reputation, not pleasure, nor anywhere. Where is it then? In doing a man’s business. What to do? Follow your principles that relate to good or bad with the conviction that there is nothing good for man that does not make him just, temperate, manly and free and that there is nothing bad that does not do the contrary. (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Bk. VIII. 1)

Humans need to physically survive as other animals do, but little more is needed beyond the basics: a few meals a day, water, clothing, and shelter. Anything additional is pursued by choice; a choice arguably made on behalf of this basic impulse. The Stoics maintain there is nothing wrong with preferring being full to being hungry, being well-off to destitute, sleeping in a comfortable bed to sleeping on the ground, so on. The moment, however, that we begin depending on the presence of preferential things or fear their absence is the moment we’ve surrendered control of ourselves to the persons that may be manipulating them. In other words, by binding our peace of mind to things outside of our control, we’ve yielded our opportunity to enjoy them for the time they’re present, make peace without regret when they’re absent, and to concentrate on improving our social and rational qualities.

… Other things are goods by opinion, “advantages,” “preferred” things. Chattels, not parts of ourselves, they lend no man cause to plume himself. Let us use these things, but not boast of them. Few men have been allowed to lay aside prosperity gently, the rest all fall together with their possessions and are weighted down by these very things which once exalted them. Employ limits and frugality since license overthrows is own abundance. That which has no limit has never permitted reason to set limits for it. Many a great power has fallen to luxury and been destroyed, excess has ruined what was won by virtue. Our weapon of defense is our ability to accept what happens to us. … (Seneca, Moral Letters to Lucilius, Letter 74, 16)

Striving to act in light of the dichotomy between what is or is not in our control is crucial to the eventual transformation of our day-to-day thought process – a thought process that may otherwise be constantly filled with resentment, anxiety, fear, and hyper-competitiveness with others. The pursuit for fiscal self-sufficiency does not need to come at the cost of our psychological well-being, or considering other persons as means to ends.

As it happens, by doing our best with what we have for the time we have it for the distinct purposes of self-improvement and benefiting others, we are likely to perform in ways that will bring about the fiscal self-sufficiency we prefer. It is not a guarantee, as mentioned, because our exercise of choice alone is fully within our control, but it ceases to be an end goal on the path to becoming practicing Stoics:

… Your fears are idle and your desires vain. Do not seek good things outside of yourself, but within, or you will not find them. When you think things are going badly remember you are being trained as an example to other men. When you are appointed to such a role it is not for you to consider where or in what company you are or what others say about you, but to spend your efforts obeying the commands of Zeus (Nature).

If you keep these thoughts in mind you will never want for one to comfort and strengthen you. Dishonor does not come from not having enough to eat, but from not having enough right reason to secure you from fear and pain. Once you are free from fear and pain you are free from all earthly tyrannies. Make no display of your office by inflating yourself, but prove yourself by conduct. Be content, though none observe you, to live in true health and happiness. (Epictetus, Discourses, Bk. III, 24)

 

Travis Hume is the creator, administrator, and writer of Applying Stoicism and its social media accounts. He writes daily on practicable applications of Stoic philosophy for the modern day, based upon first-hand real-world experiences.

Get Your Stoicon 2017 Tickets Today!

Information on the line-up of speakers and subjects of talks at this year’s Stoicon 2017 Modern Stoicism Conference in Toronto.

Stoicon 2017 is coming up soon, on October 14th!  It is being held in the metropolis of Toronto this time around. (After New York City last year, and several in London in previous years.)  At the time of writing, about 75% of the available tickets for the all-day conference have already been purchased.  So if you would like to go to Stoicon, you will definitely want to act now to avoid missing out!

This year’s conference is on track to be the largest gathering of Stoics in history.  Last year’s Stoicon  had over 330 delegates attending, and this year we’re expecting closer to 400.  It is a great opportunity to hear some excellent talks on Stoicism by established and upcoming authors, speakers, and researchers – and to get to ask them questions about their talks.  You also have your choice of several longer, more intensive, hands-on workshops applying Stoic philosophy to the challenges you face.  You’ll have chances to meet and interact with the speakers – as well as with the other participants.

I can tell you personally – as someone who attended and provided a workshop at last year’s Stoicon in NYC – that it was an amazing conference!  Even as someone who has been studying, teaching, and applying Stoicism for years, I really enjoyed the the plenary talks and learned something from each of them.  Getting to meet and talk with writers on Stoicism whose works I’ve benefitted from was wonderful.  I had conversations with literally dozens of other participants – some of them practicing Stoics, some of them people just interested in Stoicism and trying to find out more about it, and even some who were already contributing to the modern Stoic community online!

We have a great line-up of speakers providing talks and workshops:

Prof. Margaret Graver, from Dartmouth University, is our keynote speaker.  She is the author of Stoicism and Emotion, Cicero on the Emotions: Tusculan Disputations 3 and 4 , and a number of important articles on ancient philosophy.

Donald Robertson is one of the founding members of the Modern Stoicism organization, the developer of a number of online courses on Stoicism, and the author ofThe Philosophy of CBT: Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy,  Build Your Resilience and Stoicism and the Art of Happiness.

Prof. Christopher Gill is another of the founding members of the Modern Stoicism organization, an Emeritus Professor of Ancient Thought at the University of Exeter, and is the author of Naturalistic Psychology in Galen and Stoicism,  The Structured Self in Hellenistic and Roman Thought, and Personality in Greek Epic, Tragedy, and Philosophy: The Self in Dialogue

Prof. Massimo Pigliucci is K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City University of New York, and is the author of a number of books, most recently, How to be a Stoic.

Tim LeBon another founding member of the Modern Stoicism organization, is a practicing CBT psychotherapist and philosophical counselor, and the author of Wise Therapy and Achieve Your Potential with Positive Psychology

Thomas Jarrett, LCSW, is a former Combat Operational Stress Control Officer in the US Army, an Albert Ellis Institute Fellow, and the developer of Stoic Resilience and Warrior Resilience & Thriving Training training programs.

