Win a Free Signed Copy of Sharon Lebell’s The Art of Living

Sharon Lebell, The Art of LivingSharon Lebell, who spoke at this year’s Stoicon conference in Toronto, has kindly donated fifteen signed copies of her much loved book on the Stoicism of Epictetus, The Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness and Effectiveness.  We’re holding a free prize draw, which ends soon.  So please register below if you want to take part.

Enter Free Prize Draw

Full details via the link above.  Thanks for your support!

 

A Stoic Values Clarification Dialogue and Workshop by Christopher Gill and Tim LeBon

Rather than give you an account of what took place in Toronto – though we will both offer our reflections on it at the end of this article-  we thought it would be more true to the spirit of the Toronto Stoic Values Clarification workshop to make this more interactive. You can, however, hear the original workshop at http://tinyurl.com/TorontoValuesClarification

“What’s most important for you in life?”

That’s quite a big question, so it might help to spend a few moments on each of these Values Clarification Exercises.

1. Consider different areas of life such as family, career, recreation, spirituality and relationships.

What are the most important areas for you, and what is important in these areas?

For example, someone might answer:  family- “being a good parent” and  career – “being successful”

2. What would you like said at your 80th party about how you have lived?

3. If you had 6 months to live, how would you want to spend that time? What would you do more of? What would you stop doing?

Now reflect further on your answers and see if you are in a good position to answer the big question, in one sentence if you can:

The most important things in life for me are:

 

We wonder what sort of answer you have given? Have you talked about feeling happy, being successful, and having good relationships – fairly conventional answers. Or have you decided that it is important to develop wisdom, self-control, justice and courage – more Stoic answers?

Either way, we’d like you to consider this dialogue between a Stoic sage (played by Chris in our workshop) and “everyman”, played by Tim.  As you read it, think about how much you are persuaded by Chris’s arguments, and what further questions you would want to ask.

Chris (the Stoic): So, Tim, what do you think are the most important factors in leading a good life?

Tim:  (representing someone with a conventional view of the good life): Well, for me, I would say being happy and not getting too stressed out.

Chris: The Stoics would agree with you about this – happiness is for them too the good life and if we become happy we will also be less stressed or emotionally disturbed. But – more surprisingly perhaps – they think that happiness depends entirely on being virtuous. It does not depend on having other things normally seen as good, such as health, or wealth, or even the wellbeing of those we love. Stoics regard those things as having real value; they are things it is natural for us to want to have. But having them does not make you happy (in their sense) nor will it by itself bring peace of mind. For this reason they call these things ‘preferable indifferents’. They are genuinely preferable to have but they make no difference as far as happiness is concerned.

Tim: Hmm, I’ll have to think about that. … OK so let me give you an example of a recent occasion of what I mean by happiness.  I was having a nice meal with old friends, we ate well, had a glass or two of wine and talked philosophy.  I would have expected you philosophers to approve – but are you saying that evenings like that are just “preferable indifferents”? I’m not convinced.

Chris: Actually there is nothing ‘just’ about ‘preferable indifferents’ – they have real value and they can be part of a happy life. But the Stoics’ point is that being happy does not depend on experiences like this. You might be happy and not have this kind of experience and you might have this kind of experience and not be happy overall. Whereas happiness does depend on having and using the virtues – and without the virtues you will not be happy. This is because they see virtue as a skill or expertise in living or a knowledge of how to live properly. If you have this expertise, you will make proper use of all such experiences and of all ‘indifferents’ (preferable or not) but if you don’t have it you will not be able to use any of them properly. You will ‘foul up’ and make a mess of your life – including what seem to be the nice bits, like your evening with the friends.

Tim: OK, that’s interesting. So you are saying that evenings like that are indeed part of the good life but that I will not reliably have evenings like this unless I have the right skills – the virtues as Stoics would say. Is that right?

Chris: That’s right. Without the right skills (the virtues) you will mess up your nice evenings – also you will not be able to deal with difficult and demanding days at work. The Stoics see virtue as the knowledge of how to use all things and all situations well. That’s why the Stoics think virtue is the only thing that is really good, and why other things often regarded as good (like your nice evening) are preferred indifferents.

Tim:– OK can you spell that out a bit more? I’m not sure I had to be that virtuous to enjoy that night  – other than making sure I didn’t drink too much or say the wrong thing …

Chris: But actually saying the right things and not drinking too much are ways of expressing the virtues. They express two of the four generic or cardinal virtues – namely moderation or self-control which covers knowing how to act and feel well in situations arousing desire and justice, which covers dealing with other people properly. The other two cardinal virtues are wisdom, forming correct judgements, and courage, facing danger in the right spirit. The Stoics see these virtues as a matched set, covering the four main areas of human experience (there are many subdivisions of these virtues). They also see them as interdependent so that you cannot have one virtue without having them all. So on that evening if you lived well you expressed moderation and justice, but also good judgement and maybe courage as well (in the background). By the way, the Stoics have lots of images of the ideal ‘wise person’, and these include images of him or her at a symposium – doing just the sort of things you did – but doing them well not badly.

Tim:  So according to the Stoics someone who has these four cardinal virtues will also have more of these “preferable indifferents” like health, wealth and friends than someone who doesn’t?

Chris6: Well no, or not necessarily. The expertise is not skill in getting as many of the preferable indifferents as possible and getting them for yourself- even though these preferable indifferents have real value, which the virtuous person needs to recognise. The skill of virtue lies in correct selection between indifferents – which may mean choosing to have fewer preferred indifferents or giving more to other people than yourself. In fact, the Stoics think that the virtuous person is someone who can be happy without any specific type of indifferent – or indeed any indifferents – if circumstances require. So we have the powerful image of ‘the wise person happy on the rack of torture’ (being happy while being tortured) – as well as the image of the wise person being an adroit and agreeable participant in a symposium which I mentioned earlier. The point is that happiness does not depend on having the preferred indifferents but on the right use of them or right selection of them by the exercise of virtue.

Tim: So what would you say about the existence of people we could all think of who seem to be happy in a conventional sense – they have wealth, lots of pleasure  – but don’t seem to exercise much virtue?

Chris: But if their happiness depends on those things (wealth, pleasure) it is unreliable – what if they lose them and have no personal strength (no virtues, in other words) to deal with this loss? Whereas developing the virtues is under our control and so Stoic happiness is not fragile.

Tim: OK, I can agree that without the virtues happiness is more fragile. But what about the opposite? People who do exercise virtue well but suffer great misfortune?  Why should I want to be virtuous and on the rack rather than having a nice evening out with my friend?

Chris: Nobody chooses to be on the rack of torture (though you might choose to act with integrity rather than cowardice and so end up on the rack).  People don’t usually choose to be refugees or starving or politically oppressed – but most of the population of the world find themselves in this situation and even those of us in affluent, democratic, countries experience bereavement, illness, and other forms of loss. The hard question is: can we achieve happiness under these circumstances and what does it depend on? And the Stoic answer is it depends (solely) on whether you do or do not have virtue.

Tim: OK, so in what sense is a Stoic happy when they are rack? Presumably they are not feeling tingles of pleasure instead of pain?

