Interview with Donald Robertson

Interview with Donald Robertson, one of the founding members of Modern Stoicism, about his work on the team, organizing the Stoicon and Stoicon-x Toronto events, running the Stoic Week and SMRT courses, and developing SABS.

Donald Robertson hardly needs any introduction – but I’ll give him one here anyway!  He was one of the founding members of the Modern Stoicism team and project, long before it became formally structured as an organization.  He has made a number of important contributions to modern interpretation and application of classic Stoic philosophy, authoring several highly popular books, creating the Stoic Week meditation mp3 sound files, collaborating on the Stoic Week handbook , hosting the yearly Stoic Week and Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training online classes, writing hundreds of blog posts, providing talks and workshops. . . .

On top of all of that, Donald started and moderates the Facebook Stoicism group – which now has nearly 25,000 members – and took on the task of organizing this years’ Stoicon and Stoicon-x conferences in Toronto.  He has been interviewing the other speakers who will be giving talks and workshops at STOICON, and it is about time that our readers got to hear from Donald himself in that series of interviews.  So, here it is!

Q: Donald, do you want to begin by saying a bit about yourself and your involvement with Stoicism?

Thanks.  Well, I studied philosophy at Aberdeen University a long time ago, then did a masters in philosophy and psychotherapy at Sheffield University’s Centre for Psychotherapeutic Studies before training as a counsellor and psychotherapist and becoming a supervisor and trainer of other therapists.  I went on to write several books about psychotherapy, self-help, and philosophy.  My special area of interest is Stoicism and its relation to cognitive-behavioural therapy, and also to modern evidence-based self-help approaches.  

After leaving university, back in 1996, I discovered the Stoics and gradually began writing articles on Stoicism and giving talks about it at conferences.  Stoicism was a big revelation to me, and I found it invaluable in my work with clients as a cognitive therapist.  Then in 2005, I wrote an article on Stoicism and psychotherapy for one of the main British counselling journals.  I was then invited to write a book called The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy, which surveys all the psychological techniques found in Stoicism and compares them to similar ones found in modern cognitive therapy.  A lot of people asked me for a self-help guide to Stoicism in plain English, so I then wrote two books about Stoicism for Hodder’s Teach Yourself series: Build Your Resilience and Stoicism and the Art of Happiness.  

I’m a “techniques guy” in therapy – I specialise in cognitive and behavioural skills training.  Stoicism appeals to me because it contains an astounding armamentarium of psychological techniques, which are similar to those proven to be effective by research on modern cognitive therapy.  However, Stoicism is not merely a therapy, it’s something much more than that, a whole philosophy.

Q: What are you working on now?

For the past five years or so, I’ve been involved with the Modern Stoicism project.  I design and deliver the online courses called Stoic Week and Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT) and I’m also organizing the main Stoicon 2017 conference in Toronto, and also Stoicon-x Toronto.  At the moment, I’m doing research for a new book on Marcus Aurelius and his use of Stoicism, and I design my own online courses on Stoicism as well.  We also just announced the free Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT) 2017 online course, last night, and hundreds of people have already enrolled in advance.  (People should enrol now if they want to take part but the course officially begins on 16th July 2017.) 

Q: What is Modern Stoicism?

Modern Stoicism is a non-profit and philanthropic project that’s run by a multidisciplinary team of academic philosophers and classicists, and psychologists and cognitive therapists.  It includes some well-known authors in the field of Stoicism, including Professor Christopher Gill, of Exeter University, who founded the project along with his PhD student, Patrick Ussher.  I was one of the original members of the team and I’ve been involved ever since it started.  

Our main activities are published on this modernstoicism.com website and through social media, such as our @stoicweek Twitter account.  We run the Stoicon conference and Stoicon-x spin-off event each year.  We also run the Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT) online course.  However, our main activities are probably the Stoicism Today blog (run by Greg Sadler) and the Stoic Week online course, which I run with help from other members of the team.  

We also gather data on the effects of Stoic psychological training, using various outcome measures, and we publish the (anonymous) results as online reports.  We’ve been lucky enough to have our work covered throughout the media, including all of the British broadsheet newspapers, BBC radio, Forbes magazine, and many other newspapers and magazines around the world.

One thing I want to stress about Modern Stoicism is that it’s in no way separate from traditional or ancient Stoicism.  It’s intended to be inclusive so we welcome everyone who’s interested in Stoicism, whatever their background or orientation.  That includes religious Stoics, as well as atheistic or agnostic Stoics, or even people who know nothing about Stoicism and are just curious.  Basically, if you’re interested in Stoicism and didn’t die more than four hundred years ago then you’re a “Modern Stoic.”

Q: What is Stoicon?

Stoicon is an international conference on applying Stoicism to modern life, which we run each year, around October or November.  It was originally held in London, but now moves around different locations.  Last year it was held in New York City, and this year it’s going to be in Toronto, in Canada.  We have some of the leading authors in the field of Stoicism lined up to speak this year, and the theme is “Stoicism at Work”.  We also have a variety of parallel workshops and talks, which delegates can choose between.  I think it’s fair to say it’s really the main conference-type event on Stoicism that you can attend in person.  We’re expecting around 400 people to attend this year from all around the world.  Our keynote speaker, Professor Margaret Graver is a well-known academic and an expert on Stoicism and emotion so we’re all really looking forward to hearing her speak.

Q: What is Stoicon-x?

Stoicon-x events are held in different parts of the world.  They’re an opportunity for people to attend face-to-face in their own areas, as part of Stoic Week.  We have put together a set of helpful guidelines for anyone who would like to organize a Stoicon-x event.  We’re even holding one in Toronto this year, the day after the main Stoicon conference.  So if you’re really into Stoicism you can have a whole weekend of talks and workshops in Canada this year!  

One of the things we’re introducing this year is the idea of lightning talks.  These are brief 5-10 minute talks, where the speakers introduce themselves, with no gap in-between.  This allows us to give everyone an opportunity to speak, and to test out new speakers for future conferences.  We’re particularly interested in encouraging bloggers and those involved in other online Stoicism communities to step forward and speak to our audience because we want to be as inclusive as possible with regard to all the people who are around today and involved with Stoicism.

Q: What is Stoic Week?

Stoic Week is seven days during which we promote Stoicism internationally to a massive audience, free of charge.  We do that mainly through our online Stoic Week course, which attracted 3,400 participants from around the world last year.  As part of the whole event, we also run Stoicon and the Stoicon-x conferences around the same time of year.  So for a week, or two, there’s a lot of stuff about Stoicism going on.  The Stoic Week course is the perfect opportunity for you to get a flavour of what Stoic psychological practices are like.  

Some people have said it’s silly to think that you can be a Stoic for just seven days – Stoicism is for life not just for Christmas!  Of course, that’s not at all what we’re saying.  This is just a rapid introduction to Stoicism.  It gives people an opportunity to try out some Stoic psychological exercises and get a flavour of them, before deciding if they want to study Stoic philosophy more deeply.  We begin by recommending that people who are interested should read the ancient Stoics themselves, of course, but Stoic Week is a great practical introduction.  If you’ve read the books, or not, and you’re looking for something practical to try, Stoic Week is the obvious choice.

Q: What is Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT)?

