Stoicism Over The Holidays by Greg Sadler

It’s that time of year, when the world falls in love.
Every song you hear seems to say, Merry Christmas.
May your New Year dreams come true.

By now, you’ve perhaps heard that old Frank Sinatra tune, the Christmas Waltz – whether on the radio, while shopping, piped in somewhere as background – at least several times this holiday season.  It expresses a rather optimistic ideal for what the holidays could be like, but goes further than that, presenting an imaginary image in three lines to the listener as revealing the true and underlying reality of “that time of year”.  The experience most (perhaps all) of us have, each successive holiday season, does not always match up to this.

Fortunately, for many, the holidays do provide moments or periods of joy, of reconnection, of excitement, of giving and receiving genuine affection (not to mention, for many, gifts or presents).  But it is also quite often – even for those looking forward to them – a stressful time.  Bringing one’s family together for a common meal, for exchanging and opening gifts, for celebration carries with it risks of all sorts.  Disagreements, disappointments, tensions, even all-out-holiday brawls (when you have them, it is better to conduct the “sharing of grievances” earlier during Festivus!)

Renewed (or more acutely felt) grief at being reminded of the absence of those who have passed away – which some feel more acutely during the holidays – is just one common mode of sadness or pain that arises for some during the holidays.  Loneliness is another that descends upon many who don’t have a strong circle of family or friends to share fellowship with.  Some are estranged, others bear hidden grief, anger, sadness, or fear which they feel they must keep to themselves.  The holidays can also be a very busy time, filled with parties, last minute shopping, decoration, meals, travel, each of which can produce its own stresses and frustrations, particularly when our expectations run high.

As I blocked in the schedule for posts in Stoicism Today months back, and saw that we would be publishing on the 24th, Christmas Eve, I thought it might be fitting for me to author a piece on Stoicism and the holidays.  There were several reasons, to which a particularly personal one has recently been added.  To start with, there have been some discussions and queries about what Stoicism might have to say about various holidays in the Facebook Stoicism group, so I pledged that I’d write something on that topic.  But, it also struck me that precisely because of the holidays – and given that a good bit of our readership does tend to be from countries where Christmas does get celebrated (at least with parties, and time off from work), guest authors might be less enthusiastic about having their post run on a day it might draw less readers.

As it turns out, for several reasons, this year we will be having a rather low-key Christmas in our own household.  And so, a good bit more of the Stoic advice and reflections I’d intended to provide here ends up being personally needed and applicable this time around.  It’s a busy time, not only because of holidays, but because it is the end of the year itself, so for those who have their own businesses (at least of certain types), not to mention other obligations and commitments, there’s a lot of work yet left to finish.  We still have yet to put up, or even unpack, any decorations as I write this, days before Christmas.  There have also been some ongoing medical issues of various severity on one side of our family, which mean some of the celebrating will likely occur in the hospital.  On the other side of our family, the manners in which the holidays and everyone’s schedule fit into the calendar rules out any big family gathering we could participate in.

 

Which Holidays Do I Mean?

There’s a first issue, I think, that bears being mentioned, and that can be put precisely as that question – which (and whose) holidays am I discussing here?   Over the last hundred or so years, Christmas effectively became what we might term a “joint-use” holiday, celebrated by most of those for whom it was a central occasion of the liturgical year, Christians – there’s a long, complex story to be told about that, which I skip over here – but also by many other people as well.  As always, someone will no doubt feel the need to pedantically point out that Christians coopted an already existing Roman holiday, the Saturnalia.  What is interesting about that is not who gets to call “original dibs”, metaphorically speaking, on the day of the year, but that Saturnalia and Christmas thereby already provide an example of an earlier, similar “joint-use”.

You see, for many in our contemporary culture, Christmas long ago became a “secularized” holiday, quite literally, an aspect of the age and its dominant culture.  It involves a whole host of festive symbols and decorations, to be sure, that can be traced back into Christian usages and innovations – sometimes deliberate reinterpretations of pre-Christian, pagan customs (the whole issue of evergreen boughs, wreaths, trees, and the like, involves a murky and complicated tale) – but many people enjoy those with little to no reference to Christianity.  Many, if not most, people get some vacation time, get invited to parties and gatherings, watch at least some “Christmas special” content, end up hearing Christmas songs (some of which have clearly religious origins and themes, and others of which focus on other aspects of the season and holidays).

There are also a number of holidays celebrated by other religions, groups, and communities in our multi-cultural societies.  I’ll undoubtably leave someone out in just naming a few here, and no offense is intended in not attempting a comprehensive list.  The Jewish holiday time of Hanukkah begins this year on this very day, the 24th.  The African-American holiday time, Kwanza, begins its celebrations on December 26. the Winter Solstice, celebrated by people ranging from neo-pagans to secular humanists, occurred back on the 21st.  Festivus – the recently coined holiday “for the rest of us” – took place yesterday on the 23rd.

By this time of year, at least here in the USA, there has usually been some unpleasantness and discord over precisely whose holidays the season is supposed to be about.  It tends to center primarily around whether we refer to Christmas or to “The Holidays.”   For instance, is it proper to wish someone “Merry Christmas,” when one is a Christian and the other person is not?  Or must one instead go with the more inclusive “Happy Holidays”?  People do get quite worked up over these matters.  And as an added complication, there’s debate over the role of Santa, the propriety of gift-giving, what sort of decorations are appropriate, and so on.

I’d like to suggest that a practicing Stoic would deliberately steer clear of involvement in those intractable and perennial disagreements.  There’s little point, nothing to gain, and plenty to lose, in getting involved in the issue, whether in face to face conversation, in various online media, or even just within the play of one’s own emotions.  If other people want to contest what we might call the “holiday space”, using their time at the end of the year in that way, that is something up to them, and doesn’t have to be taken on as a concern for a Stoic.  It is just as possible to go into a situation in which people deliberately wish each other greetings intended to push each other’s figurative buttons and press their claims, as it was in Epictetus’ time to enter the public baths, reminding oneself that what one really wants to do is maintain one’s interior dispositions in accordance with nature (as best one can!).

Wishing another person well, by whatever greeting one chooses to employ, can be taken by the recipient in a way that focuses on the fact that another person is wishing him or her well.  Alternately, it can be taken by the recipient as an attempt by the holiday well-wisher to foist values and beliefs the recipient does not share onto him or her.  This is a prime example of the famous dictum of the “two handles.”  One has a choice about which handle to take, and the Stoic exercising prudence will take the handle the matter can be successfully carried by.

 

Participating In the Festival

Whatever holiday one has in mind during the holiday season, there’s typically quite a few things that, from a Stoic perspective, may strike one as irrational, silly, focused far too much on externals,  even a waste of one’s time, or an imposition upon one.  Interestingly, Epictetus discusses situations like that in several passages of the Discourses.  In one, he says:

When the children come up to us and clap their hands and say “Today is the good Saturnalia,” do we say to them, “All this is not good?” Not at all, but we too clap our hands to them. (1.29)

This is an analogy, adduced in order to suggest how we can approach those who we think would be better off taking a Stoic point of view, but who are not ready to do, or perhaps who will always be resistant to it.  But we could take it more literally.  There’s no point to being a morose, lecturing spoiler, insisting on playing a role of the austere, joyless Stoic (which is, after all, not really what Stoicism is about) when it comes to holidays.  One can participate in the “holiday spirit” cheerfully without thereby losing oneself or abandoning one’s established way of life.

Epictetus draws upon the Saturnalia in another analogy a bit earlier in book 1.

At the Saturnalia a king is chosen by lot.  The king gives commands: “You drink, you mix wine, you sing, you go, you come” I obey, so as not to be the one to break up the game. (1.25)

He sees a value there in “not breaking up the game,” one that can easily be transferred to holiday rituals, traditions, and celebrations.  In fact, later in book 4, Epictetus notes that taking part in a festival is not just a matter of not disrupting or denigrating it in ways that might affect others, but can also offer its own enjoyable experience.  Immediately after once again reminding us about the need to focus on what lies within our control, what is a matter of moral purpose or the faculty of choice (prohairesis), he says to the person who complains because he has to live his life out in the midst of a turmoil:

Imagine that you are in Olympia, regard the turmoil as a festival.  There too, one person shouts this and another that; one does this and another that; one jostles another; there is a crowd in the baths.  And yet, who does not take delight in the Olympic festival and leave it with sorrow.  . . . If you fall in with a crowd, call it games, a festival, a holiday, try to keep holiday with the people.  For what is pleasanter to a person who loves his or her fellow human being than the sight of large numbers of them? (4.4)

Simply put, a Stoic following Epictetus’ advice will be at antipodes from a Scrooge (at least the one at the start of A Christmas Carol) .  He or she might think some of what is going on is “humbug”, but won’t feel the need to make an issue of that at the time, and will participate with good cheer in the festivities.

