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.

Interview: Christopher Gill

Interview with Christopher Gill for Stoic Week.

Christopher GillQ: How would you introduce yourself to our readers?

I’m a scholar of Greek and Roman philosophy. I’ve retired from University teaching (at the University of Exeter, UK) but I’m very actively involved in research, writing, and giving talks.

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

Although I]ve worked on many aspects of ancient philosophy in my career, in recent years I’ve focused on Stoic philosophy and writings, such as Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. I’m currently writing a book (Learning to be Good: Stoic Ethics and its Modern Challenge) about the features of Stoic ethics that I think are most important, and which can contribute most to modern philosophical thinking. I’ve also been closely involved since 2012 in a movement, ‘Stoicism Today’, which aims to present core ideas of Stoic ethics as guidance for a wide audience.

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

Over the last few years, I’ve come to think that, of all the ancient philosophies on which I’ve worked, Stoicism is the one that provides the best framework for living a good life. My involvement with the public presentation of Stoic principles is more recent, and was sparked by a small workshop I held at Exeter in 2012. This led to some fascinating collaborative work on the online course (‘Live like a Stoic for a Week’), run from 2012 to the present year, and large-scale public events on Stoicism in London (2013-15) and this year in New York (‘Stoicon’, Oct 15). It has been exciting working with psychotherapists like Donald Robertson and Tim LeBon, and Jules Evans a philosophical writer; Patrick Ussher, a PhD student of mine has contributed greatly to this movement too. I think this project could go on being helpful to people for many years to come.

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

There are quite a few, but here are three for a start.

  1. The idea that the basis for happiness lies within our power, because it does not depend on acquiring wealth or position or even on the health and well-being of our loved ones, but on leading a good life, or developing the virtues. So happiness consists in leading the best possible human life (‘the life according to nature’ as Stoics put it), and other things, while they do matter, do not form the basis for happiness in the same way.
  2. The idea that all human beings have the innate capacity to develop towards virtue and happiness, regardless of our specific inborn character, social background or educational level. Also, the idea that human beings form a kind of cosmic brotherhood (or sisterhood), and are ‘citizens of the universe’ because we all share this capacity. And also the idea that developing virtue and relating properly to other people are intimately interconnected.
  3. The idea that life is an ongoing project or journey towards the goal of becoming virtuous (and so happy) and relating better to other people and to the world or universe of which we form an integral part. Achieving virtue is not easy – even making progress towards it is not easy – but nothing else matters so much.

I think these are a really powerful set of ideas. I feel they form a key part of my framework for living and that they can do so for many other people.

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

I think Stoicism matters today because it offers a strong and coherent ethical framework, which can help us as it has helped people over the centuries since it was evolved in the 3rd century BC. I also think there are several pressing major problems facing us today that Stoicism can help us to reflect on. For instance:

  • Global warming and the environmental crisis. Stoicism teaches us to think about ourselves (human beings) as integral parts of the larger world and not just isolated individuals. It also teaches us to connect trying to develop the virtues and shaping our lives as parts of a larger whole. Global warming requires us to change our modern life-style fundamentally and Stoicism can help us to put this into practice.
  • Socio-economic inequality. Stoicism teaches us that happiness does not depend on becoming rich as individuals (or as corporations or nations) but on trying to lead a good human life and to develop the virtues. This can help to provide an ethical basis for tackling the huge gap between very rich and everyone else (greater even than in ancient Rome) that we are experiencing today.
  • The refugee crisis. We are living through the largest movement of people across the globe since the end of the Second World War. Stoicism reminds us that all human beings form part of a single brotherhood or sisterhood (or co-citizenship) and that our moral concern and sympathy should extend across local and national boundaries.

Q: Has Stoicism affected the way you live your life?