Stoic Week is more about public engagement.  It’s an easy introduction to living like a Stoic.  We can gather some data from it but to really gather more meaningful data we needed a longer course, which is much more specifically focused on a handful of core skills.  That’s why we designed Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training, and thousands of people have now also completed that training online.  Our data show that, as we anticipated, when you do more Stoicism you get better outcomes.  So improvements on outcome measures of mood and wellbeing were roughly doubly for participants in this longer course than they were for Stoic Week.  If you’re serious about Stoicism and want to really train yourself in core skills then SMRT is your opportunity to do that with support from our team of experts and hundreds of other participants around the world.  (SMRT 2017 is currently enrolling and begins on Sunday 16th July 2017.)

Q: What is SABS?

We developed our own questionnaire called the Stoic Attitudes and Behaviours Scale (SABS), which allows us to do some pretty detailed statistical analysis on Stoicism and its benefits, when used alongside established measures of mood and wellbeing, of the sort commonly used in research on cognitive therapy and positive psychology.  Tim LeBon is responsible for administering the scales and reporting each year on the data we’ve collected.  As mentioned above, we’ve consistently found Stoicism has measurable benefits, although we’ve yet to carry out a proper randomized controlled trial on the skills training protocols we’ve developed.

Q: What is Stoicism Today?

Stoicism Today is our blog.  It’s without question the main resource for anyone looking for online articles on Stoicism, in my humble opinion.  That’s because anyone can submit posts there, and they do.  Again, it’s all about public engagement and being inclusive.  We encourage everyone with an interest in Stoicism to submit articles and we have an absolutely superb collection of writings from people who approach Stoicism from all walks of life.  Anyone can submit an article to Greg Sadler, the editor, for consideration, and at the time of writing, I think there are nearly 500 posts on that website.  So happy reading!

 

Life After Pain Interviews – Irvine, Robertson, and Sadler

The website Life After Pain recently interviewed three of the members of the Modern Stoicism project – William Irvine, Donald Robertson, and Greg Sadler – on what resources and insights Stoic philosophy and practices offer in dealing with chronic pain.

You can find each of the interviews, carried out by Naomi Kuttner – in transcript and mp3 podcast form – by following these links:

Learn How to Deal with Negative Emotions – Professor William B Irvine

Coping With Pain Using the Stoic Philosophy – Donald Robertson

Using Stoic Principles in Everyday Life – Gregory  Sadler

The Life Without Pain website was created by Dr. Jonathan Kuttner, after his recovery from a hang-gliding accident spurred a very interest on his part in treatment of chronic muscle and joint pain.  Understanding pain – and all that goes with it – is key to his approach.

Stoic philosophy and practices provide a number of resources, exercises, and an over-all approach that can be helpful for people suffering from chronic pain.  Give a listen to these three interviews, and you’ll hear more than two-and-a-half hours of Irvine, Robertson, and Sadler unpacking insights from Stoicism and applying them to dealing with pain (and a number of other connected issues – beliefs, emotions, relationships, decisions, and lifestyles).

Interview: Walter Matweychuk

Walter Matweychuk will be one of the speakers at the Stoicon 2017 Stoicism Conference in Toronto, on October 14th.

Q: How would you introduce yourself and your work to our readers?

I am a clinical psychologist who has the good fortune of having work I love. I conduct around thirty-five adult outpatient individual and couples psychotherapy sessions a week at the University of Pennsylvania and in my private practice in Center City Philadelphia. The problems of everyday living I help people with range from coping with emotional problems such as depression, anxiety, anger, and phobias to behavioral disorders like addictions, to resuming one’s life in the aftermath of rape, serious accidents, medical illness, and failing to obtain tenure.

I also train and supervise doctoral level externs in Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), the pioneering form of Cognitive Behavior Therapy, as well as teach a graduate course in Cognitive Behavior Therapy Theory and Applications at New York University in New York City. I maintain the website, REBTDoctor.com, which contains a great deal of freely accessible audio and video on Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy and do professional writing as well. I just completed, along with Dr. Windy Dryden, a book for professionals entitled Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy: A Newcomer’s Guide. In short I am a practicing psychologist who also trains and teaches psychologists, writes on and disseminates Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy.

Q: How do you currently make use of Stoicism in your work?

I use Stoic ideas and Stoic quotations to teach people how to effectively manage their emotional and behavioral responses to both relatively small to immensely challenging adversities. I use Stoic ideas to potentiate my interventions as an REBT psychotherapist. Stoicism works hand in hand with Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy because Dr. Albert Ellis, the originator of this distinct form of cognitive behavior therapy, heavily borrowed from Stoicism to create Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy. Although I primarily recommend to my patients REBT self-help books for homework, I have also recommended Bill Irvine’s book A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy as a homework assignment to my patients.

Q: When and how did you first become interested in Stoicism?

I am continually striving to enhance my skills as a REBT psychotherapist and self-actualize as an individual. I want to have the happiest and most meaningful life possible with the only life I assume I will ever have to live. I also especially want to share Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy with the widest possible audience. Knowing Ellis borrowed heavily from Stoicism I assumed that by retracing the steps he took through reading the Stoics I might make further headway in accomplishing my previously stated personal goals. I am continually searching for ways to deepen my understanding of REBT and studying Stoicism seemed like a way of doing this.

Q: What’s the most important aspect of Stoicism to you?

The emphasis on identifying and focusing my effort on what is well within my domain of control and more or less being indifferent to those aspects of life and any given set of circumstances I cannot control. This single concept offers me incredible emotional leverage as I face personal adversity and as I teach and help my patients how to more effectively respond to their adversities. Secondly, when doing psychotherapy it is important to find language that resonates with patients in order to facilitate deep level emotional change. Although REBT has very powerful language associated with it, I judiciously sprinkle in Stoic quotes and ideas in order to keep the therapeutic dialogue fresh and interesting. Language and words in psychotherapy are like keys on a keychain. It is sometimes hard to know in advance which key will open a particular lock. By knowing and studying Stoicism I have some philosophical keys to try in my effort to open the emotional locks I am trying to pick, if you will.

Q: In what ways do you think Stoicism still matters today?

Despite our great scientific and technological advances since the time of Epictetus people continue to struggle to manage their emotions, find meaning and happiness, and have difficulty coping with losses, deaths, medical illnesses, defeats, failures, and injustices. In my view Stoicism and Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy are efficient, powerful, and self-liberating tools I want to share with my fellow citizens of the world. Life is hard enough without needlessly making it harder by trying to control that which is outside our domain of control, while overlooking what is well within our sphere of control.

Q: How has Stoicism affected the way you live your life?

Stoicism and Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy have immensely affected the way I live and the quality of life I enjoy. I no longer experience depression, anxiety, anger, envy and shame as I once did going way back to high school and even before that. When I do have a flash of one of these very self-defeating and unhealthy negative emotions I quickly swap them out for healthy negative emotions. I do this by examining my philosophy and any rigid and extreme attitudes operating at the moment so that I am better able to do what I can do, if anything, to favorably influence the situation I am facing. Let me explain.

In high school I began to see that my perceptions of reality impacted my painful emotions. As a college student at the University of Pennsylvania I worked closely with Dr. Aaron Beck who originated (about five years after Ellis had created Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy) the second and a somewhat different form of cognitive behavior therapy. Beck’s Cognitive Therapy emphasizes and focuses on the inferences we make about reality and showed me how to check these inferences for erroneous assumptions and distortions in order to make certain these inferences are accurate and consistent with the available empirical data. This helps one’s emotions quite nicely when in fact our inferences about a given situation are distorted.

