Phobias, Terrorism, and Stoic Fearlessness by William O. Stephens

This post is the transcript of Professor Stephens’ presentation at the STOICON 2017 conference.  A videorecording of the talk will be available in the coming weeks.

My topic today is fear.  My talk divides into four sections.  First, I will present an enormous catalogue of phobias and then interpret them from a Stoic’s perspective.  Second, I will report on the leading causes of death both in the United States and in the world.  Those statistics will allow me to compare the number of deaths due to acts of terrorism since 2001 in the third section.  This comparison, I will argue, sheds light on today’s political rhetoric about terrorism.  I will conclude by explaining how the Stoics use reason to replace fear with the healthy psychological state called caution.  My goal is to show how Stoic thinking can help us strive to achieve fearlessness in our lives.

Myriad Phobias

How many different fears have been named in English?  The online phobia list names more than 530.[1]  Relatively common disorders include fears of the dark, high places, air travel, open places, enclosed spaces, crowds, crossing bridges, darkness, public speaking, fire, needles, thunder, speed, and foreigners.  Rarer objects of fear include bald people, bicycles, children, computers, dirt, heaven, light, long words, new things, old people, paper, string, teenagers, and being at home.  Insects, insect stings, ants, bees, cockroaches, lice, mites, moths, spiders, tapeworms, wasps, worms, microbes, parasites, and germs all have named fears.  So do bulls, horses, dogs, cats, mice, birds, bats, otters, fish, shellfish, frogs, toads, snakes, and sharks.  The fear of animals is zoophobia.  People with paraskavedekatriaphobia fear Friday the 13th.  There are names for the fears of such activities as opening one’s eyes, defecating, bathing, drinking, undressing in front of someone, coitus, crossing the street, going to school, throwing things away, dancing, conversing over dinner, riding in an automobile, being stared at, sitting, walking, being tickled, stooping, stuttering, seeing oneself in a mirror, vomiting, and going to bed.  There are named fears of eyes, hands, chins, beards, belly buttons, knees, hair, rectums, and genitals.  There are names for the fear of each of the colors yellow, red, purple, black, and white, as well as for the fear of colors generally.  There are names for the fear of each of the numbers 4, 5, 8, 13, and 666.

Whether a fear of illness, accidents, injury, fever, heart disease, diabetes, dentists, speed, or pain seems more or less justifiable will vary from person to person.  Bad experiences in childhood no doubt have a lot to do with phobias.  So do genetic predispositions.  But what about fearing fog, ghosts, or being alone?  Or fearing clouds, clothing, or nudity?  Or the fear of blushing, trees, or clowns?  Or the fear of puppets, body odor, or wealth?  What of the fear of dolls, growing bald, or the moon?  Or the fear of clocks or stars or books?  Arachibutyrophobia is the fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of your mouth.  Could one reasonably justify even moderate worry about these things?  To fear beautiful women is to suffer from caligynephobia.  The fear of hearing good news is termed euphobia.  Geliophobes fear laughter.  Hedonophobes fear feeling pleasure.  Ideophobes fear ideas.  Pantophobes fear everything.  The fear of fear itself is phobophobia.

How common are phobias?  According to the American Psychiatric Association, phobias are the most common psychiatric illness among women and the second most common among men. The National Institute of Mental Health suggests that phobias affect approximately 19.2 million U.S. adults.  These phobias typically emerge during childhood or adolescence and continue into adulthood.  They also impact twice as many women as they do men.[2]

There are a number of explanations for why phobias develop, including evolutionary and behavioral theories.  Phobias lead to marked fear and symptoms such as dizziness, nausea, and breathlessness.  In some cases, these symptoms escalate into a full-blown panic attack.

Which phobias are the most common?  The top ten appear to be Arachnophobia (spiders and arachnids), Ophidiophobia (snakes), Acrophobia (heights), Aerophobia (flying), Cynophobia (dogs), Astraphobia (thunder and lightning), Trypanophobia (injections), Sociophobia (social situations), Agoraphobia (open or crowded spaces), and Mysophobia (germs or contamination).

One source reports that the fear of arachnids affects women four times more than it does men (48% women and 12% men).  Another source reports that Arachnophobia affects as many as 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men.  So why are so many people terrified of arachnids?  While there are an estimated 35,000 different spider species, only about a dozen pose any type of real threat to humans.  A common explanation for this and similar animal phobias is that arachnids, insects, snakes, and similar creatures once posed a considerable threat to our ancestors who lacked the medical knowledge and technological tools to treat bites from animals and insects.  Thus, evolution contributed to a predisposition to fear these animals and insects.

Ophidiophobia (fear of snakes) is quite common.  “In a study of 35 snake-fearful participants, however, researchers found that only three of these individuals had ever been bitten by a snake.  The majority of the participants had little or no direct experiences with snakes in any capacity.  Another theory suggests that the fear of snakes and similar animals might arise from an inherent fear of disease and contamination.  Studies have shown that these animals tend to provoke a disgust response, which might explain why snake phobias are so common yet people tend not to exhibit similar phobias of dangerous animals such as lions or bears.”[3]

Acrophobia (the fear of heights) afflicts an estimated 23 million adults.  Aerophobia (the fear of flying) affects an estimated 8 million U.S. adults despite the fact that airplane accidents are actually very uncommon.  About one out of every three people has some level of fear of flying.  Common symptoms associated with aerophobia include trembling, rapid heartbeat, and feeling disoriented.

Cynophobia (the fear of dogs) is often associated with specific personal experiences such as being bitten by a dog during childhood.  Such events can be quite traumatic and can lead to fear responses that last well into adulthood.  Cynophobia can be quite common.  Some estimates suggest that as many as 36 percent of all individuals who seek treatment for a specific phobia have this severe fear of dogs.

Astraphobia (the fear thunder and lightning) is relatively common.  Understandably, astraphobes also tend to develop an excessive preoccupation with tracking weather forecasts.  In some instances, astraphobes may become agoraphobes when they are so afraid of encountering lightning or thunder that they are unable to leave their homes.

Trypanophobia (the fear of injections) is a condition that can sometimes cause people to avoid medical treatments and fear doctors (Iatrophobia).  Estimates suggest that as many as 10 percent of people in the U.S. are trypanophobic.  Sociophobia (fear of social situations) often includes fear of being watched (Scopophobia) or humiliated in front of others.  The most common form of Sociophobia is Glossophobia (fear of public speaking).

Agoraphobia involves a fear of being alone in a situation or place where escape may be difficult.  This type of phobia may include the fear of crowded areas or open spaces.  Agoraphobia usually develops sometime between late-adolescence and mid-30s. The American Psychiatric Association reports that two-thirds of people with agoraphobia are women.

Mysophobia, or the excessive fear of germs and dirt, can lead people to engage in extreme cleaning, compulsive hand-washing, and even avoidance of things or situations perceived as dirty.  In some instances, this phobia may be related to obsessive-compulsive disorder.

We might be tempted to think that our own phobias are reasonable, whereas the phobias of other people are kind of silly.  This temptation to discount the seriousness of phobias that we don’t share with others is probably stronger in the case of especially exotic phobias.  But we should remember that phobias are serious problems for those afflicted by them.  Phobias are debilitating and undermine our capacity to live our lives with a feeling of safety.

How did the Stoics conceive of phobias?  First, the Stoics distinguished between the immediate involuntary physiological response to the appearance of an unwelcome thing and the voluntary, deliberate cognitive judgment that that unwelcome thing is dangerous and bad.  The former the Stoics called propatheia, “pre-emotions” or “proto-passions.”  Examples include being startled and flinching when hearing a sudden loud and unexpected noise.  Shivering when sprinkled with cold water, the feeling of disgust when touching something slimy, the feeling of vertigo caused by heights, hair bristling upon hearing bad news, and blushing at obscene language are other examples Seneca gives of pre-emotions.  Since these physiological responses happen without our consent, we are not responsible for them, according to the Stoics.

But after these proto-passions occur, it is up to us whether we judge the presence of the unwelcome thing as bad.  If we have a few moments to think about it, and then we voluntarily decide that the unwelcome thing is truly bad, then we experience real fear.  But the Stoics insist that a real fear response is the result of a mental judgment we make consciously.  We control our power of assent to the proposition, for example, that “This slimy thing is truly bad and truly scary.”  If we don’t assent to this proposition, then we won’t be afraid.  Thus, the Stoics conceive of fear as the consequence of a voluntary cognitive act, not a brief, involuntary physiological reaction.

