Stoicism and the Family by Liz Gloyn

The following is a summary of the presentation Dr. Liz Gloyn provided at Stoicon-X London in 2017.  Dr. Gloyn will also be presenting at Stoicon 2018 next month.

Stoicism argues that we are each responsible for our moral disposition and thus are fully in control of our own journey towards virtue. It is very much up to us to look at our failings and to seek to improve them by correcting any misunderstandings we might have about what virtue actually consists of; as such, a lot of Stoic activity involves frank introspection and asking ourselves hard questions about whether our conceits and affronts are in fact justified. That doesn’t mean that Stoicism never talks about how we, as individuals, should engage with other people. The Stoics have a lot to say about how the good Stoic disciple should be an active and engaged citizen, and also about how he should interact with other sages, or with non-sages whom he encounters. Yet one aspect of Stoic thought which tends to get overlooked is how the Stoic should interact with his family.

Much of the approach the Stoics advocate is based on their theory of oikeiōsis. The Stoics used this term to refer to two distinct processes which were clearly related to each other, but no surviving text explains the link. The first phase, what has been labelled personal oikeiōsis, happens when we are infants, and is when a child realises that the pink waving thing in front of her face is actually her hand. The second phase occurs once we have reached the age of reason – presumably somewhere around fourteen or fifteen – when we are able to start thinking about the relationship between us and other people.

To explain this process, the Stoic Hierocles used an image of concentric circles. He wrote that the smallest circle is the one that includes the individual and the individual alone; the second circle, which surrounds the first, contains immediate blood relatives; the third circle contains more distant relations, like grandparents, uncles and aunts; the fourth circle contains any remaining relatives. The circles continue, gradually expanding to include neighbours, then members of the same tribe, then inhabitants of the same city, until finally the circles encompass the whole human race.

The process of oikeiōsis is the way in which the aspiring Stoic begins to brings the interests of the people in each of the circles into the circle which contains the self, until ultimately the perfect sage thinks of the interests of all of humanity as being her own. Hierocles talks about the early stages of this process as being firmly rooted in the family. Indeed, the bond between a mother and her baby was often used to illustrate oikeiōsis at work, both in animals and in humans; the way that a mother immediately protects its offspring, often in self-sacrificing ways, was taken as evidence of stepping out of that first circle of the self, into the circle that includes children, and considering someone else’s best interests to be your own.

Hierocles constructs a very different model for understanding ancient family relationships to the conventional ones we might be more familiar with. The normal structure of the ancient Roman family was very strongly hierarchical. At the top of the structure was the paterfamilias, the oldest male in the bloodline; that could be your father, grandfather, uncle or great-uncle, or perhaps even your older brother. The paterfamilias had absolute authority, including the right of life and death, over everyone in his familia, which included everyone related by paternal bloodline, as well as any wives who had married into the familia and any slaves belonging to the household.

Hierocles’ model breaks that hierarchical structure down completely. The first circle beyond the self includes parents, siblings, your spouse and your children, in a subtle significant rearrangement of relationships. First of all, the father is taken down from his pedestal and put on the same level as the mother. Second, rather than simply reproducing the hierarchy with one’s parents at the top of the pile, the model completely abandons a top-down approach, and sees parents as standing in the same relation to us as our siblings, spouse and children. We might have seen our siblings and spouse as being vaguely equal, as they are more likely to belong to our age cohort, but Stoic theory challenges us to move away from thinking about our other family relationships in a vertical way.

Perhaps the easiest way to think about how this model changes our relationship to the family comes from thinking about the role that they are supposed to play in our lives, not just as authoritarian disciplinarians, but as ethical role models. The Romans generally expected fathers to be the benchmark by which their sons would measure themselves, and that mothers would police their sons’ more outrageous behaviour, but saw ethics as a fundamentally civil activity, concerned with producing good citizens, in contrast to the internal focus that Stoicism encourages in its adherents.

Marcus Aurelius puts the various qualities he’s inherited from his family at the front of the Meditations:

From my grandfather Verus I learned good morals and the government of my temper.

From the reputation and remembrance of my father, modesty and a manly character.

From my mother, piety and beneficence, and abstinence, not only from evil deeds, but even from evil thoughts; and further, simplicity in my way of living, far removed from the habits of the rich.

From my great-grandfather, not to have frequented public schools, and to have had good teachers at home, and to know that on such things a man should spend liberally. (Meditations 1, trans. George Long)

That he chooses to open the work with a list of these moral legacies, rather than with (for instance) a family biography, signals that the influence of the family on his moral development has been significant and deserves to have pride of place in the story that he wants the Meditations to tell. If you only read the first page of the Meditations, you will know that he feels debts of gratitude not only to his grandfather and great-grandfather, and indirectly his father, but also to his mother.

Indeed, he says that his mother taught him by her example about not only avoiding evil deeds but even contemplating them – such things simply did not occur to her. To be so in tune with virtue that the opportunity for vicious behaviour never comes to mind is surely what the Stoics would consider one mark of the perfect sage. Equally, simplicity in living is another mark of sage-like behaviour, not to be too attached to the trappings of wealth – although Marcus Aurelius’ definition of a modest lifestyle might not have matched up to the modest lifestyles of his citizens.

Mothers might act not just as models for their sons, but also as companions along the moral journey, further illustrating the Stoic challenge to the assumption of hierarchy in family relationships. In his Consolation to Helvia, Seneca writes a short speech that he imagines his mother Helvia saying as she grieves over his absence in exile, outlining the various elements of their relationship that she misses:

Therefore I am without the embrace of my most dear son; I cannot enjoy the sight of him or his conversation. Where is he, at whose appearance I relaxed my sad face, in whom I lay all my worries down? Where are the conversations which I could not have enough of? Where are the studies in which I took part more happily than a woman, more intimately than a mother? Where is that encounter? Where is that always boyish cheerfulness at seeing his mother? (Consolation to Helvia 15.1, trans. Liz Gloyn)

Alongside missing his smile and his delight in seeing her, Helvia also misses her son’s conversation and their shared studies. As the rest of Seneca’s advice to Helvia makes clear, the subject in question is philosophical – he encourages her to continue with her study of philosophy in order to give her true comfort in her situation. The implication is that Seneca and his mother have been working together on reading and talking about Stoicism, as a shared and mutually enjoyable endeavour. Rather than the parent funnelling down moral knowledge to the child, in a supposedly infallible way, Helvia and Seneca have been partners in the question of ethical exploration; the rigid hierarchy of a relationship based on age has been abandoned.

In part, this is because of Seneca’s own maturation as a rational adult – I am not suggesting the Stoics think this is an appropriate way to parent an eight year old. But the challenge to unquestioned parental authority, and the call to operate through mutual enquiry, seems to be the underlying premise of the relationship here.

These are just snippets of the things that the Stoics have to say about the family. The issue is that the family can often get eclipsed by other things – by the focus on the individual, or by other theories and ideas. But if a Stoic disciple is serious about living a life which is fully consistent with Stoic principles, then she must always apply them consistently – and that includes in her dealings with her family.

Liz Gloyn is Senior Lecturer in Classics at Royal Holloway, University of London. She is the author of The Ethics of the Family in Seneca. You can find her blog at Classically Inclined

Dear Seneca, Thanks for the Gratitude by Kevin Vost

Among the many and diverse errors of those who live reckless and thoughtless lives, almost nothing that I can mention, excellent Liberalis, is more disgraceful than the fact the we do not know how either to give or to receive benefits…Nor is it surprising that among all our many and great vices, none is so common as ingratitude. – Seneca, On Benefits[1]

Dear Seneca

Lucius Anneas Seneca (4 BC – 65 AD) is among the Stoic authors I hold most dear. I love to read him over and over and particularly enjoy alternating immersion in his world of elegant style and pithy bon mots, with that of the gruff and earthy no-nonsense Epictetus in his Discourses, and the somber profundities of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations.  Seneca’s extant philosophical writings consist mostly of a series of what are termed “Moral Essays,” in the Harvard’s Loeb Library edition, as well as his 124 Letters to his friend Lucilius. Seneca wrote on a vast number of interesting and important topics and here I’ll zoom in on his most noble musings on gratitude.

Seneca’s work De Beneficiis (On Benefits) is the longest of his moral essays, with 525 pages of text in Loeb’s Latin & English edition. Therein, he looks at the nature of and perfection of both giving and receiving, of the virtues of generosity and of gratitude. His Letter 81, “On Benefits,” summarizes the gist of his writing on gratitude in under a dozen pages.

Among the things for which I’m most grateful to Seneca is the way he so freely and frequently borrows from the sayings of other thinkers of other philosophical schools whenever he thought they spoke important truths about leading a virtuous life. I’ve also been a student of St. Thomas Aquinas for many years, and he was also famous for embracing truth wherever it might be found.  He would write in his famous little Letter of Saint Thomas to Brother John on how to study: “Do not place value on who says what, but rather, commit to your memory whatever true things are said.” (Though Thomas, like Seneca, was also very good about giving credit where credit was due, citing the sources for the truths he passed on to others.)

So, getting down to business, the little essay that follows is an excerpt from Unearthing Your Ten Talents, a book I wrote about Thomas Aquinas’s approach to ten virtues (the classical intellectual virtues of science, understanding, and wisdom; the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance; and the Christian theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity.) It is within his treatment of the virtue of justice, of “giving each person their rightful due,” that St. Thomas expounds on the related virtue of gratitude that helps perfect the virtue of justice.

It is also here, among a few other places in his Summa Theologica, that he freely and frequently makes use of the wisdom of Seneca. In the second part of the second part of the Summa Theologica, Questions 106 and 107, (ST, II-II, Qs.106 & 107) Thomas includes ten articles  addressing various aspects of the virtue of gratitude and the vice of ingratitude.

A quick perusing by eyeball yields at least 23 direct citations from Seneca along with their locations within his On Benefits. Indeed, he cites Seneca far more often than he does “The Philosopher” Aristotle on this topic. I’ve included some of these citations below. For readers who might like to track some of them down, the Summa Theologica is free and easily searchable online and it will provide the sources. (I am thankful to find that Seneca’s Letters and his On Benefits are also freely accessible online – though I cannot imagine not owning hard copies!)

Anyway, what follows is my excerpt from my Unearthing Your Ten Talents summarizing what Aquinas had to say about gratitude – and how thankful he was to Seneca for paving the way![2]  I think there are still lessons in there of use to all of us today.

 Thanks for the Gratitude

The individual with the talent for justice seeks to repay debts, debts to God through the virtue of religion, debts to parents and country through piety, debts to those excelling in dignity through observance, and debts to benefactors, to those who grant  particular and private favors or benefits, through the virtue of thankfulness or gratiarum actio – gratitude.  St. Thomas tells us that Cicero rightly placed gratitude as one of the virtues annexed to justice.