I think it has influenced the way I have lived my life for a number of years. For instance, when my wife died (aged 52) of cancer in 2010, I found it helpful (though not easy) to hold in mind the Stoic principle that our happiness depends on ourselves and not on our situation. I also found it helpful to reflect on my wife’s positive and inspirational approach to life and her caring attitude to other people and to try to build that into my life as far as I could. Being forced to confront the inevitable reality of death has given me a new realization of the value of life and the need to try to make something worthwhile of life while we can. These are all insights that Stoicism had too and that we can use Stoic writings to reinforce.

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

I think Marcus Aurelius puts some deep Stoic ideas in a powerful way, perhaps I could give two:

Do not act as if you were going to live for a thousand years. The inescapable is hanging over your head; while you are still alive, while it is still possible, become a good person. – Meditations, 4.17

 

Whenever you want to cheer yourself up, think of the good qualities of those who live with you: such the energy of one, the decency of another, the generosity of another … There is nothing so cheering as the images of the virtues displayed in the characters of those who live with you, and grouped together as far as possible. So you should keep them ready at hand. – Meditations, 6.48

The first passage sums up much I have said already – life as a project in self-development, the urgency of trying to live well while we can, the idea that happiness depends on ourselves and not on circumstances. The second passage brings out the importance of responding to what is valuable in other peoples’ lives and characters and trying to build their qualities into the way we live our own lives. It reminds us that, although Stoicism urges us to be take charge of our own lives this does not mean becoming isolated individuals or failing to value and care for those around us.

Meditations of Marcus AureliusQ: What advice would you give to someone who wanted to learn more about Stoicism?

Try and find some Stoic writings that you find helpful and illuminating and read them carefully and thoughtfully. These might be Epictetus’ Discourses, Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, Seneca’s Letters or his essays. Or you might want to tackle a more theoretical (but still readable) version of Stoic ethics, such as Cicero’s On Duties or On Ends 3. And, as E. M. Forster put it, ‘only connect’ these ideas and writings with your own daily life.


Christopher Gill is the author of several books, including The Structured Self in Hellenistic and Roman Thought.  He also authored commentaries on the modern translations, by Robin Hard, of Epictetus’ Discourses and Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations.

Interview: Stephen Hanselman

Interview with Stephen Hanselman for Stoic Week.

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

I’m presently a literary agent representing a small but diverse client list of thought leaders and academics who seek to reach a broad readership – from historians and journalists to business and self-help experts, and beyond. I’ve spent my entire adult life in the publishing business, first for 12 years as a bookseller, followed by 13 years as a publisher at HarperCollins, and for the last 11 years as an agent working closely with writers to manage their careers.

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

I’ve found the Stoic focus on education, practical disciplines, and character formation a constant source of inspiration and personal strength – for myself and for readers. Through the years of my work in publishing I’ve always been drawn to authors whose message takes a deep dive into these themes. For example: in business, Peter Drucker’s emphasis on effectiveness having to do with focusing on the right things; in Christian spirituality, Dallas Willard’s development of the disciplines of spiritual formation; and in more popular self-help, the use of these same disciplines by clients ranging from Jack Canfield and Tim Ferriss to Ryan Holiday.

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

I was a double major in Philosophy and History as an undergraduate at Fresno Pacific University. One of the faculty who shaped an amazing core curriculum program there was Delbert Wiens, who did his dissertation at the University of Chicago on the Roman educator and Stoic philosopher, Gaius Musonius Rufus, a contemporary of both Seneca and Epictetus and a key influence on Epictetus. During those years I read primarily in secondary sources about the broader context of Hellenistic education (Werner Jaeger, et al), but it was only later that I got into the primary sources. During graduate school at Harvard Divinity School, while taking classes in the philosophy department, I happened upon Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s (another Harvard Divinity graduate) translation of Epictetus, which then led me to Oldfather’s Loeb volumes and I was hooked.