 

Celebrating The Holidays

By the time I write this, those who have those temptations thrust in their faces have hopefully made it through the notorious office holiday parties.  Sometimes they can be great fun with one’s colleagues and co-workers.  In other cases they can prove a dull obligation, but what one really has to watch out for are those parties where the drinks flow freely, people indulge past the point of moderation and conviviality, and craziness ensues.  From a Stoic perspective, of course, that’s just one occasion where whatever level of the virtue of temperance a person has developed needs to be drawn upon during the holiday season.

There are usually ample opportunities to indulge oneself.  Candy, cookies, and other sweets become nearly ubiquitous at this time of year.  This is also a time when all sorts of other traditional dishes and treats get bought, prepared, and consumed (in our family, it tends to be meat-pie, i.e. tourtiere, with oyster soup, and sometimes smoked salmon).  With parties and other festivities also often comes a potential for overindulgence in all sorts of other things that provide pleasures of the body as well.  It’s useful to keep in mind Seneca’s advice about Saturnalia conduct in his 18th Letter to Lucilius:

[T]his is just the season when we ought to lay down the law to the soul, and bid it be alone in refraining from pleasures just when the whole mob has let itself go in pleasures; for this is the surest proof which a man can get of his own constancy, if he neither seeks the things which are seductive and allure him to luxury, nor is led into them. It shows much more courage to remain dry and sober when the mob is drunk and vomiting; but it shows greater self-control to refuse to withdraw oneself and to do what the crowd does, but in a different way, thus neither making oneself conspicuous nor becoming one of the crowd. For one may keep holiday without extravagance.

Notice that he frames the Stoic attitude in two possible ways.  One can refrain entirely, hold oneself aloof from the physical accoutrements of shared celebration.  Or one can enjoy them, but in a reasonable, moderate manner.

It isn’t just the attraction to these-days-easily-accessible pleasures that may pose a challenge to the committed Stoic during the holidays – one made a bit more difficult by the very departures from the everyday routines that accompanies this end-of-the-year interval of time.  For many, the holidays involve getting together with friends and family.  And while in some cases, those get-togethers are very enjoyable – even something one eagerly anticipates in months prior – for many others, those interactions prove much less enjoyable, edifying, or even healthy.

This is where the Stoic “reserve clause” can come in very handy.  That’s shorthand for deliberately and sometimes explicitly saying “fate willing” as a reminder that many things lie outside of our control.  Within the matrix of the family – particularly for those whose main face to face contact with their family occurs largely at occasional events and holidays – there are common pitfalls for which the reserve clause can prove useful.

Some place unduly high expectations upon how things will pan out over the holidays, raising their hopes that, for example, “This Christmas is going to be the best ever!”  Considered closely, that set of expectations seems likely to be disappointed, as plans go awry, people don’t react as one would like, or in short, events go contrary to expectations.  All of these provide occasions to remind oneself that some things are indeed outside of one’s control, and that one’s genuine good or bad lie involves what is within one’s control – or as Epictetus likes to frame it, what lies within the domain of one’s faculty of choice.

Here also, I think, is where it becomes useful to keep in mind the Stoic understanding of duties and their connection with roles and relationships.  As human beings, we exist within a matrix of relationships, many of which we find ourselves saddled with because of matters that we had little to no choice about.  Much of our family relationships are of this sort.  We do, however, have some measure of choice in how we live out our roles and relationships.  We don’t get to decide, of course, how others will behave towards us.

We are prone to disappointment – particularly over the holidays – over gulfs that emerge between the relationships we do experience and the relationships we might like to imagine, or to hope for, with our family members (or sometimes with friends as well).  But in certain respects, that’s up to them.  If a sibling, a parent, a child – or extending these considerations beyond the family, a friend, a colleague, a neighbor –  doesn’t choose to live out (or even understand) the role that comes with that relationship, then from a Stoic perspective that is indeed something bad.  But it’s not primarily bad for you.  It’s bad, as Epictetus says, for the person who damages or even destroys that person with him or herself, for example the parent, the sibling, the friend, or the neighbor.  What is up to us, however,  is how we conduct ourselves, how we choose to think about the situation, and thereby also what we feel.

 

Being Alone Over the Holidays

There can be stresses, conflicts, and disappointments that mar one’s pleasant (but not realistic) hopes and expectations about what the holidays will hold.  But for some people in particular, there is much less to look forward to, and those days and nights might even become something one comes to dread, or to want to get through as quickly as possible.  There are a number of people who find the holidays difficult for a variety of reasons.

Foremost among these, perhaps, is loneliness.  Feeling isolated from others, particularly at a time of year when relationships, parties, family, traditions, and the like receive so much stress – not only in actual life but also in the songs, movies, and shows about the holidays – can produce a painful sense of being alone, even being the one person you know who is on his or her own, forgotten, cut off from others.  That certainly is a painful condition – something that I think not only I and many others can say from experience, but also a matter the classic Stoic authors likely could relate to at some point in their own lives.

Although I don’t expect that it provides an immediate or easy consolation, what Epictetus has to say about solitude may prove helpful, at least to some.  He writes, arguably from his own experience, about a state of eremia, which can be translated as “solitude,” “forlornness”, or “loneliness”.  When we feel this way, what underlies it is a sense that we are bereft of those from whom we might get some help, share something, find some personal connection.  Epictetus notes that this can occur, even when we are surrounded by other people (3.13).

This is a point where reminding ourselves that we are not entirely on our own can be useful. Contemporary Stoics are not all theistic in their worldview, but can at least appreciate the idea that a human being is part not only of whatever community he or she happens to live in, but also a larger, more universal community that Epictetus declares is one of “gods and human beings” (2.6).  So although we may be in some respects on our own, and feel lonely, Stoicism offers a perspective from which we can view ourselves as integrated parts of a larger whole of humanity.

There’s much more that could be said, but these reflections seem like a fitting place to bring this post to a close.  So, let me wish all of you readers, on behalf of the entire Stoicism Today team, a holiday season in which you enjoy what the good emotions have to offer, you find the best part of yourselves through successfully living out your roles and relationships, you manage to maintain your moral purpose, and during which relaxation readies you for facing the new year to come!

 

Gregory Sadler is the Editor of the Stoicism Today blog.  He is also the president and founder of ReasonIO, a company established to put philosophy into practice, providing tutoring, coaching, and philosophical counseling services, and producing educational resources.  He works as an executive coach and ethics trainer for Priority Thinking, produces the Half Hour Hegel series, and is a team member of (Slow) Philosophies.

Can you be a Stoic and a political activist? by Christopher Gill

The answer to this question is certainly ‘yes’, as I’ll go on to explain. It might seem puzzling why anyone should think there is a contradiction, but people sometimes do think that. For instance, at the 2015 Stoicon, Vincent Deary, a British health psychologist and well-known writer, was critical of the idea of modern Stoicism. Deary assumed that being Stoic, under modern conditions, meant accepting your situation in life, whatever this was, even if this was the result of social injustice. He praised a client of his, an elderly widow, who responded to her situation in a rebellious and angry spirit, because she saw it as the result of injustice, rather than what he saw as the ‘Stoic’ response of putting up with this. The ancient Stoics did urge us to accept, in a calm spirit, things that are genuinely inevitable – above all, the fact of our own future death and that of other people, including those close to us. But this does not mean that we should accept unjust situations, which are not inevitable and are the result of deliberate human action. On the contrary, the Roman Stoics, in particular, were well-known for challenging what they saw as political injustice – in that sense, they were well-known for being political activists and they can provide models for us in this respect.

The key to understanding Stoic thinking on political involvement – like much else in Stoic ethics – is their theory of ethical development. The Stoics believe there is a pattern of life-long ethical development that is natural for human beings – that expresses human nature at its best – and we should do all we can to take this process forward. This pattern consists in two, interconnected strands. In one strand (centred on value), we gradually gain a better understanding of the virtues, what these involve, and how to embed these in our lives. (The Stoics thought there were four generic virtues: wisdom, courage, justice, and self-control, and that these were interconnected and inseparable.) Also, we gradually recognize that living in line with the virtues is what really matters in human life – what brings us real happiness.

The second strand of ethical development centres on our relationship to other people. The Stoics believed that, alongside the natural motive of self-preservation, there is a second natural motive, namely to care for others of our kind. The instinct, found in all animals, including human beings, to love and care for our children, is a clear example of this motive. As we develop, human beings express this motive in more complex and rational ways, which also express a growing understanding of the virtues. This leads to two main kinds of outcome. One is social involvement (in family, communal, or political life), in a form that expresses understanding of the virtues. Another is the recognition that all human beings – because they are all capable of this process of rational, ethical development – are, in a sense, brothers and sisters to us, or fellow-members of a single world-community. Although different Stoic sources emphasize one or other of these outcomes, they are often seen as compatible or mutually supporting. Social or political involvement in a specific, local context is achieved in the best way (the way that expresses the virtues), if it is combined with recognition of the fundamental kinship or co-citizenship of all human beings as rational agents.