It was another ancient Roman philosopher, Lucius Anneas Seneca (4 BC – 65 AD), who literally wrote the book on gratitude (De Beneficiis – On Benefits). St. Thomas shares liberally from Seneca’s sliver-tongued words of counsel when analyzing this virtue.  I can barely do it justice here, but I’ll try to show a little gratitude for what these great men have shared on this subject by introducing some highlights and praying that you will seek out more, both in the Summa and in the writings of Seneca.

“Give thanks in all circumstances” counsels St. Paul (1 Thess. 5:18). Let us consider the ways to give these thanks.  First of all, note that we are to give thanks “in all circumstances.” Are you ever tempted to disregard a favor from someone?“Well, she was just nice because she wanted something.” “His wife told him he should do it.” “He didn’t really want to do it for me, but he felt pressure from the boss, his co-workers, or friends.” “He just gave them to me because he didn’t want them himself. (Why, everybody knows he can’t stand black jelly beans!)”  “He gave me the money. So what? He’s rich and it was nothing to him.”  “Sure he put in a good word to get me that promotion, but he just wanted to show his clout.”  (Again I’m reminded of Aristotle’s comment on virtue and how there are so many ways to miss the bull’s eye.)

Let’s hear Seneca on this one:

It is the height of malevolence to refuse to recognize a kindness, unless the giver has been the loser thereby.

And St. Thomas chimes in with his trademark profundity of wisdom and kindness:

It is the mark of a happy disposition to see good rather than evil. Wherefore, if someone has conferred a favor not as he ought have conferred it, the recipient should not for that reason withhold his thanks.

How then, do we show our gratitude to our benefactors in all circumstances?  Seneca says “Do you wish to repay a favor? Receive it graciously.” Even if we are benefited by someone so rich or powerful that we can never repay him in kind, we can still repay by our attitude, our facial expression, our words, and our deeds, or as Seneca notes with “good advice, frequent fellowship, affable and pleasant conversation without flattery.”

Further, the grateful “outpourings of one’s heart” should be heard, not only within the benefactors’ earshot, but within the hearing of others, repaying the benefactor with well earned honor.  Aristotle has noted after all, that honor is virtue’s reward. The benefactor who receives some well-earned esteem may then be all the more inspired to seek new ways to continue to benefit others.

When benefits are to be repaid, we should do so promptly and gladly, but we should not be in such a hurry to repay that we inconvenience the giver, or make him feel we have been made uncomfortable by the very favor he conferred.  And what then is the height of ingratitude?  It is not to fail to repay the favor, because we may not always be able to repay, though we would dearly like to. The height of ingratitude is to forget the favor or ignore the debt through negligence.

Surely we’ve all sinned through ingratitude at one time or another.  But how should the person who displays the virtue of gratitude treat the person who does not? We learn from the gospel of Luke, “the beloved physician,” that Jesus told us “lend, expect nothing in return.” (Luke 6:35).  Quite fittingly, St. Thomas advises us that:

he that bestows a favor must not at once act the part of a punisher of ingratitude, but rather that of a kindly physician, by healing the ingratitude with repeated favors.

To conclude in the words of old Seneca himself:

Is a man ungrateful for one benefit? Perhaps he will not be so for a second. Has he forgotten two benefits? Perhaps a third will recall to memory the others that have dropped from his mind…. In the presence of multiplied benefits the ingrate will not dare to lift his eyes: wherever he turns, fleeing his memory of them, there let him see you – encircle him with your benefits.[3]

[1] John W. Basore, trans., Seneca, Moral Essays, vol. iii, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001 [1938]), 8. (Seneca addressed this work to Aebutius Liberalis of Lyons, not to be confused with Lucilius, the close friend to whom Seneca addressed his Letters, Natural Questions, and On Providence.)

[2] The only thing not present in the original is the concluding quotation from Seneca.

[3] Ibid, 13.

Kevin Vost, Psy.D, is the author of eighteen books, including Unearthing Your Ten Talents: A Thomistic Approach to Spiritual Growth through the Virtues and the Gifts (Sophia Institute Press, 2009) and The Porch and the Cross: Ancient Stoic Wisdom for Modern Christian Living (Angelico Press, 2016).

Seneca’s Smartphone: Stoic Principles for Managing Digital Distraction by Jack Reeves

I hope this isn’t a spoiler alert: Lucius Annaeus Seneca did not have a smartphone.

Marcus Aurelius didn’t wear an Apple Watch; Musonius didn’t take selfies; Epictetus, not  once, to my knowledge, fired off a gChat. Stoicism’s architects lived before any of these modern day ubiquities.

But what if they hadn’t?

Stoicism is, in many ways, a product of its time, but it’s also a universal and timeless philosophy that can be adapted to the challenges of today. No Stoic is better suited to this adaption than Seneca, whose work often mines the mundanities of everyday life (exercise, parties, going to bed) for insights on the construction of the virtuous soul.

No, Seneca never explicitly tells us to take fewer selfies. But with a little tweaking, Seneca’s wisdom can be used to forge a healthier relationship with our digital devices.

I speak from experience. Seneca helped me grapple with a digital distraction crisis of my own. His practical advice on dealing with distraction, over-information, and mob mentality, among other hazards made me rethink how I used my technology. It enabled me to negotiate a healthier, more purposeful relationship with my digital devices.

All it took was imagining Seneca’s smartphone.

What is digital distraction?

I gave a version of this talk at Stoicon X 2017 in Toronto. I started by asking a few questions:

  1. How many people here own a smartphone? (Every hand went up).
  2. How many people take their smartphones with them everywhere except the shower? (Every hand stayed up).
  3. How many of you take it in the shower, too? (Some laughter — but hands still stayed up!)

A roomful of people with smartphones isn’t out of the ordinary today, but it’s remarkable how quickly the technology has proliferated. Mere decades ago, few people owned a cell phone. Today, over 80% of Americans carry these palm-sized supercomputers, which deliver gobs of information, entertainment and stimulation 24/7.

Smartphone saturation is only one aspect of a broader information revolution that is transforming life as we know it. The internet, computers, smartphones, wearables, public WiFi, and a proliferation of new media, social networks, streaming services and the like have radically changed how humans engage with their world.

Walk into a coffee shop, public park, boardroom, airport, classroom, museum or subway car. Or just examine yourself. You’ll find a species fascinated by glass screens. We hunch over our computers and crane our necks down at our smartphones. We don’t even bother to put them away on the sidewalk or in the bathroom. Why bother?  There’s a whole universe of stimulation behind those screens — and it’s faster and more enticing than the reality around us.

To be clear, I’m in no position to judge. I own (and use) a smartphone, a tablet, and even an Apple Watch. (Yes — I’m one of those guys). But in recent years, I’ve managed to reshape my my relationship with digital devices to be ordered and purposeful, not mindless.

What changed? I found Stoicism — and then I consciously applied its lessons to my digital habits.

How Seneca helped me beat digital distraction

I used to be a hardcore digital junkie. I toggled continually between inboxes, social media channels and news sites, gorging myself on information, overloading my brain with stimulus. I spent each day in a frenzy of buzzes, chimes and notifications.

  • If something happened in the world, I knew about it first (and probably hit the comments section to make sure everyone knew how I felt).
  • If I had a thought, quip, or pleasant/unpleasant experience of any kind, I immediately fed it into social media for immediate validation.
  • If I had a spare moment, I filled it by reaching for my phone and hunting through texts, email, and social media, until some pleasant little morsel provided a hit of reward.

I lived in a state that I now realize was digital distraction. It was a “love of bustle,” as Seneca writes, that wasn’t industry—it was “the restlessness of a hunted mind.” (Epistulae morales ad Lucilium, Ltr 3 (trans. Richard Mott Gummere).

Digital distraction is everywhere, but the symptoms are easily recognizable. When we find ourselves staying up at night compulsively surfing social media, or peeking at our phones during quality time with loved ones, or getting overwhelmingly distraught over the latest news headline that popped up on our home screens—that’s digital distraction.

Seneca, while never dealing with digital distraction, tackled the challenge of leading a virtuous and productive life while dealing with temptations and adversaries both internally (ego, avarice, hatred) and externally (fate and the amoral universe).

With that in mind, I ran a thought experiment: what might Seneca think about the smartphone? (Ignore, for a moment, that he’s been dead for two millenia). After all, much of his work touches on the same issues that lie at the root of digital distraction.

Seneca devotes considerable ink to things like money, socializing, and food, which are both necessary to life, and yet equally capable of causing great amounts of suffering. I suspect he would view digital tools in a similar light. The line between use and distraction is not always clear. We must, therefore, employ philosophy to guide us.

Seneca is also interested in cultivating a well-ordered mind. He continually explores the relentless tug of distraction, egoism and vanity, among other influences—and he gives us plenty of advice on how to deal with them. If the smartphone offers powerful distraction and egoism, then Seneca’s wisdom will help us manage it.

Challenges & Adjustments

Below are four guiding principles, drawn from Seneca’s writings, that I have used to negotiate healthier relationship with my digital devices.

To help organize things, each principle has a challenge—how digital distraction can make things difficult. And then, I’ll suggest adjustments—tactics that I’ve used to troubleshoot the distraction.

Principle 1: Don’t Waste Time

Challenge:

One of digital distraction’s chief symptoms is wasting time on things that don’t matter. We let inbound emails and texts, gossip, inflammatory news stories and the latest social media outrage pull us off course. We spend hours browsing through social feeds or playing brainless tap-tap games.

Our time is precious. Seneca advises us:

In guarding their fortune men are often closefisted, yet, when it comes to the matter of wasting time, in the case of the one thing in which it is right to be miserly, they show themselves most extravagant. De Brevitate Vitae, Ch. 3 (trans. Damian Stevenson)

We hand our time over to digital distraction because the distractions are enticing. Media companies use algorithms to find the most salacious headlines. Social media employs the same tactics as slot machines to keep us “pulling the lever” (swiping down our feeds) over and over, hunting for a payoff.

The result? We disregard Seneca’s advice; we sacrifice precious minutes and hours to a never-ending feed of nonsense designed to harvest our attention for ad revenue.

Adjustments:

  • Install a content filtering app on your digital devices. My personal favorite is Freedom. It lets you configure lists and allow access only at certain times.
  • When you need to do work, put your phone on silent and move it out of easy reach. Properly do the work you intend to do.
  • Purge your phone of the most distracting and time-wasting apps. I’ll play addicting games like Angry Birds for hours, so I just don’t allow them on my phone.