The most commonly used therapeutic treatment for phobias is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).  Phobias can be minimized and even eliminated with CBT.  The basic idea of CBT originated with the ancient Stoics.  What did the ancient Stoics regard as the most popular and most troubling fear?  Unsurprisingly, it is the fear death.  Most people today, I expect, believe that the fear of death—called thanatophobia—is very reasonable and quite justified.  So, let’s now look at the top ten causes of death.

The Top Ten Causes of Death

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that in the U.S. in 2013, the leading causes of death were heart disease (611,105), cancer (584,881), chronic lower respiratory diseases (149,205), accidents, i.e. unintentional injuries (130,557), stroke (128,978), Alzheimer’s disease (84,767), diabetes (75,578), influenza and pneumonia (56,979), and nephritis, nephrotic syndrome, and nephrosis (47,112).[4]  Suicides (41,149) outnumbered motor vehicle deaths (32,719),[5] which outnumbered firearm homicides (11,208).[6]

Leading causes of death in the U.S. in 2013 — The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Cause of death Deaths
Heart disease 611,105
Cancer 584,881
Chronic lower respiratory diseases 149,205
Accidents, i.e. unintentional injuries 130,557
Stroke 128,978
Alzheimer’s disease 84,767
Diabetes 75,578
Influenza and pneumonia 56,979
Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome, and nephrosis 47,112
Suicides, i.e. intentional self-harm 41,149
Motor vehicle deaths 32,719
Firearm homicides 11,208

The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that in 2012 the top ten causes of death worldwide were ischemic heart disease (7.4 million), stroke (6.7 Million), chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (3.1 million), lower respiratory infections (3.1 million), lung, trachea, and bronchus cancers (1.6 million), HIV/AIDS (1.5 million), diarrheal diseases (1.5 million), diabetes mellitus (1.5 million), road injuries and car crashes (1.3 million), and hypertensive heart disease (1.1 million).[7]

Top ten causes of death worldwide in 2012 — the World Health Organization (WHO)

Cause of death Deaths
Ischemic heart disease 7.4 million
Stroke 6.7 million
Chronic pulmonary disease 3.1 million
Lower respiratory infections 3.1 million
Lung, trachea, and bronchus cancers 1.6 million
HIV/AIDS 1.5 million
Diarrheal diseases 1.5 million
Diabetes mellitus 1.5 million
Road injuries and car crashes 1.3 million
Hypertensive heart disease 1.1 million

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that about 805 million people of the 7.3 billion people in the world, or one in nine, were suffering from chronic undernourishment in the years 2012 to 2014.  The vast majority of these hungry people live in developing regions.  Approximately 3.1 million children die from hunger each year.[8]  The WHO estimates that there were 627,000 malaria deaths worldwide in 2012, making mosquitos, which also carry the viral infection dengue,[9] the most dangerous animal in the world.

2014 Causes of Death in the U.S. — National Vital Statistics Reports, Vol. 65, No. 5, June 30, 2016

Causes of death Rank Deaths Percent of total deaths
All causes 2,626,418 100.0
Diseases of heart 1 614,348 23.4
Malignant neoplasms 2 591,699 22.5
Chronic lower respiratory diseases 3 147,101 5.6
Accidents (unintentional injuries) 4 136,053 5.2
Cerebrovascular diseases 5 133,103 5.1
Alzheimer’s disease 6 93,541 3.6
Diabetes mellitus 7 76,488 2.9
Influenza and pneumonia 8 55,227 2.1
Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome and nephrosis 9 48,146 1.8
Intentional self-harm (suicide) 10 42,773 1.6
Firearms (inside U.S.) 33,599
Terrorism (inside U.S. and abroad) 32

In 2014, motor-vehicle traffic-related inju­ries resulted in 33,736 deaths, accounting for 16.9% of all accidental (unintentional injury) deaths.  Thus, there is far greater statistical justification for amaxophobia (the fear of riding in a car) than for fearing a terrorist attack.

Terrorism by the Numbers

That brings us to terrorism.  According to the Centre for Research on Globalization, the number of Americans who died worldwide in terrorist attacks in 2013 was eight, whereas the number who died after being struck by lightning was twenty-nine.[10]  This source asserts that the U.S. State Department reports that in 2011 only seventeen U.S. citizens were fatal victims of terrorism worldwide, including in Afghanistan, Iraq, and all other theaters of war.  The Canadian Global Research Centre calculates that Americans are more than 35,079 times more likely to die from heart disease, 33,842 times more likely to die from cancer, and 4,706 times more likely to die from excessive use of alcohol than from a terrorist attack.

In an Oct. 3, 2016 article CNN compares the number of Americans killed by acts of terrorism to the number of Americans killed by gun violence.  Consider the year 2014.  For every one American killed by an act of terror in the United States or abroad in 2014, more than 1,049 died because of guns.  Now consider the period from 2001 to 2014.  Using numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CNN found that from 2001 to 2014, 440,095 people died by firearms on US soil.  (2014 is the most recent year for which the CDC has data for deaths by firearms.)  This data covered all manners of death, including homicide, accident, and suicide.

How does that compare to deaths resulting from acts of terrorism?  According to the U.S. State Department, the number of US citizens killed overseas as a result of incidents of terrorism from 2001 to 2014 was 369Inside the United States CNN found that between 2001 and 2014, 3,043 people were killed in domestic acts of terrorism.[11]  This brings the total to 3,412.

This graph clearly suggests that passing effective gun control laws is far more urgent than the chances of terrorist attacks.

The U.S. State Department Bureau of Counterterrorism compiled statistics displaying terrorism related deaths, injuries, and kidnappings of private U.S. citizens from 2010 through 2015.  Over these six years, the average number of deaths related to terrorism is 17, with as few as 10 in 2012 and as many as 24 in 2014.  The number of injuries related to terrorism during this period is also remarkably low and quite steady—averaging 10.33 per year.  Kidnappings related to terrorism are even less common.

What about other causes of death?  Consider hurricanes.  The New York Times reported on September 1, 2017 that Hurricane Harvey had caused 1,833 deaths.  Obviously, Harvey was far more lethal than all the terrorist attacks worldwide combined over the last year.  Hurricane Irma was the most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the open Atlantic Ocean.  Irma killed between 70 and 80 people in the Caribbean and the southeastern U.S.  The death toll in Puerto Rice from Hurricane Maria is disputed.  Current estimates range from 45 to more than 450.[12]  Hurricane Katrina was responsible for 1,836 fatalities in 2005.[13]  Consequently, the direct and indirect deaths due to this year’s hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria exceed the 2,996 lives lost in the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.[14]

Politicians are notorious for manipulating voters by using rhetoric that plays on their fears.  Media sources routinely report bombings and mass shootings while pundits debate whether each attack is an act of terrorism or not.  But the most common causes of death receive little notice by major media outlets.  Easy to find statistics correct such a distorted accounting of the relative risks of fatality in North America.

How Stoics Replace Fear with Caution

Are Stoics free of all phobias?  Interestingly, the Stoic Epictetus was not.  He confesses to having thalassophobia, the fear of the sea:

Whenever I go to sea, as soon as I gaze down into the depths or look at the waters around me and see no land, I am beside myself, and imagine that if I am wrecked I must swallow all that sea; nor does it once enter my head that three pints are enough. (Disc. ii.16.22)

Similarly, in an earthquake he imagines that the city is going to crash down on him, but realizes that one little stone is enough to knock his brains out (Disc. ii.16.23).  What causes the alarm is not the sea or the earthquake but the judgment that one will be permanently separated from one’s companions, familiar places, and social relations coupled with the false judgment that such separation is evil.  To the contrary, Epictetus argues that it does not matter whether one dies from an accident, through human agency, or even being frightened by a mouse.  Death results from all these many causes, so no one cause of death is scarier than any other.

Where is the hardship when something that was born is destroyed?  The instrument of destruction is either a sword, or a wheel, or the sea, or a tile, or a tyrant.  And what does it matter to you by what way you descend to Hades?  All roads are equal.  But, if you want to hear the truth, the one that a tyrant sends you along is shorter.  No tyrant ever took six months to cut someone’s throat, but a fatal fever often lasts a year.  All these things are meaningless noise and the boasting of empty names. (Disc. ii.6.17-19)

‘All roads to death are equal’ means that they are all equally indifferent because they all lead to the very same destination.  The phrase ‘descent to Hades’ is simply Epictetus’ concession to a popular religious reference to death.  Stoics reject the possibility of an afterlife.[15]  Epictetus defuses the threatening sounding names — decapitation by a sword, being broken on a wheel, etc. — by recasting them as inarticulate noise, mere static hiss from the mouths of non-Stoics who don’t understand death.  They boast about the horrors of various gruesome executions a tyrant could command, but this is vacuous clamor.  All paths to death lead to the same destination, so every manner of death is equally indifferent to a Stoic.

