A Response To “How Stoic is Jordan Peterson?” by Kai Whiting and Leonidas Konstantakos

Last week in his Stoicism Today article Justin Vacula (the host of the Stoic Solutions podcast) stated that “there are many parallels between messages from Stoic thinkers and Jordan Peterson”. He was also right in saying that various members of the Stoic Philosophy Facebook group (led by our very own Donald Robertson) frequently share work from Jordan Peterson and are left wondering if he is a Stoic. In a response to Justin’s article (and the various comments that ensued on this blog and elsewhere in social media), we want to present our take on the likenesses between Jordan Peterson’s philosophy and that of Stoicism.

To do this, we explore some similarities and ask whether they are real or superficial. Perhaps the Stoics were just as interested as Peterson and his followers in antidotes to chaos. Perhaps, any resemblances are merely coincidental.

In order to unpack the parallels and divergences properly, it is first necessary to address an all too common misconception that “Stoic”, with a capital S, is a person that practices or adheres to being emotionally “stoic”. Whilst the philosophy certainly teaches the importance of resilience, the governing of one’s emotions and the value obtained in understanding the role of luck, it also emphasises virtue. In fact, the most fundamental tenet of Stoicism is that virtue, as made manifest in justice, courage, self-control and wisdom, is the only true good. This is because it is, in the Stoic sense, the only path that leads to a harmonious sense of happiness.

So with definitions out of the way, where do Peterson and his ideas fit onto the Stoic spectrum? For evidence, one can certainly point, as Justin did last week, to his cool demeanour in uncomfortable interviews, including the infamously hostile one directed by Channel 4’s Cathy Newman.  One could also highlight his sense of calm during politically loaded conversations on national media with his own colleagues, following the C-16 amendment bill and the ensuing gender neutral pronoun scandal.

Leo and I, as two Stoic researchers, would even argue that it was Peterson’s stoicism in the face of an international news frenzy that catapulted him to the highest echelons of fame in the first place. Undoubtedly, his emotional detachment in the face of severe public scrutiny is something that the Stoics would have admired. Likewise, his sense of purpose to connect with and be a model (particularly) for young men intent of getting their life together, and the celebration of their achievements when they do, mirrors certain elements of what we would refer to, in modern times, as the Ancient Stoic pedagogical method.

In terms of his written work, we agree with Justin that Peterson’s widely successful 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos makes for markedly Stoic reading when it comes to his views on death, suffering, pain and anxiety. As with the Stoics, Peterson balances such realities by reminding the reader to develop character and take responsibility for one’s thoughts and actions, instead of longing for superficial happiness. For instance, Seneca says in On Providence:

God himself is beyond suffering evil; you are above it. Despise poverty; no man lives as poor as he was born: despise pain; either it will cease or you will cease: despise death; it either ends you or takes you elsewhere: despise fortune; I have given her no weapon that can reach the mind.

Peterson’s criticism of “post-modernist” relativism is also a view that the ancient and modern Stoics would subscribe to. In fact, the Ancient Stoics were very much involved in these kinds of arguments against the relativists of their day – the Academic Sceptics. This philosophical school held that a wise person would never assent to anything erroneously, precisely because they would hold zero beliefs. This absence of belief was necessary, in their mind, because human beings cannot know if anything is really true, nor have any reason to believe something is true. In contrast, a Stoic, similarly to Jordan Peterson, would maintain that some things cannot be mere opinion, because there are facts that correspond to reality. Thus, where there are conflicting views, both may be wrong or one is right and the other wrong but, most definitely, they cannot be both right! Greek Stoic philosopher Cleanthes was recorded to have said as much when he pointed out that the relativist Academics argue one thing and do something else.

Where the Stoics and Peterson’s philosophy significantly part ways is linked to how one identifies and solves inequality.  This was not picked up by Justin and was one of the reasons why his article came under fire.

Consequently, we would like to emphasise, to fellow Stoics and Peterson fans alike, that under a Stoic framework, it is not sufficient to state, as Peterson does in his interview with Richard Fidler, that hierarchy and equality is something that our nervous system is designed to deal with and adjusted to.

A simple counter argument of Peterson’s “natural” argument, based on the existence of, and access to, vaccinations and medicine already demonstrates that despite the fact that bacteria and disease has evolved alongside us and that our immune system has been designed to deal with them both, we have learned to override natural processes. In other words, humanity has not consigned matters of health to the “survival of the fittest”. Instead, we have used science to increase our knowledge and reduce uncertainty. We have built in societal structures to help us care for those who fall sick. In short, we have learnt to do better.

Incidentally, this is a view that Peterson will most likely agree with, given his favouring of the more socialistic form of health care available in Canada, over the privatised version operating in the US. So, why not likewise advocate for and develop structural mechanisms that re-address biological factors of inequality, so that more people can prosper?

Stoicism can offer some insight into how we may advocate for the virtue of justice. As a philosophy it is as political as much as it is personal and it does, for example, lend itself well to political activism. For Stoics, the view presented by Peterson regarding the Leftist Marxist agenda versus the Right-wing Capitalist is a false dichotomy. Marxism should not be rejected outright, nor capitalism necessarily preferred. After all reason, or rational thought, has no political wing. As we explained in our Daily Stoic article, the Stoic progressor (and Sage) must always advocate for reason and take the side of the person expressing a reasonable argument, grounded in facts. Everything else is superfluous to a Stoic’s political identity. That said Stoics should strive to reduce proven, or potential, inequality brought about by immorality. This echoes Cicero’s argument in De officiis that:

for one man to take something from another and to increase his own advantage at the cost of another’s disadvantage is more contrary to nature than death, than poverty, than pain and than anything else that may happen to his body or external possessions.

Cicero’s viewpoint does not necessarily take away from Peterson’s claims that disparity between groups is natural because it is Darwinian in origin. However, it does mean that a Stoic should promote a more progressive stance because there are other elements at play, including luck. In addition, as we argue (alongside Greg Sadler and Chris Gill) in our open access paper, it is the human ability to communicate and corporate which makes us uniquely capable, among all other living species, of societal development. Others such as Jeremy Lent, in his book The Patterning Instinct, and Yuval Noah Harari in Homo Deus also make convincing arguments that it is our cooperative, rather than our competitive, ability that yields a greater Darwinian advantage, as evidenced by our successful (although not necessarily reasonable) domination of the planet.

The gender pay gap, a phenomena Peterson actively denies, can also be dealt with by looking into the nuances of the argument. For a modern Stoic, the debate should centre on whether we think it is reasonable for it to exist, and if that reason is warranted. It is clear from the UK Government’s multivariate analysis that women, on average, earn less than men, when doing the same job for the same length of time. What is unclear, and here lies the nuance of Peterson’s argument, is whether income disparity linked to cognitive skills and behavioural traits, should be used to justify women’s lower salaries or hinder their professional progression.

Stoics might reflect on why the capitalist job market prefers “masculine” behaviour. They would also bear in mind, and be critical of, the double standards that occur when men and women present the same behaviour. When women adopt more aggressive strategies they are judged, in a negative sense, to be anti-female and domineering. They are certainly not promoted as archetypal women. A man on the other hand, is typically rewarded and championed for being strong. This kind of language is present in Peterson’s book, where he considers male bravado and daring to be “courageous”. Would he judge a woman by the same standards? If the answer is no, then Stoics would have grounds to suggest that the gender pay gap has more to do with gender, and how children are socialised into a gender role, than any particular given behavioural trait.

Such issues are not easy to address but do, to some extent, explain certain elements of the pay gap. They are also indicative of what needs to change in society, so we can collectively reduce any disparity in pay where it does, or potentially could, occur. One solution following in the Stoic tradition, could be for instance, the publishing and open discussion of people’s actual salaries so they could decide amongst themselves what is fair or unfair, and find out whether, in their workplace, the gap is real or not.

Likewise, Stoicism’s acceptance that knowledge must be based on science, and not merely conjecture, can be used to demonstrate where Peterson’s dismissal of the possibility of more than two sexes is erroneous, if, for example, chromosomal pairs are used to define if a person is male or female. Seemingly unbeknown to Peterson, there are some individuals that do not, in fact, fall neatly into the gender binary with the common Kleinefelter Syndrome (one or two born per 1000 live male births), resulting in a person possessing two female chromosomes (XX) and one male chromosome (Y). If a biological male possesses XY, and a female XX, then a person with three chromosomes is neither male nor female in the biologically or socially conventional sense. However, it isn’t just chromosomes that determine sex, so ascribing gender in a relative simplistic way, based on what a person looks likes, whilst suitable in most cases, lacks scientific rigour. It also, according to an article in Nature, ignores a lot of biological factors that determine not just physical sex but also gender identity.

Given these facts, it is very likely that a Stoic would advocate for the gender neutral term “they” to address a person who does not have a clearly ascribed sex and who requires time to process their condition. Peterson, in adopting a more Stoic position, would then need to concede the use of “they” on scientific grounds. Furthermore, and as a Stoic aside, if one considers the importance of grammar in the Ancient teachings, Peterson’s issue that the use of “they” in the singular would only generate confusion loses credibility when one considers that the word “they” is used to refer to sports teams (where it does not mean the individuals that make up the team, but rather the team as a single entity). In addition, the word “you” in the English language does not distinguish between the collective (you all) and the addressing of a specific person. It relies on context or the speaker’s clarification. The question for a Stoic, once the issue of being understood is dealt with, comes down to, would a modified use in a pronoun reflect reality and result in progress towards socially just acts? The answer is “yes” on both accounts.

Despite these discrepancies, Peterson’s ideas appeal to millions of people. In our opinion, and as Justin rightly identifies, some of the 12 Laws draw interesting parallels with Stoic thoughts and practices. A great deal of Peterson’s work, although not Stoic in intent, is certainly not un-stoic. His Stoic elements have, undoubtedly, improved the lives of countless individuals by making them more responsible and resilient. They have turned people’s attention away from the pursuit of momentary happiness and directed them towards the search for the life well-lived.

In short, Jordan Peterson has worked hard to change many people’s worlds for the better and, perhaps, if he were more Stoic-leaning, he could open up the invitation to those currently alienated by his ideas. At the same time, the tension between the left and right political agenda would be replaced with more progressive values.

Kai Whiting is a university lecturer and researcher based at the University of Lisbon, Portugal. His specialist subjects are sustainable materials and Stoicism. He will be speaking at Stoicon 2018. He Tweets over at @KaiWhiting.

Leonidas Konstantakos is a college lecturer and researcher based at the Florida International University. His specialist subjects are Stoicism and International Relations.

Jordan Peterson and Stoicism by Justin Vacula

Clinical psychologist and Psychology Professor Jordan Peterson has had a major impact on public discourse evidenced by his presence in online publications, his extremely popular YouTube channel with almost one million subscribers, and acclaim surrounding his new book ’12 Rules of Life: An Antidote to Chaos’ which is currently the #1 bestselling book on Amazon.

Members of the Stoic Philosophy Facebook group share work from Jordan Peterson including many of his classroom and public lectures and are left asking if Jordan Peterson is a Stoic identifying parallels between the work of Peterson and Stoic authors. Fans of Jordan Peterson who are unfamiliar with Stoic Philosophy can benefit a great deal from engagement with Stoicism.

People find a great deal of inspiration and practical solutions to personal struggles while becoming more familiar with the work of Jordan Peterson and engaging with Stoic Philosophy. People hunger for a new approach to life, guidelines by which to structure themselves, especially after personal tragedy or stagnation. People are moved by messages of self-improvement and character-building found within Stoic content and Jordan Peterson lectures which urge that growth, positive change, is possible if a good effort is made.

When I use the word “Stoic,” I reference the practical philosophy of life popularized by Ancient thinkers including Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius I’ll later detail – not a common usage which people may understand as merely being resolute in the face of challenge (see Jordan Peterson’s interview with Cathy Newman in which he maintains such a undaunted disposition) or a severely misguided interpretation – one being detached from positive or negative emotions.

I don’t recall Jordan Peterson mentioning influence from Stoic thinkers or Stoic Philosophy in his content, but I see many parallels between his work and central themes in Stoicism. Perhaps Jordan Peterson won’t identify as a Stoic, but he can surely find himself in general agreement with major Stoic themes and appreciate the philosophical tradition – now undergoing a modern rebirth – which resonates with segments of Peterson’s audience.

Let’s explore the parallels and differences between Stoicism and the work of Jordan Peterson. I’ll use examples from Stoic texts and lectures of Peterson in addition to recurring themes in Stoic works and Peterson’s thoughts to discover the degree of Stoicism within Jordan Peterson.

Clean Your Room/Get Your Life In Order

Stoicism challenges us to be accountable, to take responsibility in our lives, so that we can work toward a life of contentment pursuing virtue. Self-improvement; having a proper mindset; and working to rid ourselves of unproductive desires (i.e. want of fame, wealth, jealousy) and intense negative emotions (i.e. despair, hatred, and anger) is required for a properly-oriented life on the Stoic view. Stoic writers  focus on common human concerns which continue to exist in our modern era. (If you wish, you can listen to past episodes of my podcast, including #47, #36, and #31 , focused on coping with guilt, negative emotions, and death.

Applying Stoic wisdom to everyday life can help modern people, as Jordan Peterson would say, rescue their fathers (and themselves) from the belly of a whale or be reborn like the mythical pheonix. (I talk more about being reborn like a phoenix following tragedy in episodes 44 and 22 of my podcast). Peterson urges individuals to be self-reflective and work to fix their lives rather than being resentful, complaining, and being critical of the world while not working to change one’s own mindset or improve their condition.

Stoic writers and Peterson advocate for an attitude of gratitude – appreciating what is going well and not overlooking positive elements of life – and note that complaining, especially about things outside of our control, is largely unhelpful. For Peterson and Stoic writers, instead of complaining, taking action to improve ourselves and create order in our lives can be an antidote or response to chaos.

Similar to Stoic writers, Peterson focuses on finding personal fulfillment in excellence of character and success, but there is divergence in that Peterson – unlike Stoic authors – often focuses on climbing what he calls dominance heirarchies, engaging in completion to rise to the top of a field of focus. Dominance hierarchies are absent from Stoic texts which mainly focus on character excellence through virtues of courage, justice, temperance, and wisdom seeing virtue as the only good or prime good, doing good for goodness’ sake regardless of who may be watching, a reward, reputation, or status. One may ascend to the top of hierarchies through hard effort and achieve mastery by following Stoic wisdom, but this is not the focus for Stoics.

Marcus Aurelius, in Book VII of his Meditations, talks about changing our mindset to remove unproductive, negative, inaccurate thoughts so that we can improve our lives. He writes:

it is in your power continuously to fan these thoughts into a flame […] To recover your life is in your power.