Principle 2: Don’t Drown in Information

The Challenge

The internet has dramatically increased the availability and volume of information, and accelerated the speed at which this information is delivered. Today it’s possible to wake up, grab your iPhone from your nightstand, and ingest more information in a few moments than our ancestors would have encountered in weeks. You don’t have to leave your bed to check your mail, read the news, or see what your friends got up to last night.

Our smartphones and wearables compound this condition by supplying a continual drip feed of alerts and notifications, buzzes and chimes. Breaking news headlines, texts from friends, work emails, IMs and more continually pepper our day with pinpricks of information.

Seneca warns us to avoid “discursiveness,” advising us instead to “linger among a limited number of master thinkers, and digest their works” if we want to enhance our personal wisdom. We should avoid restlessly jumping between information sources because:

everywhere means nowhere. When a person spends all his time in foreign travel, he ends by having many acquaintances, but no friends. And the same thing must hold true of men who seek intimate acquaintance with no single author, but visit them all in a hasty and hurried manner. Epistulae morales ad Lucilium, Ltr II (trans. Richard Mott Gummere).

Bear in mind that Seneca writes in a time when over-information meant reading too many books. The internet and smartphones have opened new frontiers in our ability to overindulge.

The Adjustment

  • Disable all notifications but the most important ones. On my phone, I only get texts and phone calls. Everything else (e.g. emails) is checked on my schedule. I have my computer in “Do Not Disturb” mode.
  • Favor “slow-release” media like books and print newspapers over their hyper-addicting digital alternatives.
  • Enforce phone-free times (the first hour of the day and final hour of the day, at minimum).

Principle 3: Don’t Engage With Crap

Challenge

The internet is full of crap. Mass media has never been a friend to reason, but for many years, human beings were at least running the zoo. Information, whether distributed in books and newspapers, over the radio or on cable TV, was editorially curated. A real person decided what to put out into the world. And it was (relatively) hard to get the word out there — one generally needed considerable resources to get published or to get something on television.

The internet flattened barriers to entry, making it easy for anyone and everyone to produce media capable of reaching millions of people in mere seconds. To manage this huge quantity of information, networks switched from editorial curation to algorithmic curation: non-human lines of code that cycled headlines and links based on clicks and views.

What effect did this have on the media? You’ve seen it:

  • The rise of click-hungry tabloids and content farms like Drudge Report and Huffington Post, which provide emotional roller coasters while purporting to provide “news.”
  • A host of independent blogs, digital “influencers,” and anonymous crowds—creating an outrage culture addicted to mob mentality and cyberbullying.
  • An overwhelming tend towards negativity, resentment, bitterness, complaining and gossip—after all, this is what gets the clicks!
  • Proliferation of clickbait headlines, each one competing to be the most sensational, scandalous or emotionally resonant.
  • Rampant circulation of misleading “fake news” (on BOTH sides of the political spectrum, mind).

Is it any wonder that higher social media usage correlates with a higher likelihood of depression in young adults?

Seneca recognized the alluring, but harmful, nature of crowd psychology. He warns:

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.

What are we to do? Choose our company carefully. In the same letter, Seneca advises:

Associate with those who will make a better man of you. Welcome those whom you yourself can improve. Epistulae morales ad Lucilium, Ltr VII (trans. Richard Mott Gummere).

We must be particularly mindful, in our climate of ready outrage, to avoid that which makes us angry. Seneca tells us that the wise, peace-seeking man will:

shun the company of all those he knows are likely to provoke his anger… [and] choose men who are honest, easygoing, and have self-control. De Ira (trans. Leighton D. Reyonlds).

Adjustments

  • Stop reading cheap, hastily-assembled clickbait crap. Don’t reward it with your attention or emotional investment. Reward high-quality media sources that report the facts.
  • When consuming digital media, ask: “Does this make me a better person?” If you find it stroking your ego, or bringing out the nasty little child inside of you, get out of there!

Principle 4: Use technology purposefully

Challenge

Digital distraction persists because technology is woven into the fabric of our lives.

You might try to look at your phone less, but you get important emails for work. Or, you go for a hike and take your phone for safety — and wind up looking at Facebook when you should be enjoying the view.

Remember, smartphones are powerful stimulants for the reward center. Dopamine, the brain’s feel-good molecule, is released when we encounter (or anticipate encountering) novel data, social information, and emotionally stimulation. All smartphones do is make this reward center activation seamless, which is why we sit in front of them, pecking away like lab rats.

Seneca would advise us not to seek a never-ending source of rewarding pleasure on our phones, but to be satisfied with what we have in the moment. “Nature’s wants are slight,” he writes, “the demands of opinion are boundless.”

When you are travelling on a road, there must be an end; but when astray, your wanderings are limitless. Recall your steps, therefore, from idle things, and when you would know whether that which you seek is based upon a natural or upon a misleading desire, consider whether it can stop at any definite point. Epistulae morales ad Lucilium, Ltr XVI (trans. Richard Mott Gummere).

If you’ve lost an hour (or three) to the rabbit hole of social media and online news, Seneca’s description of “limitless” wandering resonates.

Don’t wander. Be clear and purposeful about your intentions when using technology. Digital devices are tools to be used productively, not sources of infinite (but ultimately unsatisfying) pleasure.

Adjustments

  • Try this experiment on yourself: For a day, when you feel the need to take out your phone, make a mental note of why. No judgements—just self-study.
    • “I’m taking out my phone to check my work email.”
    • “I’m taking out my phone to see if my Instagram post got any likes.”
    • “I’m taking out my phone because I’m bored.”
  • When you catch yourself in a digital rabbit hole — simply stop. Put the phone down, and take a breath. Acknowledge the impulse to keep surfing, but don’t obey it.
  • Consider moving all of your apps off of your homescreen. This is my phone’s default setup. When I activate it, I’m looking at a blank screen with no information. It’s a reminder to pause and set my intention before using my phone.

Concluding Thoughts

If technology is so often the source of bad things, why do we continue to use it? Wouldn’t it be easier to toss our phones into a lake and move to the woods? Of course not. And this is why a Stoic framework for establishing healthy digital habits works beautifully.

Stoicism advocates being more effective in the world, not withdrawing from it. It takes more discipline, Seneca tells us, to mingle with the mob and preserve our virtue than to avoid the crowd entirely. Similarly, I believe it’s possible to construct a purposeful and virtuous life with technology as an aid, and not an obstacle.

But doing this takes work. The human brain did not evolve for a world in which hyper-palatable, hyper-stimulating distractions stalk us from our desktops, our pockets, our wrists. Leading the kind of life we desire necessitates taking a principled approach to our tools.

In this piece, I’ve given you a few helpful principles — but the true results, as always, come from what you do with them. Vale.

 

Jack Reeves is a strategy consultant and writer based out of New York City.  He writes at jackreeves.io

Stoicon 2018 – About the Conference, and Tickets Now Available! (by John Sellars)

This year Stoicon returns to London. It’ll take place on Saturday 29th September in the University of London’s Senate House, in Bloomsbury, the same location as last year’s Stoicon-x in London and just a few yards from where we held our very first public event back in 2013.

There’s short film about that first event (and we’ll make a similar film about this year’s event too).

When we organized that first event we didn’t anticipate repeating it. We had a small amount of research funding that covered the costs, and most of the speakers were either us – the Modern Stoicism team – or people whom we already knew and were relatively local. We had no idea how many, if any, people would turn up. Thankfully people did come and, as importantly, seemed to appreciate it. It was Jules Evans, I think, who encouraged us to do it again, who suggested that people would be willing to pay a registration fee to cover costs, and who later came up with the name ‘Stoicon’. So it was Jules who took the lead for the next two events, both at Queen Mary University of London, in 2014 and 2015.

We were all keen to invite new speakers along, conscious that an audience might soon get bored seeing just the same faces each year. In 2015 we were delighted to have Emily Wilson, William Irvine, and Massimo Pigliucci join us, all of whom came over from the USA. After three years in London, we wondered if it might be good to find a new location, in order to reach a different audience, and so didn’t hesitate to take up Massimo’s offer to host the event in New York, which we did in 2016. This gave Stoicon a completely new audience and a fresh line-up of speakers, including Julia Annas and Ryan Holiday.

Last year, 2017, the event took place in Toronto, organized by Donald Robertson, who has put so much into Stoic Week and our related activities since the beginning. A number of smaller Stoicon-x events also ran in a variety of locations, organized autonomously.

So, after two years in North America, this year Stoicon returns to London. The format remains more or less the same as in previous years, with a mix of plenary talks and parallel workshop sessions.

We are delighted that our keynote speaker will be Professor A.A. Long, without doubt the leading authority on Stoicism in the English-speaking world, who has been publishing on the topic for over fifty years. Some of you may be familiar with his book on Epictetus, published in 2002, and he has a new book on Epictetus coming out this summer (details here).

Other speakers include Professor Catharine Edwards, a leading expert on Seneca who has a number of television documentaries on Roman history to her name, and Antonia Macaro, who participated in our first event in 2013 and this year has published a book on Stoicism and Buddhism under the title More than Happiness (info here).

The other speakers and workshop leaders are a mix of academics, psychotherapists, and Stoic practitioners (see the full listing here). Other things currently being planned include bookstalls, an exhibition in association with Senate House Library, and an art installation. All this is, of course, subject to the vicissitudes of fate.

Tickets for the event are now available via Eventbrite. The registration fee covers the cost of tea/coffee and lunch during the day. In order to keep costs down we have secured generous funding from Royal Holloway, University of London, and the British Society for the History of Philosophy. The event is hosted by the Institute of Classical Studies and the Institute of Philosophy, both based in Senate House, who are providing the venue and logistical support. It simply wouldn’t be happening without them.

If you wish you could come along but can’t, we plan to film the plenary talks and to make a short film about the event, like to the two films above. If you wish there was an event like this closer to where you live, then why not consider organizing your own Stoicon-x event?

In the future we’d like to alternate Stoicon between North America and Europe. So we hope that for 2019 it will return to somewhere in North America, and in 2020 somewhere in Europe (not necessarily London).

A Stoic Approach to Problems from Nick Saban by Alec Bowling

I am not a fan of the Alabama Crimson Tide football team. I don’t have houndstooth pajamas. I don’t bow my head, fold my hands, and say “roll tide” before every meal. In fact, as a college football fan, it sort of annoys me that Alabama has been such a juggernaut these past several years, battering teams left and right and generally making the sport more predictable.

Not that they should be faulted for that. That’s a big part of the reason I’m intrigued by their coach, Nick Saban. I won’t be smiling as Saban leads Alabama to win three out of the next five national championships, but in the words of the fictional anchorman, Wes Mantooth: “goddamn it do I
respect you.”