Dr. Ronald Pies is a professor of psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine, author of Everything has Two Handles and  Don’t Worry—Nothing Will Turn Out All Right!: The Optipessimist’s Guide to the Fulfilled Life

Dr. Chuck Chakrapani is a psychologist and data scientist, the founder of the Stoic Gym, and the author of Unshakable Freedom: Ancient Stoic Secrets Applied to Modern Life

Ryan Holiday is a marketing and motivational expert, the editor of the Daily Stoic site, and the author of The Obstacle is the Way, Ego is the Enemy, and The Daily Stoic.

Stephen Hanselman is a literary agent representing thought leaders and academics seeking a broad readership, and the co-author of The Daily Stoic.

Sharon Lebell is a musical performer and composer, author of The Art of Living:  The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness, and Effectiveness

Dr. Greg Sadler is a practicing philosophical counselor and ethics consultant, the producer of over 100 videos on Stoicism, and the editor of Stoicism Today

Andi Sciacca is director of curriculum and program design for the Food Business School, the COO of The Big Mind Institute of Education and Messaging, and co-founder of the MKE Stoic Fellowship

Dr. Walter Matweychuk is a practicing REBT therapist, teaches at New York University, and is the author of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy: A Newcomer’s Guide

Prof. William O. Stephens teaches at Creighton University and is the author of Marcus Aurelius: A Guide for the Perplexed and Stoic Ethics: Epictetus and Happiness as Freedom

You can find out about the schedule – and get tickets (before they run out!) – for Stoicon 2017 here. If you’d like to see some of the previous talks and workshops, check out the videos of last years Stoicon in NYC. If you’ve got an interest in living or learning about the Stoic life in today’s world, this is an event you won’t want to miss!

Coming Up In October – Stoicon, Stoic Week, and Stoicon-X events

Stoic Week and Stoicon are just two months away!  There are already a number of events either scheduled, in the works, or being planned – and there is still plenty of time to organize many other events of interest to the Stoic community.  Below is a round-up of the events that we have confirmed to this date.

If your organization, school, or Stoic meetup are planning an event to celebrate Stoic Week in October – or even just to observe and work through the Stoic Week class together – please let us know, and we will make sure to include your information in the next post about events (which will run just before Stoicon and Stoic Week)

So, here’s what is lined up so far:

STOICON – The Main Conference

October 14, 8:00 AM-6:30 PM – STOICON 2017 – organized by Donald Robertson (ably assisted by Amy Valladares, and a number of volunteers) – will be held in Toronto, Canada this year.  This one-day conference is the biggest annual event in the modern Stoic community.  The morning lineup includes 7 short talks by well-known authors on Stoicism.  The afternoon breakout sessions offer two talks and four workshops as options.  Margaret Graver will provide a much-anticipated keynote address, which is then followed by a reception. About 330 people attended last year, and we are anticipating still more than that next year.  It’s a great opportunity to meet and network with fellow Stoics.  Find out more, or purchase tickets for the event, here!

Stoicon-X – Smaller Conferences and Events

Stoicon-X events are smaller regional conferences or events, featuring speakers and workshops for those who want to learn more about Stoicism and its contemporary applications.  Like the main conference, these are a great place to meet and have conversations with fellow modern Stoics!

At present, there are five Stoicon-X events that we know of scheduled for this October

October 7, 10:30 AM- 3:15 PM – Stoicon-X Brisbane, Australia.  This event will take place at the Mitchelton Library, 37 Heliopolis Parade, Mitchelton QLD 4053, Australia. Tickets and full information available here.

October 9, 11, and 13, 7 AM (each day) – Stoicon-X-Bogotá, Colombia.  There will be three talks in the Trabajando estoicismo/Estoicismo trabajando series at the Universidad de los Andes, room 205, the first providing an Introduction to Stoicism, the second discussing Other People, and the third focused on Self-Knowledge.  More details will be forthcoming in the next post

October 15, 9:30 AM – 1:30 PM – Stoicon-X Toronto, Canada.  This will take place at Room # TRS1-109 (7th floor), Ted Rogers School of Management, 55 Dundas Street West, Toronto, Ontario. Features a number of speakers, many of whom will be giving “lightening talks” about Stoicism.  Tickets and full information available here.

October 21st, time TBD – Stoicon-X San Leandro, USA.  The Redwood Stoa will be hosting this event, and more information will be forthcoming in the next post.

October 21st, 10:00 AM -4:00 PM – Stoicon-X London, Great Britain –  This will take place at the Senate House, University of London, Malet Street, London.  Features talks by a number of speakers, including founding members of Modern Stoicism. Tickets and full information available here.

The Stoic Week Course

For a number of years now, Stoic Week has been one of the main international activities of the Modern Stoicism organization.  It offers an opportunity for people worldwide to learn about
Stoic doctrines and practices, to apply those practices and ideas within the contexts of their own day-to-day life, and to compare their insights, successes, and setbacks with others.

This year, Stoic Week begins on Monday, October 16 and runs to Sunday, October 22.  Many organizations, groups or meetups, and academic institutions observe Stoic Week by affording their members a chance to work through the course together, compare insights and experiences, and support each other through the week.

At present, the following have confirmed that they will be hosting local sessions or meetings during Stoic Week.  If your institution, organization, or group would like to be added to the list, please contact us.

  • New York City Stoics
  • MKE Stoic Fellowship
  • Scotland Stoics

Stoic Week Events

We are also looking to add any events planned during (or even around) Stoic Week to the list below.  If you’re planning a talk, a workshop, a discussion, or any other sort of event, contact us and we’ll include it!

October 16, 6:00 PM – New York City, USA – The Stoic School of Life will be hosting a discussion at the New York Society for Ethical Culture, “On Moral Luck”. Full details available here.

October 17, 7:30 PM – Chicago, USA – The New Acropolis will be hosting a talk by Greg Sadler, “Applying Stoic Philosophy In Your Workplace: 5 Useful Practices.”

October 18, Time TBD – Edinburg, Scotland – The Scotland Stoics will be hosting a meeting, precise details TBD at this time

October 20, 6:00 PM – Milwaukee, USA – The MKE Stoic Fellowship will be hosting a Stoic Week event, precise details TBD at present.

If past years are any indication, we can expect to see many, many more events and organizations added to these lists closer to Stoic Week in October!

