Poor but Happy? Aristotle and the Stoics on External Goods by Gabriele Galluzzo

Can we be happy without money, political power, good looks, or friends? Can we in other words be happy without external goods, that is, the external things that we may come to acquire and that seem to contribute to our prosperity? No one will deny that these are important, perhaps vital, questions for us today, and for the times we live in. But the issue of the role played by external goods in human happiness was much debated in ancient philosophy as well, and the rather diversified answers offered by ancient philosophers can certainly make a contribution to modern discussions, besides being interesting in themselves.

Today I wish to consider two ancient answers to the problem of external goods, Aristotle’s and the Stoics’. In brief, Aristotle believes that we cannot be happy without at least some external goods, while the Stoics insist that we can. Although Aristotle and the Stoics offer incompatible answers to the problem of the external goods, it would be misleading to ignore their common starting-points and background. Both Aristotle and the Stoics are to some extent heirs to a (Socratic) tradition that identifies the possession and exercise of the virtues (courage, self-mastery, justice, good judgement etc.) with the full expression of our nature as human beings, that is, with the full expression of our rationality.

Thus, for both Aristotle and the Stoics, happiness is inseparable from the possession and exercise of the virtues. Differences remain, though. While for the Stoics virtue is the only component of happiness, and the external goods play no role in it, for Aristotle happiness consists of an internal component, the virtues, and an external component, the external goods. Which position is preferable? And which is more consistent? To answer these questions we need to examine more closely the arguments advanced by Aristotle and the Stoics in favour of their respective positions. Let us begin with Aristotle.

In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle provides a rather complex understanding of what is good for human beings. He claims that there are three kinds of goods: the goods of the soul, i.e. mainly the virtues; the goods of the body, e.g. good health; the external goods. And he clearly implies that all three kinds of goods are necessary for happiness. Of particular interest is what he has to say about the external goods, which are our main concern today:

It seems clear that happiness needs the addition of external goods, as we have said; for it is difficult if not impossible to do fine deeds without any resources. Many can be done as it were by instruments – by the help of friends, or wealth, or political influence (Aristotle, NE, I.8).

Does Aristotle have an argument in favour of the inclusion of external goods among the components of human happiness? Yes, he certainly does. As the text quoted suggests, Aristotle’s main argument is an argument from realism. Human life is constrained and conditioned by external circumstances. Therefore, human happiness, as opposed for instance to divine happiness, should take into account the external circumstances by which we are constrained and conditioned. In this light, it may become difficult or even impossible to see how we could pursue our ethical ideals without having at least some resources. How can we be generous, for instance, if we’ve got no money? How can we change the world for the better without any political influence or a network of good friends to help us in our endeavours? And it seems reasonable to think, at any rate, that the complete absence of resources may become an objective obstacle to doing the many good things we want to do.

One might object to Aristotle’s line of argument that virtue, if it is real virtue, should be self-sufficient. If we are good people, what more do we need to be happy? Without entirely denying that the highest good for human beings should be self-sufficient, Aristotle still insists that ‘self-sufficient’ here should be taken in a realistic and, as it were, ‘human’ sense:

We do not mean by ‘self-sufficient’ what suffices for someone by himself, living a solitary life, but what is sufficient also with respect to parents, offspring, a wife, and, in general, one’s friends and fellow citizens, since by nature a human being is sociable (Aristotle, NE, I.7).

We do not live in a vacuum, but in a complex natural and social environment, which inevitably puts constrains on what we can or cannot do. Our relationship to other people make a difference to our happiness, Aristotle believes, and so do, too, the material resources we may come to possess. Perhaps, Aristotle’s general stance may look even stronger if we think that the lack of external goods may sometimes be an objective obstacle not only to the exercise of the virtues, but also to their acquisition. Conditions of extreme poverty, continuous engagement in a struggle for life and survival, as well as the absence of appropriate models, may prevent people from acquiring the right state of character in which virtue properly consists. It is difficult, one might urge, to think about improving ourselves if our circumstances are harsh or discouraging. And, even if we should manage to acquire the virtues, it seems difficult to see how we could fully exercise them without resources.

Whether we find it attractive or not, Aristotle’s position should not be misunderstood or hastily misjudged. For one thing, Aristotle does not believe for one second that happiness consists in the possession of external goods, or that the internal and the external components of happiness carry equal weight, as it were. It is not money, or power, or good looks, or friends that make us happy, but virtue. It is the possession and exercise of the virtues that fully express our nature as human beings. It remains true, however, that for Aristotle the complete absence of external goods might prevent us from fully acquiring and exercising the virtues.

Thus, while it is clear that none of the external goods as such makes us happy, it is difficult for Aristotle to see how we could be happy without them. In the same vein, Aristotle is not advocating indiscriminate money-making; nor is he recommending us to surround ourselves with friends, whatever their character might be. Quite the contrary, Aristotle holds that it is only a certain level, the right level, of material comfort that we should pursue. Actually, an invitation to moderation in the acquisition and use of external goods, as well as the recommendation that they be used ethically, as it were, remain constant features of Aristotle’s ethical teaching. Thus, for Aristotle, the possession of external goods is intended to remove potential obstacles to our happiness rather than making a positive contribution to it.

Similarly, he insists that the only true kind of friendship is the one in which all friends are virtuous people (NE, VIII.3). Friendships based on mere pleasure, or on utility, are not durable and so make a very limited contribution to our wellbeing and flourishing. Thus, Aristotle’s attitude toward friendship is selective: his pages on true friendship in Books VIII and IX of the Nicomachean Ethics are rightly famous, as is, too, his charming depiction of a real friend as ‘another self’ (NE, IX.9). Still, one might feel slightly uncomfortable with the thought that happiness is denied to those who, for one reason or another, do not find themselves in the condition to form friendships.

As compared to Aristotle’s, the Stoic position appears to be far more radical and less inclined to compromise with common sense. This impression is certainly true to a large extent, though it requires qualification, as we shall shortly see. For the Stoics we can be happy and flourish without the concourse of external goods. Virtue is the only component of happiness, and external goods play no role in it, strictly speaking. Since external goods make no contribution to our happiness, they are rightly classified among the ‘indifferents’, the things in other words whose presence or absence makes no difference to happiness.

Before we consider some controversial aspects of the Stoic view, it may be helpful to look at a couple of important motivations for taking this position that are intuitively rather appealing. To claim, as Aristotle does, that external goods play a role (though a secondary one) in our happiness implies that our happiness is not entirely up to us or in our power. If we need money, reputation, success, political influence etc. to be happy, then our happiness is inevitably conditional, at least to some extent, on favourable external circumstances and perhaps on just a little bit of luck. For, try as we may, we may not be able to secure for ourselves some of the external goods that make life comfortable; and even if we do secure them, we may just lose them through no apparent fault of our own, due to unfavourable external circumstances. This may seem a rather shaky and weak conception of happiness. As moral agents, we would intuitively be more comfortable with the idea that our happiness depends on us, that it is our efforts to become good that matter and that nothing external could take that away from us. This is certainly the way the Stoics see things when they claim that the external goods make no contributions to our happiness, since they are not (at least not entirely) ‘up to us’, while virtue in principle is. It is up to us to embark on the journey to virtue that will eventually make us happy – and it is not obviously clear what could take virtue away from us once our journey is complete. It is particularly Epictetus (1st/2nd century AD) who insists on external goods not being up to us, but his ideas are broadly in line with traditional Stoicism:

Some things are up to us, while others are not up to us. Up to us are conception, choice, desire, aversion and, in a word, everything that is our own doing; not up to us are our body, our property, reputation, office and, in a word, everything that is not our own doing. Furthermore, the things up to us are by nature free, unhindered and unimpeded; while the things not up to us are weak, servile, subject to hindrance and not our own (Epictetus, Ench., 1.1-2).

Another, related motivation for favouring the Stoic view is that Stoic happiness appears to be inherently much more democratic than its Aristotelian counterpart. If happiness is entirely up to us and does not depend on favourable external circumstances, then literally everyone can be happy, regardless of their social, economic and life circumstances. If virtue is all that matters to happiness, and virtue cannot be impeded by external circumstances, then no one is cut off from happiness, at least in principle, as long as they have the right moral character. But this is certainly not the case with the Aristotelian view, on which external circumstances play an important role in our happiness. It seems that Aristotelian happiness is not open to everybody, but only to those who can have access to the relevant level of comfort – i.e., presumably, those with the appropriate kind of upbringing, education, social status etc. Although we might think that this is a realistic price to pay for happiness, given what human life happens to be, it is difficult to shake off the feeling that Aristotelian happiness is sufficiently exclusive and many people are inevitably cut off from it.

Other aspects of the Stoic teaching on external goods may appear intuitively less appealing. It is obvious for instance that for Aristotle there is a hierarchy of goods, with the good of the soul (mainly the virtues) occupying the top of the ranking and external goods being somehow towards the bottom (the goods of the body, such as health and health conditions in general, could arguable be seen as intermediate between the other two classes of goods). This may seem a reasonable position to take, as it gives virtue pride of place but still describes other things as intrinsically or at least significantly good. Reasonable as this position may seem, it certainly not the Stoic view. For the Stoics, since virtue is the only component of happiness, it is also the only good, while all other things, including of course the external goods, are not good, as they make no contribution to happiness. Things other than virtue are not bad, either; they are neither good nor bad, i.e. indifferent.

One obvious objection to the Stoic view is that some of the indifferents clearly seem to be better than others. The Aristotelian external goods, for instance, seem to be better than their opposites: wealth seems to be better than poverty, good reputation better than bad reputation, beauty better than ugliness etc. And so it might seem that there is little point in denying that some of the external things are in fact good. The Stoics, however, are well aware of this objection. Early on in the development of the school, they introduced a distinction between ‘preferred’ and ‘dispreferred’ indifferents and insisted that preferred indifferents do have some value for us and we are naturally inclined to pursue them (Cicero, Acad., I.36-37). Aristotle’s external goods clearly fall within the class of preferred indifferents – and so the Stoics do not deny that external goods have value and so are normally preferable to their opposites. The following testimony by Diogenes Laertius (3rd century AD) illustrates particularly well the Stoic position.

The Stoics say that some things are good, others are bad, and others are neither of these. The virtues – prudence, justice, courage, moderation and the rest are good. The opposites of these – foolishness, injustice and the rest – are bad. Everything which neither does benefit nor harm is neither of these: for instance, life, health, pleasure, beauty, strength, wealth, reputation, noble birth…are not good but indifferents of the ‘preferred’ species (Diogenes Laertius, 7.101-103).

We have a natural preference for material comforts and so the Stoics do not deny that they are normally preferable to their opposites. While granting that much to the Aristotelian position, they Stoics still insist that Aristotle’s ‘external goods’ are not actually good, though they have value. But now we can start seeing that, when the Stoics say that only virtue is good, or that all other things (including material comforts) are not good, they are using ‘good’ with a stronger meaning than we are used to – a meaning that is perhaps captured by such expressions as ‘unqualifiedly good’, ‘unconditionally good’ or ‘good in all circumstances’. Thus, their view is that only virtue is unconditionally good, or good in all circumstances, while all other things, including Aristotle’s external goods, are not unqualifiedly good, or good in all circumstances, and so not good, strictly speaking.

But if this is the Stoic position – and there are reasons to think that it is – it is not hard to find arguments in its support. The Stoics argue for instance that external goods are open to misuse in a way that virtue clearly is not (Diogenes Laertius, 7.103). It is all too easy, for instance, to think of cases in which we make bad use of money, reputation, political influence or social status, while it is not obvious how we could possibly make bad use of our good character and of our virtue. Thus, although the Stoics grant that external goods have value and certainly recommend making good use of them, they still insist that it is wrong to call them unconditionally good.

Perhaps an Aristotelian might reply to this argument that, while ordinary people may make bad use of external goods, the virtuous person will always make good use of them in all circumstances. Thus, external goods are open to misuse only for people who are not wise. This reply is not entirely unfair to the Stoic doctrine: for the Stoics, one ancient source informs us, the manner of using the indifferents, and the external goods in particular, is constitutive of happiness, though it is possible for us to be happy without them (Diogenes Laertius, 7.104). So, it is certainly true for the Stoics that the virtuous person will make consistently good use of external things.

But in another respect, the Aristotelian objection is partly off the mark, the Stoics would think. For the point is not only that one could make bad use of external goods, but also, and perhaps more importantly, that there could always be a conflict between the pursuit of external goods and the preservation of our virtue. Suppose, for instance, that we are virtuous and we are prepared to make good use of the political influence we have been gaining over the years. Still, it might be the case that, at some point, the only way for us to maintain a certain level of political influence is to compromise with an inhuman dictator or tyrant – which obviously we should not do as this is incompatible with our virtuous character. It is not difficult to think of similar examples of conflict involving money-making, good reputation etc. All this shows, the Stoics would insist, that, sometimes at least, the pursuit of external goods may hinder our moral ideals rather than fostering them, as the Aristotelians seem to think. And this is enough to show that Aristotle’s external goods cannot aptly be described as unconditionally good or beneficial, and so as strictly speaking good.

Should we go for the Aristotelian or the Stoic view on the external goods? This is a question that I am happy to leave for the reader to answer. What is important is not to misconstrue either position. While Aristotle assigns a role in our happiness to external goods, he certainly takes this role to be instrumental, and still believes that happiness has mainly to do with the possession and exercise of the virtues. Conversely, while the Stoics maintain that Aristotle’s external goods are not good, strictly speaking, they do not deny that external goods have value and do not discourage us from pursuing them as long as they are compatible with the possession and exercise of the virtues. The two positions, however, remain distinct and both have costs and benefits. At the end of the day, one may find Aristotle’s realistic understanding of happiness more convincing. But the price to pay for this is a rather exclusive and undemocratic conception of happiness. On the other hand, the Stoic idea of happiness is democratic and in principle open to everybody. But one may still wonder, of course, whether it is in fact attainable.

[1] This post is the transcript of Gabriele Galluzzo’s worshop at the STOICON 2016 conference.

Gabriele Galluzzo is a Lecturer in Ancient Philosophy at the University of Exeter. His main areas of research are Aristotle’s metaphysics and its medieval reception, but he is equally interested in how ancient philosophy has come to shape contemporary thought and ideas. His books include: The Medieval Reception of Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Book Zeta and Universals in Ancient Philosophy. Read more about Gabriele’s work here.

Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy and Stoicism – An Interview with Debbie Joffe Ellis

Continuing on with our series of posts on the plenary talks and workshops from Stoicon 2016, we have these reflections by a speaker who gave both a plenary talk and a workshop, Debbie Joffe Ellis.  As the editor of Stoicism Today, I took the opportunity to interview her about her Stoicon 2016 workshop, about Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), its affinities with Stoicism, her late husband (Albert Ellis), and her own practice.

GBS: Let’s talk, then, about the workshop.  So you gave a talk and delivered a workshop. How did the workshop go, and what were you focused on primarily?

DJE: The workshop went very well and the room was full with attendees. I focused on presenting the theory, methods & techniques of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, its philosophical component, and the fact that it can be more than just an effective evidence based approach – it is also a way of life and living for those who choose to apply it as such. From now on I will refer to Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy as REBT. One of the more powerful aspects of the workshop was giving a live demonstration of the approach, not a role-play, but the ‘real thing’ with a volunteer from the attendees present. When people get to see REBT applied, and observe how enlightening and empowering it can be in just a brief period of time, they can gain a deeper understanding of how impactful, substantive and effective an approach it can be. In the demonstration, which lasted only for about 25 minutes, the volunteer, and those viewing the demonstration, shared that surprising, major and beneficial insights were experienced.

REBT was influenced by the writing of the stoic philosophers. I mention that when I give presentations, whether at gatherings of psychologists or at a gathering like this Stoicon, and Al [Albert Ellis] acknowledged that influence when he spoke and when he wrote about the development of his approach.

There were other influences but some of the main tenets of REBT include ideas seen in Stoic writings, so I pointed that out as I went along in my workshop.  I described the main aspects of REBT and what sets it apart from the other approaches, particularly the cognitive ones, because REBT is the approach that heralded in the cognitive revolution in psychotherapy. Before it came along in the early 1950s, Sigmund Freud was the lord of the psychotherapeutic universe.

My husband was the first one in the field of psychology to so effectively challenge the tenets of psychoanalysis. In so doing, he received criticism and hatred – and was branded as “stupid” and “superficial” and worse than that.  But he continued on with his efforts because he believed so strongly in the efficacy of his approach and the efficiency of REBT. One can rightly say that he applied some of the stoic principles in his choice to not be affected by the barbs of others. He persevered in doing and sharing what he believed was most helpful for most humans, and as a result he succeeded in changing the world of psychotherapy and other fields.

Al saw REBT as not only the way to minimize emotional disturbance, but more than that – to create a life of quality, a life of self-created meaning that contributes not only to one’s self, but to the well-being of other humans and to the environment. REBT is a very holistic approach and way of being. In my view it is the most holistic approach of all the approaches in my field that I know of.

There are some misconceptions and false impressions about REBT. I don’t know if Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius or the other Stoics suffered from such things – because I think their place in history is seen as secure, along with their writings.

My husband wrote his first paper about REBT, which was then just called RT – “rational therapy” – in 1953. It was published in 1955. The Cognitive Therapy approach of Aaron Beck, came out fifteen years later, and he has acknowledged the help of my husband in creating the approach. Beck is part of the University of Pennsylvania, which has done enormous research on CBT, and I think that’s one of the reasons CBT is so well known.  There wasn’t that volume of research done on REBT. Nonetheless, the research done on CBT unsurprisingly supports the premises of REBT because much of CBT is based on the premises of REBT.

Interestingly, some of the misconceptions about REBT include that it came after CBT, or that it’s an offshoot of CBT.  Now there are newer cognitive approaches, some referred to as part of the “Third Wave” of cognitive approaches. One can recognize the components of REBT and Epictetus within them, and sadly, most of them don’t give credit where credit is due.

GBS: You know, I’m looking right here at Beck’s Cognitive Theory and the Emotional Disorders. I’m just reading through the index and there are of course a number of references to Ellis, but there is only one reference in the entire book to Epictetus. So what I think I’d like to ask is this:

With Ellis there is a much more clear lineage drawn out to Stoic philosophy as well as, like you pointed out, to many other sources that he’s synthesizing. We see people like Donald Robertson, for example, who is a cognitive behavioral therapist and is very cognizant of how Stoicism and that come together. Do you think that there is perhaps a chance that as Cognitive Behavior Therapy developed, it lost some of that connection to some of the inspirations of your husband?

DJE: I do think there is a good chance that is the case. Sadly, I am learning that in some colleges these days students of psychology or counseling study CBT, and REBT is barely presented. They are deprived of much valuable knowledge if they don’t learn about REBT and don’t learn its influences. They also miss out by not learning about the immeasurable influence REBT has had on the theories they do study.

Some speakers and writers about CBT and other approaches under the cognitive umbrella have recommended that a person distances themselves in some way from their thoughts.

REBT, more than substantially urging people to simply have objective awareness as much as possible about their thoughts, goes a lot deeper. It says, rather than distance oneself from the unhealthy thoughts, identify them.  Identify them really clearly, and as you do so, identify elements within them that are irrational, because one of the main premises of REBT is that when we think in an irrational way in response to adversity, we create unhealthy emotions.  And when we think in rational, healthy ways about the same adverse happenings, then we create and experience healthy and non-debilitating emotions.

So REBT says don’t distance yourself, identify the thoughts instead, and then come up with a healthy new beliefs. I’m not saying Cognitive Behavior Therapy doesn’t advise doing that – but what I have observed is that in REBT the means to do so are much more specific, more precise and we learn the ways to dispute irrational beliefs logically and pragmatically and realistically.

GBS: So with having emotional responses that are more productive, is it safe to say that REBT envisions the emotions as playing an important role in motivating us to do what’s good for us – or what’s good for others? So, that if we didn’t feel those things, there would be something lacking or less effective?

DJE: I love the way you put that question. Yes, most definitely. Another thing that REBT offers that I haven’t seen so much in the other cognitive approaches, is that it does teach us the difference between what is called healthy, negative emotions and unhealthy, negative emotions – negative not meaning bad, but meaning not pleasant, not joyful, not happy. So when you think in rational ways in approach to adversity, the healthy negative emotions created could do as you suggested, and would possibly motivate us to do what we can to create a beneficial change or at least to avoid doing anything that would cause destructive or debilitating outcomes.

Healthy negative emotions include concern instead of unhealthy anxiety and panic that debilitate, NOT motivate. Other healthy emotions are sadness and grief rather than their debilitating counterpart of unhealthy depression. Depression debilitates – whereas sadness and grief, experienced for example if someone we love dies, or for some – when they don’t get the outcome they want in a political election, do not debilitate, and often motivate one to take productive action. Fueled by those healthy feelings we might be more likely to consider, “What, if anything, can I do about this situation?” If someone creates despondency rather than sadness, they are less likely to reflect on what they might do that could be productive in the circumstance.

Another example would be healthy anger versus unhealthy rage. When we communicate in a rational way, from a place of healthy anger – about something we consider unfair, unjust, or worse – we are able to choose what we do or say. We don’t impulsively lash out or act in self-defeating ways. Healthy anger allows us to acknowledge that something is bad or unjust, and yet, we are able to think and speak rationally and avoid behaving in rash ways that may harm or thwart our purpose. On the other hand, rage often ends up creating outcomes that do not support our goals and can create much destruction.

The final example of healthy vs unhealthy negative emotions that I’ll mention here is that of experiencing healthy regret, which allows us to reflect and potentially avoid the possibility of repeating a behavior that was not good or productive. The unhealthy emotional counterparts of regret are shame and guilt, which can paralyze and have us feel and believe that we’re worthless. We damn ourselves, which can inhibit us from learning and moving forward in productive ways, and that then often creates added unhealthy emotions of depression and/or anxiety. REBT repeatedly reminds us that each of us has worth, simply because we exist. We may act in good or bad ways, but that doesn’t make us good or bad people. We are living beings, with worth, who can act in a variety of ways. Hopefully we choose to act in more life-enhancing and respectful ways than otherwise, but for those who don’t, their worth isn’t diminished despite any bad and disturbed behaviors. That assertion has frequently been a controversial aspect in REBT!

GBS: Let’s move on to talking about the session itself. You said that you had volunteers – or, maybe I’m mistaking it – either one volunteer or perhaps multiple ones – and you worked through some things in a very transformative way in the session itself.

DJE:  I had only one, because the workshop was only 90 minutes and the demonstration – you know, often I plan for it to be around 15-20 minutes when I only have 90 minutes, but this one was very compelling and things were being revealed, so there was only one – and it lasted about 25 minutes.

It’s not appropriate for me to give the name of the person, or to say anything to identify him or her. One of the things that I request in such a workshop is that in order to help such a person who bravely volunteers to feel safe enough to disclose what is going on for them and what their issues are to a room of people is a level of confidentiality. I request permission to talk at a later time about some of the issues that may emerge if doing so can help others, but also commit to not identifying that person nor transgressing the promise of privacy.

One of the reasons I do these live demonstrations (and when I ask for volunteers, I emphasize the need for them to share real issues and real problems, not engage in role-playing) is that they can provide deep and beneficial insights to one and all present. When real issues have been presented, I’ve never had non-productive demonstrations! The beauty of being and witnessing someone being real, authentic and open to considering the REBT principles and encouragement, is that when transformation happens in 15-20, or even 25 minutes, it certainly gives the person experiencing the session directly, and the viewing audience members, concrete evidence that when we change our thinking, we can change our emotions.

So in the case of the person who volunteered at Stoicon, and I won’t say whether the person was male or female, they brought up an issue related to relationships, and in a short period of time, through identifying their irrational beliefs, and questioning them, this person was able to see things differently and able to challenge their original beliefs. They could then clearly see that those former beliefs they were so convinced of weren’t universal truths! In fact, some of them were not true at all! Their restrictive unhealthy feelings changed to healthy ones, right there and then!

What REBT reminds us to do is to focus on what is possible, even when certain elements in our situation are realistically negative, so that we get to consider a broader perspective. In the demonstration not only did the person willingly participate, they appeared to be highly motivated to change, and that always helps. This person was determined to help themselves to suffer less, and in addition to following my guidance as we identified irrational beliefs, they willingly disputed some of those premises, which seemed gospel truth before reflecting and realizing such notions were far from fact or truth.

So in 25 minutes there was kind of a “WOW!” and the person who volunteered expressed great gratitude. Many of the attendees who came up later to share feedback said, “WOW!” In that short period of time – to identify the self-defeating thoughts, challenge them, broaden the perspective, realize what is realistic and factual, and deciding on clear goals to focus on going forward – this person transformed their emotions.  A pretty good use of time and effort I’d say! Some critics of REBT accuse it of being too general. I don’t think so!

GBS: No, no –it’s very interesting – and one of the things I was going to ask you in particular that you started to touch on is:  With the audience… do they end up – to some degree – saying, “Oh – I have this sort of issue as well.”  Or do they respond affectively to doing this?  It seems there would be quite a number of different reactions people might have.

DJE: Well, the answer to your question is an unequivocal “Yes”, and “Yes!” Many of the people who view live demonstrations say, “I can relate to that. I have something similar going on, or similar enough.” And then others, who may not have that specific, let’s say, relationship or other issue, still have the tendency to think in irrational ways and make themselves unnecessarily emotionally disturbed in other scenarios.  So even though they may not relate to the same exact circumstance that was explored in the demonstration, they learn from watching the way I and the volunteer hone in on identifying the irrational beliefs, the way they are disputed, and the way we then come up with effective, rational healthy beliefs.

And then, what is very important to keep in mind, and what I emphasize the importance of in any workshop I give, is that for most people to maintain any benefit from an epiphany or realization that occurs during a workshop or the like, requires more than just gaining the new understanding. For most people, the awareness of the change and the ability to make it long-lasting, requires effort, ongoing effort. Homework. REBT offers cognitive, emotive and behavioral forms of homework. An example of a cognitive one might be the person reading and focusing on the healthy new beliefs that were created in response to identifying and disputing the toxic ones. Those toxic beliefs may have been there for decades and decades, depending on the age of the person, and until REBT they often viewed them as universal truths rather than realistically as unhealthy, irrational beliefs that burdened and restricted them. Usually homework is to be done for at least 30 days.

Some people who view a demonstration respond:  “I can strongly relate and I’m going to do what you suggested to the volunteer!” Others simply learn more about how to apply the approach to their own situation.

GBS: That’s quite a range…

DJE: Yes. That’s why I love what I do. I love sharing this because it’s not complicated – it’s quite common-sense – and for people who are motivated to change, it’s not…difficult, it just takes effort. Persistence, some patience, and ongoing effort.

GBS: You know, it strikes me that that’s another place where Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy differs from, say, Freudian depth psychology, or other approaches as well, because you could actually do a demonstration of it.  If someone is going to be psychoanalyzed, it could be years of going to the therapist before something would come out of it.  It’s not going to be that immediate – getting at something that somebody else could look at from the outside and say, “I think maybe that would work for me, too.”

DJE: You just identified the reason my husband created his approach! He was trained in psychoanalysis – in his day and age when studying psychology one didn’t have a choice. Al studied it and was practicing it. He observed that for some people he worked with who were undergoing psychoanalytic therapy, they might have felt better and gained some insights, but they weren’t actually getting better, and they weren’t learning how to take responsibility for the creation of their emotions. They continued to think in the ways that created their emotional disturbances in the first place.

Al wanted to help as many people as possible in his life-time and beyond to learn that we, if we’re not cognitively impaired, do have the power to create our own emotional destinies. We may not have such power to control many of our circumstances – but certainly we have a choice in how we think about them, in how we react and respond, and feel about them. And so, exactly what you said, unlike the long-term nature of most psychoanalytic approaches…. REBT is a magnificent short-term therapy for many people, and the more motivated a person is to change, and the more they make effort, their more likely they will achieve their therapeutic goals efficiently and effectively.

Whether a person is receiving REBT therapy, or applying the principles themselves in self-help mode, one can ask -how quickly are they going to experience change, and lasting change at that? The answer is – the more they do, do, do, the more effectively and substantially they change, change, change!

So, you hit on one of the core differences between REBT and some other cognitive approaches, and the approaches of Freud and others who came after him in the psychoanalytic field. Do we want to have tools that will help us creating healthy behavior, and minimize emotional suffering and maximize enjoyment in what would take less time for many clients in all probability?  Stoic philosophy influenced Al’s own philosophy of life and living, and his approach of REBT reminds us of the importance of using the mind in constructive ways. Life contains suffering and loss, and in order to maximize joy, we had best not create and add unnecessary suffering and pain through thinking in unproductive and self-defeating ways.

GBS: So it seems that cultivating autonomy of the person who is engaging in the therapy is a core value.