We can avoid “being moved by the desires as puppets by strings” as Marcus notes in Book VI by taking action, taking on responsibility, and evaluating our lives so that we can improve – to notice our shortcomings and create a plan of action.

Epictetus, in Book IV Chapter IV of his Discourses, titled “To those who have set their hearts on a Quiet Life” urges us not to procrastinate or spend forever preparing to change, but rather to take action, use our time well, and act before it is too late. He writes,

…read, hear, prepare yourself. You have had sufficient time for that […] Come now to the contest. Show us what you have learned, how you have trained.

Taking action to improve our lives rather than making excuses, even if starting with small steps, will offer many benefits and is preferable to misery.

In his letter “On Wisdom and Retirement,” Seneca calls for us to recognize our past deficiencies and work to make changes in the present, without procrastinating, to live a better life. He writes,

Let us do what men are wont to do when they are late in setting forth, and wish to make up for lost time by increasing their speed – let us ply the spur. Our time of life is the best possible for these pursuits; for the period of boiling and foaming is now past. The faults that were uncontrolled in the first fierce heat of youth are now weakened, and but little further effort is needed to extinguish them.

Jordan Peterson, talking about making positive changes in our lives, says,

Put yourself together and then maybe if you put yourself together – you know how to do that – you know what’s wrong with you if you’ll admit it. You know there’s a few things you could, like, polish up a little bit that you might even be able to manage in your insufficient present condition.

Peterson further encourages us to take a self-inventory, similar to the urging of Stoic authors, in order to rid ourselves of vice and personal shortcomings,

You also have to allow yourself to shake off those things about you that you might be pathologically attached to, habits and people for that matter, ways of thinking, all of those things. You have to allow yourself to shake those off. […] You let all that nonsense burn away.

Life Is Not A Dance, But We Can Prevail And Find Meaning Amidst Suffering

Many of Jordan Peterson’s lectures focus on the horrors of the 20th century including genocide and war. Reflecting on experiences in his clinical practice, Peterson discusses suicidal intentions, depression, trauma, drug abuse and many significant personal challenges people face in modern times. Suffering, Peterson notes, reflecting on the human condition, is a necessary part of life; we’ll all experience personal challenges, pain, loss of loved ones, and other struggles.

Peterson urges us to acknowledge our suffering, work to improve ourselves, help make the world a better place, help others, and not languish in a role as a defeated victim. We can rise above suffering to be heroic, Peterson argues, drawing upon characteristics of role models – fictional and real – and engaging in important personal quests to respond well to suffering. By helping ourselves, we can help others.

Stoic authors and Peterson call for acceptance when considering suffering in a life including change, difficult people, tragedy, and death. (See episode 17 of my podcast which explores Stoic ideas on acceptance). Such suffering in life is inevitable and natural given the nature of existence; the frailty of the human body; lack of wisdom; and element of chance, fate, or fortune.

Stoic authors and Peterson would agree that we can rise to challenges in life by viewing inevitable adversity as a means to better ourselves, test our resolve, and develop effective means to cope rather than engaging in unproductive thoughts or maladaptive coping skills. We can see, as author Ryan Holiday, echoing themes within Marcus Aurelius’ writings, the obstacle as the way, something we can overcome.

We should avoid, Stoic writers note, creating problems for ourselves by amplifying our personal struggles or having thoughts – impressions – which do not align with reality. With a proper mindset, we can more effectively overcome daily challenges, be more resilient, and find purpose in life. Here, Stoic thought and Peterson’s general message greatly overlap. Stoic writers and Peterson urge people to overcome adversity by having a strong mindset, making changes where possible, and being courageous.

Seneca, in his letter titled “On the Critical Condition of Marcellinus” from his Letters to Lucillius urges us to self-reflect and improve even amidst what seem to be hopeless situations. Seneca writes:

regulate your character, rouse your courage, and stand firm in the face of things which have terrified you.

The ideal Stoic sage, one who has embodied Stoic wisdom to be resolute amidst suffering, may appear “unterrified in the midst of dangers, untouched by desires, happy in adversity, peaceful amidst the storm” as Seneca writes in his letter titled “On the God Within Us.”

Marcus Aurelius, in book VII of his Meditations writes:

The art of life is more like the wrestler’s art than the dancer’s, in respect of this, that it should stand ready and firm to meet onsets that are sudden and unexpected.

Rather than lamenting certain happenings in life, merely complaining, we can work to “[b]e like the promontory against that which the waves continually break; but it stands firm and tames the fury of the water around it” as Marcus notes in Book IV encouraging an attitude of resilience – responding to suffering we ought to, Marcus says, “bear it nobly.”

In responding to suffering, Peterson notes: 

Pick up your damn suffering and bear it and try to be a good person so you don’t make it worse. […] There’s reasons to be resentful about your existence. Everyone you know is going to die. You know, you too, and there’s going to be a fair bit of pain along the way and lots of it’s going to be unfair. It’s like, yah, no wonder you’re resentful. It’s like act it out and see what happens. You make everything you’re complaining about infinitely worse.

Peterson, acknowledging that there is a great deal of suffering in life, says,

So what do you do in the face of that suffering? Try to reduce it. Start with yourself. What good are you? Get yourself together, for Christ’s sake, so that when your father dies, you’re not whining away in a corner and you can help plan the funeral and you can stand up solidly so that people can rely on you. That’s better. Don’t be a damn victim.

Humans Have The Capacity To Strive Toward Good (and Evil)

Jordan Peterson, reflecting on World War II, notes that many concentration camp guards were, at least at one point, common people like us. Might we, like them, follow orders instead of rebelling and take part in or directly commit great atrocities given certain pressures? Given a degree of courage, instruction, and commitment, both Stoic thinkers and Peterson believe that we have the capacity to achieve a life of virtue, to strive toward a good life instead of embodying the darker parts of human nature. Peterson mentions influence from psychologist Carl Jung – our shadow side, the darker sides of our personalities, this potential monster within.

If we align ourselves with positive characteristics – “following nature” or “living in accordance with nature” as Stoic writers mention – using our reasoning capacity to have proper judgments about the world and putting right principles into action, we can actualize potential and strive toward the highest good (virtue). It’s important to recognize our vulnerabilities, our weaknesses, so that we do not descend into chaos.

Peterson, like the Stoics, does not believe that people are unchangeable or that progress is impossible. He aims to help others, educate people about what a good life can look like, inspires people to make positive changes, and helps people set realistic goals in the process of self-improvement. Peterson and Stoic authors note that although change can be difficult and gradual, we should embark on journeys of transformation to better ourselves while being mindful of and avoiding pressures from society which can lead us astray.

In recognizing that people have the capacity for good and ill action, we can better deal with difficult people, pity them, avoid certain people, and surround ourselves with the best of friends setting personal boundaries, being careful in our interactions, and carefully evaluating others’ character.

In Book III, Chapter 25 of Epictetus’ Discourses, titled “To Those Who Fail to Achieve Their Purposes,” Epictetus notes that “good fortune and happiness itself” is at stake when considering determination toward progress. It’s in our power to improve ourselves, to strive toward good, and “even if we falter for a time, no one prevents us from renewing the contest.”

In his letter titled “On Self-Control,” Seneca talks about how people can exercise moderation and orient towards a good life. People may choose to engage in poor behavior rather than make better decisions. He writes of people falling short of the good life:

It is because we refuse to believe in our power. Nay, of a surety, there is something else which plays a part: it is because we are in love with our vices; we uphold them and prefer to make excuses for them rather than shake them off. We mortals have been endowed with sufficient strength by nature, if only we use this strength, if only we concentrate our powers and rouse them all to help us or at least not to hinder us. The reason is unwillingness, the excuse, inability.

Peterson, talking about humans’ capacity for wrongdoing, reflecting on people who think they would have resisted Nazi power if they were present in Nazi Germany, notes,

If a lot of human beings have done something terrible, you can be sure that being a human being that you’re capable of it. […] Had you been there, the probability that you would have played a role and that wouldn’t have been a positive one is extraordinarily high.

On Peterson’s view, we can avoid the darker impulses within human nature by “aiming at the highest possible good.” He says:

If you manifest yourself properly in the world […] there is no more effective way of operating in the world that to conceptualize the highest good that you can and strive to attain it. There’s no more practical pathway to the kind of success that you could have if you actually knew what success was.

Question Popular Opinion

Jordan Peterson, in addition to receiving praise, has been vilified in popular media following his opposition to Canadian Bill C-16 concerning what he dubbed government-compelled speech in regards to gender pronouns; criticism of modern feminist positions; opposition to what he calls neo-Marxist postmodern leftists; identity politics; and political correctness. Peterson spends a considerable amount of time constructing arguments supplementing his skepticism and notes the danger of popular opinion which could lead people astray from reason.

Peterson diverges from Stoic writers when engaging in name-calling or ascribing ill-motives towards groups of people he disagrees with. For example, Peterson has noted that left-leaning individuals are not well-intentioned and want to destroy society – perhaps in a self-admitted state of anger (Peterson notes he has struggled with this), being quick to judge, and considering the most extreme examples of certain groups Peterson falters.

Peterson also castigated individuals branding themselves as MGTOW or men going their own way – those who have decided to walk away from marriage, cohabitation, and traditional relationships with women noting laws they see as heavily biased against men, unfair legal systems in the Western world. MGTOW talk about men finding their own purpose in life apart from getting married, having children, and sacrificing their own wants and needs for the benefit of women in a society they see as gynocentric – focused on women. Like Peterson, MGTOW question common opinion.

Peterson called MGTOW “pathetic weasels” and seemed to shame MGTOW noting, “maybe if you made the right sacrifices you wouldn’t have so much trouble with women […] it’s not the women, it’s you.” Later, Peterson said he was too dismissive of MGTOW noting agreement with their arguments against laws in the West, but then talked about MGTOW being “pernicious” consisting of bitter and resentful young men who are looking for a rationale to write off all women because of rejection they faced in dating.

Peterson mentions clients in his clinical practice who have experienced ruin following divorce and said of MGTOW, “they have a point […] the court systems are staggeringly anti-male, absurdly, horribly anti-male.” Can Peterson have more compassion for men who have gone their own way and better understand their perspectives? Stoic authors call for a less judgmental approach than one Peterson deployed when talking about MGTOW.

A more Stoic response would be to refrain from name-calling and simply responding to ideas. Peterson could engage more with MGTOW listening to, for example, content creators SunriseHoodie and huMAN, to get a better idea of the community and ideas he is dismissing. Even better, finding solutions to injustice, particularly relating to law, or warning people about dangers they could face, further dissuading them from engaging in risky situations like marriage would be optimal. After all, one of the cardinal Stoic virtues is justice.

Peterson, a married man with children who seems to have a successful, fulfilling relationship and family may be quick to write off perspectives of MGTOW who instead see relationships and marriage in current society as a significant threat to personal fulfillment. Stoic authors, after all, encourage us to challenge our impressions, the way we view reality, to have an attitude of humility and open-mindedness.

Stoic writers and Peterson, remind us that what is popular is not always right and can lead to disastrous consequences. (I talk about Stoic perspectives on the dangers of prioritizing popular approval in episode #40 of my podcast.)  Should we prioritize the wrong things – not have proper aims in life – we are more prone to squander our time, compromise our character, be taken advantage of by others, harm others, and have distorted beliefs. Without a solid foundation from which to draw, perhaps just doing what feels good or mindlessly mimicking others, we can find ourselves unfulfilled and without direction.

We might fail to, as Peterson encourages, speak the truth and not voice disagreement or even question commonly held beliefs because of potential social consequences. Peterson believes that not speaking out carries its own risks – we might be complicit in a lie and compromise our own standards. Speaking the truth, questioning popular opinion, can be liberating and lead to social good although there may be initial or ongoing discomfort.

However, as Stoic writers note, we’re to carefully pick our battles, be prudent, and not be chiefly concerned with approval from others or appearing to be agreeable.

Seneca’s letter “On Crowds” talks about the dangers of engagement with the masses:

To consort with the crowd is harmful; there is no person who does not make some vice attractive to us, or stamp it upon us, or taint us unconsciously therewith. Certainly, the greater the mob with which we mingle, the greater the danger […] you should not copy the bad simply because they are many.

On the topic of conforming merely to fit in, to gain approval of others, especially when we act unvirtuously, Seneca urges us to “scorn the pleasure which comes from the applause of the majority.”

In Book IV Chapter 8 of his Discourses, Epictetus quotes a Philosopher who says, “I knew that what I did rightly I did for my own sake and not for the spectators.” Seneca urges us to be our own spectators and seek our own applause in his letter “On the Healing Power of the Mind.”

Stoic authors, like Peterson, also rail against vice, advocate for moderation in life, urge us to question our desires, not look for happiness in external things, and identify that which we should avoid. Peterson and Stoic authors do not see happiness as a hedonistic pursuit; they warn of the dangers which can come about in being overly focused on wealth and material goods.

Although Jordan Peterson does not consider himself a Stoic or mention Stoicism as an inspiration, there are many parallels between messages from Stoic thinkers and Jordan Peterson relating to getting one’s life in order; prevailing amidst suffering; capacity for people to strive towards the good; and questioning public opinion. Surely, fans of Jordan Peterson’s work and even Peterson himself could benefit from study and application of Stoic Philosophy.

I welcome feedback from fans and critics of Jordan Peterson. Perhaps Jordan Peterson would be willing to engage with the Stoic community.

Justin Vacula is the host of the Stoic Solutions podcast. He also serves as an counselor-in-training intern in a school-based behavioral health program while studying Clinical Mental Health Counseling at Marywood University in Scranton, PA. He hosts monthly meetings for the Northeastern Pennsylvania (NEPA) Freethought Society, and plays poker at various casinos in the Eastern United States.

Modern Stoicism Now Has A Patreon Page For Contributions

Modern Stoicism Ltd. now has set up a Patreon page – for anyone who would like to make a regular monthly contribution to assist the organization in its many ongoing activities, here is the link to that page.

As many of Stoicism Today’s readers may know, last year the Modern Stoicism team incorporated officially as a not-for-profit organization (you can read about that here).   Every member of the Modern Stoicism team is a volunteer, so it is largely donations and contributions that allow us to carry out the work and projects helping people get introduced to, and then deepen their understanding and practice of, Stoicism in the contemporary world.

For a number of years, supporters of Modern Stoicism were able to make contributions via the Paypal link.  Now with Patreon, it becomes possible to make a regular monthly contribution, and also to receive some perks as a donor as well.  We will be continuing to build out the Modern Stoicism Patreon page more fully over the next week or so – so keep an eye out for that!