This Stoic theory of ethical development makes sense, I think, of their thinking on political involvement. Our evidence for their ideas on this topic is rather limited, and, as with other topics, different Stoics seem to have interpreted these ideas in somewhat different ways. But there are some consistent themes. First of all, the Stoics thought that, other things being equal, we should get involved in community and political life in our specific or local context – unlike the Epicureans, for instance, who thought such involvement was likely to undermine our own peace of mind. Secondly, our involvement should be carried out in a way that also expressed and promoted our understanding of the virtues (wisdom, courage, justice, self-control). Thirdly, our involvement at a local level should also reflect the recognition that, although different kinds of people have different claims on us, all human beings as such have a kinship and in a sense co-citizenship with us. These principles have a direct bearing on the sense in which Stoicism encourages us to be political active; it also has a bearing on how far one can be a Stoic and also a political activist, which usually means challenging the established political order in some way. I’ll give some examples of how the ancient Stoics put these ideas into practice and then discuss how they might help us to formulate our own approach now.

First, were ancient Stoics active in politics and if so how? In looking at this question it’s worth bearing in mind that, for much of the time that ancient Stoicism was most active (from the third century BCE to the second century CE), Greece and later Rome were ruled by kings or emperors, even though at other times, Athens had been a democracy and Rome a republic. It’s also worth noting that, for the most part, and unlike some other ancient philosophies, Stoicism did not consistently recommend one form of government as the best one absolutely. Rather, they maintained that, whatever context we find ourselves in (with exceptions noted shortly), we should be involved politically in a way that is consistent with our specific situation in life, character and talents, and our ethical principles. In Hellenistic Greece (that is, third to first century BCE), the main options were either involvement in local or community politics or being a philosophical advisor to a king, and some Stoics played both these roles.

Also, simply being a philosophical teacher in Athens was regarded as a kind of public or political role. It’s worth remembering that this often meant teaching and arguing in a public place, such as the colonnade or Stoa after which the school was named. In Rome, a number of members of the political élite adopted Stoicism as their philosophy, and combined this with various forms of political involvement. These included being a leading politician and general under the Republic (Cato the younger, first century BCE), advising an emperor (Seneca, advisor to Nero, first century CE), and being the emperor himself (Marcus Aurelius, second century CE). At the other end of the social scale, Epictetus, an ex-slave (first-second century CE), took on the role of a philosophical teacher; he had no direct involvement in politics, but taught many students who went into political life. So, ancient Stoics seem overall to have practised what they preached, and to have become involved in politics to the extent that was feasible in their context and personal situation.

How far did this involvement express distinctively Stoic values? And did it lead them to engage in political activism, that is, challenging political authority on the grounds of injustice? This is, in fact, a very well-marked feature of political life in the late Roman republic and Empire. It mainly took the form of exemplary gestures, designed to signal moral disapproval of a given political ruler or regime, typically a dictator or emperor. Although Stoicism did not reject sole rule as a constitutional form (or indeed any given constitutional form), they rejected tyrannical abuse of power, seeing it as an exercise of injustice in the political sphere. This is the common thread underlying a series of famous exemplary gestures.

Cato committed suicide (in 46 BCE), in a very deliberate and obvious way, rather than submit to what he saw as Julius Caesar’s illegitimate and unjust replacement of the Roman republic by dictatorship. A number of Roman senators, such as Helvidius Priscus and Thrasea Paetus (both first century CE), signalled their disapproval of the injustice of the emperor in power, for instance, Nero or Domitian. They did so by refusing to attend the senate, by remaining silent there, or walking out in protest – and these gestures were recognized as challenges to the regime and often led to exile or execution. (There was in fact a general expulsion of philosophers in 89 CE under Domitian, in response to this kind of attitude.) Seneca’s attempt to retire from his role of Nero’s adviser, when it was clear his attempt to control Nero’s excesses had failed, was taken as a gesture of disapproval and led to his enforced suicide in 65 CE. These are clear cases where Stoic principle (the refusal to be complicit in an unjust political order) led certain Romans from being politically active to being political activists, using exemplary gestures in the way that Gandhi did successfully in his campaign of passive resistance to the British rule of India which he saw as unjust.

This passage of Marcus Aurelius Meditations sums up the two features of Stoic political thought considered so far. ‘… through him [Severus] I have come to understand Thrasea, Helvidius, Cato, Dio, Brutus, and have grasped the idea of a state based on equality before the law, which is administered according to the principles of equality and freedom of speech, and of a monarchy, which values above all the liberty of its subjects’ (1.14). Marcus refers to a number of the well-known Stoic activists I have just discussed. Marcus also sums up his own credo as an emperor. Although not all Stoics would necessarily have shared this approach, it clearly represents a Stoic type of ideal, namely Marcus’ attempt to play his role in life (as an emperor) in a way that was consistent with expressing the virtues in a political context.

What about the Stoic idea of the brotherhood of humanity or co-citizenship in the world? What role did this play in their political thinking? Sometimes it provides a kind of objective or broader framework for more localized political action, placing this in a broader moral framework: as in this quotation from Marcus. ‘As Antoninus, my city and fatherland is Rome, as a human being, it is the universe. It is only what benefits these cities which is good for me’ (6.44.6). At other times this idea is brought more directly into moral or political decision-making. Antipater, one of the Hellenistic heads of the Stoic school (in 159-129 BCE), argued that when we are doing business, for instance, selling a house, we should be open and honest about the faults of the property, even if we make less money, bearing in mind that all those involved are members of the brotherhood of humankind and deserve just treatment (Cicero, On Duties 3.52). Cicero (106-43 BCE), though not a Stoic himself, sometimes adopted Stoic principles; he maintained that anyone who becomes a tyrant (unjust ruler) puts himself outside the brotherhood of humanity or the ‘body’ of rational human agents. More controversially he maintained that this principle justified the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BCE (On Duties 3.22-28, 32). These examples give us some idea how the idea of the brotherhood of humankind was used to support both political involvement and social and political activism in the sense I am considering here.

Finally, what lessons can we learn from Stoic thinking and practice on this subject that might help us today? I would not want to suggest that Stoic political principles provide a straightforward answer to any given political question, for instance how we should have vote in the British referendum on our membership of the EU (June 2016) or the recent US presidential election (November 2016), but they certainly can provide ideas on which we can reflect in making such decisions. In particular, I think the Stoic idea of the brotherhood of humankind or co-citizenship of the world has a special value for us in the present political climate. Many of the most intense debates today on both sides of the Atlantic centre on how we should respond to the claims of refugees from war-zones, how we should respond to people who want to become immigrants in our country, or how we should treat people whose religion is different from our own, or from that prevalent in our country.

I think the Stoic idea of the brotherhood of humankind can help to place these questions in a broader perspective and can lead us to recognize that treating whole classes of people who differ from us in one of these ways as somehow less than human or wholly outside the boundaries of our ethical concern is morally unacceptable. More generally, I believe the Stoic approach of locating questions of political involvement and activism within the broader framework of human ethical development is a helpful one. I think there is considerable value in trying to view one’s life as an on-going project of ethical progress, centred on bringing together our growing understanding of the virtues and of how to treat other people better; and that this view can help us to adopt a more thoughtful and constructive view of political engagement than is often held.

Further Reading

A. Long and D. N. Sedley, The Hellenistic Philosophers, Cambridge, 1987: sections 57, 67, also 59D.

Chapters by M. Schofield (ch. 22) and C. Gill (ch. 29) in C. Rowe and M. Schofield, The Cambridge History of Greek and Roman Political Thought, Cambridge, 2000.

Griffin, Seneca: A Philosopher in Politics, Oxford 1976 (1992).

 

This post is the transcript of Professor Gill’s presentation at the STOICON 2016 conference.  The video of talk can be viewed here.

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

Insult Pacifism: A Reply to Eric O. Scott by William Irvine

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Let me begin by thanking Eric O. Scott for taking the time to respond to my Oxford University Press blog and my STOICON talk (I start talking at 58:00; sorry about the poor quality of the audio!). As I like to tell my students, if what we seek is the truth, we have the most to gain from those who challenge our views, since they will be the quickest to discover our mistakes.

The Stoics were very much interested in transforming themselves into better human beings. As part of their program of self-transformation, they attempted to develop their own character. Such efforts might have included doing things that they were afraid of doing, simply as an exercise in overcoming fear. Or it might have included intentionally interacting with difficult people, simply so they could practice preventing anger from arising within them.

But besides being concerned with their own well being, Stoics felt a social duty to make their world a better place. This could be done, they knew, by introducing other people to Stoicism, but it could also involve helping extract non-Stoics from the trouble they got themselves into as a result of their misguided views regarding what in life is valuable. Marcus Aurelius is a prime example of a Stoic who took his social duty very seriously, but despite being the emperor, he failed to bring about a just society. The Rome that he ruled still allowed or even encouraged slavery and acts of human cruelty.