For example, if I have a medical symptom and think, “I have cancer and will die in the near future”, slowing down and checking to see if this is an accurate inference by consulting a physician will help alleviate my panic. However, what if in fact my inference is unfortunately correct and I do in fact learn the empirical data suggests I have an aggressive form of cancer and will likely die in a year or at most two. This is where Beck’s Cognitive Therapy begins to have some difficulty and where Stoicism and Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy shine.

These two closely related philosophies will enable me to face this existential adversity and cope with it. By having deep conviction in the liberating overlapping philosophes of Stoicism and REBT I do not have to panic or despair. I can choose my emotional destiny and still can have some degree of happiness right up to the end of my life. Although helpful in less dire situations, Stoicism and REBT are the philosophies to turn to when your worst nightmare is your reality. Since learning REBT and Stoicism I no longer fear the worst case scenario in my life when I think of things that might go wrong. I also am better able to have some happiness when things go wrong despite their presence in my life. In essence now that I know REBT and Stoicism I change what I can change and move on when I cannot change anything and still find a way to have some pleasure in my life despite the presence of adversity.

Q: What’s one of your favorite Stoic quotations and why?

There are so many great Stoic quotations, so this is a very challenging question for me to answer. It used to be Seneca’s “Bring the mind to bear upon your problems” but it no longer is my favorite. I will select another by Seneca which is “Anger, if not restrained, is frequently more hurtful to us than the injury that provokes it.” I have selected this one simply because so much self-inflicted and other-inflicted damage and pain results from this unhealthy negative emotion whether one is angry at another person, himself, or in response to the situation in which he finds himself. This emotion is so seductive and yet so destructive that mastering the ability to not yield to anger at the tempting moment is an essential life skill if a person wants to be his best. Whether you hold anger in or let it out, anger significantly diminishes your creativity and problem-solving ability and can, paradoxically, undermine the persistence you bring to bear to solve the problem you face. I have also seen how anger corrodes or can suddenly end relationships, and the resulting pain that ensues from a moment of anger can be enormous and lifelong. I often silently say to myself as a way of preventing getting angry “Anger defeats me. Do not yield to it.”

Q: What advice would you give someone who wanted to learn more about Stoicism?

My guess is that if you are interested in Stoicism you are also interested in applying this liberating philosophy to your life. With that in mind I have two recommendations. I would read books on both Stoicism and REBT because there can be a synergy created by doing this. I would start with Bill Irvine’s book titled A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy as it is so very accessible. Then I would go onto Epictetus’s Discourses. To me he is the hub of Stoicism. I would attend Stoicon on a regular basis to see and hear how Stoicism can be applied in different ways and meet fellow Stoics. I would regularly read Massimo Pigliucci’s website How to Be a Stoic as he seems to be quite the Stoic scholar.

I would also study the many self-help books written by Albert Ellis and Windy Dryden on Rational-Emotive Behavior Therapy. I sometimes think of REBT as the Cliff Notes of Stoicism or as a distilled, highly concentrated form of Stoicism. You will see how REBT efficiently teaches you how to implement the wisdom of Stoicism. You might even go and study the freely available audio and video found on my website REBTDoctor.com to facilitate your understanding of REBT. Finally, I would read a Stoic Quote every morning and write it on an index card. Carry it with you and try to find opportunity to apply that insight to any adversities you encounter during the day. Ryan Holiday’s book The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living would be a good source of useful Stoic quotations along with daily commentary Holiday makes on the meaning and implementation of each quotation. Most importantly attempt to use Stoicism (and REBT) to learn Stoicism! As Epictetus said “Learning that does not lead to action is useless.”

Q: Do you have anything else that you wanted to mention while we have the chance?

Life is hard for all of us. Stoicism and REBT can help you more effectively respond to life’s adversities and to self-actualize. These philosophies can help you either quickly terminate or entirely side-step needless suffering. Learn these powerful philosophies and then be a good model of them to others. When they display curiosity about how you maintain such equanimity in the face of adversity then introduce them to both Stoicism and REBT. Let them know your secret!

Interview with Greg Sadler

Interview with Greg Sadler about his interest in Stoicism.

Gregory SadlerDr. Sadler will be one of the speakers at the Stoicon 2017 Stoicism Conference in Toronto, on October 14th.Gregory Sadler is the Editor of Stoicism Today and the president of ReasonIO. His popular philosophy-focused YouTube channels contain over 100 video lectures on Stoic philosophy.

How would you introduce yourself and your work to our readers?

I’m a guy who keeps pretty busy! I’m the current editor of Stoicism Today, a member of Modern Stoicism, and the co-organizer of the MKE Stoic Fellowship. All of those are volunteer positions, so I earn my living with my company ReasonIO, engaging in philosophical counseling, online teaching, public speaking, tutorials, and consulting. Through the Institute for Priority Thinking, I do ethics training and executive coaching. I also produce YouTube videos on a variety of philosophical thinkers and texts. After about a decade as a professor, I left the academy to do philosophy in more public, practical, and professional settings, but I still keep professionally active, by publishing and presenting in my field.

How do you currently make use of Stoicism in your work?

At times quite openly, and at other times, smuggling it in! When I’m training corporate clients in, for example, understanding and dealing with anger, they’re much less interested in where the ideas came from, and much more interested in what’s effective and applicable. Stoicism figures heavily into my work as a philosophical counselor, and I incorporate Stoic philosophy into a considerable portion of my public speaking, and teaching. I should mention, though, that rather than being exclusively a Stoic, I’m what you call an “eclectic” (much like Cicero), or if you like, a “pluralist”. I integrate and draw upon multiple approaches – Stoic, Aristotelian, (later) Platonist, even dialectical and existentialist – within my work.

When and how did you first become interested in Stoicism?

A long ways back, but at first only superficially. I’d say that I was attracted to some Stoic ideas – without knowing where they came from – back in my high school and Army days. And then I encountered Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and some modern treatments of Stoic ideas as an undergraduate philosophy major. But it was really only in my graduate studies that I’d say I really began to understand and appreciate Stoic philosophy’s scope, depth, applicability, and systematic nature. That happened through getting my hands on a copy of Epictetus’ Discourses. I got a second major spur to seriously studying Stoicism, once I became a professor, with my ongoing work on treatments of anger, emotion, and rationality.

What’s the most important aspect of Stoicism to you?

That is a hard one for me to answer. Stoicism really is a systematic philosophy, and in my view – here a lot of people will say I’m dead wrong! – there isn’t just one single doctrine that is the most central. That said, if I had to pick one thing that I personally find most interesting about Stoicism, for me it would be a notion that we find most explicitly developed in Epictetus. It’s what he calls prohairesis, and what we often translate as “faculty of choice” or “moral purpose”, or (a bit misleadingly) “will”. This is the very core of the human person, and it is what we are working on – using itself to work on itself – when we are engaging in the kind of self-improvement Stoicism suggests we focus on.

In what ways do you think Stoicism still matters today?

The very number of people who are interested in Stoicism at present – and who stick with it over time – should tell us something! People from all walks of life and with all sorts of backgrounds are finding aspects of Stoic philosophy incredibly helpful or liberating when applied to their own lives. It’s one thing for academics and other professional practitioners to be interested in a philosophical approach, or even to apply it in their lives and talk about it with each other. It’s something entirely different when a philosophy from two millennia back has something to say to a much wider audience in our present-day culture.