DJE: Yes. Exactly – it is a core value. And it’s not just about focusing on ‘me being me’, but also about having social interest and caring about the well-being of others, helping others, and also being sensitive to the environment and not being destructive. REBT encourages us to do what we can to prevent or change any changeable human-made destruction that is going on. So it’s very holistic, as I said earlier, a core premise is that we’d best be aware of how we create our own meaning, our own emotions, our own behaviors and let’s choose the healthy ways of life and being in the world and with others, and let’s also help others whenever possible. When we help others it contributes to greater self-awareness, choice and a sense of empowerment. When we help other people, it helps us to help ourselves. In the spirit of credit where credit is due, I do want to mention that one of the people who also influenced Al was Alfred Adler who – in his approach to psychology also encouraged social interest. Adler had some components in his approach that were more aligned with psychoanalysis, but in terms of social interest and some other components of his theory, my husband did appreciate Adler’s work.

GBS: So there’s something, to go back to Stoicism, like the Stoic conception of cosmopolitanism, and extending affection outward from the people that we’re very close to, to wider and wider circles to all humanity, or all rational beings – and maybe we’ll find out some day that dolphins are rational, or elephants are rational in the sense the Stoics meant – and it seems there is something very similar to that in REBT.

DJE: I believe that dolphins, elephants and other creatures on our remarkable planet operate within states of consciousness and thinking that as yet few, if any, humans can even imagine. There are countless documented accounts of such creatures behaving in altruistic ways, demonstrating compassion, play, humor, kindness, and experiencing grief. Such experiences are unlikely to be stimulated by the primitive fight-or-flight part of their brains! Yes, it will be fascinating if we can learn more about the way these noble animals think. In the meantime I fervently hope that more humans learn to respect and appreciate all forms of life, not only their fellow-humans.

GBS: I imagine you’ve been doing these sorts of workshops and demonstrations for a number of years – and you saw your husband doing them as well.  Is there something that you’ve learned over the course of doing this over and over and over again…?

DJE: I guess one of the first and easiest answers that pops to mind, as I mentioned to you earlier, is that the more motivated a person is to make ongoing efforts in order to create beneficial changes, the more likely it is that they will change. There is a psycho-educational component to REBT – people are taught to help themselves and not rely on the therapist or teacher of the approach. When I give workshops, whether they’re the 90-minute ones, like I did at Stoicon, or when I do half-day or all-day workshops, one of the things I continue to notice is that on occasions someone may volunteer for the demonstration, and then they want me to do most of the work, and/or they have an expectation that the impact of their years of unhealthy thinking and feelings should be easy to change. On occasion someone may want me to agree with them when they’re blaming other people for their own misery – and they soon discover that (for their good) they won’t get that from me!

I remind them that yes, I don’t suggest that they deny or excuse it as okay when behavior from others is brutal or insensitive, and it is important to face and accept reality. REBT doesn’t distort or repress facts, nonetheless people have a choice of either thinking they’re victims and to consequently feel depressed, unworthy, and/or enraged at the wrong-doer, OR of acknowledging that this or that rotten thing happened but that they can choose to acknowledge and recognize that: (1) they survived, and (2) that when people act in very bad ways, it’s not necessarily because they’re totally evil – but because they are thinking in disturbed ways.

And rather than putting energy into damning such people, it’s better for individuals to put more energy into thinking, “Yes, they did a bad thing but I choose to focus on the fact that I survived. I can unconditionally accept myself and focus on what I can do in this circumstance. I can stubbornly refuse to continue to create and feel unhealthy emotions that eat away at me, and don’t change the past. I choose to focus on what is good in the here and now, and to dispute any thoughts that create emotions that rob me of life, vitality, greater joy and wellbeing.”

Something I have observed over the years is that the people who get the most out of REBT are those who are willing to put the most effort into thinking, feeling and acting differently after they learned what they learned from the workshop or the lecture.

And then another thing I’ve observed over the years is how many people believe similar irrational beliefs until they recognize the harmful consequences of doing so and are willing to dispute them. Two major REBT components that I want to highlight – that are presented in REBT are 1) the identification of three core irrational beliefs from which a multitude of others come and also, 2) the emphasis that REBT has on the importance of unconditional acceptance that the other cognitive behavioral processes do not emphasize as much.

So, firstly, the three core irrational beliefs are: First, “I must do well and be approved or loved by other people.” Secondly, “You must treat me well and act the way I think you should.” And finally, “Life should be fair and just.”

The unconditional part of REBT is seen in its urging of us to make effort to experience more often and deeply the components of unconditional self-acceptance (USA); unconditional other acceptance (UOA); and unconditional life acceptance (ULA). Accepting doesn’t mean liking – and it doesn’t mean indifference – and it doesn’t mean neutrality in terms of behavior or in seeking consequences for those who have performed bad actions. It means accepting reality, human fallibility (our own and that of others), and remembering that we have resilience and can choose to make efforts to cope successfully when bad things happen.

For example, if someone has treated me very badly, REBT would remind me to work on having unconditional other acceptance of them. That doesn’t mean liking what they did – and if they acted in brutal ways, it would be abnormal for me to like such behavior. It doesn’t mean unconditional other acceptance tends towards an attitude of not doing anything about bad stuff. No way!  REBT would encourage a person to take action if it seems that could be constructive.

A common criticism of me and my husband in relation to unconditional other-acceptance is heard when people say, “How can you say to someone who has been raped or abused – or their family has been killed – to have unconditional other acceptance?” Well, REBT doesn’t say it’s easy, but reminds us that if we don’t make such effort, we will continue to suffer for the rest of our lives. We will continue to carry bitterness and hatred and rage and, from a holistic perspective, it’s well known that this creates physical illness.  There is a lot of research proving that. We make ourselves sick, emotionally and often physically. And it doesn’t do any good. So, how do you accept someone unconditionally when they’ve done a horrible thing to you?

Well, here is what REBT recommends. If we are willing to consider the fact that if any one of us had the abuser’s genetic makeup, if any one of us had been brought up the way they had, if any one of us had similar experiences as those that they had in their young and adult lives, if we believed what they believed, and finally, if any one of us was thinking what that person was thinking when they did whatever ugly act they did – then we probably would have done the same thing. A person who commits brutality is brain damaged – and I don’t say that sarcastically: I say it literally. A person with a healthy brain and mind does not rape and murder.

Thinking in that way doesn’t take the abusive person off the hook. A person who has been abused and yet chooses to work on forgiveness and unconditional acceptance will be more likely to respond to the atrocious acts in a steady, calm and productive way than the person who immerses himself or herself in rage or in bitterness. And finally, on this point, we know that it is humanly possible. There are plenty of examples that show it is possible, where a person who has been abused has chosen not to hate the perpetrator. There are people who, in the past, knew someone who had been a murderer of someone close – and could sincerely feel and say, “We forgive him. We forgive him.”

GBS: Absolutely.

DJE: And another thing that REBT emphasizes that other cognitive approaches may not disagree with, but they don’t emphasize it as much, is the power of gratitude. As I did mention earlier, REBT reminds us to focus on what still is good – especially during the brutal chapters of our lives. I wrote an article about just that in the Journal of Spirituality in Clinical Practice, published by the American Psychological Association, in March, 2015.

GBS: I think the only school that I see that has a similar emphasis on gratitude is the positive psychology people – but they tend to approach it in a very different way.

DJE: You are correct in that and, to his credit, Marty Seligman, who is considered the father of positive psychology, has often acknowledged the tremendous influence Al’s work had on his own.

GBS: That makes sense. This is going to get back a little bit more into ancient philosophy – but Cicero, who is a Stoic of sorts, but who disagrees with them on some key things. For example, about grief, he says the Stoics don’t acknowledge it the way they should.

He calls gratitude the mother of all the virtues, which is an interesting departure. And that gets quoted a lot – but then nobody reads the rest of the Cicero work that it comes from. But he seemed to have thought that it was really central and that without it there is something lacking to these other good dispositions.

DJE: I agree with that. And so does REBT.  Gratitude doesn’t dilute any of the other dispositions you mention – it enriches lives. When we live with a sense of awe and wonder, we bring upliftment to everyday life – even in mundane circumstances!  There is plentiful, and growing, research on the positive impact on the cardiac health of people who practice gratitude and who experience awe and wonder in their lives. REBT has from the get-go asked people to focus on that which is awesome and wonderful.

Al wasn’t about encouraging people to live a nice, neutral life that was devoid of any suffering. He encouraged people to live an intentional life, to work towards experiencing greater joy and tranquility, and to accept the probability that life would contain some loss and suffering. He also taught us how to focus on the positives in life and not elevate healthy sadness and grief into states of debilitating emotional suffering when adversities were experienced. He encouraged people to live lives infused with moral and ethical preferences and choices. REBT is largely about creating the healthy emotions when times are tough, whilst at the same time being mindful of allowing the experience of awe, wonder and gratitude for the opportunity to live this human life to infuse our awareness and enrich our minds, bodies and spirits.

Dr. Debbie Joffe Ellis is a licensed Australian psychologist, licensed New York MHC, and adjunct professor at Columbia University TC. She presents and teaches in her home city of New York, throughout the USA and across the globe.  You can watch the videorecording of her plenary speech at Stoicon 2016 here

Stoic Askēsis by Shaun Miller

Imagine having a conversation like this:

Me: So how do you live the good life?

Aristotle: Well you live a life of virtue.

Me: Great! How do you do that?

Aristotle: Well, you have to practice the virtues, such as courage, temperance, justice, honesty, and others.

Me: Okay…but still, how do you practice the virtues? Take me, for example. I’m really shy and I don’t have a lot of courage speaking to a large crowd. How do I practice the virtue of courage?

Aristotle: You just go for it! To become courageous, you have to start doing courageous things. Sure, it’s going to be hard at first, but eventually, over time, you’ll become courageous because you’ve obtained the virtue through practice and discipline.

Me: But this just seems to go back a step. I understand that to start practicing might be tough. So how does one start practicing virtuous things so that I may become virtuous?

Aristotle: I don’t know what to tell you kid. You just have to go for it! How did you start riding a bike? You just did it, didn’t you? Of course it was hard at first, but you got better at it. How did you start to get better at the violin? You just picked it up and started playing, right?

Me: Sure, but those are skills that I eventually learned to do over time. When we’re talking about virtues of character, this seems more psychological and my psychology is already at the disposition to be afraid to speak in front of large crowds. It’s like I need to work on myself so that I can start working on the virtues.

Aristotle: Ah, but to work on the virtues is to work on your self. They are the same project.

Me: I can see that after a while, but something has to start the process, doesn’t it? I mean, how do you start practicing the virtues? It’s the self, right? So how does one have the self so that one can start practicing the virtues?

Aristotle: Look kid. I think I’m just repeating myself. You just have to do it and you eventually get the virtues, which will also transform the self.

This discussion may be oversimplifying Aristotle. Nevertheless, whenever I learned about Aristotle’s ethics, I felt something was missing, like there was a gap in how to start becoming ethical. Other theories had a way to answer this. The utilitarians will say that we naturally avoid pain and pursue pleasure, so just revolve your ethics around that. The deontologists will say that since reason dictates what the ethical thing to do is, reason will motivate you to do the right thing. With virtue ethics, it’s different because their ethics is all about forming your character. But what makes you want to form a character? A previous character? Another rational part of you that moves you toward that character? A meta-character? These questions kept popping up when I was learning about Aristotle, and I really didn’t appreciate virtue ethics until sometime after I received my Masters degree.

What I think makes Stoicism powerful is how they view áskēsis, which can mean training, practices, disciplines, or techniques of the self. Aristotle had the same notion by forming habits to become a better person. However, for Aristotle, it seemed that áskēsis was causing the transformation: we shape and train the lower, irrational part of the soul, which includes the emotions. The Stoics, however, considered the soul more complex in that the irrational and the rational part of the soul are not independent of each other. Training and habituation, therefore, involve the entire disposition, not just training the lower part. Thus, one must also be trained in reasoning correctly as well. Thus, áskēsis constituted the transformation and not causing it. I consider this a more accurate picture of training and shaping oneself.

The key question is this: how does one shape oneself? How can one start the training? In this post, I will examine specific trainings that the Stoics recommended (mainly from Epictetus) and see how that advice could be used in our modern times.

Before Askēsis

The first task is to get rid of our presumptions. After all, it is impossible to learn if we already think we know what we are talking about. The ideas that we have must apply to particular cases. We usually try to fit our impressions into our prejudices and beliefs, and any impression that does not fit with our ideas we tend to discount (or say it was an aberration). So to have the right idea, we must have the corresponding impression. Otherwise, we will fall into mistakes. We do this through a technique taken from phenomenology, called the epoche. We can “bracket” our impressions and simply perceive what is, and not judge what is.

Next, we must mentally prepare ourselves to obtain the training. Reframe ourselves so that we can mentally prepare ourselves for any rigorous discipline. Think of the process similar to an athletic competition, or a recital. The difference, however, is that this training of the self is ongoing competition, or a never-ending recital. There is never a point where you stop being a self. The practices and the rehearsals will forever be ongoing where there will be no ultimate recital. Indeed, they will be blended where you cannot make a distinction between the two. But just like any rehearsal or practice, you will make mistakes. And since there really is no distinction between practicing and “the real thing,” you will often make mistakes in life. So mentally take stock of your situation and be mentally prepared if something worse could happen. If it does, then at least you had mentally noted to be ready for that. You’ll be mentally on guard.

What does it mean to go through training? In any sort of activity that requires training ,we practice and discipline ourselves so that we can do the activity well. Doing the activity well means that we are doing the activity in the right way. Therefore, we practice and discipline ourselves so that we can do the activity in the right way. Training intends to develop certain dispositions and habits and we do that by accomplishing the tasks and practices that correspond to the activity.

You want to learn how to play the violin well? Practice. Practice until the musical piece is played smoothly and your fingers and bowing are lined up how it’s supposed to be in the musical piece. You want to perfect a martial art move? Practice. Practice until the move is done gracefully so that you gain the muscle memory and it comes to you automatically. You want to get better at your woodworking? Practice. Practice until you can see the pieces come together in your mind and through work, you can build your pieces that resemble professional woodworks.

If you don’t want to do something, then don’t do it, and generate another habit instead. We are therapists to ourselves, to cure and to take care of ourselves. The person you have to convince isn’t people around you, it’s you. Worry about whether you are have become better from yourself. You do this by teaching yourself and learning from yourself. In a way, you are the teacher and the pupil.