Chris: No, of course they feel pain like everyone else. The difference is they do not regard the pain as being bad (of course they would rather not have the pain, it is a ‘dispreferred indifferent’) – whereas they regard the cowardice that would have enabled them to escape the torture as genuinely bad.

For the Stoics what count as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ things depends on their ideal of what makes a life worthwhile as a whole, what they would regard as a properly human or ‘natural’ life, and this determines their attitude and response on any one occasion. So the wise person on the rack can set the pain aside because she is aware of acting according to her best principles, her beliefs about what makes a life worthwhile. If she can live up to her ideals, this will bring her happiness, not just looking for localised good times here and there.

Tim:  So living virtuously often goes hand in hand with what we conventionally count as happiness, and even if it doesn’t the Stoic will be happy in a sense because they are leading a good life?

Chris: Yes – exactly – one of the Stoic definitions of happiness is ‘a life according to virtue’. This doesn’t  mean that Stoics try to be virtuously only instrumentally, to try to gain happiness. They aim to be virtuous for its own sake; and leading a life according to virtue is also a happy one – the two ideas are inseparable.

Also, the Stoics do not think that virtue is something forced on people by social pressure or conditioning. The virtues are the fullest expression of our nature as human beings. So they also call happiness ‘the life according to nature’ (meaning, partly at least, human nature). They also think that living a virtuous life brings with it enjoyment – real enjoyment or what the Stoics call ‘good emotions’ including joy. So in this respect the Stoic view of happiness is not so far from the modern one though it is different in other ways. However, Stoics do not aim to be virtuous just for the sake of getting these ‘good emotions’ or achieving peace of mind; these things are consequences of being virtuous, and follow when virtue is chosen for its own sake.

Tim: Can I just check that I understand this? Suppose my friend upsets me. A few days later they need my help. The Stoic would say I should help the friend, not because on balance it will bring me more pleasure in the future, but because that’s what friendship requires, and that’s the sort of person I would want to be?

Chris:  “Yes Tim, I think you’ve got it! To go back to your original definition of the good life, yes of course enjoy a night out with friends, but the Stoic would say there’s more to being a good human being than that!  Actually there’s a lot more I could add about Stoic values –  such as wisdom meaning trying to change only those things under your control and a cosmopolitanism belief in a brother and sisterhood of man.  But I do think we’ve made a start today Tim in helping you think about values in a more Stoic way. What do you think?

Tim:  You’ve certainly given me a lot food for thought. According to you, I might need to make a paradigm shift from aiming for happiness in the conventional sense to aiming to be virtuous. In doing so I am actually quite likely to be happy in the conventional sense, but that’s not the point. The point is I will be living as a human being should. So maybe I ought to devote more energy earning about Stoicism and how to develop the virtues and less on how to enjoy myself.  But what does everyone else think?

 

Are you convinced by Chris’s arguments? Do you think there are any difficult questions Tim could have asked that he didn’t? What comments or questions have you got about this dialogue? Please use the comments section below to ask us whatever you like relating to the dialogue.

It might help for you to reread the dialogue and then to have a look at this Outline of the Dialogue which summarises the main arguments.

Tim: Tim states a conventional view of the good life -“being happy and not getting too stressed out”

Chris: Chris introduces the Stoic view that  although the conventional goods are of value they are not really good, they are ‘preferred indifferents’. Virtue is of a different magnitude of value and “trumps” conventional goods.

Chris : The Stoic view on happiness  and virtue is elaborated. Virtues are skills in living properly. Virtues are necessary and sufficient for happiness.

Tim – Chris – Tim:  Further discussion of the idea that the virtue consists in skill in living and in the right use of our experiences and that this is what our happiness depends on. Tim wonders whether virtues are really relevant to his example of an evening out with friends

Chris introduces the 4 “cardinal virtues” each with their own domain  – wisdom (making judgements), courage (danger), self-control  (desire) and justice (other people). Stoics believe the virtues are interdependent – you need all of them to act properly in line with any of them.

Chris corrects  a possible misunderstanding.  The role of virtue is not to get as much of the conventional goods (indifferents) as possible. The virtues are good for their own sake

Tim introduces a possible problem for the Stoic – a happy but unvirtuous person. Chris counters that the happiness of such a person is fragile.

Tim suggests another  potential problem.  You can be virtuous but suffer great misfortune. Chris replies that although a Stoic would prefer not to be tortured, there are more important things for them than how they feel – namely living up to their ideals & being virtuous.

Tim , who seems to understand the Stoic view better now, gives an example that seems to support the Stoic view, namely how we generally regard  friendship.

Chris  is happy that the Stoic position is now better understood and points out that there is of course more to Stoicism than these ideas, though these are a useful start.

Tim though not committing himself fully to the Stoic view agrees he has been given a lot of food for thought.  He understands that Stoicism requires a big shift in the way we think about happiness and the good life, and if he is to follow Stoicism he still has a lot to learn.

 

Before going on to the next section, it’s important to spend a few moments reflecting on how much you agree with the Stoic arguments.

Now it’s time to reconsider your original answer to the question, “what’s important in your life?”

Think about how each of the Stoic virtues could be important for you, bearing in mind the answer you gave about what is important in life.

Do this for each in turn for each virtue:

Wisdom (right judgement)  – (for example: if your original answer was “being a good parent”, wisdom is important because without right judgement, I am unlikely to be a good parent)

Courage (facing danger)

Justice (dealing well with other people)

Self-Control (dealing well with desires)

Reflecting on the argument in the dialogue, how much you think living accordingly to the virtues is  important for its own sake, not just instrumentally to help you get conventional goods? Do you agree that being wise, self-controlled, courageous and just is more important than feeling good and being successful?

 

Having considered Stoicism, I now believe that  the most important things in life for me are:

How much have you been influenced by the Values Clarification exercises and the Dialogue? What can you do to live your life closer to your vision of what is important in life?

We hope that this proves to be a fruitful exercise. We also invite you to use the comments section below to give us your feedback on the whole exercise.

 

Here are our reflections on the workshop in Toronto: We were both very happy with the way the workshop went, especially the very lively Q & A after we re-enacted the dialogue.

The questions asked included:

  1. Did Seneca show virtue in killing himself?
  2. Are love and compassion included in virtue? Are the Stoic virtues the same as modern ‘moral qualities’ or different?
  3. Why should I be virtuous rather than not virtuous?
  4. Can people be harmed as a result of having virtues?
  5. How should we define the virtues?
  6. Is virtue compatible with the pragmatic demands of practical and professional life?
  7. How are the virtues interconnected? Are they really interdependent, as the Stoics think?
  8. Suppose virtue is not really the same as happiness, will we be better people if we believe (falsely) this is the case?
  9. What is the connection between being a virtuous person and having emotions?
  10. Would this approach work if you were working with less willing pupils than “Tim” (including children)?

We tried to answer some of these questions in the dialogue, especially as regards what we think the virtues are and the close linkage between virtue and happiness.  Again, you might like to provide your own answers to these questions in the comments section below.