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

Stoicism gets a bad rap in popular conceptions – it’s not about denying emotions and disengagement, but exactly the opposite! Stoicism is about engagement with the right focus, and emotions themselves are value-judgments that contain an assent of our reason. We have to begin by understanding what’s in our control and what isn’t. We must understand the thin line between impulse and action and seek to more clearly understand our perceptions, desires and aversions, beliefs and how we make judgments based on the true worth of things. There is tremendous leverage in Stoic disciplines for living more productively and with less suffering. Much of our suffering is self-dealt, and this is the biggest lesson Stoicism teaches.

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

Our modern world is obsessed with Romantic notions of “following your passion” combined with a pervasive, consumerist materialism. Often there is little critical self-reflection brought to bear amidst all this excess and zero-sum seeking of gain. This combination is deadly to our souls, not to mention to our life in the common square. We’d all do better with some Stoic soul-care and the revival of their virtue ethics with its focus on the common good.

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

Some days I wonder… the Stoics say that the sign of progress is the eradication of complaining and blaming. As a father of twin 11-year-old boys, doing that can be quite the challenge! And, as an agent, your job can often be complainer-in-chief. But, I do find it helpful to stay mindful of the actual worth of things and to keep the goals of self-control, fortitude, justice and wisdom in view.

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

There are so many, but for me, the one that gets it all in a nutshell best is Marcus Aurelius’ quoting of Epictetus:

“Epictetus says we must discover the missing art of assent and pay special attention to the sphere of our impulses — that they are subject to reservation, to the common good, and that they are in proportion to actual worth.” — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 11.37

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

I love what’s happening on your Facebook group, and really everything that you and Massimo Pigliucci are doing. Ryan Holiday and I have also created a resource at www.dailystoic.com, and later this month our daily meditations book will appear from Penguin/Portfolio. We’re hoping to cast a very wide net with this book, which we’ve spent the past two years putting together.

The Daily StoicQ: Do you have anything else that you wanted to mention while we have the chance?

I wish to express my gratitude for your many years of work, and consistently great insights, in bringing Stoic resources to the world!


Stephen’s new book, co-authored with Ryan Holiday, The Daily Stoic, will be available from October 2016.

Interview: John Sellars

Interview with John Sellars for Stoic Week.

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

I’m an academic. I went to university in the autumn of 1991 to study philosophy and a quarter of a century later I’m still there. I spend the bulk of my time reading, thinking, and writing about philosophy.

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

Much of my academic work has focused on Stoicism and its later influence. I’ve written two books just on Stoicism, edited two books dealing with the later influence of Stoicism, and I have just finished writing a new book covering all of Hellenistic philosophy which inevitably contains a hefty dose of Stoicism alongside Epicureanism and the other things going on in the period.

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

I think a number of different things pointed me towards Stoicism when I was first studying philosophy. Two philosophers who caught my imagination early on were Nietzsche and Spinoza. Nietzsche himself acknowledged the connection while also being very conscious of their differences. I quickly found studies of both connecting them with Stoicism. So I was curious about what the philosophical common ground might be. At the same time I was studying Greek philosophy. I admired Socrates immensely in Plato’s early dialogues but had no time for Plato’s metaphysics or his politics. I was drawn to Diogenes the Cynic as an alternative follower of Socrates. Ancient Cynicism is entertaining but there is not much to it; what I read about them said that they had influenced the Stoics, who were serious philosophers. I also remember reading somewhere that there was one philosopher from antiquity who embodied the spirit of Socrates without being a Platonist who also deeply admired Diogenes, and his name was Epictetus. So I first read Epictetus as an heir to Socrates, not even fully conscious that he was a Stoic. I also read Marcus Aurelius around this time, again not fully conscious that he was a Stoic, but it didn’t take too long to start joining all the dots.

