Wyoming Stoic Camp Coming Up May 14-18

The University of Wyoming Department of Philosophy is once again hosting their Stoic Camp, running from May 14 to May 18, 2018 – an excellent opportunity not only to study and apply Stoic philosophy, but to do so in a setting of considerable natural beauty – Table in the Wilderness camp, in Centennial, Wyoming.

Activities for the event include intensive small and large group studies of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, talks by invited speakers, early morning and evening hikes, partaking in good food, as well as unstructured down time.  Other outdoor activities participants have the opportunity to engage in include hiking, bonfires, and waking up to the sunrise on the final morning (a direct response to one of the Roman Emperor’s recommended meditations).

The goals of the Stoic Camp are to experiment with living in a thoroughly philosophical way, using the Stoics as models, and to explore what it means to live intentionally.  Registration for the camp is US$300.00, and includes lodging, meals and books.  Students may inquire about discounted prices for students.

For more information about the Wyoming Stoic Camp, you can check out their Camp Information flyer, or go directly to their website. The application form can be found here: Application.  Enquiries can also be sent to: UWYOStoicCamp@gmail.com

Stoic Week 2017 Report Part 3: The Impact of Stoic Week and SMRT by Tim Lebon

Previous reports have summarised the demographics of Stoic Week and the relationship (measured at the start of Stoic Week) between Stoicism, well-being and character traits.  This report addresses the effects of  doing Stoic Week, and in particular  attempts to answer whether the impact of doing Stoic Week was as positive as in previous years. In addition, for the first time,  the results of a 3 month follow up study performed on the SMRT course run by Donald Robertson in 2017 will provide the first empirically-founded answer to the question “do the effects of Stoicism last, even 3 months after taking part in a Stoic course?”

If you’d like to read the full 14-page version of the Stoic Week 2017 report (part 3), you can click here to download the report.

SMRT 2017 Follow-Up Study

 SMRT (Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training) is a four-week intensive training course in core Stoic psychological skills.  It requires about twenty minutes of commitment daily for 28 days.  SMRT was designed in 2014 by Donald Robertson.  Previous  analysis of a SMRT course run in 2014 showed significant improvements in well-being

This year, for the first time, we asked participants to complete the questionnaires three months after the end of the course, as well as at the start and end of SMRT.

Of the 907 participants who began the SMRT course, 254 completed  the course and  88 completed the 3 month follow-up questionnaires.

The results were as follows :-

Measure Start End % improvement 3 months follow-up % improvement
SABS 173.0 194.9 12.7 194.6 12.5
Flourish 40.8 47.0 15.0 47.0 15.1
SPANE+ 20.1 24.0 18.9 22.4 11.3
SPANE- -16.1 -12.9 -20.1 -13.3 -17.6
SWL 23.2 27.0 16.3 26.8 15.3

Table 1: SMRT 2017: Impact at end of  28 day course and 3 month follow-up

Participants were found to have significant improvements in all measures at the end of the course. Particularly of note is the 20% reduction in negative emotions (SPANE-).  The key  question we were looking to answer was “how much would these improvements melt away in the 3 months after SMRT finishe?” It was found that there was very little reduction in benefit even after 3 months. For SABS (measuring degree of Stoicism) and Flourish (measuring flourishing) there was barely any change. In terms of emotions and satisfaction with life there was a small reduction compared to the end of the course. This result suggests that practising Stoicism for as little as a month has a lasting impact.

Impact of Stoic Week 2017: Overall Findings

 In terms of improvements in well-being over Stoic Week, the results were consistent with those of Stoic Week 2016, 2015 and  2014 confirming a significant positive benefit.

Increases in well-being ranged from 10-16% in the week depending on the scale being used. This replication of previous findings gives us further increased confidence in the reliability of the findings.

Table 2 below shows the overall outcome results.[i]

  Stoic Week

2017

Stoic Week

2016

Stoic Week

2015

Stoic Week 2014
No of participants 2870 1803 2503 1953
Increase in Flourishing 10% 10% 10% 10%
Increase in Satisfaction with Life 16% 15% 15% 16%
Increase in Positive Emotions 11% 10% 10% 11%
Reduction in Negative Emotions 14% 14% 14% 16%
Increase In Stoic Attitudes and Behaviours 9% 11% 13% 12%
Completion Rate 24% 15% 29% 29%

Table 2: Impact of Stoic Week 2017

Impact on Flourishing

Participants reported on average a 10% overall increase in  flourishing. The average score for those who completed Stoic Week was 41 at the start of Stoic Week and 45.5 at the end, an increase in over 10%.

Table 3 below shows the impact of Stoicism which on each Flourishing theme.

Flourishing Scale Item 2017

%

2016

%

2015

%

2014

%

2013

%

Theme
1. I lead a purposeful and meaningful life. 15 15 16 14 10 Purpose and meaning
2. My social relationships are supportive and rewarding. 13 13 11 11 10 Relationships
3.  I am engaged and interested in my daily activities. 12 8 10 10 10 Engagement in activities
4. I actively contribute to the happiness and well-being of others. 10 10 10 8 8 Benevolent
5.  I am competent and capable in the activities that are important to me 8 6 7 8 5 Competent
6. I am a good person and live a good life. 8 8 8 9 8 Ethically Good
7. I am optimistic about my future. 11 10 12 11 18 Optimism
8. People respect me. 7 9 7 7 5 Respected

 Table 3: Impact on Flourishing

 As in previous years, results suggest Stoicism has a particularly large positive impact on purpose and meaning (item 1), with social relationships (item 2) also showing particularly  significant improvement.  Table 2 again refutes suggests that Stoicism is a pessimistic philosophy. Stoicism actually lead to a significant increase in optimism.