We wonder if this format might be developed and used in future Stoicons and even perhaps on-line. The best questions – and their answers – could be woven into a longer dialogue, which could be a useful resource for those who wish to learn more about Stoicism.

Perhaps in any future sessions we could ask people to provide written feedback to help us assess how useful they found the session, and whether their ideas had been changed at all. Ultimately, however, the point of the exercise was not to convert people to Stoicism, but rather to help them reflect on whether Stoic ideas can fit with their worldview.

Time did not allow us to tackle the final stage of the Values Clarification exercise, namely making plans to put the values in action. This question did come up in conversation with participants afterwards, and of course the answer, if the values are Stoic, is to read Stoic writings, to download the Stoic Week Handbook and do the exercises. (Tim adds): As a positive psychologist I also take a great interest in current empirical work taking place on how to develop the virtues.  I believe a synthesis of Stoic philosophy and empirical psychology could be very helpful.

An audio recording of the original Toronto Values Clarification Workshop can be found at http://tinyurl.com/TorontoValuesClarification

Please help us to continue the dialogue in the comments section below.

Chris Gill is Emeritus Professor of Ancient Thought at the University of Exeter. He has written extensively on ancient philosophy. His books which focus on Stoicism include The Structured Self in Hellenistic and Roman Thought and Naturalistic Psychology in Galen & Stoicism

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

Resources From Stoicon 2017 Now Available!

As has been the case each succeeding year, we had some excellent talks and workshop sessions at Stoicon 2017 and the Stoicon-X that followed the next day.

It was hosted in Toronto, and had over 400 attendees – it’s still growing in numbers each time – but the worldwide Modern Stoic community is far vaster than that, so until now, those who weren’t able to go to the actual events have largely had to be content – for the time being – to peer in through the media of one video (my workshop presentation) and a few summaries and transcripts (those by Massimo Pigliucci and William Stephens).

We are very happy to announce that we have now assembled videos, handouts, slides, and other resources from Stoicon 2017 into one place.

Here’s where you can find all of that material!

You’ll also find some bonus material, from the Toronto Stoicon-X – videos of some of the “Lightning Round” talks that participants gave there.  We hadn’t originally planned on videorecording those, but decided to right on the spot – and I shot them with my low-tech flipcam – so they’re a bit less polished.  But the talks are very engaging, and I’m sure you’ll enjoy them as much as we did at the event!

The Power of Negative Thinking by Peter Lyons

I distrust the cult of the power of positive thinking. There is something about it that invites passivity. Don’t be negative. Always agree with the situation and just look on the bright side. Be compliant and don’t make a fuss. We can all be winners if we just work harder and keep a positive attitude. The is the simplistic mantra of the modern market ideology that has come to dominate our reality in recent decades.

Putting aside what it actually means to be a “winner” in this age of casino capitalism, the cult of passive positivity denies reality. It has a saccharine unpalatable flavour that invites disillusionment and an unquestioning submission to authority. Those in authority know best so just look on the bright side and get on with it. What’s wrong with a healthy dose of realistic negativity?

I equate the power of positive thinking with the new age mantra of “mindfulness”. They are used to sell “self help” books that for some reason cram the shelves at airport bookshops. I have always wondered why such literature predominates in these venues. Maybe travel invites a contemplative mindset. Maybe the thought of tonnes of metal, people and luggage staying airborne requires positivity for those who really think about it.

Yet there is much more going on here. These mantras of positivity and mindfulness are not just simplistic slogans designed to sell self help books at airports. They are not just for calming the nerves of jittery travellers. They are stepped in philosophical traditions that predate the emergence of Christianity.

The cult of positive thinking is actually a sad inversion of a tradition promoted by the classical philosophy of stoicism. Stoicism has a bad rap these days likely due to the fact that early Christianity borrowed a number of its traditions then prohibited its teachings. It then largely disappeared as a practical approach to healthy living. Being a stoic became associated with denying emotions and feelings. It became a descriptor for the emotionally crippled.

Stoicism is actually a much more subtle and relevant and beautiful approach to life than this caricature portrays. It is a practical philosophy used as a pathway through life by many early Romans, including slaves and Emperors. Marcus Aurelius, arguably one of the greatest Roman emperors, was a disciple of Stoicism.

It could be argued that Stoicism is more relevant in this age than in the past few millennium. The grip of faith based religion has weakened considerably in many developed countries in the past few centuries. The Reformation and general acceptance of Darwin’s teachings on evolution corroded the Church’s authority in the West. Yet people still seek a set of beliefs and values to guide them through life. They want to know the best way to live their short tenure on this earth. Those who find it impossible to embrace a doctrine based on faith and revealed truths seek answers elsewhere. The study and practice of Stoicism can provide answers. It can help answer the age old question of “what is a good life?” The answers it provides are based on reason rather than faith. The recipe is there for those who want it.

The irony is that an adherence to stoic ideas does not preclude religious faith. Stoicism does not preach exclusivity. Stoicism does not actually preach at all. People find it, it doesn’t actively seek them. It is not a cult or a sect or a proselytizing religion. It is a way of approaching life in a rational , calm, humanistic manner that anyone can take or leave. It’s their choice, as it should be. Trying to impose stoic beliefs on others contradicts the core Stoic belief of recognizing what you can and can’t control. You can’t control the beliefs of others. But you can influence them.

The current mantra of positive thinking is largely a product of modern capitalist mythology. We can all be winners in life if we simply set our minds to it. The definition of a winner in our modern version of capitalism is ill defined. One version is currently living in the White House.

The cult of unquestioning positivity is a puerile denial of human reality. It was championed by authors such as Horatio Alger in 19th century America and later, Dale Carnegie. Alger wrote quasi inspirational novels about young orphans from impoverished backgrounds who reached positions of great wealth and power through sheer grit and determination. It was wonderful stirring stuff designed to inspire the masses. Alger was eventually discredited for an unhealthy interest in young people. But his legacy lives on in attacks on government assistance to the needy. We are all meant to be self reliant. Just be positive and work harder. This is a sad denial of much of the positive collective action of the 20th century particularly in areas such as education and healthcare.

I like the ancient stoic inversion of the power of positive thinking. They taught the power of negative visualisation. To overcome the nasty, short and brutal nature of ancient life they taught the need to appreciate that things can always be worse. That life and most things in it are transitory. That we are all irrelevant in the general scheme of things. So don’t sweat the small stuff, just appreciate the miracle of your own existence and make the most of it. It is a precious gift so make sure to live as good a life as possible. Things seldom turn out as bad as we think.

An unfortunate human mental affliction is the fear that others are living a better life. That somehow we have been cursed and others blessed by fortune. They are better looking, richer, healthier so have better relationships, marriages and careers. That there is someone out there living the perfect life. We inflict this belief on each other through the daily facades we maintain. It is quite a laughable belief when you break it down.  It denies the reality of nature and human existence. Stoicism provides a far better lens on reality. To read the writings of a Roman Emperor such as Marcus Aurelius is a precious insight. It reveals he suffered many of the same fears, frustrations and failings as many of us. Just a good man in a different age in a different job who sometimes wondered why he should get out of bed in the morning.