It is easy for us to judge Marcus harshly, but before we do so, we should realize that future generations are likely to do the same to us. Eric Scott says we live in an unjust world. I agree entirely, but I think I have a different perception of that injustice than he does. It is this difference in perception, which I will now explain, that makes me critical of some of the campus protests that have recently been in the news.

Consider, for example, the injustice, on a global scale, of allowing people to live on two dollars a day. Many of us in the developed world, including many college activists, find it easy to ignore the plight of these individuals: because they live so far away, their lives don’t intersect with ours. And yet, closer investigation would reveal that their lives are not only interconnected with ours, but are, in a sense, as close as the shirt on our back or the dress on our body. If the label on that shirt or dress says “Made in Bangladesh,” it was likely made by someone working long hours under hazardous conditions, for two dollars a day.

Many college activists concern themselves with the injustice of the racial discrimination they detect on their campuses. They even take pains to develop an ability to detect racial microaggression, as when a fellow student asks, “Where are you from?” These same students, however, seem oblivious to the rather more serious form of racial discrimination—known as slavery—that still exists in places like Mauritania. They also seem ignorant of or indifferent to the human trafficking that might be taking place in their college town. This last injustice, of course, is sex based rather than race based, but this makes it no less objectionable.

College activists might without thinking twice carry on a conversation about the injustice they experience on their campus, all the while eating a juicy hamburger at a local restaurant. They can do this only because they are oblivious to the inter-species injustice that is involved in treating animals cruelly and then killing them, all to satisfy our craving for meat.

College activists might think of themselves as social justice warriors, but it is unlikely that their descendants will share this assessment of them. And when these descendants learn of the students’ obsession with microagressions, they will be even more puzzled by their behavior. Where, they will wonder, was their sense of proportion?

In my recent remarks, I was passing on the advice I think the ancient Stoics would offer to modern targets of insults. These include not only barely perceptible microagressions but outright racist, sexist, and homophobic attacks.   The Stoics’ advice: shrug or, better still, laugh them off. This advice is a consequence of the Stoic insistence that we divide the things in our life into two categories: those we can control and those we can’t. We can’t control whether other people insult us. We can very much control, though, how we respond to those insults, and in particular, we can respond in a way that minimizes the harm they do us. College students would do well to give this Stoic strategy a try.

I was surprised, by the way, that Scott would refer to those who experience injustice as “victims.” They are certainly targets, but the Stoics would tell us that they are victims only if they choose to see themselves as such. They would add that if you choose to play the role of victim, your suffering will be intensified.

When we examine the lives of Stoics, we find that many of them were targets of injustice. Musonius Rufus, for example, was exiled to the desolate island of Gyaros, but he did not spend his time there complaining about the unfairness of it all. This is in large part because he refused to play the role of victim, a refusal that doubtless made his exile far more endurable than it otherwise would have been. More generally, when we look at the Stoics, we cannot find a “victim” among them—and if we could, Stoicism probably wouldn’t have remained a viable philosophy of life for two thousand years.

The social movements of the last few decades have taught us how harmful labels can be. We therefore no longer refer to someone who is blind or missing a limb as being handicapped.   This change in thinking has had profound consequences. These days, “handicapped” individuals are doing things that in the past would have been unthinkable: there are blind skiers as well as footless individuals who, with the aid of prosthetics, can outrun the rest of us. So much for their “handicaps.”

In much the same way, those who are targets of sexist, racist, or homophobic slurs have an important choice. If they take themselves to be the victims of insults, they are likely to be needlessly miserable. If they instead take themselves to be the targets of insults, and if they respond to those insults by shrugging them off, thereby making their insulters look foolish, they not only limit the harm the insults do them but act as an inspiration for the rest of us.

Realize that shrugging off a sexist, racist, or homophobic insult does not preclude you from fighting the injustice that probably lurked behind it. To the contrary, it leaves you with more energy with which to carry on that fight! Imagine how different the world would be if people like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, on being the targets of racism, had chosen to play the role of victim. Suppose that instead of spending their days organizing protests, they had responded by wallowing in hurt feelings.

And before I conclude, let me respond to Scott’s observation that my remarks at STOICON did not make ethnic minorities feel “welcome or wanted.” I know that this is what you are supposed to do if you are trying to get someone to convert to your religion or join your political party, but it is not something an ancient Stoic would have felt compelled to do. Indeed, when Musonius Rufus lectured, he did not try to make those in his audience feel welcome or wanted. To the contrary, those in his audience were reduced to silence by the sting of his remarks. They were, Epictetus tells us, made to feel ashamed of the way they were living their lives. He adds that a visit to a Stoic should feel like a visit to the physician’s office: you should not leave feeling good, since any treatment that can cure you is likely to cause you discomfort at first. [Discourses, III: 23.]

We Stoics invite everyone to join us in the practice of Stoicism and think that what Scott calls “marginalized people” have as much to gain from its practice as anyone, but we extend this invitation fully aware that not everyone will find Stoicism an attractive doctrine. To benefit from Stoicism you have to be willing to critically examine your values and your strategies for living. It is an examination that most people are unwilling to undertake.

It is entirely possible that if the Stoic movement continues its current geometric growth rate, someone will come up with an “I’m okay, you’re okay” version of the doctrine that allows you to call yourself a Stoic without requiring self-transformation. But this Indulgent Stoicism, as it might be termed, will have lost its power to transform people and thereby transform the society in which they live.

William B. Irvine is professor of philosophy at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, and the author of A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy and A Slap in the Face: Why Insults Hurt And Why They Shouldn’t.  For more on his life and other writings, visit his author website.

Stoics Do Care about Social Justice: A Response to Irvine by Eric O. Scott

Stoics Do Care about Social Justice: A Response to Irvine

by Eric O. Scott
justice statue

This past weekend I had the good fortune to attend “the largest gathering of Stoics in the history of the world”—Stoicon 2016, held in New York City. The conference was stimulating and thrilling in many ways, and I thoroughly enjoyed the plenary talks, parallel sessions, and the opportunity to meet a number of people whom I knew through their books and/or the online community. A special thanks to the generosity of Ryan Holiday, moreover, for giving every single conference participant a free hardback copy of his new devotional book, The Daily Stoic!

Last weekend, however, was also a moment where I became acutely aware that the modern Stoic community can do much better in the way that it approaches the topic of Justice.

 

The Need for Justice

We Stoics always have to navigate a fragile balance when we present our ideas to the world. Many of our most powerful and appealing psychological tools revolve around accepting events that happen and recognizing that they are ultimately outside of our control. The reason that Stoicism is relevant to such a large and diverse array of people today is exactly because it purports to offer a powerful solution to almost any source of distress: “retire into yourself” (Meditations, 7.28).   We are perpetually at risk, however, of having our doctrine of “indifference” toward externals misconstrued for a “neglect” of externals. The benefits of inner peace speak for themselves—but the extreme emphasis that our philosophy puts on personal virtue as an “inner citadel” puts us in an understandably delicate position, politically speaking.

Any speech extolling the merits of inner peace and apatheia goes wrong—and in fact becomes positively toxic—the moment that the audience begins to suspect that our school advocates for complacency in the face of social injustice. A great deal of the world’s harms are not inevitable, and in fact are immanently preventable (fate permitting), if only we humans could get our act together.   If Stoicism teaches that we should be passive toward these fixable harms, or if our school is quick to “blame the victim” for their own unhappiness while simultaneously ignoring injustice, then our philosophy is immoral, and ought to be immediately rejected as such.

Of course, Stoicism teaches no such thing! To the contrary, we believe that no man or woman can be moral (or Happy) unless they work tirelessly for the benefit of all humanity. Justice and Benevolence must be a guide to all of our actions—“any action of yours,” in fact, “which has no reference, whether direct or indirect, to these social ends, tears your life apart!” (Meditations, 9.23).   We do not believe that our doctrine of inner peace is mutually exclusive with Justice in any way whatsoever. “It is difficult, to be sure, to unite and combine these two states of mind,” says Epictetus, “the vigilance of one who feels attracted by outside objects, and the composure of one who feels indifferent to them; but all the same it is not impossible” (Discourses, 2.5.9).

People are right to be concerned, though, that Stoicism might teach an inappropriately shallow sort of fatalism. The more unilateral emphasis we put on the inner fortress as a shield against injustice, the more rational reason people have for fearing that we are abandoning our natural responsibility to work diligently in defense of the downtrodden. Moreover, there are well-founded reasons for being concerned that the ancients themselves failed to emphasize Justice as much as they should have. “About the institution of slavery,” say the authors of the introduction to the Chicago University Press’s series of Seneca translations, “there is silence, and worse than silence: Seneca argues that true freedom is internal freedom, so the external sort does not really matter.”