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

One of the things I admire about Stoicism is what we might call its ‘reality principle’, to borrow a phrase. Both Epictetus and Marcus continually insist that we face up to the reality of both particular situations we find ourselves in and the human condition in general. We cannot control every aspect of our lives, sometimes bad things happen and we just have to accept it, we cannot control other people and how they behave towards us, we cannot avoid the fact that we shall die and so will all our loved ones. These are just facts. I particularly like the idea that it is by studying Nature and understanding better how the natural world works that we can come to accept these as simply parts of the natural order of things rather than great tragedies or sources for melancholy. I think that connection between ‘physics’ and ‘ethics’ is important; you find the same connection in Epicureanism, which I also admire.

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

The later Roman Stoics whose works survive (Seneca, Musonius, Epictetus, Marcus) deal with the sorts of issues I have just mentioned. These are perennial issues connected to the human condition. As such they remain as relevant now as they have been since they were first written. These are issues that any reflective person will think about from time to time and so everyone can benefit from reading their works. That doesn’t mean that I think everyone ought to ‘become a Stoic’ (whatever that might mean), but reading their works creates an opportunity to reflect on the sorts of issues they address. It is also a way of reconnecting with a classical tradition of thought that has been a vital part of Western culture for centuries but more recently has fallen off typical educational curricula. Many people encountering Stoicism for the first time are struck by how familiar some of the ideas seem, perhaps unaware of the influence Stoicism has had on so many different parts of our shared culture.

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

That’s a difficult question to answer. Has reading about Stoicism changed me or did I simply find something that resonated with my natural predispositions? I certainly don’t ‘practise Stoicism’ in the way that I know some people do. But I have had a number of sustained periods just reading Stoic authors day after day, week after week, over the past twenty years and I have no doubt that a fair bit has been internalized along the way. I think that Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life has probably helped me fight procrastination on more than one occasion!

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

It is difficult to choose from so much material but I’ll go with two. The first is from Epictetus, Discourses 1.15. I’ve quoted this a number of times in my academic work because it is the one place where Epictetus refers to philosophy as an ‘art of living’. But in the present context I like it because it is about someone asking for help with his angry brother, to which Epictetus responds by saying ‘bring him to me, and I will tell him; but to you I have nothing to say about his anger’. In short, we would do better sorting ourselves out before pointing a finger at other people’s problems. The second is from Marcus Aurelius (2.17):

Of man’s life, his time is a point, his substance flowing, his perception faint, the constitution of his whole body decaying, his soul a spinning wheel, his fortune hard to predict, and his fame doubtful; that is to say, all the things of the body are a river, the things of the soul dream and delusion, life is a war and a journey in a foreign land, and afterwards oblivion.

In occasional moments of stress this firmly puts everything into perspective. Nothing that will happen today is of any consequence at all in the larger scheme of things. While I have heard some people say they find this depressing, I have always found it liberating: ‘don’t sweat the small stuff… and it’s all small stuff’.

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

To be honest I would say just read the Roman Stoics, especially Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Seneca’s shorter essays and letters. They are all readily available in cheap paperbacks. To learn more about the wider philosophical system on which they are drawing (and the earlier Athenian Stoics whose works are lost) there are a number of introductions, including one by me. I particularly like Johnny Christensen’s little known An Essay on the Unity of Stoic Philosophy, first published in the 1960s and recently re-issued by Museum Tusculanum Press of Copenhagen. It is only short but quite advanced and so only suitable for people already familiar with philosophy. It gives a good sense of the philosophical system that stands behind the practical advice of the Roman Stoics. And then, of course, there is Stoic Week, which is a good way to jump in and learn more about what following Stoic advice might actually involve.

The Art of LivingQ: Do you have anything else that you wanted to mention while we have the chance?

Don’t let any preconceptions you might have about Stoicism put you off; they are probably false! Even if they turn out to be true, the encounter will itself be a valuable opportunity to think about some important topics. Don’t assume that Stoicism is an all or nothing affair; it is a philosophy, not a religion. The ancient Stoics often disagreed with one another about a whole range of topics, so there is no reason why you cannot learn from the bits you find plausible and ignore the bits you don’t. Too many people seem to fall into the trap of thinking they must be either true believers or dismissive cynics.


