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.

The Kitchen Stoic: A Beginner’s Approach to Stoic Thought by Andi Sciacca

You participate in a society by your existence. Then participate in its life through your actions—all your actions. Any action not directed toward a social end (directly or indirectly) is a disturbance to your life, an obstacle to wholeness, a source of dissension. Like the man in the Assembly—a faction to himself, always out of step with the majority. – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 9.23

Stoicism and the Culinary Arts

In March of 2011, the great French Chef Paul Bocuse spoke to students and faculty at The Culinary Institute of America.  He was on campus that month as part of a mighty trifecta that also included world-renowned Chef Ferran Adria and technology-geek turned chef-scientist Nathan Myhrvold.  These three visitors – celebrities in the culinary sphere, and beyond – spoke in celebration of their achievements as experts within the industry.  Their presence on campus was marketed by the CIA as being representative of the past, present, and future of the culinary world.  As part of their respective addresses to an enthusiastic audience of culinary hopefuls and practiced educators, each of these men spoke about their own paths into culinary prominence, and their unique views on culinary education.

As a student of philosophy who was then working as the founding director of the CIA’s Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, I had the opportunity to attend all three of their lectures – and I recall being struck by how dramatically relevant their shared experiences and the information they provided was to the study of philosophy.  Their advice on what makes for a good culinary worker was clearly connected to ethics and moral philosophy, the long-studied works of classical thinkers, the interdisciplinary range within the history of ideas, and continental philosophical thought.  

And now, understanding a bit more about Stoic practice, and having had the opportunity to further reflect on my own experience, it is even more clear to me how so much of what they shared in their lectures connects not only to what makes for a successful restaurant worker (whether chef or server or dishwasher) but also to what the thoughtful application of Stoic writings and Stoic teaching can offer to an industry that impacts so many – whether directly or indirectly.  For as Scott Hebert’s recent article reminds us in his examination of farming and Stoic practice, food and its preparation offers important opportunities to connect to the kinds of experiences that are central to us all.

Act Well the Character Assigned You

Remember that you are an actor in a drama, of such a kind as the author pleases to make it. If short, of a short one; if long, of a long one. If it is his pleasure you should act a poor man, a cripple, a governor, or a private person, see that you act it naturally. For this is your business, to act well the character assigned you; to choose it is another’s. – Epictetus, Enchiridion, 17

When Chef Bocuse spoke, he was then a man of eighty-five years old, and had served as mentor to many award-winning chefs himself.  Bocuse is responsible for having created the current grand medal of culinary achievement, the Bocuse d’Or, which has inspired olympic-style training on an international platform, and is seen by many as the premier award for any culinarian. When asked by one young culinary candidate what qualities are most essential in the training of a young chef, Bocuse responded, “la crème, le beurre, et le vin.”

Thinking something to have been lost in translation, his son Jerome – who was serving as a translator, himself a graduate of the CIA – asked again.  He was barely able to begin rephrasing the question, and Bocuse responded – in his heavily accented English – that he is a chef, not a philosopher. He would repeat this response repeatedly whenever he was asked for his opinions on issues of health, obesity, and school nutrition, stating he was – again – a chef, not a medical doctor, or a practitioner of public policy.  At one point, he went on to say that he left it to other schools and other lines of education to respond to these issues – as his job was simply to attend to his craft, and the best that he could do would be to inspire these students to do as he had done, and continue in the long line of traditional French apprenticeships.

As the afternoon Q&A he hosted following his lecture came to an end, Bocuse reminded our culinary students to treat their graduation from the CIA’s degree program not as the end of their education, but as the beginning – encouraging them to train with as many chefs as possible, learning from each what keys to the tradition of culinary arts might carry them into their intended path. This was more than simple lip-service, as Bocuse clearly valued the accumulation of historical knowledge and seemed to view achieving what he called his own “small place” within the long and esteemed link of his culinary forbearers being its own reward.  Having been given an Augie the night before – an Augie being the culinary equivalent of the Oscars (including the statues, made by the same goldsmith as the Oscars themselves) – and having been declared the Chef of the Century for his contributions – throughout his speech to the students, Bocuse never lapsed into complacency or arrogance, and consistently pointed to others – including his mentor, the corpulent Fernand Point – as the men to whom he owed his own achievement.