Impact on Satisfaction with Life

Participants reported an  average 14% increase in satisfaction with life overall as measured by the Satisfaction with Life Scale. Participants  who completed Stoic Week’s average score was 23  at the start and 26 after Stoic Week for Satisfaction with Life.

Table 4 below shows which aspects of Satisfaction with Life increased the most. As one might anticipate given Stoicism’s teachings, the theme of acceptance (question 5) showed by the biggest increase – 19%.

Percentage change by each question 2017% increase 2016  % increase 2015 % increase

 

2014 %

increase

2013 % increase Theme
1. In most ways my life is close to my ideal 16 10 20 15 18 Life is ideal
2.The conditions of my life are excellent 11 13 13 15 11 Externals met
3. So far I have got the important things I want in life. 10 10 13 13 11 Needs met
4. I am satisfied with my life 14 13 14 15 17 Satisfaction
5. If I could live my life over, I would change almost nothing 19 24 20 17 17 Acceptance

Table 4: Impact on  Satisfaction with Life

Impact on Emotions

There was a substantial increase in positive emotions and decrease in negative emotions as reported by participants who took part in Stoic Week.

  • Participants in Stoic Week’s average Positive Emotions score was 20 at the start and 22 after Stoic Week an improvement of  11%.
  • Participants in Stoic Week’s average Negative Emotions score was -16.5 at the start and -14 after Stoic Week an improvement of 16%
  • Participants in Stoic Week’s average overall SPANE score was 3.5 at the start and 8.5 after Stoic

There was a greater shift in negative emotions than positive emotions (16% as opposed to 11%) as measured by the SPANE. The positive emotions that showed the biggest changes in 2017 were “contented“ and  “joyful” (both up 14%). All the negative emotions  showed a significant reduction of between 12% and 16%.

Tables 5 and 6 below give all the details about the impact of Stoic Week on positive and negative emotions.

Positive Emotions 2017 % change 2016 % change 2015 % comparison 2014 % comparison 2013 % comparison
Average positive 11 10 10 11  

9

Contented 14 15 14 14 12
Joyful 14 12 13 13 12
Happy 11 7 11 9 9
Good 9 8 9 10 7
 Pleasant 9 9 9 10 8
Positive 9 10 8 13 8

Table 5: Impact on Positive Emotions

 

Negative  Emotions 2017 %

Change

2016 %

change

2015 % comparison 2014 %

comparison

2013 %

comparison

Average negative -16 -14 -14 -16 -11
Unpleasant -15 -17 -16 -17 -8
Bad -16 -12 -15 -17 -11
Negative -15 -16 -14 -17 -12
Angry -12 -13 -14 -15 -13
Afraid -14 -13 -12 -14 -10
Sad -13 -14 -12 -14 -10

Table 6:  Impact on Negative Emotions

Impact on Character Traits and Virtues

For the first time, we asked participants to complete the CIVIC questionnaire, which allowed us to measure changes in  positive character traits and what the CIVIC terms “character cores” (similar to virtues).  This finding should be treated with a certain amount of caution. One would not necessarily expect these features to be very sensitive to change, and only a small number of participants (37) completed the CIVIC both at the start and end of Stoic Week. With these caveats in mind, tables 7 and 8 give changes to character traits and character cores ordered by the percentage improvement during Stoic Week.

CIVIC Trait BEFORE AFTER % improvement
Zest 2.43 2.73 12.0 11.98
Hope 2.64 2.91 10.3 10.26
Meaning/Purpose 2.07 2.23 7.5 7.49
Persistence 2.89 3.05 5.7 5.72
Leadership 2.50 2.64 5.6 5.57
Self-Control 3.03 3.20 5.6 5.56
Emotional Awareness 2.72 2.86 5.1 5.07
Humor 2.73 2.86 4.6 4.58
Social Perceptiveness 2.53 2.64 4.2 4.16
Perspective-Taking 3.17 3.30 4.2 4.16
Humility 3.29 3.42 3.9 3.90
Gratitude 3.08 3.20 3.8 3.78
Perspective 2.94 3.03 3.2 3.25
Creativity 2.87 2.95 3.0 2.98
Authenticity 3.32 3.41 2.9 2.91
Kindness 2.79 2.87 2.8 2.83
Teamwork 3.15 3.24 2.7 2.74
Bravery 2.96 3.04 2.7 2.67
Spirituality 2.44 2.51 2.6 2.63
Forethought 3.08 3.16 2.6 2.56
Forgiveness 3.19 3.26 2.4 2.39
Love 3.26 3.33 2.2 2.22
Love of Learning 3.59 3.66 2.1 2.13
Trustworthiness 3.32 3.38 1.8 1.85
Curiosity 3.63 3.69 1.8 1.81
Fairness 3.40 3.44 1.1 1.12
Carefulness 3.23 3.26 0.8 0.81
Openness to Evidence 3.37 3.40 0.8 0.78
Appreciation Of Beauty 3.17 3.19 0.5 0.50

Table 7:  Impact of Stoic Week on CIVIC Character Traits

Zest and hope improved significantly during Stoic Week, as did meaning and purpose, to a lesser extent. The finding regarding zest is particularly intriguing given that zest was also found to be the trait most associated with Stoicism at the start of Stoic Week.