Interview With Margaret Graver

Professor Margaret Graver is the keynote speaker at this year’s Stoicon conference in Toronto .  We are all eagerly looking forward to her plenary address, titled “The Dispassionate Life”. Below is an interview about her longstanding interests in, and scholarship on, Stoicism.

How would you introduce yourself and your work to our readers?

I’m a professor at Dartmouth College, which gives me the privilege of teaching young adults how to read ancient texts accurately and attentively. Born in Louisiana, I now live year round in New Hampshire, where I love the mountains and the lakes in summer. Swimming with the loons, picking blueberries from your kayak. In winter I can at least say that I don’t mind shoveling snow.

As a scholar, I work in Hellenistic and Roman philosophy, with a particular interest in Stoic views on the nature and management of the emotions. I have three books out. Cicero on the Emotions: Tusculan Disputations 3 and 4  gives an annotated translation of a text by Cicero that is actually one of the best introductions to Stoicism that I know, particularly for anyone who has struggled with grief.

Stoicism and Emotion is a more comprehensive study that concentrates on the early period of Stoicism. In addition to the main emotion theory, it treats such related topics as freedom of the will and character development. Most recently, I have worked with A.A. Long on a complete translation of Seneca’s Letters on Ethics. The letters are a fascinating glimpse into Roman life as well as a wonderful topic-based exploration of Stoicism. I’ve loved working on an accurate translation that would have a contemporary feel. Now, as I write this, I’m at work on two other projects. One is a broad-based study of Seneca’s philosophy of values, the emotions, and literature, and the other is on Cicero’s relationship to Stoic ethics.

When and how did you first become interested in Stoicism?

It was really Seneca that drew me in. I had been studying classical literature at Brown, and one day picked up a volume of the Letters, wanting to get back into Latin prose after doing an awful lot of Greek poetry. What caught my attention was the structure of that book, how Seneca makes it feel natural and right to read one letter a day, so that the book becomes a life companion as well as an educator. The fuller understanding of the Stoic system came later for me. Of course I have been much enriched by conversations with other scholars. While I was still in graduate school it was especially Martha Nussbaum and Victor Caston, then over the years Brad Inwood, Chris Gill, Tad Brennan, and Tony Long have all taught me a great deal, and these are only a few of many. Students, too, both my own students and those from other schools, and adult learners – they are always showing me new perspectives, so that I feel like I am rediscovering the subject every day.

What are the most important aspects of Stoicism to you?  

The rule of reason. Yes, there are other things in human nature besides our ability to reason, and those are important too. But this is fundamental. We don’t like being deceived; we don’t wish to be mistaken. Epictetus: “Try to believe that it is night.” When the sun is shining in the window, you just can’t do it—you can’t make yourself accept views that contradict each other, just because you are fundamentally a rational creature. All of Stoicism comes down to this. Getting things right, discerning what is true from what only seems true, getting to a point where your actions and even your feelings are based on reality—this is just a better way for a human being to live.

The immediate extension of that is the Stoic way of thinking about values. The idea that things like playing fair, speaking the truth, facing up to challenges, being kind and gentle, really matter and matter in a completely different way from what you own, what people think of you, even how long you live—that is the very core of their ethics. And that much seems to me very straightforward and correct. What that actually looks like in any given situation is a lot harder, though.

In what ways do you think Stoicism still matters today?

The toughest problems facing us today have to do with the fragmentation of the media, the ever more staggering inequalities of wealth and privilege, and hatred and mistreatment based on ethnicity. To some extent, any system of ethics should be able to suggest some ways forward. But there are some key elements of Stoicism that speak directly to these issues.

  • First and foremost, intellectual independence. Stoicism is all about thinking for yourself, using your own mind and not just passively accepting the views other people want you to hold. In ancient Stoicism there was no party line, no orthodoxy. Everyone respected and studied the views of Zeno and Chrysippus, and there were some points that were held in common. But there was also a lot of divergence—each author is working out their own version of Stoicism that makes sense to them, because that is what they have to do.
  • Next, values based on character and not on externals. All of us are constantly bombarded with the message that what matters is what you have, how you look, what jobs and degrees you hold, what influence you can wield. And people are judged accordingly. The ancient Stoics resisted those sorts of messages—they saw them as the prime cause of unhappiness. They spoke of the “transmission of error,” or just “corruption,” that gets to us already when we’re very young and trying hard to do what people expect of us. Not that it’s wrong to get your degree, earn your living, care for your family—that’s exactly what we should be doing most of the time. But those things in themselves are not where happiness lies, and they’re certainly not what defines a person. Remember when character was something most people looked for in a political leader? We could go back there—and we could make the same demand of ourselves.
  • The other big one is what the Greeks called philanthropia, the attachment to the human. In Stoic thought all rational creatures are akin to one another by virtue of their rationality. That’s actually encoded in human nature: the way children bond to their caregivers, the naturalness of connecting to other people just because they’re near at hand. Of course our first and strongest ties are to our families and our immediate communities, and that is fine. But we can also learn to recognize a bond of shared humanity with those who are more distant, “draw the circles inward,” as Hierocles says. This business of othering, of in-grouping, of sending the refugees back where they came from—Stoicism is diametrically opposed to all of that.

What’s one of your favorite Stoic quotations and why?

Don’t know if I can do just one. Here are three.

Have you no hands? Wipe your own nose, then, and don’t blame God.

You just can’t beat Epictetus! Sit down and pray that your nose may not run? No, you have hands. The point is that we have to take responsibility for our own emotional well-being—and we are equipped to do that, if we make the effort.

Do you ask what progress I have made? I have begun to be a friend to myself.

I love the idea that moral progress involves becoming your own friend. Of course we still want to have other people to be our friends, that’s a given and is very important in Stoic thought. But it’s rare to find somebody who is such a true friend that they will tell you the things you really need to hear. Even if you’re lucky enough to have such a friend, it’s hard to spend enough time with that person. But you can learn to be that sort of friend to yourself, and then you will never be without a friend.

The other thing I really like about this quotation is that we even know about it. It’s by Hecaton of Rhodes, an important author in his time but we have hardly any of his work. We happen to have this bit because Seneca encountered it in his own reading, liked it, and quoted it in one of the Letters.