As mentioned, Modern Stoicism is involved in a number of projects.  This blog you are currently reading – Stoicism Today (containing over 500 articles on Stoicism) – is one of them, as is this larger Modern Stoicism website itself.  If you are considering becoming a Patreon supporter you might well wonder what else we do.  Here are our main activities:

  • We host an annual Stoic Week online course, in which 7,000 people participated last year.
  • We also carry out a longer and more intensive Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT) research project, testing the effectiveness of training in core Stoic psychological strategies, in which thousands of people have participated around the world.
  • There is also a Stoic Attitudes and Behaviours Scale (SABS) research project, which gathers and analyzes data on Stoic questionnaires in order to make comparisons with established psychological measures.
  • We hold an annual Stoicon conference on Stoicism in modern life.  In recent years, it has been hosted in Toronto, New York City, and London, and it offers an opportunity for people engaged in Stoicism as a way of life to hear from leading academics in the field.
  • Videos, transcripts, and summaries from talks and workshops at Stoicon are compiled and made public in our course site and in Stoicism Today.
  • We also help to promote the annual Stoicon-x mini-conferences, which take place around the world each year, giving newer speakers an opportunity to discuss Stoicism with a wider audience.
  • Publishing the series of Stoicism Today books containing articles from our contributors as well as detailed online reports explaining our research findings is another main service we provide to the worldwide Stoic community

Our team of nine active members on the steering committee includes psychotherapists,  philosophers,  researchers, authors, course developers, and content producers  (many of the team members wearing more than one hat!) – and they work together to further the goals of the Modern Stoicism organization, which are:

  • to disseminate knowledge and encourage discussion about Stoic philosophy and practices and their applications to modern living
  • to reach as many people from around the world as possible with our work and provide opportunities for them to explore Stoicism, whatever their orientation or interpretation with respect to Stoicism
  • to provide accurate and reliable information about Stoic philosophy and practices, and in doing so to maintain continuity with classic forms and sources
  • to focus on the application of Stoicism to everyday problems of living in the modern world
  • to conduct philosophical inquiry into, and empirical research on, Stoic philosophy and its applications to modern living, in order to advance our knowledge of its benefits
  • to represent a broad spectrum of views on the subject by including people who approach Stoicism from different theoretical perspectives, personal backgrounds, and religious, political, or cultural commitments;

These points encapsulate what Modern Stoicism as an organization is all about – and will continue to focus on going forward.   If you view these goals and projects as valuable – or if you benefit from the activities of the Modern Stoicism organization, consider becoming a supporter on Patreon!

The Stoic Professional by Dan Greller

The ancient philosophy of Stoicism was developed in a vastly different era. The world of antiquity lacked the skyscrapers, smart phones and email that characterize the world of the modern professional. In this post, I’ll attempt to draw a line between the challenges of that ancient world and those of the modern workplace. I’ll make the case that Stoic philosophy has aged gracefully and applies equally to a technically advanced world that the ancients could never have envisioned.

The world of the modern professional has vast differences from those of ancient Greece or Rome. Most notably, advances in transportation and communication technologies have created a world that would be unimaginable to Marcus Aurelius. These advances have led to some marked differences in how work is conducted as well as to the pace of activities. The most significant difference would involve interconnectedness. The development of modern communication capabilities such as email, smart phones and collaboration software make us accessible in real-time, around the clock. The next major difference involves the pace of activity. In many professional settings, there is an increased expectation of rapid results, instant responses and, in general, a reduced time-to-market. In the competitive world of modern business, this pressure is relentless, with increasingly short “cycle times”.

Despite these new developments, many of the same challenges existed in the ancient Stoic world. The ancients needed to deal with difficult and petty people, political rivals, and highly stressful situations – including near constant warfare. Marcus, as emperor of Rome, would seem to be in an enviable position of power, immune to the vicissitudes of life. Instead, he faced the constant weight of high office. He dealt with a variety of ominous matters. These included such existential threats as wars, assassinations threats, and mutinous rivals. He also dealt with the mundane yet disturbing matters of adjudicating disputes, granting approvals and interacting with coarse ungrateful people.

Let’s consider some challenges of the modern work world and how we can apply Stoic wisdom as a practical tool.

Starting the Day

Our workday struggles often start with the simple sounding of our morning alarm. Often, we fight to simply get out of bed and face the harsh realities ahead. This is further exacerbated by dreary weather, the fact that it’s a Monday or by the realization that you have a high pressure deliverable in the upcoming workweek. Marcus experienced that same sense of dread and recognized the natural comfort of simply staying in bed. But the Stoics were keen on the idea of playing a role that had been assigned to them by nature. They believed that it was critical to perform this role with excellence, enthusiasm and acceptance. Marcus exhorted himself as follows:

At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: “I have to go to work—as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for—the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm? —But it’s nicer here. . . . So you were born to feel “nice”? Instead of doing things and experiencing them? Don’t you see the plants, the birds, the ants and spiders and bees going about their individual tasks, putting the world in order, as best they can? And you’re not willing to do your job as a human being? Why aren’t you running to do what your nature demands?

Although you are not the ruler of an empire, you too have a critical role to play professionally. By embracing that role and understanding its importance to your organization, you establish purpose and motivation to move forward with your day.

Getting out of bed is simply the first of many challenges that we will face across the work day. Our next challenge can simply be our trip to work. Our frustrations can range from being cut off in traffic to that ‘jerk’ that holds up the line by taking too long to order their latte. Marcus also understood that he would likely have to deal with a series of jerks over the course of the day,

“Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness – all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil”

Don’t allow the anticipation of morning stresses to damper the enthusiasm and energy needed to start your workday. As a source of comfort, recognize that people have been dealing with these same issues since ancient times. Leverage Marcus’ quotes as fuel to power you forward.

Arriving at Work

Upon arriving at work, we are often met with a series of immediate stressors. Our inbox may be full, with new requests from co-workers in other time zones or from those who simply get in earlier. A glance at your calendar may show a day packed with meetings, with some requiring critical advance work.

While Marcus may have faced numerous challenges as the Emperor of Rome, he probably didn’t face the barrage of real-time issues confronting today’s professional. Nevertheless, an excellent Stoic thought is that of limiting one’s scope of focus to not be overwhelmed by a difficult and pressing situation. Marcus counsels us:

“Don’t let your imagination be crushed by life as a whole. Don’t try to picture everything bad that could possibly happen. Stick with the situation at hand, and ask, “Why is this so unbearable? Why can’t I endure it?”.

Often, we let the enormity of a situation paralyze us, keeping us from immediate, constructive action. For example, we may have an assignment to produce a critical presentation for senior management. Our mind instantly shifts into overdrive, ruminating over a series of rapidly changing fears. “Will I be able to source the appropriate data for this presentation?” Do I have the latest corporate standard template to use for my slides?” “Will I be able to finish all of this in time?” Our natural tendency is to allow these thoughts to overwhelm us leading to unhelpful actions such as procrastination. Marcus’ suggestion is as follows –

“Concentrate every minute like a Roman— like a man— on doing what’s in front of you with precise and genuine seriousness, tenderly, willingly, with justice.”

His message here is to focus your energy on a single item, completing that task with excellence. You can break down a large, complex “crisis” into a series of manageable tasks. Focus on each one, without allowing the overall issue or subsequent tasks to distract or disquiet you. In the case of the aforementioned presentation, turn your “fears” into a checklist. Attack each item with unwavering focus and confidence. By “zooming in”, we can approach our challenges with greater clarity, effectiveness and equanimity.

Rightsizing our Concerns

Another way to put difficult challenges into perspective is through a Stoic exercise that modern Stoics have named the View from Above. It is derived from Meditations 7.48 where Marcus states:

“That he who is discoursing about men should look also at earthly things as if he viewed them from some higher place; should look at them in their assemblies, armies, agricultural labours, marriages, treaties, births, deaths, noise of the courts of justice, desert places, various nations of barbarians, feasts, lamentations, markets, a mixture of all things and an orderly combination of contraries”.

Marcus is again describing how trivial human drama can appear when imagined from afar. In the modern world we can go beyond mere imagination. Most folks today have traveled on an airplane, with many professionals doing this routinely. Viewing the world from 35,000 feet can create an amazing sense of perspective. Flying over a major metropolitan area, one is technically viewing millions of lives, with all of their attendant drama and intrigue. But at that height, they are all reduced to indistinguishable dots. Any one person, structure or geologic feature is inconsequential relative to the enormity of the landscape. The world you are viewing has existed for billions of years. The troubles that anyone on that “view below” is experiencing are tiny and ephemeral – and so are yours.

 Many times at work, we will lament our situation. Perhaps we have a demanding and unsympathetic boss. We may feel under appreciated, having been passed up for a recent promotion. Perhaps our teammates are unhelpful, competitive and snarky.

It’s easy to take a “woe is me” perspective, bemoaning our fate and fantasizing about a more ideal work life. The Stoics had a valuable approach to dealing with this situation. They advised that one imagine that they are an actor in a play. One has been assigned a particular role. Now it’s your duty to perform your role with excellence and professionalism. As Epictetus counsels:

Remember that you are an actor in a play determined by the author: if short, then short; if long, then long. If he wants you to act as a beggar, then act even that with excellence, just as a cripple, a ruler or a citizen. Because that is your objective: to act the role that is given to you well. To select the role is up to someone else.

Focusing on what you can control

On a similar note, the Stoics looked, in general, to accept a fate driven world. They counseled that a peaceful person would accept things as they are. As Marcus describes –

that which is peculiar to the good man, to be pleased and content with what happens, and with the thread which is spun for him

A normal reaction at this point, would be for readers to challenge the notion of fate, misunderstanding it as cynical and unhelpful. It seems to contradict the conventional notion of taking control of your career and directing your own success and satisfaction. Here it is helpful to understand what may be the most fundamental Stoic principle – control.

The Stoics believed much of what disturbed people stemmed from agonizing over things that were outside of their control.

In his opening passage in The Enchiridion, Epictetus advises –

“Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.”

The Stoics used the example of an archer to demonstrate this concept and separate our intentions and actions from the ultimate outcomes. An archer should do everything possible to hit the target. This could include training, using proper technique and focused attention. But ultimately, there is no guarantee of a bullseye every time. Something as simple, and uncontrollable as a wind gust, could blow your shot off course.

In much the same way, as committed professionals, we should practice our craft with seriousness and care. But we should understand that there are always many factors outside our control that can impact an outcome. While we may strive to complete a task with excellence, and truly believe we have met our objectives, we can’t control the opinions of others. A boss or peer may take a negative view of our work through ignorance, competitiveness or by simply having a different perspective. We may work earnestly for years, marching on a path of career progression and have our advance abruptly halted by corporate event such as a bankruptcy, acquisition or office relocation.

The Stoics would counsel that we should simply focus on our own professional excellence, measuring ourselves by how true we remain to our committed ethical values. The rest is up to fate, not within our control and not worth our worry.

Anxiety Over the Thoughts of Others

Another area of stress in the modern workplace involves reputation. Often, we are highly concerned about the views that others have of us. One particular way we see this involves public speaking or formal presentation work. Many professionals find this extremely stressful. Epictetus breaks down the anxiety of public performance through the lens of a concert musician:

Take a lyre player: he’s relaxed when he performs alone, but put him in front of an audience, and it’s a different story, no matter how beautiful his voice or how well he plays the instrument. Why? Because he not only wants to perform well, he wants to be well received — and the latter lies outside his control

Epictetus notes that the fear of being poorly received, and having a diminished reputation, creates the performer’s (or speaker’s) anxiety. But ultimately that audience reception is outside your control. All you can do is simply prepare and perform to your best ability. If you can adopt that mindset, than your next public presentation should be no more stressful than your rehearsal in front of a mirror.

In addition to concerns about our performance, we have a general tendency to obsess about the thoughts and actions of others. A particular driver of disquietude in the modern workplace is social media. Many professionals follow their colleagues on Facebook and other popular platforms. Many firms also have their own internal social media platforms. While the ancients didn’t have these modern tools in place, the notions of gossip, bragging and social envy were equally prevalent. As Marcus advises:

Don’t waste the rest of your time here worrying about other people—unless it affects the common good. It will keep you from doing anything useful. You’ll be too preoccupied with what so-and-so is doing, and why, and what they’re saying, and what they’re thinking, and what they’re up to, and all the other things that throw you off and keep you from focusing on your own mind.

 Our takeaway here is consistent with other Stoic principles. We don’t control the thoughts and reactions of others. We should simply focus on our own excellence and tune out the bleating of the herd.

Dealing with change

Perhaps we are able to put some Stoic wisdom to work, getting through our typical workday with composure and effectiveness. In today’s fast paced world, as soon as we’ve adjusted to our circumstances, we’re faced with a new set of challenges. As mentioned earlier, another hallmark of the modern world is an accelerating pace of change. This creates great uncertainty for people as firms, professions and job roles move rapidly in and out of favor. It’s hard to scan the news without seeing another dystopian story about the elimination of a class of jobs or an entire industry. The Stoics also viewed the world as being in constant flux. They saw this as natural, understandable and to be fully accepted. Marcus notes:

Often think of the rapidity with which things pass by and disappear, both the things which are and the things which are produced. For substance is like a river in a continual flow, and the activities of things are in constant change, and the causes work in infinite varieties; and there is hardly anything which stands still. And consider this which is near to thee, this boundless abyss of the past and of the future in which all things disappear. How then is he not a fool who is puffed up with such things or plagued about them and makes himself miserable? for they vex him only for a time, and a short time.

When you’re confronted with uncomfortable changes, view them as necessary and natural. Don’t resist changes and ruminate over them. Instead, embrace the Stoic metaphor of life as a flowing river, with constant, inevitable transitions.

Benevolent Leadership

For those professionals who rise to a level of leadership, a different challenge emerges. Now, you can be that same uncaring boss that you complained about earlier in your career. One needs to look no further than the latest news story to see disturbing examples of successful leaders in government or in the corporate world acting arrogantly or abusing their power. In his time Marcus was as powerful as any leader alive today. He understood the grave responsibilities that came with that power. He recognized the temptation to act corruptly and selfishly that came with virtually unchecked authority. He thus counseled himself as follows:

“Make sure you’re not made ‘Emperor’, avoid that imperial stain. It can happen to you, so keep yourself simple, good, pure, saintly, plain, a friend of justice, god-fearing, gracious, affectionate, and strong for your proper work….the fruit of this life is a good character and acts for the common good.”