Character core Before After Improvement (%)
FORTITUDE 2.7 2.9 9.1
TRANSCENDENCE 2.3 2.4 4.9
INTERPERSONAL CONSIDERATION 2.8 2.9 4.0
TEMPERANCE 3.0 3.1 3.4
APPRECIATION 3.2 3.3 3.0
SINCERITY 3.2 3.3 2.8
EMPATHY 3.2 3.3 2.2
INTELLECTUAL ENGAGMENT 3.3 3.4 1.8

Table 8:  Impact of Stoic Week on CIVIC Character Cores

Fortitude (which is closely related to the virtue of courage) improved by over 9%, with transcendence and interpersonal consideration also displaying quite large improvements.

Impact on Stoic Attitudes and Behaviours (SABS)

Comparisons in SABS scores before and after Stoic Week allow us to assess whether participants changed with respect to being Stoic taking part in Stoic Week. It also enables us to see in which ways they became more Stoic. Overall there was an 9% increase in assenting to Stoic attitudes and behaviour (SABS) scores from an average of 168 to 182.5.

Table 9 below gives the changes in average scores for those items that change most between the beginning and end of Stoic Week for 2017.

Item number      
SABS item  

Those items in italics have been reversed scored, so  a high score still indicates a more Stoic attitude or behaviour.

% Change Average Score at start of Stoic week (completers only) Average score at end of Stoic Week
2 It doesn’t really matter what other people think about me as long as I do the right thing 30 3.5 4.5
22 I spend quite a lot of time dwelling on what’s gone wrong the past or worrying about the future 29 4 5.2
24 When an upsetting thought enters my mind the first thing I do is remind myself it’s just an impression in my mind and not the thing it claims to represent 21 3.9 4.7
6 If bad things happen to you, you are bound to feel upset 19 4.6 5.5
26 Recognising that only virtue matters enables me to face life’s transience and my approaching death 18 3.8 4.4
29 Happiness depends on things going well for me and my family 16 4.8 5.6
25 Viewing other people as fellow-members of the brotherhood of humankind helps me to avoid feeling anger and resentment 16 3.7 4.3
35 My good name and what other people think about me matters a lot. 15 4.4 5.1
18 I am good at controlling my urges and impulses when that’s better for me in the long run [this item is excluded from SABS total as items 32 and 33 better measure a specifically Stoic concept of self-control] 15 4.9 5.7
31 When making a significant decision I ask myself “What really matters here?” and then look for the option that a good and wise person would choose. 14 5 5.7
12 To flourish as a human being all you need is rationality and a good character; things like money, status, health and good luck are not essential 14 4.8 5.4
15 I  try to anticipate future misfortunes and  rehearse rising above them 14 3.4 3.9
17 If I was honest I’d have to admit that I  often do what is enjoyable and comfortable rather than doing what I believe to be the right thing 14 4.8 5.4
19 I try to contemplate what the ideal wise and good person would do when faced with various misfortunes in life. 13 4.2 4.8
3 It can sometimes be a good thing to get angry when people are really rude, selfish or inconsiderate 13 5.2 5.8
23 I make an effort to pay continual attention to the nature of my judgments and actions. 12 4.8 5.4
27 I do the right thing even when I feel afraid. 11 2.9 3.2

Table 8:  Impact of Stoic Week on  Stoic Attitudes and Behaviours (items with most change)

The SABS items that showed the biggest increases are  strongly related to improved mental health.

  •   Doing the right think regardless of what others think((item 2)
    • This will not only help people be virtuous, it could also be expected to reduce social anxiety.
  • Cognitive Distancing & Stoic Mindfulness (item 24).
    • This is important because it allows people to take a step back, not automatically assenting to unhelpful judgements.
  • Reducing rumination (item 22)
    • Dwelling on negative thoughts for a long time is strongly associated with depression.

All SABS items moved in the expected direction with the exception item 34, an item  added in SABS v3.0 which measures a utilitarian concept of practical wisdom. Perhaps the reason for this item not changing in the expected direction is that the utilitarian concept of practical wisdom incorporates some ideals to  which Stoics would assent   – such as reflection and benevolence.

The 9%  change in Stoic Attitudes and Behaviours overall is significant in that it supports the view that it is changes in level of Stoicism that is mediating the change in well-being rather than other variables, such as the placebo effect.

Completion Rate

The completion rate in 2017  was 24%[ii] , more than only 15%  in 2016.  This may have been due to improvements in the materials or more attempts to encourage participants to complete the questionnaires at the end of Stoic week, or possibly other factors.

[i] These are calculated using only those people who completed Stoic Week. If the averages for the beginning of Stoic Week were to include those who dropped out, the improvement would be slightly greater, since those who dropped out tend to start with slightly lower scores on well-being.

[ii] The completion rate figure includes a number of completers whose data was excluded from the analysis for various reasons, such as incomplete data.

 

Tim LeBon is the author of Wise Therapy and Activate Your Potential With Positive Psychology.  He can be contacted via email at  tim@timlebon.com.  His website is  http://www.timlebon.com

Save The Date – Stoicon 2018 In London!

Big news everyone – After two years in North America (Toronto last year and New York City in 2016) – Stoicon is returning back across the Atlantic to London this year!

The world’s largest gathering of modern Stoics is slated to take place on Saturday, September 29, at Beveridge Hall in Senate House, London. John Sellars has taken the lead in organizing Stoicon 2018.  The conference is co-sponsored by the Institute of Philosophy and the Institute of Classical Studies of the University of London.

Three invited speakers have been confirmed at this point:

Our keynote speaker this year will be a familiar name to everyone engaged in serious study of Stoic philosophy, A. A. Long!  He is probably best known to many of our readers as the author of EpictetusA Stoic and Socratic Guide to Life, but has been making major contributions to study of ancient philosophy for nearly half a century.