As for the recent popularity of “mindfulness,” it is neither recent nor original. The Stoic philosophy was teaching this concept over two thousand years ago. Mindfulness simply means appreciating the moment, being in the moment and reacting appropriately. Not overreacting at poor service in a restaurant or a perceived slight on social media, being appropriate in your actions in the here and now. Not succumbing to negative emotions such as anger or jealousy or envy.

Just recognising and controlling your own emotional responses to external factors. Recognising that you cannot always control what happens to you but you do have control over how you respond to situations. The essence of stoicism is recognising what you can and can’t control. What you can control is your reasoning, actions and reactions. This is crucial to living a good life.

Sadly in our modern age dominated by the need for constant connection and instant gratification we have lost sight of ancient traditions such as mindfulness and the power of negative visualisation. The ancient thinkers can teach us a lot.

Peter Lyons teaches Economics at Saint Peters College in Epsom, New Zealand. He has written several Economics texts and numerous articles for mainstream media.

Do People Commit Evil Out of Ignorance? by Massimo Pigliucci

This post is the transcript of Professor Pigliucci’s’ presentation at the STOICON 2017 conference.  A videorecording of the talk will be available in the coming weeks.  The slides can be downloaded here.

Epictetus wrote:

For if one shows this, a man will retire from his error of himself; but as long as you do not succeed in showing this, you need not wonder if he persists in his error, for he acts because he has an impression that he is right. (Discourses, II.26)

It is a striking reminder of just how forgiving and non judgmental Stoic philosophy is. When people do something wrong we ought to try to correct, not judge them, because they act under the mistaken belief that they are actually doing the right thing.

The notion is Socratic in nature, and it is found, for instance, in this famous phrase, which Diogenes Laertius attributes to the most famous Athenian philosopher: “There is only one good, knowledge, and only one evil, ignorance.” (Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers, II.31) But surely this can’t be right. Socrates, and Epictetus, cannot possibly mean that knowledge is the only good, and especially that ignorance is the only evil.

If one looks carefully, though, the two words translated respectively as “knowledge” and “ignorance” are episteme and amathia. Episteme means more than just knowledge, especially factual knowledge. It means understanding. And amathia is not really ignorance, it is closer to un-wisdom, the opposite of sophia (as in philosophia, love of wisdom). So what Socrates and Epictetus maintain here is that the best someone can do is to achieve understanding of how things work (and therefore of how to act in life), while the worst is being unwise, and therefore engage in actions that one mistakenly, as it turns out, thinks are right.

In the Platonic dialogue entitled Alcibiades Major, we get an even better idea of what Socrates means, within the specific context of politics. He is chatting with the future Athenian general Alcibiades, who is his friend, student, and former lover. Alcibiades is a fascinating figure (one of these days I’m going to write a book about him), who was instrumental in Athens’ fatal decision to attack Syracuse during  the Peloponnesian war (though, in fairness, he was relieved of command by his fickle fellow citizens before the expedition got started). Alcibiades then defected first to the Spartans and later to the Persians, before returning once again to Athens. He was killed in Phrygia by Spartan assassins: when he saw himself surrounded by enemies he rushed at them with a dagger in his hand, and fell struck by a shower of arrows.

Anyway, here is a bit of the rather frank dialogue between Socrates and his famous pupil:

SOCRATES: But if you are bewildered, is it not clear from what has gone before that you are not only ignorant of the greatest things, but while not knowing them you think that you do?

ALCIBIADES: I am afraid so.

SOCRATES: Alack then, Alcibiades, for the plight you are in! I shrink indeed from giving it a name, but still, as we are alone, let me speak out. You are wedded to stupidity, my fine friend, of the vilest kind; you are impeached of this by your own words, out of your own mouth; and this, it seems, is why you dash into politics before you have been educated. And you are not alone in this plight, but you share it with most of those who manage our city’s affairs, except just a few, and perhaps your guardian, Pericles.

Socrates is telling his friend that he is unwise, not ignorant. Alcibiades was a highly intelligent and educated man, and yet his lack of wisdom turned out to be disastrous for him personally and for Athens more generally. Countless politicians since, up to and including current occupants of the highest political offices in the Unites States, European countries, and elsewhere are suffering from the same malady as Alcibiades, and a proper response on our part should probably also begin with “Alack!”

Back to the Stoics. Epictetus uses an interesting example to get his point across his students, that of Medea, the mythological tragic figure at the center of a famous play by Euripides (and a later one by none other than Seneca). As is well known, Medea helped Jason steal the fabled Golden Fleece from her native land, in the process betraying her father and killing her brother. She did it for love and also to escape her “barbarian” country and come to civilized Greece (remember, the play was written by a Greek). One of the intriguing characteristics of the piece is that it can be (and has been) read either as a tale of misogyny and xenophobia (Medea is a woman and a barbarian) or as a proto-feminist story of a woman’s struggle in a patriarchal society.

Medea is eventually abandoned by Jason, and she kills her own (and Jason’s) children in desperation, for spite and revenge. Euripides has Medea say: “I know full well what ills I mean to do, But passion overpowers what counsel bids me.” Again, this is not ignorance in the usual sense, it is amathia. She knows that what she is about to do is horrible, but in her current state of mind she can’t think of a better way to make the unbearable pain of her existence go away. (Incidentally, Seneca’s version of the tragedy is significantly more sympathetic to Medea than Euripides’.)

Here is how Epictetus comments on Medea:

Here the very gratification of passion and the vengeance she takes on her husband she believes to be more to her profit than saving her children. … Why then are you indignant with her, because, unhappy woman, she is deluded on the greatest matters and is transformed from a human being into a serpent? Why do you not rather pity her  — if so it may be? As we pity the blind and the lame, so should we pity those who are blinded and lamed in their most sovereign faculties. (Discourses, I.28)

This, of course, is the crux of the discipline of assent:

What is the reason that we assent to a thing? Because it seems to us that it is so. It is impossible that we shall assent to that which seems not to be. Why? Because this is the nature of the mind — to agree to what is true, and disagree with what is false, and withhold judgment on what is doubtful. … Feel now, if you can, that it is night. It is impossible. Put away the feeling that it is day. It is impossible. … When a man assents, then, to what is false, know that he had no wish to assent to the false: ‘for no soul is robbed of the truth with its own consent,’ as Plato says, but the false seemed to him true.” (Discourses, I.28)

Contemporary philosopher Hannah Arendt hit on something similar when she described the horrors of Nazi Germany, after covering the famous Eichmann trial in Jerusalem for The New Yorker. My friend Amy Valladares translated for me from the German parts of the last interview Arendt gave, where she elaborated on the concept in terms that are reminiscent of both Socrates and Epictetus:

There’s something really outrageous [empörend = shocking, revolting] about this stupidity. … Eichmann was perfectly intelligent, but in this respect he had this sort of stupidity [dummheit = irrationality, senselessness]. It was this stupidity that was so outrageous. And that was what I actually meant by banality.