Marcus is reminding himself to maintain his character, continue to embrace important virtues, especially the Stoic cardinal virtue of justice. We too can embrace these ideals, remembering our own roots and never allowing our values to be perverted by our own success or power.

Putting it all Together

The present world can feel like a daunting place, with new, unique challenges. Our work lives have been transformed by technology and the social pressures of modern culture. Studying and applying Stoic philosophy can act as a comforting counterbalance. The ancients faced similar problems, even if they were embodied in different forms. Stoic wisdom is valued today because it is has a universal and timeless essence. As you are confronted with an issue at work, ask yourself “how would the Stoics have handled this?” This will lead you back to a powerful toolkit that will serve you well.

 

 Dan Greller is an information technology professional who has worked in a number of corporate settings over the last 35 years. He takes an interdisciplinary approach to work, drawing inspiration from economics, psychology and philosophy. He views Stoicism as a helpful framework for establishing greater professional effectiveness and for maintaining personal equanimity.

Stoicism and Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy by Walter J. Matweychuk

This post is the transcript of Dr. Walter J. Matweychuk’s presentation at the STOICON 2017 conference in Toronto, Canada. Video recording of this talk and others are available in the Stoicon 2017 Resources site.

I am a clinical psychologist who was drawn to begin to study Stoic philosophy a few years ago to better understand the pioneering form of cognitive behavior therapy (CBT). That distinct and pioneering approach to CBT is named Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT). REBT’s creator was Dr. Albert Ellis, a very well-known American clinical psychologist who parted company with the Freudian approach to psychotherapy way back in 1955. Dismayed by the inefficiency of psychoanalytical psychotherapy, which he had been formally trained in, Ellis turned to his lifelong passion for philosophy to create a more effective psychotherapy. Albert always said that his brainchild was an amalgamation of ancient and modern philosophy which heavily borrows from Stoic philosophy.

I had the pleasure of being formally trained by Ellis, and I practice REBT in an outpatient clinic at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Every day I use this philosophical approach to psychotherapy on a wide range of clinical problems with people of various backgrounds, educational levels, and degrees of functional impairment. Over the course of my 27-year career, I have witnessed the way clients and patients come to help themselves using REBT. I have seen how people who diligently work at understanding and implementing the core principles of REBT come to liberate themselves. These people learn how not to disturb themselves when they encounter various types of adversity which renders them more effective at changing whatever they can change when facing difficult problems common to the human condition. I assume that anyone who is interested in Stoic philosophy, who uses Stoic philosophy to help themselves through the journey of life, will also very much like and benefit from learning REBT. REBT largely overlaps with Stoic philosophy and can be a very useful compliment to the practicing Stoic. My goal today is to introduce to the core principles of REBT using the words and quotations of Epictetus.

When Ellis departed from psychoanalysis in 1955, his new practical approach to psychotherapy was game-changing. Unlike other cognitive behavioral therapies that followed in its wake and were primarily developed in the confines of academia, REBT was established in the rough and tumble streets of Manhattan in New York. Ellis was a private practitioner who worked from dawn to dust helping people with multiple problems that were often quite challenging. Over his long life, it is estimated that Ellis had over 180,000 hours of face to face clinical contact helping people and he wisely turned to philosophy to find answers to their problems and for his personal strength, meaning, and happiness.

Epictetus taught that:

“It is not events that disturb people, but it is their judgments concerning them.” Enchiridion 5. He then goes on to add “So make a practice at once of saying to every strong impression: ‘An impression is all you are, not the source of the impression.’ Then test and assess it with your criteria, but one primarily: ask, ‘Is this something that is, or is not, in my control?’ And if it’s not one of the things that you control, be ready with the reaction, ‘Then it’s none of my concern.’” Enchiridion 1(5).

Consistent with Stoic philosophy REBT argues that adversity in and of itself is insufficient to produce maladaptive, self-defeating emotional disturbance. In REBT emotional disturbance is defined as emotional and behavioral reactions that are self-defeating, unhealthy, and undermine our primary goals of survival and happiness. Ellis argued that all other goals and values were subsumed under these two overarching goals.

Ellis presented the relationship between our tacit attitudes and the subsequent emotional and behavioral reactions we display when we encounter adversity using what came to be known as the ABC theory of emotional disturbance.

Before introduction to REBT theory, people will often wrongly believe that their emotional upset is a result of encountering adversity. People will attribute adversity, assigned the letter (A), as the direct cause of their Consequential Emotional and Behavioral Reactions which I will here assign the letter (C). Ellis in keeping with Stoic Philosophy showed people that is not adversity (A), but our Basic Attitudes at point (B), in the ABC model which largely produce our consequential emotional and behavioral reactions (C).

REBT distinguishes between healthy and unhealthy negative emotions. It is important to note that healthy negative emotions are not to be erased or eliminated. The experiencing of healthy negative emotions in the face of adversity is good and self-helping and result when our desires, wishes, wants, and preferences are undermined by the presence of adversity. Healthy negative emotions result in motivation that leads to productive action to change what can be changed.

There are essentially eight healthy negative emotions which include concern, sadness, remorse, disappointment, sorrow, productive anger, relationship preserving jealousy, and productive, motivating envy. In contrast to these healthy negative emotions are eight unhealthy and self-defeating negative emotions which are anxiety, depression, guilt, shame, hurt, unproductive anger, relationship interfering jealousy, and unproductive, self-disturbing envy.

The primary characteristic of unhealthy negative emotions is that they are self-defeating. These negative feelings interfere with a person’s ability to live well with that which cannot be changed. They also undermine effort to improve things. Unhealthy negative emotions often lead to excessive behavior (e.g., aggressive behavior) or lead to self-defeating avoidance and escape behavior that is unhealthy such as excessive use of alcohol, sex, exercise, or procrastination. Most importantly unhealthy negative emotions are likely to interfere with a person experiencing some degree of happiness in the presence of unchangeable adversity.

By contrast, the essential characteristics of healthy negative emotions are that they provide us important feedback that what we value, want, desire, and prefer is not occurring. These feelings motivate us to change what can be changed and to get more of what we want and less of what we do not want. Healthy negative emotions do not undermine our efforts to achieve our goals and allow us to live well with adversity when it cannot be changed. Essentially despite the presence of negative emotion which is associated with being blocked or obstructed by adversity the individual can still have some degree of happiness despite the presence of adversity. Learning how to experience some degree of happiness despite the presence of adversity is an important skill to cultivate because the human condition is such that new problems manifest themselves throughout our lifespan. If we do not learn how to have some degree of equanimity or happiness despite the never-ending parade of problems that occur in life we are likely to have a pretty dismal existence.

Epictetus said:

 “Remember that you are an actor in a play, the nature of which is up to the director to decide. If he wants the play to be short, it will be short, if he wants it long, it will be long. And if he casts you as one of the poor, or as a cripple, as a king or a commoner – whatever the role assigned, the accomplished actor will accept and perform it with impartial skill. But the assignment of roles belongs to another. (Enchiridion 17)

Epictetus also said,

“Don’t hope that events will turn out the way you want, welcome events in whichever way they happen: this is the path to peace.” Enchiridion 8

Inspired by Epictetus, REBT also encourages acceptance. We are very precise in our definition of what it means to accept things. In our view, acceptance means to acknowledge that something exists which is against our goals & values and that it would be preferable for this particular reality not to exist. However, in REBT we acknowledge that it does not logically follow to conclude that the negative reality must not exist. Furthermore we in REBT encourage firm determination to change the existing negative conditions if they can be changed and to have determination to adjust constructively with conditions that cannot be changed.

Epictetus taught:

 “It is not events that disturb people, it is their judgments concerning them. Death, for example, is nothing frightening, otherwise it would have frightened Socrates. But the judgment that death is frightening now that is something to be afraid of. So when we are frustrated, angry or unhappy, never hold anyone except ourselves that is, our judgments accountable.

In REBT we emphasize what is called the Principle of Emotional Responsibility. Like Epictetus quoted above, we teach that humans largely disturb themselves about adversity. Emotional disturbance does not happen to us. We are not victims of misfortune so much as victims of our rigid and extreme attitudes we hold towards what other people do to us and what fate throws our way. In REBT we argue the individual nearly always has some degree of emotional choice in how he reacts to adversity.

As a result of this view the REBT psychotherapist will challenge the person experiencing emotional disturbance with questions such as “How are you angering yourself about your colleague’s misbehavior?” or “What attitude could you adopt to help you respond productively to this adversity and to live well despite its continued existence in your life?”. Leading REBT psychotherapist Dr. Windy Dryden restates Epictetus’s famous dictum this way, “It is not events that disturb people, it is their rigid and extreme attitudes concerning them.”

Epictetus taught:

“Remember, it is not enough to be hit or insulted to be harmed, you must believe you are being harmed. If someone succeeds in provoking you, realize that your mind is complicit in the provocation…” Enchiridion 20

In REBT we teach this idea of complicity in our self-defeating emotional reactions by introducing to the client the ABC model of emotional disturbance. This framework helps the client see that their rigid and extreme attitudes, assigned the letter B, come between adversity, assigned the letter A, and their emotional and behavioral reactions, assigned the letter C. Prior to REBT therapy clients will think “My colleague made me angry because he absolutely should cooperate with me on this project!” This statement shows that the client’s model of emotion is that A (adversity) directly leads to C (emotional and behavioral consequence). The client sees himself as a victim of misfortune.

In REBT therapy we teach that healthy emotional reactions are the consequence of relinquishing rigid and extreme attitudes towards adversity and replacing them with flexible and non-extreme, healthy attitudes towards it. So the individual is encouraged to adopt a position such as “I wish my colleague would cooperate with me on this project, but he does NOT HAVE to cooperate with me. I will choose a healthy attitude towards his uncooperative behavior and then take steps to influence him to cooperate to whatever extent I can.” As a result of this flexible attitude towards a negative state of affairs, the individual will lead to healthy, productive negative feelings of disappointment, sorrow, concern and\or productive anger.

Ellis held that all humans are born and reared to hold, to greater or lesser extent, rigid and extreme attitudes. Fortunately, Ellis taught that humans also were born and reared to hold flexible and non-extreme attitudes. In his view irrational, self-defeating attitudes and rational, self-helping attitudes are part of the human condition and both are rooted in our biology. This view, therefore, implies that we will never eliminate the irrationality that lurks within us. We can greatly reduce the intensity, frequency, and duration of its expression in our lives but we will always remain fallible, humans despite having the potential for significant growth and self-actualization.

Epictetus emphasized that

“We must undergo a hard winter training and not rush into things for which we haven’t prepared.” Discourses 1.2.32

Like Epictetus, Ellis argued that humans can train themselves, through much work and practice, to detect, challenge, and relinquish rigid and extreme attitudes that underpin emotional disturbance. He emphasized deliberate effort at adopting healthy, self-helping flexible and non-extreme attitudes. He also warned that because our self-defeating rigid thinking was biologically rooted we need to guard against backsliding as we can easily return to previous counterproductive ways of thinking, emoting, and behaving. Here again the way to prevent backsliding through work and practice of rational thinking, emoting and behaving, much like Epictetus advocated.

Unlike other modern cognitive-behavioral psychotherapies that have followed REBT, I argue that REBT is both a philosophy and a system of psychotherapy. As psychotherapy, it teaches people to question and relinquish their rigid and extreme attitudes and to adopt flexible and non-extreme attitudes. As a philosophy, it suggests values to live by which I will cover towards the end of today’s presentation.

Epictetus taught that “Learning that does not lead to action is useless.” Discourses 1.29.35 REBT also encourages the active study and use of the rational attitudes discussed in the psychotherapy session. To this end, clients are encouraged to reflect on their rigid and extreme attitudes when they are in their home environment to help themselves when they disturb themselves between sessions. We encourage clients to study REBT and to gain a firm understanding of its core ideas through home study that can take the form of reading self-help books on REBT or listening to instructional audio on REBT like those found at my website REBTDoctor.com. Like Epictetus we want the client to live and act in a way consistent with REBT philosophy and to forcefully dispute their rigid attitudes when disturbed, to practice through repetition healthy, rational attitudes, and to strive to live in harmony with them when the going of life gets rough!

The theory of REBT holds that four attitudes are responsible for nearly all non-psychotic emotional disturbance. One attitude is primary, and three derive from it and are secondary. Ellis humorously named the core attitude “musturbation” but also referred to it as “Demandingness.” He argued that absolutistic, rigid, dogmatic, anti-scientific attitudes were at the core of emotional disturbance. These attitudes can be expressed in different ways with words like (absolutely) must, (absolutely) should, (absolutely) have to, and (absolutely) need to. Ellis taught clients to assume that just about all their dogmatic musts fell under three major headings as follows:

  1. “I absolutely must perform well on important projects and be approved of by significant people or else I am an inadequate and unlovable person!”
  2. “Other people, particularly those I have cared for and treated well, absolutely must treat me kindly and fairly, or else they are rotten individuals who deserve to suffer!”
  3. “The conditions under which I live absolutely must be easy, unfrustrating, predictable, secure, and enjoyable or else the world’s an awful place, I can’t stand it, and I’ll never be happy!”

From these three musts at the core of emotional disturbance, three extreme secondary attitudes arise. These derivative attitudes are:

  1. It is awful, terrible, the end of the world (Awfulizing)
  2. It is intolerable, unbearable, I cannot stand it (Discomfort Disturbance)
  3. The Devaluation of self, others, life (Disturbance related to Human Worth

REBT teaches that if rigid attitudes are the core of disturbance, then flexible attitudes are at the center of emotional health. The characteristics of these healthy flexible attitudes are that they are empirically valid, logical and promote adaptation to the circumstances of life. They are typically expressed with words like want, wish, prefer, and desire. For example, in reference to the previously mentioned individual who has been angering himself over a colleague’s uncooperative behavior in the workplace, this man could move towards greater tolerance and emotional equanimity by holding the attitude “I want and strongly prefer that my colleague cooperate with me on this project, but it does not follow that he absolutely must cooperate with me on this project.”

As for the three derivatives non-extreme attitudes that derive from this healthy attitude of desiring and preferring cooperation from one’s colleague, those attitudes would be:

  1. It is bad, undesirable, inconvenient, etc. but not awful, terrible or the end of the world that I do not have his cooperation on this project.
  2. My colleague’s lack of cooperation is uncomfortable but not unbearable, intolerable, or something I cannot survive and live with as I do this project.
  3. My colleague is doing a bad deed by not cooperating with me but is not a bad person. His bad behavior is proof he is a fallible human, not proof he is a bad human. I can unconditionally accept him as a person while strongly condemning and never liking his bad, uncooperative behavior.

