Press Release – Stoicon, Stoicon-Xs and Stoic Week 2017

As we gear up for Stoicon, Stoicon-X events (this year on 4 continents!), the Stoic Week course, and a number of events worldwide celebrating Stoic Week, we – the members of the Modern Stoicism organization – have a short press release ready to send out.  You can download the Press Release for Stoic Week here.

Please feel free to share this press release with any media outlets who you think would be interested in knowing about and publicizing Stoic Week 2017, the Stoicon and Stoicon-X conferences and events, and the work of the Modern Stoicism organization.  All of these are definitely newsworthy, and we hope to spread the word as widely as possible!

We will be updating – and that means significantly expanding! – the list of events worldwide during or around Stoic Week.  If your organization, institution, or group is planning an event, make sure to get the full information of the event sent to us, and we’ll get it into our list.   And the same goes if your organization, institution, or group is engaging in Stoic Week together – send us that information, and we’ll add you to our listing!

Modern Stoicism Officially Incorporates

We have some major news to share, so we’re taking a brief pause in our ongoing series of Saturday posts on Stoicism at Work (the theme of this year’s Stoicon).  Earlier this week, Modern Stoicism officially became incorporated as a company.  More specifically, Modern Stoicism is a private, limited by guarantee – and most importantly, not-for-profit – company.

This has been in the works for some time.  The Modern Stoicism steering committee discussed the matter in detail in a meeting preceding Stoicon 2016, and continued conversations about incorporation through 2017.  Christopher Gill (pictured there above, along with John Sellars, at a 2014 Stoic Week event) took prime responsibility for seeing the many different steps through – a significant amount of work, for which we are all very grateful – in consultation with the entire steering committee.

The last several years have seen a number of changes for the Modern Stoicism organization, not least of which was the shift from being a more loosely structured working group to an actual organization, and now the official incorporation as a company.  The consolidation of the various websites and functions into the Modern Stoicism website was another major step. Behind the scenes, there have been many conversations and a lot of work by all of the members of the Modern Stoicism team, to bring things to this point.

It may come as a surprise to some of readers to learn that all of the work carried out so far by the members of Modern Stoicism has been on a volunteer basis.  Every member of the team puts in many hours for free to further and fulfill the mission of the organization.  This doesn’t mean, of course, that money doesn’t get spent on a number of legitimate expenses, (for example, booking event spaces, travel and lodging for Stoicon speakers, hosting the website online classroom spaces, an editorial assistant’s wages for the Stoicism Today volumes). But all of the time that the Modern Stoicism team devote to the work of the organization is uncompensated.

Why incorporate?  That is a good question, and it was one whose pros and cons we examined and discussed at length, before arriving at that decision (in Stoic terms, collaboratively exercising the virtue of prudence!).  The simplest answer is that doing so allows the Modern Stoicism organization to much more effectively engage in and even expand its distinctive and valuable work.

This includes developing resources and running a class each year during Stoic Week – but also engaging in a lot of outreach about Stoic Week, encouraging organizations to participate, publicizing events, and so forth. Putting together all the elements required for the annual Stoicon conference – securing a venue, lining up a set of excellent speakers, coordinating a myriad of details – that is another major endeavor (which this year also involved setting up a Stoicon-X the following day in Toronto).

Hosting, building, and updating the Modern Stoicism website itself. Producing, redeveloping, and leading the 4-week Stoicism Mindfulness and Resilience Training course each summer. Assembling and analyzing the data we gather into reports about correlations between Stoic practice, well-being, emotional states, and outcomes.  Soliciting pieces, working with authors, and producing weekly content for the Stoicism Today blog.  Editing the best pieces – often requiring substantial rewrites by the authors – for the Stoicism Today volumes.  Networking and collaborating with partner organizations also focused on promoting Stoicism worldwide.  These are just some of the many things we do.  And for a good many of them, that work is made a good bit easier by having an actual company structure.

Every company has a set of purposes, and for not-for-profit companies these are particularly important.  They provide an ethos, a mission, a direction, and accountability.  The steering committee collaboratively worked out these for Modern Stoicism, listed among the “objects for which the Company is established”:

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

These points encapsulate what Modern Stoicism as an organization is all about – and will continue to focus on going forward.  On that note, there are two last things that I think bear saying.

First of these is that when it comes to the sort of organization that Modern Stoicism developed into, an important matter to keep in mind is the need for continuity.  Although each of the individual members of the team make important contributions – drawing heavily upon their particular talents and energy – the Modern Stoicism organization is indeed a whole greater than the sum of its parts.  And, fate permitting, we all hope to see it continue its vital work past our own capacities to contribute. In a period of less than a decade, Stoicism has become a widely influential and adaptable philosophical approach in the public and practical spheres. What started with individual projects, came together in those early gatherings of philosophers and psychotherapists at the University of Exeter, then developed into a constellation of publicly available resources (like the Stoic Week handbook and course), and gradually became consolidated into an entire organization.  Modern Stoicism is far from the only group, organization, or institution that played a part in the growth of Stoicism in the present day, but it has clearly had a central role in it.  This formal incorporation as a company will help assure a continuity to the ongoing work of the organization.