Real joy is a serious matter.

Seneca has many beautiful ways of speaking about the joy that comes with wisdom. In the 23rd letter, more than anywhere else, he brings out the fact that there are feelings that are more worth having than what our culture calls happiness or fun. Think of the change agent speaking the unpopular truth, the soldier laying her life on the line, the nurse who’s there for the dying patient. Do they sense the goodness that is there? I think they do. Are they smiling and having a good time? We don’t need that.

What advice would you give someone wanted to learn more about Stoicism?

Get yourself a copy of the Letters on Ethics and read it a bit at a time. Not straight through necessarily—each letter takes up a different topic, so you can do very well working from the Table of Contents. Find the parts that really interest you, and let it spread from there. The beauty of Stoicism is that it’s quite systematic, so if you grasp some points and think hard about those, you begin to understand even some points you haven’t yet studied.

Do you have anything else that you wanted to mention while we have the chance?

Just a tip of the hat to Chris Gill, who first put the bug in my ear to do something on the 3rd and 4th Tusculan Disputations of Cicero. That text taught me so much about the emotions in Stoicism and has inspired most of what I’ve done since.

The Stoic Job Search: Rejection and Opportunity by Andrew Overby

If you read the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius or another prominent Stoic, you can come away with a good idea of how to manage a job search if you replace every “person” or “people” in the text with “job” or “job application.”

According to the good emperor:

Say to yourself first thing in the morning: today I shall meet [job applications] who are meddling, ungrateful [and] unsocial.

As Epictetus wrote:

Remember that it is not [a job] who reviles you or strikes you, who insults you, but it is your opinion about these things as being insulting. When, then, a [job application] irritates you, you must know that is your own opinion which has irritated you.

Looking at potential next jobs, you’ll see some good and some worse, many that are irksome and disagreeable, and others that excite. Some opportunities will click right away, others won’t. If looking for work means exposure to a great deal of uncertainty and ambiguity, if it means exposing yourself to insult, letdown, rejection, and the vagaries of other people’s opinions, then where better to turn for insight and assurance than the Stoics?

We should recall that the Stoic philosophers had a masterful understanding of human psychology, the principles of which we can take and configure for our own era and our own sets of circumstances.

A Stoic sage might think the modern-day job search is an excellent proving ground for Stoic values, riddled as it is with emotion and our reactions to external events. Sages might even come to enjoy it, seeing it as a chance to test their mettle in the day-by-day flow of optimism, pessimism, rejection, anxiety, pride, hope, progress, and the search for tranquility that marks life on the job hunt.

A sage might love this, but most of us don’t.

And since we don’t, we need to analyze it. We need to figure out how best to endure it and emerge stronger for it. How do we see it in the best light possible? What should our tactics be in warding off frustration and annoyance, for focusing on the positive?

That’s what I’ll consider below. Looking for a job is one of the most wrenching experiences in the modern workforce, one we’ll all increasingly deal with as transitions between companies and industries take place more rapidly than society’s ever been accustomed to before.

The Nature of Rejection and How to Beat It

Being in the job-searching process means facing disappointment. It can mean placing ourselves on a scale to be weighed, and sometimes be found wanting. It can mean we are placed in a position of vulnerability, giving someone else a large amount of control over us–our time and energy, our life.

It opens us to rejection. Yet the Stoics can help us stay calm and collected during the process. They remind us what lies at the root of our deep-seated fear of this particular brand of disappointment: egotism, or an overly generous sense of our own importance, as well as depending upon external approval in the first place. If instead we cultivate humility, we can more easily let go of the prideful ego that often causes us to experience rejection so painfully.

It’s hard to have tranquility on the job hunt, but that doesn’t make it less important to try. To remember how valuable tranquility is, we should remember stories like that of Musonius Rufus, the Stoic philosopher (and instructor of the more famous Epictetus) who was exiled from Rome to a barren and isolated island for years. He was banished by the emperor Nero from his home and his way of living, but he did not allow himself to feel disgraced or become a broken man. Ultimately, he returned home and resumed his former life, having endured and grown stronger.

The Stoics also remind us of the value of short memories and selective attention. What we pay attention to, we build up in the mind. If we remember that an emotion is something that we can cling to or move through, we can lessen the sting of negative sentiments like rejection. In living a satisfied life, it pays to forget. (Maybe it’s no accident that older people are generally more accepting of Stoicism.)

Rejection is temporary, if you allow it to be. Much as hedonic adaptation means we quickly get used to the finer things in life, the toughening up that comes with rejection means that future rejection will sting even less. The trick is to find balance: We can be somewhat fatalistic and dismissive enough of the past that we don’t overindulge in negativity while remaining able to hope for the future.

The longer your time horizon, the easier it is to stay hopeful.

Discomfort can be vivid in the present, but rarely is it strongly remembered. Emotions don’t age well. They exist mostly in the present tense. Since they can’t be canned for the winter or aged in a wine bottle, rest easier knowing that you’ll naturally never remember all the moments of discomfort and anxiety along the way.

On the topic of comfort, ask yourself this: If unemployed, underemployed, unengaged, or somehow out of step with your career plans or aspirations, what can you do to take comfort in the situation?

Whatever you disliked about your previous work, you don’t have to handle it anymore. Be glad about that. All those annoyances that felt so vivid no longer exist for you. How grateful are you for everything else you have, material and otherwise? Spend some time actually listing out many of these things, and you’ll literally change your perspective for the better.

And what if your job “can’t” be taken from you or lost? Thinking about job loss and job hunting has value even for people who own their own business or don’t imagine they will ever again have to bear the indignities and obstacles of the job search.

Apply the Stoic practice of negative visualization – what if your business abruptly went under next quarter because of a widespread economic meltdown and you were forced to seek employment in someone else’s company? What if your freelancing or consulting work dried up completely and you had no choice but to return to an office like the one you eagerly fled before?

Thinking like this will give you gratitude in the best case, and equanimity in the worst.

On the job hunt, all you have to do is keep taking steps. Eventually, you will land on something that fits. All you need in the meantime is the ability to endure.

Job Hunt as Opportunity

We typically see job loss or job uncertainty as being closer to catastrophe than celebration. This is mostly true, but what good can you see in it?