An alternative way of understanding the philosophy of REBT is that through the adaptation of flexible and non-extreme attitudes the individual to adopt a philosophy of unconditional self-acceptance (USA), unconditional other acceptance (UOA), and unconditional life acceptance (ULA).

Epictetus taught:

 “If you are ever tempted to look for outside approval, realize that you have compromised your integrity. So be satisfied just being a philosopher, and if you need a witness in addition, be your own; and you will be all the witness you could desire.” Enchiridion 23

In my view this quotation is similar to REBT’s view of unconditional self-acceptance.

Epictetus goes on to say:

“We use labels like ‘thief’ and ‘robber’ in connection with them, but what do these words mean? They merely signify that people are confused about what is good and what is bad. So should we be angry with them, or should we pity them instead?” Discourses I.18.13

In this quote I think we see Epictetus teaching a view of others that is highly consistent with REBT’s view of unconditional other-acceptance.

Epictetus also teaches:

Don’t hope that events will turn out the way you want, welcome events in whichever way they happen: This is the path to peace.”Enchiridion 8

I think this view by Epictetus is very close to REBT’s concept of unconditional life-acceptance.

Earlier I pointed out that unlike other cognitive behavioral therapies which followed it, REBT has and articulates specific philosophical values. Ellis argued that by striving to adopt these values a human would be moving towards emotional well-being and self-actualization. Here you see REBT going beyond the treatment of emotional disturbance and pointing the way towards emotional health and life satisfaction. Depending on your definition of what constitutes a philosophy, one could argue that it is the articulation of these guidelines that makes REBT more than a psychotherapy and perhaps a philosophy. These values include:

  1. Self-interest (enlightened self-interest)
  2. Social interest
  3. Self-direction
  4. High frustration and discomfort tolerance
  5. Flexibility in thinking, open to change, unbigoted
  6. Acceptance of Uncertainty
  7. Commitment to creative and meaningful pursuits
  8. Scientific thinking
  9. Self, Other and Life Acceptance
  10. Calculated Risk-taking
  11. Long-range hedonism (hedonic calculus)
  12. Nonutopianism & nonperfectionism related to self, others, and life
  13. Self-responsibility for own emotional disturbance

(REBT’s Principle of Emotional Responsibility)

Time does not allow me to point out the overlap between most REBT’s values for emotional well-being and those found within Stoic philosophy. I have already attempted to point out how discomfort tolerance, self/other/life acceptance, and the Principle of Emotional Responsibility can be seen in the quotations of Epictetus. I would show how REBT’s value for long-range hedonism is consistent with the words of Epictetus as shown in this quote:

 “As with impressions generally, if you get an impression of something pleasurable, watch yourself so that you are not carried away with it. Take a minute and let the matter wait on you. Then reflect on both intervals of time: the time you will have to experience the pleasure, and the time after its enjoyment that you will beat yourself up over it. Contrast that with how happy and pleased you’ll be if you abstain. If the chance to do the deed presents itself, take extra care that you are not overcome by its seductiveness, pleasure, and allure. Counter temptation by remembering how much better will be the knowledge that you resisted.” Enchiridion 34

I would like to close my presentation today by asserting that you consider adding REBT to your study of Stoicism. I believe that REBT is very consistent with many of the teachings of Stoic philosophy. I attempted to use Epictetus’s own words to support my view. I will add that like Stoicism, REBT is a tough-minded philosophy that holds up well when your worst nightmare or adversity occurs. I think REBT can help you as you strive to live virtuously as a fallible human in a challenging world.

For those of you who are mental health professionals or involved in philosophical coaching my recently published book, Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy – A Newcomer’s Guide may be useful to you if you wish to go beyond today’s presentation. For those of you who are not mental health professionals but wish to learn more about how you can use REBT in your life you may want to go to my website REBTDoctor.com. There you will find a number of audios and videos you can listen to at no charge. Finally, Ellis was a prolific writer of self-help literature and here a couple of three of the many titles that might be useful to you in learning to apply REBT to your problems of everyday living include:

  1. How to Make Yourself Happy and Remarkably Less Disturbable (A. Ellis)
  2. How to Stubbornly Refuse to Miserable About Anything, Yes Anything! (A. Ellis)
  3. How to Control Your Anger Before It Controls You(A. Ellis)

Thank you for your attention.

Walter Matweychuk is a clinical psychologist and REBT practitioner.  He teaches for New York University, maintains the website, REBTDoctor.com and is the co-author of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy: A Newcomer’s Guide.

Stoic Echoes in the Upanishads by Eric O. Scott

What is the cause of the cosmos? Is it Brahman?
From where do we come? By what live?
Where shall we find peace at last?
What power governs the duality
Of pleasure and pain by which we are driven?
—The Shvetashvatara Upanishad, 1.1

When you subscribe to a tradition as rich and universally relatable as Stoicism, it’s almost impossible not to see parallels to Stoic doctrines in other philosophies, books, movies, and poems.  If we were keeping score, I would probably nominate Rudyard Kipling’s “If—” to take top points for the most “Stoic-non-Stoic” writing ever to impact a culture, and whole books could be (and have been) written on the intersection between Stoic and Christian ethics.  We all like to compare and contrast new ideas against what we know and understand, and—as any moderator of a modern Stoic social media group knows—the list of objects we could substitute into the formula “How is Stoicism like X?” is effectively endless.

When it comes to Eastern traditions, Buddhism certainly takes the cake as far as being the most-discussed philosophy in the modern Stoic community (I count at least eight articles on Buddhist links in the Stoicism Today blog alone, and our Western Buddhist brothers and sisters, for their part, have also noticed the common ground).  Taoism is a close second, thanks to the (at least superficial) similarity between Laozi’s ziran/wuwei and Zeno’s injunction to “follow nature.”  Confucianism gets mentioned occasionally (though not often enough, in my opinion) for the close common ground it shares with Greco-Roman virtue ethics.

Amidst all this bustling conversation in today’s “Fifth Stoa,” Hindu philosophy often goes under-appreciated, I think.  A few months ago, inspired in no small part by Peter Adamson’s spectacular History of Philosophy without Any Gaps podcast and book series, I undertook to read the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita (which is sometimes known as the “Upanishad of the Upanishads”)—the famously beautiful texts that form the cornerstone of Indian philosophy—and what I found there pretty much knocked my socks off.

Reading the Upanishads is an amazing and sublime experience for anyone, whether you are an expert or a novice on Indian thought, and whether you are a theist, are sympathetic to mysticism, or are a secular atheist like myself.  As a practicing Stoic, moreover, I can’t help but notice substantial similarities in the questions, solutions, arguments, and metaphors that both traditions share in common.

Granted, traditions as distant divergent as Hinduism and Roman Stoicism no doubt have more differences than similarities, and it is extremely difficult (some say impossible) to really compare two lived traditions of life practice in a remotely comprehensive way.  It’s not that I put a very great or profound weight on the similarities between these two different traditions, or that I believe they are more similar than any other pair of philosophies.  We must always be cautious, I hasten to add, about the misconceptions we might get by trying to fit distant square pegs into familiar round holes.  But I do find it exhilarating to point out the shared problems and values that humans come to emphasize, even across vast geographical and cultural distances.   Collecting the “seeds of virtue,” as the ancients would say, that humans exhibit all across the world is an excellent way to go about learning about new cultures—and, I would add, to learn about ourselves in the process.

With that disclaimer out of the way, let me share a number of significant (if arbitrary and unsystematic) correspondences to the Upanishads that struck me—a practicing modern Stoic born and raised in the American Midwest—as eerily familiar, even profound during my amateur tour of the Indian classics.  As I read, the sheer number of connections grew at a much faster rate than I anticipated, and when I started to haphazardly jot them down, I realized that the common ground between the Stoic and Hindu classics is much weightier than I anticipated.

Summary

Overall, I’ve noticed correspondences in three broad areas: resilience and happiness, ethical action, and theory versus practice.

Under resilience and happiness, I noticed that both traditions recognize right out the door that their value system will need to be defended against skeptical readers who ask challenging questions.  Like Stoicism, the Upanishads deny that externals have genuine value, and they insist that happiness comes from some unassailable place within ourselves.  They even invent some of the same metaphors that the Stoics used later to drive home this point: where the Stoics have an “inner citadel,” the Upanishads give us the “city of Brahman,” and where Stoic determinism gives us a “dog tied to a cart,” the Upanishadic view of the body gives us an “ox tied to a cart.”

When it comes to ethical action, both traditions position themselves as a “middle way” that balances unhealthy (and amoral) detachment from the world against irrational and destructive passions.  The Upanishads present an idea of socially-engaged, “detached action” that inspired no less than the likes of Ghandi.  Like the Stoics, moreover, they suggest that our natural human emotions and senses—while not ultimate goods in themselves—are meant to help inform and motivate our actions toward moral excellence.  The Upanishadic of view of Karma also turns out (unexpectedly, in my perhaps naïve view) to have a strong parallel to the role that moral habituation plays in the Greek view of ethical development.  And the Stoic ethic of cosmopolitan love, with its basis in the universal Logos shared by all humankind, turns out to have a startling similarity to the Hindu-Buddhist-Jain notion of ahimsa, which the Upanishads attribute to humankind’s universal share in the Self (Atman).

Finally, the famous Stoic emphasis on the primacy of practice over theory is strongly mirrored in the Upanishads.  And while their metaphysics and epistemology appear very different on the surface—with the Stoics emphasizing reason, argument, and materialism, in contrast to the Upanishads‘ meditation, non-cognition, and universal Self—I found that the mystic emphasis on consciousness as the fundamental property of the universe feels quite similar, on some level, to the Stoic fascination with the Logos that structures the cosmos and underlies our human capacity for thought.

That summarizes the story I want to tell.  The rest of this essay will go through and explain each of these purported correspondences in more detail.

Resilience and Happiness

Preempting Skeptics

Both the Upanishadic and Stoic traditions advocate for the extirpation of emotions and values that many people normally associate with happiness and flourishing.  This means that, at their core, texts in both traditions tend to be aware that readers may very well be skeptical of the values they present.

For instance, in one of the longest and most famous of the Upanishads—the Chandogya Upanishad—no less than the god Indra himself gives voice to such skeptical concerns. Each time Indra repeatedly approaches the god Prajapati to become enlightened, he comes away dissatisfied by Prajapati’s answers.  Finally, when Prajapati tries to tell him that realizing Brahman is like “sleeping soundly, free from dreams, with a still mind,” Indra has had enough (8.11.1):

The state of dreamless sleep is very close to extinction.  In this knowledge I see no value.

This exchange struck me as closely related to the initial objections that people often have (starting with Crantor’s famous objection to Stoicism in the 3rd century B.C.E.)  to the Greek doctrine of apatheia.  If pursuing philosophy means suppressing our natural human emotions and instincts, then that sounds like the opposite of healthy flourishing!   Both traditions handle this objection in part by agreeing with it:  suppression of human nature is indeed unhealthy, but that is not what we advocate.  Whatever you may need to sacrifice to follow our path, great, genuine happiness and flourishing is nonetheless to be found without the attachments and passions that we have rejected (via, say, the eupatheia, or the lasting joy found in moksha).

Externals Aren’t the Point

Both traditions share a de-emphasis on the inherent value of pleasure and external things.  Both see externals as natural and worth enjoying, but teach that there is something more important and deeply joyful than pleasure.  See especially the remarks that Yama (the god of death) makes after testing Nachiketa in the Katha Upanishad:

Perennial joy or passing pleasure?
This is the choice one is to make always.
Those who are wise recognize this, but not
The ignorant.  The first welcome what leads
To abiding joy, though painful at the time.
The latter run, goaded by their senses,
After what seems immediate pleasure.
Well have you renounced these passing pleasures
So dear to the senses, Nachiketa,
And turned your back on the way of the world
That makes mankind forget the goal of life.

We can easily see connections here to the way the Greeks discuss joy, flourishing, and the human telos.  Both traditions also emphasize the control of the passions, and the existence of a form of consciousness that can rise above sense impressions.  Both teach that this higher part of our existence is part of our fundamental nature.

Happiness is Invulnerable

Along a similar vein, both teach that we can find true happiness by seeking something that we carry within us already.  “Seek and realize the Self!” says the Chandogya Upanishad  (8.7.1):

Those who seek and realize the Self fulfill all their desires and attain the goal supreme.

Moreover, in the ensuing interaction between the gods Indra and Prajapati, we see the same insistence as in the Greeks that the answer to our life’s fulfillment ought to be something that is preserved in the face of any misfortune.  Much like in Stoic syllogisms, Indra rejects the body as the ultimate Self, because it can be injured and become blind or lame; he rejects dreams, because we can experience pain and injury even in dreams, etc.  At each step, he repeats “in such knowledge, I can see no value.”  Like the philosophers of ancient Greece, he is looking for a source of consolation that is utterly invulnerable to misfortune.

Citadels, Dogs, and Carts

Interestingly, I noticed two key metaphors that the two traditions seem to have independently invented: the citadel and the cart.

The Stoic image of the inner citadel is comparable to the comforting role that the “city of Brahman” plays in the Chandogya Upanishad (8.1.5).  Just like the Stoics use the ultimate value and invulnerability of virtue as the basis of their consolations, the Upanishads emphasize the permanence and supreme value of the Self (Atman):

Never fear that old age will invade that city; never fear that this inner treasure of all reality will wither and decay.  This knows no age when the body ages; this know no dying when the body dies.  This is the real city of Brahman; this is the Self, free from old age, free from death and grief, hunger and thirst.

Something very similar to the Stoic “dog and cart” metaphor appears in the Chandogya Upanishad (8.12.2):

In that state, free from attachment, they move at will, laughing, playing, and rejoicing.  They know the Self is not this body, but only tied to it for a time as an ox is tied to its cart.

The Katha Upanishad also uses a vivid depiction of a chariot and horses to describe the parts of the Self.  This is awfully similar to Plato’s famous chariot allegory, though used to different effect.  Granted, the Stoic and Platonic views of human nature differ substantially, but it’s an interesting parallel nonetheless.

Death

Finally, both traditions share an interest in death meditation.  Notably in the Katha Upanishad (1.6):

like corn mortals ripen and fall; like corn they come up again .

Ethical Action

The Middle Way

A second critical objection that both traditions must fend off is the question of how, once we accept the claim that what is really valuable comes from within, can we motivate a life of action and ethical engagement with the external world?

The Upanishads and the Baghavad Gita respond to this challenge by emphasizing the need for a combination of detachment and action.  The basic argument is that we are wretched if we neglect either one.