The second (and last) remark I will make is a personal one.  I am a relative newcomer to the Modern Stoicism organization, having onboarded into the position as Stoicism Today’s editor (and with it, a seat on the steering committee) a bit less than two years ago.  A vast amount of work had already been done by the original and earlier-joining members of the organization by the time I came on.  A perhaps equally vast amount of work has been done since then as well, much of it involving collaborative discussions and iterative back-and-forth work by professionals whose time is always in short supply, but they give generously to Modern Stoicism and its activities.  What I’ve been privileged to observe is that the other members of this organization – when it comes to the Stoicism they speak, write, and teach about – are the “real deal”.  And that consistency of ethos should place this new company on a very solid footing indeed!

Interview with Andi Sciacca

At this year’s Stoicon conference – coming up in Toronto –  Andi Sciacca will be co-presenting the workshop “Dealing with Difficult People At Work – Stoic Strategies.”  Andi owns an educational consulting company, ReasonIQ, LLC, and serves as the chief operating officer for the Big Mind Institute for Education and Messaging.  She was also the founding director of the Culinary Institute of America’s Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, and the director of curriculum and program design for the CIA’s Food Business School.

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

I am someone who came to study philosophy a bit later in my academic career.  My background was in American Studies and Literature – and I spent almost twenty years teaching both subjects across colleges (and a few prisons!) in New York State – which was an experience I really enjoyed!  But it wasn’t until I decided to pursue my PhD through the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee Switzerland, and had the opportunity to study directly with the people I’d read in my critical theory courses while in my graduate literature courses that I realized that the deeper desire was for philosophy all along.  It doesn’t hurt to be married to a philosopher, of course, and one of the things I most enjoy is when he and I get to work together, as we’ll be doing when we present together at Stoicon this year.  

When not working, I really enjoy music (all kinds) and traveling.  I’m happiest when I’m on the road, exploring new places and meeting new people.

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

The work I do affords me ample opportunity to make use of Stoicism – or, at least try to!  One of my roles is as co-founder of the company ReasonIO, working with my husband and business partner, Greg Sadler.  Greg and I have worked with prisons, churches, libraries, schools, universities, community organizations, and corporate clients on a range of projects geared toward our goal of putting philosophy into practice.  Given that many people and groups seeking our services are focused on solving problems or creating opportunities, the lessons found in Stoicism can be useful to both sides of the client relationship in our daily work.

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

I remember my first introduction to Stoicism being as a member of our high school’s academic decathlon team.  We had passages from Epictetus in our study packs, and I remember those being among the most rewarding we were assigned.  Then, as an undergraduate, we translated Cicero as part of a Latin course, and I again felt like there was a resonance in what I was reading – but it wasn’t until Greg introduced me to Donald’s Stoic Mindfulness & Resilience Training course a few years back, that I really found my “home” in Stoicism and began a real course of study

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

For me, and likely for many other “Type-A” / entrepreneurial types, the aspect of relinquishing control – or, perhaps better put, the relinquishing of the desire to have control – has been the most helpful.  The other aspect that I find incredibly rewarding is the opportunity to study with my partner and husband, and to share in the larger Stoic fellowship community with others in Milwaukee, where we now live.

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

This is a difficult question to answer, because I would be hard-pressed to find ways in which it doesn’t matter today.  When we meet monthly in our MKE Stoic Fellowship sessions, where we’re currently focusing on the Enchiridion, the topics and applications of Stoicism that come up in conversation with people who have little to no experience with the topic are proof to me that there is a real hunger for the lessons that can be learned, and the benefit of applying those lessons to daily life.

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

Well, we’d likely have to ask Greg, or my friends and other family members for validation on this – but I think it’s made me a better listener, more cooperative, and less likely to jump to conclusions in my day-to-day conversations and interactions.  I know that it’s helped a great deal with my internal processes in terms of helping me maintain a more constant and measured approach to things that otherwise might cause extreme stress or anxiety.  This is not to say that I don’t still experience those things – but I do feel like I’ve benefited from being able to look at my thoughts and behaviors through a Stoic lens.

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

As we read and re-read the Enchiridion in the MKE Stoic Fellowship, there has been one passage that I keep returning to, and that is Chapter 17:

Remember that you are an actor in a drama, of such a kind as the author pleases to make it. If short, of a short one; if long, of a long one. If it is his pleasure you should act a poor man, a cripple, a governor, or a private person, see that you act it naturally. For this is your business, to act well the character assigned you; to choose it is another’s.

This passage is one that helps me remember my inclinations to attempt control.  It reminds me that my “drama” (whether we take that to mean situation, day, or life) is short or long, designed to be something, or not something, and that my task is to act it naturally and well.  It is freeing in ways that only such a structured way of thinking can provide – and it is most helpful, especially as someone who takes delight in many interests, many projects, many things…

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

Well, naturally, I think going to Stoicon, joining a Stoic Fellowship, subscribing to Stoicism Today, or taking courses and buying books by those in the Modern Stoicism community are great resources – as would be immersing oneself in the writings of great Stoic thinkers… However, the advice I most often give to someone interested in learning more about any subject is to explore it with an open mind and then find communities in which you can explore ideas, share experiences, and test your assumptions.  I think that’s where, how, and when some of the best learning takes place.

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

Simply that I’m absolutely delighted to have the opportunity to interact with the Modern Stoicism community – and that I’d like to share my gratitude for the work being done here.  As I’ve learned more about the people and processes that drive events like Stoicon, or the incredible dedication Donald has to building an ever-more-rewarding SMRT program, I am struck by how rich and generous this community is – and I look forward to becoming more involved in years to come.