I believe that contemporary Stoics need to be absolutely unambiguous about the fundamental moral imperatives that are essential to our ethics. Say it loud and clear: the way that we treat each other—and the way that we allow others to be treated by our society—is not “indifferent” at all. Stoicism is a system of virtue ethics, not only therapy, and as such it demands that each practitioner strive to be a force for Justice and Benevolence at all levels of society.

 

The Need for Charity

There is a little anecdote, preserved in Diogenes Laertius, where we find Zeno confronting a man who had been strongly critical of Antisthenes. Zeno apparently felt that the man had not done his due diligence as a critic, and he reprimanded the man strongly for it: “are you not ashamed,” he said, “to pick out and mention anything wrong said by Antisthenes, while you suppress his good things without giving them a thought?” (Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, 7.1.19). Donald Robertson likes to retell this story and interpret it as illustrating a strong normative principle: if we are going to criticize a person or school, we ought to engage the best of their thinking along with the worst, and to acknowledge what their ideas have to teach us about virtue. This is an idea that philosophers sometimes refer to as the “principle of charity.” Far from prohibiting or undermining criticism, the principle of charity is supposed to make us better, more just, and more incisive critics of flawed ideas.

Threading the needle of Stoic Justice becomes doubly difficult when a Stoic tries to go about offering advice to activists about how they can better run their movement. In many cases, criticism of activism effectively amounts to telling victims of hardship, injustice, and oppression how we think they ought to bear their plight more virtuously. This is a very difficult thing for anyone to do in a fair and sensitive way—it requires a lot of research and a generous dose of the principle of charity. It is virtually impossible to achieve, moreover, if it is not clear whether you actually, in fact, care about the injustice in question in the first place.

Unfortunately, this is exactly the sort of can of worms that Bill Irvine stirred up at Stoicon 2016 in his presentation on what he has called “insult pacifism.” If you missed the talk, it closely follows a post he published the previous week on the Oxford University Press blog, titled “How would the ancient Stoics have dealt with hate speech?

Irvine’s central point is that we can teach people to be resilient to injustice. Insults don’t need to be emotionally damaging, and when we judge them to be inherently bad and horrible, we end up suffering unnecessarily. Channeling the advice of the Stoics, Irvine argues that a stance of non-retaliation, or of “receiving these people’s insults as jokes” (as Seneca puts it in De Constantia), can not only protect us from emotional disturbance, but can in fact send a highly effective normative signal: “on failing to provoke a rise in his target,” says Irvine, “an insulter is likely to feel foolish.”

I am completely on board with the notion of insult pacifism. I was raised to value the principle that evil is best repaid with kindness (Romans 12:20), and “that ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5:39). I’m delighted at Irvine’s effort to popularize similar Stoic ideas in his books and elsewhere.   In my own personal practice, in fact, I am currently trying to use pacifism toward automotive insults to counter my own tendency toward road rage: pacifism comes highly recommended when you are barreling down the highway in a 3,000 pound projectile!

Irvine’s manner of treating the topic leaves a great deal to be desired, however, and I fear that it only reinforces the notion that Stoics are disinterested in Justice in general, and that modern Stoicism, far from taking a charitable interest in contemporary activism, is indifferent or even hostile to the concerns of marginalized people.

 

Irvine’s Criticism of Social Justice

First, Irvine’s Stoicon presentation is lopsided in that he is largely silent on the need for Stoics to work for Justice at all—a weakness that is shared by his 2013 book, A Slap in the Face: Why Insults Hurt—And Why They Shouldn’t (Oxford University Press). But his approach indeed becomes “worse than silence” when he chooses to frame his talk as a one-sided criticism of contemporary social justice activism.

In the chapter of his book titled “Societal Responses to Insults”—which could have included a discussion on how we can work to make the world a better, more Just place for everyone—Irvine opts only to zero in on what he calls the “political correctness code” that emerged in the 1970’s and has since, in his opinion, gotten way out of hand. “If Stoic philosopher Epictetus had been alive to watch the rise of hate speech laws, and, more generally, the political correctness movement,” concludes Irvine, “he would have shaken his head in disbelief. According to him, the best way to spare people the pain of being insulted is not to change the world so that they never feel insults; it is instead to change people so that they are, in effect, immune to insults” (p. 182).

Now, there is plenty worth criticizing when it comes to activism on college campuses and society more broadly. Whatever nuances may be involved, I don’t for a moment pretend that all of the widely publicized cases in which students have inappropriately stifled free speech, inhibited their own exposure to challenging ideas, or capriciously assaulted the academic freedom of university professors in the name of “safe spaces” are defensible (if this specific issue is of relevance to you, I encourage you to have a look at the 102-page report that PEN America released this week; a short summary can be found here). I myself accept the Stoic view that anger is always irrational and vicious—a position which, if I’m not careful, easily gets me into hot water with the activist community!

The problem is not that Irvine has criticized these abuses of popular social justice ideas, or even that he apparently finds the concept of microaggressions to be useless (though, personally, I would implore him not to throw the baby out with the bathwater). Rather, the problem is that, in the same way that he has approximately nothing to say in defense of Justice despite our school’s well-known reputation for a shallow fatalism, Irvine chooses to show no sympathy—and instead only active contempt—for the fundamental concerns that motivate activism.

For contrast, I invite you to have a look at the nuanced criticism of trigger warnings that Massimo Pigliucci wrote last year—which delved headlong into similarly sensitive waters, but only served to spark a very productive and cordial conversation among a diverse readership. I think it forms an exemplary model of how Stoics can treat such difficult topics while remaining true to Zeno’s advice, and while making it clear that we do care deeply about Justice.

Irvine, meanwhile, admits that he is “puzzled” by the surge in concern over social justice issues on college campuses. He is perplexed that students feel “humiliated and even downtrodden” by the behavior of their peers, when in previous decades these issues were not very high in the public consciousness. Rather than engaging the many complex reasons that these students and other activists might give for their societal concerns, Irvine chooses to blanketly suggest that the systemic injustice so many are working to dismantle is simply a product of the imagination of feeble-minded youths: the infamous “hypersensitivity” of the activist. He lays the blame for the most recent round of sensitivity in efforts to teach people to recognize microaggressions, which are “such will-o’-the-wisp things that it takes training to spot them.” And the idea of microaggressions, he believes, is motivated—not by a concern that the longstanding systemic injustices that plague the United States are enabled and aggravated by deep and pernicious social norms—but by a singular and simple purpose: to find new and innovative ways to feel “insulted.”

In short, just as Zeno worried, Irvine opts to “pick out and mention” everything that is wrong with contemporary activism, but to “suppress the good things without giving them a thought.” He allows the imprudent behavior of a misguided minority of activists—behavior which otherwise very much deserves to be criticized—to completely overshadow and eclipse the efforts of those who are working seriously and virtuously to bring Justice to the world. This approach is incomplete, reactive, and cavalier, and it is doubly problematic in a talk that explicitly purports to give marginalized people advice on how best to cope with oppression and hate speech.

Pigliucci, meanwhile, also strongly rejects what he sees as the general thrust of student activism with regard to trigger warnings. But he takes care to acknowledge the legitimate concerns, where they exist, that motivate the various voices involved in the controversy. Faculty have a human and professional duty, he says, “to be sensitive, rather than dismissive, to students’ concerns.” The result is not just a presentation that is less likely to offend, but one that comes across as better researched, commonsensical, and highly persuasive. These are the fruits of charity.

No doubt, Irvine only meant to use a few vicious behaviors by some college students as an illustrative example for his ideas. I’m sure that Irvine does believe that Justice is important (even if he chooses not to emphasize it for fear of exacerbating existing abuses in the activist community). Instead, however, his contribution to Stoicon gave a strong impression that modern Stoicism is indifferent or even hostile to the social concerns of historically marginalized groups and minorities—such as women, people of color, and LGBTs. Between his deafening silence on the moral imperative to Justice and his uncharitable characterization of activist’s concerns, his presentation lends credence to the erroneous idea that because Stoics believe that “true freedom is internal freedom,” they also believe “the external sort does not really matter.”

 

The Alienating Effect on Minorities

As Irvine delivered his pithy summary of campus activism, the predominantly white male audience laughed heartily—oblivious, it seems, to the sensitivity of the subject.

In the meantime, my wife—a black, female graduate student who is probably better educated in the scientific literature on microaggressions than both Irvine and 90% of the Stoicon audience—was having a very different social experience. She had come along to New York as a favor to me, to see what this philosophy is that I’ve become so interested in lately, and to learn about how it relates to Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy and REBT. But in that moment, she became acutely aware of one simple fact: it did not appear that ethnic minorities or their distinctive concerns are welcome or wanted, much less understood, in the modern Stoic community. “Alienating” is perhaps too weak a word to describe how she experienced Stoicon.