A blank canvas can be as much a blessing as it is a burden. Focus on the ways in which it’s a blessing, and this perspective will make a real difference.

You now have opportunities to reset or revamp your life. Recognize the opportunity to rebuild you’ve been presented with. Learn to see it as an opportunity to become unstuck and find new footing. Unless you truly live near the margins, consider that you won’t really become homeless or truly hungry, and that the dislocation you currently feel can be made to serve you.

There is great potential in this kind of disequilibrium moment for seeing the value in what you have, in seeing what you need. You have a chance to observe and keep strong, useful traditions, while training yourself in new ways where you fall short.

You can take a long look at your preferred indifferents, as suggested by Massimo Pigliucci in a recent blog post. You can stop for a well-rounded examination of the ethical choices surrounding what you’ve chosen to do thus far in life.

As you look for new work, things will cross your path: opportunities for personal development or even reinvention, new habits, new courses of action, new people or places, new projects, and certainly fresh beginnings. Moreover, there is abundant potential for practicing your virtues, meaning you will be both living them out and actually training to do better.

Living virtuously requires consciously practicing doing so. In modern life, there are perhaps few moments as opportune as job hunting for looking closely at your virtues.

A job search brings alive the need to find tranquility in everyday life, seeming more vivid sometimes than times of ordinary employment. If you value tranquility or living with less fear, now is when it shows.

If you are interviewing for a job you’d really like, for example, do your best and then put it out of your mind as best you can (easy to say, hard to do). After there’s nothing else for you to do, leave it alone. Maybe pretend you’ve already been rejected so there can’t be any unpleasant surprises. Let go of excessive worry about things beyond your control. Job searching gives us some real skin in the game putting this core Stoic tenet into practice.

One reason so much anxiety exists regarding job loss or job switching is due to social status, or potentially losing it. A remedy for this might be to cut yourself off from things like social media, TV, or friends you know who devote considerable energy to analyzing social status. This can improve things. And if that feels harsh, consider that self-denial can be healthy for you anyway, as the Stoics say. If you’re inundated by messages that make you feel insecure, stop the flow of those messages.

As far as work itself is concerned, look to your obstacles for guidance. They frequently point the way. It may be new needed skills, formal education, relationships, professional references, awkward conversations, salary negotiations, rounds of interviews in person or online–whatever you dread doing, you will likely have to confront that very thing before you can move on. These obstacles hindering your way are telling you where where the trouble spots are and where you need to prepare.

Job searches give us a chance to practice living our values: We need to build our resilience, spend our attention carefully, and work to see ourselves in the context of a whole lifetime. There are few better guides than the Stoics for psychologically navigating times of job-related uncertainty or anxiety. They provide excellent cues for such occasions. We cannot avoid moments or even long stretches of discomfort, but we can endure them and emerge stronger.

Andrew Overby currently works in marketing and lives in Austin, Texas. His interest in Stoic thinking in recent years has been inspired by a deep desire to live better through squaring the technologies and material advantages of modern life with timeless, proven traditions.

Some Stoic Musings on Loneliness by Kevin Vost

For what purpose then, do I make a man my friend? In order to have someone for whom I may die, whom I may follow into exile, against whose death I may stake my own life, and pay the pledge, too. – Seneca, Epistle IX

 As I sat down this morning to craft this article on loneliness that I’d been thinking about for some weeks I saw my first task as highlighting the importance and prevalence of loneliness in our day and the fact that the Stoics have much to offer in helping alleviate it in ourselves and others. This task was made all the easier by a most timely coincidence when I opened my email and perused Nick Guggenbuehl’s article on this very website: The Stoic Fellowship – Supporting Stoic Communities. Indeed, he had even opened with a quotation from Seneca too – “There is no enjoying the possession of anything valuable unless one has someone to share it with.”

Clearly then I will not stand alone in arguing the importance of loneliness or the relevance of Stoicism in helping us to accept it or overcome it by connecting with others. The topic of loneliness had been on my mind when I was asked by one of my publishers last year to produce the book, The Catholic Guide to Loneliness. Taking “Catholic” in the specific sense of the Catholic Church, but also “catholic” in the most general sense of word meaning all-embracing or universal, I knew I would attempt to share some lessons from the Stoics in that forthcoming book.

Here, I’ll share some of the lessons I gleaned for that book and some that I sought out specifically for this audience from the likes of Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, and Hierocles, but first I’ll begin with a few facts and statistics about the growing problem of loneliness in our time.

In Whom Shall We Confide: The Loneliness “Epidemic”

As to the importance and the prevalence of loneliness, a group of psychological researchers has recently opined: “Current evidence indicates that heightened risk for mortality from a lack of social relationships is greater than that from obesity…In a recent report, researchers have predicted the loneliness will reach epidemic proportions by 2030 unless action is taken.”[1]

Though loneliness has been with us since before the time that Zeno and the first Stoics walked the earth in the 4th century BC, the phenomenon of loneliness first gained significant notice in the psychiatric and psychological literature in the late 1950s in the writings of psychoanalyst Frieda Fromm-Reichmann and the attention on loneliness in the Western world has snowballed in recent decades.

Political scientist Robert Putnam drew great attention and concern in the year 2000 with his Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, in which he detailed how the United States, the nation vaunted by the 19th century French observer Alexis de Tocqueville in his Democracy in America as a land overflowing with all forms of associations and close communities, had become increasingly isolated in the second half of the twentieth century as all kinds of formal and informal groups, clubs, associations, and even shared activities with families and friends had waned considerably. As for the reasons for this increasing isolation, Putnam included pressures of time and money, suburbanization, commuting, and sprawl, electronic entertainment (especially television), and generational change as among the key factors, with television viewing as the number one past-time playing an especially prominent role in weakening the bonds of interpersonal connection. He mused as well, in the year 2000, about the effects we might see from the growing internet.