The Three Meanings of Stoic Work by Piotr Stankiewicz  

“Work” is a broad term with a wide range of meanings, many of which slip out of the Stoic scope. There is, I think, no clear Stoic interpretation of “work” in physics, i.e. force acting through a distance, or of “work” understood as “labor,” which is a social and economic matter. Yet, there are at least three important senses of “work” in which we can learn much from the Stoics.

First of all, there is “work” in its “workplace” meaning. We may rightly wonder how would a Stoic perform in doing her job, earning a living and doing all else that her social obligations require her to do. I have little doubt here that a Stoic will excel in most of the possible contemporary jobs, trades and ways of life. Why is that? Let’s just consider three precepts the Stoics advance.

“You must plan your life, one action at a time,” says Marcus Aurelius (Meditations, 8.32). When you seek earnestly that which is not your own, you lose that which is your own,” says Epictetus (Discourses, I.25.4-5). “All […] adversities [a Stoic] counts mere training” adds Seneca (On Providence, 2.2).

These three ideas of, respectively, paying attention only to the task at hand, focusing on what is up to us, and treating adversities as challenges have a clear and great power as ethical rules. But let’s note that on the practical level they give a very precise, down-to-earth and objective-oriented code for conduct. This code is very close to what is valued in business and in the workplace in general. After all, what boss wouldn’t love an employee that doesn’t get distracted by things above her paygrade? What business venture wouldn’t benefit if those in charge of it focused solely on what they have influence on? What manager worth her salt wouldn’t agree that obstacles should be treated as challenges which motivate us to overcome them?

In this regard, the Stoic principles shape a reliable and responsible person, who does her job expertly and efficiently. According to Lawrence Becker the fitting, modern interpretation of Stoic virtue is that it can be understood as maximized, or even perfect agency. In the workplace, this perfect agency translates the Stoic ethics into surprisingly solid work ethics.

Another way of expressing it is this. We may say – simplifying a bit – that virtue can be interpreted as the ability to take whatever not-within-our-power input materials we get, and put it to the best use possible. In the words of Epictetus:

This is the magic wand of Hermes. Touch what you will […] and it will turn into gold. (Discourses, III.20.12).

In other words, a Stoic will be able to thrive no matter what circumstances she founds herself in. If she ends up being a president of United States, then she will do her job responsibly and with dignity, employing reasonable policies, and leading by example. If she turns out to be a teacher in some forgotten Antebellum-ville, she will also do her job well, teaching the kids, leading them into the complexities of human knowledge, explaining to them what it means to be a responsible member of society. If, on the other hand, she turns out to be a professor of philosophy, she will take that opportunity to teach Stoicism to others, to the best of her ability. The idea is clear: whatever circumstances she finds herself in, she is always able and willing to apply her reason to produce the best outcome available.

And again: doesn’t it sound familiar to the business ear and workplace environment? What a Stoic sage does ethically is analogous to what the everyday business requires us to do. We have certain resources (human, budgetary, institutional etc.) and we need to utilize them expertly to turn a profit. No matter what are circumstances are, no matter which way the market is shifting – business is about profit and doing one’s job is about doing it ably and effectively. These two situations are similar and the growing popularity of Stoicism among high-level managers testifies to that.

Of course, Stoicism cannot be equaled or reduced to “being good at one’s job.” There is much more to Stoicism than that.  And yet certain analogies are undeniable. After all, don’t all the CEOs of this world dream of that “magic wand of Hermes” that turns all to gold? All of this is a  reason enough to claim that it’s hard to imagine a sloppy or slacking Stoic. She will thrive at her workplace, whatever that workplace turns out to be.

On the other hand, we may just as well expect that a Stoic will not become a workaholic. The word “work” is to be found not only in “workplace,” but also – more importantly – in the phrase “work-life balance.” After all, earning a living, doing our job, performing our social duty, these errands never comprise the entirety of our life. We usually have family life too, we have hobbies and leisure time, all that tempting things that we don’t usually count as “work.” The continuous challenge of our life is how to balance all this, how to put this in order, how to avoid one part of life taking its toll on another. Can Stoicism be of help in this matter?

Sure it can be! A Stoic life is impossible without harmony and without hammering out a compromise between multiple values and endeavors (which often contradict each other).  Stoicism isn’t about passing over the diversity of values and complexity of life. Quite the contrary! It’s about acknowledging it. A Stoic tries her best to accept the multifarious facts on the ground and the complexities of human axiology. Lawrence Becker argues that a Stoic lives her life the best she can allthings-considered.

This “all” element is vital here. It denotes that the Stoic ethics aims at over-arching, long-haul and wide-scope project of a good life. Decisions and judgments of a Stoic always need to be based on the most accurate and comprehensive information obtainable (e.g. a Stoic won’t enter partnership in business without researching her partner-to-be) and it is the whole life perspective that counts (e.g. decades of unethical conduct  adorned by a singular heroic act won’t add up to a Stoic life). But above all, in the Stoic calculus no value is written off for no reason. A Stoic consciously decides to focus on a specific and individually chosen setup of values, which includes certain values while excludes others. This exclusion is always a deliberate choice, not a random development.

Consider this: will we call someone a Stoic sage if she is great rock star, enjoys stellar success, but at the same time neglects all of her family life and spirals down into drug abuse? I presume not. On the other hand, imagine someone who is, say, a convicted criminal, always unable to stay on the legal side of life, but, for some reason, she nevertheless manages to be a reliable and supportive sister to her siblings? No, it doesn’t add up.