In the fall of 2017, Alabama beat Texas A&M by only 8 points, a margin that was a misstep from the weekly lashings they had been doling out on their SEC foes. Saban’s team had a number of players native to Texas, who were returning to their home state for the first time since the destruction of Hurricane Harvey. When a reporter asked if this may have impacted their focus, Saban had the following to say:

It’s kind of like my dad used to tell me when I used to go to work at the station, my girlfriend broke up with me so I was treating the customers bad.

He said – ‘What’s wrong with you today?’

I said ‘My girlfriend broke up with me.’

He said ‘Well, you’ve got one problem, but if you keep treating the customers bad you’re going to have two more. I’m going to fire you and then I’m going to whip your ass for getting fired.”

In the wake of a hurricane, some might look at this sentiment as uncaring or mean. But often, as many of us have experienced, the difficult thing to say is the right thing to say. I don’t know the answer to whether this was the right thing to say at the right time, but I do know that there was, and is, great wisdom in this line of thinking.

The crux of what Saban is saying is that using unfortunate events that happen to us as an excuse to neglect other areas of our life is entirely counterproductive and a very effective form of self-sabotage. The practical application of this wisdom struck me this morning. I had had a terrible time getting to sleep the night before, so I was up and running on maybe 3 hours of sleep.

I was pissed off and the last thing I wanted to do was work hard. I don’t have the energy, I thought. How can I be expected to do good work on such little sleep, I thought. Then it hit me – I have one problem right now: a lack of sleep. But, if I let that be an excuse for not working hard at today’s work, I’m going to be facing many more problems.

A project falls behind on its deadline. That’s two problems now. A detail gets missed on a document to a client, and I look bad in front of my boss. Now I’ve got thee problems. You get the idea.

As I was thinking through this, all these gears lined up in my brain and I began to realize that this line of thinking echoes Stoicism in many ways.
One place I see this reflected is in Meditations: Book 6, Chapter 2. Marcus Aurelius says the following:

Just that you do the right thing. The rest doesn’t matter.
Cold or warm.
Tired or well-rested.
Despised or honored.
Dying… or busy with other assignments.

For so many of us (myself certainly included), our work ethic is conditional. Our moral duty is conditional. We have no problem doing the right thing as long as it doesn’t inconvenience us in any way. But that is not a sustainable way to live, as life rarely caters to our whims.

Nick Saban is a model of success in many avenues. How to coach. How to run an organization. The right things to value. The right way to live. His six national championship wins attest to that, in addition to him being nearly universally lauded as the greatest college football coach of all
time. Marcus Aurelius ruled over almost the entirety of Europe and North Africa and is widely considered one of the greatest Roman emperors.

Now, a core tenet of stoicism is the defeat of your emotions with reason. And from these two disparate sources, almost two millennia apart, we see the same common thread: put your emotions to death. What Saban provides here is the knife with which to kill them.

Let’s look at a scenario. Say you didn’t get the promotion you were hoping for. You are immediately struck many negative emotions, including resentment, frustration, and entitlement. Now, you don’t want to work as hard. Your internal monologue tells you things like, “Oh, it’s not like I’m going to get noticed anyway,” or, “I’m gonna take it easy today. I’m too angry, I can’t get work done like this.” For various reasons, you are tempted to neglect your duties.

But of course there is the other part of your mind telling you to press on. To do the right thing. To work hard in spite of the recognition. Problem is, we are often dealt such strong blows that it’s incredibly hard to conquer them through mere moral obligation. Sometimes, our selfishness is almost overwhelming. In these instances, this teaching from Saban is helpful.

Don’t do the right thing because you should. Don’t do the right thing because someone is telling you to. Don’t do the right thing to make someone else happy. Do the right thing, because if you don’t, you are just going to have more shit to deal with.

It’s certainly not something to put on a bumper sticker, but desperate times call for desperate measures. It’s a last line of defense against our selfishness. It in fact turns our selfishness to our advantage.

A bit more optimistically, Marcus also says the following:

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 in 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?

With this logic, we can substitute basically any word for ‘nice.’ You might say: helping that person would be hard. So you were born to only experience “easy” things?

You might say: my current situation is comfortable. So you were born only to be comfortable? That’s your purpose in life? This wisdom is effective because it helps to strip our situation of unhelpful emotion. It turns our
self-interest to an advantage, rather than our notion of what we ‘should’ do, which can often times frustrate us further. Our situation becomes unemotional, amoral, and practical. The correct next steps become clear immediately.

In my own predicament, being exhausted from a lack of sleep, this wisdom didn’t magically inject me with four additional hours of sleep, but it gave me something perhaps just as valuable – clarity and focus.

The next time you are faced with a problem, ask yourself: how many problems do I want to have?

Your car transmission dies and you’re angry. Do you want to create more problems by letting your frustration out on the mechanic who had nothing to do with it?

Your husband took too long getting ready and now you’re late for dinner with friends. Do you want to create more problems by speeding and potentially getting a ticket?

The people behind you are talking loudly during the movie. Do you want to add problems by not enjoying the film or getting into a needless confrontation?

You forgot about a test tomorrow and now only have 5 hours to study. Do you want to only have 4 hours to study because you spent an hour beating yourself up over forgetting?

Frequently, we use bad things that happen to us, problems, to be a license to neglect other areas of our life. Doing so feeds our pride, our idea that our lives are Greek tragedies, which in its own twisted way is gratifying (perhaps because it makes our failure extraordinary in our minds, and thus, it makes us extraordinary in some warped way). But in doing so, we only serve to create more problems, more pain, and more distance between ourselves and the people we want to be. To overcome this we must remember that we are just people and that problems are an everyday occurrence for every person who’s ever existed – even the important ones.

And to all of this, Saban might ask: how many problems do you want to have? When faced with the seed of a problem, we are the gardeners. We control whether that problem grows into a Redwood tree of more problems, or withers in the soil. When faced with a problem, ask yourself: do I want more problems? If the answer is no, proceed accordingly.

 

Alec Bowling is a marketing executive in New York City, a career field in which a stoic mindset is a must have.

Should a Modern Stoic be Vegetarian? by Massimo Pigliucci

Vegetarianism is a big deal, ethically speaking. It was put on the map in terms of public philosophy by utilitarian Peter Singer, with his landmark Animal Liberation, published back in 1975. In truth, utilitarians have been very clear on the subject from the beginning. The founder of the approach, Jeremy Bentham, famously said that when it comes to the treatment of animals “the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?” (in: Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, 1789).

What about Stoicism? A recent article by Jeremy Corter in Stoicism Today summarizes the situation as far as the ancient texts are concerned. I will not repeat Jeremy’s points here, since he does a superb job of it. After parsing several quotes from Zeno, Chrysippus, Seneca, Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, he concludes (correctly, in my view): “Stoicism and vegetarianism are two separate philosophies. Stoic teachings never denounced eating animals and, in fact, often stated that animals were there for us to use. Musonius and Seneca are the only two Stoics we know of that were vegetarians, but neither cite any Stoic arguments for being so. Seneca cites Pythagoras and it would be safe to think that Musonius would have been aware of the same reasons.”

So why am I not ending the post here? Because of this, one of my favorite quotes from Seneca:

Will I not walk in the footsteps of my predecessors? I will indeed use the ancient road — but if I find another route that is more direct and has fewer ups and downs, I will stake out that one. Those who advanced these doctrines before us are not our masters but our guides. The truth lies open to all; it has not yet been taken over. Much is left also for those yet to come. (Letters to Lucilius, XXXIII.11)

I think vegetarianism is, in fact, one of those cases where the ancient road is not the best one, and we need to revise it. Full disclosure here: I am not a complete vegetarian, though I heavily lean that way. My eating habits can best be described as vegetarianism with the addition of occasional wild caught fish thrown into the mix (paying attention to whether the species in question is being overfished). I have never considered veganism seriously, even though the ethical argument there is at least as strong as the one for vegetarianism (though it’s not easy to be a healthy vegan, an issue I don’t want to get into here because it would distract from the main point). You could accuse me of hypocrisy, and I will respond that I’m trying to do my best, and that at any rate I’m doing more than a lot of other people. Never claimed to be a sage, never will.

As Corter himself recognizes near the end of his essay, this is of course a variation of the somewhat annoying generic question: “is X Stoic?” He is somewhat dismissive of the question itself, which – to be sure – is often abused on social media. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a sensible question. Jeremy says “the Stoics don’t ‘approve’ of anything besides virtue … In short, it’s all indifferent.” Well, not exactly.

To begin with, virtue means nothing in a vacuum. Virtue is a propensity to engage in certain behaviors because that’s the right thing to do (as oppose to a vice, which is a propensity to engage in the wrong sort of behavior). One cannot be courageous, or just, or temperate, or prudent (phronesis) in the abstract. Virtue is considered by the Stoics the chief good because it can never, by definition, be used for ill. But it needs to be used for something nonetheless!

For what? Well, for handling the indifferents, which as we know come in two categories: preferred and dispreferred. This means that it is a bit too reductive and glib to say that the Stoics approve only of virtue because the rest is indifferent. The Stoics, for instance, opposed tyranny, and several of them lost their lives fighting it. Clearly, that means they disapproved of it! Seneca even approved of something as apparently neutral as rest and relaxation, as he makes clear in On Tranquillity of Mind, XVII.

So “is vegetarianism Stoic?” is a real question, and we need to find the answer not in the specifics of what the ancient said (since they are our guides, not our masters), but in the resources offered by the Stoic philosophical system as a whole. This approach is not unusual, being the same sort of exercise that modern Buddhists, say, or Christians, or Jews, engage in whenever looking at their own tradition for guidance concerning modern issues.

Indeed, the likely answer (in the affirmative) to the question of whether vegetarianism is Stoic is hinted at by Jeremy himself, near the end of his essay. He writes:

The Stoics felt that animals were there for human use, including for the use of food. This isn’t to say that the Stoics would have been in favor of factory farming or animal abuse. The Stoics thought that animals had souls, not like a human’s, but a soul nonetheless. Maybe I’m overthinking this part, but I’m suspecting that if they truly thought this, a Stoic would lean towards, if not protecting animals, at the very least not abusing and exploiting them.

Corter is not overthinking at all. He just should have pursued that line of thinking a bit further. We know a lot more nowadays about animal suffering than the Stoics did two millennia ago. Moreover, we have developed truly horrific standardized practices for the treatment of animals in quantities that the Stoics could not have imagined.