In 2006, the American Sociological Review created quite a stir when it released the results of a 20-year-study from the University of Chicago comparing surveys of two samples of approximately 1,500 adults each, the first taken in 1985 and the second in 2004.[2] This table provides is a summary of a few of the key findings regarding intimate relationships of close confidants, the lack of which can contribute to the loneliness of emotional isolation:

Modern Research Revealing an American Culture of Loneliness

National Opinion Survey Year 1985 2004
Average number of people one can confide in about important matters 3 2
Modal number of confidants[3] 3 0
People with no close confidants 10% 25%
People who mentioned a sibling as confidant 21% 14%
People who mentioned a parent as confidant 23% 21%
People who mentioned a child as confidant 18% 10%
People who mentioned a friends as confidant 73% 51%
People who mentioned a neighbor as confidant 19% 8%
People who mentioned a coworker as confidant 29% 12%
People who mentioned spouse as confidant 30% 38%
People who confide only in family members 57% 80%
People who confide only in their spouse 5% 9%

The researchers reported that “in spite of a large literature on declining civic engagement and neighbor involvement,” they expected that networks of close confidants would have remained stable. When the updated survey results came in the researchers stated quite bluntly: “We were clearly wrong.” So striking were these findings that shortly after, articles appeared in popular periodicals like USA Today, The New York Times, and The American Spectator, and many others, some headlining with the startling finding that one quarter of Americans have no one to confide in.

In 2010, the American Association of Retired People (AARP) published an extensive report entitled Loneliness Among Older Adults: A National Survey of Adults 45+.[4] About one-third (35%) of their over 3,000 respondents reported significant loneliness with no significant difference between men (37%) and women (34%). Perhaps not surprisingly the AARP’s study showed that the fewer confidants a person reported the more likely he or she was to be lonely.

Recent studies have estimated that up to 32% of adults experience loneliness and up to 7% describe intense feelings of loneliness. To get some sense of the magnitude of those percentages, with the current (2017) U.S. population of over 326 million people, around 142 million may be lonely and around 23 million may be lonely to an intense degree – truly a vast number of suffering souls.

In 2013 The Journal of Psychology devoted its volume 146, issues 1-2 entirely to articles on loneliness that was later produced in book form.[5] It made clear that loneliness is not merely an American problem either as extensive studies have research the growing phenomenon all throughout Europe and in Israel too. The dozens of researchers who contributed to the update in 2013 looked at loneliness from a great many angles from children and teens who are left home alone, to elderly Appalachians with health care issues, to elderly Israelis cared for by foreign caretakers who could not communicate with them in their own language.

Hardly two years after The Journal of Psychology’s special issues devoted to loneliness, Perspectives on Psychological Science ran a special section with a handful of studies on loneliness in its March 2015 edition. Topics ranged from the genetic factors involved in loneliness, the clinical importance of loneliness, loneliness’s impact on mortality, and ways to intervene to overcome loneliness.

Suffice it to say that the once relatively ignored subject of loneliness is clearly among the most important subjects of interest and concern to social scientists and medical practitioners in our time. Anyone at any age anywhere around the world can be subject to loneliness and the numbers are clearly climbing. Clearly every thoughtful, caring person, should ask him- or herself what can be done to stem this tide of loneliness. I would submit as well that he or she should also ask some Stoics! So let’s do just that.

Musonius Rufus: Following a Friend Into Exile

In our opening quotation, Seneca talks of following a friend into exile. His Stoic contemporary, Musonius Rufus, actually did it sometime between AD 60 and 62 when he joined his friend, the respected Stoic and outspoken senator Rubellius Plautus, who had been exiled to Asia Minor by a jealous Nero Caesar, who later sentenced the exiled senator to death. Not long after Musonius returned to Rome, Nero banished him. Many legends accrued surrounding this second Neronian exile. It was said that Nero exposed Musonius to cruelties in prison that would have killed a man without such Stoic fortitude. He was reportedly placed in hard labor, forced to help dig out the canal at the isthmus at Corinth in Greece. Though exiled, Musonius was clearly not alone as people came from far and wide to converse with the philosopher as he carried out his physical labors.

Musonius was later banished to the desolate rock island of Gyara, so dismal that one of Nero’s predecessors, the often cruel-hearted Tiberius Caesar, twice intervened to have people banished to a less hostile place. It was said that the island had no fresh water; yet the resourceful Musonius discovered a fresh-water spring. (Perhaps his experience with the Corinthian canal had made him as an accomplished digger as he was a philosopher!) And even in Gyara his philosophy flourished, as students from all over the Roman Empire sought him out there for his company and counsel, and turned the desolate rock into a mini-Athens or –Rome.

Musonius was able to return to Rome after Nero’s death in AD 68, but in the mid 70s was exiled to Syria by Emperor Vespasian. During that period of exile Musonius formed a friendship with a military tribune who wrote that he loved and admired Musonius when he had acquired great fame of his own as the historian Pliny the Younger.

It is perhaps not surprising that of the remaining fragments of Musonius’ Lectures, the lengthiest is lecture 9 on “Why Exile Is Not Evil.” He asks his hearers whether exile deprives us of water, earth, air, the sun and other planets, or even of human company? Did not Socrates say that the universe is the common fatherland of all men? No one place is the cause of our happiness or unhappiness. As Euripides said,

As all the heavens are open to the eagle’s flight,

So all the earth is for a noble man his fatherland.[6]

Industrious people in exile can find what they need to meet their basic needs and to flourish; and as for the things that matter the most, there is nothing about exile that prevents a person from exercising courage, justice, self-control, wisdom, or any of the virtues that bring honor and benefit to him and those around him. We see many examples of this: for instance, in the exiles of Homer’s Odysseus and of Diogenes of Sinope. Musonius himself reminds his hearers that though an exile himself, no one ever heard him moaning or groaning! Indeed, he repeatedly said such things to himself to make the most good of his exiles.

Now I’ll wager that few readers have experienced loneliness as a result of banishment or exile, but Musonius’ lessons can apply to those of us who might find ourselves separated from friends and family due to relocation to a new neighborhood, city, or even nation, perhaps in pursuit of advanced education or a new job. Musonius informs us that the things that matter the most to a Stoic in living a life of virtue can be practiced anywhere. The world might not flock to us to hear our philosophical musings like they did to Musonius Rufus, but by making the most of our relocation and continuing to practice Stoic virtues we might find that pleasing new networks of social connections and even new close friendships have formed.