Another contemporary philosopher, Glenn Hughes, uses a similar concept, again in the context of Nazi Germany, talking about “intelligent stupidity” (not an oxymoron!):

Intelligent stupidity is no mental illness, yet it is most lethal; a dangerous disease of the mind that endangers life itself. [The danger lies] not in an inability to understand but in a refusal to understand, [and] any healing or reversal of it will not occur through rational argumentation, through a greater accumulation of data and knowledge, or through experiencing new and different feelings.

Instead, intelligent stupidity is a “spiritual sickness,” and in need of a spiritual cure. (From “Ignorance vs. Stupidity”; the essay begins with the bit of Socratic dialogue transcribed above.)

Amathia, is the root of “intelligent stupidity,” or “ignorance” in the Socratic sense, the opposite of sophia, i.e., wisdom. The “cure,” then, is philosophy. But not the academic sort that a number of clever people engage in today, more as a kind of intellectual game than anything else. I’m talking about real, practical philosophy.

As a faculty member in a philosophy department, I’m often asked by students and parents: why study philosophy? Epictetus had the answer, and it is connected to the need to avoid amathia, to cure ourselves from our spiritual sickness:

This is the defense that we must plead with parents who are angered at their children studying philosophy: ‘Suppose I am in error, my father, and ignorant of what is fitting and proper for me. If, then, this cannot be taught or learnt, why do you reproach me? If it can be taught, teach me, and, if you cannot, let me learn from those who say that they know. For what think you? That I fall into evil and fail to do well because I wish to?’ (Discourses I.28)

What do we gain by curing ourselves of amathia, and moreover by recognizing that people who do bad things are not “evil,” but rather sick? A lot, as it turns out. We get what Epictetus promises his students that they will achieve by practicing and internalizing the precepts of Stoic philosophy, and particularly the dichotomy of control:

Now the things within our power are by nature free, unrestricted, unhindered; but those beyond our power are weak, dependent, restricted, alien. Remember, then, that if you attribute freedom to things by nature dependent and take what belongs to others for your own, you will be hindered, you will lament, you will be disturbed, you will find fault both with gods and men. … But if you take for your own only that which is your own and view what belongs to others just as it really is, then no one will ever compel you, no one will restrict you; you will find fault with no one, you will accuse no one, you will do nothing against your will; no one will hurt you, you will not have an enemy, nor will you suffer any harm. (Enchiridion I.3)

That is why Stoic philosophy is both other- and self-forgiving. The Stoic understands that everyone who is not a Sage (and that’s pretty much everyone) suffers from different degrees of amathia. We are all partially blind and lame. By all means, let us restrain the Medeas of the world from killing innocent children, and more importantly the many Alcibiadeses, who have the power to affect the lives of millions, from doing too much damage. But let us also remind ourselves that these are spiritually sick people. They need help, and deserve our pity.

Massimo Pigliucci has a PhD in evolutionary biology from the University of Connecticut and one in philosophy from the University of Tennessee. He teaches philosophy at the City College of New York, and his latest book is How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life. He blogs at How To Be A Stoic.

Stoicism and Sustainability by Kai Whiting

Sustainable development is an important concern of the 21st century and is one that this article will hopefully show can and should be navigated with a stoic framework. Environmental degradation can be measured using footprints of all sorts: carbon, water, ecological and material. These footprints are enlarging, which shows that humankind’s impact on the planetary system is increasing to the detriment of the other beings we share space with [1]. Consequently, it is of no coincidence that there are serious talks and working groups proposing that the current geological epoch is no longer the Holocene but rather the Anthropocene [2]. The “anthro-” prefix reflects the growing realisation and physical evidence that human activity, more than any other force of nature, is driving the climate.

When hearing about global warming, mass extinction, deforestation and pollution many of us point a finger at an economic system built on consumerism. We consider the mantra of growth as the culprit of environmental degradation and in some instances social ills. We almost certainly agree that the Pareto Principle applies to wealth acquisition because of the focus and favouring of the rich individuals and corporations when it comes to say tax breaks and tax havens. But for all the finger pointing, a 21st century stoic led philosopher would not state that systems are teleological; in the sense that they do not have reasons, purposes or inclinations. Rather, they would reflect on the fact that in a human made system, it is the collective virtue of those that create systems and not the system itself, which direct them.

The near-universal acceptance of money and the capitalist-consumerist ideal is something that Harari, in his book Sapiens [3], argues most people (unfortunately) live up to, more so than say their Christian, Buddhist, or dare I say stoic, ideals. Certainly, the authority given to the market as a ruler of the Earth, rather than a subject reined in by its physical limitations, bears an uncanny resemblance to Spinoza’s god in Ethics [4] to the point of being able to quote it almost directly:

“Money is to be], endowed with human freedom, to take care of all things for men, make all things for their use and direct all things for the use of men in order to bind men and be held by men in the highest honour.

The privilege given to money and thus intrinsically economic growth, to be upheld above all else, is found even in the unlikeliest of places, should we agree that, by definition growth cannot be sustained. The bias towards growth and the valuing of growth first and foremost is clearly seen in the language of the United Nation Sustainable Development Goals declaration [5] where the term is mentioned 17 times in contradictory phrases (sustained growth, being sustainable) such as this one:

Sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth is essential for prosperity (Point 27)

The overemphasis on growth and its rhetoric not only continues to go unnoticed even in the most socially aware circles (one would at least hope) but also crowds out environmental goals which continue to be less in number, less well-defined and more often than not addressed as secondary points under a socio-economic banner [6]. The push for growth at the expense of environmental concerns seems to me, at least, to be the antithesis of achieving the United Nation’s long –held target of “reversing the depletion of environmental resources” or combating climate change.

The axiom that “growth is good” and thus “more growth is better” is also sketched out in the economic models that dominate our thinking processes. The so-called environmental Kuznet’s curve (Kuznet, the economist who developed the metric of GDP and warned against its use as a measure of wellbeing), for example, is established on the premise that environmental degradation is the cost of progress. The problem is that growth is considered limitless and a preference that must be favoured and sustained over all else. For its devotees, and there are enough of them, it is only growth that will un-do this mess (for a comic look at the absurdities of this proposition please see here.).

Unsurprisingly, given the prevalence of the aforementioned belief it is hard to see growth for what it is. It is even harder to argue against its necessity, beyond a certain point of meeting basic needs, to further degrees of wellbeing and fulfilment. Critiques of the aforementioned growth hypothesis are downplayed, considered politically unsound, or at the very least, engaged in wishful thinking. So even, when empirical evidence shows that a one percent growth in GDP leads to a 0.6 percent growth in material consumption, and that a one percent growth in GDP leading to a 0.5 to 0.7 percent increase in carbon emissions [7,8], proponents of sustainability still call for growth, proclaiming greener alternatives such as decoupling and not a paradigm shift towards prosperity without growth as the answer.

Stoic Considerations: Virtue and Physics

It is hard to imagine a philosophical framework further away from Stoicism then the status quo described above. For a Stoic, it is virtue and not growth that must be placed above all in our progress towards eudaimonia. And, it is virtue, not money that is the ultimate source of a life worth living.