Just to give you an idea, these are the USDA statistics of slaughtered animals for the year 2008, obviously limited to the USA only:

Cattle: 35,507,500
Pigs: 116,558,900
Chickens: 9,075,261,000
Layer hens: 69,683,000
Turkeys: 271,245,000

I strongly suggest these numbers ought to disturb you, especially if you know anything about how all of this is actually done. And that’s without bringing into consideration additional factors that the ancient Stoics were not concerned with, like labor practices (generally speaking, horrible) and environmental impact (not at all good, to put it very mildly).

Given all this, I strongly suggest that modern Stoics should lean heavily toward vegetarianism, or at the very least endorse only humane practices of raising and killing animals, as it is done in a number of small, independently owned farms. The problem is that that model simply does not scale up to feeding billions of human beings, which means that, for practical purposes, Stoics should indeed be vegetarian.

But what about the idea – which the ancient Stoics surely did have – that animals and plants are here to satisfy human needs? That idea stemmed from the Stoic concept of a providential universe, understood as a living organism itself, endowed with the Logos, the capacity for rationality.

The problem is that modern science very clearly tells us that that’s not the kind of universe we exist in. Plants and other animals are the product of billions of years of evolution, just like ourselves, and so in no rational way can they be said to be here “for” us. Seneca, above, said that the truth lies open to all; it has not yet been taken over, as much is left for those yet to come. Well, two thousand years later we are still searching for a lot of truths, but we have found out a few more than in Seneca’s time. It is our ethical duty, therefore, to update our practices accordingly. Remember that one of the pillars of Stoic philosophy is precisely that the “physics” (i.e., all of natural science) should inform our ethics, so better knowledge of biology in particular should redirect the way we think about what is right and what is wrong when it comes to eating habits.

Jeremy argues that vegetarianism is an indifferent, and that “like any indifferent, it doesn’t make you a good or bad person.” I think that’s not the right way to look at it. Our diet is more properly referred to as the indifferent, but deciding what we eat and why is very much a reflection of our character, and therefore a function of how we exercise the virtues. As Epictetus put it in a different context:

What decides whether a sum of money is good? The money is not going to tell you; it must be the faculty that makes use of such impressions – reason. (Discourses I, 1.5)

Substitute “diet” for “money” and you can answer in the same way: reason. And reason – given contemporary scientific knowledge – very much tells us that we, as Stoics, ought to be vegetarians. Therefore, I’m going to redouble my personal efforts to follow this path and further reduce my intake of other foodstuff. I hope you will join me, to reduce both suffering in the world and our carbon footprint as a species. And Seneca adds, you’ll also feel better and think more clearly.

_____

P.S.: very likely, there will be people who will read the above and argue the facts. I have neither time nor inclination to debate the science, so I will not respond. I have looked long and hard, as a biologist, into the various issues surrounding vegetarianism, and I have concluded to my own satisfaction that a vegetarian diet is: (i) better in terms of the ethics of animal suffering (though not as good as a vegan one); (ii) better for the environment; (iii) not supportive of horrible labor practices that are commonly engaged in by large agricultural corporations; and (iv) better for your health. If you are not convinced, that’s your prerogative, and clearly outside my control.

 

Massimo Pigliucci has a PhD in evolutionary biology from the University of Connecticut and one in philosophy from the University of Tennessee. He teaches philosophy at the City College of New York, and his latest book is How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life. He blogs at How To Be A Stoic.

Philosophy as the Act of Choosing by Brittany Polat

As I’ve been practicing Stoic philosophy, I’ve come to realize that Stoicism isn’t really about virtue – it’s more about using good judgment to seek virtue. I’m not the first person to see things that way. “Do you want to know what philosophy promises the human race?” Seneca says to Lucilius. “Good judgment.”[i]

Virtue doesn’t exist in isolation, in some kind of pure form (sorry, Plato), although of course the concept of virtue can still be a useful one for us. In the world of humanity, virtue resides in virtuous actions, thoughts, and motives. When I think about my own actions, for example, I can’t separate my own virtue (or lack thereof) from the way I think and act. Could I be virtuous if I act viciously? Or could I actually be vicious if I act and think virtuously? I don’t see how that is possible. In a very real sense, as Epictetus says, we are our choices:

For you yourself are neither flesh nor hair, but choice, and if you render that beautiful, then you yourself will be beautiful.[ii]

These are strong words. We are not merely the sum of our choices, or the product of our choices; we are our faculty of choice.

After pondering this somewhat bizarre line of thinking, and trying to put it into practice, I’ve realized that Epictetus is right. (Of course he’s right–has he ever been wrong about human nature?) And this leads us to an even stranger meta-conceptual truth about Stoic philosophy: philosophy is the act of choosing to do philosophy. By making the choice to use your reasoning ability to seek out the best, most virtuous behavior, you are doing philosophy. Why? Because you are trying to bring your thoughts, actions, and motivations in line with your beliefs about what is true and good.

Let’s think about it this way. Say you are confronted with an irritating situation, like someone cutting you off in traffic. Most people don’t realize it, but we have a choice about what to think and feel in this situation. The non-philosopher will probably take the conventional route of feeling angry. The Stoic philosopher, who knows that this is merely a dispreferred indifferent and not a cause for anger, has a choice. He can choose the conventional option and become angry, or he can choose the Stoic option and not feel irritated at all.

What does he decide? Hopefully he will choose the Stoic option – and in making that choice, he is doing philosophy. He is bringing his thoughts in line with what he believes to be true. He is using his reasoning ability to become more virtuous. That is philosophy in action.

Epictetus speaks in the highest possible terms about our faculty of choice –prohairesis. Not only does discussion of the “sphere of choice” pervade his basic philosophical precepts, but he uses superlatives mainly for speaking of the gods and choice. Here is but a small sampling of his dictums related to choice (I have added italics for emphasis):

The gods have placed in our power only the best faculty of all, the one that rules over all the others, that which enables us to make right use of our impressions; but everything else they haven’t placed within our power.[iii]

The essence of the good is a certain disposition of our choice, and that of the bad likewise. What are externals, then? Materials for our choice, which attains its own good or ill through the way in which it deals with them.[iv]

Consider who you are. First of all, a human being, that is to say, one who has no faculty more authoritative than choice, but subordinates everything else to that, keeping choice itself free from enslavement and subjection.[v]

Where does the good lie? ‘In choice.’ Where does the bad lie? ‘In choice.’ And that which is neither good nor bad? ‘In things that lie outside the sphere of choice.’[vi]

What is it that makes use of everything else? Choice. What is it that takes charge of everything else? Choice. What is it that destroys the whole person, sometimes through hunger, sometimes through a noose, sometimes by hurling him over a cliff? Choice. Can it be, then, that there is anything more powerful among human beings than this?[vii]

But if you ask me, ‘What is the most excellent of all things,’ what am I to say? The faculty of expression? I cannot, but must rather say the faculty of choice, when it becomes right choice. For it is choice that makes use of the faculty of expression, and of all the other faculties, both great and small. If it be rightly directed, a person becomes good; if it be badly directed, he becomes bad. It is through choice that we encounter good fortune or misfortune, and that we reproach one another or are pleased with one another. It is this, in a word, that brings about unhappiness when neglected, and happiness when properly tended.[viii]

In this line of thinking, philosophy is not the pursuit of virtue, but first and foremost the act of choosing to pursue virtue. That decision must come before everything else. We must choose to leave behind convention and unexamined impressions. We must actively decide to engage our reasoning ability to make the wisest possible choice in whatever circumstances we might find ourselves.

If you read the Discourses with this in mind, you notice that this is what Epictetus recommends. All of his advice to his students centers around the act of choosing to do philosophy. His more specific recommendations – for example, making proper use of impressions, remaining vigilant, or practicing the disciplines of desire, impulse, and assent – are specific ways of exercising the capacity for choice. These are ways of breaking down the problem of choice, of dealing with the problem of choice, and of knowing what we should choose. Choice is a very tricky problem, and it must be carefully examined. We must have the discourse to talk about it, and we need many psychological tools to help us use our capacity for choice wisely.

For example, when we are confronted by a disturbing impression, what should we do? Throw it away. But first we must make the choice to do philosophy at all. As always, we have a choice: we could do what most people do, and let the impression get the better of us. That choice does not qualify as philosophy, because we have not applied our reason to seek out virtue. But if we make the decision to apply reason and examine our impression, we have made the decision to do philosophy. It’s entirely possible that we do not have appropriate knowledge and wisdom to act in a sage-like manner. But simply by making the decision to apply our reasoning in the service of virtue, we have done philosophy.

If it seems strange to us to think about philosophy as basically a capacity for rational choice, that’s because we’re not used to seeing it in that way. For a very long time in the West, it is religion that has been used as a guide for proper thought and action, not so much philosophy. But why shouldn’t philosophy (rather than religiosity, intuition, or moral convention) guide our every thought and action? We have revived Stoicism for modern times. Maybe we need to revive the centrality of choice, too.

Putting Philosophy To Use

It’s possible that I’m reading too much into Epictetus’ words, and this isn’t really what he was talking about. I have no way of knowing what he meant to say in those famous lectures. Maybe I’m way off the mark. Ultimately, though, I don’t think it matters. What interests me, and probably most modern Stoics, is applying ancient wisdom to live better lives today. And I believe that focusing on philosophy as choice can help us a great deal. I have already felt a profound difference in my own Stoic practice as a result of this new perspective.

When you picture your Stoic practice as a series of moment-by-moment choices, your philosophy becomes urgent, vital, almost alive. Philosophy isn’t something that you just practice sometimes, like you might practice tennis or piano. Philosophy is something that you practice every minute of your life. This is because every moment requires a decision from you. What do I do in this moment, in this situation – practice philosophy or not? Do I make the effort to bring my thoughts and actions in line with my principles, or do I let it slide? Seeing philosophy as a choice forces you to confront your principles daily and hourly. There is nowhere to hide.

And not only does philosophy become necessary – inescapable – but it also becomes more possible. It’s not some grand venture that you might get around to when you’re better prepared. It’s a simple choice you have to make right now. Do you practice philosophy, or do you not? If you do not consciously choose in this moment to practice philosophy, then by default you are not practicing philosophy. It’s a binary choice. There is no in-between.

Epictetus, and also Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, provide us with a great deal of helpful advice about how to make the right choice. This is why we read their works today. The doctrines, the psychological techniques, the external body of work that we call Stoic philosophy, is essential to help us on the path to wisdom. We need the theory in order to know what virtue is, and how we should apply it in specific situations. Epictetus is quite clear that theory is necessary to support action. At one point he says that the task of philosophy is in establishing standards, so that we may know how to judge things properly.[ix] But what is the task of the philosopher?