Epictetus thinks that Socrates was wise to call death and all such things that non-Stoics foolishly fear ‘bugbears’ (mormolukeia).

For just as masks seem fearsome and terrible to children because of their inexperience, we are affected in a similar manner by events for much the same reason as children are affected by bugbears.  For what is a child?  Ignorance.  What is a child?  Lack of instruction.  For where a child has knowledge, he is no worse off than we are.  What is death?  A bugbear.  Turn it around and see what it is.  See, it does not bite. (Disc. ii.1.15-17)

Stoics have examined death and understand it, and so they fear it no more than adults who have examined Halloween monster masks and see that there is nothing scary behind them.

Death, Stoics believe, is not what motivates shameful deeds.  Rather, the fear of death drives us to abandon our duties, betray our comrades, and act as cowards in order to save our hides.  Epictetus says: “It is not death or pain that is to be feared, but the fear of pain or death” (Disc. ii.1.13).  In effect, he recommends that we adopt a savvy phobophobia: “If, instead of death or exile, we feared fear itself, we would practice avoiding those things that appear to us to be evil” (Disc. ii.16.19).  So, Epictetus insists that our confidence should be directed toward death, whereas our caution should focus on the false judgment that death is fearful (Disc. ii.1.13-14).

Death cannot rob us of our moral integrity, but fear can when, out of fear, we disgrace ourselves.  Epictetus asks his students:

Will you, then, realize that this epitome of all human evils, and of meanness, and of cowardice is not death, but rather the fear of death?  Against this, then, discipline yourself, toward this let all your reasonings, your exercises, your readings tend, and you will know that only in this way are human beings liberated. (Disc. iii 26.38-39)

Stoics believe that all phobias result from habitually making irrational judgments.  Those who fear death fail to fully understand and accept the fact that all living things are mortal.  For Stoics, death is nothing tragic, nothing shameful, and so nothing evil (Disc. iv.1.42).  Death is not dreadful, according to Stoics.  Only dying shamefully is dreadful.  Epictetus thinks that removing the fear of death removes not only the greatest obstacle to a happy life, it also undermines all lesser fears.

Now one may object that since Stoics think we should try to become totally fearless, this will lead to utter recklessness.  But this objection fails.  The Stoics in fact advise that the proper mental disposition to maintain when facing dangerous circumstances is caution.  The Greek word is eulabeia.  The Stoics advise us always to look before leaping.  We ought to be circumspect, consider our options, and then act with care.  This thoughtful wariness involves no worry, no anxiety, and no fear.  Stoic fearlessness consists in caution, not recklessness.

Stoic thinking about fear can help us in at least three ways.  First, Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy and Cognitive Behavior Therapy, both inspired by Stoic exercises, empower us to rid ourselves of specific phobias.  Second, knowing some facts about likely causes of death can protect us from alarmists whose political rhetoric wildly distorts the dangers of harm from acts of terrorism.  Third, knowing some facts about the diseases that are the leading causes of death may inspire us to healthier eating habits, drinking plenty of water, daily exercise, and getting quality sleep.  Such knowledge could also move us to work to aid those vulnerable to premature death due to poverty.  Stoicism both dispels fallacious appeals to fears about terrorism and sweeps away the phobias that block us from living happily.

[1] http://phobialist.com/.  Accessed 31 May 2017.

[2] https://www.verywell.com/most-common-phobias-4136563 by Kendra Cherry, reviewed by a board-certified physician. Updated April 24, 2017.  Accessed 5 June 2017.

[3] Ibid.

[4] http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/leading-causes-of-death.htm.  Accessed 1 Nov. 2015.

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_motor_vehicle_deaths_in_U.S._by_year.  Accessed 1 Nov. 2015.

[6] http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/homicide.htm.  Accessed 1 Nov. 2015.

[7] http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs310/en/.  Accessed 1 Nov. 2015.

[8] http://www.worldhunger.org/articles/Learn/child_hunger_facts.htm.  Accessed 1 Nov. 2015.

[9] See http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs117/en/.  Accessed 1 Nov. 2015.

[10] http://www.globalresearch.ca/the-terrorism-statistics-every-american-needs-to-hear/5382818.  Accessed 1 Nov. 2015.  The article was first published 19 May 2014.

[11] This includes the following domestic terrorism incidents:

September 11 attacks (NY, DC, PA) 9/11/01

2001 Anthrax attacks (DC, NY, CT, FL) Oct., Nov. 2001

El Al counter shooting (California) 7/4/02

Beltway sniper attacks (DC, Mid-Atlantic) Oct. 2002

Knoxville church shooting (Tennessee) 7/27/08

Pittsburgh police officers killed (Pennsylvania) 4/4/09

Tiller abortion clinic (Kansas) 5/31/09

Holocaust Museum shooting (DC) 6/10/09

Fort Hood shooting (Texas) 11/5/09

Plane crash into Austin IRS building (Texas) 2/18/10

Fort Stewart Army base killing (Georgia) 12/10/11

Sikh Temple Shooting (Wisconsin) 8/7/12

St. John’s Parish police ambush (Louisiana) 8/16/12

Boston Marathon Bombing (Massachusetts) 4/15/13

LAX Shooting (California) 11/05/13

2014 additions:

Overland Park Jewish community center (Kansas) 4/13/14

Isla Vista shooting (California) 5/23/14

Las Vegas shooting (Nevada) 6/8/14

Killing of state trooper in Blooming Grove (Pennsylvania) 9/12/14.

[12] https://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2017/10/11/16424356/puerto-rico-official-hurricane-maria-death-toll.  Accessed 11 Oct. 2017.

[13] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hurricane_Katrina .  Accessed 11 Oct. 2017.

[14] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Casualties_of_the_September_11_attacks .  Accessed 11 Oct. 2017.

[15] See Disc. ii 5.12–13 and iv 7.27; ii 9.1–2, iii 1.25–26, iv 1.104; iv 1.105–110; i 27.7–9; ii 6.11–14; iii 24.94; iii 13.14–15.

William O. Stephens is Professor of Philosophy and Classical Studies at Creighton University. He is also President of the Beta Chapter of Nebraska Phi Beta Kappa Society. He is the author of Marcus Aurelius: A Guide for the PerplexedStoic Ethics: Epictetus and Happiness as Freedom, and The Person: Readings in Human Nature, and the translator of Adolf Bonhöffer’s  The Ethics of the Stoic Epictetus. He has published many articles on such topics as Star Wars and Stoicism, the film Gladiator (2000) and Stoicism, Stoic views of love, death, animals, sportsmanship, travel, and ecology, and on philosophical vegetarianism.

Stoicism and the Statehouse – A Review and Interview with Pat McGeehan by Eric O. Scott

“Becoming something of a majority leader, Cato pressed his conservative optimates to pass a resolution condemning Pompey’s attempt to change election law for his own interest…

“The Stoic leading the statehouse thwarted the conqueror at every turn, using his now-perfected filibuster to kill the populist legislation.  With little room to maneuver, Pompey would try a new approach.”

—Pat McGeehan, Stoicism and the Statehouse, p. 56–7.

 

Try as we might to argue to the contrary, Stoic philosophy has often been stereotyped as a passive and complacent approach to life.  After all, if genuine happiness comes from within, then what motivation do we have to fight for change in the external world?

This view of the philosophy is mistaken for a slew of theoretical reasons, and most admirers of the Roman Stoics can offer some explanation of why action—especially action in the service of the human community—is perfectly in line with Stoic values and principles.

The ultimate rebuttal to our critics, however, can’t be found in theoretical arguments, but only in their application to the details of lived practice.  This is why West Virginia state delegate Pat McGeehan’s new book, Stoicism and the Statehouse: An Old Philosophy Serving a New Idea (Proctorville, OH: Wythe-North Publishing, 2017, 152 pages), is such a welcome addition to the small-but-growing set of books written by active practitioners of contemporary Stoicism.  Here I’ll provide a brief overview of the book, and then we’ll dive into an interview with McGeehan himself.