Stoicism is remarkable among the world’s major religio-philosophical traditions for its history of including the voices not just of emperors and wealthy statesmen but also of people with physical disabilities, mental illness, and chronic pain, victims of torture and PTSD, and prisoners serving life sentences. But when marginalized people encounter Stoicism today, do they come away believing that Stoicism has something to offer them? Or do they come away with the impression—right or wrong—that Stoicism is just one more system created by privileged people who are out of touch with the severity of the world’s fixable injustices?

If people find modern Stoicism’s advice for victims of injustice off-putting, it may have more to do with the choices we make about how to go about presenting that advice than with what the ancients have said. Being resilient to insults and being an active agent for Justice are not inimical objectives, and while I accept Irvine’s call to the former, I would caution him that he has gone too far in his neglect of the latter.

 

Stoics for Justice

Stoicism is not a political theory. I agree with Pigliucci when he says that demanding a specific social vision from our school is a “category mistake.” To the contrary, he says that “one can be a Stoic conservative or progressive, as well as a Stoic atheist or theist. But as long as we all practice virtue and attempt to become better people, we will be more likely to engage in constructive dialogue over what and how to change society for the better.”

I believe that Stoicism can do amazing things in the world of politics and philanthropy if we create a space for those “constructive dialogues” to take place—especially if those dialogues are rooted in Zeno’s principle of charity, and if they implement the Socratic model, in which we “stop at point after point, and make out what each person is willing to admit and what he denies” (Cicero, De Finibus, 2.3).

Moreover, I strongly suspect that the Stoic emphasis on the four cardinal virtues offers a uniquely powerful antidote to the pervasive miscommunication, polarization, and rancor that seemingly attend all political arguments. A Stoic is someone who cares about personal resilience and Temperance, but who also cares deeply about Justice. If we present ourselves this way, the world should never have reason to be confused on this point, or to doubt our support for both social justice (whatever exactly that means) and personal virtue. Our school teaches that virtue is one, after all, and that if we separate it into pieces, we destroy it.

In my opinion, Stoicon left something to be desired when it comes to getting these values across (notwithstanding Christopher Gill’s excellent and helpful presentation on the history of Stoic activism). But the conversations at Stoicon were neither the first nor the last word on the matter.

That is why, starting now, some of us are coming together to form a Facebook group called “Stoics for Justice,” as a space to push Stoic philanthropy forward and to find ways of working together to pursue the “common benefit” (as Marcus liked to say). Whether you prefer radical activism aimed at disrupting oppressive power structures, or whether you see your role in the world as focused on community building, education, and hands-on philanthropy—or, yes, even therapeutic training in becoming resilient to insults—you should be able to find a role to play in any hypothetical Stoic-led movement for Justice and Benevolence.

Come join us at Stoics for Justice and let us know how you think we might move Stoic philanthropy forward on the issues you care about most!

Thank you to Kristen de K., John Martin, Charmika Stewart, and Arianna Scott for their very helpful feedback on earlier versions of this article.

 

Eric “Siggy” Scott writes the blog Euthyphroria. He is interested in moral practice as a way of life, and in how secular and religious people can find common ethical ground (a question which Socrates raised in Plato’s Euthyphro). In real life, he is a PhD student in computer science at George Mason University, where he does research on machine learning and evolutionary algorithms.

Along Came a Spider… by Debbie Joffe Ellis

Along Came a Spider…

by Debbie Joffe Ellis

Araneus_diadematus_web_1

One of the many things I am grateful for is my love of nature, and the restorative and uplifting effect it has on me.

Whenever I am away from my home in NYC, presenting at conferences, universities or to other populations – I have never, so far, failed to discover either lovely locations close to wherever I am staying, by ocean, lake, river, or by parks or forests, or charming areas in cities – perhaps with pleasant tree lined streets: places where I can walk, reflect, look around and admire the beauty around me.

This happened in May, when I attended and presented at the annual Adlerian conference which was held in Minneapolis.

Though the hotel in which attendees stayed was surrounded by roads and highways, just a 10 minute walk took one to a lovely lake and areas near it with beautiful trees and other plants growing, melodic birds and tranquil calm.

That’s where I took myself on the Sunday afternoon, sunny and mild after previous days of some cool and rainy weather. I felt very warm after about an hour of my walking, so I removed my hoody and rolled my jeans up to below my knees, more comfy in light t-shirt and cooler calves. As I walked around the lake, admiring its shimmer, color, resident ducks, geese, goslings and many ducklings, I saw close to the banks of the lake and very close to the path I walked on, a number of low lying branches and logs on which a good number of tortoises sat, dozed, played, procreated (at least I think that was what they were doing or attempting to do!). So nice to see these tortoises doing that which their inclinations dictated they do in the balmy warmth of the sun. Wanting to get a better look at them and take photos, I moved slowly and quietly, positioning myself closer to them, treading on the tough grass-like plants between me and them.

Snap, snap, snap went my camera as I took some photos of these contented reptiles, until – OUCH – I felt a swift sharp pinching pain on the lower part of my calf. As I looked down I saw a spider scamper away. It was of medium size – shiny black body, and long thin legs.

Allow me please to share some background with you about me, for those readers who know little or nothing about my past, as this writing cannot reveal to you my Aussie accent. Yes, I was born and raised in the remarkable continent down under. You may have read, learned or heard about some of the unique creatures there, for example, the platypus: the only mammal that lays eggs, has webbed feet and a bill like that of a duck, a tail like that of a beaver, and a body shape and fur like that of an otter. The male is venomous. You may have also heard, read or learned that many other Australian creatures are venomous. Particularly some of the spiders.

Given that background, it would not be unusual for any Aussie, former Aussie, and non-Aussie alike, to feel far from apathy following such a nip by a fast moving, shiny, 8-legged creature.

There were at least 4 probable reactions a person might have had in response to such an event:

  1. See the spider waltz away and think something like: “ It is probably poisonous, I might die”, and through ensuing panic, develop symptoms such as increased heart rate, fever, shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, trembling, and fall on the path shaking in fear till some kind person finds them and calls 911.

(Though the symptoms described above are those brought on by panic, they can also be symptoms associated with some spider venoms).

Rushed to the ER, one is found, after close examination and blood tests, to be free of spider, or any other, venom in one’s system. One also then realizes that simply as a consequence of thinking fear-inducing thoughts there can be a most dramatic impact on the functioning of the body.

  1. Rushed to the hospital…venom is found, and one survives thanks to the body’s immune system and/or anti-venom treatment.

  2. Rushed to the hospital…venom is identified but too late to remedy and death ensues.

  3. None of the above. (Spoiler Alert – I didn’t die.)

Here is what happened in my case:

I didn’t panic. I breathed deeply, calming myself, and thought about my options. Instead of catastrophizing, I thought along the lines of: “Ok, so I have been bitten, this isn’t Australia, I don’t know whether it is or isn’t poisonous and I have heard that very few spider bites here in the U.S.A. result in deaths of reasonably healthy people. What can I do to find out how safe or not I am? I am not shaking, trembling, fainting or frothing at the mouth, I am steady and the puncture mark is not changing its color from red to plum or black. Encouraging. What now?”

Does that sound too stoic, fantastically far-fetched, fictional and lacking in credibility?

It may come across that way for some of you, but I promise you, it is the truth.

I was able to reason with myself, stay steady, and seek productive action. Which in this case was asking some of the locals who were walking around the lake for their knowledge and suggestions about what to best do. I was indeed fortunate that it was a time of day when others were around and I was able to reach out.

A kind looking woman, a local, Linda, was the first person I saw and reached out to, explaining what had happened, and describing the spider as well as I could. She told me that she that she had lived in the area for decades, didn’t think it was poisonous, and reassured me that few local spiders were so. She shared with me that her understanding was that sometimes local spiders bite, but don’t always inject venom when doing so. Looking at the puncture marks, she said the bite didn’t look too bad, but suggested that if in some hours the area became more inflamed and the area around bite looked black – to go seek treatment.

Listening to her gave me realistic hope that I would recover from the bite, and I felt grateful to her and for the fact that the situation did not seem too dire.

All the while I remained mindful of my breathing, pulse and temperature, attempting to stay alert to any striking changes in any of the above.

As I walked back to the hotel, I noticed that the bite area ached more, and thought it would be good to seek more information if I could. Heading towards me I saw a calm looking man and woman walking their dog, and I spoke to them.They looked at the bite, and said it did not look too bad.

The woman immediately Googled venomous spiders known to inhabit that area – which only revealed the Black Widow spider, and when I saw a picture of it on her Smartphone l felt relief as it didn’t look like the one that had sunken its teeth (do spiders have teeth?), fangs or whatever, into my flesh. Her husband suggested my going back to the hotel, icing the affected area, elevating my leg – and if there was an increase in swelling or redness or the color turned dark and black – to quickly go to an emergency treatment center. We exchanged names, and to my sweet surprise, some hours later they emailed to check on me. Such care and kindness. I found out later that he is a surgeon at the Mayo clinic. I was indeed very fortunate to have met these three kind and knowledgeable people.