My principal task in life is this: to distinguish between things, and establish a division between them and say, ‘External things are not within my power; choice is within my power.’[x]

We must make the choice to choose.

At first, this way of seeing philosophy might seem exhausting in its insistence for action. How could anyone ever hope to reach this standard? To be virtuous, you would have to bring every choice you ever make in line with virtue. Yes, exactly. That’s why only the perfectly virtuous person is wise, and the rest of us are drowning below the surface. Only the sage knows how to align every choice with wisdom. Only the sage knows how to direct every thought toward what is noble and true–to always say yes to philosophy, even unto the moment of death.

And yet, this is what it would mean to be truly free: to maintain your capacity for choice up until the very end. “For my part,” Epictetus says, “I’d wish that death may overtake me when I’m attending to nothing other than my power of choice, to ensure that it may be unperturbed, unhindered, unconstrained, and free.”[xi] Epictetus may not have considered himself a sage, but he continues to inspire and show us the path to virtue.

On a practical note, I think that the rest of us can still make progress in our capacity for choice by viewing every moment as an opportunity for philosophy. I was delighted to learn that the root word of prohairesis is something like “grabbing.”[xii] What better metaphor do we need than reaching out and grabbing philosophy?

When you are confronted with a choice – do I see this as distressing or not? Do I respond the Stoic way or the non-Stoic way? – you can always reach out and seize the philosophical response. I’ve started keeping this choice before my eyes at all times as I go about my daily business. I find that when it put things in terms of a binary choice, the decision is much easier. I don’t have to do anything complicated or grand. All I have to do is choose philosophy.

[i] Seneca, Selected Letters, 48.7.

[ii] Epictetus, Discourses, 3.1, 40.

[iii] 1.1, 7

[iv] 1.29, 1-2

[v] 2.10, 1

[vi] 2.16, 1

[vii] 2.23, 17-18

[viii] 2.23, 27-29

[ix] 2.11, 24

[x] 2.5, 4

[xi] 3.5, 7

[xii] Greg Sadler, “What Does Epictetus mean by Prohairesis?”, PocketStoic. Available at https://medium.com/pocketstoic/what-does-epictetus-mean-by-prohairesis-cd23fed321d

 

Brittany Polat practices Stoicism daily with her three young children and describes her experiences at apparentstoic.com. Her book on Stoic parenting, Tranquility Parenting: Timeless Truths for Becoming a Calm, Happy, and Engaged Parent, is scheduled to appear in 2018.

Stoic Values Clarification (part 2) by Chris Gill and Tim LeBon

Two members of the Modern Stoicism team, Chris Gill and Tim LeBon, began a “Socratic Dialogue” about Stoic values as part of their workshop on Stoic Values Clarification in Stoicon 2017 in Toronto. The dialogue proved so fruitful that they decided to continue it here. . .

Tim (continuing his role as everyman):  Chris, it’s good to meet up again.

I’ve been thinking a lot about our last conversation … I agree with your Stoic view that without the virtues, a life pursuing happiness is fragile. I also agree that the virtues are very important in their own right. The thing I’m struggling with is this idea of “preferable (or preferred) indifferent”. I just can’t head my head round it. How can I be indifferent about something I prefer to happen? If I care about the well-being of my children, for example, how can I be indifferent?

Chris (the Stoic): Good to follow up our earlier conversation.

The Stoic idea of “indifferents” has always been controversial, but I think it contains some valuable insights. The point is not about you or me being indifferent. It is about things being indifferent or not. Rephrased, it is about what makes the difference (or not) as regards happiness or the good life. Virtue, the Stoics think, really makes the difference between being happy (in their sense) or not, whereas other things do not.

Of course, people naturally want well-being for those they love. And Stoics think that, other things being equal, we should do all we can to promote this. But in the end what makes the difference, as regards our happiness and those of others, is whether we act virtuously or not. For instance, if we try to combine promoting our children’s welfare with acting criminally, we will not bring about our happiness or theirs, the Stoics think.

Does this help?

Tim: I think it may. It’s the “indifferent” part I was having problems with. So it’s not about me being indifferent, it’s about the thing being ultimately irrelevant to my moral worth? Is that right? Could I replace “Preferable indifferent” with “Preferable but irrelevant to my moral worth?”. If so, that would make a lot of sense. Being healthy, wealthy, and having friends and relatives flourishing are all preferable but clearly not relevant to my moral worth.

Chris: Yes, that is more what the Stoics think.  “Moral worth” is what the Stoics would have called what is “good”, whereas being healthy and so on are not good in themselves but rather things we would reasonably prefer to have or to experience.

Two qualifications, however. “Moral worth” in modern terms suggests acting on behalf of others, rather than oneself. Stoics think that virtue does not just make you act well towards others but also makes you act well on your own behalf. Virtue benefits you as well as others.

Also, preferable things are not entirely irrelevant to moral worth. How you decide to act as regards preferable things is a key part of exercising virtue. But preferable things are “indifferent” because they do not determine your happiness or the opposite, whereas virtue does.

Tim: Before we go on to other things, a point about terminology. Chris, the phrase “preferred indifferents” is very unnatural in English. Can you tell us something about its origins in Greek or Latin, and what various other translations might be possible (perhaps less literal ones).

Chris: Yes, the ancient critics of Stoic ethics said this too about the Greek terms. Well, the term “indifferent”, as I have just explained, stems from the idea things like health and wealth do not determine happiness or its opposite, i.e. they do not make the difference between them, whereas virtue does. So they are “indifferent” in this sense. But some indifferents have positive value (it is natural to want to have them) such as health, wealth and the well being of our families. So the Stoics call them “preferred” or “preferable”, that is, things it is natural to prefer to have rather than not. All a bit clumsy, I’m afraid, but I hope the meaning is clear enough. Any other terminology, such as “bodily and external goods” (the Aristotelian phrase) gets the ideas wrong.

Tim: This is rather subtle, isn’t it?  Time for a recap I think. After our earlier discussion, I was happy with the idea that without virtue happiness is fragile. I also agreed that the virtues are intrinsically good. I am not sure I am quite there yet with the idea that virtues are the only thing intrinsically good thing.

In particular I was struggling with the idea that things other than virtues, such as our family and friends faring well, are just “preferable indifferents”.  I am reassured by the clarification that the Stoic is not indifferent to the welfare of their friends and family.  I still have a bit of a problem with the notion that friends faring well and my health are pretty much irrelevant to my happiness. I think this may be because I have a modern understanding of the term “happiness”, as by definition implying feeling good. I was more comfortable saying these things make no difference to my moral worth. You then reminded me that it’s not just about benefiting others, as “moral worth” implies. So what if I say that I agree that having or not having the preferable indifferents  makes no difference to my ability to excel at living well ? Is that a bit closer to the Stoic view?

Chris: That is much closer to the Stoic view. Happiness is living well, in fact, living the best possible human life; part of this is what we call “feeling happy”, but the Stoics think the “mood” part of happiness depends on the “life” part, that is, how you actually live. Virtue is expertise or knowledge in living well. And if you have virtue, you will be able to live well, whatever the situation you find yourself in – that is part of your expertise.

This may help with the “preferred indifferents”. A happy (good human) life will normally include caring for others, such as one’s partner and children. Stoics think it is natural for people to do this, and natural to want them to flourish. The virtuous person will do this expertly, in the way a good human being should. But his or her happiness (i.e. leading a good life) does not depend on their flourishing. Even if they suffer illness or, at worst, death, the virtuous person will deal with this as well as anyone can (that is, expertly). That is why their flourishing is a “preferred indifferent”, which does not mean it has no value (it does). Happiness (i.e. living well) depends on virtue (expertise) and not on things that just happen to us and which we cannot influence.

Tim: Thanks, that’s helpful.  I was thinking about this the other day just after playing bridge at my club and thought of an analogy – I wonder if you think it could be useful. At some card games, like bridge, you often have a trump suit. When there are trumps, the lowest trump beats the highest card of any other suit. I was wondering if we could think of virtues as being like trumps, and the indifferents as being like cards in the other suits. If, for example, spades are trumps, then the two of trumps beats the ace or king of diamonds, in the same way that being virtuous (even in a small way) is more important than, for example, becoming very rich or very famous. We could think of life as a game where the purpose is to live well, the virtues are  the trump suit, and the indifferents are of value, but not as much value as the virtues. Could that work?

Chris: That’s an interesting suggestion. Certainly, Stoics think that any exercise of virtue “trumps” acquiring any preferred indifferent, however great, if acquired without exercise of virtue. I’m a bit worried, however by your final suggestion: that both virtue and indifferents have value but the virtues, as trumps, have more. What the Stoics actually said was that preferred indifferents have value (they are worth pursuing), but that the virtues are good; that is, the value of virtue is different in kind not just in degree.

Why different in kind? Part of the reason is the difference between virtues as executive skills or forms of expertise and indifferents as conditions of life (being rich, famous, healthy, having a flourishing family or not). But also virtue/expertise is good because it always benefits us and other people, and exercising it makes life go well under any circumstances. That is not true of indifferents; their contribution to a happy life depends on how they are used. That is why the value of virtue differs in kind from that of indifferents.

Tim:  Are you saying that we have two things here – things that are good and things that are of value? Or is it that living according the virtues is reliably and always good, whereas pursuing the indifferents is only good if done in a virtuous way?

Chris: I think the key point is that “good” means “beneficial”. The virtues (always) benefit us because they enable us to achieve happiness. The preferred indifferents are not in themselves beneficial; they have a positive value, but whether they contribute to a happy (well-lived) life depends on how they are used. So there are two different kinds of thing: virtues (good) and preferred indifferents (valuable but not good). The good human life may have preferred indifferents within it but they do not make the life good; that is the role of the virtues.

Tim: When you say preferred indifferents are valuable, is it more accurate to say “potentially valuable?”

Chris: Yes, I think that is right. In general, preferred indifferents, such as health and property, have value in themselves – natural value, the Stoics say, that is, value for human beings in general. But whether or not that value is realised in any given situation depends on whether it is used in a virtuous way or not. If we decide to gain money in a criminal or exploitative way, the money does not have value, in the Stoic sense, and does not contribute to a good life.

Tim: Can I take you back to an earlier point you made. You said “Happiness is living well, in fact, living the best possible human life; part of this is what we call ‘feeling happy’, but the Stoics think the ‘mood’ part of happiness depends on the ‘life’ part, that is, how you actually live”. Is this an empirical claim about mood depending on virtue? If so, that would be something that could be tested by modern empirical science in a way that was not possible for the ancient Greeks or Romans?