Epictetus: The Lame Old Man on the Solace of Solitude

In the first century AD, it seemed that many Caesars believed they rendered philosophers their due by kicking them out of town. Musonius’ greatest student, Epictetus, was no stranger to exile either, when sometime between AD 89 and 95 Domitian exiled all philosophers not only from Rome, but from the entire Italian peninsula. Thereafter, Epictetus established his new base in Nicopolis on the western coast of Greece and was soon accompanied by plenty of students and curious visitors from throughout the empire.

As for lessons from Epictetus relevant to loneliness, I’ll start with his very basic Stoic observation that “What upsets people is not things themselves but their judgments about the things.”[7] Modern psychological researchers define loneliness as some manner of “perceived social isolation” that entails a discrepancy between the relationships one desires and the relationships one has. So then, the experience of loneliness itself is a form of a judgment regarding a deficiency, rather than merely a set of external circumstances. As Epictetus makes clear, (and as Dr. Gregory Sadler makes even clearer for a modern audience[8]), “a man is not forlorn merely because he is alone, any more than a man in the midst of a crowd is necessarily not forlorn.”[9]

Now, an important point Dr. Sadler builds upon is Epictetus’ observation that one need not necessarily be forlorn and distressed even if one actually is alone. Drawing from the thought of Zeus, King of the gods, alone but content at the time one of the periodic “world-conflagrations” when all the other gods and the rest of the world have gone up in smoke for a time, Epictetus explains that the key to finding solace in solitude is to have trained oneself in virtue so that one is at peace with oneself and comfortable in one’s own company. (Sounds a bit like Musonius Rufus working away on his virtues in the midst of his exiles.)

Further, modern research shows that some people mired in significant loneliness acquire maladaptive social cognitions, such as tendencies toward to selectively remember negative social interactions, fear of rejection, and paranoia that can hamper their abilities to form new connections. Indeed, this is why modern cognitive-behavioral therapy (grown from Stoic soils), has been found to be the most effective treatment for loneliness. In a modern meta-analysis of dozens of studies examining interventions for loneliness in the forms of increasing opportunities for social contacts, increasing social support, increasing social skills, or addressing maladaptive social cognitions through cognitive-behavioral therapy, the researchers concluded that “among these four types, interventions designed to address maladaptive social cognition were associated with the largest effect size (mean effect size = -.598).”[10]

I would propose that when one has focused only on things within one’s own control, as Epictetus advises, one will be in a much better position to reach out to others to make new connections without fearing another person’s potential rejection, that being something beyond one’s own control.

I’ll draw just one other concept from Epictetus in relation to loneliness. One of the most common and powerful events that can lead to significant loneliness is the loss of a spouse or other dearly loved family member and friend. Epictetus gave interesting and worthwhile, if not easy, advice in this regard:

With everything that entertains you, is useful, or of which you are fond, remember to say to yourself, beginning with the very least of things, “What is its nature?” If you are fond of a jug, say, “I am fond of a jug: for when it is broken you will not be disturbed. If you kiss your own child or wife, say to yourself that you are kissing a human being; for when it dies you will not be disturbed.[11]

Further:

Never say about anything, ‘I have lost it,’ but instead, ‘I have given it back.’ did your child die? It was given back. Did your wife die? She was given back. . . . as long as he (God, the Giver), gives it, take care of it as something that is not your own, just as travelers treat an inn.”[12]

Bereavement is a normal, natural human phenomenon, but a proper consideration of the nature of things, including our loved ones’ and our own mortality, can keep it from disturbing and paralyzing us as we continue to strive to continue to live lives of virtues and to reach out to others.

Seneca: The Self-Sufficient Still Desire Companions

In his letter 9 (from which our opening quotation was pulled), Seneca considers how a man who is self-sufficient would still desire to have friendships by summarizing three key points:

  1. He posits, like a good Stoic, that a self-sufficient person does not need friendships, but still desires Indeed, he supplies the very graphic example of the loss of a limb or even of one’s eyes through war or some accident. Surely a wise man would prefer to have all his parts, but will still seek maximum happiness with the parts of him that remain. When such a man loses a friend, he bears it with composure.
  2. He agrees with the positions put forward by Aristotle and Cicero, and contrary to Socrates suggestion in Plato’s Lysis, that friendships are not born of need, but rather, of a superabundance of virtue. Here, he explicitly contradicts a saying of Epicurus to the effect that we seek friends to stay by us when we are ill and to help us when we are in need. Seneca proclaims, rather, that we seek friends in order to have someone to sit by when sick and to help when in need. 
  3. Virtue concerns only that which is within our control, and not the happenstance of fortune. Therefore, the man who builds friendships based on virtue, rather than the desire for gain, is immune to the changes and chance happenstance of fortune, and in that sense he remains self-sufficient.

Seneca has been referred to as a “silver tongued” orator and he is known for the bon mots that enrich in his writings. One such phrase appears in letter 9 when Seneca advises Lucilius to replace lost friends with new ones. He offers a phrase that the Stoic philosopher Hecato of Rhodes (c100 BC), declared to be as potent as any witch’s love potion: “If you would be loved, love.” Clearly then, Seneca advises a remedy for forlornness is to reach out and share one’s virtue with others.

The Loneliness-Thwarting Labors of Hierocles

The writings of the 2nd century AD Stoic Hierocles are known to us mainly through a brief fragment of his Elements of Ethics and other fragments in the 5th century compiler Stobaeus’ Florilegium. He writes most engagingly on relationships, including those of between parents and children, and perhaps the most famous element of his thought bears quite directly on modern conceptions of loneliness. In the aforementioned meta-anaylsis of Cacioppo et al., they describe three dimensions of loneliness based on three dimensions of social connection: intimate connectedness, relational connectedness, and collective connectedness.

Intimate connectedness refers to the “up close and personal,” relational connectedness to “wider circle of friends,” and collective connectedness to larger groups such as a professional organization or a parish. They have depicted these three dimensions of loneliness spatial as circles around a person of increasing size: one’s personal space bearing on intimate loneliness consisting of perhaps up to five people, one’s relational space bearing on relational loneliness of perhaps 15-50 people, and one’s collective space, varying by person perhaps within the range of 150-1500 people. One can feel different kinds of loneliness depending on which spaces are perceived to lack desired relationships.