“The Foundation of Liberty for the Modern World”

McGeehan is a US Air Force veteran and former businessman who represents the northern tip of the West Virginia “panhandle”—a rural area sandwiched snugly between the Ohio river to the west and Pennsylvania to the east.  He views Stoicism as not only a powerful philosophy of personal ethics, but also as a tradition that, through its enduring contributions to various aspects of Western thought, ultimately “laid the foundation of liberty for the modern world” (p. 11).

Throughout the book, McGeehan presents a view of Stoicism that is targeted at people (elected officials in particular) who see gross problems with our social systems as they stand, and who “are willing to do something about it.”  After a brief summary of Stoic principles that emphasizes prosocial action (“duty is at the center of virtue”), the bulk of the book consists of two parts: first, a thrilling (and downright page-turning) narrative covering the life of the Roman senator Cato the Younger, his ethics, and his exploits in defense of the Republic—climaxing with Julius Caesar’s invasion of the capital and the bloody civil war that ensued.  Second, McGeehan offers a series of short pieces of advice personalized for elected politicians. This part of the book draws heavily on the Roman Stoics, and, like the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, is clearly written as much for McGeehan’s personal benefit as for the reader’s.  Here is a taste:

The larger the seat of power, the more vice it attracts.  The capital setting has many allures designed to wine and dine politicians, and give elected officials a false sense of importance.  Extravagant receptions and gourmet food are just the tip of these distractions.  Not only should you abstain from these frivolous entertainments, you should not partake in extracurricular activities beyond your official duty. (p. 105)

Habitually imagine that you will lose your next election, and afterwards, you will return to private life, whereby everyone presently around you will forget your name and perhaps your very being.  Mentally accept this possibility, and be at ease if this event were to unfold.  Recognize that even the longest-serving career politicians will eventually cease to hold office—and in spite of all their years of grappling to hold power, most will have only done so by rejecting virtue. (p. 112)

Sometimes you will win legislative battles, but more often than not, your efforts will not succeed.  Accept the outcome and move on.  Your goal is not the external result, but to do all that is within your own control to achieve it. (p. 118)

Any political book risks losing its audience over ideological disagreements, and McGeehan makes no attempt to hide his team colors: as a committed libertarian (or “liberty lover,” in his terms), he occasionally alludes to his specific political positions throughout the book.  It is within the context of his cause, after all, that McGeehan practices his Stoicism.  That said, none of the core ethical principles discussed in the book are specific to libertarianism, and while he sees Stoicism as deeply congruent with classical liberal ideals, McGeehan stops short of arguing that modern Stoics “must be” libertarians or conservatives.  As a fairly left-leaning progressive myself (by Americans standards, at least), I was still able to find great value in the book, and was able to read with my argumentative defenses more-or-less lowered. 

An Interview with Pat McGeehan

Eric Scott: In your book’s preface, you tell of how the experience of meeting James Stockdale made an impression on you as a cadet at the US Air Force Academy—but you didn’t adopt Stoicism for yourself until much later.  How did you come to start practicing Stoicism?

Pat McGeehan: Admiral Stockdale was probably the closest anyone has come to gaining the status of the Stoic sage in the modern era, and it was a great honor meeting him during my college years as a young cadet. My own actual practice of the Stoic philosophy did not start until my early thirties. I’m a prolific reader, and what free time I have late at night is typically spent working my way through a few books every week, usually on economics and history, but some science, namely in the field of physics.

I’ve always had the most interest in philosophy however, and after I began to research the ancients again in detail, I found much truth in the Stoic school of thought—particularly after studying Epictetus’ Handbook. Some of the practice of Stoicism comes naturally to me, but some parts don’t. Like anything else, the personal discipline the Stoic school of thought teaches requires hard work and daily focus in order to make real progress, but with time and effort, the philosophy has greatly aided my public life in the legislature. And it has helped make me more effective for my constituents while I’m at work under the statehouse. But beyond my capacity as a state representative, it has also greatly improved my personal life, especially when it comes to private relationships with my family.

One example of this progress is patience, which is not something that came naturally to me in the past. I have friends who have joked that an Irish Catholic adopting Stoicism seems like quite the oxymoron. But with the ways of the Stoa, I tend to treat every occasion when perhaps a friend or a family member “pushes my buttons” as an opportunity to exercise the virtue of temperance. So the philosophy has definitely helped foster a great deal of personal patience—and helped eliminate frustration—to the point now that political colleagues will ask during rather tense situations, why I’m not upset over this or that. When confronted with severe irrationality or the emotionally-charged frenzy that others around me at the statehouse often fall into, sometimes I’ll just think back to Admiral Stockdale, or perhaps my own father—an Air Force pilot who was killed in the line of duty—and remind myself that if these men can endure hurricanes, I can weather a little bit of rain. So it pays to persistently read and study, and internalize what you learn, because more knowledge is certainly of great value on a practical level. This practiced knowledge helps preserve stable and rational judgment when faced with people who are sometimes not of sound mind.

Eric: What are some of the local economic or social issues that concern your constituents in the 1st House of Delegates district, or in the Ohio River Valley more broadly?  And how do they impact the way you view your role as an elected representative?

Pat: The Northern Panhandle of West Virginia has traditionally been a heavy manufacturing region of capital goods such as steel, energy sources, and other products used in industry, along with the mass production of pottery. But like other areas of the ‘rust belt,’ many of these industries have been in severe decline over the years. Much of this decay can be directly attributed to disastrous government policies, which over the years, have placed severe restrictions on how and what can be produced, and in what manner. This central planning from the government has also come with heavy taxation, which has had a crushing effect on private business enterprise. Smaller entrepreneurs though find these mammoth obstacles in the market to be nearly insurmountable. Typically only the most politically connected can succeed, and rampant corruption and blatant bribery is yet another common practice within government today. 

Another negative consequence is high unemployment (or underemployment), and large-scale dependency on government for income assistance is now a generational way-of-life—not only in my district in the Northern Panhandle, but throughout the state of West Virginia. With large swaths of the population no longer receiving their sustenance from their own fruits of market-based employment, a whole host of degenerate problems have come about—including meager savings rates, the pervasive consumption of illicit drugs, a break-down of family cohesion, and a broader lack of foresight. In other words, when people no longer have the ability or incentive to support themselves, major life-impacting decisions become short-sighted. For many, this has led to a general loss of real meaning in their personal lives.

So for starters, you must understand the root source of these negative social and economic outcomes. This can only really be done through educating yourself in the ways of economics and history, with a firm comprehension on the classics. After you have gained this knowledge, it must be resolutely applied. Almost nothing is more reprehensible than a man who knows what causes the suffering of so many people, and yet when placed in positions of trust, chooses not to act on what he has learned. Once you arrive at truth, you must pursue it. Only then can you understand what your role as an elected representative must be: no matter the opposition, do your best to reverse the source of destruction by always targeting its cause. This can be a lonely job, because truth is hard for many in power to accept, much less live out. But it’s a job that must be done, even if in the end, success is fleeting at best.

Eric: One of the ways you apply Stoicism in the book is as a means of coping with being an advocate of an unpopular political ideology, whose members often receive derogatory remarks from critics. If there was one misunderstanding about liberty lovers that you would like to address for the readers of Stoicism Today, what would it be?

Pat: There are only two general methods for men and women to socially interact with each other. One is by persuasion and voluntary cooperation. The other is by aggression and force. ‘Right reason’ dictates that of these two methods, the former is the moral choice—and with it, the path leading to increased peace and prosperity. A lover of liberty is really then just a lover of morality, and simply recognizes that voluntary cooperation is the source of civilization—and that the initiation of coercion and aggression is a digression from it.

In civilized society, violence must only be tolerated in defense of life and property. And I believe most people already recognize this as something more or less obvious. Hence, the most basic crimes of murder and theft have been everywhere in the West prohibited, and legitimately recognized in society as criminal, even in the absence of the actual man-made laws prohibiting them. But more than this, a lover of liberty also understands and applies this universal principle not just to private citizens, but to government leaders as well. In other words, what is wrong for private citizens to do must also be wrong for government officials to commit.