But sometimes we don’t want to train. Practicing sometimes isn’t fun because it can be tedious, or it’s because it’s not the “real” thing. How do you get over the hump of not wanting to practice? What is the motivation to do the training? That is a topic that raises a psychological question I don’t have enough knowledge to adequately answer. But I can offer some methods that can get us on the path of not only what sort of training one can do, but ways to motivate ourselves to undergo training.

During Askēsis

One thing we should note about the training is that we cannot do it theoretically. We cannot get better at our craft, our athletic abilities, or our talents if they remain idle. Even thinking about what to do is not enough. Imagine if your children said that they did practice the piano. You said you didn’t hear anything. Their response was that they actually played the piece in the minds. They could see the fingers on the keys and they could hear the notes in the mind as their idea of their fingers played the ideas of the keys. So, according to your children, they actually did practice, but just mentally. Now as sophisticated as your children would be if they had this answer, we would obviously say that thinking about it mentally isn’t sufficient. Sure, the mental ability is the starting point, but the training itself requires experience. Thus, a true practice means that the children actually need to be in front of the piano and play the piece and not just mentally envision it.

Now the same is said for training the self. How do we get better at being a better self? It can’t be just theoretical. We can’t think ourselves of being better. We have to go out in the world and experience ourselves amidst the world in order to improve ourselves. Epictetus says that philosophers shouldn’t just be contented to learn, but to practice and train oneself (Discourses, 2.9.13).

So what are the steps that one must do? Epictetus mentions three areas of study of training that we need if we are to progress. These are in Discourses 3.2. We will go over them, and see how they can either be updated or supplemented for our modern times. Briefly, it’s to train our desires and aversions, next we take our training into further application by noticing our roles and actions. Then, we solidify our training.

1. Training the Desires, or Recognize what Needs to Change

First we need to train and master our desires and passions. Anyone who desires anything strongly insists upon having it and can’t stand the idea of missing out on it. The same is true with aversion. Through training, however, we will desire what we need, and avoid what we don’t need. You reorient yourself towards virtue.

One way to start is to investigate and study what it is we’re desiring. Determine whether the desire is a good desire to have. Does the thing you desire really help your overall well-being? The realization may require effort such as ethical, logical, or metaphysical considerations. Instead of trying change the world to fulfill what you avoid, perhaps a better way is to learn to have aversions toward your own bad irrational behavior. Identifying your flaws is the first step to overcoming them. You will be a better human being by doing so instead of holding onto unchallenged desires and aversions.

The realization may make sense mentally , but old habits die hard. You’d still have to get rid of the old habit and replace it with a new one. One way to do that is to have various maxims with you when a desire happens upon you. I should clarify that notions of morality are not restrictions of dos and don’ts, but a way of becoming a better human being. It’s not wrong to have desires; rather, what’s wrong is the bad orientation of the desires.

I think a good demonstration of this is Bruce Lee. Lee would have affirmations on him in order to train himself to be a better person. Again, being “better” didn’t mean simply ethically better, but to be a well-polished, “upgraded” version of himself. Here is Lee’s maxim/affirmation on willpower:

Recognizing that the power of will is the supreme court over all other departments of my mind, I will exercise it daily when I need the urge to act for any purpose, and I will form habits designed to bring the power of my will into action at least once daily.[1]

This affirmation not only dictates what Lee should do regarding his willpower, but he even puts in a prescription of doing the activity at least once daily. Other affirmations dealt with the emotions, reason, and conscience.[2] Thus, we must train ourselves not to have any automatic tendencies toward our inclinations. But that requires us to investigate your intentions to determine whether they are virtuous or not. This isn’t to say that if you miss out on the training you’re doing something immoral, but you’ll be more enriched and a fuller human being, much like learning how to read and write makes you a fuller human being, or getting engaged in athleticism makes you a fuller human being. Yes, if you miss out on athletics or reading or writing, you’re not doing something immoral, but you’ll be stunted as a human being.

For example, I have a friend who would passively participate in catcalling. He wouldn’t actively initiate it, and if others around him were doing it, he would passively participate in the activity as well. Over time, he learned that catcalling was not a good activity because most women do not like receiving it, and it further reinforces men to be creepy. My friend had this realization, but he’s now in his 40s and his catcalling habits were well ingrained in him. Simply knowing the truth that catcalling is unethical isn’t enough; he needed something with him, something concrete that he had to remind himself in to get rid of that habit of catcalling. What he did was he had a saying every time he saw an attractive woman.

His maxim was: “just because she’s acknowledging/smiling/talking to you, it does not mean she’s flirting with/into you.” He has memorized this and admittedly, he struggled at first, but he persevered. Eventually, he held to this maxim and the old habit is withering away. Stick with those maxims so that they become a new way to reframe how you see the world, other people, and yourself. Notice that with this framework, we could judge my friend via traditional morality (he was wrong to catcall, and it was good of him to change that), but we could also recognize that he’s a better human being by not catcalling.

Another way to train your desires is through writing. Writing about your own ideas and thoughts can help you reveal to yourself what ideas you hold and what you believe. More than that, it helps you reflect on your day to see if you followed through with your training. Some athletes have athletic journals to see their training in action: what did they do that day? Did they improve? What could they do better? Musicians have to make annotations in their musical pieces to remind them what they need to do specifically in the musical piece: pick up the bow, slow down on this measure, move the hands to a different position instead of the default position. The same could be said with training the self. Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations were meant for edification of this sort. Seneca also offered advice on what to go over at the end of the day:

  • What ailment have I cured today?
  • What failing have I resisted?
  • Where have I failed?
  • What duties did I forget to do?
  • Where can I show improvement?
  • Find fault with what was badly done and rejoice with what was good.

You could just think out these thoughts, but Seneca insists on writing them down. Why? Writing has structure, it is more permanent, and it clarifies thoughts. Just think about how to answer these questions can be fleeting.

We often think about answering questions in our minds and even though we can answer them, even profoundly, we often forget what we’ve said when asked again. Writing them down makes a profound influence on the self: writing isn’t just a record, but a way to meditate on what you recorded. Writing down our thoughts and implementing them as personal maxims establishes a pattern of thinking about good and bad, or about things of value in general. Digest the ideas; don’t just take the principles raw. Digesting them produces some change in your ruling center in the same way that athletes show a resulting change in their body as a result of their exercises and diet. Writing is a way to fortify yourself which will also transform the self. By writing down or memorizing certain maxims, formulas, aphorisms that you have within you, you will live out that aspect of yourself in a new way. Now these sayings can’t just be inspirational; they have to move you where the quote literally changes how you interact with the object you desire. The maxim doesn’t necessarily need to be original; the quote can be something that you admire and transforms you to a new way of living. In a way, you take on these maxims in the same way you incorporate an argument that has persuaded you.

2. Training our Actions and Roles, Or Acting Out What Needs to Change

Second, once we have trained and exercised our desires and impressions, it should give us a sense of what to do and what role to play. One way to train our actions is to guide our motivations towards appropriate actions. It isn’t enough to read self-help books; you have to put that into action. Don’t just read commentaries by philosophers; follow the actions. However, we shouldn’t make a show about it. Otherwise, you’ve just declared the ideology or philosophy in name only. As an example, I have a friend who never really expresses her deepest philosophical positions, but she is the prime example of loving action. If you asked her why she does it, she will explain that compassion, care, and love are her motivating forces. And she displays these forces by acting it out and others around her can see that.

One way to get rid of a habit is to force yourself in the opposite direction so that you will eventually gain the opposite habit. For example, if you’re inclined toward pleasure, throw yourself in the opposite direction for the sake of training. If you’re inclined to be lazy, throw yourself into your work. As mentioned before, what can throw you off are the impressions. Training ourselves is a counteracting force so that the impressions don’t convince us otherwise. Thus, we are not just training our habits, but we are also training our impressions. Train yourself not only to retrack your desires, but also to exercise your aversions as well. For example, if you are irritable, train yourself to put up with insults and not get upset about it. Epictetus says that someone who insults you is your partner by training you in patience, temper, and being gentle (3.20.9).

Or learn to accept rejection. As an example, Jason Comely originally started a concept of rejection therapy.[3] Basically, there are a deck of cards and on each card is a task you must do. Each task is risky and the situation makes it easy for you to be rejected. Some examples include asking a stranger for some gum, asking your bank if they can void some fees, asking if the retail you purchase can be discounted, or asking for a sip of someone’s drink. There is one rule to this according to Comely: you must be rejected by a stranger at least once a day. Why is this helpful? After all, no one likes feeling rejected. However, being rejected is inevitable in life. If something is inevitable, it makes sense to not only be aware of it, but to realize that it will happen to your life. Instead of doing what you can to avoid it, you may as well get used to it. Now so far so good, but the training aspect is for you to do the exercises and tasks in a more challenging way so that when you face “the real thing,” you are already on guard. Athletes perform drills so that they can perform well in the actual event. The Stoics are calling upon us to perform drills of the self so that when faced with the real situation, we are already prepared. Purposely getting rejected is the drill; getting rejected when you least expect it is the real situation.

One thing I’ve noticed as I’ve gone through training is that it makes me more aware of my surroundings and my lifestyle, so that I do not just take things for granted. As an example, I decided to give up something for Lent this year. Now I’m not Catholic, I’m not even religious, but I decided to exercise áskēsis and put my words into action. I decided to give up refined sugar. Honey, maple syrup, coconut sugar, and stevia were still on the table. Why sugar? For one thing, I have a major sweet tooth. It isn’t a flaw that I consider, but I notice that after I eat a meal, I have a huge craving to eat something sugary. At one point, I finished dinner and was trying to find something sugary to eat but there wasn’t anything in my house (I probably ate it all!). I got irritable but soon afterword, I made some tea that had some sweet elements which calmed me down. But being irritable bothered me when I reflected on it. I was relying on sweet things just to function. I decided to see if I could get rid of this habit.

Now when people give up something for Lent, I assume it’s similar to how most Americans view diets: undergo the diet until you’ve reached your desired goal, and then you can go back to your original lifestyle once the goal is obtained. As any person who goes through this diet knows, you will soon gain weight again. Instead, the purpose of a good diet is to change your overall lifestyle which includes the environment and habits. I inspected all the foods I ate and bought new foods inspecting the ingredients carefully. Wow, I was surprised by how much sugar was in food items that I didn’t realize.

I had to buy specialty bread without sugar (the best I could find was that it used honey). I had to buy new jam, I couldn’t order a pastry with my coffee at a coffee shop, and I had to buy ingredients to make my sugar-free desserts instead of simply buying desserts. (By the way, sugar-free banana bread is excellent. Sugar-free seven-layer bars is complicated and time consuming, but still good.) These exercises, I hope, will be ingrained in me so that once Lent is over, I don’t go back to my sugar-eating ways, but I incorporate my awareness, my new habits, and new environment to hopefully change my appetite—or at least get a better handle of my sugar-craving appetite. In other words, I want to form a new character not so invested into sugar.

Giving up sugar may be a small thing, but I would like to work on other things about myself that I consider a better, “upgraded” version of myself. For example, I usually get lonely at night. I don’t know why, but I’d like to work against that, which seems harder to train than simply giving up sugar. I also tend to get shy and would also like to work on that. The last two characteristics about myself seem harder to combat, but I have to admit, my shyness has gotten better over time by forcing myself to teach and going out in new environments. The lonely characteristic is something that has developed lately and I’m still figuring out new tools, trainings, and practices to overcome that. The first step is recognition, but recognition isn’t all. You have to do something with go beyond recognition and put yourself into action, which is the hard part.

3. Training our Ability to Stay Constant, Or Solidifying Our New Habits

Step one was the motivation: moving ourselves to become better. Step two was action: putting those motivations into a behavior until it becomes habit. The last step is to make sure that we stay constant with our training and perfect our training so that we don’t waver. This way, we won’t be caught off guard, so that even in stressful times, we can stick to our principles instead of being tempted back to our old habits. After all, we can have the recognition and the actions to be on track, but they can easily be overturned by our volition.

Epictetus notices when people recommend doing something, what they are advising is to change your behavior. But they stop short. Being a better person is not simply changing your behavior. When we think about ethics, we often think that involves changing our behaviors, but this is only changing and focusing on what we do, and not the internal psychology. In other words, previous ethics is mainly focused on behavior modification: to become more ethical, just change our behavior. Kantian ethics may say it’s to change our motivations, but even then, we ought to will the universal maxim. It doesn’t mean that we want to do it. There is nothing wrong with changing our behaviors, but if that is the only focus, there could be reluctance from people who don’t want to be ethical, let alone do the training. After all, we may behave in one way, but psychologically prefer another. Simply behaving because it’s ethically required of us is only mimicking the training, not actually undergoing the training itself. Undergoing áskēsis helps one internalize the behavior into a principled motivation.

This is why Epictetus states in the Discourses (4.6.11-16) that when we listen to someone we agree with, our behavior doesn’t automatically change. Why? It’s because we’ve only agreed with them. We haven’t done anything to put this agreement into action. Now we need to work so that our assent corresponds to what we actually do. We can agree to something even if we don’t do the actions that correspond to the agreement. However, we must move toward one side or the other, otherwise we become hypocrites. Reason didn’t fail. Our old habits are still in place. But since the idea is new and fresh, it is simply a new fact that we’ve agreed with, but it remains in our mind without it becoming incorporated into our character. Put these ideas into use so that they are not simply ideas, nor even just actions, but something solid so that it goes beyond your behavior; it now becomes you. The newly formed self is made through ingrained practices until it becomes habituated.

One way to develop consistency is through what the Stoics called Premeditatio malorum: an exercise consisting to vividly see something bad happening to you so that you can be mentally prepared when the bad thing actually does happen. Jason Comely used the rejection game to mentally prepare himself of being rejected. Bruce Lee anticipated being emotionally unstable in stressful environments. We could do the same. I often tell my students that road rage doesn’t make sense because the car was going to cut you off anyways. You can’t control that, you can’t control what the other person is going to do, so why be mad about it? It’s like getting mad at a certain individual being next to you in an elevator. You can’t control that, so why be bothered by that? These exercises must be practical toward your progress. Your progress and your work must coincide.

Another method of consistency is to target weak spots in your training. Is there a part in the musical piece that’s giving you trouble? Practice those bars over and over again. Perhaps you have to do painfully slowly. Is there a part during your dance routine where the form is sloppy? Practice that move slowly and after each micromovement, notice where your feet and hands are. Do that move multiple times so that the form is better. Eventually, it’ll become smoother and then the form glides better. Do you notice any pain when you’re doing any activity, whether the pain is physical or mental? Investigate. Maybe you’re standing and sitting incorrectly. Or maybe you’re doing that certain athletic move incorrectly which is why you’re in that painful state. Or maybe you feel emotionally bad about the activity, or even the feelings you have. We can investigate the certain techniques and moves to do the movement correctly; likewise, we can investigate to internally feel good about what we’re doing by undergoing some targeted emotional analysis.