Chris: For the Stoics this claim was based on philosophical grounds. They defined happiness in a certain way (the best possible human life) and saw having good emotions (including joy) as a corollary or by-product of leading this kind of life. They did not conduct empirical studies to support this claim. However, they did think it was true and that it corresponded to human nature and human behaviour as they saw it in real life. In the modern world, of course, we can conduct such empirical studies and the questionnaires and surveys that we carry out in connection with Stoic week aim to bring out the link between adopting Stoic ethical principles and our pattern of emotions and moods. I guess we should bear in mind that for the Stoics virtue and happiness are ideal states, rarely if ever reached, and the achievable aim is to make progress in the right direction. But the Stoics thought it makes a big difference which direction we point our lives in – towards virtue or vice – so making progress certainly matters for them.

Tim:   This has been very helpful, Chris, I wonder if we have time today for just one more thing. What does Stoic decision-making look like? Conventional decision-making might involve weighing up all the consequences of a choice and choosing the one that has the most overall benefit. For example, if I am choosing between two jobs, I might weigh up money, fringe benefits, travel time and perhaps, if I am ethically minded, the benefit the work may bring to others. In other words, the conventional decision-maker would give a large weighting to preferable indifferents.   How would a Stoic make this decision?  How much would the indifferents count for? And does the Stoic use practical wisdom when making the choice between two indifferents?

Chris: In many ways, Stoic decision-making is just like conventional deliberation as you describe it. Stoics should take account of the relative value of things like health and money and status, and they should also take account of the impact of the decision on themselves and on others. So they do give weight to preferable indifferents, and to the value they have for us and for others. But they also know that what really matters is making the decisions virtuously – that is, wisely, justly, bravely, and with self-control. That is what they are aiming at – not just to pile up preferred indifferents for themselves. The overall aim is to lead the best possible human life, which they also see as the happy life. And the way to do that is to make practical decisions virtuously. Of course, this depends on learning about what makes for virtuous action, and what counts as a good human and happy life. But that’s what Stoic ethics is all about!

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

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

Is Stoic Practice Just Easier For Certain People? by Leah Goldrick

A reader of my blog recently wrote to me to ask if I think that practicing Stoicism is easier for men. The poor woman had experienced terrible postpartum depression after the birth of her son and still wasn’t feeling like herself several years later. She was very distressed about how her depression has affected her Stoic practice. Her husband on the other hand, seemed to have no problem being nonplussed about almost everything. He was calm even even in the face of things that caused her to feel depressed.

Her question was timely for me. I’m pregnant, and I have been finding myself more upset than I might typically be in various circumstances. This concurrence of events lead to me thinking about what they might mean in a Stoic context.

Now, to be clear, even though these experiences I just mentioned – pregnancy, birth and the postpartum period – are uniquely female, I prefer to frame the question in terms of personality or temperament rather than in terms of gender. I’m more interested in analyzing how Stoicism can help both males and females than I am in focusing on gender differences, which has unfortunately become a wedge issue.

So, does Stoic practice in fact come more naturally to people with certain temperaments or abilities? The question ultimately raises a series of other questions. First, how much control do we have over how the body affects the mind at various times during our lives? Do our temperaments actually matter to Stoic practice? And finally, are Stoics born or made? Let’s examine these ideas in more detail.

Can We Control How the Body Affects the Mind?

In the Discourses 1.1, Epictetus establishes his famous dichotomy of control, arguing that some things are up to us and others are not. The body is categorized by Epictetus as not in our control or at least not fully within our control. But Epictetus suggests that the mind is within our control.

This leads us to wonder how much control we have over the various ways the body might affect the mind – in terms of hormone changes, neurochemistry, blood sugar levels, and and other bodily functions which can directly affect our mood and emotions. It seems clear that we don’t have complete control over the biological functions that can trigger irrational emotions or passions – defined by the Stoics as anger, hatred, fear, depression, strong desire, and so forth.

But this isn’t the whole story. Regardless of where our emotions come from, the Stoics argued that the first movement of passions is largely involuntary. This is true for everyone, not just for people currently experiencing mood issues and frequent irrational emotions. In On Anger II.4.1-2, Seneca suggests:

I wish to instruct you in how passions get started, develop, and reach the point of exasperation. The first movement is involuntary, and it is like a preparation, or a threat, by the passion; the second movement is voluntary and controllable, and it consists in thinking that vengeance is necessary, because I have been offended, or that someone has to be punished, because he has offended; the third movement is arrogant, it does not want vengeance because it is necessary, but because it wants it, it has already annihilated reason. We cannot avoid the first impulse by reason, in the same way as we cannot avoid those physical reactions I mentioned earlier, yawning when others yawn, or closing our eyes when someone suddenly points a finger at them: these things cannot be overcome by reason; perhaps they may be attenuated by habit, or a constant attention. But the second movement, the one that springs from deliberation, is also countered by deliberation.

So while we might not be able to avoid all of the physical or biochemical triggers of our passions, we have control over the second and third stages where reason comes into play. We can take a step back and deliberate with ourselves as Seneca suggests. We might remind ourselves that we are probably feeling especially irritable because we haven’t eaten in many hours and our blood sugar is low – a phenomenon colloquially referred to as being “hangry.” Or we may have woken up in a very sad mood. We can remind ourselves of the things that we have to be grateful for in our lives.

Maybe this is easier said than done, but we do have some control over our thoughts and we can work to direct them as Seneca suggests. And while this whole process of managing assent to emotions is more involved for those who seem to experience frequent irrational passions, there is a positive dimension here too; it means that we will have more opportunity to better ourselves using Stoic techniques, which segues nicely into the next topic.

Do Our Temperaments Matter When it Comes to Practicing Stoicism?

In Discourses 1.2, on how a man on every occasion can maintain his proper character, Epictetus notes that while our natural strengths and weaknesses do affect us, we should nonetheless stay true to our own characters rather than seeking perfection:

But that which is great and superior perhaps belongs to Socrates and such as are like him. Why then, if we are naturally such, are not a very great number of us like him? Is it true then that all horses become swift, that all dogs are skilled in tracking footprints? What then, since I am naturally dull, shall I, for this reason, take no pains? I hope not. Epictetus is not superior to Socrates; but if he is not inferior, this is enough for me; for I shall never be a Milo [a great athlete], and yet I do not neglect my body; nor shall I be a Croesus, and yet I do not neglect my property; nor, in a word, do we neglect looking after anything because we despair of reaching the highest degree.

The sense of this passage seems to be that first of all, there are few who are great like Socrates – both extremely rational and willing to die for integrity. He is the exception rather than the rule. But the rest of us shouldn’t give up on trying to lead a good life because we aren’t just like Socrates or yet a sage.

Epictetus may not be Socrates, but that is no reason for him not to be the best Epictetus possible. He need not compare himself to anyone exceptional in order to be virtuous, or give up on trying to improve himself just because he isn’t the epitome of perfect reason.

Are Stoics Born or Made?

Epictetus continues to offer insight into the question of how we develop excellence. He implies that Stoics are made via practice regardless of any seeming good fortune in terms of temperament or ability (Discourses 1:2):

Some person asked, how then shall every man among us perceive what is suitable to his character? How, he replied, does the bull alone, when the lion has attacked, discover his own powers and put himself forward in defence of the whole herd? It is plain that with the powers the perception of having them is immediately conjoined: and, therefore, whoever of us has such powers will not be ignorant of them. Now a bull is not made suddenly, nor a brave man; but we must discipline ourselves in the winter for the summer campaign, and not rashly run upon that which does not concern us.

Here Epictetus notes that the great strength of the bull didn’t just appear overnight. Even though he may have been born a bull, it took the him years of development, building his muscles and so on, to become the mature creature that he is today.

Like the bull, we aren’t born brave or born Stoic philosophers. We must build ourselves up in order to become what we are meant to be, which requires work over the course of many years. Epictetus goes on to suggest that we make use of the challenging times in our lives to develop necessary courage and discipline. We can work at responding to challenges with increasing levels of virtue and skill, while turning our attention away from things beyond our control.

So yes, perhaps there are those rare individuals who possess naturally equanimous temperaments or special abilities. But that is no reason for us to measure ourselves by their standard, or to give up on becoming the best version of ourselves that we can. Other people’s good fortune is squarely beyond our control. And as Epictetus notes, even these seemingly exceptional people didn’t just become excellent overnight – they spent years developing into what they are. We must conclude that all of us must work to better ourselves regardless of any good fortune in terms of temperament or ability.

Epictetus leaves us with an optimistic message which shuts down any notions of perfectionism. There is no point in beating ourselves up over our shortcomings. Regardless of our individual struggles or our natural temperaments, as long as we are making progress, that is good enough for Epictetus. It should be good enough for us too.

 

Leah Goldrick became a practicing Stoic as a result of her ongoing inquiry into the Western wisdom traditions. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Philosophy and a Masters in Library and Information Science from Rutgers University. She is a part-time children’s librarian and blogger. She lives in the United States with her husband and son. Her website is Common Sense Ethics, which now has an associated YouTube channel.

Dealing With Difficult People at Work: Stoic Strategies by Greg Sadler

As editor of Stoicism Today, each year I ask those who spoke or gave a workshop at the main Stoicon or at one of the Stoicon-X events to provide a piece for our readership, the vast majority of whom cannot attend these events.  Just to put it into perspective, the attendees at Stoicon number in the hundreds.  A big Stoicon-X event might get a hundred.  By contrast most of our blog posts here get tens – and occasionally, hundreds – of thousands of reads.  So when our presenters and organizers are good enough to supply transcripts or summaries  of their talks, workshops, or other activities, I’m very happy to set them here in Stoicism Today.

As a fairly recent addition (joining officially in 2016) to the Modern Stoicism team, I have also  greatly enjoyed participating in Stoicon 2016 and 2017 (and in Stoicon-X Toronto 2017).  At both of those Stoicons, I provided one of the workshops during the breakout sessions.  Accordingly, after having asked many of our speakers to make their own contributions here in Stoicism Today, it is about time for me to put in the work required to add my own piece here about my 2017 Stoicon workshop, “Dealing With Difficult People at Work:  Stoic Strategies”.

If you’d like to see a videorecording of that workshop session, you can do so here.

Structure and Motivation of the Workshop

When Donald Robertson proposed “Stoicism at Work” as the theme for Stoicon 2017, I knew exactly what I wanted to focus on for the workshop.  There are a lot of challenges, irritants, and obstacles that arise within the context of modern work.  Some of the most difficult stem from our interactions and relationships with other people.  I’ve certainly dealt with – sometimes successfully, sometimes less so! – many difficult people in my own career.  And many of my own clients come to me troubled by how to handle these sorts of workplace issues.