How has Stoicism affected the way you live your life?

Not as much as it ought to have, or I’d have liked it to have! Oh – you were asking “How?”, not “How much?” I’d say that it has helped me place matters into perspective – with things that I do still sometimes let myself get quite affected by, more than I’d like. Getting angry, for instance: I do a lot of work on anger, and that was originally motivated by wanting to better understand and deal with my own feelings, responses, habits, and assumptions.

What’s one of your favourite Stoic quotations and why?

It’s one from Epictetus’ Enchiridion:

“When you are about to put your hand to some undertaking, remind yourself what sort of undertaking it is.”

We have a choice, but it is one that we have to make over and over again. What do we allow our desires and aversions to focus upon? For the Stoic, the way Epictetus puts it, it is keeping our prohairesis in accordance with nature. If we can stick with that – which isn’t easy, I’ll admit! – we’re going to be all right.

What advice would you give someone wanted to learn more about Stoicism?

I’m a big believer in going to the original sources. There is a lot of excellent “secondary” literature on Stoicism available, most of which has been written in the last three decades. I’ve also produced a number of videos on Stoic thought – and have plans to create hundreds more – but that’s more or less like secondary literature as well. There’s nothing like actually reading the “big three” – Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius – and seeing for oneself what they taught and thought firsthand. You could add what we have of Musonius Rufus and Hierocles, and the very informative presentations of Stoic thought by Diogenes Laertes and Cicero.

Do you have anything else that you wanted to mention while we have the chance?

Indeed I do! I think it’s quite astounding how quickly modern Stoicism has developed into a worldwide community of practice, connected up with each other in large part through the internet. It’s truly inspiring just to witness how many people have found Stoic philosophy to be useful to incorporate within their own lives. I’m also very pleased to to get to play my small part in the larger mission of the Modern Stoicism organization. I think there’s great things ahead for decades to come, and I’m looking forward to seeing what shape those take.

 

Interview: Chuck Chakrapani

Dr. Chakrapani will be one of the speakers at the Stoicon 2017 Stoicism Conference in Toronto, on October 14th.

Q: How would you introduce yourself and your work to our readers?

I am a psychologist by training, and a data scientist by profession. I don’t approach Stoicism as a scholar, expert or philosopher, but as a student. A student sitting in the back row of Epictetus’ lectures, trying to figure what he is saying and (if it made sense), how to apply it to my own life. My view of Stoicism is that it contains some profound insights which, if applied to our everyday life, can change it for the better. And in short order.

My work (besides to my day job) currently centers on making the Stoic writings accessible to anyone interested in them. My book Unshakable Freedom shows how Stoicism can be applied to your life, no matter who you are or what you do. The Good Life Handbook is a slightly rearranged plain English version of Enchiridion. The current blog series Discourses in Plain English re-expresses Epictetus’ Discourses in modern English. For the past year or so, I have been devoting 20 to 30 hours a week to reading and writing about Stoicism.

Q: How do you currently make use of Stoicism in your work?

This is a simple question. The way you do anything is the way you do everything. If I clearly see that “it is useless to worry about things over which I have no control” it applies equally to whether I get into a traffic jam or whether my presentation is received poorly by my colleagues. It is as useless to worry about a promotion that you did not get as it is to worry about a steak you already overcooked. Once you internalize some profound passages of Stoicism such as Marcus Aurelius’

Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness – all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil. But for my part I have long perceived the nature of good…” (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations II.1)

it often short circuits your frustration when you find someone annoying, unjust, or unfair. From my perspective, the principles apply equally to your work and to the other parts of your life.

Q: When and how did you first become interested in Stoicism?

I have been involved in Stoic thought practically all my life. When I was still a nerdy high school kid, I picked up a book by Marcus Aurelius To Himself, also called Meditations. Marcus Aurelius seems to have a special appeal to people who, like him, governed countries – America’s Bill Clinton, Prussia’s Frederick the Great, China’s Wen Jiabao – to name a few. The version I read was also a translation by a governor of a country – C. Rajagopalachari, the last Governor General of India. To me, Meditations was just an emperor’s thoughts which I found interesting. Several years later, I picked up a copy of Enchiridion. I still didn’t know much about Stoicism and didn’t connect it to Marcus. Later still, I came across Discourses, and for the first time, realized that they all refer to the same philosophical system, Stoicism. Subsequently, I tried to understand it as system of philosophic thought.

Q: What’s the most important aspect of Stoicism to you?  

The opening sentence of the Enchiridion.

Some things are in our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, our reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not our own doing.” (Epictetus, Enchiridion I.1. Robin Hard’s translation.)

To me, this is the sword of wisdom that cuts through so much of our cluttered and confused thinking. For years I struggled with Niebuhr’s serenity prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change things I can, And wisdom to know the difference.

I don’t know about others, but for me, “wisdom to know the difference,” wasn’t easy to come by. Epictetus defined it to me.

Add to this the Marcus Aurelius quote I referred to earlier, and now we know the words and behavior of others don’t bind us either. All that is left for us is to enjoy the festival of life.

These two passages contain more practical wisdom than one hundred self-help books. Don’t worry about things you have no control over and don’t be reactive to what others say or do. That’s it. If you fully internalize the meaning of these two passages, I believe your life will change dramatically for the better.

Q: In what ways do you think Stoicism still matters today?

Stoicism is timeless. When I read Epictetus, for example, I cannot help but wonder, “How is it that the same philosophy appealed to the least and the most powerful men living at about the same time? How is it that the thoughts of a slave, who lived two thousand years ago far removed in every respect from the world we live in today, resonate with me, are relevant to me, and make my days better?” We are psychologically the same. The form changes but the matter remains.

So, it is not question of whether Stoicism matters today. I don’t believe there ever was a time when it did not matter. There were only times when people thought it did not matter.

Q: How has Stoicism affected the way you live your life?

Sometimes I describe myself as a “Stoic minimalist.” I don’t practice Stoicism as such but use a few principles of Stoicism that have the potential to change one’s life. I already mentioned two. There are two more.

Don’t grow peevish about trivialities: Vinegar is bad, it’s sharp; the honey is bad, it upsets my constitution; I didn’t like the vegetables.” (Epictetus, Discourses, IV.4.25. Robert Dobbin’s translation)

The final one comes from these two quotes:

“I have to die. If it is now, well then I die now; if later, then now I will take my lunch, since the hour for lunch has arrived – and dying I will tend to later,” and

You will be able to view each and every day as a festival.
(Epictetus, Discourses I.1.32 & IV.4.46. Robin Hard’s translation)

As a Stoic minimalist, I just try to remember these four thoughts when I face any friction.

  1. Is this under my control or am I simply spinning my wheels?
  2. Am I reacting to someone without exercising my choice to act the way I want?
  3. Am I getting peevish about trivialities?
  4. Am I enjoying the festival of life that’s right in front of me?

Sure enough, things get better. I don’t always remember, and I don’t always succeed. But I remember enough and succeed enough that I can say that my life is far better because of that.

I am content to employ a few basic principles which, when practiced consistently enough, elevates the quality of my life and makes my life run smoothly. Maybe not all the time, but something like 90% of the time. And that is good enough for me.