Some of my colleagues at the Capitol will freely admit that it would be criminal if they were to take a man’s wallet in the parking lot of the Statehouse. Yet when they put on a suit and tie, walk into a big marble building, and cast a vote to do the same thing, this act of taking a man’s property suddenly becomes not only accepted practice, but some sort of noble public service. How absurd. So a lover of liberty simply lives life by the basic golden rule, levying the “Non-Aggression Principle” universally, regardless of any titles or status an individual might hold. After all, civilization was not built by pirates, thieves, and vandals. So replacing these names with the label “politician” does not change initiating the aggressive act of expropriation. When the law no longer reflects the defense of life and property, the law itself becomes the crime—and the lawmaker becomes the criminal.

Two millennia of developed Western thought support these political conclusions, using the most rudimentary logical elements of classical philosophy—such as the laws of non-contradiction, identity, and the excluded middle, along with the subset principles of universal application and reciprocity. But the Stoic school itself has much to tell both the liberty lover and those who somewhat naively cling to socialist-styled politics, for it is with the Stoics that major breakthroughs in political thoughts toward liberty were achieved.

Following the decline of the Greek polis, the Stoics essentially shattered the collectivist mental chains tying down Plato’s and Aristotle’s statist political theories, as the Stoics posited key contributions such as the notion of self-ownership, the individual’s access to universal reason, and concepts centered on the moral rights to private property. Perhaps most importantly though was their overarching formation of natural law—which serves as the underpinning for political liberty and Western civilization in general. One of the hugely-important implications from their advancement of natural law—or the just and moral law which the individual can discover from his own ‘right reason’—is that for the first time, man-made positive laws could and should be critiqued from concrete ethical standards immune to time and place.

In fact, an important and often overlooked affinity subsists between the Stoics and the later Enlightenment thinkers of the Lockean tradition. To quote from a passage of Cicero’s On Duties, “Governments were primarily instituted with a view to the preservation of private property.” Cicero’s political justice here was certainly influenced directly by the Stoic philosopher Panaetius (and for a thorough affirmation of these points, and the Stoic ethical conception of private property, see A.A. Long’s essay: “Stoic philosophers on persons, property-ownership, and community” found in his work From Epicurus to Epictetus).

For newcomers to the political philosophy of liberty, or those who may casually dismiss it out of hand, I believe one rather easy truth should be considered: virtuous men and women of character do not seek to gain increased centralized power. The sage does not long for the power of coercion over others; he abdicates it. And for every Marcus Aurelius that may come along, a thousand more men like Commodus always stand ready to fill his place. This is the lesson of history, and all one has to do is to imagine their worst menace of an enemy or the most sinister individual they may know…and then ask themselves: would you willingly give this kind of person power over your life? Over the lives of your family? Over the lives of millions? Because when such political power exists, that is exactly the type of person who will seek it…and typically achieve it.

Eric: You are clearly an admirer of Cato.  But of the four Roman Stoics whose writings survive (Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius), do you have a personal favorite?  Is there one that you think has especially relevant things to say for people engaged in public service?

Pat: My personal go-to Stoic for counsel is Epictetus. Although his advice is certainly beneficial to anyone, I find it very useful as an elected representative. Politics has become exceptionally vile and malicious and part of this stems precisely from the largesse of the State itself. Because the size and scope of governments have grown at a staggering pace in recent years, government has unfortunately become much more “important” in society—and has politicized nearly every facet of life. Since institutionalized government ultimately represents coercion backed by physical violence, its growth inherently generates hate and resentment by the many partaking and affected by it. And since the Statehouse is the center of this mammoth modern government, these negative emotions are often manifested to extreme levels in many more people. 

For this reason alone, Epictetus comes in very handy. Sticking close to his counsel preserves sound judgment and prevents reciprocating these negative emotions others frequently form and act on. And for someone like myself, who must often be a lone voice of dissent (or represent a minority view under the dome of the Capitol), hostility and incredibly maddening attitudes from others will often come my way. Maintaining your position while preventing the generation of negative emotions is very critical. Otherwise, you can lose your cool or your nerve, and the loss of either can detrimentally interfere with your duty to First Principles and your service to your constituents from your district back at home.

Of the ancient Stoics, I will say my least preferred is Seneca. His writing is superb, and out of the four Stoics mentioned, his material on hand today is of course the most abundant which has survived the centuries. But his actual life and his written philosophy suggest a contradiction that I personally find difficult to reconcile—but with that, I hold and limit criticism.

Eric: As you note in the book, Cato has often been accused of exacerbating the conflict in Rome through a stubborn unwillingness to compromise with his opponents.  Could you say a word about why this criticism misses the mark, and why you think Cato’s actions were on the whole reasonable and well-warranted?

Pat: Accusing Cato for Rome’s civil wars is akin to blaming a spark that sets a blaze a wild fire which burns down a dried-out forest after a long drought. The forest is vulnerable to the slightest bit of heat or the tiniest flame, but the forest fire is only made possible from the kindling and deadwood that has piled-up. In Rome during the first century BC, the political deadwood came about from decades of populist empire-building and massive agitation for domestic welfarism. Cato’s attempt to reverse this course and restore the Republic may have been a losing cause all along, but I think many historians critical of his actions make this assumption too lightly—and then in hindsight, point to the spark but miss the deadwood.

Cato the Younger was a man of uncommon integrity. He faced extraordinary circumstances and did so with unwavering commitment. Though the politics of the late Roman Republic cannot be directly compared to those of the modern era, there are some parallels that can be pulled out. During his lifetime, political havoc and extreme turmoil was on the rise—institutionalized corruption, the spread of domestic welfarism, violent mob-rule politics, sanctioned assassinations, and the growing warfare state. On the other side of these radical norms was Cato. No matter the chaotic adversity, he stayed the course of his convictions. He was an opponent to the very forces that would eventually bring down Roman civilization…or for that matter, forces that would bring destruction to any civilization. He may not have fully recognized the laws of the cosmopolitan citizen—or the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God”—but he seems to have certainly acknowledged that much of the driving causes behind the political upheaval did not fit with these Stoic ideals. This was definitely the case with his opposition to one-man rule. It’s a bit disappointing that he has fallen off the educational radar, because we can glean a great deal of relevant political and personal matters from Cato’s moral life and legacy.

By Cato’s lifetime, the faction of populares within Roman politics had already successfully established two powerful constituencies: the urban plebs and the professional legionaries, both of which were more-or-less used by populist-leaning leaders within Rome as a wider base to achieve political power. The plebs were promised free grain and entertainment, while the legions—formed into permanent standing armies—were guaranteed entitlements to new property and loot from Rome’s ever-expanding wars of conquest.

As stressed, Cato stood against these political forces, which would not only prove to wreck the Roman Republic, but in the long run, ruin the Roman way of life itself. While his uncompromising nature takes criticism, I think if there was any hope of reversing course from these disastrous and chaotic results—it would have been through leaders who were uncompromising on such principled ends.

And in spite of his losing cause in the end, the sources indicate he was still very effective, and that his effectiveness stemmed precisely from his uncompromising character. In a way, he was something of an enigma. Cato had no large physical stature to speak of. He served in the army, but not for long, and definitely never realized grand military achievements next to say Pompey’s or Caesar’s. He was bright but as far as we know, never penned philosophy in the fashion of Cicero or shared his talent for elegant public speaking. He was left an inheritance, but he was certainly not wealthy in the same sense as say Crassus. By all accounts, his rivals and contemporaries held considerable advantages, yet they admired Cato. Cicero certainly did. Even Caesar gives him subtle praise in his memoirs.

Cato had the force of personality and conviction, and this by itself is what persuaded other men to listen and so often follow his lead—even down the most consequential paths. Acting on genuine convictions can be praiseworthy, especially when they are true yet remain unpopular.

Adherence to philosophy draws ridicule. Just as adherence to political First Principles. Many modern politicians have abandoned these First Principles of classical Western thought in favor of centralized power. And the “virtue of compromise” often helps to mask or conceal this trend towards accumulating political power at the expense of individual liberty—and the disposal of the natural laws of life and property.

Of course, Cato was human and he had his flaws. But I do find it peculiar that his life and the important lessons he can offer have been sidelined by historians, who so often favor Julius Caesar—and not just the study of Caesar, but the outright worship of the Roman dictator. While I was doing my research for the book, I came across news of an archaeological dig in the Netherlands, which in 2015, uncovered a mass burial site containing a large number of skeletal remains—concluding it was indeed the remnants of Caesar’s genocide against Germanic and Celtic tribes in 55 BC during his Gallic wars. In spite of their request for asylum, Caesar slaughtered them anyway, his legions cutting down upwards of a quarter million—including women and children (described by Caesar himself in Book IV of his memoirs On the Gallic Wars).