John Sellars is the author/editor of several books on Stoicism.  He wrote The Art of Living: The Stoics on the Nature and Function of Philosophy and Stoicism (Ancient Philosophies).  He is also editor of The Routledge Handbook of the Stoic Tradition.

Interview: Massimo Pigliucci

Interview with Massimo Pigliucci about his interest in Stoicism.

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

I am a professor of philosophy at the City College of New York, my specialty being philosophy of science. I had a previous career as an evolutionary biologist. I have been a practicing Stoic for a bit over two years.

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

I actually spend a significant time of my working hours on Stoicism, nowadays. This semester, for instance, I am teaching a course on Stoicism as Practical Philosophy at City College, to which the students are responding enthusiastically. I have also incorporated into my routine the writing of 2-3 posts a week for howtobeastoic.org, summarizing my reflections on reading and practicing Stoicism.

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

When I saw a link to Stoic Week popping up on my Twitter feed a few years ago! I thought, “Stoicism? What a weird thing!” I re-tweeted and didn’t think about it for a while. Then it happened again the following year, and I said, well, let’s take a closer look… and now I find myself co-organizing STOICON and talking to you, the author of the very first book on modern Stoicism I have read!

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

Its harmonious connection between theory and practice. I was leaning toward virtue ethics before I took a serious look at Stoicism anyway, because I am convinced that philosophy ought to be practiced, it cannot just be an exercise in logic chopping. And Stoicism offers a beautifully constructed, yet sufficiently flexible, system of thought that can guide one’s life day by day.

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

In the same way it mattered for the ancient Greeks and Romans: it helps us navigate a world in which large events happen pretty much outside of our control, a world in which we still seek meaning and tranquility, and which – sadly– is still plagued by inequality, war, and injustice. We may use iPhones rather than parchment to take our notes on, but it seems like human nature hasn’t changed that much, for better or for worse. That’s why Stoicism (and its Eastern equivalent, as I’ve come to think of it, Buddhism) is still very much relevant today.

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

It has changed it significantly, I would say. I now begin the day with a meditation spurred by a Stoic quote, as well as with a contemplation of the challenges ahead. I try to be mindful in the Stoic way throughout the day, paying attention to the here and now, and to the ethical dimension of everything I do. And I end the day retiring in a quiet corner of my apartment to write my personal philosophical diary, to identify things I did well or not, as well as things I might have done better, during the day. And the results are pretty obvious to my friends and my family: I am much more calm, and I tackle my problems with more equanimity than before.

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

Oh, there are so many! I keep a running collection of my favorites at my blog, and it now counts hundreds of entries! But perhaps one of the best is this one:

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. (Epictetus, Discourses I, 1.32).

It’s one of the first ones I encountered by Epictetus, and it struck me because of its combination of wisdom, perspective, and sense of humor. Really, hard to do better than that!

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

There are so many resources! they could probably start with your blog, with the Modern Stoicism one, maybe also with my own. Use them to get a sense of what Stoicism is about, and to get recommendations for good books to read. One must read the ancients, not just modern authors, so at some point it’s definitely worth going through Marcus, Epictetus, and Seneca, at the least. Also, join our Facebook community, more than 15,000 members strong. I find it a rather unusual place on the internet, with far less trolling and nasty behavior than elsewhere (though I’m sure your moderation helps…). People seem to genuinely want to learn and to help others do the same.

How to be a StoicQ: Do you have anything else that you wanted to mention while we have the chance?

Careful, my friend, open ended questions aimed at philosophers may turn into a long stream of answers… But I’d say to keep in mind that Stoicism is just one of a number of possible philosophies of life. Maybe it is right for you, maybe it isn’t. The important thing is not to treat it as religious dogma. If you disagree with one Stoic precept or another, remember, so did Seneca and Posidonius, and they wasn’t shy about it! Keep an open mind, keep reading, keep practicing, above all keep trying to be a better human being.