Antonia Macaro is our second invited speaker.  She will be discussing selected themes from her recent book More than Happiness: Buddhist and Stoic Wisdom for a Sceptical Age.

Kai Whiting, an interdisciplinary researcher who has been adapting Stoicism to sustainability issues, will speak about Stoicism in relation to material possessions, consumerism, sustainability, and environmentalism.

We will be announcing the full roster of speakers and the specific titles of their talks as more details get sorted out.  You can also expect, however, that members of the Stoicism Today team will be there, some of them to provide short plenary talks, and others to give longer, more in-depth workshops and talks in the break-out sessions.

As in past years, International Stoic Week will follow Stoicon, running from Monday, October 1 to Sunday, October 7.  That’s an excellent time to schedule or to attend Stoic Week events (we’ll be listing all of them here on the Modern Stoicism site and in the Stoicism Today blog).

So if you belong to a local group, institution, or organization, and you’d like to have something to attend with other people interested in Stoicism during Stoic Week, now might be a good time to put the proverbial “bug in their ear” – suggest that they organize an event, or have their membership work through Stoic Week together.

We are also hoping that – as in previous years – there will also be a host of smaller Stoicon-X events around the same time for those who can’t attend Stoicon, or who want to get in on still more Stoic gatherings.  Stoicon-X events took place on four continents last year – Australia, Europe, South America, and North America!

If you’re interested in putting together a Stoicon-X event for the Fall, you should take a look at the guidelines and helpful suggestions drawn up by the Modern Stoicism team.  It’s also great to know that the Stoic Fellowship is also there to support organizations that want to host a Stoicon-X event!

Much more information will be coming out over the course of the next eight months leading up to Stoicon and Stoic Week (and hopefully, a lot of Stoicon-Xs and Stoic Week events).  But for the present, save the dates on your calendar!

Stoicism, Erotic Love, and Relationships by Greg Sadler

Valentine’s Day is coming up in just a few days, a holiday devoted in principle to all things romantic.  For many the time leading up to the day – or more often, the evening – can involve a heady and confused mixture of emotions, expectations, imaginations, plans, capped off by elation or disappointment.  It’s not unknown for couples to break up over how one or both of them (mis)handle Valentine’s Day.  Some people take being alone – not in a romantic relationship – as a sign that there is something wrong, damaged, or missing in themselves (or in some cases, in others).

What should contemporary Stoics make of Valentine’s Day?  That’s an interesting question by itself, but it depends upon and raises a number of other broader questions.  What is the Stoic approach to relationships, romantic and otherwise?  What does an ideal romantic relationship comprise or involve?  How should a Stoic view sexual pleasure and desire, as well as other pleasures and desires infused by eros?  Is there a Stoic approach, or guidelines, for matters ranging from old-fashioned courtship to late modern hookup apps, from flirtation to dating to committed relationships, and more?

Valentine’s Day offers us an excellent occasion to examine issues that really concern the entire year.

When we consider these issues, and bring in ancient Stoic texts and thinkers to help us think them through, cultural differences from classical antiquity to the late modern present become prominent.  We can survey what ancient Stoics had to say about erotic love and desire, relationships, the body, and sexuality (which I plan to do here, at least in part).   But a good bit of that is arguably dependent upon taking cultural assumptions made by those ancient writers as constants of nature (at least ideal human nature).  And given the concerns of the present, there are understandably many gaps in the matters on which Stoic authors provide helpful advice or useful guidelines.  Seneca doesn’t know smartphones or dating apps, for example.  Epictetus didn’t discuss blind dates or workplace romances.

That is not to say, of course, that these classic Stoic thinkers don’t have anything useful to contribute.  Were they brought into our present day – after they recovered from massive culture shock! – these authors would likely have a lot to tell us, derived from the same basic principles and practices their works teach us, but adapted to new situations, conditions, and challenges.

Classic Stoic Discussions of Erotic Love

“Love” is one of those words that in English covers a vast range of meanings.  It has become a commonplace – spurred not least by C.S. Lewis’ The Four Loves, but also by entire bookshelves of other popular literature pushing that point – to claim that the ancient Greeks rigorously distinguished between different sorts of love, denoting them by different names, and conceiving of them as having different bases.  There is some truth to that – friendship (philia) is something distinguishable from erotic desire (eros) – but anyone who reads around in the many discussions of love in Ancient Greek literature quickly realizes that matters are much more muddled than that, conceptually and linguistically speaking.  Those supposedly entirely different types of love blur and bleed into each other, and even the same term may be used in multiple ways by the same author.

One interesting example, particularly germane to Stoicism, comes from Arius Didymus’ Epitome of Stoic Ethics, where he tells us that the wise person – because that person lacks none of the virtues – not only behaves “sensibly” (nounekhtikos) and “dialectically” (dialectikos), but also “convivially” (sumpotikos) and . . . “erotically” (erotikos, 5b9).

He explains:

For the erotic person is also spoken of in two senses.  In one sense [the person is called “erotic”] with regard to virtue as being a type of worthwhile person, in the other with regard to vice as a reproach, as in the case of the person mad from erotic love.  [Worthwhile] erotic love is [for friendship].

[T]hey also say that the person who has good sense will fall in love.  To love by itself is merely indifferent, since it sometimes occurs in the case of the bad person as well.  But erotic love is not [simply] appetite, nor is it directed at some bad or base thing; rather, it is an inclination to forming an attachment arising from the impression or appearance of beauty. (5b9, 10c, 11s)

This likely sounds odd to modern ears in some respects, but familiar in others. According to Arius, the Stoics distinguished between good and bad forms of love, setting them within an already long tradition (you will find, for example, discussing of this distinction from several different perspectives in Plato’s Symposium).  We too often distinguish between different modes of this affect, that we may call by all sorts of names – love, attraction, desire, lust, passion, just to name a few – and many do make that distinction along moral lines of good and bad.