Or take a politician. Will we call her a Stoic, will we call her a stateswomen on a par with Marcus Aurelius if she negotiates international trade agreements well but at the same time she takes tons of bribes and bullies her aides cruelly? No, this also isn’t enough. Why isn’t it? Because these pictures lack the necessary degree of reasonable harmony of values and goals. Blind devotion to just one value and equally blind disregard of all others don’t make a Stoic.

This is exactly why just as it’s hard to imagine a sloppy Stoic, it’s also hard to imagine a Stoic that is so caught up with her job that she forgets about her family, friends and hobbies. Focus and axiological choice are necessary, because it’s impossible to cover all values in one life. But single-mindedness about just one walk of life makes neither a Stoic nor a good life. 

The third side of the coin is, as always, the most interesting one. Besides all the duties and challenges that await us with our jobs and with work-life balance, we, the Stoics, are primarily focused on the internal front, so to speak. Stoicism is mostly about our own toil of self-improvement. This is the most intimate and the most philosophical understanding of “work.” In this respect, Stoicism is one great system for care and betterment of the self. And there is no shortcut or discount here, it’s indeed all about hard work. Climbing up the Stoic curve is highly rewarding but tough and tiresome. The logic of it is akin to that of sport training: the unused muscles wither. To avoid that, regular workout is needed, the Stoic workout, crossfit for the soul, continuous challenge, perpetual effort.

Interestingly, this can shed some light on the debate between the Stoics and Epicureans. The difference between the two is often misstated and misunderstood, but juxtaposing their approach to work can help a lot. We can look at it this way: the Epicurean way of life is frugal. It’s a life of mental relaxation, spiritual leisure and cutting slack. An Epicurean craves to be not bothered (and that’s why she opts for a simple life). With a Stoic it’s quite the opposite. In Stoicism we constantly exert, we press and push ourselves, we stay sharp and vigilant. We restlessly climb the ladder of spiritual development.

Another related issue is the question of nature. In ancient Stoicism “nature” was our ethical direction and an ally. We were obliged to follow it, we were supposed to believe that whatever nature commands is by definition good and that, in short, the overall goal of human life is to find harmony with nature. From the modern point of view – as I have argued elsewhere – the situation seems much more complicated. From the today’s point of view we may consistently argue that the Stoic good life and virtue are attained not through consistence with nature, but through overcoming it. A degree of struggle against our very own human nature may be prerequisite to the Stoic development, particularly if we take “human nature” in the biological, evolutionary sense. This is the position that William Irvine suggests between the lines of his A Guide to the Good Life. I concur with it. And the argument for it is as follows.

Has the Darwinian evolution designed us for Stoic virtue, integrity and reason? It’s highly doubtful. Biologically speaking, there has never been (alas!) any evolutionary profit in development of virtue. The Stoic virtue, with all its perks, doesn’t in any obvious way contribute to our reproductive success. Above all, there has never been any evolutionary incentive for being content with little. Actually, evolution has prepared us to do just the opposite. In our evolutionary past it was a rare occurrence to have an abundant supply of all the necessities, like food, water, shelter, sexual partners, safety, social stability, etc. Thus, there has never been any real and lasting opportunity to adapt to conditions which rewarded self-restraint. There has never been evolutionary pressure to exercise it. Quite the contrary: in most cases it made the best evolutionary sense for our ancestors to always exploit every situation to the limit. Thus, we evolved to be insatiable. We evolved to be never satisfied, to always crave for more. In this sense, evolution has put us on the pointless hedonic treadmill.

This treadmill situation is, of course, the exact inverse of the Stoic picture. And hence, we are in a very particular position. We learn from the Stoics what we ought to do in order to live a happy life, but we find that our biological hardware is designed for just the opposite. So, in order to follow the Stoic principles we need to overcome these innate inclinations of our evolutionary past. In this sense, once we understood “nature” biologically, we realize that the path of Stoic progress leads not conformably to it but against it. And this perennial battle against our biological nature is exactly what makes Stoic training such a hard work.

But doesn’t it sound a bit discouraging? Doesn’t it sound pessimistic? Possibly. But let’s remember adaptation. There is the hedonic adaptation (so distasteful to us, Stoics) which tries to keep up inside the aimless hedonic treadmill and which makes us drown in the unquenchable desire for more. But, on the other hand, there is also the Stoic adaptation. Again, it’s like in sport. We can never abandon our training regimen, unless we agree to lose the gains we have gotten. We can never stop working on our self-improvement. But: this isn’t running in place! The more we push ourselves, the better our performance is. If we work hard, then we constantly move up, we enter new levels and become better and better.

This interpretation may help us ease the problems with the all-or-nothing concept of Stoic virtue. Seneca himself pointed out that this theory of virtue makes Stoic ethics so high‑standard, that we, the mere Stoic progressors, may be sure that we’ll never get there fully. However, in the light of what I said above, this doesn’t mean that progress is impossible. The Stoic training is an upward spiral and even tough it may never actually bring us to the perfect imperturbability, to the pristine bliss of the sage’s soul which is like “heavens above the moon,” our Stoic skills will still steadily grow while we march upwards.