After Askēsis

These exercises are meant to be practices and training to bring about an inner transformation. They are ways to help be ready-at-hand (procheirous). By going through the exercises and discipline, we can live a good life. I think a good way to tie up training and practices of the self is to connect with self-constitution. People act and live in accordance with habits (“fake it till you make it), but we also act and live based on habits that are our own by endorsing these habits. It is, what philosopher Christine Korsgaard calls, self-constitution.[4] We see what habits we need, undergo training to obtain those habits, and forge ourselves to make those habits us.

What makes an action mine, in the special way that an action is mine, rather than something that just happens in me? That it issues from my constitution, rather than from some force at work within me; that it is expressive of a law I give to myself, rather than a law imposed upon me from without.[5]

As an example, someone who may be on a diet will go through various means to achieve the desired result: managing calorie intake, exercising more, etc. As soon as the result is achieved, people will stop dieting and go back to their pre-diet lifestyle. As many people can testify, their old habits take over and the results they wanted are lost. However, there are people who go through changes in their diets, but as soon as they achieve their desired results, they stick to their diet in order to maintain those desired results. Eventually, these new behaviors have become habituated and ingrained in their character to the point where people may not consider these new behaviors as external to themselves, but now as part of their character. They have taken on a new lifestyle to the point where they may not even consider what they are doing as “dieting” but rather simply a new way of living and being healthy.

This dieting example as similar to Korsgaard’s self-constitution in that the former dieter was dieting in accordance with dieting principles, and the latter dieter was dieting by endorsing dieting principles. The training is not just to get out of a certain situation to avoid these vicious thoughts or habits. Rather, it is to shape and form our character and not just avoid actions. We have to stay on track and not falter, otherwise habits become weakened and then destroyed. What gets us on track is áskēsis. Thus, we must keep up the exercises so that we stay on track. One does not become an athlete by doing the exercises once; one does not become a musician by practicing once. Likewise, we do not become better by doing better things once. We “upgrade” ourselves by constantly striving so that the upgrade becomes the normal fashion of living our lives. Once we have that, then we “upgrade” again. While the traditional Stoics said that the aim is eudaimonia, I think a better way to think of this is to continually upgrade and constantly be on the go to create better versions of ourselves. We see if these habits are really us, or if we are simply living in accordance with those habits, meaning that those habits aren’t us yet, but we still do the actions in the hopes that those actions become habits. Once those habits take hold of our character, then the training (at least for moment) is complete and has influenced us.

[1] https://www.brucelee.com/podcast-blog/2016/11/2/17-affirmations-part-3-willpower

[2] https://www.brucelee.com/podcast-blog/2016/10/26/16-affirmations-part-2-emotions-reason-and-conscience

[3] http://rejectiontherapy.com/game/

[4] More accurately, she considers self-constitution as being morally autonomous in the Kantian sense. However, I consider this very similar to training and disciplining the self.

[5] Korsgaard, 160.

 

Shawn Miller is a Ph. D. student at Marquette University. Currently, he is working on his dissertation which discusses the moral assumptions of sex education in the United States. He hopes to incorporate áskēsis into sex education to help students become sexual subjects, meaning to be more aware of the roles and scripts in our culture, rather than simply following them. Besides Stoicism and sexuality, Shaun also enjoys athletics, being around good company, and cooking. You can read more of his ideas at his blog.

Stoicism and the “Inadequacy of the Invincible” by Massimo Pigluicci

Stoicism is not new to criticism. Many of the fragments of Stoic texts that we have, especially referring to the early Stoa, are actually from authors who were not just critical, but seriously pissed off at, the philosophy. And now that Stoicism seems to be on the upswing again, the critics have come out of the woodworks once more. There is, of course, much value in serious criticism of one’s philosophy (for instance, from the likes of Martha Nussbaum), and the Stoics themselves repeatedly took good ideas from whenever they found them, be that the Cynicism so admired by Epictetus, or even the Epicureanism in which Seneca made a number of forays “not as a deserter, but as a scout” (II. On Discursiveness in Reading, 5).

Some of the modern critics have tried to top Sextus Empiricus’ famous “Against the Professors,” managing to express a level of venom probably better suited to other targets. Here, for instance, is my response to Existentialist philosopher Sandy Grant, who I think managed to write one of the most uncharitable recent commentaries on Stoicism. (Then again, none other than Bertrand Russell himself, one of the philosophers who most influenced me early on, botched the job fantastically in his History of Western Philosophy.)

I wasn’t going to respond to the latest entry in the genre, “The inadequacies of the invincible: on the failure of Stoic ethics,” published over at Medium by an anonymous writer (at least, I couldn’t see any byline on the piece itself) who turns out to be Michael Gibson of San Francisco (he was copied on a tweet I received about the piece). That’s because there is only so much time in the day, and so much point in rebutting one’s opponents instead of practicing one’s philosophy. Besides, the piece is long and meandering, not providing a tight and compelling argument. But far too many people have tweeted it to me asking what I thought about it, so here we go.

Gibson begins by recounting the famous tale of James Stockdale, who was shot down over Vietnam and endured seven years of torture and partial isolation as a prisoner of war in the ironically named “Hanoi Hilton.” You can read Stockdale’s story in his own words here and here. Gibson, stunningly, claims that Stoicism didn’t help Stockdale, a conclusion contradicted in plain words by the Vice Admiral himself, who went on for years teaching the philosophy and recalling how Epictetus had been his constant guide and companion throughout his tribulations.

Gibson then writes:

what you or I might call the goods of life  – wealth, health, family, lovers, and friends  –  the Stoic is morally indifferent to … the Stoic cultivates a moral, and therefore, emotional detachment from them, knowing that the sum of his worth factors no possessions in.

The first bit is on target, and moreover seems to me to be the right stand. While everyone (including the Stoics) care about wealth, health, etc., it seems very reasonable to think that one’s morality should not be affected by them, meaning that we shouldn’t do immoral things to secure such externals. The second bit is a straightforward non sequitur: just because I think that the moral dimension is orthogonal to the dimension of external goods it doesn’t follow that I should not give a damn about my family, my lover, or my friend. It only follows, again, that my concern should never compromise my moral integrity (e.g., I shouldn’t give a job to my lover on the ground that she is my lover, that’s nepotism, something that not just the Stoics frown upon).

Cataclysm, poverty, imprisonment, undeserved notoriety, bodily harm  – the Stoic sees as neutral raw material. How do you conduct yourself undergoing these supposed bad things? How do you respond to them? That’s the crux of it all.

Yes and no. True, any adversity is for the Stoic one more chance to exercise virtue (talk about a constructive positive attitude!), but that material is not “neutral,” as evidenced by the Stoic phrase “dispreferred indifferents”: indifferent from the standpoint of one’s moral character, but dispreferred nonetheless. I explained this concept in detail by using the modern idea, derived from behavioral economics, of lexicographic preferences, which I think captures the essence of Stoic thought on the matter.

The second part of Gibson’s essay is entitled “Epictetus comes to the market,” and it is here that the rubber really hits the road. Like Sandy Grant before him, Gibson really hates the commercialization of Stoicism in the style of TED talks and Ryan Holiday’s books. As if other philosophers, for instance Existentialist ones, didn’t give TED talks or write successful books (and more power to them, I say).

Gibson gets nasty here. Referring to Holiday’s The Obstacle is the Way, he says “along the way you suddenly awake from this carnival to realize how far you’ve come from the Stoa.” Well, for one thing, if Gibson is objecting to getting paid for teaching Stoicism, that’s been done since at least the time of Chrysippus. If instead he is worried by the fact that an author becomes famous and influences others, Seneca was both very famous and very influential.

I suspect the real problem here is that Gibson, like Grant before him, simply expresses disdain for what he sees as an oversimplification and commodification of philosophy. I can understand that, and Ryan’s style is certainly not my own. But this cannot possibly be an indictment of the philosophy in question, and moreover I’m having a hard time imagining exactly what is wrong with popularizing an idea (and making money while you do it), so long as you are not distorting that idea beyond recognition, or somehow profiting from your doings in an unethical way (which would violate the Stoic discipline of action).

I think this is part of a broader attitude, very common especially (but as Gibson’s case demonstrates, not only) among academics: that writing about science, philosophy, or any other “serious” field, is tainted if the writing becomes popular, and especially if it produces financial rewards for the author. But, again, why, exactly?

I teach philosophy at a university in New York, and I make good money as a result (otherwise I couldn’t possibly afford to live in the city). I also give public lectures (for which sometimes I’m paid) and write books for general audiences, and I feel no guilt at all when my bank tells me that my paycheck is in, or when my publisher sends me royalties. Once more: if someone is doing a bad job, or is profiting from it in a morally questionable fashion, by all means go after him. If not, your complaining begins to sound like a lot of sour grapes.

In a bizarre and sudden twist, Gibson then pins the tragic death by suicide of the brilliant American writer David Foster Wallace (who suffered from depression), on Stoicism, calling the resemblance between some of Wallace’s writings and Epictetus’ ideas “the canary in the coal mine.” This is so strange that I’m not even sure how to reply, but I’ll try.

To begin with, while Stoicism can be useful to people who suffer from mental disabilities (see this essay, for instance), it is certainly no substitute for therapy or medical cure. And even less so is it a magic wand that can solve everyone’s problems. It’s a philosophy of life, meant to help us see things in a different fashion and to act accordingly. To pretend otherwise is simply intellectually dishonest. Moreover, neither I nor, probably, Gibson, know enough about Wallace to really arrive at sensible judgments, and as Epictetus reminds us:

Someone bathes in haste; don’t say he bathes badly, but in haste. Someone drinks a lot of wine; don’t say he drinks badly, but a lot. Until you know their reasons, how do you know that their actions are vicious? (Enchiridion 45).

The same applies to anything people do, whether it appears to be vicious, nonsensical, or simply sad and misguided.

In the next section of his long article, Gibson says:

We have become a society dissatisfied with the way things are, but instead of risking change to a external world that angers us or saddens us or bores the hell out of us, we choose to focus on how we respond to it. We choose, instead, to Netflix and chill. Sometimes with pills.

And from there he implies (but, curiously, never actually clearly states) another predictable, and unfounded, accusation against Stoicism: that it is a philosophy of quietism. Forget Cato the Younger picking up arms to counter the tyranny of Caesar, or Marcus Aurelius passing laws for the improvement of the conditions of women and slaves throughout the empire. Forget that one of the four cardinal virtues is that of justice, which informs the discipline of Stoic action. Or ignore that the Stoics (and the Cynics) introduced the revolutionary, and very dangerous to Greco-Roman society, concept of cosmopolitanism. What are facts and arguments, when one simply knows the truth about a philosophy he despises?

Want more examples of strawmen in Gibson’s account? Easy, just proceed to the next section of his essay, where we find this: “To omit friends from an account of what truly matters  – as the Stoics do –  was for Aristotle to paint a thin portrait of a life that was not worth living.” Never mind that Seneca wrote a famous letter to Lucilius about true and false friendship, another one on philosophy and friendship, a third one on grief for lost friends, and two letters of consolation to his friends Marcia and Polybius. Here are excerpts to give you an idea:

Ponder for a long time whether you shall admit a given person to your friendship; but when you have decided to admit him, welcome him with all your heart and soul. Speak as boldly with him as with yourself. (III. On True and False Friendship, 2)

In this sense the wise man is self-sufficient, that he can do without friends, not that he desires to do without them. When I say ‘can,’ I mean this: he endures the loss of a friend with equanimity. (IX. On Philosophy and Friendship, 5)

Fortune has taken away, but Fortune has given. Let us greedily enjoy our friends, because we do not know how long this privilege will be ours. (LXIII. On Grief for Lost Friends, 7-8 )

Does that seriously sound to you like someone who “omits friends from an account of what truly matters”?

And then we get this gem from Mr. Gibson:

The rise of Stoicism™ is a sign of a civilization in decline. There is something decadent about a society trying to escape its own loss through a sour grapes philosophy.

Ah, the old “civilization in decline” trope. And notice the snarky “Stoicism,™” of course. This is hardly serious criticism. To teach endurance is not “sour grapes,” it is developing a life skill that will prove useful under a wide variety of circumstances. Stoicism became popular in Rome during the late Republic and the early Empire, hardly a “civilization in decline,” whether or not 21st century America qualifies as such. And if there is an attribute that simply doesn’t even begin to fit the Stoics is “decadent.”

I happen to think that the core value of Stoicism are, in fact, exactly what our (or any, really) civilization is in dire need of: the idea that if one doesn’t act morally then external goods are meaningless; the notion that some things are up to us and others aren’t, so that we can focus where we most make a difference; the concept that we are all members of the same polis, and that we ought to help each other to survive and thrive; and the idea that we should use a bit more reason in dealing with the complex problems that life presents us with. That, not Gibson’s caricature, is what Stoicism is about.

This piece was originally published in How To Be A Stoic.

Massimo Pigliucci is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. He is an evolutionary biologist and a philosopher of science, whose writings can be found at platofootnote.org. He has written or edited ten books, most recently Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem (University of Chicago Press). He grew up in Rome, reading Seneca and Cicero, but re-discovered Stoicism only recently. He sports two philosophy-related tattoos…

 

Editor’s postscript:  As one of the earlier mentioned people who urged Massimo to author a response to Gibson’s criticisms of Stoicism (both ancient and modern), I was pleased that he agreed to step into the lists again to champion the philosophy.  I think his response is entirely on-point, but I would like to add a few remarks, reflective of the initial conversation we had about the piece in the medium of Twitter.

As a scholar who admits being almost equally attracted to Aristotelian and Stoic perspectives, I also intended to weigh in about the contrast drawn between those perspectives in Gibson’s piece.  It appears, however, that a few references to Aristotle’s views in the initially published version – about which I intended to raise several criticisms – are no longer there in the current version of the piece.  There remains one interesting passage, however, in that respect:

The Stoics parted company from Aristotle and his students — not without controversy — by distilling the practice of virtue solely down to the exercise of the will and the purification of motive

I wouldn’t say that this is really the main juncture where Stoics and Aristotelians parted ways on virtue.  Setting aside the issue of whether either Aristotle or the Stoics had anything like a concept of “the will” as later thinkers would understand it (simple answer: no, not quite yet, but close. . . ), the real sticking points in ancient times concerned two main matters.