Q: What’s one of your favourite Stoic quotations and why?

I am glad you asked, because Stoic philosophers, especially Epictetus, are so eloquent, there can’t be just one. My favorite is this by Epictetus:

I have this purpose: To complete you, to free you from restraint, compulsion, hindrance, to make you free, prosperous and happy…and you are here to practice these things.” (Discourses II.19.29).

This is a breathtaking promise. It is audacious, uncompromising, unconditional, and unequivocal. Why is this my favorite? Not just because it is bold, but because Epictetus stood by it and never went back on that promise as long as he lived.

Q: What advice would you give someone wanted to learn more about Stoicism?

My advice would of course be biased. It would depend on why someone wants to learn about Stoicism. If they want to increase their general knowledge, I would perhaps refer them to someone like Massimo Pigliucci or Greg Sadler or Donald Robertson, who are far better qualified than I. But if advice-seekers want to better their lives, I would advise them to read something simple like the Enchiridion and reflect on the passages that particularly appeal to them. Apply them to their lives and internalize the principle. They don’t have to rush immediately to read Discourses, Meditations or Epistulae Morales There is time enough for that. A few profundities make one’s life far better than tons of trivialities.

Q: Do you have anything else that you wanted to mention while we have the chance?

I sometimes wonder if people make it more complicated than it need be to reap the benefits of Stoic thought. Isn’t it simple enough just to follow what makes sense to us, test it to see if it works? If it does, why does anything else matter? Why check if there is a god or not? Or even if you are virtuous or not? Maybe I am missing something. I don’t know.

Chuck Chakrapani is the founder of The Stoic Gym and the author of Unshakable Freedom, A Fortunate Storm, and The Good Life Handbook

Interview: Ronald Pies

Interview with Ronald Pies, author of Everything has Two Handles and The Three-Petalled Rose.

Ronald PiesQ: How would you introduce yourself and your work to our readers?

I’m a psychiatrist, medical ethicist, amateur philosopher, and writer of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. In short, I can’t quite figure out what to do with myself!

Q: How do you currently makes use of Stoicism in your work?

Having retired from clinical practice, I no longer have occasion to use Stoic principles in my psychotherapeutic work, but I did make use of those principles for many years. Of course, the overlap between CBT, REBT and Stoicism has been discussed many times, and the parallels are very clear–even though the Stoic tradition has many rich layers of spiritual meaning not intrinsically a part of CBT and REBT. (That said, Albert Ellis, PhD –the “father” of REBT– explicitly acknowledged his debt to Epictetus, as you know).

Q: When and how did you first become interested in Stoicism?

I think I came to Stoicism via REBT, and later, via Maimonides (ca. 1135-1204) and the rabbinical tradition. As I try to show in my book, The Three-Petalled Rose, there is an immense amount of “overlap” between the rabbinical tradition and that of the Stoics. And while Maimonides is usually associated with Aristotle, much of his work as a physician (and arguably, as the “Father of Psychosomatic Medicine”) drew on ideas developed much earlier by the Stoics.

Q: What’s the most important aspect of Stoicism to you?

Although I am indebted to the Stoics for their cognitive approach to what might be called “human happiness” (or better, eudaimonia), I am most appreciative of their ethical and moral framework; in particular, the idea that the person of virtue cannot be harmed by anything (e.g., the opinion of others, misfortune, etc.) so long as he or she continues to be guided by virtue. And I am also grateful, in particular, to Marcus Aurelius for his views on “duty”; e.g., “I do my duty. Nothing else troubles me.” Clearly, this overlaps with the Stoic view of happiness or eudaimonia.

Q: In what ways do you think Stoicism still matters today?

As the world seems to grow more chaotic and brutal by the day –and, yes, I know Stephen Pinker has argued against this view– I find a greater need than ever for Stoic principles of reason, moderation, restraint, and tolerance. Stoicism, it seems to me, is a bulwark against extremism in all its vile forms – and this is a great gift bequeathed to us in our rough and ramshackle times.

Q: How has Stoicism affected the way you live your life?

As I confront my own aging, and the illness and frailty of family and friends, I am comforted by the wisdom of Seneca (cf. On the Shortness of Life) and Cicero (cf. On Old Age). And Stoic principles help me cope, nearly every day, with “the slings and arrows” life sends our way, from professional disappointments to personal losses. Perhaps most important, the Stoic emphasis on “gratitude” helps sustain me through rough times. Here, the Stoics are at one with the rabbis of the Talmud; e.g., “Ben Zoma says, Who is rich? The one who rejoices in his portion.” [Pirke Avot 4.1]

Q: What’s one of your favourite Stoic quotations and why?

There are so many, it’s very hard to choose one or two! I suppose if forced, I would pick that of Marcus Aurelius: “There is but one thing of real value – to cultivate truth and justice, and to live without anger in the midst of lying and unjust men.”

Q: What advice would you give someone wanted to learn more about Stoicism?

There are many excellent introductions to the topic, including but not limited to William Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy (Oxford U. Press, 2008). But it’s hard to beat Marcus Aurelius himself, especially in the translation of his Meditations titled, The Emperor’s Handbook, vibrantly translated by C. Scot Hicks and David V. Hicks (Scribner, 2002)

Q: Do you have anything else that you wanted to mention while we have the chance?

Yes, Donald – I’m grateful for the opportunity to learn from you and others who post on the “Stoicism Today” website, and for this opportunity to share a bit of my own perspective. So, thank you!


Ronald Pies is the author of Everything has Two Handles: The Stoic’s Guide to the Art of Living and The Three-Petalled Rose.

Interview: Thomas Jarrett LTC

Interview with Thomas Jarrett, author of Warrior Resilience Training, for Stoic Week.

Thomas JarrettQ: How would you introduce yourself and your work to our readers?

I am a senior Military Behavioral Health Officer, former Green Beret and Albert Ellis Institute Fellow.  I utilized Stoicism, cognitive science and POW insights with U.S. Combat Soldiers in the first combat resiliency program, initially titled “Stoic Resilience Training,” later “Warrior Resilience & Thriving”, in the Iraq War in 2005-6, and 2008-2009. We trained thousands of Warriors in a standardized educational class, and cross-training Medics, therapists and interested chaplains. This pioneer pilot resiliency program contributed to current standardized programs.

Q: What does Stoicism means to you?

Stoicism is a historically proven, philosophical resiliency system, developed in the crucible of suffering. It is a premier method of stress-inoculation training and world approach. For me it was similar to finding the “right” key, to a crippling cipher. The inculcation and application of basic Stoic insights allows the cultivation of military-grade software or “mental armor”, which allows us (only when applied, not just having the insight) to navigate bravely this beautiful, yet potentially painful world. Not dissimilar to a Western Zen but much more virtue-focused.

Thomas JarrettQ: How do you currently makes use of Stoicism in your work?

As a senior Cognitive and Rational Emotive Behavior Fellow, I continually educate service members that our operating philosophies and appraisals directly determine our emotions and subsequent behavioral choices. Stoicism helps independent Soldiers, manage their own emotions and expectations, vs. being overly-controlling and or hyper-responsible.

Q: When and how did you first become interested in Stoicism?

My aunt had a small Random House Volume on Aurelius’ Meditations, and my mother had given me James Allen’s As a Man Thinketh as a child. Additionally, my father, an Airborne Ranger, often spoke in terms of virtue, sacrifice and character. My influences included Viktor Frankl, Admiral James Stockdale and Spartacus.