Bocuse did not, as Epictetus warns us, behave in a manner “prideful with any excellence that is not [his] own” (Enchiridion, 6).  In an academic culture where the mantra is simply, “Yes, Chef!”, Bocuse – despite his professed inability (or unwillingness) – to grapple with questions of philosophy, had nonetheless suggested that the students embrace some key elements of Stoic thought.  Here was a man who had achieved much, was globally celebrated as an expert in his craft, recently reminded by the industry in which he worked that he had achieved significant honor in his lifetime, had even been declared the Chef of the Century – and yet, his response and the advice he gave to those who sought to emulate him was that they should focus their attentions on acting well the character they had been assigned, and continue to seek knowledge from those who might act well their own roles of mentor, teacher, competitor, and friend.

Turn Each Setback Into Raw Material

We have various abilities, present in all rational creatures as in the nature of rationality itself. And this is one of them. Just as nature takes every obstacle, every impediment, and works around it—turns it to its purposes, incorporates it into itself—so, too, a rational being can turn each setback into raw material and use it to achieve its goal. – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 8.5

Whereas Bocuse is of the past, Ferran Adria is completely of the present.  Adria is a modernist in the sense of culinary movements – with culinary modernism being what culinarians choose to use as a referential term for what the early proponents [but now only fringe participants] have come to call molecular gastronomy.  Adria reacts against tradition by creating and recreating food into representative models.  It is not enough to have an olive in Adria’s kitchen.  His olive must be extracted and reduced, its juice gelled into an outer shell that resembles itself – its meaty flesh liquefied into something that fills that gelled, juice shell – with both components being served as a whole, on a spoon, doused in its own fragrant oil, which has been extracted and compressed.

In Adria’s kitchen-laboratory, using chemistry and art, a glass of wine becomes something deconstructed on a flat plate into solids. Adria would ask, “Why drink the wine and speak of what your palate can tell you about its terroir, when you can experience it visually in three-dimensions and consume it with your fork?” And while the world at large, attempting to make sense of his particular approach to food might choose either term when referring to this particular craft, Adria calls himself neither a molecular gastronomist nor a modernist. He sees himself as a deconstructivist, and has been famously quoted as saying that diners came to his famous restaurant, El Bulli, not to eat, but “to have an experience.”

If Bocuse celebrates cream, Adria eliminates it – making meat foams solely out of a genetically- extracted protein base, compressed air, and nitrous oxide that serve to capture the sensation of meat – but devoid of anything we might think of in terms of its substance or content. Even though his dishes are impeccably prepared and incredibly delicious, Adria seems to see the food itself as little more than a means to an end – and his influence has polarized culinarians on either side.

In 2010, Adria and one of his most noted mentees, Jose Andres, co-taught a course on culinary science at Harvard’s school of Engineering and Applied Sciences to a capacity class of four-hundred students, firmly cementing his work in structural engineering and applied physics – far removed from the apprenticeships at the hands of expert chefs as recommended by Bocuse – choosing, instead, to recruit the brightest students for further work at the food-synthetics company Adria owns with his brother. All the same, over the course of his career, Adria has won the highest possible ratings of three Michelin stars for El Bulli – and in terms of his influence on culinary education, perhaps it can best be seen in the content of the debates his approach and achievement tends to inspire.

Recently, two culinary discussants were arguing on a blog about Adria being defined as chef or artist – and what these definitions tend to imply. One blogger, when questioned on Adria’s tendency to see the product of his work as art, responded, “Why shouldn’t an artist just be someone who endeavors to make art? Some will do it with great genius and some will fail. Let them all be artists. Save all the philosophy and the critical apparatus to decide whose art is most significant, and for whom, and for what reason.”

His opponent responded, “Would any or all other cooks or chefs who endeavor to make art be equal to him in terms of being an artist then? The critical apparatus is being used no matter whether it is separating or including in any category . . . whether that category is the one of ‘what one is’ or whether it is in terms of ‘how well one does it’. Apply the mind to something and one has already applied the critical apparatus in some fashion.”  

Clearly, the lack of tradition in Adria’s case creates an anxiety that seems to posit itself in the space between art and craft – and between tradition and revision or mutation. As with the questions left unanswered by Bocuse as symbol of the past, Adria’s role as symbol of the present includes a kind of unanswered (perhaps unquestioned) structure of education that could well be served by Stoic thought.