Caesar’s ruthless and brutal actions were vocally denounced by Cato, even in spite of Caesar’s growing public adoration. But moreover, Cato’s performance and actions are often demanded by the Stoic practice. Stoicism centers around exercising the virtues, and a major feature of virtue itself is truth. Determining the truth, telling the truth, pursuing the truth, living the truth. And one of the defining elements of truth is pureness. The Stoics of course advocated for making progress toward this truth, toward the ideal goal of the sage—and although this is quite possibly unattainable, it was always the high bar that was set. The Stoic sage represents the epitome of character—and this character is uncompromising, for by nature, the sage is completely pure.

To criticize Cato the Younger on the grounds of purity, or his uncompromising character, is in a way, damning the Stoic philosophy itself. Obviously I reject these arguments, as they can generally be a go-to tactic heard from the modern-day Caesars of the world—who cater to the legions and the plebs, promising hand-outs or security against nonexistent threats. So they are nothing new, and the twenty-first century populists that dominate political discourse frequently use the same false premise to shame those who would remain faithful to classical principles. They discredit the adherence to First Principles as a nuisance to an agenda, and in doing so, they have in a way reversed or redefined the long-standing meaning of Western virtue. For compromise by itself is not praiseworthy. Compromise can sometimes be involved in virtuous intentions and actions, but compromise can never stand as a virtue alone, especially if it means the sacrifice of principle.

In any regard, more detailed answers to Cato’s less-than-impartial historical treatment are offered in my book—but whose character should be morally praised? What qualities should be revered? A consistent Stoic who refused to waver in the face of popular and sometimes violent public opposition? Or Julius Caesar…a man whose lust for power and glory embraced atrocity and war crimes?

Eric: Maintaining personal integrity by avoiding ethical compromise is a major theme of Stoicism and the Statehouse.  You suggest that officials should “make it your rule of thumb never to trade votes, else you end up trading your integrity” (p. 103).  But you also acknowledge that not every political disagreement is equally grave, and that “the initiation of war calls for a different response than new regulations over lemonade stands” (p. 116).

In general, how can an ethical legislator determine when to draw a proverbial line in the sand (like Cato so often did), and when to be more congenial toward those he or she disagrees with?

Pat: Transgressions are not equally detrimental or decadent. Scale, type, and magnitude matter, and this determination must ultimately rest with good judgment (based in the Western ethic of proportionality). Sometimes you must pick and choose your fights as well, because the individual has limited resources of time and energy. But it is important to recognize that the modern State will tend towards always committing transgressions—or violations of life and property. Some will be relatively minor, while others will be grossly damaging and immoral.

The point alluded to in my book: never vote for these infractions, even when they are less than severe. Because no matter how minor or trivial, casting a favorable vote for the infraction still sanctions a transgression. Once this is done, you harm your own integrity. This is your first duty as a legislator, if you are “to thine own self be true.” But it’s important to recognize distinctions, because if the stakes are high, duty can call for much more action than simply casting a vote. You may have to speak at length in opposition, in front of your peers and the media. You may have to use the parliamentary rules to obstruct and derail the unjust legislation confronting you. Or you may even have to filibuster as long as your body can withstand the physical exertion this would demand.

None of this should be taken as less than congenial towards any of your colleagues. For you should always remain a gentleman, leave personalities out of your debate, and focus around the ideas in play. Others though will likely not take your actions impersonally. But this cannot influence you. Their perception or reactions must remain indifferent to your judgment and decisions. Too many politicians believe that their colleagues or friends at the Capitol should come first. Principles must come first, and these principles serve your constituents best…and this is where your service and reverence must always be placed. Not with politicians and lobbyists. But with strict, rational judgment derived from “right reason.”

Eric: Do you think that tactical voting by regular citizens suffers from similar moral problems as vote-trading among legislators?  Should we sometimes be willing to vote for a candidate that supports a policy we believe is harmful, or does that contradict virtue?

Pat: Really the problem today is that the average citizen has no authentic choice available at the ballot box. Time and again, the choices presented between the two major parties are merely an illusion. The rhetoric may be different, but the outcomes are typically the same. This again is just a symptom of the rise and growth of government’s role in society. Of course, pundits and bureaucrats will claim there are huge differences between the two major parties in the United States. Perhaps there can be a distinction, but not really a difference. Take for instance recent debates over the federal budget. One side basically wants government spending set at trillions of dollars a year. The other wants to spend trillions a year also, but maybe trillions minus one. So much of what goes on in modern politics is simply theater.

As for “tactical voting,” there’s nothing greatly wrong with the practice. It can be beneficial in some ways, and there’s nothing wrong with incremental progress in the right direction. However, there can be a danger in becoming accustomed to the immoral status quo, and complacency can set in. So we should constantly remind ourselves of the source of the underlying problem…and continually educate on First Principles and the destructive source diminishing them. And always stand ready to take more sweeping action if such opportunities present themselves. This is what Stoic duty, when properly-understood, would require.

Eric: You allude many times in the book to your opposition to unnecessary wars and military intervention.  Do you see a connection between these principles and Stoic teachings on, say, cosmopolitanism?  And how do you understand the duties of individual soldiers and officers, such as yourself and Cato, in a world where wars are so often waged for unjust reasons?

Pat: Certainly natural law from the Stoics extends to just and unjust wars. And this is in part from their formulation of the “cosmopolitan citizen.” But moreover, no action the State commits is quite as horrid or atrocious as the initiation of war—and war is certainly the health of the State. War though really falls into one of the most heinous transgressions of natural law—as it often represents the mass destruction of life and property. Murder is typically regarded as a higher crime than theft—as one is “stealing” a man’s entire existence. Unjust offensive wars should be plainly regarded as the sanction of wholesale institutionalized murder. However, men and women in the armed forces are often stuck in risky situations with very difficult decisions. It is the officer’s duty to lead the men and women charged underneath them to follow a moral code first, defending the lives of their subordinates, but also realizing—and possibly refusing—the existence and issuance of unlawful orders.

Ultimately though, the blame must always fall at the feet of politicians. For people do not go to war—governments do. We must realize the built-in incentive the military brass has to push more spending, more conflict, more weaponry…regardless of cost or practical utility in defense. And then realize the uncanny ease and acceptance larger militaries have with being wielded, not as a last resort, but as a first resort—because when an ever-increasing armed force stationed around the world persists, it will tend to be used, regardless of whether such use is justified or needed.

Rome’s military expansion helped bring its civilization to an end. Maybe we should learn a bit from such lessons. Just as Cato warned of the inherent corrupt nature prevalent in larger and larger standing armies, we should also be mindful of such truths. And we don’t have to look to an ancient Roman senator for this prudence. All we really have to do is look back on words from our own country’s founders who were also extremely wary of permanent standing armies. As Thomas Jefferson proclaimed: “Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations—entangling alliances with none.”

Eric: The book says a lot about the vices of compromise, but remains largely silent on the topic of other conflict resolution skills—such as listening carefully to one’s opponents, putting yourself in others’ shoes, building common ground, or engaging the best versions of your opponents criticisms (i.e. the principle of charity).  Do you see a significant role for these “softer” skills in modern politics?  And do you think Stoicism has lessons to teach us about these forms of conflict resolution?

Pat: You should always attempt to understand others. This is part of exercising virtue, and giving others the benefit of the doubt on their intentions is proper Stoic conduct. The book focuses on vices found in political compromise though, largely because this continued compromise of principle is responsible for the grave situation our country confronts now—the fiscal nightmare of debt, the debasement of the dollar, the insanity of entitlement spending, and the continued immoral wars and conflicts killing thousands of innocents abroad.

Decades of this type of compromise, where each party or side receives more government-spending perks and privileges (a feature which has also trumped upholding constitutional restraints) has directly placed the nation in today’s horrid predicament. But generally speaking, always seek to find common ground with others. Form coalitions around these common areas and great progress can be achieved. There is a fundamental difference though between compromise and coalition. The latter does not sacrifice principle. It advances principle. This cannot be said of the former, which often sacrifices not only political principle, but personal integrity.

 

Eric “Siggy” Scott manages the Stoics for Justice group on Facebook and writes the blog Euthyphroria. He is especially interested in the interactions among Stoic practice, personal social engagement, and social justice advocacy. In real life, he is a PhD student in computer science at George Mason University, where he does research on machine learning and evolutionary algorithms.

Stoicon Starts Today – Stoic Week In Two Days!