Massimo’s book on Stoicism, How to be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life, will be available from Basic Books in April 2017.

An Interview with Michael Connell about Stoic Comedy

An Interview with Michael Connell about Stoic Comedy

by Donald Robertson and Michael Connell

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Donald Robertson recently interviewed the comedian Michael Connell in his SMRT 2016 site about Michael’s recent Stoic Comedy special, his practice of Stoicism, and his reflections upon his craft.

Q: How do you make use of Stoic philosophy in your comedy?

The Stoic Comedy special I just released was a bit of a passion project for me. I’d been doing stand up for a long time, discovered Stoicism and been delighted with how it had improved my life. Whenever I’m passionate about something I want to talk about it in my routine, but with Stoicism I found that hard at first.

Stand up is usually focused on the outside – cats are weird, mother in laws annoying – and all about getting emotional. Stoicism is so focused on being rational and not being lead astray by emotions that I couldn’t find the jokes at first. Eventually though I figured out the comedy was in my irrationality. I’m a long way from being a Sage and find myself acting unstoically all the time, and by looking inward (as Stoicism teaches) and laughing at my foolishness I found the funny. In the special I make fun of people for getting upset when the trains are late, but if I’m honest those “people” were me.

Outside of my material I use Stoic philosophy in my comedy career all the time. The Stoic approach of looking for solutions from within yourself, has been a huge help in dealing with the tough crowds and fickle gatekeepers of the comedy business. Stoicism helps me focus on what’s important – being a better comedian and improving my act – and ignore the rest. If I’d discovered it sooner I may have saved me years trying to win over industry figures I was never going to win over.

Q: How did you first become interested in Stoicism?

Comedy is such a competitive field that I’m always looking for ways to improve myself. I heard somewhere that Stoicism was a useful philosophy that could make you more effective at business (I think it might’ve been in a blog post by Tim Ferriss), and picked up a copy of William Irvine’s A Guide to the Good life.

Reading the book I was surprised at how familiar many of the ideas were; learning to do stand up I was taught to focus on what I could control, hardships made me a better performer, etc. What I’d never considered though was that these principles that I’d been using in my art could be made into an entire philosophical system and applied to my life.

Q: What’s your favourite Stoic saying or idea, and why?

“It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live” – Marcus Aurelius

In my life I’ve often played it safe, I was looking for security. I thought if I just did all the right things one day I’d find myself in a perfect position from where could do all the things I wanted to, or knew I should, do. I wanted to be secure because, ultimately, I was afraid of death. For example I was afraid of starting a business because I might lose money, and if I lost money I wouldn’t be able to buy food, and if I couldn’t buy food I’d starve and die. No, better to avoid all that and play it safe. What I’ve learnt though (partly through studying Stoicism) is that you can never really achieve security; there is no permanence in an impermanent world. Death is an inevitable part of live and will come one day no matter how much little risk I expose myself to. The “safe option” is actually not the safe option, it just stops you from fully engaging with the ever changing universe (which is really the only security you can have in this world). All this tends to be hard for me to remember though, so this quote is really useful.

It’s also fun to drop into conversations to make everything seem more dramatic.

Co-worker: “I want to go get a coffee.”

Me: “It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.”

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

How long have you got?

I love the “now what?” attitude that Stoicism has. When I was younger I used to get quite angry when things were unfair. After completing my university degree I was left owing quite a bit of student debt. I sat around thinking how unjust the world was that I, a brilliant artist, was saddled with this burden that stopped me from going out and enjoying life. Through reading Stoicism I came to see that complaining the situation was unfair didn’t help me solve it. I had this debt – now what?