But let me get to what I most want to share with you, my readers.

The calm and steadiness that I experienced, which surely prevented any intense fear, panic and panic attack symptoms, was not a result of being born with the stoicism of Epictetus and the courage of lions.

It came as a result of years of ongoing application of the principles of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT).

In other words, it came as a result of practicing healthy thinking, in times of ease and times of challenge.

It came as a result of being mindful, thinking about my thinking on a regular basis, CHOOSING to dispute irrational beliefs and then replace them with healthy rational ones.

It took me making regular and frequent effort to keep things in realistic perspective when challenging things were happening, to zap any awfulizing tendencies, to keep myself largely in the present – and not allow myself to adopt a catastrophizing manner of worrying about “what will or would or could eventuate”.

The result of exercising the brain and thinking process in this way with strong determination, instead of succumbing to panic-inducing thoughts, is not apathy – but healthy motivating concern, and a clarity of mind that encourages life-enhancing actions in just about any given circumstance.

The more we practice mindfulness, thinking about our thinking, and choosing to think in healthy ways which create healthy and non-debilitating emotions, the easier it can be to remain steady, stable and alert during times of concern.

It is possible for most people who are not cognitively impaired to choose to practice watchfulness of thoughts, emotions and behaviors, and to make ongoing effort to eliminate self-defeating and panic-inducing thoughts and attitudes.

This can benefit us in practically any circumstances – even those of extreme brutality such as the mass murder that took place in a club in Orlando. Perhaps I will write about that in a future blog.

My main point here is that the sooner we start practicing healthy thinking, during both times of ease and times of challenge, the better equipped we can find ourselves to handle difficult events of varying degrees, from mild to extremely bad.

The stoic attitude I benefitted from as described here, is not one I am recommending that we aspire to creating in every situation and circumstance.

What I recommend is the embrace of the variety of non-debilitating human emotions, both pleasant and less pleasant. And to realize that it is not circumstances that will create what we feel, but the perspective we choose to take about those circumstances that will do so.

We have the power to create our emotional destinies.

I am not always “stoic” – far from it.

I choose to feel joy, grief, concern – depending on the situation and circumstance. At times I shed tears of joy, and also tears of pain when cruel things happen. That’s healthy. Doing so doesn’t debilitate, and is enriching. And when it can literally save my life and enhance my well-being to be stoic, I can choose to focus my mind and not let catastrophizing thoughts create swirling streams of fear and panic that spiral me down to debilitation or worse.

With discipline, thanks to prior practice, I can focus my mind in such ways that allow practical thinking and productive actions when scary stuff happens. So can you.

Try it!

Start NOW. (And keep jean or trouser pants at ankle length, not knee length, when walking in grassy areas by lakes!)

This essay was originally published in Psychology Today.

Dr. Debbie Joffe Ellis is a licensed Australian psychologist, licensed New York MHC, and adjunct professor at Columbia University TC. She presents and teaches in her home city of New York, throughout the USA and across the globe.  She is also one of the featured speakers at this year’s STOICON.

Growing Up Stoic: Philosophical Education for Character, Persistence and Grit by Leah Goldrick

Growing Up Stoic: Philosophical Education for Character, Persistence and Grit

by Leah Goldrick

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The harsh truth is that many students around the world will never receive any philosophical education whatsoever. Philosophy is often viewed as a useless exercise reserved for scholars in ivory towers. Curricula for primary school aged children is rare, especially in the United States, and some academics question whether pre-adolescents are even capable of philosophical inquiry.

That assertion likely rests on the premise that philosophy is ultimately something more theoretical than practical. It overlooks the potential for discerning parents and caregivers to teach young children how a philosophical outlook can make their lives happy and meaningful.

Where can parents find a curriculum that might help kids to develop a strong character and deal with the challenges that life will inevitably throw at them? What if such a formula is a ready-made for introducing young children to philosophy at home, through hands on activities and dialogue?

The Stoic philosopher Gaius Musonius Rufus (c. AD 30–100) has been called the Roman Socrates. He was well known in antiquity for his integrity, as well as for having been the teacher of the more famous Epictetus. He was viewed as something of a radical for arguing that both girls and boys should receive the same early education:

That there is not one set of virtues for a man and another for a woman is easy to perceive. In the first place, a man must have understanding and so must a woman, or what pray would be the use of a foolish man or woman? Hence I hold it reasonable that the things which have reference to virtue ought to be taught to male and female alike; and furthermore that straight from infancy they ought to be taught that this is right and that is wrong, and that it is the same for both alike; that this is helpful, that is harmful, that one must do this, one must not do that. From this training understanding is developed in those who learn, boys and girls alike, with no difference.

Musonius’ pedagogy is based on Stoic ethical theory, which emphasizes virtue as the natural human state, and happiness the result of becoming good or having an excellent character, which is achieved through habitual preparation. He states:

How could we become prudent if we had come to recognize what things are truly good and what evil, but had never had practice in despising things which only seem good? Therefore upon the learning of the lessons appropriate to each and every excellence, practical training must follow invariably, if indeed from the lessons we have learned we hope to derive any benefit.

Musonius thought that a sense of noble purpose instilled in the young, protects them from mistakes which make life unnecessarily difficult:

Well then, if it is necessary for both [boys and girls] to be proficient in the virtue which is appropriate to a human being, that is for both to be able to have understanding, and self-control, and courage, and justice, the one no less than the other, shall we not teach them both alike the art by which a human being becomes good? Yes, certainly we must do that and nothing else.

I believe that Musonius Rufus’ 2000 year old educational blueprint has a lot to offer astute modern parents and caregivers who wish to guide their young children towards a resilient and philosophical view of life.

One quick word of caution, though, before we delve into the specific lessons that a Stoic parent might teach. We as parents must set a good example. While it’s not about being the perfect parent, there is no use in teaching standards which we don’t at least try to live up to. Children are quick to spot hypocrisy, so don’t be afraid to admit your mistakes to your child. It facilitates the process of learning about virtue.

Drawing on Musonius’ apothegms which survived antiquity, we can derive some character-building exercises useful for laying the groundwork necessary for excellence. Musonius specifically suggests education based on each of the four cardinal Stoic virtues.

 

Justice:

Dikaiosune, meaning justice or integrity in ancient Greek, is a personality trait in Stoic ethics, rather than an external condition which is imposed on us, as in the modern sense. Justice is translated as empathy, fairness, kindness, regard for others, and philanthropy. Musonius has a good deal to say about the virtue which is helpful for guiding young children, including “To shun selfishness and to have high regard for fairness and, being a human being, to wish to help and to be unwilling to harm one’s fellow men is the noblest lesson, and it makes those who learn it just.”

He goes on to say:

Are not all these [material] things superfluous and unnecessary, without which it is possible not only to live but also to be healthy? Are they not the source of constant trouble, and do they not cost great sums of money from which many people might have benefited by public and private charity? How much more commendable than living a life of luxury it is to help many people. How much nobler than spending money for sticks and stones to spend it on men.

Look for creative ways to help children learn to value kindness and generosity over consumerism. Explain to your child that advertisements are designed to get their money. “Those five dollars you have in your pocket – they want that!” Explain that what is truly important is being kind and charitable when you can afford to be, rather than accumulating things you don’t really need. Consider having your child assist an elderly relative, pick out some of their toys to donate to a charity, or perhaps save some of their money to give to a good cause of their own choosing.

 

Determination:

Andreia is often translated into English as courage or determination. This virtue involves confidence, love of work, bearing hardships, and perseverance in things that we would like to avoid. This particular verse illustrates the importance of grit and working actively to provide for yourself:

Speaking generally, if one devotes himself to the life of philosophy and tills the land at the same time, I should not compare any other way of life to his nor prefer any other means of livelihood. For is it not “living more in accord with nature” to draw one’s sustenance directly from the earth, which is the nurse and mother of us all, rather than from some other source? Is it not more like the life of a man to live in the country than to sit idly in the city, like the sophists? Who will say that it is not more healthy to live out of doors than to shun the open air and the heat of the sun? Tell me, do you think it is more fitting for a free man by his own labor to procure for himself the necessities of life or to receive them from others?

You might encourage determination by having your child help with some reasonable activity for his or her age, such as cooking, chores, gardening, or yard work. Children can build confidence by acquiring these life skills. Gardening is especially educational for children since it involves delayed gratification, and occasionally, the lesson that hard work doesn’t always lead to a reward. Determination is required while seeding, watering and cultivating plants, and only later enjoying the food that you have grown. Emphasize the importance of working hard to take care of yourself and your household, and of persevering through any setbacks and disappointments that arise. Children should be praised for success, but also for conscientious efforts that are not successful.