Notice another similarity – the good type of erotic love leads toward another closely related type of affection, i.e. friendship.  The Stoic wise person – at least according to Arius – does not need to like or desire a person solely for his or her personality.  Physical attractiveness can provide a starting point, a spark that ignites the flame of love.  But the character, the personality, the moral condition of the one loved or desired – that provides the fuel to sustain a both rational and affective relationship.

Erotic love as an “inclination to forming an attachment arising from the impression of beauty” – that’s not a definition many of us would naturally come up with.  It does appear to be one that Stoics consistently used.  You will find a very similar formula in Diogenes’ Laertes summary of Stoic doctrine (7.13), varying just a little in the wording (though English translations diverge from each other considerably).  Cicero also confirms this formula in the Tusculan Disputations – in fact, the Latin translation makes any ambiguity of meaning in the Greek perfectly clear.  It is an endeavor to form a friendship (conatum amicitiae faciendae), and it arises from the appearance of beauty (ex pulchritudinis specie, 4.34)

When we compare them, an interesting tension arises from these three discussions, which may reflect disagreements or at least worries in the Stoic school about this emotion or affect of erotic love.

Diogenes Laertes sets out what we might call a pessimistic position.  He tells us that the Stoics thought that erotic love was just one of the modes of desire (epithumia) – Stoic classifications of affect make desire, fear, pleasure, and pain the four main passions or emotions – and that good people will not feel this emotion.  It is only the rest of us who are affected by it.  Given this, the Stoic prokopton then will simply have as little to do with erotic love as feasible.

Cicero expresses a more nuanced position.  He affirms that the Stoics do think the wise person will be lovers (and presumably feel erotic love), and suggests that this love will be “free from disquietude, from longing, from anxiety, from sighing” – disentangled from all sorts of negative emotions and their characteristic signs – and thereby entirely distinct from the affect of lustfulness (libido).  He considers this type of pure love rare, and says that most examples of “love” are really simply the passion of lust.  )Even many instances of “love of friendship” (amor amicitiae) are really infused with lust(33.  He cautions against the “madness” (furor) of love, and says that there is no disturbance of the mind so violent (45).  Erotic love might remain within limits, but those are limits that it gives to itself. (33)

As we have seen, Arius expresses a much more positive evaluation of eros.  He distinguishes between two distinct senses of erotic love.  The problematic one that is among the desires, he qualifies as “violent cases of erotic love” (erotes sphodroi, 10b).  When it comes to the better type of erotic love, it is not merely something a good person or wise person can feel and be motivated by.  Love is not simply understandable, or even “normal”, but ultimately an indifferent.  As Arius represents the Stoics, they teach that the wise person ought to have “erotic virtue”.  In fact, he says:

The wise person is erotically inclined [erotikon einai] and will fall in love with those who are worthy of erotic love [axieraston]. (11s)

Which of these three perspectives on the place erotic love might have in Stoic philosophy and practice should we adopt?

Stoic Views on Love and Relationships

How the Stoic should conduct him or herself within the context of romantic or erotic relationships, once they are established, is another area that is rather underdeveloped in the classic Stoic literature we do possess.  We can’t be sure what teachings or discussions might be found within lost texts like Zeno’s Of Life According to Nature or Chrysippus’ Of the Good, and it’s not entirely clear what we ought to make of claims that Zeno advocated a community of wives and children in his Republic.

We do know (from Diogenes Laertes) that Zeno’s students did thematically study the matter.  Ariston authored a Dissertations on Love, and Cleanthes works Of Marriage, Of Love, and Of Friendship.  The latter’s own student, Sphaerus, reportedly wrote Dialogues on Love.  If we possessed these writings, no doubt, we would have a much more complete picture of Stoic teachings about erotic love and relationships.

Still, we do possess some useful discussions. For instance, in lecture 13 Musonius Rufus focuses on the “chief end” (or you might say, “main point”) of marriage.  A hasty read of this lecture might construe Rufus as subordinating sexual desire and intercourse entirely to the purposes of procreation.  But let’s look closely at what he does say:

[T]he primary end of marriage is community of life with a view to the procreation of children. The husband and wife, he used to say, should come together for the purpose of making a life in common and of procreating children, and furthermore of regarding all things in common between them, and nothing peculiar or private to one or the other, not even their own bodies.

What a committed relationship ought to involve – a relationship that really is “in accordance with nature” – is a developed and ongoing intimacy, a common life lived and experienced together.  In fact, as he points out, you don’t even need a marriage to make babies.  Just having heterosexual sex will do that

The birth of a human being which results from such a union is to be sure something marvelous, but it is not yet enough for the relation of husband and wife, inasmuch as quite apart from marriage it could result from any other sexual union, just as in the case of animals.

What else is needed?  He tells us a good marriage involves companionship, mutual love, and a constancy of action and affection

Where, then, this love for each other is perfect and the two share it completely, each striving to outdo the other in devotion, the marriage is ideal and worthy of envy, for such a union is beautiful.

By contrast:

But where each looks only to his own interests and neglects the other, or, what is worse, when one is so minded and lives in the same house but fixes his attention elsewhere and is not willing to pull together with his yoke-mate nor to agree, then the union is doomed to disaster and though they live together, yet their common interests fare badly; eventually they separate entirely or they remain together and suffer what is worse than loneliness.