Piotr Stankiewicz, Ph.D. is a lecturer affiliated with the University of Warsaw in Poland, and the author of a bestselling Polish handbook of Stoicism (“Sztuka życia według stoików”).  He is currently working on making his Stoic books available in English. In the meanwhile he advances Stoic and non-Stoic agendas in his native Polish.

Interview with William O Stephens

William O. Stephens will be one of the invited speakers at the upcoming Stoicon conference in Toronto later this year.  His talk is entitled “Phobias, Terrorism, and Stoic Fearlessness”

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

I’m a professor of philosophy at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska.  My areas of expertise include ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, environmental ethics, and Stoicism and popular culture.  But my interest in Stoicism isn’t merely academic or scholarly.  I believe that the general Stoic outlook, nearly all doctrines of Stoic philosophy, and Stoic therapies for vanquishing fears, anxieties, and anger, promote mental and emotional health and happiness.  I regard myself as a student of Stoicism striving to make progress living as a Stoic.

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

I write about Stoicism and I teach Stoic authors in my courses.  My two monographs are Marcus Aurelius: A Guide for the Perplexed and Stoic Ethics: Epictetus and Happiness as Freedom.   I’ve written a variety of articles, essays, chapters in edited collections, and book reviews about Stoicism.  My largest ongoing project is a manuscript titled Stoic Lessons in Liberation: Epictetus as Educator.

I teach Epictetus in my introductory level course Philosophical Ideas: Wisdom.  Years ago I created a course on the History of Hellenistic Philosophy (which includes a major unit on the Stoics).  I also developed a course entirely on Stoicism, in which we studied Lawrence Becker’s A New Stoicism (1998) and generous selections from the Roman Stoics.  In 2012 I introduced a course called “Stoics in Film and Literature” to Creighton’s Honors program.

The film and lit. course begins with selected poems about the figure of the stoic, including Emily Brontë, “The Old Stoic” (1846) and Rudyard Kipling’s, “If” (1895).  Then we study A Stoic (1916)—a charming short story by the British novelist and playwright John Galsworthy. The protagonist of A Stoic, Sylvanus Heythorp, is a decrepit old curmudgeon and firebrand who led his life as Kipling urges in his famous poem.  Heythorp is discovered to have taken a private commission in a business deal for the sake of endowing a modest trust for his needy grandchildren.  Against his doctor’s orders Heythorp deliberately consumes a huge meal, downs copious liquors, and exits life in order to escape being fired from his job and publicly humiliated by a petty attorney.  As a story about pluck, fulfilling one’s role as a guardian, and opting for suicide both to save face and to shed a doddering, deteriorating body, it is a terrific vehicle for teaching Stoicism.

Epictetus describes his ‘Open Door’ policy about suicide in the Discourses, which we study at length in the course.  Epictetus also teaches that the life of a Stoic is like the life of a soldier.  We read U.S. Navy Vice Admiral James B. Stockdale’s essay Courage Under Fire: Testing Epictetus’ Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behavior (1993).  He explains how the Stoicism he learned from the lame slave saved his sanity, steeled his endurance under torture, and preserved his dignity during more than seven years as a POW in the Vietnam war.  Stockdale led the other American POWs valiantly.  He was awarded the Medal of Honor and was a candidate for Vice President as Ross Perot’s running mate in 1992.

Next we read Tom Wolfe’s long and lively novel A Man in Full (1998).  The minor protagonist, Conrad Hensley, is a heroic young husband, father, and manual laborer who suffers a horrible streak of bad luck that results in him being unfairly charged with assault.  To preserve his honor, Hensley rejects a plea bargain and goes to prison.  There, by accident, he receives a copy of Epictetus’ Discourses at exactly the right time to become a Stoic convert.  Epictetus teaches him to respect himself, focus on what is up to him, act bravely, and use his strong hands to defeat a menacing inmate who is a serial rapist.  During an earthquake that destroys the prison, Hensley saves the life of his fellow cellmate and escapes.  Now a Stoic teacher, Hensley saves the novel’s main protagonist, Charlie Croker, from sacrificing his self-respect and losing his moral integrity merely to cling to his vast wealth.  Thus, Croker becomes Hensley’s Stoic disciple.  The novel has colorful Stoic and anti-Stoic characters.

I pair Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations with the film Gladiator (2000), featuring Richard Harris as the emperor.  An excellent analysis of the film is offered by John Sellars in his paper “Stoics on the Big Screen: Marcus and Maximus,” which we read with “Marcus, Maximus, and Stoicism in Gladiator (2000),” the appendix of my book on Marcus.

People who read one male Stoic author after another may think that Stoicism is a philosophy for men only.  To correct this misconception my students and I examine the performance of Jennifer Lawrence as Ree Dolly in Winter’s Bone (2010).  The course concludes with a look at Stoic ideas in Star Wars.  My students read my essay “Stoicism in the Stars: Yoda, the Emperor, and the Force” in Star Wars and Philosophy (2005) after watching selected scenes from Episodes II, III, IV, and V.  Yoda expresses a basic Stoic idea in his Jedi maxim: “Fear leads to anger; anger leads to hate; hate leads to suffering.”  I argue that Jedis resemble Stoics in many, but not all, respects.

So, obviously I use Stoicism a lot in my teaching and writing.

When and how did you first become interested in Stoicism?