 

Moderation:

Like other Stoics, Musonius Rufus valued moderation, or sophrosyne in ancient Greek. Sophrosyne consists of tempering your emotions, not eating too much, frugality, and carrying yourself with a certain poise and gravitas. Moderation is about knowing the middle in your activities, so to speak. On emotions, Musonius states:

Words of advice and warning administered when a person’s emotions are at their height and boiling over accomplish little or nothing.

Children are little people with big emotions, and they need help dealing with them until they are old enough to exercise self-restraint. Parents should wait until children are calm to offer correction or help navigating strong emotional reactions. Suggest taking some deep breaths or a perhaps time out until the child is able to discuss the situation calmly. Ask your child whether, for example, their angry reaction was particularly helpful. Were their words hurtful to someone else? Did they make a good decision? What can they do differently in the future? If you as the parent overreacted or got angry, apologize and offer to do better next time.

Musonius also advised temperance with regards to food, asking:

What else is gluttony but intemperance in the matter of nourishment, causing men to prefer what is pleasant in food to what is beneficial? Exercising moderation and decorum in eating, demonstrating one’s self-control there first of all, not an easy thing to do, but one which requires much attention and practice.

Teach your children that eating is primarily about nourishing the body rather than enjoyment. You only get one body, and it’s important to keep it in good health. Speak with them about why certain foods are healthy and nutrient dense, and why others, primarily sugary and processed foods, are not. An occasional treat is ok, but we should encourage children to eat a variety of natural, healthy foods rather than habituating them to gorge on junk. You must set a good example of healthy eating yourself.

 

Wisdom:

The final Stoic virtue is Phronesis, prudence or wisdom. Wisdom is often defined as excellent character, good judgment, noble purpose, resourcefulness, and acceptance of things that we can’t control. Musonius suggests that each person’s nature should inform their sense of noble purpose in life and that we should live by method to develop excellence:

The best viaticum for old age…the very one that is best for youth too, namely to live by method   and in accord with nature. You would best understand what this means if you would realize that mankind was not created for pleasure…For the nature of each guides it to its own excellence;  consequently it is not reasonable to suppose that when man lives a life of pleasure that he lives according to nature, but rather when he lives a life of virtue. Then, indeed, it is that he is justly praised and takes pride in himself and is optimistic and courageous, characteristics upon which cheerfulness and serene joy necessarily follow.

The method Musonius refers to may be the Stoic practice of evening review, which involves reflecting on what you did well or poorly each day, and figuring out how to improve your conduct going forward. At the dinner table, or at bedtime, talk with your child about how the day was for both of you, discussing what went well and what went badly. Did you miss any opportunities to do something good for your personal growth? It is helpful for children and parents alike to reflect on their own conduct, comment on their personal shortcomings, and brainstorm solutions for self-improvement. Wisdom is not something we acquire overnight; we are always working towards it.

“For only in this way will philosophy be of profit to anyone, if to sound teaching he adds conduct in harmony with it.” – Musonis Rufus

 

References:

Pritchard, M. (2002). Philosophy for Children. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved August 19, 2016, from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/children/

Lutz, C. (1947) Musonius Rufus, the Roman Socrates. Yale Classical Studies 10 3-147.

King, C. (2011) Musonius Rufus: Lectures and Sayings. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

 

Leah Goldrick recently became a practicing Stoic as a result of her ongoing inquiry into the Western wisdom traditions. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Philosophy and a Masters in Library and Information Science from Rutgers University. She used to be an archivist for the Presbyterian Church, and is now a part-time children’s librarian and blogger. She lives in the United States with her husband and infant son.  Her website is Common Sense Ethics.

Applying Stoicism: The First Decision by Travis Hume

Applying Stoicism: The First Decision

by Travis Hume

[Picture] Applying Stoicism, The First Decision - Stoicism Today Article

Four years ago, I was wholly dissatisfied with life. I held no strong wish to be wealthy, powerful, or well-known. I had no definitive dream to pursue besides bits and pieces of things I found interest in – activities that were more hobbies than pursuits. There appeared no clear means by which I could reinvigorate and point myself in the “right direction.” The basis for my pursuing my college education was little more than a guess of my “intended” career based on my personality traits, and a fear of a presumed, alternate lifetime of menial work.

In my own words at the time, I did not know who I was, what I was meant to be doing, and the means to discern an answer to either. I was adrift, basing all choices loosely on others expectations and a haphazard assumption of the progression of life. In rough order, I was “supposed” to attend college, get a career, buy a house, marry, have children, then retire. I knew no alternative paths, and believed there likely to be none. Concerning college, I was skeptical of others suggestions to “follow your interests and let the rest fall into place,” because of a seemingly equally pervasive counter-claim that “the point of college was to lead to a well-paying career.”

I possessed only rudimentary skills with math and the sciences, so my career options were (in my eyes) limited to the arts or psychology. My decision to pursue a bachelors in psychology was founded entirely on the premises that “I thought too much” and others “often seemed to open up to me.” I did not enjoy my studies, and struggled daily against thoughts that perhaps menial work was the only thing I was suited for. I thought often on my fate and the world I inhabited; whether my choices were meaningful or meaningless.

Early in my degree I was forced by general education requirements to take an intro to philosophy course. I held a negative bias against attending the course that I did not understand or try to explain. I did not believe that philosophy had any real-world application or meaning. I believed that I would hear “old men arguing over what is good or evil,” and “that I should just take their word for it.” It followed that that was my initial view of the lessons.

Each discussed philosopher and their respective theories seemed to blend together, with the exception of one: A philosopher named Epictetus. Epictetus, the professor said, claimed that virtue (being a good person) was the only truly good thing, and vice (being a bad person) was the only truly evil thing. Further, the philosopher claimed that money, power, and fame had no value in themselves, and would never bring a person peace or make them happy. These ideas deeply resonated with me, but conflicted with my long-held beliefs of “the way things were.” Reacting to the resulting discomfort, I raised my hand and asked “Wouldn’t it be really depressing to think like that all the time?” The Professor smiled, looked down, half-nodded, shrugged, and continued the lesson. Epictetus was rarely covered the remainder of the semester, and my brief, inner conflict subsided accordingly for a time.

The discomfort emerged again when, in a span wherein I had no outstanding personal needs, it occurred to me that I nevertheless felt dissatisfied. I meekly resisted uncomfortable thoughts that arose from this realization, countering “everyone feels this way sometimes,” “that’s just life,” asking myself “who else says otherwise?” Recalling Epictetus, I considered the possibility that I was mistaken about the nature of things. I was aware to some degree that my original thought process had been instilled by twenty-odd years of social and media influences. The alternative thought process that Epictetus proposed seemed immediately attractive, such as a potential belief that it is sufficient for happiness to do the right thing for its own sake.

“Perhaps there is something to philosophy that I’m not seeing,” I recall thinking. I searched for my intro to philosophy book and set a goal to read it in its entirety over the next several months. Notably, I avoided the section on Epictetus until the very end, for two reasons: A desire to give a “fair shake” to other philosophers’ theories, and a fear that the feeling originally drawn from listening to Epictetus’ claims would amount to little. Occasionally, I came close to recovering the desired “hit home” feeling while reading other philosophers works, but I did not succeed in matching it. I read Epictetus’s section last, comprised of a very brief history on his life and the Enchiridion, the “Handbook,” a highly condensed version of his lessons, The Discourses.

As I read the Enchiridion, the “hit home” feeling fully resurfaced. I found that I could not decisively argue against the claims that Epictetus was making, finding the internal rebuttal that “no-one believes or thinks this way” to be brittle and unconvincing. I asked myself: “What if it is really possible to think this way?” “Is it possible to apply something that is 2,000 years old?” According to Epictetus, it was, but only if I dedicate myself completely to incorporating the principles he described. I decided “if I am really going to apply this, I have to give it my all.”

From that day forward I sought to discern how Stoicism could be applied to my life, from moment-to-moment decision making, to responses to significant life events. Stoic principles became the foundation and driving force behind a new, earnest pursuit to involve myself in volunteering efforts for special needs organizations, participation in student government, residence life involvement, university representation work, engagement as a student leader, and commitment to a high-intensity exercise and nutrition regimen. Stoicism enabled me to discover and tap into a previously wholly unknown skill-set and self-sustaining source of drive. In time, I became determined to one day teach others in its use, so that others may benefit from it as I did.

The decision to take up Stoicism as a philosophy of life is not a light one. It tasks the bearer, daily, to assess, shape, and refine themselves. It does not serve as a cure-all, and cannot function as a band-aid – it is a craft, with the mind as its material, and the individual’s life as its testing grounds. In exchange, it provides a world-view in which little is taken for granted, and virtuous action is sufficient for enduring peace of mind, personal strength, and well-being. Drawing from Epictetus: “First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do.”

Travis Hume is a special education paraprofessional, and the creator, administrator, and writer of the Facebook group Applying Stoicism. He writes daily on practicable applications of Stoic philosophy for the modern day, based upon first-hand real-world experiences.