As this post goes out today, we are gathered in Toronto for Stoicon 2017! About 400 people are expected to participate, here to listen to talks and participate in workshops delivered by fifteen speakers on all manner of things Stoic.  The conference theme this year is Stoicism at Work, so quite a few of the talks and workshops focus on that aspect.

Stoicon is also a great opportunity to meet and network with people from all over the world interested in Stoicism.  Representatives from a number of the member organizations of the Stoic Fellowship will be there.  Many podcasters, bloggers, video producers, and other content producers who focus on Stoicism will be attending as well.  I can attest, from the experience of last year’s Stoicon in New York City, that you can easily spend the entire day between the talks and workshops, on the one hand, and in conversation after conversation, on the other hand!

If you wanted to go to Stoicon, but weren’t able to, don’t worry overmuch about missing out.  We have plans to videorecord all of the plenary talks, and some of the breakout sessions will be recorded as well (you know mine will – in my main YouTube channel).  I’m also asking each of the presenters to contribute a guest post covering their talk or workshop, which we will publish later on in Stoicism Today.

Keep in mind as well that there are also a number of Stoicon-Xs this year, as well as a number of events all over the world during Stoic Week itself – check out the list below!

And that brings up . . . Stoic Week itself.  If you haven’t already enrolled in the free online Stoic Week course, here’s the link.  This is a chance to “live like a Stoic” (the original title, years back) for a week, applying Stoic practices, engaging in exercises, studying passages from Stoic texts, and having conversations with others (if you like) about each day’s activities.  Even if you’ve gone through it previously, it’s a great opportunity to give your Stoicism a “tune-up” – I do it every year myself!

Stoic Week starts this Monday, October 16, and runs to the following Sunday, October 22.  Check out the free course – this year’s theme is particularly timely – “Self-Renewal”.

Stoic Week Events Coming Up:

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

Monday-Friday October 16-20 (four days), 5:00 PM – Poughkeepsie, USA – Marist College will kick off Stoic Week with a talk by Brendon Boldt, followed on subsequent days by a Stoic Walk with Mr. Boldt and Prof. James Snyder, a Stoic Meditation session, and a Wrap-Up session with Mr. Boldt and Prof. Snyder,   Contact Brendon Boldt for more information.

Monday 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.

Monday October 16-20 (each day), 6:00 AM – Slippery Rock, USA – Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania will be hosting its third annual “Live Like a Stoic for a Week” morning activities  This event is open to the public. Contact Dr. Andrew M. Winters for more information.

Monday October 16, 7:00 PM – Toronto, Canada – The Stoic Circle will be meeting for their inaugeral session as a guild of Stoic practitioners.  They will also be kicking off Stoic Week together.  Full details available here.

Tuesday 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.” Full details available here.

Tuesday October 17, 5:00 and 7:00 PM- Differdange, Luxembourg – Miami University Dolibois European Center is hosting two events on the same evening. Brian Domino will lead a discussion about Stoicism and school work, and Stoicism and Work in general. Full details available here.

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

Wednesday October 18, 7:30 PM – Chicago, USA – New Acropolis Chicago will be hosting a second talk, by Gil Sommer, “Can We Trust Our Feelings?”  Full details available here.

Thursday October 19, 6:00 PM – Milwaukee, USA – The MKE Stoic Fellowship will be hosting a Stoic Week event.  It will be a facilitated discussion, led by Greg Sadler, Andi Sciacca, and Shaun Miller.  Full details available here.

Friday October 20, 6:30 PM -Altamonte Springs, USA – The Orlando Stoics will be hosting a special meeting to celebrate Stoic Week, meeting at the Altamonte Drive Panera Bread.  They will be discussing excerpts from contemporary Stoic literature.  Full details available here.

Saturday October 21st, 2:00- San Leandro, USA –  The Redwood Stoa will be hosting a Stoicon-X event at the Hayward Weekes Branch Library, Hayward, California in the John and Alice Pappas Room.  Organized by James Kostecka. Admission is free for this event, and details are available here.

Saturday October 21st, 10:00 AM – London, Great Britain –  This Stoicon-X event 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. Organized by Dr. John Sellars  Tickets and full information available here.

Sunday October 22, 5:00 PM – New York, USA – The New York City Stoics will be hosting a Stoic Week Wrapup at the Onassis Cultural Center.  Full details available here.

Sunday October 22, 3 PM – London, Great Britain – The London Stoics will be meeting at Royal Festival Hall to discuss Book 2 of Epictetus’ Discourses and to follow up about the London Stoicon-X.  Full details available here.

Stoic Week Meditations – In English and French

Stoic Week is coming up in just a matter of days – it starts Monday, October 16 – and this year we are expecting to have even more people enrolling than in previous years!  (If you haven’t already enrolled in the free online course, here is where you can do so)

Thanks to the thought, time, and labor of Donald Robertson, we have an entire set of Mp3 files of Stoic meditations and exercises that you can download, listen to, and use throughout the week.  This time around, thanks to all the translation and recording work of Jerome Ravenet, we now also have these meditations and exercises available in French.

Here are the meditations and exercises, in English, read by Donald Robertson, available as MP3s

Here are the meditations and exercises in French, read  by Jerome Ravenet, and are available as Mp4 files, hosted in YouTube

Two Types of Stoic Therapy? by John Sellars

When we started Stoicism Today back in 2012, we began with two aims: i) to see if we could test the efficacy of Stoic practices and exercises reported by Roman Stoics such as Marcus Aurelius and Seneca, and ii) to introduce Stoicism to a much wider audience. The two aims went hand in hand – to test the efficacy meant getting lots of people to try them out – and Stoic Week was born with these twin aims in mind.

Along the way the project has inevitably evolved and has become something of a hub for people who draw on Stoicism in their daily lives, whether they have been inspired by Stoic Week or had already discovered Stoicism on their own. Some of these consciously identify as ‘modern Stoics’, although many others do not. Some embrace a good part of Stoic philosophy while others might just take away the bits and pieces that they find helpful.

This raises an issue that I have found interesting right from the outset of the project: the relationship between the various bits of practical advice that we find in the Roman Stoics and Stoic philosophy proper. What’s the relationship between the two? A common objection that was made by some sceptical observers when the project began can be set out like this:

  1. Stoic advice either does or does not depend on Stoic philosophy.
  2. If it does, then it involves accepting a series of philosophical claims that are either outdated (e.g. providence) or unattractive (e.g. indifference of externals when applied to other people). (And note that this objection is taken to be much stronger if one thinks that Stoic ethics depends on Stoic physics.)
  3. If it does not, then there is nothing especially Stoic about this so-called ‘Stoic advice’.

It is far from unfair to say that much of the advice that Seneca or Marcus Aurelius offer – including many things that we include within Stoic Week – is simply good common sense that has nothing especially Stoic about it. When Seneca recommends that we review our day before going to bed, for instance, he offers good advice, but it’s not obvious that this bears any relation to specifically Stoic ideas. There’s no reason why someone completely dismissive of Stoicism could not do this and benefit from it. The genuinely Stoic advice is the stuff that presupposes explicitly Stoic philosophical ideas – the rejection of emotions, indifference towards externals, divine providence – and, so the objectors claim, this is the stuff that is much harder to sell.

I can’t tackle all the issues raised by this here, but what I do want to do is to suggest that perhaps the ancient Stoics were themselves well aware that much of the advice they offered was not narrowly Stoic. It was ‘Stoic advice’ in the sense that it came from a Stoic, but not ‘Stoic advice’ in the sense that it necessarily presupposed core ideas of Stoic philosophy. In order to do this, we shall need to go back well before the Roman Stoics; we need to go back to Chrysippus.

Chrysippus was the most important of the earlier Athenian Stoics. He was a pupil of his predecessor as head of the school, Cleanthes. Now, Cleanthes outlined what we now think of as the standard Stoic view, namely that the way to offer therapy for negative emotions is to challenge the value judgements that underpin them (see Cicero, Tusculan Dispitations. 3.76). But Chrysippus appears to have doubted this, primarily because it is difficult to reason with someone when they are in the midst of emotional turmoil. Instead, he seems to have offered two different types of therapy for the emotions.