Some might argue that the increasingly blurred boundaries between the work of the chef and the work of a scientist are doing damage to the whole of either or both professions.  As example, how many times have we seen parodies of artisanal products, petulant chef-characters, and seemingly inedible concoctions served up in absurd platings?

But the third speaker in that celebrity panel, Nathan Myhrvold – who was meant to represent the future beyond Adria’s present – acted as an unlikely catalyst for synthesis between Adria and Bocuse. Myhrvold’s claim to fame was not his Ivy league college career, which he began at the age of fourteen, earning a PhD in theoretical and mathematical physics by the time he turned twenty-three, nor was it working for Stephen Hawking, or founding Microsoft Research. It is true that he holds, or has applied for, over six-hundred patents – but he also is a two-time world champion barbeque winner, the former chief gastronomic officer for the Zagat survey, and has apprenticed under James Beard Award winning chef Thierry Rautureau.  

Myhrvold has also written a six-volume, forty-six pound, two-thousand-four-hundred-thirty-eight page text entitled Modernist Cuisine – in which he explains in exacting detail how, once a culinary enthusiast has learned to make a perfect soup stock in the traditional sense, he might be inspired to clarify that same stock using centripetal acceleration in a hemastatic centrifuge.

How do these two celebri-chefs contribute to Stoic practice?  By showing their abilities to work within the fields of culinary art and science to take “every obstacle, every impediment, and [work] around it—[turn] it to its purposes, [incorporate] it into itself.”  Rather than be limited – and potentially frustrated – by the obstacles they faced in their respective fields, the chef turned scientist and scientist turned chef show us how embracing the challenge and relinquishing attempts to control the boundaries that may exist can produce a more integrated whole.  Through their extraordinary efforts, both Adria and Myhrvold provide clear examples of how a rational being can turn each setback into raw material and use it to achieve its goal.

But what about those of us who wish to seek lessons from the world of food without dedicating our lives to its study and practice as have Bocuse, Adria, and Myhrvold?  And how can we find Stoic inspiration if our goal is simply to work in a professional kitchen in our own neighborhood – or, even more likely, the kitchens and/or occupations we choose for ourselves – whether at home or in the workplace?

Mise en Place as a Form of Stoic Practice

So by keeping in mind the whole I form a part of, I’ll accept whatever happens. And because of my relationship to other parts, I will do nothing selfish, but aim instead to join them, to direct my every action toward what benefits us all and to avoid what doesn’t. If I do all that, then my life should go smoothly. Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 10.6

In the culinary industry, we speak of having mise en place as a governing component of the craft tradition in culinary education and culinary production.  Literally meaning to “put in place”, the concept of mise en place is one owed to one of the most influential French chef-educators, Auguste Escoffier.  In simple terms, the goal of mise en place is to have the ingredients ready and par-prepared, the ovens pre-heated, and the various components of a dish ready and neatly organized well before your shift is scheduled to begin.  The completion of setting up your workstation and gathering your mise en place is, quite simply, the defining preparatory work that separates the successful restaurant shift from the unsuccessful one.  Having your “mise” done early and skillfully; working fast, quietly, and clean; stepping up where and when needed – these are desirable skills for any cook to have, but in a busy, successfully run professional kitchen, they are not simply desirable, they are absolutely essential.

Given its emphasis on organization, proper planning, and previsualization of what is required for the successful completion of the task at hand, the term has grown to include what could be seen as a quality of preparedness in not just culinary education, but also in life – involving skills that drive toward excellence – but also involve virtues like justice, humility, and courage.  As a way of approaching work, or life, from a Stoic perspective, mise en place can be the underlying outlook involved in completing your tasks appropriately; working as a member of a team; trusting your mentor to assign you tasks that you may not understand; following the orders of a master (whether that be a parent, a union boss or a kitchen brigade); keeping your tools neat, sharp, and ready to be used; keeping your possessions and your surroundings clean and well-presented (whether that’s kitchen whites, or a uniform, or your own clothing), and so on.  

For many, mise en place becomes a way to define a lifestyle choice, or an approach to living and acting well.  When used as a guidepost, mise en place includes a sense of preparedness, rightness of being, and an ordered way of approaching the day.  