The first was whether virtue was sufficient for happiness.  Stoics said Yes, and that you didn’t need other things, though if you did have them, you’d certainly enjoy them.  Aristotelians said that virtue was central to happiness, but that you also did need friends and some measure of external goods.  Their views were close enough that some claimed that they really espoused the same position, with the difference being a verbal rather than substantive one.  That interpretation is mistaken, to be sure, but it does indicate that the distance between Stoics and Aristotelians is not as vast as Gibson might depict it.

The second issue had to do with the emotions and their place in virtue.  Here there is clearly a substantive disagreement between Stoics and Aristotelians, at least on some points, or rather about certain emotions. In broad terms, Aristotelians view the virtues that bear upon emotions as involving a number of “rights” (e.g. right object, time, intensity, reason, etc.) coalescing around a moderate emotional response.

So, an Aristotelian does think that there are occasions when one ought to get angry.  Stoics think anger is always something bad.  Speaking as someone who works specifically on Aristotle and anger, though, I can add that he also specifies that most anger turns out to be bad, and that the person with a virtuous disposition with respect to anger is “prone to forgiveness.” (If you’d like to hear a discussion about how Aristotle thinks anger seduces practical rationality, here’s a recent talk on that topic).

As a last point on a different issue, it’s interesting that Gibson stresses that Stockdale made a point of not talking about Stoicism with others in his extreme prison conditions.  That was certainly his choice.  It wasn’t that of other people in other prisons, as I found when I taught at Indiana State Prison.

In the six years when that was my full-time occupation (teaching in Ball State University’s long-since-phased-out college education program), I would estimate that I had dozens of conversations about Stoic philosophy, most of them initiated by my inmate students, who studied Stoic texts on their own.  These men not only found Stoic concepts and application useful for their own admittedly less-drastic (though still pretty tough) situations, but shared these texts back and forth, argued with each other about them back in the cell blocks, and then told me about portions of those conversations.

I think we can draw an analogy here.  Just as Stoics would point out that a particular response or course of action was not simply inevitable – for example, since Socrates did not fear death, it isn’t necessary that any one of us fear death – we might view talking or even teaching about Stoicism in a similar light.  It’s interesting that in his situation, Stockdale deemed it a more prudent course not to talk about Stoicism.  But that doesn’t mean that somehow that becomes the more authentically Stoic course.

  • Greg Sadler, Editor of Stoicism Today

Right After Stoicon in Toronto: A STOICON-x Event!

Stoicon-x events are smaller conferences organized around the world to complement the main Stoicon 2017 conference in Toronto and Stoic Week 2017. The goal of Stoicon-x is for local Stoic groups to put on their own mini-conferences in their own areas. You can read our tips and guidelines for putting on your own Stoicon-x events.

Stoicon-x Toronto will be held on October 15th, the day after the main Stoicon 2017. Tickets for this event are available here.

You don’t need to be attending the main Stoicon 2017 conference to come to Stoicon-x. It’s a completely separate event, organized by some of the same people. In addition to a few fixed keynote talks, there will be slots for lightning talks of 5-10 minutes. Any attendee (that means you!) can sign up to present a lightning talk on a topic related to Stoicism of their choosing, time permitting. Networking will follow. So if you have something to say about Stoicism or just can’t get enough of Stoicism come along to Stoicon-x Toronto!

Location for Stoicon-x Toronto 2017

This Stoicon-x event will be held at Ryerson University, in the George Vari Engineering and Computing Centre, which is located at 245 Church Street, Toronto, Ontario.

Full Schedule for the Event

9.30am – 10am Registration and coffee

10am Introduction: The Popularity and Relevance of Stoicism Today
Donald Robertson, author of Teach Yourself Stoicism

10.15 am Keynote 1: Achieving Personal Freedom Through Stoic Principles
Dr. Chuck Chakrapani, author of Unshakable Freedom: Ancient Stoic Secrets Applied to Modern Life

10.45am Morning break (15 min.)

11am Lightning Presentations on Modern Stoicism

12pm Afternoon break (15 min.)

12.15pm Keynote 2: ‘People Learn while they Teach’: The Whys and Hows of Building a Local Stoic Community Greg Lopez, Founder of NYC Stoics and Director of Membership for The Stoic Fellowship

12.45pm Closing: Donald Robertson (15 min.)

1pm – 1.30pm Networking

NB: Please note that the details of this event may be subject to change.

Stoic Medicine: A Guide to Rational and Ethical Practice by Vadim Korkhov

When I began embracing the philosophy of Stoicism two years ago, it came at a time in my life when I needed a way to deal with a myriad of issues facing my life that seemed too many to address all at once.  In applying this philosophy, I have realized its usefulness in application to the practice of medicine.  Stoicism has allowed me to be a more thoughtful, conscientious, and better skilled physician by putting the right priorities into perspective, and reminding me of my role in the process of a patient’s treatment.

It is altogether too easy to forget that my motivation is the patient’s best interest, and no one else’s.  While this may seem a natural conclusion, modern American medical practice is beset with distractions, such as financial performance benchmarks, impressing the patient in order to gain a favorable review, or dealing with political pressures within a healthcare organization.  Here, I hope to share some of the insights I’ve gained from Stoicism that I hope other physicians can use to improve their practices, and relieve from them needless burdens that they often impose on themselves by demanding of themselves more than what is possible or necessary.

I cannot deny that my background has greatly shaped my opinions and applications of Stoicism.  I am an intensivist, which is a physician that practices medicine in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) of a hospital, where the critically ill are managed.  These are the sickest patients in a hospital who require constant and meticulous attention.  Patients admitted to the ICU have a diverse range of illnesses or injuries, or may require the ICU to manage after major surgery.  Some patients admitted to the ICU unfortunately are suffering terminal illness, and spend the last weeks of their lives in fruitless efforts to prolong death in the misguided hope of prolonging life.  

Critical care medicine requires a collaborative effort where the intensivist must rely on other physicians to complement his management in all but the most simple illnesses.  One would imagine that, in such a context, everyone would recognize an urgency to work together for the benefit of the patient.  And yet, over the years, this is not what I observed.  Instead, I discovered contentiousness between physicians, often to the point of pettiness over the most trivial matters.  I discovered politics earning greater place of consideration over a patient’s management than medicine.  I also discovered incompetence on the part of some doctors, which made it frustrating to be forced to work with them, as they often didn’t understand either what they were doing or what I was trying to do.  So frustrated was I at these impediments that I became bitter, and came to assume that when my plan was being thwarted, it was for personal reasons, slights against me!

Unless they leave the practice of clinical medicine altogether, and pursue research, administration, or academics, most physicians face problems like mine.  Like me, they face distractions to simply practicing medicine, as they learned in medical school and in their postgraduate training.  Medical training does not prepare them to deal with these issues, leaving it up to each individual to handle these problems for themselves.  Having no basis or preparation, they often succumb to maladaptive means, and due to the pressures of the career, have little time or energy to devote to correct them.  In this essay, I’ll share some insights I’ve had both in personal faults, but also in observing the faults of others.  In this way, I hope to be as comprehensive as I can of a wide range of experience, so that this advice can be applicable to all.

Stoic Medical Management: Applying Reason and the Right Use of Impressions, and the View to Providence

With all the pressure upon the physician to perform, medicine can be a stressful environment.  Besides the expectation of the patient to treat illness, there is also a pressure to treat quickly when the illness is severe and life-threatening.  Doctors, especially early in their careers when they have little experience, also worry whether they even have the skills to face the challenge of managing illness.  I myself remember those first few weeks at my first job, where I trembled wondering if I was going to be found out as a fraud because I might demonstrate too much hesitation in my decisions.  

It is thus easy to forget one’s faculty of reason in the face of stress, and resort to emotions as a substitute means for deduction.  Despite their training, doctors often do not apply what they were trained to do – to use deduction through objective evidence, arrive at a list of possibilities (differential diagnosis), and eliminate all possibilities until one of those possibilities is most likely.  Instead, they resort to instinct or gut feelings.  They “feel” that they know what the problem is and “know” the solution simply because their feelings confirm it.  

The ancient Stoics warned against succumbing to a false impression, and then acting too quickly on a whim.  Epictetus mentions it repeatedly in the Discourses, under many different conditions.  The excessive reliance on instinct over reason can lead to dangerous outcomes.  It can lead to the pursuit of unfounded suspicions while ignoring glaring problems.  Problems that are ignored often get worse over time, to the point where, once they are realized, become too late to correct.  

I can recall many cases where a doctor would forget to perform the physical examination — a basic tool of assessment.  Simply performing the physical examination saved hours of idle goose-chasing with pointless tests.  In another case, a physician consulted me for a patient who had shortness of breath, but never bothered to look at the chest x-ray he himself had ordered, which showed a glaring abnormality.  In another instance, a cardiologist was so perplexed by the nature of a patient’s heart disease that he simply walked away from the patient without doing anything at all.

Even early in my career, I recognized that the worst thing I could do was to panic.  As advised by the ancient philosophers, when you are overcome with a strong feeling – a passion – it is easy to succumb to a false impression about a subject.  The best thing to do is to do exactly the opposite of what many believe and not act quickly and rashly, but to pause for a moment to allow your passions to cool, and only then calmly assess the situation with the faculty of reason.  Then, it becomes far easier and clearer to pursue the correct course of action.  

Once you have repeated this process many times, it becomes ingrained as a habit, and less necessary to perform consciously.  This is ideally suited to medical practice, which is just a series of repeated presentations of mostly the same disease states in varied forms.  Without realizing it, I had acclimated myself to eliminating my passions by seeing the same thing over and over again, thereby gaining the proper use of impressions – those devoid of emotive pollution.  Such advice seems to run counter to medical glamor, which praises rapid decisions and remorseless confidence.  And some would prefer to be wrong and appear confident, than right and appear doubted.  

Exuberance of that kind has a tendency to lead to regret.  Once again, the ancient Stoics were right when they pointed out that acting out of passion inevitably leads to regret later.  By then, the faculty of reason has taken over in place of passion, and has discovered that earlier actions were foolhardy.  Seneca has a whole book about the dangers of anger, and how easily destructive it is, but it seems almost any passion shares this risk.  Many physicians have a tendency to retrospectively regret their actions after their heads have cooled.  They play Monday Morning Quarterback, wondering “if only I had done this… or that….”  It is easy to lapse into regret when a patient suffers a poor outcome.  I myself have not been immune to this.  Some patients simply do not fare well, even when managed entirely correctly.  In such circumstances, I have found it helpful to remember two things.  

  1. There are some things that lie within our control and outside our control.  We can only discover things from sufficient information, without which we are powerless to arrive at any conclusion without guessing.  We also cannot treat every illness.  Some diseases have no treatments.
  2. The Providence that everything eventually unfolds just as it was bound to unfold.  Some things are inevitable no matter what we do.  To the ancients, it was the Logos, which committed every action to the best course possible.  To us in the modern world, we must understand from science that there is a cause and effect to every event.    

By reminding myself periodically of these two factors, I can understand that my actions do not bear responsibility for absolutely everything that happens, and so I do not face regret.  I am then free of the burden of yet another passion, and so can pursue reason for the next task.  Even if I lapse in my judgement, or am simply incorrect in my conclusion within good judgement, it is better that I consider my error rationally, without regret, so I do not repeat it.  I still know that I did as much as my rational faculty was able.  I did not arrive to medical school knowing everything about medicine.  And I certainly have not learned everything about medicine since graduating from medical school.

Getting Along with Others: The Stoic Medical Community

In medical school, you are instructed to act as if you are the sole physician in the world, upon which everyone depends.  Every problem is up to you to solve, without counsel or support.  In the past, every physician was regarded as an independent practitioner, and his patients were his own as if they were his own children.  Nowadays, this is largely impossible.  There is too much to medicine for any one practitioner to know by himself, or to have skill in performing entirely on his own.  Therefore, the collaborative model of practice has emerged in recent years as the standard.  Where physicians in the past rarely had to work together, now they must work together to achieve even the minimum standard of care.  

At the beginning of my career, I was very frustrated by a lack of collaborative effort by other physicians.  My management was constantly second-guessed and scrutinized, and often not taken seriously.  Meanwhile, I felt that the older physicians were practicing poor and often outdated medicine.  There was always contention over who had the final say on a patient’s management decisions.  The older generation did not necessarily embrace the concept of collaboration, especially not with the young upstart they saw in me.  In truth, I was no less dismissive, as I also came to regard them with the same derision, just for different reasons.  In the end, it was the patients who suffered.  We, the physicians, only suffered our tender pride.  

There is a concept in Stoicism called “oikeiosis”, which can roughly be translated as “community.”  It is the idea that virtue is most useful when it involves society, and not just a single person.  Consideration for a virtuous act should follow what is best for everyone as a whole, and not what favors one or another.  In medicine, we are called upon for one chief aim – to better the patient.  Therefore, what is best for everyone involved in a patient’s care is what is best for the patient.  And what is best when many are involved, each of whom have the ability to make management decisions, is to work jointly so that the patient gains the greatest advantage from the expertise of all.  

Every doctor does for the patient what they believe to be right, but some may disagree with others on what that should be.  What always troubled me was when I judged a physician to be incompetent, and yet was forced to accept his plan, because he was the attending physician (the one who had traditional “ownership” of the patient as his own).  Sometimes, I would question, under my breath, the attending physician’s integrity, wondering if he was practicing for financial gain.  Instead of trying to reconcile with my rival for the sake of the patient, I’d ignore his plan, formulating my own, which would often be at odds with his.  It was a petty and sometimes passive-aggressive form of confrontation.  I was doing the same to them as they had done to me – dismissing them due to my perception of their incompetence.  Each time this would happen, nothing would be gained but bitterness on both sides.  

It is indeed true that some physicians are incompetent or worse, unscrupulous.  Some are outright fools, whereas others are ignorant, either willfully or accidentally.  Some may indeed be motivated by extraneous factors, such as money, pettiness, or pomposity.  But whatever their motivation, it is not always within my power to contend with everyone who crosses my path, since my proper goal is the care of the patient, not the education or morality of my colleagues.  My colleagues will have to fend for themselves in that.  Thus, I act within my power, limited such as it is, to act for the patient’s well-being.  