The first type was immediate help for emotional disturbance, and Chrysippus is reported to have said that he could help anyone currently suffering emotional turmoil, even people with little interest in Stoic philosophy. In one source, we find Chrysippus prepared to offer emotional therapy to Peripatetics and Epicureans in the grip of an emotion, even though he knows they are unlikely to accept any Stoic ideas. However, this first type of therapy does not involve that sort of philosophical argument, again because someone in the grip of a powerful emotion (or passion) is unlikely to listen to reason. Chrysippus wrote:

The man who is troubled by passion should not worry about the doctrine which has gained possession of his mind at the moment when the passions are at their height, lest somehow he should be concerned at the wrong moment with the refutation of the doctrines that have gained possession of his soul, and possibility of cure is lost. (Origen, Contra Cels. 8.51)

Instead, says Chrysippus, they ought to be offered therapy consistent with the beliefs that they already hold:

If pleasure is an ultimate value, men should try to heal their passions assuming this to be correct; and supposing that there are three kinds of good, it is just as true to say that people who are entangled with their passions ought to be delivered from them by following this principle. (Origen, Contra Cels. 1.64)

Precisely what forms this first type of therapy took, we do not know, but Cicero suggests that the focus may have been on offering arguments about the inappropriateness of an excessive emotional response (Tusc. 3.76). One can also imagine the sorts of visualization techniques described by later Roman Stoics, such as adopting a ‘view from above’. All of these things might offer immediate respite for someone in the midst of an emotional crisis, whether they share Chrysippus’s own philosophical views or not.

The second type of therapy for the emotions is quite different. This is aimed at avoiding emotions altogether, and involves a philosophical analysis of the judgements that generate the beliefs that create the emotions in the first place. As Chrysippus noted, this sort of analysis can hardly be done when someone is in the grip of an emotion, and must wait until the immediate disturbance has passed.

This second type of therapy, unlike the first, draws explicitly on central claims in Stoic philosophy, most notably their theory of value and their psychology, and potentially much of their physics and theology as well. Once the emotionally disturbed Peripatetic or Epicurean has calmed down, Chrysippus will try to show them with philosophical arguments that the real cause of their emotional disturbance was the mistaken values that they hold, and that the only way to avoid suffering such emotions in the future is to adopt the Stoic theory of value. This second type of explicitly philosophical therapy will ultimately help only those who are prepared to accept some of the central ideas of Stoic philosophy.

The first type of therapy has been called ‘first aid’, while the second has often been compared to modern cognitive psychotherapy. While the latter is what we might call ‘narrowly Stoic’, built on ideas in Stoic philosophy, the former is not, and yet it still appears to have been a key part of Chrysippus’s set of therapeutic strategies. Although in some ways ‘less Stoic’, as Chrysippus’s own comments make clear this first type of therapy is absolutely essential when confronting people in emotional distress. First the symptoms must be attended to, before it is possible to start addressing the causes.

I think this might help to explain why later Roman Stoics offer a wide range of advice that, on the face of it, might not seem especially Stoic. All of the good common-sense advice that they offer may not explicitly draw on ideas in Stoic philosophy, but nevertheless it can still be seen as part of a consciously Stoic therapeutic plan. It may be that some modern readers will find this Stoic ‘first aid’ quite helpful, but be less convinced by the narrowly Stoic remedies proposed in the second type of therapy. I see no problem with that at all, if people struggling with difficulties have gained some benefit. But, of course, I think that the second type of therapy also has much to recommend it, and is well worth putting to the test. Stoic Week is an opportunity to try out both.

 

John Sellars teaches Philosophy at Royal Holloway, University of London. He is the author of The Art of Living and Stoicism, and the editor of The Routledge Handbook of the Stoic Tradition. His next book, Hellenistic Philosophy, is due out in 2018 with Oxford University Press.

What Is Modern Stoicism? – Additional Reflections from Sellars and Sadler

A little over two months back, we published a Symposium on Modern Stoicism, a piece in which seven of the members of the Modern Stoicism steering committee weighed in on several questions.  The first of those is:  “what does Modern Stoicism mean?”  Following up on those are several others:
  • what modern Stoicism includes
  • what (if anything) it excludes
  • how it differs from “traditional Stoicism” (if one thinks it does)

As editor, I refrained from providing my own take on these matters in the original piece, thinking that we already had quite a number of very interesting views expressed.  One of the other members of the organization, someone who was involved from the start, and has made numerous contributions to contemporary understanding of Stoicism – John Sellars – also refrained from that “first round” of discussion, but later sent me a short write-up of his own thinking on the matter.

In the interests of continuing the discussion of what many think to be a very important and contested question – what is “modern Stoicism” – below you will find John Sellars’ contribution to that, followed by my own.

John Sellars

I don’t particularly like the label ‘Modern Stoicism’. It’s fine as a title for this website (as an equivalent for the previous title ‘Stoicism Today’). But I find the notion of Modern Stoicism understood as an updated version of ancient Stoicism unhelpful, and in some ways quite concerning.

Why? Stoicism was a philosophy, not a religious movement. There was never, so far as I can tell, a fixed, monolithic set of Stoic beliefs to which every self-describing ancient Stoic committed themselves. To be sure, there was plenty of common ground, but one can find leading ancient Stoics rejecting many key doctrines, and yet remaining Stoics. In other words, they all thought for themselves, and didn’t feel bound by a fixed belief system.

So, in the spirit of ancient Stoicism itself, I think the last thing one should do is try to update or amend ancient Stoicism (if there ever was such a single thing) in order to come up with a set of beliefs that might be attractive to people today. I think it is, in many ways, a virtue that some aspects of ancient Stoicism now seem implausible (e.g. in physical theory), because this helps us to maintain a critical distance from the material, and encourages us to think more carefully about what we think is cogent, what is not, and how these might be related to one another.

I think that one of the attractive things about the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius is that we can see him doing this himself in his own reflections on various Stoic ideas. Unlike the much earlier Stoics in Athens, Marcus was never a member of a formal Stoic community; he simply self-identified as a Stoic after having read books by Stoic authors whom he had never met. He found the general thrust attractive, but downplayed some aspects, and questioned others.

The same could be said for much earlier Stoics who were part of a more formal community, such as Panaetius and Posidonius, who were also very clearly thinking for themselves within an ongoing tradition. That strikes me as a pretty good model for how people might approach Stoicism today: read, think, adapt, apply. It’s not eclectic or unorthodox; it’s just how it’s always been.

Given that, I don’t see much to be gained from trying to define something called ‘Modern Stoicism’ that is supposed to be in some way distinct from ancient Stoicism.

Greg Sadler

When I started seeing recurring discussions on the Facebook Stoicism group focused on the question of what “modern Stoicism” either is, or ought to be – and when I noted that thinkers central within contemporary Stoic communities were weighing in on the matter- I was reminded of a set of debates and discussions that I did a lot of research on in the first decade of the 2000s.  Some of that research eventually went into my first book, Reason Fulfilled By Revelation: The 1930s Christian Philosophy Debates in France.

Now you might say: what’s that got to do with Stoicism?  We might be talking about philosophy, but we’re definitely not talking about Christians or the French – so what gives?  Well, what I see taking shape is a similar dynamic, having to do with self-definition within a diverse community or movement.  It is also a dynamic, I should add, that I’ve seen develop in recent years in other circles.  There was a very interesting set of back and forth discussions starting in the 1990s, focused on the very notion of African-American (and Africana) philosophy – just to mention one example.

In each case – “modern Stoicism,” “Christian philosophy”, “African-American philosophy,” – there are several elements that go into that dynamic. A term exists that people have employed for some time, using it to describe something they and others are engaged in.  As the term gains more prominence, it gradually becomes apparent that people mean quite different things by it. They stake out differing claims within discussions about what that term can or should apply to, what it involves or excludes, and whether it is even a legitimate term to use.  Typically, there will also be some people who entirely reject the term, or consider it redundant, or who regard it as applying to something they consider wrongheaded.

Once this becomes apparent, well, the debates are on – often before those involved fully realize the scope of what they’ve managed to get themselves involved in!  In the case of the French debates, they drew in dozens of Francophone philosophers and theologians of major stature, generated a number of books and hundreds of articles, spurred the convening of conferences, and continued on as a major issue of discussion for about five years.  They never did end up producing a universal consensus, but the participants did manage to clarify their own positions, make some cogent critiques of other positions, and move the discussion much further along.

I envision that something like that is taking place with this phrase “modern Stoicism”.  I suspect that although the phrase has been around for quite some time, we are at a rather early stage in what will develop into further discussions, and quite likely some debates.  I’m actually quite happy to see a variety of viewpoints articulated about just what “modern Stoicism” means, because to me that is a sign of the vitality of that contemporary community of practice and thought.