In the culinary classroom or teaching kitchen, mise en place permeates the entire process of teaching, learning, and production.  In the professional kitchen, restaurant, or culinary workspace, it defines the order of relationships.  In the general workplace, it means showing up early, with your work prepared, and a sense of order and calm.  At home, it includes the use of processes and actions that facilitate peace, order, enjoyment, and harmony.  

And in connection to Stoic thought, mise en place is about recognizing that your business if to “act well the character assigned you” – while understanding that choosing it is indeed another’s.  For if you are applying Stoic principles and mise en place in concert with Stoic frameworks, you will recognize that this combination provides the foundation for a practice of preparedness that most readily permits you to be ready to assume whatever task you are assigned.  

Finally, with an understanding of mise en place as a guiding tool, with the addition and adoption of a Stoic outlook, you can be reassured that you will accept your assignment, and perform it as you should, even if that assignment changes suddenly, or if the drama in which you are acting requires you to assume a new part without the luxury of warning.  At its most basic level, mise en place could also be seen as a form of “acting well.”

But what about after the shift begins, and the rhythm is set, and the group is working together?  How do we approach the nature of the kitchen, and the necessary opera of movement, sound, function, and form that takes place?

If we wish to be truly successful in our performance, we are required to do much more than simply have the tools in place to complete the task – we must do the work required to see it through to the end.  And in a kitchen space, this often means we are working with others on interdependent and co-dependent tasks connected to one assembled whole.

We must be willing to give up control.  We must fulfill our roles and be willing to step into the role of another when directed, or asked, to do so.  We need to see the pressure of the busy kitchen, the challenge of heightened emotion in a shared workspace, and the requests of the clients and customers as opportunities to be part of a larger whole – one in which we are acting, thinking, and desiring in accordance with that whole and its purposes.

In the kitchen, as in life, if we choose to practice Stoic ways of thinking, acting, and being, we should take the lessons we can learn from the great chefs, and the server who seats us for our next restaurant meal, and the person who puts our dinner on the table this evening (whether that be another or ourselves) with a sense of appreciation for the part-whole relationship we are called to examine so that we can be reminded of the words of Marcus Aurelius who tells us:

So by keeping in mind the whole I form a part of, I’ll accept whatever happens. And because of my relationship to other parts, I will do nothing selfish, but aim instead to join them, to direct my every action toward what benefits us all and to avoid what doesn’t. If I do all that, then my life should go smoothly. Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 10.6

 

Andi Sciacca is relatively new to Stoic practice and is pleased to be part of the Modern Stoicism movement.  She is an ABD doctoral candidate with European Graduate School’s program in Philosophy, Art, and Critical Thought.  She has served as the director of curriculum and program design for The Food Business School and the founding director of The Culinary Institute of America’s Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning.  Andi also taught for The City University of New York, The State University of New York, Marist College, and the Bard College Prison Initiative.  She now owns an educational consulting company in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Stoic Week 2017 Class is Now Enrolling

Stoic Week is coming up soon – running from the 16th to the 22nd of October – and the new Stoic Week online course is set up and ready for you to enroll in it!

You may have noticed the new tab already on the Modern Stoicism site, but just in case you haven’t, here’s the link that will take you directly to the new Learn Modern Stoicism site.

Over 1,500 people have already enrolled in this free course already, and we are about three weeks away from the start of Stoic Week.  Record numbers of people are expected to work their way through the course, following the intent of it’s original name to “live like a Stoic”.

If you haven’t previously done Stoic Week, here’s a bit of what you can expect to get access to in this free online course:

  • a Handbook with daily readings, reflections, and exercises
  • a set of MP3s with Stoic meditations (read by Donald Robertson)
  • worksheets you can use to monitor and reflect upon your experiences through the week
  • Forums in which you can discuss the ideas, your reflections, and other related matters with other participants

For those of you who have previously gone through the course, we have a revised handbook, themed around the idea of self-renewal, and if you remember the old course site (which was pretty good), odds are you’re going to really like the functionality of the new Teachable site.

One last thing.  Is it Stoic to get excited about the new Stoic Week class?  Some people say no – that’s too emotional.  But the Stoics did recognize the good emotional states, and among them are joy (kharis) and rational desire (boulesis).  If that’s what “getting excited” means, then it makes perfect sense to feel that about this year’s Stoic Week class!