In my opinion, it is our moral obligation as students of Stoicism to ask ourselves if we believe in the neoclassical economic view of preferences. We are called to question the underlying assumption that utility is gained when we add more of x and y to our possession. For a stoic, at best, x and y if things (and not virtues) are preferred indifferents, as long as having them does not diminish our virtue and (perhaps) improves our life. And in such case, we shouldn’t prefer having more of them or having them at all. At worse, x and y undermine our virtue because in purchasing them we buy into the processes that created them: questionable labour practices in Bangladeshi sweatshops and Chinese factories, Brazilian rainforest destruction or shady banking deals in London and New York.

At the same time, Stoicism doesn’t call us to abandon capitalism (which in its simplest form is a way of distributing goods through the market rather than central government) or refrain from consuming in a way that Diogenes of Sinope would approve. Rather, and as Massimo Pigliucci states in How to be a Stoic [9]:

Stoicism is about developing the tools to deal as effectively as humanly possible, with the ensuing conflicts, does not demand perfection and does not provide specific answers: those are for fools, who think the world is black and white, good versus evil, where it is always possible to clearly tell the good guys from the bad guys. That is not the world we live in, and to pretend otherwise is more than a bit dangerous and not at all wise.

So, if a student of Stoicism is not charged with coming up with a specific answer, how can our philosophy offer solutions to the sustainable development debate? Other than demanding of ourselves that which is virtuous, a practice that involves making tough and sometimes inconvenient choices, we are also called to “follow nature” or to study “physics”. To paraphrase Lawrence Becker [10], it is our duty to come to terms with the nature of reality and those facts that dictate our physical existence and our mental representation of the world. It is in undertaking this exercise that useful insights provide us with the means to tackle the complexity of sustainability.

In my opinion, understanding physics starts at the first and second law of thermodynamics for it are these that provide an absolute mark of where possibility begins and ends, regardless of how efficient our technologies become. The second law also demonstrates that there is an un-negotiable qualitative change in the universe. It bestows society with a non-arbitrary sense of economic value. It states that in every irreversible transaction, such as mining for precious metals or contaminating the ocean depths, quality (exergy) is lost and that it is lost forever [11]. It provides irrefutable evidence that we are transgressing planetary boundaries [12] and that with every subsequent dig for more gold, more oil and more stuff, we are simply accelerating towards our own unvirtuous demise.

The encroachment of human activity on every corner of the globe is perhaps best seen through the lens of material consumption. Just sixty years ago relatively few elements were used widely to support most applications. Fast forward until today and, in the name of enhanced performance, complex mixtures of up to two-thirds of the periodic table have become the norm as our “needs” have proliferated [13,14].

Our physical limits, meanwhile, haven’t changed; we still inhabit a small planet and whilst are always able to create more money (making our obsession with it all the more incongruous), we cannot create more space. Sure, techno-optimists having silenced Malthus’ [15] alarmist predictions will point to our ability to overcome nature’s limits but what they are really demonstrating to us is our ability to re-shape nature, to crush her, in order to make, not more space per se but more space for us. That aside, population bombs are a moot point, if not a red herring.

Population growth is not a problem when compared to the population’s demand for growth. The richest citizens of the 21st century want more interesting materials to fulfil and excite them. Some, if Ray Kurweil’s dream is anything to go by, look to materials to advance their abilities beyond their humanity and even beyond the grave [9, 16]. These Homo Deus request deeper holes and extended plots to commemorate their latest success via towering monuments and testaments (skyscrapers, pen houses, etc.) to their wealth, extravagance and sense of self-importance.

To give some perspective on the matter, material stock, which includes buildings, increased 23-fold from 1900 to 2010, in line with GDP (27-fold) over the same period whilst the amount of primary material input used to build up or renew stocks rose from 1 Gt/year to 36 Gt/year [17]. These figures, if nothing else, reflect the considerable effort and resource society expends to build, enlarge and maintain what they already have. They demonstrate that Kahneman et al. [18]’s microeconomic behavioural study on endowment effect and loss aversion is prevalent at all levels and that a Stoic perspective on loss is very much needed to re-address the balance:

With regard to whatever objects give you delight, are useful, or are deeply loved, remember to tell yourself of what general nature they are. If you have a favourite cup or mug, say that it is not your favourite, then when it breaks you won’t be disturbed. – Epictetus, The Enchiridion, Ch 3. [19,20]

Changing the way we view materials

Practicing un-attachment when things break (or die) in order to curb the desire to hang onto what is lost or what has now passed, is only one piece of the sustainable materials puzzle. We ought to, as stoics and as members of society at large, deeply and deliberately consider the nature of the materials, with regards to how their extraction, manufacture, use and disposal affects the world around us. We should delve into the nature of our individual and collective desires which lead to the existence of products in the first place.

Under capitalism and the supply and demand function, something is produced as soon as there demand for it, at a price agreeable to both the producer and consumer. This price does of course fluctuate and is a driver for a more efficient means of production in order to make the product more competitive. Yet, as an academic devoted to sustainable energy and materials, I am far from satisfied with the so-called law of supply and demand. Firstly, because, unlike the aforementioned Second Law of Thermodynamics, or the Law of Motion, it is not a law at all (economists borrowed from Physics to enhance the credibility of their theories, which they turned into laws). It is not a law precisely because it is not subject to a physical limit (i.e. the true nature of things) but rather the whims of the consumer and the marketing expertise of the producer who tells the consumer that what they sell is far from a preferred indifferent but an absolute necessity.

Importantly and despite claims to the contrary, neither material consumption nor material efficiency tell us what materials are destined for nor whether their production is beneficial. This is because consumerism or market values, including the price mechanism, tell us nothing as to the service materials provide. They can’t answer the harder and more important questions of; “How can materials provide individuals with what they really (or think they) want?” “How should materials be used to support societal goals and aspirations?” and “Besides profit, why should we make this product?”

In my team’s and I research, we realised that a concept was needed to move even the hardened members of sustainability community to do what students of Stoicism put into practice daily: ascertaining the nature of a thing and the virtue of possessing (producing) it. We put together a (hopefully) complete list of material services (Figure 1) and defined them as “Those benefits that materials contribute to societal wellbeing, through fuels and products (regardless of whether or not they are supplied by the market) when they are put to proper use”.

Figure 1. Material services at a glance. Note: Some services can be placed in more than one category depending on the exact nature of the service provided * Health aids include glasses, wheel chairs, etc [14].

From Theory to Practice

Sustainable theory is one thing, putting it into practice is much better. It is also much more in line with Stoicism:

If you didn’t learn these things in order to demonstrate them in practice, what did you learn them for?  – Epictetus, Discourses I, 29.35

The nature of materials and material services, as opposed to energy, which is another major concern within the sustainability discourse, is that whilst one cannot distinguish one kWh from another or dictate energy policy from a non-political occupation, everyone regardless of societal position has the ability to choose what they put in their mouth or upon their back. Both clothing and food choices are to be made daily and although we may not think about it, they are statements (overtly made or otherwise) of who we are and what we value.