Q: What’s the most important aspect of Stoicism to you?

The idea that we are the arbiters of our reality, and that our internal compass or true north cannot be degraded by external events. The realization that we literally determine the meaning of external events is essential, and that Virtue is our loadstone. It is different than post-modern, virtue-less approaches or cultural relativism. Stoicism permits me to travel though this world, unimpeded.

Q: In what ways do you think Stoicism still matters today?

When we are long gone, some space Marine will be reviewing Marcus Aurelius or Epictetus, steeling her mind prior to combat operations. Focused on virtue, accepting the inevitability of his or her death, they will draw inspiration and resolve from those who preceded them. Stoicism taps what is excellent in humans.

Q: How has Stoicism affected the way you live your life?

Being fairly passionate, Stoicism has allowed me to validate what is useful in cognitive and existential therapies, without becoming intoxicated with diagnoses and disorders. Stoicism freed me from Eastern psychologies steeped in reincarnation and reiterated why I am proud to still be a child of Greece and Rome, and that my mind and rationality are essential to my well-being, vs. nuisances or to be stopped.

Q: What’s one of your favourite Stoic quotations and why?

If we know why, we can endure any how.  – Nietzsche

 

It is not the thing itself, but view men take of it which disturbs them. -Epictetus

 

Some things are far worse than death. – My father

Q: What advice would you give someone wanted to learn more about Stoicism?

Actually read the classics, including the best translations with commentaries. Join a reputable Stoic discussion Group like Stoic Forum, but avoid those that are egg-headed or contentious (Philosophy disease). Begin with Seneca’s Moral Essays and other sources who had access to original Stoic works. Consider A.A. Long and Hadot’s commentaries. Examine who else call themselves Stoics, you will be impressed.

Q: Do you have anything else that you wanted to mention while we have the chance?

Unlike scripture, or revealed religions, real Stoics ask you to manage your own opinions and evaluate the efficacy of the system in THIS life. You will never find a Stoic expert, who castigates you for not agreeing with their doctrine. Avoid those of strong opinion who have never practiced Stoicism.


You can watch a video about the Warrior Resilience Training on YouTube:

 

Interview: Ryan Holiday

Interview with Ryan Holiday for Stoic Week.

Ryan HolidayQ: How would you introduce yourself and your work to our readers?

It’s funny, introducing myself is probably my least favorite thing to do. I’ve always been an introvert and so one of the reasons I’ve always liked writing is that I don’t have to do that very often—I just say what I think or know and people take it or leave. Usually at parties, I introduce myself as “My name is Ryan and I am a writer,” and since most people assume writers are basically starving artist, that usually wraps up that part of the conversation and then we can talk about normal things and not work. The slightly longer answer is that I am an author who has written five books, three about practical philosophy and two about marketing and media. The latter due came out of my career as the director of marketing for American Apparel and my work with a number of other authors and public figures. My books on philosophy, The Obstacle is the Way, Ego is the Enemy and now, The Daily Stoic came out of my love of philosophy and history. They are filled with stories and advice for people who are trying to achieve things, solve problems and find their version of the good life.

Q: How do you currently makes use of Stoicism in your work?

I say that my books are books that feature stoicism as opposed to being works of Stoicism. I think it’s incredibly hard to add something new to the canon of ancient philosophy as a modern person. There is room to translate, extrapolate and illustrate—and that’s what I did in The Obstacle is the Way I took a single stoic exercise from Marcus Aurelius and built a book of inspiring historical stories around it. As a executive and an entrepreneur, Stoicism is also a part of my life. Something goes wrong—how do I respond? Stoicism is there. I have to make an ethical decision, I want to try to think about the Stoic definition of virtue. If I’m experiencing success—material or otherwise—well, what do the Stoics say about how to handle that. None of that is to say that I am perfect in my application (in writing or in life) but I try and I think I’m getting better the longer I do it.

Q: When and how did you first become interested in Stoicism?

I was 19 years old and I attended a conference with the radio and television host Dr. Drew Pinsky. I asked him for a book recommendation and he put me onto the Stoics. To say that recommendation changed my life does not go far enough. It has in fact directed the entire course of my life. Marcus Aurelius was what Tyler Cowen calls a “quake book” for me. It shook everything I knew about the world. I’ve since turned to it hundreds of times—good times and bad times—and consulted it in my most difficult moments. After Marcus, I fell in love with Seneca and then Epictetus. Then I moved on to Pierre Hadot. I believe I found your work and the connection to CBT shortly after that. It’s been a ten year journey now, and I still feel like I am at the very beginning of it. The books don’t change, but like Marcus quoted from Heraclitus reading them is like stepping into a river. We are not the same and they are not same because of it.

Q: What’s the most important aspect of Stoicism to you?

There’s a line that I like in Hays’s translation of Marcus Aurelius that I think sums up Stoicism and that I use as a good summary of the idea. I can actually type it from memory, here:

Objective judgement, now at this very moment,
Unselfish action, now at this very moment,
Willing acceptance, now at this very moment, of all external events.
That is all you need.

To me that captures the three disciplines (perception, action, will) very nicely. It tells you how to see the world, how to act in the world, and how to come to terms with the world. It is indeed all one needs. You could spend a lifetime trying to just live that quote.

Q: In what ways do you think Stoicism still matters today?

Well, look we’re in a resurgence of Stoicism precisely because it does matter today. The reason that its found resonance with entrepreneurs and athletes alike is because not only are we in tumultuous times, but like the days of the Romans, many of us ‘stand alone in the universe.” What I mean is that with the decline of religion, even a decline in ideas like patriotism, leaves a vacuum. How should one life? What metric should they judge their decisions by? What matters? What doesn’t? These are questions that Stoicism helps answer. Or at least, they help me answer.

Q: How has Stoicism affected the way you live your life?

Like I said, Stoicism has helped me professionally and personally. I’m somewhat unique in that I also partly make my living studying and writing and speaking about this philosophy. I feel very lucky in that regard—because I would be doing it anyway. In any case, it is rare that a day goes by that I don’t think of some Stoic precept or idea.

Q: What’s one of your favourite Stoic quotations and why?

A different times in my life I have loved different parts of Stoicism, but right now I really love this line from Marcus: “To accept without arrogance, to let it go with indifference.” We translated it in even pithier form in The Daily Stoic: “Receive without pride, let go without attachment.” To me it’s one of those perfect expressions like “And this too shall pass.” It’s a recipe for any and every situation. It makes you better in good times, stronger in bad times.

Q: What advice would you give someone wanted to learn more about Stoicism?

I usually tell them to start with the originals. Don’t read about Stoicism, read the Stoics. I think Marcus Aurelius is the most accessible, but Seneca is better for those who want more of a narrative and exposition. Epictetus is probably the hardest one to start with. One of the reasons we created The Daily Stoic was to give people a place to get a sampling of all the big three and then some of the others like Zeno and Cleanthes. You can also go to DailyStoic.com for a daily email of Stoic thinking and interviews. I’m a big fan of r/Stoicism on Reddit as well and post there pretty often because the discussions are great.

But the best way to start is the same way people have been starting with centuries: with one the text of one of the masters. Read it and think about it and read it again!