In Rufus’ view – and I think this can be regarded as a more general Stoic view – this requires character and commitment on the part of both members of the relationship.  One’s family or birth, one’s wealth or possessions, even whether one is physically attractive or not – these do not matter so much.  In fact, just being healthy or being of “normal appearance” is good enough.  What then is important?

With respect to character or soul one should expect that it be habituated to self-control and justice, and in a word, naturally disposed to virtue. These qualities should be present in both man and wife.  For without sympathy of mind and character between husband and wife, what marriage can be good, what partnership advantageous?  How could two human beings who are base have sympathy of spirit one with the other?  Or how could one that is good be in harmony with one that is bad?

When it comes to love, erotic relationships, and friendship, there is considerably more that could be drawn out and discussed in a systematic way from other Stoic thinkers and texts.  Cicero, Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus each have some points to contribute.  Even Persius the poet – among other sources – might have something interesting to incorporate. For the sake of brevity, I’m going to leave that project for another time.  What is most relevant here is that Stoics maintain scope for erotic desire and enjoyment within relationships.

A relationship will not be durable, deep, or even (in other respects) enjoyable, if all one or both of the partners have to contribute lies entirely on the level of sexuality desire, attraction, activity, or pleasure.  But within the framework of an erotic or romantic relationship, it is possible – or better put, desirable – to integrate the sexual side of the relationship with companionship, moral character, and friendship.  This is where the good kind of erotic love – and perhaps even “erotic virtue” – would have its opportunity to develop most fully.

What does all of this have to say to us in the present?  Some of us might take this Stoic ideal of an excellent marriage between a woman and a man and extend it in two directions.  On the one hand, it might be extended beyond the limits of heteronormativity to encompass a range of other coupling relationships in which sexual attraction and activity are carried out within a context of intimacy.  On the other hand, perhaps it does not require being a legally married couple but just long-term committed partners, to live that sort of common life.

Stoicism For The Single Person

What about those who have not found a suitable person with whom to build and enjoy that sort of relationship?  What would the Stoics have to say to the single person?  This is an important question, and it raises many others.

For example:  Is feeling and acting on erotic love something good or bad for the single person?  Is sexual desire something to be indulged?  Or is it a distraction?  What about being the object of someone else’s desire?  Is that something one ought to desire, view as indifferent, or even be averse to?   Are we better off being in a relationship that includes or might involve sexual desire and activity?  Is it problematic from a Stoic perspective to simply “hook up” or to have “friends with benefits”.  Should a Stoic put him or herself “out there,” in the proverbial pool, going on dates?

You’ll notice that in classic Stoic literature, there does tend to be a wariness about sexual desire and pleasure.  The body, after all, is supposed to be an indifferent.  And pleasure – although it does accompany the proper activities of our nature, both body and mind – is not the good.  We can easily be led astray, into vice, unfreedom, being disturbed, finding ourselves “hindered”, when we allow our minds and bodies to be drawn along by natural sexual desire.  Add in the effects of human culture, which interfuse sexual desire and pleasure with all sorts of other matters presented as goods or evils to us, and things get even messier.

Several passages in Epictetus’ Enchiridion that bear directly on sexuality.  He tells us, for instance:

In the case of everything that happens to you, remember to turn to yourself and see what faculty you have to deal with it.  If you see some attractive man or woman, you will find self-control as the faculty to employ. (10)

And he counsels:

When it comes to matters of sexuality [aphrodisia], keep yourself pure as much as you can before marriage.  If you do indulge, then do so only in those pleasures that are lawful.  But don’t be offensive or critical with those who do use [those sexual pleasures].  Nor make frequent mention of the fact that you yourself don’t use them. (33)

The governing idea is that sexuality is something to be properly managed by the Stoic.  It is not something necessarily to entirely dissociate oneself from, but one ought to maintain it within a rational perspective in relation to more important priorities.  There are many other passages just from that short work that can be readily applied to contemporary dating, desires, relationships, and to the emotions and thoughts that frequently arise from erotic love (and again, a fuller treatment would similarly incorporate and interpret passages from Epictetus’ longer Discourses, as well as works of Seneca, Musonius, Marcus Aurelius, Cicero, and others).

Consider for example how easily some people get hurt feelings when matters don’t go the way they would like, or expect, or hope.  A common example of this is when one person is attracted to another, and proposes a relationship, or perhaps just a date, or (setting the bar lower) “hanging out” – and the other person is just not interested.  Another common example happens with “nice guys” (or girls) who invest a lot of time and effort into what they hope will become eventually a romantic relationship, but end up getting “friend-zoned”.  What advice might Epictetus give?

Remember that you ought to behave in life as you would at a banquet. As something is being passed around it comes to you; stretch out your hand and take a portion of it politely. . .  Or it has not come to you yet; do not project your desire to meet it, but wait until it comes in front of you. (15)

Relationships are similarly offered to us, and although our own choices and efforts can play a catalyzing role, they occur with the rhythm and on the timetable of their own development.  Patience coupled with receptive readiness – rather than actively trying to take or push for the desires one allows to run far out ahead of one – may be precisely what one needs.

Has someone been honored above you? . . . Now if these matters are good, you ought to be happy that the person got them; but if bad, be not distressed because you did not get them; and bear in mind that, if you do not act the same way as others do, with a view to getting things which are not under our control, you cannot be considered worthy to receive an equal share with others.  (25)

Imagine you are attracted to someone, but they prefer another person, to whom they are attracted.  Does it make sense to view the other person as a rival, to think they have in some way harmed you, or to look at the object of your erotic love as depriving you of affection?  From a Stoic standpoint, the answer will inevitably be No – though it certainly might require a good bit of work and time to arrive at that point for some people.