Let’s take vegetarianism as an example of food as a material service. When we abstain from meat, we are also turning away from mass produced meat products, which in all instances cause suffering (the animal is slaughtered against its will) and in more than enough cases involve cramped conditions and the destruction of familiar/communal animal ties (the young are forcibly separated from their mother and herd). We are likewise making a statement about the unacceptability of deforestation and environmental activist murders by unscrupulous ranchers in Latin America [21,22]. We are rejecting the use of agricultural land to feed animals when we can more efficiently use that same land area for crops that we eat directly and thus feed more people with less waste.

In abstaining or curbing meat we are also be taking a stand against shady industry practices that are detrimental to our health (one just needs to think back to the outbreak of mad cow disease and the reasons behind it) or be thinking about the effect that animal fat has on our arteries and our wellbeing generally. Certainly, Stoic thought lends itself well to plant-based diets as Seneca, Rufus and this Modern Stoicism article testifies.

That said vegetarianism, or even veganism, isn’t a blanket solution of course. There are some key ethical concerns to be navigated when it comes to mass soya production, some of which is undertaken in vulnerable areas and has led to Brazilian rainforest encroachment and devastation in a similar way to beef cattle [23]. There is also the issue of genetically modified soya crops. One thus should also look at the origin of soya (Italy is a key producer, for example) to ensure that one particular set of poor behaviour is not simply replaced by another.

Clothing is another material service which requires some thought. Both slave and child labour are unacceptable side effects of the cheap throw-away fashion industry. Fair trade cooperative sourcing provides one way to steer clear of such practices as does paying special attention to labels or, in the absence of a suitable alternative, simply buying less.  Research into smaller grassroot initiatives, such as the British based The Hemp Trading Company (THTC), is also a way to challenge the mass produced fashion label and the indiscriminate chemical spraying of cotton fields to devastating social and environmental effect.

In the end, Stoicism may not provide specific answers but it does provide a philosophical framework to do more than scratch at the surface, in search for virtue and a truer understanding of the nature of things. And that is precisely what we need to arrive at to move the sustainability discourse forward.

 

References

  1. Schandl, H., Fischer‐Kowalski, M., West, J., Giljum, S., Dittrich, M., Eisenmenger, N., … & Krausmann, F. (2017). Global material flows and resource productivity: forty years of evidence. Journal of Industrial Ecology.
  2. Waters, C. N., Zalasiewicz, J., Summerhayes, C., Barnosky, A. D., Poirier, C., Gałuszka, A., … & Jeandel, C. (2016). The Anthropocene is functionally and stratigraphically distinct from the Holocene. Science351(6269), aad2622.
  3. Harari, Y. N., & Perkins, D. (2014). Sapiens: A brief history of humankind (p. 443). London: Harvill Secker.
  4. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2016) https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/spinoza/
  5. United Nations (2015) Transforming our world: The 2030 agenda for sustainable. Resolution adopted by the General Assembly on 25 September 2015. Available online: https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/content/documents/21252030%20Agenda%20for%20Sustainable%20Development%20web.pdf
  6. Raworth, K. (2014) Will these Sustainable Development Goals Get us into the Doughnut? In From Poverty to Power; Green, D., Ed.; Oxfam: Oxford, UK; Volume 2014.
  7. Wiedmann, T. O., Schandl, H., Lenzen, M., Moran, D., Suh, S., West, J., & Kanemoto, K. (2015). The material footprint of nations.Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences112(20), 6271-6276.
  8. Burke, P. J., Shahiduzzaman, M., & Stern, D. I. (2015). Carbon dioxide emissions in the short run: The rate and sources of economic growth matter.Global Environmental Change33, 109-121.
  9. Pigliucci, M. (2017). How to be a Stoic. Hachette Book Group, p 73
  10. Becker, L. C. (2017). A new stoicism. Princeton University Press.
  11. Georgescu-Roegen, N. (1971). The law of entropy and the economic process. Harvard University Press.
  12. Steffen, W., Richardson, K., Rockström, J., Cornell, S. E., Fetzer, I., Bennett, E. M., … & Folke, C. (2015). Planetary boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet. Science, 347(6223), 1259855.
  13. National Research Council. (2012). Science for environmental protection: the road ahead. National Academies Press.
  14. Carmona, L. G., Whiting, K., Carrasco, A., Sousa, T., & Domingos, T. (2017). Material Services with Both Eyes Wide Open. Sustainability, 9(9), 1508.
  15. Malthus, T. R. (1888). An essay on the principle of population: or, A view of its past and present effects on human happiness. Reeves & Turner.
  16. Harari, Y. N. (2016). Homo Deus: A brief history of tomorrow. Random House.
  17. Krausmann, F., Wiedenhofer, D., Lauk, C., Haas, W., Tanikawa, H., Fishman, T., … & Haberl, H. (2017). Global socioeconomic material stocks rise 23-fold over the 20th century and require half of annual resource use. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 114(8), 1880-1885.
  18. Kahneman, D., Knetsch, J. L., & Thaler, R. H. (1991). Anomalies: The endowment effect, loss aversion, and status quo bias. The journal of economic perspectives, 5(1), 193-206.
  19. Fieser, J (1996) English translation of the Enchiridion http://www.sacred-texts.com/phi/epi/enchir.txt
  20. Arieti, J. A. (2005). Philosophy in the ancient world: An introduction. Rowman & Littlefield.
  21. Global Witness (2016) On dangerous ground https://www.globalwitness.org/en/campaigns/environmental-activists/dangerous-ground/
  22. Global Witness (2017) Defenders of the Earth, Global killings of land and environmental defenders in 2016. United Kingdom
  23. Rausch, L. L., & Gibbs, H. K. (2016). Property arrangements and soy governance in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso: Implications for deforestation-free production. Land, 5(2), 7.

Kai Whiting is a university lecturer and researcher based at the University of Lisbon, Portugal. His specialist subject is sustainable energy and materials. He Tweets over at @KaiWhiting

“Stoicism and Illness” and “Stoic Resilience versus Stoic Virtue” by Carmelo Di Maria

This post provides a summary of Carmelo Di Maria’s presentations at the London STOICON-X 2017 conference.  This is the second in our series of posts drawn from Stoicon and the Stoicon-X conferences this year.

For over a year now I have been running a Stoicism group in London called “London Stoics” (you can find us on Facebook) and I am also a member of the Resources Committee within the Stoic Fellowship. About three years ago I came across Stoicism after a sentimental crisis. I was taken by the whole philosophy but two of the things which most struck me were: one, the idea that you create your own reality (“People are not upset by things but by the judgements they have about things” is the famous maxim by Epictetus) and two, the concept of the ‘indifferents’.

The first aspect was familiar to me. I was already a fan of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy and pretty much skilled at most cognitive distortions: over-generalizations, black and white thinking, jumping to conclusions, mind reading. I also loved the idea of ‘reframing’, trying to look at something from a different perspective in order to change your ensuing feelings and behaviour. The second aspect that took my fancy, illness seen as an indifferent, constituted in a way yet another example of reframing, but this time one of Herculean proportions, I thought.