When I was in high school I liked to read about ancient Greek and Roman philosophers in a 1972 World Book Encyclopedia set.  I wanted to study philosophy when I went to college.  After majoring in philosophy and Classics at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana, I was fairly certain that I wanted to specialize in ancient Greek philosophy when I went to graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania in 1984.  Knowing my interest in the Socrates of the early Platonic dialogues, my mentor at Penn, Charles Kahn, suggested that I read Epictetus, since Socrates is Epictetus’ biggest hero.  I had never read a Stoic author before.  As soon as I took up Epictetus, I was hooked.  The fervor with which Epictetus taught his students how to free themselves from fear, anger, envy, and self-pity was breathtaking.  I wrote my dissertation on Epictetus’ ethics.  When I began researching Epictetus I soon discovered that a scholar named Adolf Bonhöffer had written three entire books on Epictetus, none of which had ever been translated from German.  The second book was on Epictetus’ ethics.  So, I had to puzzle out a line by painstaking line translation of Bonhöffer’s Die Ethik des Stoikers Epictet (1894).  In 1996 Peter Lang published that translation under the title Adolf F. Bonhöffer, The Ethics of the Stoic Epictetus: An English translation.

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

Using the power of reason to dispel anger, conquer fear, gain wisdom, and live well.  Doing all I can to concentrate my energies on what is up to me and to remain calm about what is not up to me.  The most important aspect of Stoicism is seeing how becoming the best person I can possibly be is possible by applying Stoic wisdom to every challenge I face.

In what ways do you think Stoicism still matters today?

Stoicism matters for calm perseverance amidst conflict and calamity.  Stoicism matters for cultivating the virtues and becoming self-realized.  Stoicism matters for living peaceably and cooperatively with other people.  Stoicism matters for living in agreement with nature, which I believe means, among many other things, living sustainably and practicing ecological wisdom, veganism, and minimalism.  Stoicism matters for liberating people through education so that they can rid themselves of fear, hatred, bigotry, greed, and selfishness.  Stoicism matters in every way.

How has Stoicism affected the way you live your life?

Throughout my career in academia I have dedicated myself to educating my students in a liberal arts education.  According to this pedagogical vision, a well-rounded education in all the arts and sciences liberates the mind and transforms a human being into a well-rounded person, a person who becomes a lifelong learner, and a productive citizen in our democracy.  As a professional philosopher, when I teach Stoicism to my students I’m teaching what I believe is the best philosophy ever conceived.  There are certainly some serious criticisms of certain doctrines of ancient Stoicism.  Modern Stoics ought to take these legitimate criticisms to heart and revise their Modern Stoicism accordingly.  I encourage my students to think critically and creatively when exploring all philosophies.  They need to work out their own views and defend them using the best arguments they can construct.  But I’m a self-identified Stoic because, at the end of the day, I believe that Stoicism is a truer, more powerful philosophy than Platonism, Aristotelianism, Hedonism, Scepticism, Thomism, Cartesianism, Utilitarianism, Kantianism, Marxism, consumer-capitalism, and all the rest.

Outside the classroom, I play a lot of tennis.  I struggle to practice Stoic equanimity when opponents muff line calls and behave in unsportsmanlike ways.  I aspire to play tennis like a Stoic, but I have a long, long way to go.  I do better applying Stoic thinking when I’m behind the wheel of a car.  I also try to practice Stoicism in my personal and professional relationships.  It’s difficult but rewarding.

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

No carelessness in your actions.  No confusion in your words.  No imprecision in your thoughts.  No retreating into your own soul, or trying to escape it.  No overactivity.  They kill you, cut you with knives, shower you with curses.  And that somehow cuts your mind off from clearness, and sanity, and self-control, and justice?  A man standing by a spring of clear, sweet water and cursing it.  While the fresh water keeps on bubbling up.  He can shovel mud into it, or dung, and the stream will carry it away, wash itself clean, remain unstained.  To have that.  Not a cistern but a perpetual spring.  How?  By working to win your freedom.  Hour by hour.  Through patience, honesty, humility. (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations viii. 51; Gregory Hays’ translation)

Water is the most supple and yielding of elements.  Yet over time waves wear down the rocks along a shore line.  Over time a stream can carve out a huge, deep canyon.  Persistence, patience, and a calm, steadfast purpose are waterlike virtues Marcus admires.  Don’t we all admire these virtues?

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

Buy my books and read them!  Even better advice is to read Seneca, Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius.  There are very good recent translations of the works of all these Stoics.  Also, everything Tony (A.A.) Long has ever written about Stoicism is absolutely first rate.

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

I invite your readers to email me any questions or comments about Stoicism that they have.  I’m eager to meet and talk with fellow Stoic enthusiasts at Stoicon 2017 in Toronto.

 

Applying Stoicism: The Struggle for Self-Sufficiency by Travis Hume

Many persons today face an unforgiving journey to become financially independent. For numerous entry-level positions in various fields, obstacles may include a requirement for prior work experience, multiple degrees, or a combination of both. As it is difficult to obtain an entry-level position without prior work experience, more advanced or specialized degrees or inadequate-paying internships become the equalizer. Additional education demands greater financial risks for uncertain returns.

Some may be able to afford more education without taking on debt, largely leaving time and effort as remaining costs. For others, outside financial support or graduating with substantial debt is necessary. Depending on the desired field, the advanced degree will not always be an advantage; the degree may instead place one’s chances for consideration on even ground with other applicants. For a significant advantage, familiar obstacles need to be overcome, multiplying the costs accordingly. Some may also possess an edge in the form of social contacts, networks, or favor trading.