An especially stirring statement of this principle is found in the Isha Upanishad.  Mahatma Gandhi famously considered the Isha, which is one of the shortest of the Upanishads, to be the most important summary of Hindu philosophy.  Here is what it has to say about action:

In the dark live those for whom
The world without alone is real; in night
Darker still, for whom the world within
Alone is real.  The first leads to a life
Of action, the second to a life of meditation.
But those who combine action with meditation
Cross the sea of death through action
And enter into immortality
Through the practice of meditation.
So we have heard from the wise.

This suggests that the life of an enlightened Sage assumes the form of a middle way between total detachment and totally attached action.  For me, this passage in the Isha evokes Epictetus’ remarks about the similar balance Stoicism aims to strike (Discourses, 2.5.9):

It is difficult, to be sure, to unite and combine these two states of mind, 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.  For otherwise it would be impossible for us to be happy.

Stoicism too, of course, positioned itself as a middle way between Cynicism (which they considered overly detached, sometimes to the point of amorality) and the Aristotelians, Epicureans, and Cyrenaics, who they viewed as falling into the opposite extreme.

Detached Action

The notion of “detached action” also plays a key role at the beginning of the Gita.  This component of Indian tradition established very early on that we should do good for its own sake, not out of concern for external reward or even Karma.  The parallel here to Greco-Roman virtue ethics is strong and obvious.

On that note, the god Yama briefly mentions that our emotions toward external things help “prompt us to action” (Kata Upanishad, 2.1).   This is also a popular interpretation of Stoic proto-passions—the idea being that our natural human emotions serve as information processors or warning signals that may help focus our attention and prompt us toward our duty.

Moral Habituation and Karma

The concept of moral habituation, which is absolutely fundamental to much of Greek ethics (from Socrates and Aristotle to the Stoics), makes an appearance in the Upanishads as part of the explanation for how the law of Karma operates (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 4.5):

As a person acts, so he becomes in life.  Those who do good become good; those who do harm become bad.

This argument did a great deal to demystify Karma for me.  Rather than a cosmic “scorekeeper” that somehow tracks our actions and pays out rewards, the Upanishads describe Karma as the natural results of a process of moral habituation:

We live in accordance with our deep, driving desire.  It is this desire at the time of death that determines what our next life will be.  We will come back to earth to work out the satisfaction of that desire.

While the Stoics weren’t generally sympathetic to the Pythagorean theory of a cycle of rebirths, this view of Karma nonetheless resonates with the Stoic focus on training our desires and aversions to be directed at what is truly valuable in life.

Cosmopolitanism and Ahimsa

The Upanishadic case for universal love is based on the idea that we love others because the universal Self (Atman) lives in all of us (the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 2.4.5):

Everything is loved not for its own sake, but because the Self lives in it.

And again in the Chandogya Upanishad (8.7.4):

When you look into another’s eyes, what you see is the self, fearless and deathless.  That is Brahman, the supreme.

This tradition is what gave rise to the famous concept of ahimsa (nonviolence), so prevalent across Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism.

Both ahimsa and the rationale behind it strike me as remarkably similar to the Stoic notion that humanity belongs to one family because of our mutual share in the Divine Reason (Logos).  The analog to ahimsa, then, is the cosmopolis.

Unlike ahimsa, however, classical Stoic cosmopolitanism (like Western tradition more broadly) excludes concern for animals (since animals do not share in Reason).  Most contemporary Stoics, I think, consider this a clear shortcoming of our tradition: we are very much interested in expanding the sphere of Stoic Justice to explicitly include concern for animals (see for instance Leonidas Konstantakos’ essay, “Would a Stoic Save the Elephants?“).  Whether we can do that by appealing to a more general notion of the Logos that includes animals, or whether we need to rely on additional moral arguments, is a question I hope today’s Stoics will work on and flesh out.

Theory versus Practice

Going Beyond Books

Wisdom is found in practice and self-understanding, not in book smarts.  Epictetus’ remarks about the inadequacy of simply mastering Chrysippus’ logic (as impressive a feat as that may be) find a parallel in the incomplete education of Shvetaketu in the Chandogya Upanishad (chapter 6), and to the impressive resumé of Narada, who has, it seems, learned absolutely everything except how to live a good life (7.1.2–3):

I know the four Vedas—Rig, Yajur, Sama, Atharva—and the epics, called the fifth.  I have studied grammar, rituals, mathematics, astronomy, logic, economics, physics, psychology, the fine arts, and even snake-charming.  But all this knowledge has not helped me to know the Self.  I have heard from spiritual teachers like you that one who realizes the Self goes beyond sorrow.  I am lost in sorrow.  Please teach me how to go beyond.

Along these lines, the Mundaka Upanishad also draws an interesting distinction between “higher” and “lower” knowledge (1.4–5).

The illumined sages say
Knowledge is twofold, higher and lower.
The study of the Vedas, linguistics,
Rituals, astronomy, and all the arts
Can be called lower knowledge.  The higher
Is that which leads to Self-realization.

Consciousness and Logos

The tradition of Stoic physics is one that brings us right up to the edge of mystic territory, even if it stops short of entering into the same sorts of meditations or conclusions that we associate with mystic tradition proper.  As such, Stoicism shares with the Upanishads (and other mystic traditions) a fascination with consciousness, and a belief that consciousness (or something closely related to it) is a fundamental aspect of the universe.

“All reality is consciousness,” says the Aitareya Upanishad, in one of the four great utterances that are considered to sum up Upanishadic philosophy.

Conclusion

The ecumenical view I have presented here notwithstanding, in the last analysis it may very well be that the differences between Stoic and Hindu traditions dramatically outweigh their similarities.  The cultural context, metaphysical assumptions, and matrix of background models and questions that each of these literatures arose in were entirely different.  Here I haven’t attempted anything resembling a proper introduction to the traditions inspired by the Upanishads and how their special characteristics differentiate them from Greek and Western thought.  But to highlight one fundamental difference, the Upanishadic approach to knowledge and to ultimate human flourishing places heavy emphasis on using meditation to look into ourselves to discover the essence of both our nature and cosmic reality.  Take for instance, the Shvetashvatara Upanishad (1.2,11):

In the depths of meditation, sages
Saw within themselves the Lord of Love,
Who dwells in the heart of every creature…

In deep meditation aspirants may
See forms like snow or smoke.  They feel
A strong wind blowing or a wave of heat.
They may see within them more and more light:
Fireflies, lightning, sun, or moon.  These are signs
That they are well on their way to Brahman.

This idea is of meditation and self-realization is a (if not the) major unifying theme of the Upanishads, and it does not strike me as at all equivalent to the Stoic aspiration toward virtue, or toward using scientific inquiry to understand the cosmic Logos.  It thus seems to represent a fundamental difference between the two traditions’ methods and aim.

Nevertheless, by taking the time to think about the common ground between a few of these foundational books from human history, I’d like to think that I’ve learned more, not just about Indian philosophy and what it considers important for human life, but about Stoicism too, and what makes the path of the prokopton valuable and meaningful.  If resilience and happiness, ethical action, and a practical approach to theory are what jump out to me as salient when I compare the Stoics to the Upanishads, it suggests that those three kinds of activity are the pillars of what really matters in Stoic practice.  All the other details—whether it is the logic of Chrysippus, or the “Vedas and linguistics,” or “even snake-charming”—is secondary.

 

Eric “Siggy” Scott manages the Stoics for Justice group on Facebook and writes the blog Euthyphroria. He is especially interested in the interactions among Stoic practice, personal social engagement, and social justice advocacy. 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.

Stoic Parenting in the Age of Distraction by Meredith Kunz

Growing up, I watched my dad concentrate on his work. When I was very small, he had a desk in the attic of our three-story house where he’d intensely study his complex math problems in peace. Later, he used to sit and think on the screened-in front porch as the world went by in good weather, or bend over his clipboard on a chair in the living room when it was too cold outside. No matter who was passing through the room or what noises were blaring from TVs or radios, he kept working. He could concentrate deeply no matter what the circumstance, pursuing research in his head and making notes on his page.  

It’s something I’ve always found intuitive: You need to tune out the rest of the world to get something truly good accomplished. But it’s much easier said than done.

Cutting through the noise is a key focus of Stoic thinking. Distractions, when not about entertainment, are often about status, reputation, wealth, attire, food, drink, or other things that don’t really contribute to our real accomplishments in life. They are the trappings of what we want, the side effects of outward success—a mere distraction from what our minds and “inner geniuses” (a favorite term of mine from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations) truly need.

Sorting this out, though, is more complicated than ever these days. When I watch my older daughter deal with the stresses of middle school social life, I remember my own experiences growing up. I think back to just how difficult it was to try to rise above petty fights or pulls of peer pressure, the distractions of crushes and desires to impress everyone, to win attention or respect. But it’s worse now. Social distractions are writ large in social media. What used to be a minor moment of embarrassment can turn into a major debacle online, maybe even cyberbullying.

And screens keep popping up everywhere we look. We are surrounded by distractions, in the form of games, shows, videos, popups, podcasts, movies, news flashes, tweets, status updates, and much more.

Today’s online networks are designed to tap into reward systems in our brains, pumping us with dopamine when we get a positive response, keeping us coming back for more “likes” and “shares” until whole hours are consumed. Even reading news online—a favorite activity of mine—is perhaps just another form of distraction. From a Stoic point of view, I can’t control 1) how people respond to me and my posts and 2) how the news, politics, and external issues outside my direct circle develop. So why devote so much time and energy to focusing on both of these things?

Here’s the real question: how can we keep our attention on what really matters? Somehow, we have to become stronger in our efforts to fight distractions, big and small.  

For me, Stoic thinking is about working on the self first. By doing so, we can free our minds and bodies to do the real work, aiming for achievements that make us better people and the world a better place.

The exact nature of that work is less important than the ability to turn our own virtues into something good—whether through raising a healthy and (relatively) well-adjusted child, creating beautiful works of art (especially functional ones, like the quilts I enjoy making), leading a battalion, developing a new technology, building a house, teaching someone a fresh skill, writing a blog, or just about anything that you and others can find value in. For me, the work is about first, raising my daughters, and second, exploring how Stoic thinking and a mindful approach can help me and those I love create a good life.

The ancient Stoics worried about distraction from good work, too. Marcus Aurelius offers these thoughts in his Meditations, which we must recall were his notes to himself:

Concentrate every minute like a Roman—like a man—on doing what’s in front of you with precise and genuine seriousness, tenderly, willingly, with justice. And on freeing yourself from all other distractions. Yes, you can—if you do everything as if it were the last thing you were doing in your life, and stop being aimless, stop letting your emotions override what your mind tells you, stop being hypocritical, self-centered, irritable.

I am not a man, nor a Roman, but I do long to concentrate with “genuine seriousness, tenderly, willingly, with justice.”  And I am intent on becoming less “aimless” and “irritable”—especially as a mother and as a wife.

But to me, Marcus’ words read like a rather harsh pep talk. For today’s world, I’d like to try shifting the emphasis to address an encouragement for modern people, and, in particular, parents. Let’s stop and consider how to bolster parents’ ability to concentrate on their task, and to do it “tenderly, willingly, with justice.”

Everyone agrees that distracted parenting is a rising problem, at least in the US where I live. It’s obvious from even a casual observation: Go to any school pickup area or any local park and you’ll see dozens of parents or caregivers intently studying their phones.

Our devices not only offer entertainment for us as adults, which in many ways is more appealing than talking with or interacting with our own children. Let’s face it, sometimes hanging out with kids can be dull, so it’s hardly a moral failing to want stimulation—but we should be aware of the impact. (Dull might be an understatement. I remember my daughters going to the park as preschoolers and covering and uncovering their feet and legs with sand umpteen times. It only got “interesting” when another girl decided to throw sand in my kids’ eyes and we considered a trip to urgent care.)

Our phones also pull us away from other parents, robbing us of a community of people who could share in our challenges and give us some much-needed support. In fact, I’m quite embarrassed to recall the time when I acquired my first smartphone. My older daughter was entering school at a local elementary program where I knew almost no one. Sadly, I used the iPhone to shield my face from some parents who seemed scornful of me. It’s hardly an excuse, but I felt terribly awkward after trying to start a conversation a few times at class pickup, and being ignored or answered tersely. So the phone “rescued” me from facing other adults.

Now I try harder. When I have to wait to pick up my kids, I attempt to avoid automatically going onto my phone. I look for some other parents to connect with. And when I take the kids to the park, instead of gluing my face to the latest FB posts, I either talk with the kids or other people there, or I take a brisk circular walk around the perimeter, observing not just the children but the trees, birds, plants.

There is one fundamental problem, though, something that I doubt Marcus experienced as a man and a Roman. It’s this: the act of parenting itself is not only dull at times, it is really an exercise in constant distraction.

From the moment they are born, children are unpredictable beings with many needs. You never know in advance how to plan for all feedings, playtime, lessons, bedtime. I recall being told that babies are on their own schedule, and mothers (and fathers) are simply living according to their needs (for food, sleep, etc.). Parents who attempt to strictly enforce timed boundaries and pre-planned events quickly learn that the struggle to maintain a tight schedule is nearly impossible.

Many, many, many times my children have interrupted my work. For years I was their primary caretaker, always on call when they were at home, which was the bulk of the time. Even now, as a grade-schooler and middle-schooler, they still turn to me and their dad for help.

That presents a tough problem for parents: How do we find a sense of concentration and a freedom from unhelpful distractions as moms and dads?

I’ll propose a few key thoughts here. They may seem obvious, but helping to recall these and validate them as modern Stoics can make the fight against distraction more real and more serious.

First, when we turn to our devices, we can remember the real purpose of why we use technology. Is it to gather likes and friends? To get retweets? An online popularity contest leaves me cold. I’ve never been a joiner or a follower, in fact, and I find it odd to see the numerically huge networks some old acquaintances have built online.

I don’t love interacting solely online, because I crave a real connection with people, both in my personal life and in my professional career. The best way to do this is in person, where I can focus on an individual’s face, voice, expressions, and have a real face-to-face conversation and back-and-forth exchange. If that’s not possible, I’m still glad to connect and share, but I try hard to do that authentically, with passion and purpose, to share news or to forge a genuine link or to spread information or to teach/learn something, to make connections I’m not able to do in person because of some logistical limitation. I try to avoid what I perceive as bragging and attempt to measure my words so they don’t make someone else feel small.

Technology is a tool. It can bring us great learning and ability to remotely work and spread ideas far and wide. But to me, it’s not an end in itself.