This is also a good passage to reflect upon when one feels or exhibits a sense of entitlement to the affection or desire of other people.  Has one earned it?  Keeping in mind, of course, that human beings are not actually automatons whose buttons we can just push, activating their programming – if it really is the case that this or that person feels erotic desire towards those who have assets, talents, or capacities to offer that one doesn’t, then isn’t it irrational to expect that person to feel and exhibit the same sort of affection towards us?  As he says a bit later in that same chapter:

You will be unjust, therefore, and insatiable if, while refusing to pay the price for which such things are bought, you want to obtain them for nothing.

As a last example, let us come back to a common concern that becomes intensified for some on Valentine’s Day but which can plague a person throughout the year – the feeling that not being in a romantic relationship reflects that there is something wrong with oneself.  Of course, some people do possess traits or make assumptions that do tend to push away potential romantic partners – for example, heading into dates complaining about how “all men” or “all women are . . . ” – but people do have the potential to change those sorts of “deal-breakers”.

What I’m referring to is the person who feels bad about him or herself because they are not (as far as he or she knows) the object of anyone else’s erotic desire.  They may feel unattractive, unloved, isolated and lonely.  This can be particularly difficult when one is single after a relationship ends, with a breakup or a divorce.  There are two passages that might be particularly helpful to bring up here.

It is not the things themselves that disturb people, but their judgements about these things. . . When, therefore, we are hindered or disturbed , or grieved, let us never blame anyone but our ourselves, that means, our own judgements (5)

Notice that Epictetus is not suggesting that a person simply get down on him or herself, but that instead he or she examines their own judgements, which include and result from lines of reasoning.  The second passage is about examples of mistaken lines of reasoning.

These statements represent bad reasoning: “I am richer than you are, therefore I am superior to you”, or “I am more eloquent than you, therefore I am superior to you”.  But the following conclusions are better: “I am richer than you are, therefore my property is superior to yours; or “I am more eloquent than you, therefore my elocution is superior to yours”.  But you are neither property not elocution. (44)

A person might reason badly along similar lines with him or herself.  “I don’t have a romantic partner, so I’m inferior to others who do.”  Or for those who are in a relationship, “my partner is not as attractive, or as witty, or as (substitute whatever you like here) as someone else’s partner, so I’m inferior to that person.”.  Or, “my life is not as good as that person’s,” or “I’m missing out” – one might come up with all sorts of similar lines of reasoning, all of them equally flawed from the Stoic perspective.  Liberating
oneself from those erroneous assumptions, inferences, and conclusions doesn’t just make one feel better – or at least less bad.  It also gets the person a bit closer to developing the virtue of prudence, a genuine good for one’s life.

To bring this already long post to a close – admittedly, just scratching the surface of a complex and rich topic about which Stoic philosophers have much to contribute – what can we say by way of conclusion?

Classical Stoics did view romantic or erotic love – at least in some cases, and as felt by some people – as something good and worthwhile.  One can, however, live a good life by Stoic standards whether one does find an attractive partner and form a lasting relationship, or not.  What really is key is the cultivation and living out the virtues, the development of one’s moral character and capacities, and that – in the Stoic view – is what renders a person truly desirable.

 

Gregory Sadler is the Editor of the Stoicism Today blog.  He is also the president and founder of ReasonIO, a company established to put philosophy into practice, providing tutorial, coaching, and philosophical counseling services, and producing educational resources.  He has created over 100 videos on Stoic philosophy, regularly speaks and provides workshops on Stoicism, and is currently working on several book projects.

“Being Nobody”: The Stoic “Loser” by J. B. Bell

Don’t allow these thoughts to upset you: “I’ll live unhonoured, and be nobody anywhere.” For if it is a bad thing to be unhonoured, you cannot be in a bad state as a result of anyone else’s actions, any more than you can be brought into shame in that way. It is no business of yours, surely, to gain a public post or be invited to a dinner party? Certainly not. So how can this still be a source of dishonor? And how will you be “nobody anywhere” if you only need to be somebody in those things that are within your own power, and in which it is possible for you to be a man of the highest worth? (Enchiridion, 24.1, Robin Hard translation)

The idea of the “loser” in contemporary culture is a shadow cast by tales of winners—of money, power, and fame. The usual biographies offered in our modern books on Stoicism lengthen this shadow, by focusing on “success” in ordinary terms accomplished by the use of Stoic methods. This misses the mark. I propose a pair of tonics: remembering the anonymous “Stoic loser”, and remembering death, not only for ourselves, but our heroes.

What is a “Loser”?

“Loser” is one of the most powerful insults deployed without using invective directed at some minority anyone would lay claim to. In modern society we commonly reject (or say we reject) insults based on race, disability, sex, sexuality, gender expression, and other bases that society has judged as unjust. “Loser” persists—it’s not polite, but it’s not impolitic.

What is this word “loser” about? What contest is lost, that we heap contempt upon the loser? A loser without qualification implies someone who loses at life: the loser fails to earn our respect because they fail on so many fronts, or enough important ones, that they can be dismissed, humiliated, subordinated, even exiled from the tribe. The loser is a drain: on patience, on resources, even on pity. The loser has lost socially. They are perhaps the ultimate out-group, wanted by no one.

Usually the loser’s ultimate loss, in short, is status. Yet, along with wealth, health, and even life, it is to the Stoic an “indifferent”: something it might be nice to have, but never to be traded for the power to make decisions first and foremost for virtue’s sake. For the Stoic there is but one contest: keeping one’s thoughts, words and deeds “in harmony with nature.” Whatever else may befall one, where integrity is preserved, the Stoic is a winner. A Stoic may lose a game, their house, their friends, their family, their health, their very life itself, and yet claim victory, and even count these sorry events as advantageous, so long as they serve as tests of virtue, to strengthen it and weaken the grasp of attachment to things outside their control.