Now, here is where Hierocles comes in. In the preserved fragments describing How We Ought to Conduct Ourselves to Our Kindred, Hierocles describes a series of concentric circles, the first and smallest circumscribing one’s self; the next larger one, one’s parents, siblings, spouse, and children; the next grandparents, aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews; the next remaining relatives, and on to ever widening circles encompassing one’s city, its environs, on to one’s province, one’s nation, and lastly, to all of the world.

Regarding these circles of kinship, he encourages us to become aware of them and of all of their interconnections, striving to conduct ourselves benevolently and lovingly to all within all of the circles, indeed, striving to draw them all in closer to our innermost circle. Apparently, Hierocles would be all for the establishment of Stoic fellowships as a remedy to loneliness, and how wonderful it might be if such smaller circles could expand into ever larger ones.

Marcus Aurelius: Notes to Self on Connecting with Others

Who could be less lonely than the leader of the world’s most extensive empire? Well, there is the old saying that “it’s lonely at the top,” and Marcus Aurelius was definitely at the top in the years he drafted his Meditations from about 170-180 AD. Here was a man on the frozen banks of German rivers surrounded by legions of officers and troops and by hordes of non-Roman “barbarians” on the river’s other side so eager to join them, who would retreat to his tent at night and write notes to himself in the form of exercises to help him live a Stoic life of virtue and not become “Caesarified,” though he indeed bore the titles of Augustus and Caesar. Marcus is sometimes portrayed as a somber, if not melancholic figure, and though certainly introspective by nature, he encouraged himself to stay connected with his fellow man. Indeed, his sense of connectedness and gratitude toward others is made so clear in the first book of his Meditations that it is essentially a litany of praise and thanks to the people who helped form his character. There are many lessons in the Meditations that might help minimize the distress of the lonely, but I’ll zoom in on only one.

Marcus Aurelius gave noble advice we can use to brace ourselves for all manners of responses we may receive from others if we try to reach out to them. He advised that every morning on arising, we should remind ourselves that we are going to encounter, “the busybody, the thankless, the overbearing, the treacherous, the envious, the unneighborly,”[13] which surely rings as true in our day as it did in the second century. Aurelius elaborated that some people act this way because they do not truly understand good and evil, (because of their own “maladaptive social cognition”) we might say, and that we should not be debased or discouraged by their actions. Further, if our own social thinking is on the mark, we will recall that they share the same humanity with us, and we must still value them as kinsmen, placed in the world for cooperation, and not for resentment or avoidance. Such thinking can reduce our tendencies toward anger towards others and hypersensitivity to how others might react unfairly to our kindly overtures intended to establish or nourish connections. If we can anticipate in advance that our friendly gestures might not be reciprocated as we hope, and accept it, we can better muster the courage to reach out anyway.

If I might formulate this in the form of a suggested exercise: Say to yourself at the start of each day, some modification of the wise counsel of the Stoic emperor, perhaps something like the following:

Today I will encounter some lonely person, the bereaved perhaps, the newcomer to this city or to this school or place of work, the person who feels left out even within his or her own family, and this person may ignore me, not look me in the eye, not return my greeting, or treat me with suspicion, but I will remember that such people are my brothers and sisters and God has called us to be there for one another.  Therefore, I will still make some effort to connect with them even in the smallest of ways to lighten the burden of their loneliness.

These are but a few of my own musings on some possible Stoic approaches to loneliness, either one’s own or the loneliness of our loved ones and other fellow inhabitants of earth. I wonder what other suggestions to endure or to conquer loneliness readers might cull from the cornucopia of Stoic writings?

[1] Juliann Holt-Lundstad, Timothy B. Smith, Mark Baker, Tyler Harris, & David Stephenson, Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality: A Meta-Analytic Review, Perspectives on Psychological Sciences, 2015, Vol. 10(2), 236. (In this statistical review of 70 prior studies with a cumulative total of 3,407, 134 mostly middle-aged and elderly adult participants, self-reported significant loneliness increased risk of death by 26%, which was not a statistically significant difference from the increased risk of death from social isolation (29%) or living alone (32%) at follow up an average of seven years later.)

[2] Miller McPherson, Lynn-Smith Lovin, Matthew E. Brashears, Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks over Two Decades, American Sociological Review, 2006, Vol. 71 (June 353-375).

[3] Of a range of 0 to 6 or more close confidants, the modal number is the number of confidants reported by the greatest number of respondents. In other words, by 2004 more people reported they had no close confidants than those who reported either 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6+ confidants, while 3 confidants was the most common response two decades before.

[4] Interested readers can find it online at https://assets.aarp.org/rgcenter/general/loneliness_2010.pdf.

[5] Ami Rokach, ed. Loneliness Updated: Recent Research on Loneliness and how it Affects our Lives, (New York, NY: Routledge, 2013).

[6] Cited in Lutz, 38.

[7] Epictetus, The Handbook of Epictetus, Nicholas P. White, ed., (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Co., 1983), 13.

[8] Because of how I benefited from it, I must credit it and direct readers to Dr. Sadler’s YouTube video Epictetus on Solitude or Forlornness for an excellent summary of this topic: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VMqtn3pQ1Ts.

[9] Epictetus: Discourses Books III–IV, The Encheiridion, trans. W. A. Oldfather (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), Dis. Book III: chapter xiii, p. 87.

[10] Stephanie Caciopio, Angela Grippo, Sarah London, Luc Gossens, & John Cacioppo, Loneliness: Clinical Import and Interventions, Perspectives on Psychological Sciences, 2015, Vol. 10(2), p. 242.

[11] Ibid, Encheiridion, para. 3, p. 487.

[12] Nicholas White, ed., Handbook of Epictetus, para. 11, (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 1983), 14.

[13] Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press), 305.

Kevin Vost, Psy.D., is the author of over a dozen books including The Porch and the Cross: Ancient Stoic Wisdom for Modern Christian Living (Angelico Press, 2016) and The Catholic Guide to Loneliness: How Science and Faith Can Help Us Understand It, Grow From It, and Conquer It (Sophia Institute Press, 2017).