Second, while with our children, we can strive to be present and mindful. Parents can do their best to bring a sense of focus and concentration to time with our children, though we must be willing to suffer countless interruptions. I have worked on this, and often failed, but I still continue to do so.

As kids get older, their needs drastically change. They are more able to do much more, and we should not be afraid to expose them to new things that separate us from our typical distractions. I recently took my older daughter to a “sound healing,” an unusual combination of Tibetan singing bowls, meditation, and silent visualization. We shared this rather incredible experience, both learning a new way to focus on internal thoughts.

Kids can learn to be more present, too, and to be less encumbered by distractions, if they are not constantly amused and entertained. When I noticed parents at the table next to me setting up an iPad with an animated movie in front of their toddler child while eating at a restaurant, I felt intensely sad. (I was glad when my daughters agreed.) And hiking on a hillside trail in Yosemite, we came across a man with a toddler in his backpack, watching a video on an iPhone while he hiked through an incredible wilderness. My family was rather horrified.

This approach teaches that children have a constant need/right to be entertained and distracted by fun, stimulating movies, and that parents do not need to work on being present for their kids while eating or hiking or doing just about anything. As much as we all love movies and shows, we have to agree on some limits.

Third, even though we generally feel our kids come first—and that’s a very good thing—we can still consider blocking out time for “deep work.” I liked Cal Newport’s 2016 book Deep Work—he reminds readers of what my dad instinctively knew. We need to allow time and energy for doing more difficult tasks if we want to achieve something, and we must commit to really putting in the effort.

Epictetus spoke of this in his handbook. He pointed to an Olympic athlete, saying that everyone would like to be so strong and fit. But people do not realize that in reality, it takes enormous work, sacrifice, and dedication to get to that level of competition. It means missing out on the rest, comfort, food, and pleasures of regular life, and training long and hard. Are you willing to make tough choices to do what you feel called to accomplish?

If so, the first step is to work towards gaining the most precious resource: Time. As parents, we have to pay for time from sitters or daycare, but it’s often worth it to have the opportunity to get some time to focus. (If you can’t afford it, you may be able to swap babysitting time with other parents.)

It may not be easy. To concentrated deep work, you won’t only miss time with the kids. You will have to turn down the fun downtime distractions you enjoy. We can’t stream the latest Netflix series while we work on a passion project. To make the time, we have to be willing to give up something else.

But at the end of it, you will have done far more than consume someone else’s entertaining work—you’ll have created something of value, for you and for others. And that goes far beyond the fleeting pleasure of the endless parade of distractions.

Meredith Kunz is The Stoic Mom. She is a professional writer, editor, wife, and mother to two daughters in Northern California on a journey to discover how Stoicism and mindfulness can change a parent’s (or any person’s) life. Her passion project: a book-length version of The Stoic Mom, focusing on modern women, motherhood, and Stoicism. Follow her blog at www.thestoicmom.com.

Stoic Week 2017 Report Part 4: Feedback on Stoic Week and Overall Conclusions by Tim LeBon

This article is the fourth part of the report on Stoic Week 2017. The previously published parts of the report summarised the  demographics, the relationships between well-being and degree of Stoicism at the start of Stoic Week, the  impact of taking part in Stoic Week  and  the longer SMRT course on well-being and degree of Stoicism .[i]  This is a

The research on Stoicism is progressing well. To move to the next level, your help would be most welcome. If you are familiar with quantitative or qualitative research methods, and would like to be involved of some of the above research – or if you have your own ideas about how we could further research the effectiveness of Stoicism – we would to hear from you. Please contact  Tim LeBon  by email (tim@timlebon.com)

The report is divided into two sections. The first part provides representative samples of the qualitative feedback provided by participants after Stoic Week. The second part draws together findings from all the reports for 2017 Stoic Week and makes some recommendations for future work. The appendices summarise quantitative feedback on other aspects of Stoic Week, such as the audio recordings and daily exercises. You can download a full PDF of this report with all of the appendices here.

Participants’ Qualitative Feedback

 Appendix 1 contains quantitative feedback on how much Stoic Week helped in specific areas of life such as relationships, becoming a better person and becoming wiser. Below is a sample of the qualitative feedback.

Relationships

“Helped me realise that other people are out of my control, yet they are humans facing the struggles of life just like I am. And this made me feel a greater connection to others”

“[I am] not dwelling on hurts as much”

“I pass less judgment on people and contain my anger. It really changed my relationship with my mother-in-law.”

“Knowing that people’s thoughts about me are outside of my control and I shouldn’t worry about them, only care about my actions, helps reduce my anxiety/shyness. Now there have been times when I just said what I wanted to say sincerely and was satisfied with it regardless of what my friends might think. I just think “I said what I had to say and I didn’t say anything wrong; now what they think of me is outside of my control” and feel relieved. Also I’ve noticed I care more about what I really am than what I show off to others”

Becoming a Better Person

“Keeping a daily journal helped”

“Yes, because I become more virtuous.”

“Really felt that I was able to maintain an inner state of awareness of thoughts and emotions appearing through the day and able to step back and let them abate. This state of mindfulness also helped me to make better decisions through each day”

Wisdom

“Now for everything I do I think of Stoic virtues to check if I’m doing things according to my values instead of unconsciously doing whatever I feel like doing”

Other Ways in which Stoic Week helped

Some participants described other ways in which Stoic Week helped them as follows :-

“Dealing with grief”

“Being more just”

“Become less anxious”

“Stoic week helped me to be more focused on my priorities and produce better quality work.”

“Controlling anger; Stoic Week has had a huge impact in my ability to step outside of myself, so to speak, and view my thoughts as only thoughts and not what they pretend to be. I’ve been able to short-circuit anger many, many times using Stoic techniques.”

“Calmer, more patient, very much helps to keep anxiety and depression away.”

“Being more patient & content”

“Increased reflections”

“Much better prepared to stop negative thoughts and to focus on doing the right thing and thinking straight”

“Better understanding of the Meaning of Life”

“I find it easier to accept my death … it was indirectly because “On the Shortness of Life” wasn’t in the list, but Stoic week mentions Seneca a lot so I ended up reading this book and it’s really good. Now I’m always thinking of my time as a precious resource and I tend to not waste as much time as I used to.”

Further Comments

Participants were also given the opportunity to make other comments about  their experience of Stoic Week.  Below is a sample:

“This is really invaluable to me.”

“It’s been really helpful, much more than I had even hoped”

“I feel inspired to maintain the practice of Stoicism long term.”

“This is amazing that this is free! I think if everyone lived by applying stoicism to their everyday encounters with others then this world would be a much more peaceful place.  I hope to interest others in this website! Thanks a million!!”

“Thank you. A wonderful introduction to the application of this philosophy to daily life.”
“I got a lot of value from the course and materials. I will be repeating the course for weeks to come to help cement the habits and practices and gain a greater understanding of myself.”

“This was a great course, really helped change my perspective on life. I would be very interested in mini lessons (maybe once a week or fortnight) on Stoic topics as a consistent way to get wisdom and virtue. Thank you for building this, I will certainly be back for Stoic Week 2018!”

“Thank you for organizing this event!”

“Simply and honestly: thank you.”

“Thank you to the team for a wonderful program. I have recommended it to a number of people whom I felt would benefit from it.”

“I’m a university professor with a large number of postgraduate students who I think would all benefit from the Stoic Week experience. I will introduce them to Stoicism at our meeting next week”

“Thank you for organizing this. This is my second year, and I have to tell you that my introduction to Stoicism from last year’s course made a serious positive impact on my life. After that course I went on to read the M.A. Meditations, one each day. Then I read the Epictetus Enchiridion, about one section per day. I then ordered Seneca’s letters and read about one per day. This propelled me for several months of starting my day with a Stoic reflection. So, a wholehearted thank you for putting these materials and events together. I am grateful to have encountered the group and site, and will look forward to next year’s event!”

 

Overall Conclusions and Recommendations

Drawing together the above feedback with the findings report in the first 3 parts of these report, the most significant findings from Stoic Week 2017 are as follows:

Demographics

  • 79% of respondents were participating in Stoic Week for the first time.
  • The ratio of males to females was 65% to 34%
  • Over 43% of respondents were from USA

Analysis from initial set of questionnaires taken at the start of Stoic Week

  • Findings replicated previous research about the strong positive relationship between Stoicism, life satisfaction, flourishing and the emotions.
  • This analysis can also suggest various “active ingredients” in Stoicism in terms of promoting well-being
  • For the first time we can also say that there is evidence to support the view that Stoicism is associated with virtues and positive character traits, as measured on a validated contemporary scale, the CIVIC.
  • A less expected result is that zest turns out to be the character trait most associated with being Stoic.

Analysis from second set of questionnaires taken at the end of Stoic Week

  • Previous years findings regarding the significant increase in well-being on all measures on average for those who take part in Stoic week were replicated.
  • For the first time, a 3 month follow up (for the month long SMRT Stoic Resilience course) has found that the benefits reaped by participants are maintained after 3 months.
  • The 9%  change in Stoic Attitudes and Behaviours overall is significant in that it supports the view that it is changes in level of Stoicism that is mediating the change in well-being rather than other variables, such as the placebo effect.

Summary of Participant Feedback

  • Most participants gave a high rating to experience overall and the materials used, including the audio recordings and daily exercise.
  • Participants additionally reported Stoic Week to be helpful in helping them to be better people, to become wiser, with relationships and to become more knowledgeable about Stoicism.
  • Many participants were very grateful for the opportunity to take part in Stoic Week and described the ways in which they had benefited

Pulling these ideas together, and drawing on some specific suggestions given in feedback, here are some ideas about how to progress with Stoic Week

  • There was overwhelming support for repeating the experience
  • Some participants mooted the idea of a level 2 Stoic Week for people who had already done a Stoic Week before – perhaps with more advanced materials
  • Some participants were interested in doing these exercises for a longer time – perhaps a Stoic fortnight or month
  • There was a strong interest in the materials being made available earlier and being translated into as many languages as possible
  • The Stoic Week Handbook and the SMRT and other questionnaires could be made available all year.
  • We now have an iOS app, via Teachable, which is available for people to use to do Stoic Week and SMRT.  There is not an app available for Android, and that would be beneficial
  • Some participants would like to see more of different Stoics than Marcus and Epictetus e.g. Seneca.
  • It would be desirable for there to be more follow-up courses
  • It would be useful to capture some more specific demographic information e.g. specific country and possibly employment status
  • The SABS questionnaires should be further refined e.g. validating SABS as a scale, making the language simpler. It would also be good to split it into, for example, five Stoic themes, and give participants a rating for each theme.
  • It should be possible to do further qualitative research. For example, groups doing Stoic Week together could form a focus group to feed back their experience in some detail, perhaps responding to semi-structured interviews

In conclusion, the research on Stoicism is progressing well. To move to the next level, your help would be most welcome. If you are familiar with quantitative or qualitative research methods, and would like to be involved of some of the above research – or if you have your own ideas about how we could further research the effectiveness of Stoicism – we would to hear from you.  Please contact the current author by email.

[i] For a comparison with last year see the final part of the Stoic Week 2016 report.

Tim LeBon is the author of Wise Therapy and Activate Your Potential With Positive Psychology.  He can be contacted via email at tim@timlebon.com.  His website is  http://www.timlebon.com

The Toronto Stoic Circle by Peter Limberg

I was introduced to Stoicism while studying philosophy at the University of Toronto as an undergraduate and like most philosophy students my exposure to Stoic thought did not occur in the classroom. The likes of Seneca or Marcus Aurelius may have been briefly mentioned in a first-year survey course but they were not heard beyond that. It was only when a friend gifted me the Enchiridion by Epictetus for my birthday did I discovered the rich world of the Stoics. I quickly realized this is what I was looking for. This is what I originally went into philosophy for. Not only for answers but answers that were actionable. Answers with no pretensions, fluff, or bullshit. I found myself a home.

The main idea I took from reading Epictetus was the profound and elegantly simple Dichotomy of Control. Focus on what is in your control and do not worry about the rest. While surely one of the most intuitive principles within Stoicism, it is also one of the most difficult to practice. I noticed an unsettling pattern form. When I was reading the Stoics I experienced a profound sense of serenity, but how easily did this serenity become disrupted when I stepped away from the texts. This odd codependency with the Stoic text made me somewhat frustrated with Stoicism in general. While it is a philosophy that is wonderfully stacked with useful principles, it did not have a systemized approach to practice like Zen Buddhism, or some schools of western psychotherapy.

The organizer of the Vienna Stoics, Christian Walter, recently wrote me a similar sentiment – “I am very much surprised by the contrast that stoic principles seem to be so clearly and ‘ready to use’ but that it is so extremely challenging to consequently implement them into my daily life.” Extremely challenging indeed. To give credit where credit is due, the popularizers of Modern Stoicism, such as William Irvine, Donald Robertson, and Massimo Pigliucci, have done a wonderful job outlining a variety of Stoic practices for us to engage in.

Whether it be the View from Above, Negative Visualization, or Voluntary Discomfort (cold showers anyone?) we now have a slew of Stoic exercises to engage in thanks to these gentlemen. However, there still is much room for innovation. Moreover, the principle that resonated with me the most, the Dichotomy of Control, remained elusive when it came to practice. I wanted something I could do with consistent loyalty.

Like the philosopher Ken Wilber says, it is a practice that allows one to turn a state into a trait. This left me with the following question: How can we take the serene state which comes from knowing what is in your control and turn it into a trait? To put it another way, how could can we practice this core principle of Stoicism as if it were like brushing our teeth in the morning?

The Stoic Circle

On October 16, 2017, Stoicism Toronto held its first Stoic Circle, Toronto’s first and only practitioners group. We are treating the Stoic Circle as a sandbox for us to play in, with preexisting Stoic practices and to invent and test new ones. The benefits are two-fold, A) to embody Stoic principles through regular practice, and B) to create a living and breathing Stoa in Toronto.

We originally designed the Stoic Circle in hopes for it to be a modality that could be repeated by other Stoic groups. While its much too soon to say if we achieved this, I’d like to share our prototyping efforts with the wider Stoic community, in hopes to turn this project into an open dialogue with Stoic groups worldwide.

In the current iteration of the Stoic Circle, we are experimenting with a 3-Step technique designed to help ingrain the Dichotomy of Control. The three steps are:

  • Step 1 – Defuse (…from your thoughts)
  • Step 2 – Determine (…what is under your control)
  • Step 3 – Decide (…what to do when you know what is under your control)

Let’s examine each step in turn, with the particular techniques we have been utilizing.