Whatever the disagreement is with another, regardless of the reasons for that disagreement, the situation remains the same.  Furthermore, my virtue has no bearing on the lack of virtue in others.  I would often seethe in anger that a colleague had ruined a patient with poor management, which I would then be forced to correct after the patient was handed over to my care.  As I came to realize my virtue was not affected by another’s vice, I ceased to be angry.  I could address the patient’s needs as I saw fit, doing as much as was within my power, now that the patient was mine.  Even if the patient was ruined later by another’s poor management, it was not up to me any more than my improvement of his care up to another.  

I tried many times to explain to colleagues why their actions were incorrect, but in retrospect, this probably sounded like a sermon more than a lesson.  The best way to teach someone the righteousness of your way was to live it, and demonstrate it with your own actions, because people learn best from example.  So I stopped going out of my way to teach, unless it was asked of me.  I concentrate on doing the best I can with the power and tools I’m given, without considering anyone else’s deficiency.  I follow, as a model, doctors that I’ve known whom I saw demonstrating exemplary skill and demeanor.  Now, people come to me to ask for guidance who would have ignored me in the past.  Perhaps, in time, others will take me as a model for proper decorum and skill.

Stoic Ethics: Care at the End of Life

It would seem that medicine would be a place where ethical concerns weigh strongly with every decision.  Medicine calls upon the physician to act always in the patient’s best interest, and so demand compassion and beneficence.  For most instances, it is clear what the physician’s duty is to the patient, when the goals of treatment are obvious.  And they are nearly always obvious because they are nearly always the same – to treat the patient’s disease without reservation.  At times, however, when goals of treatment are unclear, so are the ethical goals.

Patients enduring the end of their lives have different concerns than others.  Their conditions are no longer amenable to treatment, so that the ethical role of the physician is less clear than it would be if treatment had a clear path.  Patients usually are unaware of a terminal illness unless a physician apprises them, and so often rely on a physician’s counsel to make appropriate medical decisions.  Although it is a doctor’s responsibility to inform a patient when it is time for them to make plans for the end of their life, many do not do so, instead imposing their own brand of ethics upon the patient, without their consent, often without realizing it themselves.  They do this subtly, such as minimizing the severity of illness, or do not divulge options that the patients may have, such as hospice or other forms of limited care.  

It has seemed clear to me, in observation over the years, that their reluctance to raise these topics comes from their fear of their own personal mortality.  And if a physician cannot accept his own mortality, how can he discuss mortality dispassionately with anyone else about theirs?  Whatever the source of their reluctance, the doctor’s reluctance to discuss end-of-life gives the patient the impression that it is not worthy of consideration.  They are thus led on a futile path of treatment, while they suffer needlessly with pain, agony, and disability, until they finally mercifully perish.

Where there are problems in end-of-life care, it is usually because the patient with the terminal illness has goals of care that fly in the face of the severity of their illness, which causes prolonged hospitalizations through which patients suffer needlessly.  The confusion arises either because the patient, or their surrogate decision-maker, is ignorant about the advanced stage of disease (possibly because they have been steered wrong, as I mentioned earlier), or because the patient applies emotive reasoning to their decision, irrationally denying the illness.  Healthcare workers are then compelled to provide worthless “treatment” to such patients that they know will have no efficacy.  Thus, both patient and provider become demoralized.  

Patients at the end of life have the option to pursue palliative care.  They would be given medications to treat their pain and suffering, in place of definitive treatment for a disease state.  They would thus be free of suffering but, since their underlying disease is untreated, may also die sooner.  They may also die sooner due to the adverse effects of these same medications.  Unfortunately, because of the barriers mentioned, they do not do this until the very advanced stage of illness, often in the last days to weeks of life!  

The ICU is often the last place where such patients come to die, so that it often fell upon me to consider such weighty issues.  In time, I came to realize several principles that made my role less frustrating.  

  1. I never pussyfoot around the issue of end-of-life or palliative care.  Many doctors are squeamish about it and so never bring it up, waiting for the surrogate to do their job for them.  Despite the grimness, families usually appreciate the honesty, and do not become angry, as many would believe.  I do this because I know that virtue is the most important thing to do, in Stoicism, and I am not dismayed if the families do not demonstrate the same level of virtue as I do, because their virtue is not my concern.
  2. I recognize that I cannot change the opinions of others.  Most often, I must accept the decision of the family not to pursue palliation even when it is the right course of action.  I understand that it will ultimately be the patient who suffers for this, and not my frustration in dealing with it.  I will still be showing up to work no matter what the decision.
  3. I recognize that, the majority of the time, families do come around and agree to palliative care.  They go through Kubler-Ross’ stages of grief eventually (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance), and will come to acceptance inevitably.  All I need do is wait.  

When it comes to discussions of terminal illness, the most important Stoic principle arises – the pursuit of virtue.  The cardinal virtues of courage and justice take a leading role here.  So when I have meetings with families to discuss end-of-life goals of care, I do it honestly and without fear.  I state quite plainly what condition the patient is in, what the options are and why the palliative option is the best option.  I do all this dispassionately, without affecting any air of false affection or friendship for a patient who is a stranger to me.  I leave the loving tenderness to the family.  I have found that honesty is greatly appreciated, and that some families will surprise you with their insights if they are offered the opportunity to separate their dramatic emotions from their reason by sitting calmly in a conference room.  

The practices of Stoicism have helped me to be a better physician by putting into perspective what are the most important principles that I should follow.  By adhering to Stoic ethics in pursuit of virtue, I can make a patient’s final days on this world be free of suffering.  By adhering to logic and providence, I can deduce appropriate medical decisions free of hesitation or guilt.  And through the understanding that I am part of a greater medical community, working towards common goals, however imperfectly they may be achieved, I understand my role in helping to foster a good working environment for all.  

 

Dr. Vadim Korkhov is a critical care physician who works in the ICU of a major urban hospital in the US.  He developed an interest in ancient Greece and Rome from an early age, and earned a BA in Classical Civilization from NYU.  He developed an interest in philosophy from a colleague, in more recent years, which led to his immersion in Stoicism.  

Sati & Prosoche: Buddhist vs. Stoic “Mindfulness” Compared by Greg Lopez

Mindfulness is all the rage nowadays. But what is it, exactly? If you try to define it yourself, what do you come up with? If you compare your answer with the answers of others, you might find quite a bit of heterogeneity. That wouldn’t surprise me; while mindfulness is of interest to many, it’s hard to pin down exactly what different people mean by the term.

One definition that’s been put forth is from Jon Kabat-Zinn, the researcher behind Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). He defines mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally”. (Kabat-Zinn, 1994, p.4) This “modern” definition may capture some or even most of many people’s definition of mindfulness.

Kabat-Zinn’s form of mindfulness is derived from Buddhist mindfulness, with heavy influence from one particular lineage of Buddhism known as Theravada. This lineage gets its teachings from one of the earliest sets of scriptures in Buddhism known as the Pali Canon. The Pali Canon inherited its name from the language in which it is written: Pali, which is related to Sanskrit.

In Pali, the word we translate as “mindfulness” is sati. While MBSR and our modern conception of mindfulness may be derived from the ancient Buddhists texts, how much does our modern “mindfulness” resemble sati as described in the Pali Canon? And do either of these concepts resemble anything found in ancient Stoic writings? Can some form of “mindfulness” be found in the writings of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius?

The goal of this essay, based on my workshop from Stoicon 2016, is to answer these questions.

Sati

To begin tackling this question, a good place to start would be looking for explicit definitions of sati in the Pali Canon. Unfortunately, little came up when I tried this approach. This is possibly because the term sati was well-understood and in common use during the time the Pali Canon was written. After all, I didn’t have to define “common” or “term” in the previous sentence, did I? But fortunately, we can still get some grasp on what sati means by looking at the etymology of sati and some similes the Buddha gives for sati.

Let’s start with the etymology. Sati is a noun derived from the Sanskrit term smrti, which means recollection or calling to mind. The verb form of sati is sarati, meaning “to remember”. So it seems that sati has something to do with memory, at least from an etymological viewpoint. However, etymology can sometimes lead one astray. So let’s turn to some similes for sati the Buddha gave in the Pali Canon to see if we can triangulate its meaning.

One such simile is found in Theragata 6.12:

If your mind runs loose
after sensual pleasures
and states of becoming,
quickly restrain it with mindfulness (sati)
as you would a bad ox
eating grain.

Another simile comes to us from the Sutta Nipata 5.4:

Whatever streams
there are in the world:
their blocking is
mindfulness, mindfulness (sati)
is their restraint — I tell you —
with discernment
they’re finally stopped.

These two similes seem to indicate that mindfulness can act as a kind of restraint on the mind and “streams in the world” (which may be taken to mean sense data and the mind, as defined in Samyutta Nikaya 35.82). Note that this is pretty different from “mindfulness” as we defined it in the previous section; there it seemed relatively passive. Here it’s not.

Sati also seems to have another major quality seen through similes in the Pali Canon. Let’s take a look at a couple of more similes to see what they’re pointing to. In the Anguttara Nikaya 6.43, we see mindfulness being compared to the neck of an elephant, with the head being wisdom. Also, in Sutta Nipata 1.4, we see mindfulness being compared to the goad and plowshare of the farmer, suggesting guidance. Both of these metaphors seem to indicate that sati has a guiding quality to it. The elephant metaphor illuminates what it is exactly that sati is guiding: the cultivation of wisdom.

How sati could lead to wisdom is clarified through a few other similes. Anguttara Nikaya 7.63 compares sati to a gatekeeper:

Just as the royal frontier fortress has a gate-keeper — wise, experienced, intelligent — to keep out those he doesn’t know and to let in those he does, for the protection of those within and to ward off those without; in the same way a disciple of the noble ones is mindful, highly meticulous, remembering & able to call to mind even things that were done & said long ago. With mindfulness (sati) as his gate-keeper, the disciple of the [noble] ones abandons what is unskillful, develops what is skillful, abandons what is blameworthy, develops what is blameless, and looks after himself with purity.

And in Majjhima Nikaya 105, the Buddha compares sati to a surgeon’s probe which is used to find the arrow of craving poisoned with ignorance. Together, these seem to point at how sati is thought to develop wisdom: through deeply and actively attending to one’s internal phenomenon, and noting what is harmful (or “unskillful”) and how it is so, along with what is helpful, or “skillful”.

The faculty of sati requires attending to four specific areas, described briefly in Samyutta Nikaya 48.10:

And what is the faculty of mindfulness (sati)? There is the case where a monk, a disciple of the noble ones, is mindful, highly meticulous, remembering & able to call to mind even things that were done & said long ago. He remains focused on the body in & of itself — ardent, alert, & mindful — putting aside greed & distress with reference to the world. He remains focused on feelings in & of themselves… the mind in & of itself… mental qualities in & of themselves — ardent, alert, & mindful — putting aside greed & distress with reference to the world. This is called the faculty of mindfulness.

The several practices to develop the faculty of sati within each of these four domains are laid out in more detail in Majjhima Nikaya 10, known as the Satipatthana (“foundations of mindfulness”) Sutta. Going into the details of these practices is beyond the scope of this essay. But a refrain throughout that sutta tells us of some similar qualities used throughout all four areas:

In this way he remains focused internally on the body/feelings/mind/mental qualities in & of itself, or externally…, or both internally & externally…. Or he remains focused on the phenomenon of origination with regard to the body/feelings/mind/mental qualities, on the phenomenon of passing away…, or on the phenomenon of origination & passing away with regard to the body/feelings/mind/mental qualities. Or his mindfulness that ‘There is a body/feelings/mind/mental qualities’ is maintained to the extent of knowledge & remembrance. And he remains independent, unsustained by (not clinging to) anything in the world.

In short, one watches these four areas to see how they arise and pass away, maintaining enough attention for the sake of “knowledge & remembrance” while putting aside worldly concerns.

The above seems to indicate to me that sati has many of the same qualities of mind that a student has when studying a subject they’re engrossed in. This is indicated through the allusions to memory and knowledge mentioned several times. But instead of studying textbooks, the practitioner is studying their phenomenological experience. There is also a judgmental aspect of sati that is not present in Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definition of a more modern form of mindfulness, as indicated by the simile of the gatekeeper and the metaphors of blocking streams and restraining an ox. One does not seem to simply observe passively, but instead one takes note of what phenomena are helpful or hurtful, how they are so, and what makes them arise and cease. In short, sati seems to be the careful self-study of one’s physical and mental experiences.

Prosoche

Now that we’ve laid out one definition of modern mindfulness and gotten a sense of what ancient Buddhist sati is like, let’s turn our attention to Stoicism and ask if something similar to either of these notions be found in the ancient Stoic texts. Many people think there is, and that it can be found in the notion of prosoche.

For instance, Donald Robertson seems to indicate that prosoche is similar to “mindfulness” when he writes: “Stoicism is a ‘here and now’ (hic et nunc) philosophy that centres upon the concept of prosoché, ‘attention to oneself’, which can also be translated as ‘mindfulness’ or ‘self awareness’.” (Robertson, 2010, p.153). He also suggests that “[t]he closest thing the Stoics have to a technical term for ‘mindfulness’ is prosoche, or ‘attention’, which refers to the continual self-monitoring of one’s thoughts and actions, as they happen, in the here and now.” (Robertson, 2013, p.189)

Other modern writers have suggested that prosoche plays a central role in ancient Stoic spiritual practice. For instance, Pierre Hadot calls prosoche “the fundamental Stoic spiritual attitude.” (Hadot, 1995, p.84) And Christopher Fisher writes that “Prosochē is essential for the prokoptōn to practice the three Stoic disciplines prescribed by Epictetus (Discourse 3.2.1-5). Constant attention is necessary to live according to Nature. Once one embarks on the path of the prokoptōn, the attitude of prosochē serves as an ever-present, vigilant watchman to ensure one continues to make forward progress.”

Putting the above together, modern writers have painted the following picture of prosoche:

  • It is a sort of attention to oneself that is similar to “mindfulness”
  • It was a fundamental part of Stoic practice

I disagree with both of these claims to at least some extent.

To start with, let’s tackle the first claim, that prosoche is a kind of self-awareness that is similar to mindfulness, by examining what this Greek term means and how it was used in the ancient texts.

For instance, Marcus Aurelius, when speaking of his father, states in Meditations 1.16 that:

…he cared for his body with due moderation without valuing his life at too high a rate or being concerned about his outward appearance, but also without neglecting it, and in such a way that, because of his own attentions, he rarely had need of a doctor’s help, or medicines, or external treatment.” (Hard, 2011)

The word “attentions” here is the accusative form of prosoche. And in 11.16, Marcus states reminds himself

“…that we shall have to attend to these [indifferent, external] matters for only a short while, and then our life shall be over.” (Hard, 2011)

“Attend” here is prosoche. Finally, in De Stoicorum Repugnantiis 1045e, Plutarch reports that Chrysippus said that there “…are some things not worthy of much study or attention.” “Attention” here is the genitive form of prosoche.