Some History

A Stoic today or in the ancient past would recognize easily that the “loser” so-called by most is not necessarily a loser as they would understand it. With virtue as the sole good—perhaps the one non-negotiable Stoic tenet—the only loser is one who fails to maintain it because they don’t even try to.

This inversion of the usual values is not unique to Stoicism, though it does seem to be mainly the province of religion and philosophy.  Christianity, until relatively recently, valorized the meek and the poor as those who would inherit its ultimate good, the kingdom of heaven. Buddhism taught a life of renunciation as the only path to escape the cycle of birth and death. The appeal of the externals and human nature, however, conspire to corrupt even their harshest critics, though, bringing us today’s “prosperity gospel” and sales of amulets that bring wealth, health, and all the rest.

Our Heroes

Stoics have always had heroes, often shared with other philosophers, going back to Diogenes the Cynic, Socrates, Plato, and before them characters like Heracles, a paragon of courage, and Homer’s heroes, Achilles, Patroclus, Hector, and Odysseus. (The warrior-heroes of Greek myth and legend, celebrated mainly for courage, are complicated to justify as Stoic, and warrant their own treatment). In modern life we are fortunate to have accounts that are not only astonishing but well verified. James Stockdale survived eight years’ imprisonment and periodic torture as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. he coordinated a resistance in perilous secrecy to maintain not only his own virtue but that of his fellow-prisoners, sustaining a united front in the face of temptations to betray each other to gain some comfort, or at least a lessening of suffering.

More recently Susan Fowler exposed the rampant sexual harassment endemic to the corporate culture of Uber. Her blog post had seismic effects there, with shockwaves felt in the entire Silicon Valley and beyond. Her writing was notable for its measured, well-reasoned style, and Fowler cited Stoicism as giving her the courage and sense of duty needed to take what can be a punishing professional and personal risk.

Still, Stockdale has enjoyed a long Congressional career, and Fowler is now an editor at Stripe, with every sign pointing to a successful future in technology writing. What about the ones who didn’t make it?

Survivor Bias

Our heroes share a necessary trait: we have heard of them. “Survivor bias” refers to a mistake in thinking that comes from over-valuing reports of success. If I tell you that megadosing on vitamin C cured my cancer, and you hear many others with the same tale, it may at first blush seem believable. But when you consider that you don’t hear from all those who tried vitamin C and died of their disease anyway, skepticism is in order.

Our Stoic heroes (and all heroes) also have this problem: we are a lot less likely to hear about the unsung masses who, unlike Stockdale and Fowler, bore up or spoke out, but whose merely mortal bodies could not sustain the effort.

Of course, there is an exception: the tragic heroes. These shining paragons inspire a deep reverence, or at least, few are willing to call them “losers” out loud. These lucky ones (though not many would wish for their kind of fortune) have witnesses to their sacrifices. Although nameless, the Spartan boy who dashed his own brains out on a wall rather than be enslaved has his story preserved in legend. Who had heard of the man who threw his own life preserver to other survivors of an airplane wreck, over and over, eventually dying in the freezing water, before his noble deed? What else is he remembered for?

My concern is that, in the repeated emphasis on captains of industry, sports figures, military leaders—in short, winners at life in the conventional sense—we paint an incomplete picture of Stoicism, which excludes many from its benefits, and that attracts those who are unlikely to properly embody its most vital precepts.

A Reminder and a Memorial

To counteract the survivor bias in our heroes, we could remind each other of how they end up: ” . . . and not so long after, they died,” or “and one day, they will die, and in time, no one will even remember their name.” The instruction for memento mori isn’t “think on death sometimes,” but to bear it in mind constantly, every day.

In a sense, we’re all losers, since no amount of “winning” can ever be enough. We might also, then, remember the Stoic “loser” who “fails” even at leaving enough trace to be a known hero.

There’s no need for self-flagellation or public and pious denial of all advantages and honors. Humility is the internal manifestation of justice—measuring one’s life in correct proportion. This is why the Stoic attitude to being a “loser” in the popular sense is indifference, since the correct measure of a life is whether it has been lived in accordance with nature: did I choose wisely, understanding my circumstances accurately and valuing my options according to whether they support true flourishing? If so, it doesn’t matter what others have to say about it. If they have found some actual fault in my choices, then it’s for me to accept that correction graciously and alter my behavior accordingly.

Adopting this attitude means freedom from being assailed by opinion and circumstance—things that are outside our control. Holding a place of honour in myself for the unknown Stoic, I can have a shrine on the grounds of my inner citadel; not a battlement, but a refuge. Let us have a cenotaph, then, for the unknown Stoic, bravely cleaving to virtue with no hope of reward and not even any witness. For they must have existed, and almost certainly there are many more of them than the heroes we know of.

A Conclusion

It isn’t wrong to want heroes and Stoics have our exemplars like many other traditions do. But in the end, virtue is its own reward, and it’s well to remember that it’s not a “life hack” to improve our access to or enjoyment of indifferents. We can soberly remind ourselves of the fleeting, changing nature of all accomplishments, even those of virtue, to keep a proper measure, and to appreciate what each moment brings, in hopes of improving the next, for those moments are all anyone may truly lay claim to.

 

JB Bell is an IT professional with a lifelong interest in philosophy. He also does stand-up comedy with Stand Up for Mental Health (www.smhsociety.org), and is Vice President of the British Columbia Humanist Association (which opinion he does not necessarily represent in this article).