I went out and got a job, moved into a very run down share house, and started living off rice and beans. I kept thinking about Epictetus’ advice (“Therefore when a difficulty falls upon you, remember that God, like a trainer of wrestlers, has matched you with a rough young man. For what purpose? you may say. Why, that you may become an Olympic conqueror.”) and Seneca’s habit of practicing poverty. The job was hard, the share house scary and the rice and beans pretty bland, but rather than feeling depressed I felt like I was slowly overcoming a mountain.

After a few years I managed to pay off the debt. I was very happy, not because I’d paid off the debt, but that I’d lived through this period of hardship without becoming depressed or angry (at least not for any significant amount of time). If I could live through gruel work, bad food and street crime (the share house was in a very rough area) I could face anything. By applying Stoicism I began to feel that no matter what the world throws at me I’m going to be OK.

Q: Chrysippus reputedly died laughing at one of his own jokes, about a donkey. Do you find much humour in the ancient Stoics’ sayings/writings?

Yes, I think the ancient Stoics are quite funny at times.

I often laugh at Epictetus because he’s so direct, he really doesn’t sugar coat any of his advice. He calls his students fools and blockheads (depending on your translation), and I imagine he’d be a pretty harsh teacher.

Marcus I think is funny when he’s making insights into human nature. He really didn’t seem to have a very high opinion of the people around him (“Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness” etc.), and anyone reading today might get a few chuckles of recognition. Seeing that he was emperor and had to put up with all these people pestering him for something all the time, I’m sure a good sense of humour about the foibles of his fellow man must’ve been part of his Stoic toolbox.

I’m sure the ancient Stoics had a sense of humour. The story you mention about Chrysippus has always fascinated me. If I’m remembering this correctly he is supposed to have got a donkey drunk on wine then fed it figs while joking about it. I don’t know what was so funny about that (kind of sounds like animal cruelty to me), but I plan to find out in my next comedy festival show; “Michael Gets your Ass Drunk”.

Q: If he could time-travel to the present day, what do you think Marcus Aurelius would make of your act?

I think he’d be surprised to see his face on the t-shirt I’m wearing during the special, but he’d be immune to the flattery. He’d probably be a pretty tough audience; as I was telling the good jokes he’d be mentally preparing for the bad ones that were inevitably coming.

Q: What have you learned from audiences’ reactions to your Stoic routines?

That people have a hard time letting go of the idea that external events cause their emotions, rather than their interpretations of the events.

Whenever someone starts heckling or talking during one of my Stoic bits, nine times out of ten it’ll be this idea they’re taking issue with. It’s a bit wearying, I always feel like saying “Sir, philosophers have been pointing this out for over two thousand years now, I doubt you’ve got anything new to bring to the table…”

For a long time I was working on a routine about how people think others can shape their emotions; “He made me mad”, “she’s making me depressed”, etc. I never quite figured it out because I just can’t seem to find a funny way to explain that no one can make you feel anything unless they’ve got some sort of mind control powers. It seems people just don’t want to accept that truth.

I suspect this is partly because people don’t want to see the truth. It’s easier to say that someone else is making you feel bad, and therefore it’s up to them to change, than to go through the messy process of dealing with your own thoughts and emotions. This might be why Stoicism isn’t more of a mainstream philosophy, people don’t want to take full responsibility for their lives.

Having said that there are people who DO get it and they are wonderful. Some of the messages I’ve got through Facebook and YouTube are really wonderful, and I’m very glad that I could create something so many people have found useful.

 

Donald Robertson is a cognitive-behavioural psychotherapist, trainer, and author who specialises in the treatment of anxiety and the use of CBT and clinical hypnotherapy. He is the author of many articles on philosophy and psychotherapy in professional journals. Two of his more recent books include Teach Yourself Stoicism and the art of Happiness (2013) & Build your Resilience (2012). Read more about Donald’s work on his blog, The Philosophy of CBT.

Michael Connell is a comedian, and MC, and a longstanding student of Stoic philosophy. You can watch his new stand up special, and find out all about his comedy and biography, on his website: MichaelConnell.com.au