Step 1 – Defuse with The Stoic Theatre

Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT), considered one of the psychotherapeutic modalities of third-wave CBT, offers a powerful technique called Cognitive Defusion. Originally referred to as “deliteralization”, this is the process of creating emotional distance from your thoughts, which results in less emotional triggering. You still have thoughts, but you no longer identity as your thoughts.


There are multiple ways to achieve cognitive defusion, one technique recommended in ACT is a visualization called Leaves on a Stream. Simply put, you imagine yourself sitting in front of a moving stream of water, you see leaves from trees above the stream slowly dropping into the stream. When you have a thought, you imagine your thought sitting on top of the leave while it falls on the water and flows down the stream. A new thought comes, a new leave falls.

For the Stoic Circle, we borrowed a similar technique from Neuro-linguistic Programming and dubbed it the Stoic Theatre. The technique is quite simple and could be done individually or in a group setting. Imagine you enter a spacious movie theatre, you sit in the middle of the theatre and are staring at a blank screen. Now, every time a thought occurs, you see it represented on the screen. You allow a thought to come when it wants to come and you allow it to go if it wants to go.

Now, mental imagery is easy for some and hard for others. Creating rich visualizations is a skill-set that can be developed over time. Do not be discouraged if you have difficulty with the visualization process, it gets better with practice. The point of this exercise is to allow yourself some distance from your thoughts so you can begin the important work of determining what is in your control.

This exercise can be done in a group setting, with a facilitator guiding the group throughout he visualization. It also can be done solitude, whenever your serenity is disturbed.

Step 2 – Determine with The Socratic Circles

The second step of the Stoic Circle is what we are calling The Socratic Circles. This is the heart of the modality. This utilizes the Q&A approach of the Socratic Method but in service of determining what is under your control.

The group is split into pairs, with one questioner and answerer at a time. The roles switch after a designated time. We found it powerful if the answerer has their eyes closed, but that is optional. The exercise proceeds in 5 steps:

  1. The questioner starts by asking the following question: “Are you willing to answer truthfully, in service of serenity?”
  2. Once answered in the affirmative, the questioner then asks the prompting question: “What is disturbing your serenity?” Ideally, the answerer brings a recent situation that is bothersome and has not been fully worked out. Examples: A fight with their partner, deciding what to study in school, an important career decision they are wrestling with, etc.
  3. The answerer (with help of the questioner’s probing) provides a statement that has four components:
    1. A scene. Describe what factually happened
    2. A trigger. Describe when the emotional triggered occurred
    3. A negative emotion. Describe what the emotion is like.
    4. Optional: A initial interpretation of why the trigger is bothersome
  4. The questioner then asks forthright questions to determine what are the “controllables” and “non-controllables” within the scene provided.
  5. Once established the roles switch.

Now, it needs to be said that good listening and questioning is a skill-set. A principle for the questioner to hold is that of Unconditional Positive Regard. Carl Rogers developed this concept to describe the fundamental attitude a psychotherapist has towars their client. It recommends a conversational disposition where one accepts and respects others as they are without judgment. To see this in action you can watch Carl Rogers counseling a woman named “Gloria”, which can be found here.

Another good resource we recommend is the philosopher Andrew Taggarts short guide entitled The Art of Inquiry, which can be found here. Lastly, Jordan Petersons newly released 12 Rules for Life has excellent advice on listening and questioning in the chapter on Rule 9, “Assume That the Person You Are Listening to Might Know Something You Don’t.”

This exercise is not designed to be a panacea for all your ills, but a way to hone your “stoic muscle” while expressing care and philia towards your fellow Stoic. The hope is, the more you do this, the more you will be able to know what is within your control and what is not. Deciphering what is in your control can itself be viewed as a skill to be developed.

Step 3 – Decide with What Would Marcus Do? (WWMD?)

In a lot of cases, people know what they have to do when they clarify what is under their control. However, oftentimes the situation is complex enough to warrant additional tools to help make a decision. Luckily there is a wealth of decision-making heuristics that one can use to make a decision. What Would Marcus Do? is one that utilizes that technique that Modern Stoics refer to as the Contemplation of the Sage.

In Enchiridion, Epictetus advised us to consider “’what would Socrates or Zeno have done” in situations where we meet people of high stature. The same question can be asked in any situation you find yourself in. Once you understand what is under your control you can ask yourself what would Marcus Aurelius, the great Stoic emperor, do in your situation (or Epictetus, or Seneca, or any other person you greatly respect). Trust your gut here. Engage in what Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow calls System 1 thinking, which is thinking that is fast and intuitive.

Now, this will not always be the perfect decision. You can always choose to engage further with what Kahneman calls System 2 thinking, which is slow and deliberate thinking, in order to stress test your intuitive System 1 decision. However at the very least you now have an option to go with. Oftentimes we do not have the opportunity to engage in lengthly thought, and having a clear direction can be better then not having any direction at all.

A Call to Action

We at Stoicism Toronto are not advocating this 3-Step approach to be adopted wholesale. We are moving forward with modesty and considering this in the testing phase. The reason I am sharing this is to encourage other Stoic groups around the world to start their own Stoic Circles and develop, experiment, and test with innovative exercises to help their member’s develop their stoic muscles.

Reading and discussing won’t be enough. Like anything worthwhile, consistent practice is needed. I think developing our stoic muscles is an important goal in today’s uncertain world. With political polarization, exponential technological growth, and economic anxieties, it is increasingly hard to confidently predict in good faith what the future will be like. Given this, I believe its incumbent on us Stoics to actually be Stoic and not just give mouth-service to our philosophy. For us to be a source of calm in the storm of uncertainty is a social good.

As the current head of the Activities Committee in the Stoic Fellowship, a world-wide community of Stoic groups, I welcome current organizers to share what their best practices are. If you are thinking of starting you own Stoic Circle, please feel free to reach out. I would be happy to have a conversation.

 

Peter Limberg is an entrepreneuer living in Toronto. He is the co-founder of Stoicism Toronto. You can follow him on twitter here.

Stoic and Buddhist Cognitive Behavioural Therapy by Patrick Ussher

The following is a modified extract from Patrick Ussher’s recent e-book Stoicism & Western Buddhism: A Reflection on Two Philosophies as a Way of Life.  Patrick is the founding editor of Stoicism Today, and one of the original members of the Modern Stoicism Team.

Stay with me a little while, sense-impression (phantasia). Allow me to see who you are and from where you come. Allow me to examine you.’- Epictetus [1]

Breathing in / I know that an unpleasant feeling has just arisen in me…Breathing out/ I can see the roots of this unpleasant feeling.’[2]

Hello, Fear. There you are again.’- Thich Nhat Hanh [3]

Both Stoicism and Buddhism encourage a healthy sense of doubt towards the thoughts and emotions we have each and every day. The aim of this doubt is to encourage us to take a step back when we have certain thoughts or feelings, examine them, and come up with a ‘wise response’ to them.

One such ‘wise response’ is simply to ensure that we have an accurate conception of what has occurred, and that we are not ‘clouded’ by, for example, erroneous thinking or overwhelming emotions. For, it is not, as Epictetus says, ‘…the things themselves that disturb men, but their judgements about these things’,[4] a psychological basis echoed by Thich Nhat Hanh, a leading contemporary Buddhist teacher, when he writes that ‘…wrong perceptions cause incorrect thinking and unnecessary suffering,’[5] encouraging his students instead to ask themselves continuously, ‘are you sure?’[6]

This focus on maintaining accuracy in our thoughts and emotions might seem rather similar to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (C.B.T.), a therapy designed for the removal of harmful beliefs which lead to, and perpetuate, various mental health problems, including anxiety disorders. C.B.T. in particular focuses on how accurate our thoughts and feelings may be.

Indeed, Stoicism and Buddhism are often regarded as being akin to C.B.T. in that both philosophies engage in actively replacing thoughts and behaviours, and, in that sense, both philosophies are, in a sense, forms of cognitive and behavioural therapy in their own right. Furthermore, it has been argued that both philosophies influenced the development of C.B.T. In the case of Stoicism, Albert Ellis, the founder of C.B.T., cited Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius as some of his main inspirations,[7] and Donald Robertson, a member of the Modern Stoicism project, has written a book on the Stoic origins of C.B.T.[8]

Meanwhile, in the case of Buddhism, Albert Ellis also cited the Buddha as one of his inspirations and, interestingly, Jack Kornfield considers that Buddhists were the ‘…first cognitive-behavioural therapists.’ [9] He cites the Buddha’s words from the Vitakkasanthana Sutta (Discourse on Removing Distracting Thoughts) from the Majhima Nikaya (The Middle Length Discourses) in support of this:

There is the case where evil, unskilful thoughts – imbued with desire, aversion, or delusion arise…(and then) he (the monk) should attend to another theme, apart from that one, connected with what is skilful….just as a skilled carpenter or his apprentice would use a small peg to knock out, drive out and pull out a large one…[10]

Such a ‘thought-replacement’ exercise is clearly a kind of cognitive therapy and we find something very similar in Stoicism with its emphasis on replacing ‘initial thoughts’ we have with wiser and more virtuous thoughts. However, while these general similarities do exist, it is very important, in my view, to separate both Buddhism and Stoicism from the more ‘clinical’ and overly rationalistic nature of C.B.T., even though there may be some similarities. For ultimately, Stoicism and Buddhism are philosophies which seek to offer coherent frameworks for life as a whole, something which C.B.T. does not, and cannot ever, do. C.B.T. focuses on removing specific problems, and it can be very helpful with this, but does not offer a ‘bigger picture’ approach for understanding life and how to live in general.

Let us consider instead the nature of Stoic and Buddhist behaviourism in their own right. If we were to categorise Buddhism or Stoicism as a form of C.B.T., how would we describe them? And what kind of practices in daily life would these philosophies encourage?

Buddhist “Behaviourism With Heart”

In the case of Buddhism, Jack Kornfield, a leading teacher of ‘Western Buddhism’, terms Buddhism’s equivalent to C.B.T. as ‘Behaviourism with Heart,’[11] writing that one changes thoughts out of compassion for oneself and others,[12] and that this is what is in ‘…our genuine interest,’[13] thereby divorcing the practice from a more clinical-therapeutic context. Rather than purely changing thoughts or emotions in order to make them more ‘accurate’, the Buddhist is also interested in cultivating a heart-felt response to our emotions and to those of others. Compassion is the ‘reference point’ to which the Buddhist so often refers in working with her thoughts and emotions. When we have feelings, particularly ones that we might otherwise try to avoid, the Buddhist instead aims to accept them, with a gentle and understanding love, and, in general, the Buddhist seeks solutions to larger life problems by considering them in the most compassionate light possible.

This encapsulates the heart of a Buddhist’s daily practice. The focus is on using mindfulness to accept the emotional flow of the day with a gentle love. This compassionate awareness allows the self to change gradually.

Stoic ‘Behaviourism Towards Virtue’

But what would the equivalent be in Stoicism? I would suggest that the Stoic equivalent is ‘Behaviourism towards Virtue’. By this I mean that the Stoic tries continuously to work out how to reframe their emotions and thoughts in light of virtue, which, according to Stoicism, is the most important thing in life.

Let us consider the following passage from Marcus Aurelius which essentially captures how this process works:

 …always make a sketch or plan of whatever presents itself to your mind, so as to see what sort of thing it is when stripped down to its essence, as a whole and in its separate parts; and tell yourself its proper name, and the names of the elements from which it has been put together and into which it will finally be resolved. For nothing is as effective in creating greatness of mind as being able to examine methodically and truthfully everything that presents itself in life, and always viewing things in such a way as to consider what kind of use each thing serves in what kind of universe, and what value it has to human beings as citizens of the highest of cities…and what this object is that presently makes an impression on me, and what it is composed of, and how long it will naturally persist, and what virtue is needed in the face of it, such as gentleness, courage, truthfulness, good faith, simplicity, self-sufficiency, and so forth.[14]

What Marcus suggests here is the cultivation of clear awareness of thoughts, and this involves taking a step back so as to delineate clearly what is on one’s mind. Marcus then tries to discern what place these thoughts and feelings might have in relation to his own ethical beliefs about what is most important in life. What kind of value-judgements are ‘packed into’ these impressions and are they ethically helpful? Then, he wishes to work out which ethical qualities will be of most help in approaching the situation to which the impressions relate: will it, for example, be gentleness, courage, or simplicity? This in particular is the point at which the Stoic tries to work out the ‘virtuous response’ to the impressions under consideration. Indeed, the entire purpose of the exercise is one of increasing ethical awareness. As Chris Gill, a scholar on Stoicism, writes of this passage:

Although this may seem at first to be a purely scientific or analytical procedure, what Marcus has in mind is getting to the ethical core of the situation.[15] 

By following these steps, Marcus takes the thoughts and feelings that arise in his mind and reframes them in the light of Stoic virtue. And, then, once he acts based upon his ‘virtuous response’, he will have successfully modified his behaviour ‘towards virtue’.

How can we sum up both approaches in the light of the C.B.T. analogy? The Buddhist continually moulds himself towards the compassionate mind. Indeed, Thich Nhat Hanh explains that the Chinese character for ‘mindfulness’ contains the signs for both ‘now’ and ‘heart.’[16] The Stoic, in contrast, consistently strives to mould her character towards virtue. If Stoic ‘prosoche/mindfulness had a Chinese character, it would probably be the signs for ‘now’ and ‘virtue’.

And if we were to seek to combine both kinds of mindfulness, the one which gives us an ethical compass by which to guide our life’s direction and the other to accompany us on that journey with heartfelt compassion, then we would be doing very well indeed.

[1] Discourses, 2.18.24.

[2] 2006a, 58ff. Text modified [original = ‘pleasant’ feeling, but this method is applicable to all feelings].

[3] 1995, 66.

[4] Handbook §5..

[5] 1998, 61.

[6] 1998, 60-61.

[7] In an interview with J. Evans (http://philosophyforlife.org/albert-ellis-on-philosophy-as-therapy/)

[8] The Philosophy of CBT: Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy, Karnac, 2010.

[9] 2008, 293.

[10] Majhima Nikaya, I.119.

[11] Kornfield (2008), 293.

[12] Kornfield (2008), 296

[13] Kornfield (2008), 299.

[14] Meditations, 3.11.

[15] 2011, xvii.

[16] 1998, 64f.

Patrick Ussher is a PhD student at the University of Exeter, working on Stoic ideas of ethical development. His MA dissertation compared Stoicism and ‘Western’ Buddhism. He managed the Stoicism Today blog from its inception in 2012 until March 2016 when he left the Modern Stoicism project to focus on other work commitments. He also edited the first two collections of writings of applying Stoicism to the modern world, Stoicism Today: Selected Writings volume 1, and volume 2