These three instances of the use of ‘prosoche” seem to indicate that the term has a pretty straightforward translation into English: “attention”. These examples do not seem to have any connotations of “mindfulness” that we’ve seen thus far. In Marcus’ first quote above, it simply seems to mean that his father “paid attention to ” or “took care of” himself. In the second quote, he is simply using it as “paying attention” just as we would in modern English. In the last example, we see a similar use; it seems to simply mean “attention” – not a kind of mindful self-study of one’s phenomenological experience and behavior. There are plenty of Greek terms that I think are best left untranslated since they don’t loan themselves to easy, English translations (e.g., eudaimonia, arete, hegemonikon). But prosoche is not one of them.

While the term “prosoche” is just used to mean “attention” in many instances, it does play a role as a Stoic practice in Epictetus’ teachings, which he expounds upon in Discourses 4.12 (“On Attention”). There, he explicitly explains what a practicing Stoic should pay attention to:

To what things should I pay attention, then?

In the first place to those general principles that you should always have at hand, so as not to go to sleep, or get up, or drink or eat, or converse with others, without them, namely, that no one is master over another person’s choice, and that it is in choice alone that our good and evil lie. …

And next, we must remember who we are, and what name we bear, and strive to direct our appropriate actions according to the demands of our social relationships, remembering what is the proper time to sing, the proper time to play, and in whose company, and what will be out of place, and how we may make sure that our companions don’t despise us, and that we don’t despise ourselves; when we should joke, and whom we should laugh at, and to what end we should associate with others, and with whom, and finally, how we should preserve our proper character when doing so. (Hard, 2014)

In short, one pays constant attention to one’s general philosophical “at-hand” precepts (especially the dichotomy of control) and one’s appropriate social role in all circumstances. This bears some faint resemblance to mindfulness of thoughts and actions, but is quite different from sati’s four areas of mindfulness practices and Kabat-Zinn’s mindfulness of the present moment.

What about the claim that prosoche is a fundamental Stoic spiritual attitude or practice? It is hard to answer this question since the large majority of Stoic texts are lost. However, we can take a stab at guessing how fundamental prosoche was to ancient Stoic practice by looking at how often the term was used and how widespread it was.

One way prosoche could be considered fundamental is if it is mentioned by multiple authors writing about Stoicism. However, this isn’t something we witness in the extant texts. For instance, Diogenes Laertius does not use the term at all in his description of Stoic philosophy in Book VII of his Lives of the Eminent Philosophers. Marcus uses the term only three times, to my knowledge, in Meditations; two of the times were mentioned above, and the third time he quotes Epictetus as saying that we “must find an art of assent, and in the sphere of our impulses, take good care [prosektikon – “attentive”] that they are exercised subject to reservation….” (Hard, 2011) Seneca wrote in Latin, so it’s a little harder to tell if he was referring to this specific term. However, the Latin translation of Epictetus’ writings often translateprosoche” as “animadversio”. Seneca uses this word less than 10 times throughout all his writings, and it never seems to indicate anything close to a Stoic practice.

But that alone doesn’t rule out prosoche being an essential Stoic practice. Perhaps it was essential in Epictetus’ Stoicism, as something either he himself emphasized or something he acquired from writings lost to us? However, this doesn’t seem to be the case, either. Epictetus himself seems to only use the term three times outside of Discourses 4.12: twice in 1.20.9-10 (where it seems to just mean “attention” in the normal sense) and once in Enchiridion 33.6 where it could refer either to the exercise of prosoche as described in Discourses 4.12 or simply “attention”. Within Discourses 4.12 he only uses the term 4 more times.

Let’s compare this with some other practice-related terms that are seen more frequently in his writings. For instance, logikos (logic) appears over 30 times in his writings, along with sullogismos (syllogism – related to logical reasoning); this seems to indicate that these practices were important to Epictetus, especially when one looks at uses of these terms in their context. Also, the practice of having “at-hand” rules, which one says to oneself, also seems of major importance; “procheiros” (having phrases or thoughts “at hand”) appears over 60 times, “epilege “ (“say to yourself”) appears 14 times, and “dokimazo” (rules which one compares impressions or value judgements to) appears 28 times. Compared to these concepts, it seems that Epictetus does not emphasize prosoche as something central to Stoic practice. It would be easy to miss it in a casual read of his works.

Overall, it looks like the two claims made about prosoche (that it is a fundamental part of Stoic practice and that is about self-examination of one’s thoughts and actions) do not quite reflect what is written in ancient Stoic texts. The term, when used as a practice, is specific to Epictetus, and he uses it relatively rarely and in a somewhat different way from what some modern authors claim.

The spirit of “mindfulness” in Stoic Practice

While it doesn’t appear that prosoche as used in the ancient texts is quite “mindfulness” as we construe the term nowadays, there are several aspects of Stoic practice that do reflect aspects of both modern mindfulness as well as sati. These similarities exists in ancient Stoic literature; they’re just not explicitly connected with prosoche.

One similarity between Buddhist practice and Stoic practice can be seen in Discourses 3.3:

It is in accordance with this plan of action above all that one should train oneself. As soon as you leave the house at break of day, examine everyone whom you see, everyone whom you hear, and answer as if under questioning. What did you see? A handsome man or beautiful woman? Apply the rule. Does this lie within the sphere of choice, or outside it? Outside. Throw it away. What did you see? Someone grieving over the death of his child? Apply the rule. Death is something that lies outside the sphere of choice. Away with it. You met a consul? Apply the rule. What kind of thing is a consulship? One that lies outside the sphere of choice, or inside? Outside. Throw that away too, it doesn’t stand the test. Away with it; it is nothing to you. If we acted in such a way and practised this exercise from morning until night, we would then have achieved something, by the gods. (Hard, 2014)

While the term “prosoche” is not explicitly used here, it does seem to be an application of it, in that Epictetus is advocating paying constant attention to “the rule” of the dichotomy of control in all that one does at every moment. A similar kind of rule application can also be seen in Buddhist practice, although this is also not explicitly connected to sati:

“What do you think, Rahula: What is a mirror for?”

“For reflection, sir.”

“In the same way, Rahula, bodily actions, verbal actions, & mental actions are to be done with repeated reflection.

“Whenever you want to do a bodily/verbal/mental action, you should reflect on it: ‘This … action I want to do — would it lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both? Would it be an unskillful … action, with painful consequences, painful results?’ If, on reflection, you know that it would lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both; it would be an unskillful … action with painful consequences, painful results, then any … action of that sort is absolutely unfit for you to do. But if on reflection you know that it would not cause affliction… it would be a skillful … action with pleasant consequences, pleasant results, then any … action of that sort is fit for you to do.

Instead of control, the rule here is focused on the harm to oneself or others. And, while sati is not explicitly mentioned, the “judgemental” aspect of sussing out what’s helpful and harmful does also appear in the concept of sati as I described earlier. A similar theme with regard to impulses to action can be seen in Meditations 8.7:

Every nature is contented when things go well for it; and things go well for a rational nature when it never gives its assent to a false or doubtful impression, and directs its impulses only to actions that further the common good, and limits its desires and aversions only to things that are within its power, and welcomes all that is assigned to it by universal nature. (Hard, 2011)

Thus, while these practices aren’t explicitly related to sati or prosoche, they do still have an aspect of “mindfulness” to them in that they’re both focused on the quality of thoughts and deeds in the present moment.

Indeed, a major similarity between modern “mindfulness” and Stoic practice can be seen in Marcus’ explicit focus on the present moment, which he mentions in several places throughout the Meditations. For instance, in 3.10, he writes: “Cast everything else aside, then, and hold to these few truths alone; and remember, furthermore, that each of us lives only in the present, this fleeting moment of time, and that the rest of one’s life has either already been lived or lies in an unknowable future.” And in 12.26, he states that “the life of every one of us is confined to the present moment and this is all that we have.” This is similar to some statements about the present moment in ancient Buddhism. For instance, we see in Majjhima Nikaya 131:

You shouldn’t chase after the past
or place expectations on the future.
What is past
is left behind.
The future
is as yet unreached.
Whatever quality is present
you clearly see right there,
right there.
Not taken in,
unshaken,
that’s how you develop the heart.
Ardently doing
what should be done     today,
for — who knows? — tomorrow
death.
There is no bargaining
with Mortality & his mighty horde.

As a brief aside, I should note that it’s not clear to me that “the present moment” is mentioned quite as often in the oldest Buddhist texts as many believe it to be, and when it is, it seems to be for a quite different purpose than what modern mindfulness focuses on. We can see a hint of that in the quote above, but going more deeply into the role of sati in Buddhist practice is beyond the scope of this essay. For more information, see Ronald Purser’s The Myth of the Present Moment.

As a final example, of something that could be reasonably construed as “mindfulness” in Stoic practice, let us take a look at what I call “decomposition” or “stripping” exercises, a practice which is advocated in one form or another by Epictetus, Marcus, and Seneca. One of several versions of it can be found in Meditations 6.13:

When you have savouries and fine dishes set before you, you will gain an idea of their nature if you tell yourself that this is the corpse of a fish, and that the corpse of a bird or a pig; or again, that fine Falernian wine is merely grape-juice, and this purple robe some sheep’s wool dipped in the blood of a shellfish; and as for sexual intercourse, it is the friction of a piece of gut and, following a sort of convulsion, the expulsion of some mucus. Thoughts such as these reach through to the things themselves and strike to the heart of them, allowing us to see them as they truly are. So follow this practice throughout your life, and where things seem most worthy of your approval, lay them naked, and see how cheap they are, and strip them of the pretences of which they are so vain. (Hard, 2011)

Here, Marcus strips descriptions of external things of their value judgements, describing their component parts in order to reign in desire. Compare this to one of the mindfulness of body practices laid out by the Buddha in Majjhima Nikaya 10:

Furthermore…just as if a sack with openings at both ends were full of various kinds of grain — wheat, rice, mung beans, kidney beans, sesame seeds, husked rice — and a man with good eyesight, pouring it out, were to reflect, ‘This is wheat. This is rice. These are mung beans. These are kidney beans. These are sesame seeds. This is husked rice,’ in the same way, monks, a monk reflects on this very body from the soles of the feet on up, from the crown of the head on down, surrounded by skin and full of various kinds of unclean things: ‘In this body there are head hairs, body hairs, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, tendons, bones, bone marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, pleura, spleen, lungs, large intestines, small intestines, gorge, feces, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, skin-oil, saliva, mucus, fluid in the joints, urine.’

In this way he remains focused internally on the body in & of itself, or focused externally… unsustained by anything in the world. This is how a monk remains focused on the body in & of itself.

Here, the Buddha is advocating breaking both one’s own body (“internally”) and possibly the body of others (“externally”, although this is not the only interpretation of these terms) down to its component parts, possibly for a similar purpose.

So, while prosoche is not explicitly connected to much of what we could relate to our concept of “mindfulness”, it is still fair to say that some similarities between Stoic practices and the concept exist.

Conclusion

The concept of prosoche is said to be a fundamental part of ancient Stoic practice involving mindfulness of one’s thoughts and deeds in the present moment. I hope I made a credible case for why this doesn’t seem to be entirely accurate. “Prosoche” is not mentioned very frequently in the ancient texts we have. When it is, it often just means “attention” in the common sense of the word. Only Epictetus (or Marcus quoting Epictetus) seems to mention it as an exercise, and even then it only bears a cursory resemblance to sati or modern mindfulness. While the “four foundations” of sati to which one pays careful attention are body, feeling tone, mind, and mental qualities, Epictetus defines the “two foundations” of prosoche as basic Stoic precepts and social role. While one pays attention to phenomenological experience in sati, one pays attention to more abstract concepts in prosoche. And while both touch on aspects of one’s present moment, neither sati nor prosoche are as explicitly tied up in that concept as modern definitions of mindfulness are.

However, as modern Stoics, we’re not compelled to exclusively follow the ancient texts. The fact is that mindfulness is a concept that has become embedded in our language and culture, and it is a useful concept. So, as modern Stoic practitioners, we should be free to co-opt the term “prosoche” to suit our own needs. After all, we do see a few aspects of “mindfulness” in Stoic practice, even if they’re not explicitly tied to prosoche proper in the ancient texts.

Patrick Ussher expresses similar views in his essay “Was There a ‘Stoic Mindfulness’?” There, he states that “although it is not strictly accurate to call prosoche ‘Stoic ‘mindfulness’, historically speaking, it is probably a helpful term to use as prosoche, like mindfulness meditation, clearly does involve developing a kind of attention: Stoic mindfulness is about bringing the two-fold distinction discussed above with you, in the various situations in which you find yourself, throughout the day…. In fact, all Stoic ‘mindfulness’, or prosoche, is really about is remembering the key precepts of Stoic ethics and putting them into practice.” (Ussher, 2014)

I completely agree. We should feel free to adapt and change terms for our modern time as long as our words are clear and useful. The goal of this essay was to simply clarify the roots of what it is exactly that we’re adapting.

 

(Non-internet) references

Goodwin, WW (ed.). (1874) Plutarch’s Morals. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company.

Hadot, P. (1995). Philosophy as a way of life. London: Blackwell.

Hard, R (trans.). (2011). Meditations: With Selected Correspondence. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hard, R (trans.). (2014). Discourses, Fragments, Handbook. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kabat-Zinn, J. (1994). Wherever you go, there you are: Mindfulness meditation in everyday life. New York: Hyperion.

Robertson, D. (2010). The philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT): Stoic philosophy as rational and cognitive psychotherapy. London: Karnac.

Robertson, D. (2013). Stoicism and the Art of Happiness. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

Ussher, P. (2014). Was there a ‘Stoic mindfulness’? In P. Ussher (Ed.), Stoicism today: Selected writings vol. 1. CreateSpace/Stoicism Today.

 

Greg Lopez is a practicing secular Buddhist and Stoic, founder and facilitator of the New York City Stoics meetup, co-host of Stoic Camp New York, Director of Membership for The Stoic Fellowship, and co-organizer of Stoicon 2016. He also runs a nonprofit that uses cognitive behavioral therapy, which is what led to his interest in Stoicism. His professional and academic background is in pharmacy and basic science. His other interests include psychology, statistics, philosophy, and swing dancing.