I should mention that in its original design, the workshop was a team presentation, with my wife and partner, Andi Sciacca, as my co-presenter.  We designed the workshop together, and had planned to deliver it that way as well.  Unfortunately, due to some health matters at the time, she wasn’t cleared to fly to Toronto.  Given Andi’s qualifications, work-experience, and talents (which would require another blog post to outline), the workshop attendees perhaps got the proverbial short end of the stick with just me presenting!

Clearly difficult people at work was good topic to center upon in workshop format. After all, Stoic philosophy is practical, and should be providing help for people struggling with life-issues. I’d written a post in the series we ran leading up to Stoicon 2017, “Dealing With The Unduly Demanding In the Workplace,” addressing one particular type of “difficult person” – drawing in part on personal experience – and I was looking forward to discussing additional aspects of the workshop with the conference-goers.  As it turned out, the workshop was a big draw.  The room was packed with participants, and they brought some excellent questions, observations, and stories to the session!

The workshop was 90 minutes long, ranged over a lot of material, and included a number of side-discussions, so I am just going to summarize it here, talking about some portions in a bit more detail.

We originally divided the workshop up into the following activities:

  • Discussion – challenges for the Stoic and Stoicism in the workplace
  • Exercise – what main challenges are you encountering?
  • Presentation – several common types of difficult people in workplaces
  • Exercise – your top three difficult persons
  • Presentation – useful Stoic practices within situations involving difficult people
  • Presentation – useful Stoic practices before and after situations involving difficult people
  • Role-Playing Exercises – using Stoic strategies
  • Time Dedicated to Q&A and Discussion

The role-playing exercises would have required both Andi and I, so they were dropped from the actual workshop as delivered.  As it turned out, each part of the workshop drew us into a good bit of discussion, so we used all the time allotted even without those exercises.

The discussions were particularly engaging, I would say, for several reasons.  First, work and the people of the workplace are matters practically everyone can relate to.  As far as I know, there weren’t any participants in the workshop who didn’t already have considerable experience stemming from their working life.  Second, aggravations, challenges, and difficulties in the workplace are practically speaking, if not infinite, certainly vast in both quantity and type!  So there was a lot of “raw material” that we could apply Stoic principles and practices to, and that leads into the third reason.  As it turns out, although the ancient Stoics have no contact with or awareness of  the modern workplace – how could they? – they actually say quite a lot that turns out to be quite useful in dealing with difficult people.

Some Challenges in Applying Stoicism in the Workplace

Before launching into the workshop proper, I thought it could be useful to pause and consider a few common challenges that can arise when we are attempting to apply our Stoic practices and principles to the workplace environment.  The goal was not to attempt resolving these – there was definitely not enough time for that! – but just to highlight them so that they were out in the open.  Each of these probably merits a good bit of further discussion later on and elsewhere.

The first of these has to do with “indifferents” – adiaphora, in Greek – those things that, strictly speaking don’t have moral value in themselves, whether positive or negative.  At first glance, it can seem as if nearly everything that goes on, motivates people, or has some place, in the modern workplace is really some type of indifferent from the Stoic perspective.  Money, perks, positions, reputation, products and services, even the proverbial “bottom line”.  We can ask ourselves how Stoic we being if we focus on those sorts of matters.  An initial answer might be “not at all,” and we might then feel as if we ought to withdraw our attention or care from those.

A closely connected second matter – really another way of looking at those same things – is that those indifferents are also “externals,” and strictly speaking seem to be things that lie outside of our control, our power, or our business, if you like (all three of those are decent ways to translate Epictetus’ “ouk ep humon” in the dichotomy of control passages).  So should practitioners of Stoicism allow themselves to become concerned about those things outside of the scope of our agency?

Third, turning to one matter that clearly is up to us, and has intrinsic moral value – whether or not we develop and display the virtues – how do we translate these into the workplace?  Can we really make it all about virtue?  Or expanding and unpacking it a bit, should we make it all about our duties, or fulfilling our roles?

Fourth, if we make virtues, duties, and roles central in how we approach the workplace – and particularly our fellow human beings in the workplace – aren’t we setting ourselves up for exploitation  by others in that workplace?  Do we put ourselves at a disadvantage by being too understanding or accommodating, by fulfilling our duties, even if others don’t reciprocate?

To raise a fifth concern, justice is one of the four virtues for the Stoics.  And there can be a lot of things in the workplace that either seem or actually are unjust.  To what extent are we called upon, if we want to practice Stoicism, to say something or do something about the injustices we run across?

A sixth difficulty almost goes without saying – but it can be easy to forget, especially for people starting out in practicing Stoicism.  The other people in in any given workplace are very likely not going to be Stoics. It is possible that you might find some allies or supporters, but often you’ll find people motivated in all sorts of other ways, many of which are going to be quite at odds with Stoicism. And quite a few of them will turn out to be difficult people for the would-be-Stoic!

A Partial Typology of Difficult People

When it comes to general types of people – classifying them along the lines of their characteristic behavior, motivations, choices, priorities, emotional responses, or practical reasoning – there are a vast variety.  Really, that’s not a surprise, when you consider how adaptable human beings are, and how many different things we take an interest in, or orient ourselves by.  You can run into all sorts in the workplace.

Some of them definitely fall into the broad category of “difficult people”.  That is a relational and also a relative term.  People are more or less difficult, and they are difficult for or to some people, and not to others.  I provided what is admittedly only a partial listing sorting out a number of different kinds of troublesome people – I’m sure others can contribute many other additional overlooked categories to this enumeration!  Here are those that I brought up as classes of people who make the workplace difficult, some of which we discussed in the workshop:

  • Chronically negative people
  • Drama kings and queens
  • Bullies, sadists, and abusers
  • Unduly demanding people
  • People with annoying traits or habits
  • Disorganized, unprepared, and flakey
  • Greedy, self-centered, and exploitative
  • Contentious and argumentative people
  • Status-obsessed and overly competitive
  • Entitled, unmotivated, and lazy people
  • The incompetent and uncoachable
  • Over-social, hyper-sharing, and gossipy
  • Passive-aggressive and victims
  • Rageaholics, over-sensitive, and other angry
  • Back-stabbers and promise-breakers
  • Bad influences and enablers
  • Controllers, corallers, and “team-builders”

I should point out a few things about these categories.  First, although I have given them what I hope are fairly clear and suggestive names, each could use a bit of explanation (which in interests of space, I won’t attempt here).  Second, some of them might overlap or bland into each other, in two ways.  They might intersect to some degree conceptually.  and of course, in real live persons, any given human being might fit into multiple categories.  Third, you can find difficult people who can be rightly placed in these rubrics at any level of a company, organization, or institution.  They might be a boss, an executive, a manager, an employee, a customer, a vendor, a supplier, even a temp.

From a Stoic perspective the question isn’t whether such people exist.  It isn’t even whether labeling them in these ways is somehow wrong, or unfair, or offensive – read around in Marcus, Epictetus, and Seneca, and see how many people they are willing to label along similar lines!  The real question is how we can deal with those difficult people in productive and positive ways.  What resources does Stoicism afford us?

Useful Stoic Practices In Dealing With The Difficult

A good portion of the workshop was devoted to precisely that question.  What practices can we draw upon from Stoicism that will enable us to better handle situations involving difficult people in the workplace?  I broke those practices down into two sets – those to use within situations, and those better used before or after situations.  We had a good bit of discussion about some of these, as you’ll find when watching the recording of the workshop session.

Here are some of the useful practices that can be used within situations, with some brief explanations:

  • Dealing with appearances as such – not immediately giving assent to impressions or appearances that present themselves to you, but instead seeing them in proper perspective.
  • Deconstructing things into their parts – taking matters you find troubling, provocative of negative emotions, or appealing to your desires, and reminding yourself of what they really are.
  • Distinguishing what is or isn’t in your control – employing and reminding yourself of the dichotomy of control, and as best you can dissociating your desires and aversions from those that are not in your control.
  • Picking things up by the right handle – choosing how you frame the matters that you encounter in ways that you will be able to effectively deal with those matters, for instance by focusing upon your own duties and roles.
  • Understanding others without excusing – realizing that people think, feel, talk, and act as they do because that seems good or reasonable to them, even if it isn’t, and even if it is dead wrong.
  • Reminding self of values and costs of things – these costs include, for example, what it takes for you to be undisturbed by what would otherwise set you off.
  • Focusing on bigger-picture perspective – reminding yourself that if you step away from your personalized perspective things and people will not seem as important or as disturbing.
  • Sticking up for what is right in right ways – using the virtues as a guide, restricting excesses and properly orienting the stands that one feels compelled to take.

Here are some of the others that can be used before and after situations:

  • Examining your own desires and aversions – this sort of honest self-scrutiny allows you to really grasp what motivates you.  Those motivations might be healthy and rightly directed, or they might need some work on your part, if you are finding yourself overly invested in what you could look at as indifferents.
  • Reminding yourself you deal with people – before and after you wind up in difficult situations, you can remind yourself of precisely that truth, that you are dealing with actual human beings who have their own histories, habits, relationships.  These are rarely people as you would want them to be.
  • Working to gradually change your habits – generally they ways in which we think and feel are in part products of habits we have developed.  In dealing with difficult people, we may have already developed bad habits that continue to make those situations difficult for us
  • Engaging in negative visualization – both as a regular practice, and before going into a situation that you know will likely involve difficulty, you can imagine what might occur in that situation, consider whether it is likely to be as bad as you fear, and think about what resources you have to deal with it.
  • Reminding yourself of larger part-wholes – as human beings, from the Stoic perspective, we are all parts of larger wholes, just as the organs of our body are parts of a greater whole.  Taking that perspective can help us see others and ourselves as involved in something bigger.
  • Spending some time with the virtuous – especially when dealing with difficult people, we need to involve ourselves with people who provide us with positive interactions.  This can be done in person, through various media, or even virtually when we read and place ourselves in conversation with Stoic authors.
  • Tracking and reflecting on how you do – engaging in some daily reflection and self-scrutiny, whether just mentally or in journaling, allows you not just to track your progress.  It also can help you to gradually gain insights about additional things you might need to focus on.
  • Taking joy in your progress and successes – this I think is particularly important, not least since you are likely not going to get much of this from others.  Stoicism views positive emotions like joy as good for us, and feeling genuine happiness when we succeed or make progress helps keep us engaged in doing that more and more.

 

Gregory Sadler is the Editor of the Stoicism Today blog.  He is also the president and founder of ReasonIO, a company established to put philosophy into practice, providing tutorial, coaching, and philosophical counseling services, and producing educational resources.  He has created over 100 videos on Stoic philosophy, regularly speaks and provides workshops on Stoicism, and is currently working on several book projects.