Obstacle is the WayQ: Do you have anything else that you wanted to mention while we have the chance?

Not really—I hope people like what I have to say. Not everyone understands or appreciates what I’ve tried to do with Stoicism but I do hope they can see that I am genuine in my interest (I don’t want to say passion) for Stoicism and I’ll talk about it with anyone, anywhere. I always try to explain that the vast majority of people are turned off to philosophy because of how its historically been taught, but if you sell them on what philosophy can do for them they are much more open to it. That’s what my writing is about and I’m going to bring Stoicism to as many people as I can that way!


Ryan Holiday is the author of three books on Stoicism: The Obstacle is the Way, Ego is the Enemy, and his latest The Daily Stoic.

Interview: William Ferraiolo

Interview with William Ferraiolo for Stoic Week

William FerraioloQ: How would you introduce yourself and your work to our readers?

Some of my work might be worth reading, but I am an insignificant man who will soon pass on (as is true for all of us) and be forgotten. Most of the work I have published thus far can be found here.

I also have a book coming out in 2017. The title is Meditations on Self-Discipline and Failure: Stoic Exercise for Mental Fitness. That looks like a shameless plug, and it is, but I am far more interested in people reading my work and, hopefully, deriving some benefit from it, than I am in those people “getting to know me”. I don’t particularly matter. I am comfortable with that.

Q: How do you currently makes use of Stoicism in your work?

I am a philosophy professor, but I do not teach any courses explicitly devoted to Stoicism or any related subject matter. That is not up to me (a condition that I embrace with a Stoic/Nietzschean attitude of amor fati). The primary use of Stoicism in my work pertains to dealing with my colleagues, my students, and our administration. In the absence of a Stoic inclination, I might do things that would result in losing my job and getting arrested. Instead, I frequently remind myself that other persons, their words, and their behavior, are not entrusted to my control and, therefore, ought to remain matters of rationally cultivated indifference (though I do pay attention).

Q: When and how did you first become interested in Stoicism?

I never took any courses in graduate school that even mentioned Stoicism. This now strikes me as very odd. How does one obtain a Ph.D in philosophy without studying any of the Hellenistic schools – or any Buddhism for that matter? I became interested in Stoicism because I always had a bad temper, and I seem to have inherited an inclination to anxiety and depression from my father. When I was around 30 years old, and my knees and neck were destroyed from wrestling, football (American), and boxing, I knew that I could no longer release anxiety and the attendant aggression in combat and collision sports. A propitious encounter with the Enchiridion of Epictetus saved me from myself (so far, at least).

Q: What’s the most important aspect of Stoicism to you?

The centerpiece of Stoic counsel is learning to distinguish clearly between that which one can control and that which one cannot. The crucial correlate is emotional and psychological renunciation of any self-centered desires concerning that which lies beyond one’s control. How much needless frustration, anxiety, and despair issue from the obsession with events and conditions that lie beyond the direct control of the will? How much better off would we be if we just reallocated our intellectual energy to the small sphere of conditions over which we do have direct control (i.e. our will, our attitudes, our virtue, etc.)? I have enough flaws of my own to keep me busy. I will leave the external world to unfold as it may.

Q: In what ways do you think Stoicism still matters today?

I live in the United States, and it is, in my judgement, a fading empire in precipitous (and irreversible) decline. Indeed, much of the Western World may be on the same moribund downslope. When the nation and culture that you grew up thinking of as “yours” (simply because you were born into them) start to become unrecognizable, corrupt, and self-destructive… Stoicism really comes in handy. I will pay attention, and I will observe the coming collapse, but I will do my best to avoid becoming what I behold. When I find myself mourning the impending loss of “my” culture, I remind myself that it is “mine” only by happenstance, and that nothing is really “built to last” in any event.

Q: How has Stoicism affected the way you live your life?

I now spend much more time and intellectual energy trying to rectify my own character and my own behavior than I did before I discovered Stoicism. This leaves far less time and energy for carping and complaining about other people, the state of political or economic affairs, or the dearth of wisdom and virtue in the public sphere (though I still manage to do all of that a lot more than a good Stoic should).

Q: What’s one of your favourite Stoic quotations and why?

Book Two of The Meditations starts with:

Begin the morning by saying to thyself, I shall meet with the busy-body, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. But I who have seen the nature of the good that it is beautiful, and of the bad that it is ugly, and the nature of him who does wrong, that it is akin to me, not only of the same blood or seed, but that it participates in the same intelligence and the same portion of the divinity, I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him, For we are made for co-operation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth. To act against one another then is contrary to nature; and it is acting against one another to be vexed and to turn away.

Do that in earnest, and the day passes in relative serenity.

Q: What advice would you give someone wanted to learn more about Stoicism?

Start with Epictetus. Nearly all of the most beneficial techniques in modern CBT and REBT can be found in his Discourses and Enchiridion. From there, move on to Seneca and Marcus Aurelius. After working through the other ancient sources, check out the modern resurgence of Stoicism (of which events like Stoic Week are a wonderful part) and the authors of contemporary works about the application of Stoic techniques. This stuff still works!

Meditations on Self-discipline and FailureQ: Do you have anything else that you wanted to mention while we have the chance?

When you find that the world is driving you batty, remember that the world is not yours to control, and try to understand that whatever it is that is troubling you can be rectified… by working on yourself. That task is more than enough for any of us. Leave the world be. It never asked for your help.


William Ferraiolo has recently written a book entitled Meditations on Self–Discipline and Failure, due out in 2017.

Interview: Tim LeBon

Interview with Tim LeBon for Stoic Week.

Tim LeBonQ: How would you introduce yourself and your work to our readers?

I’m a psychotherapist, life coach and educator who specialises in CBT and has a long-standing interest in the practical applications of philosophy. I’ve written two books. Wise Therapy is for counsellors interested in how philosophy can inform their work. Achieve Your Potential with Positive Psychology is for anyone who would like to discover what the new science of well-being has to offer. I’ve been part of the Stoicism Today project since its early days. My main job has been to design and implement research to determine whether Stoicism helps or not. We have got very positive results, and the more I learn about Stoicism and its positive impact, the more I have been drawn to Stoicism.

Q: How do you currently make use of Stoicism in your work?

My background in both philosophy and psychology is pretty broad – philosophically I find elements of Aristotle, Epicurus, the Utilitarians and Existentialists insightful as well as the Stoics. As for psychology, I have trained as an existential psychotherapist and Cognitive Behavioural Therapist (CBT) as well as being informed by Positive Psychology and Compassion Focussed Therapy (CFT) and third wave mindfulness-based CBT approaches. When I’m working with a client I draw on the approach that has the most evidence base for their problem. Where the evidence doesn’t point towards one specific approach I try to find the best blend of approaches given my understanding of their issues.

So where does Stoicism fit into the mix? Many readers will be aware that Stoicism heavily influenced the founders of CBT, Beck and Ellis, so in a sense I am making use of Stoicism every time I practice CBT.  But there’s a lot more to Stoicism than the nuggets appropriated by CBT. For example, the Serenity Prayer wisdom of distinguishing between what you can control and what you can’t and then focusing on what aspects of your life you can control can be a revolutionary paradigm shift for people people have had an adverse life event – illness, bereavement, redundancy or being dumped.