Each individual’s experience with this cycle will vary depending on many interweaving events. It may well be that the cycle ends as hoped for, and an individual lands the sought-for position. It may end when an individual reaches self-prescribed limits on the time and money they were willing to risk. An individual may end the cycle at a seemingly appropriate time, yet the position nevertheless seems continuously out of reach. Finally, an individual may choose not to face the cycle at all, deeming the risked investment too great without some guarantee of future stability.

If an individual believes another person (e.g. another applicant or employer) represents a barrier or means to something good, they are more likely to behave in ways that are counter-intuitive to their goal. For example, they may go out of their way to choose words that appear knowledgeable, or change their body language to appear very confident. They may be more likely to embellish their resume, overstate their work experience, or exaggerate personal stories during interviews. If they’re offered a position, they must continually work to maintain any intentionally false appearances created from the outset.

The miscellaneous risks of pursuing an advanced degree are commonly not the only considerations in play: Costs of living vary by location, currently held job(s), debts owed elsewhere, supporting dependents, healthcare expenses, and other elements. If one or more of these considerations becomes financially untenable, the effects often cascade. An individual’s career goals may be suspended indefinitely as a result, perhaps by months, years, or decades.

Common responses to these developments include resignation, despair, anger, indignation, fear, disgust, anxiety, self-deprecation, among others. As it is common for employers (at least in the United States) to be vague in their reasoning for turning down an applicant, the individual may take it upon themselves to fill in the blanks: “Maybe I just don’t have what it takes.” “I deserved that way more than whoever got it!” “I gave 110% – it should have been enough.” “Those people obviously don’t know who they’re passing up, and they’ll be sorry when they find out.”

These resentments are borne from judgments of what is good or evil that have been shaped and reinforced over a lifetime. To many, a career represents something good due to the material benefits thought to accompany them. A sense of ownership is gradually projected onto potential job offers in the act of pursuing it intently. If the position isn’t offered, it is accordingly deemed these benefits are “lost.” Depending on one’s disposition, the emotional response may be turned either inward or outward towards the person(s) and company believed responsible. The career goals of many are repeatedly raised, changed, maintained, or impeded through a complex weave of causes.

The ancient philosophy of Stoicism asserts that these judgments are changeable. Accordingly, our consideration of what is good or evil can be changed. The Stoics suggest that greatly valuing external things is a mistake and a disservice to us, given our capability for reason and choice – a capability unique to our species. Investing value and effort in choices that are consistent with our distinctive nature as social and rational animals is held to be the only true path to becoming happy; notably, happiness that is independent of the external obstacles interfering with financial self-sufficiency:

Remove desire for empty fame, the reputation of a philosopher, or to have lived your whole life as a philosopher. The plan of your life opposes it. Discard concern for how others see you and be content to live the remainder of your life without distraction, directed by your nature. You have experienced many wanderings without finding happiness; not in syllogisms, nor wealth, nor reputation, not pleasure, nor anywhere. Where is it then? In doing a man’s business. What to do? Follow your principles that relate to good or bad with the conviction that there is nothing good for man that does not make him just, temperate, manly and free and that there is nothing bad that does not do the contrary. (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Bk. VIII. 1)

Humans need to physically survive as other animals do, but little more is needed beyond the basics: a few meals a day, water, clothing, and shelter. Anything additional is pursued by choice; a choice arguably made on behalf of this basic impulse. The Stoics maintain there is nothing wrong with preferring being full to being hungry, being well-off to destitute, sleeping in a comfortable bed to sleeping on the ground, so on. The moment, however, that we begin depending on the presence of preferential things or fear their absence is the moment we’ve surrendered control of ourselves to the persons that may be manipulating them. In other words, by binding our peace of mind to things outside of our control, we’ve yielded our opportunity to enjoy them for the time they’re present, make peace without regret when they’re absent, and to concentrate on improving our social and rational qualities.

… Other things are goods by opinion, “advantages,” “preferred” things. Chattels, not parts of ourselves, they lend no man cause to plume himself. Let us use these things, but not boast of them. Few men have been allowed to lay aside prosperity gently, the rest all fall together with their possessions and are weighted down by these very things which once exalted them. Employ limits and frugality since license overthrows is own abundance. That which has no limit has never permitted reason to set limits for it. Many a great power has fallen to luxury and been destroyed, excess has ruined what was won by virtue. Our weapon of defense is our ability to accept what happens to us. … (Seneca, Moral Letters to Lucilius, Letter 74, 16)

Striving to act in light of the dichotomy between what is or is not in our control is crucial to the eventual transformation of our day-to-day thought process – a thought process that may otherwise be constantly filled with resentment, anxiety, fear, and hyper-competitiveness with others. The pursuit for fiscal self-sufficiency does not need to come at the cost of our psychological well-being, or considering other persons as means to ends.

As it happens, by doing our best with what we have for the time we have it for the distinct purposes of self-improvement and benefiting others, we are likely to perform in ways that will bring about the fiscal self-sufficiency we prefer. It is not a guarantee, as mentioned, because our exercise of choice alone is fully within our control, but it ceases to be an end goal on the path to becoming practicing Stoics:

… Your fears are idle and your desires vain. Do not seek good things outside of yourself, but within, or you will not find them. When you think things are going badly remember you are being trained as an example to other men. When you are appointed to such a role it is not for you to consider where or in what company you are or what others say about you, but to spend your efforts obeying the commands of Zeus (Nature).