As a person living with a chronic condition, it was in particular the idea of illness as an indifferent that struck a chord with me. In Italy when you’re being affected by a major problem, in common parlance people will tell you: “As long as you’re healthy, you’re ok”, in order to cheer you up. As if health was the supreme good. But the Stoics were telling me another story – the supreme good in life is ‘virtue’ and that was definitely within my reach, unlike health. Illness stopped being this bogeyman that weighed me down and made me feel less than ‘healthy’ people. I immediately felt liberated and self-empowered, I was not a ‘victim’ of personal circumstances anymore.

So I decided to write an article about my experience of Stoicism and the relationship between the philosophy and illness and I sent it to Patrick Usher, who was at the time the editor of the Stoicism Today blog. Patrick went on to publish it on the blog (you can find it as “Stoic Resilience in the Face of Illness“) and also told me my piece would be included in a collection of articles from both academics and non-academics called Stoicism Today: Selected writings, vol. 2.

Fast forward two years.  I decided to make a presentation highlighting the same relationship between Stoicism and illness, this time with the intent of sharing my experience with other people living with chronic conditions (PLCC), to see whether anyone could gain any benefit out of the philosophy, just like I did. I also thought that the London Stoicon X 2017 event would be a brilliant opportunity for a test run and for some feedback from a knowledgeable audience.

Hopefully there is a bit for everyone in this presentation regardless of health status, even for those who are not living with a chronic condition like HIV, cancer, diabetes, MS… you name it. With the exception of a few quotes from the Stoic literature which specifically refer to illness, the rest can be easily interchangeable with any major difficulty people find themselves in – big financial loss, severe injury, disability, loss of a partner/child/relative.

In the overview I have identified all those aspects of Stoicism which can offer a person with a chronic condition a fresh perspective on life and a renewed sense of self-esteem, strength, resilience and pride, not to mention what is the ultimate goal for a Stoic, ‘Virtue’.

Overview of my presentation:

  • Stoicism as a philosophy of resilience
  •  Illness as an Indifferent
  • Death as an indifferent
  • Shortness of Life as an Indifferent
  • Post-Traumatic Growth
  • Excellence of Character

The first item in the presentation points to the CBT aspect of Stoicism, if you like – the way that the philosophy shifts the focus from one aspect of reality to another, creating a whole different ball game. It does not define the philosophy in its entirety – and it would be a reductionist approach and a disservice to a whole philosophical system such as Stoicism to say otherwise – but it’s nonetheless one of the popular and characteristic aspects of it.

“Illness as an indifferent” – according to Stoicism a person is not confined or constricted by her health condition, i.e. her health condition does not define her as a person, but rather it is only one aspect of it and an ‘indifferent’ one at that. To paraphrase Epictetus, her illness affects her body, but not her ‘choice’, not her ability to pursue ‘virtue’.

“Death as an Indifferent” and “Shortness of Life as an Indifferent” follow the same Stoic reasoning around our locus of control and the central if not superlative quality of ‘virtue’. They are both relevant to PLCC in that the latter may have a keener sense of the transiency of life and of their own mortality.

“Post-Traumatic Growth” (PTG) is the idea that after a trauma like acquiring an illness or going through some other major crisis (especially if it entails a brush with mortality), it’s not all loss or doom and gloom, but you can actually gain something out of it – the person experiences some sort of growth, in terms of psychological strength (“what doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger”, as the saying goes), of confidence, maturity, spirituality, a keener sense of gratitude and an ability to enjoy life more.

The Stoics didn’t define it like that obviously, this is a modern coinage, but often refer to this concept, sometimes through the use of beautiful metaphors. Hercules is also referenced, within the Stoic literature, as an epitome of strength and resilience in the face of adverse circumstances. It was important for me to talk about PTG because even when I attended in the past workshops specifically aimed at PLCC and whose goal was to help people manage their condition, this was a concept that was never explored.

In a presentation about Stoicism, I could not help but mention the ultimate goal for Stoics – pursuing “virtue” or “excellence of character”. I reckon that a chronic condition may act as a spur to pursue virtue thanks to that heightened sense of mortality I referred to earlier. Especially if a person living with a chronic condition embraces a philosophy of life like Stoicism, he will be more keen to make every day count, to get his priorities right, to lead a life of purpose and strive for excellence of character.

Finally, I should mention that I was also given the opportunity to lead a workshop in the afternoon which I entitled “Stoic Resilience versus Stoic Virtue”. The reason I picked that title is that I found many quotes within the Stoic literature which express the idea that a person who endures or overcomes a difficult situation displays virtue, and also that challenges are seen as an opportunity to achieve virtue (“Calamitas virtutis occasio est”, Seneca says in his essay On Providence).

The problem is that it’s a virtue that is talked about mainly in terms of patience, resilience, strength, endurance (generally qualities which we would list under the cardinal virtue of courage). And of course this is only one aspect of the multi-faceted notion of “virtue” which also includes temperance, wisdom, and justice. So during the afternoon discussion, my idea was to elicit the difference between these two different aspects of the Stoic virtue, unravel the links between them, and perhaps find out ways in which life challenges can not only lead a person to display virtue in the sense of resilience but also lead to virtue intended in its more complex meaning.

Just to give you a few examples of what I mean, PLCC may have used all sorts of support services in their lives, ranging from medical care to psychosocial support, complementary therapies and friends & family, therefore chances are that they become aware of the great help they received in the way of competence, professionalism, empathy, patience, understanding etc. They understand the value of this help and may be inclined to help other people themselves in any way they can, developing this way the virtue of justice. Some PLCC, for example, often speak of wanting to get into volunteering as a way to “give back”.

PLCC may be likely to internalise the Serenity Prayer and make a difference between the things they can’t control (like their health status) and those they can (like their diet, level of fitness, their mental health etc), thus developing ‘wisdom’. They may have learnt to curb their irrational desire to be other than what they are and learnt to accept their health condition, coming to terms with the fact that they are ill (temperance).

The same way a notion of health which is not holistic and is purely based on the integrity of the body is fragmentary and insufficient, glorifying the aspect of fortitude, in isolation, and to the detriment of the other virtues, especially justice (when we talk about illness or any other sphere of human life for that matter) may be misleading and a fallacy. Even Marcus Aurelius, himself struggling with a chronic illness all his life, was aware that he owed much to relatives and mentors for the shaping of his character but at the same time contributed much to the education of future generations through his own reflections and the example of his own life.

At the end of the day one of the best ways to bring about self-healing, whether it’s an illness or some other problem, is to break free from the shackles of our self-absorption, elevate ourselves and have a good look around, finally integrating ourselves into a much bigger picture both in terms of time and space, just like we do in the “view from above”. It’s a brilliant practice which encourages to abandon the illusory idea of a being a discreet entity and become part of the whole instead. After all “to heal” means “to make whole”.

Carmelo Di Maria lives in London where he works as a TV listings writer. He’s interested in LGBT/human rights, secularism, stress management and mindfulness. For the past year he has been running the London Stoics group. One day he hopes to be able to offer a blend of mindfulness and Stoic reflective meditations to people with chronic health conditions.