When clients present with depression and anxiety, best practice is to use the most evidence-based approach for their problem, which is often CBT. Even in these cases though, Stoicism can sometimes turn out helpful in quite unexpected ways. One case I remember well was a man who presented with severe and chronic generalised anxiety disorder i.e. he worried a lot. We worked for a few sessions using traditional CBT, and we made some progress. Next session he walked in with a smile on his face announcing he felt completely differently about life. “What’s happened?” I wondered out loud. “Well, I googled you and saw that you were into Stoicism. So then I googled “Stoic videos” on YouTube and, wow, did they make a difference!” With the help of Marcus Aurelius and negative visualisations, this chronic worrier had come to realise that that the things he worried about – money and status – didn’t actually really matter in the grand scheme of things. Stoicism had reached the parts that other therapies could not reach!

Q: When and how did you first become interested in Stoicism?

I first read the Roman Stoics when I was an undergraduate, but to be honest I was put off by some of the metaphysics and seemingly uncompassionate language. Reading Richard Sorabji’s Emotion & Peace of Mind was a real game-changer for me as it clarified how a distinctly Stoic understanding of the emotions could be both plausible and helpful. I wrote a bit about this in Wise Therapy back in 1999. But it was only much later in 2012 when I joined the Stoicism Today team that I got a deeper and more sympathetic understanding of Stoicism, through reading and discussing Stoic ideas and taking part in Stoic Week myself. Trying out the version of Stoicism put forward in the Stoic Week Handbook is a really good way of understanding the ideas better and learning which of the many tools are helpful for you personally.

Q: What’s the most important aspect of Stoicism to you?

The things that really stand out for me are Stoicism’s focus on wisdom and virtue and its practical exercises. Other Greek philosophies such as Aristotle and Plato were great on theory but much less helpful when it comes to practice. Over hundreds of years the Stoics developed a gamut of tools to help develop wisdom and virtue. The more you go into it, the more you realise the wealth of highly readable books and helpful meditations and other practices that are available.

I now see Stoicism as working at 3 levels. At level 1, there are all the exercises you can use without necessarily going into Stoicism at a deeper level – such as the Serenity Prayer, morning and evening meditations, negative visualisation, View from Above and concentric circles of Hierocles.

At level 2 you begin to see Stoicism as a complete system, with its own views on what matters in life (ethics), the nature of the universe (metaphysics) and how we should use reason (logic). Level 2 has its benefits and drawbacks. On the plus side, Stoicism is a lot more powerful once you buy into all of its ideas. For example, at level 1 the Serenity Prayer tells you to focus on what you can control. The level 2 Stoic takes this much further as she believes that that the only thing you can really control is your own thinking and action. How exactly should you control your thinking and what should you do? According to level 2 Stoicism, you should live according to the virtues – so you should be wise, courageous, just, self-controlled and have a love of all humanity. This is within your control and, the Stoics add, if you do this, you will also be an excellent and flourishing human being. The Stoics then claim that being an excellent human being is all that really matters – virtue trumps feeling good every time.

So if you are upset by something – for example, to take the topic of my 2016 Stoicon workshop, the idea that Donald Trump might be the next US President, you first tell yourself to focus only on those aspects of the situation you can control. You next think about how you can respond virtuously to the situation – which in this case might be doing all within your powers to help those adversely affected by any policies that worry you.  It was this kind of paradigm shift that my chronically worried client experienced. Overnight he had become a level 2 Stoic, and that had shifted his perspective so much that he really didn’t care so much about what the Stoics call “preferred indifferents” which had been driven his generalised anxiety disorder.

The downside of level 2 Stoicism is that there may well be parts of the Stoic system that you don’t find very plausible or helpful. For myself, I struggle with the idea that virtue completely trumps not feeling bad and that feeling good matters so little. I find it more plausible to see there being a balance between being good, feeling good and doing good. That’s where level 3 Stoicism comes in. Here you integrate the acceptable parts of Stoicism into your own worldview. In effect, that’s what historically Stoics like Seneca did, and it’s what some modern Stoics do too. There is of course the question of how much you have to buy into level 2 Stoicism to be called a Stoic rather than someone who isn’t a Stoic but finds some Stoic ideas useful. Historically Seneca came into the first category and Cicero the second. Personally I find this debate less useful than trying to work out the details of a helpful and plausible Stoic-informed philosophy of life and its attendant practical applications. That’s what I want to focus on, and that’s the direction of my current personal research.

Q: In what ways do you think Stoicism still matters today?

I firmly believe we need an alternative to religion to help foster living well. Relativism and pure hedonism are not very good alternatives. Psychology and science can help us learn what techniques work, but philosophy is needed to help us think about what matters in life and the nature of flourishing. Philosophy is needed in the search for wisdom. Stoicism has a large treasure chest of wise ideas and practices. My hope is that if blended with the best of twenty-first century science, psychology and psychotherapy practices it can help us build an effective philosophy for living for the twenty-first century.

Q: How has Stoicism affected the way you live your life?

For many years I was a part-time level 1 Stoic, using things like the Serenity Prayer when I needed them. These days I would say I am an advanced level 1 Stoic, working towards being a level 3 Stoic. For example, recently I’ve developed a little computer application which sends me several emails each day from a database of my favourite Stoic quotes, grouped by theme such as morning meditation, evening meditation, love of humanity, Stoic mindfulness and Stoic wisdom. I think these help me to be a better person, but I consider myself very much a prokopton – a work in progress.

Q: What are some of your favourite Stoic quotations and why?

Here are some of my favourites:

Some things are under our control, while others are not under our control. Under our control are conception [the way we define things], intention [the voluntary impulse to act], desire [to get something], aversion [the desire to avoid something], and, in a word, everything that is our own doing; not under our control are our body, our property, reputation, position [or office] in society, and, in a word, everything that is not our own doing. – Epictetus, Handbook 1

What a great opening to The Handbook! No preamble, straight into perhaps the single most useful nugget of Stoic wisdom.

Reason should be our guide. All our actions, from the smallest to the greatest, must follow her lead. As she directs, so we should do.  – Seneca Moral Essays, III 87

Great advice, especially when we think of reason as meaning our ability to stand back and think about what matters most in a situation, all things considered. This might well require training and practice.

If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable. – Seneca, Letters LXXI

Yes! I like to include this in my morning meditation to help me think about where I want to head that particular day as well as overall in life.

Virtue depends partly on training and partly on practice. You must learn first, and then strengthen what you’ve learned by practice. – Seneca, Letters Vol III

Right again! We won’t become more Stoic or more virtuous unless we commit to it, just as if we were learning a new language or a musical instrument. And how much more important is learning to be an excellent human being than learning these other things?

Q: What advice would you give someone wanted to learn more about Stoicism?

That’s an easy one. My advice is to do Stoic Week if you haven’t done it before. If you have done it before, do it again because, as Seneca says, excellence requires training and practice.  Practising Stoicism is by far the best way of finding out about it. You’ll find plenty of suggestions for further reading in the Stoic Week Handbook.

Positive PsychologyQ: Do you have anything else that you wanted to mention while we have the chance?

I would very much encourage people to come into Stoicism with an open mind. There will be bits you probably find puzzling or hard to agree with. That’s fine. Stoicism is a set of philosophical ideas, not a religion. So decide for yourself which parts you agree with, and use them. I hope you find them helpful.


Tim LeBon is the author of Wise Therapy and Achieve your Potential with Positive Psychology.