If you keep these thoughts in mind you will never want for one to comfort and strengthen you. Dishonor does not come from not having enough to eat, but from not having enough right reason to secure you from fear and pain. Once you are free from fear and pain you are free from all earthly tyrannies. Make no display of your office by inflating yourself, but prove yourself by conduct. Be content, though none observe you, to live in true health and happiness. (Epictetus, Discourses, Bk. III, 24)

 

Travis Hume is the creator, administrator, and writer of Applying Stoicism and its social media accounts. He writes daily on practicable applications of Stoic philosophy for the modern day, based upon first-hand real-world experiences.

Coming Up In October – Stoicon, Stoic Week, and Stoicon-X events

Stoic Week and Stoicon are just two months away!  There are already a number of events either scheduled, in the works, or being planned – and there is still plenty of time to organize many other events of interest to the Stoic community.  Below is a round-up of the events that we have confirmed to this date.

If your organization, school, or Stoic meetup are planning an event to celebrate Stoic Week in October – or even just to observe and work through the Stoic Week class together – please let us know, and we will make sure to include your information in the next post about events (which will run just before Stoicon and Stoic Week)

So, here’s what is lined up so far:

STOICON – The Main Conference

October 14, 8:00 AM-6:30 PM – STOICON 2017 – organized by Donald Robertson (ably assisted by Amy Valladares, and a number of volunteers) – will be held in Toronto, Canada this year.  This one-day conference is the biggest annual event in the modern Stoic community.  The morning lineup includes 7 short talks by well-known authors on Stoicism.  The afternoon breakout sessions offer two talks and four workshops as options.  Margaret Graver will provide a much-anticipated keynote address, which is then followed by a reception. About 330 people attended last year, and we are anticipating still more than that next year.  It’s a great opportunity to meet and network with fellow Stoics.  Find out more, or purchase tickets for the event, here!

Stoicon-X – Smaller Conferences and Events

Stoicon-X events are smaller regional conferences or events, featuring speakers and workshops for those who want to learn more about Stoicism and its contemporary applications.  Like the main conference, these are a great place to meet and have conversations with fellow modern Stoics!

At present, there are five Stoicon-X events that we know of scheduled for this October

October 7, 10:30 AM- 3:15 PM – Stoicon-X Brisbane, Australia.  This event will take place at the Mitchelton Library, 37 Heliopolis Parade, Mitchelton QLD 4053, Australia. Tickets and full information available here.

October 9, 11, and 13, 7 AM (each day) – Stoicon-X-Bogotá, Colombia.  There will be three talks in the Trabajando estoicismo/Estoicismo trabajando series at the Universidad de los Andes, room 205, the first providing an Introduction to Stoicism, the second discussing Other People, and the third focused on Self-Knowledge.  More details will be forthcoming in the next post

October 15, 9:30 AM – 1:30 PM – Stoicon-X Toronto, Canada.  This will take place at Room # TRS1-109 (7th floor), Ted Rogers School of Management, 55 Dundas Street West, Toronto, Ontario. Features a number of speakers, many of whom will be giving “lightening talks” about Stoicism.  Tickets and full information available here.

October 21st, time TBD – Stoicon-X San Leandro, USA.  The Redwood Stoa will be hosting this event, and more information will be forthcoming in the next post.

October 21st, 10:00 AM -4:00 PM – Stoicon-X London, Great Britain –  This will take place at the Senate House, University of London, Malet Street, London.  Features talks by a number of speakers, including founding members of Modern Stoicism. Tickets and full information available here.

The Stoic Week Course

For a number of years now, Stoic Week has been one of the main international activities of the Modern Stoicism organization.  It offers an opportunity for people worldwide to learn about
Stoic doctrines and practices, to apply those practices and ideas within the contexts of their own day-to-day life, and to compare their insights, successes, and setbacks with others.

This year, Stoic Week begins on Monday, October 16 and runs to Sunday, October 22.  Many organizations, groups or meetups, and academic institutions observe Stoic Week by affording their members a chance to work through the course together, compare insights and experiences, and support each other through the week.

At present, the following have confirmed that they will be hosting local sessions or meetings during Stoic Week.  If your institution, organization, or group would like to be added to the list, please contact us.

  • New York City Stoics
  • MKE Stoic Fellowship
  • Scotland Stoics

Stoic Week Events

We are also looking to add any events planned during (or even around) Stoic Week to the list below.  If you’re planning a talk, a workshop, a discussion, or any other sort of event, contact us and we’ll include it!

October 16, 6:00 PM – New York City, USA – The Stoic School of Life will be hosting a discussion at the New York Society for Ethical Culture, “On Moral Luck”. Full details available here.

October 17, 7:30 PM – Chicago, USA – The New Acropolis will be hosting a talk by Greg Sadler, “Applying Stoic Philosophy In Your Workplace: 5 Useful Practices.”

October 18, Time TBD – Edinburg, Scotland – The Scotland Stoics will be hosting a meeting, precise details TBD at this time

October 20, 6:00 PM – Milwaukee, USA – The MKE Stoic Fellowship will be hosting a Stoic Week event, precise details TBD at present.

If past years are any indication, we can expect to see many, many more events and organizations added to these lists closer to Stoic Week in October!