Stoicism and Auschwitz by Piotr Stankiewicz

The general question that the modern take on Stoicism faces is – by definition – how can Stoicism be applied and useful in our own time?  A question which immediately follows is about if and how Stoicism should be adjusted to the specificity of our own times. My position in this regard is clear. We shouldn’t copy and paste the teaching of the ancients. Doing so would be counterproductive, or even naive. Also, my guess is that the Stoic Founding Fathers themselves wouldn’t have applauded it either. My position is that we need to add our own thought to the system. We need to think how the Stoic ideas can be translated into the conceptual framework of our own time and we need to consider how Stoicism should respond to the challenges of our times.

There is little doubt that Auschwitz and its legacy is one of these challenges. Auschwitz, which is both a singular event and a symbol of Auschwitz itself, Kolyma, Rwanda, and all other horrors of the 20th century, may be seen as a turning point in human history but also in the history of ethics. There is no denying that Auschwitz has profoundly changed the way we think. The questions of how it was possible, why it happened and – above all – what moral obligation it imposes on us are among the key questions of our time.

Interestingly, these questions are untouched in the present discourse on Stoicism. In my opinion this is a very serious shortcoming. If we want Stoicism to be a comprehensive system of modern living, if we want it to be truly relevant and fully up-to-date, then we just don’t have the luxury of not having a stance on this matter. We can’t pretend that it doesn’t pose a problem to Stoicism. It does, in a fourfold way at least.

First of all, according to the very basics of Stoic ethics, all people other than myself fall into the “not within my power” bracket. This is clear and unequivocal. Whatever exists and happens in the world can be categorized as either “within my power” (like my thoughts, values, life goals, my preferences and tendencies, my imagination and the story I tell myself about myself and about the world) or “not within our power” (like virtually all else, i.e. whatever happens beyond my mind, all physical objects, all other living beings, the phenomena of society, history and weather). That said, the core Stoic principle is to focus on the former and not bothered by the latter. Clean and simple.

The problem is that all fellow human beings, all of our family, friends and strangers are undoubtedly “not within my power” and thus we need to be indifferent to them. We shouldn’t hold that their well-being or lack thereof is in any way good or bad. Their life, health and happiness is not within our power, hence we needn’t be concerned about them. And this, certainly, constitutes the first chapter of the problem. Just consider it: this train of thought brings us directly to the conclusion that whatever happened to a prisoner of Auschwitz, it wasn’t evil since it didn’t concern our own moral virtue. And there is no need to explain why such a statement is hard to swallow for the 21st-century sensibility.

Second, in the traditional interpretation of Stoicism there is a certain tone of harshness, which sounds disturbing in the world after Auschwitz. For instance, let take a look at a passage from Epictetus (Discourses, I.28). “Wars and factions and deaths of many men and destructions of cities? […] Why, what is there great in the death of many oxen and many sheep and the burning and destruction of many nests of swallows or storks? ‒ Is there any similarity between this and that? ‒ A great similarity. Men’s bodies perished in the one case, and bodies of oxen and sheep in the other. Petty dwellings of men were burned, and so were nests of storks. What is there great or dreadful about that?”

Now, let’s imagine that someone applies this “stork argument” to Auschwitz. Suggesting that “there is nothing dreadful” about what happened there because it’s just “men’s bodies perished” just as “bodies of oxen and sheep” is beyond any acceptable ethical discourse. And it holds, basically, for any other genocide or war of recent memory. Think about the war in Syria, the freshest of the sadly never-ending stream of pertaining examples. Do we really want to say that there is “nothing dreadful” in it, that “destruction of cities” and “dwellings of men being burned” are nothing else than “storks’ nests destroyed”? This reasoning is difficult to hold. It just don’t fit anymore in the way we think of ethics.

Third, another vital point of the Stoic teaching is that, in brief, adversities are challenges. In other words, it is a requirement of the Stoic ethics that all the mishaps, misfortunes and tragedies of human life should be treated like challenges, or even opportunities to practice virtue. In other words, whatever blows and arrows fortune throws at us, they aren’t actually blows and arrows, but rather softballs to exercise Stoic abilities. “All […] adversities [a Stoic] counts mere training,” says Seneca (On Providence, 2.2). Or, in the words of Epictetus, “[Make use of a difficulty] as an athlete makes use of a [sparring partner] to wrestle with” (Discourses, I.24).

This all sounds nice and neat, it seems to make perfect sense. And yet, again, the problem begins when we apply this line of thought to Auschwitz. The idea that the grounds of the camp were “mere training,” or that genocide is a fine sparring partner “to wrestle with,” seems off limits for the contemporary ethical thinking. To make it plain: imagine a TV studio in which a moral philosopher schools a Holocaust survivor: “you just should have become a Stoic and you would have been OK! And actually, you should be glad that you were imprisoned in Auschwitz, since this was a top-notch opportunity to practice your resilience.” This is downright unthinkable. And not even that. Notice that even a slight change in the title of this piece, turning it from “Stoicism after Auschwitz” to “Stoicism in Auschwitz” would be problematic.

Fourth and finally, there is the cosmic problem, so to speak. We need to remember that in the original view of the ancient Stoics the world, to put it concisely, was well organized and rational. It wasn’t random, chaotic or evil. It was purposeful and carefully organized towards good. The ancient Stoics admitted of course that evil things happened all the time, but, importantly, they all happened for a reason. All the flaws of reality were in there for purpose. They actually increased the grand total value of the world. As the famous metaphor went, the pains and inconveniences of life were just like occasional clumsy lines in a script. They are required for the harmony and completion of the whole work. When we take a larger look, the picture always turns out good.

But there is no good picture that Auschwitz is a part of! Whatever bigger image Auschwitz is a part of, it is indelibly and perennially stained. There is no “greater good” that could justify Auschwitz, or, in a stronger version, there is no conceivable amount of good that could – even theoretically – outweigh what happened there. From our modern point of view Auschwitz is the radical, cosmic evil, that cannot be rationally incorporated into any universal harmony. And the interpretation that it was actually a part of some “plan” and a necessary step towards some higher goal is plainly unacceptable.


How we, the Stoics, can respond to these problems? What sort of reinterpretation, maybe even a transformation of the Stoic doctrine is needed? Do we need a more emphatic version of Stoicism? Is it necessary to drop some part of the harsh traditional Stoic rhetoric and arguments? Do we require a milder strategy in teaching it, one which avoids pushing others too much about what the should and shouldn’t do? Should we consider letting go of the teleological view of the universe, just as Lawrence Becker proposes? Or maybe some combination of these is required?

I don’t know have the answers to these questions right now. Yet, I’m certain that the discussed problems constitute the key, defining challenges to our modern attempts to revive Stoicism. We need to address them. If, of course, we want Stoicism to be a serious, viable option and if we want to go forward and develop the doctrine.

 

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.

Hadot’s “Active” Stoic Exercises by Anitra Russell

In this post I will explore the importance of spiritual exercises in Stoicism, what the French philosopher Pierre Hadot meant by “active” spiritual exercises, and the origin of these active exercises: Stoicism’s “three disciplines,” which Epictetus laid out in his Enchiridion and Discourses. I will ultimately suggest specific Enchiridion passages that the modern practitioner of Stoicism might incorporate into daily, “active” exercises in order to progress in these three disciplines.

Supplementing Stoic Precepts with Concrete Practices

Ancient philosophies such as Stoicism stressed autarkeia – independence and inner freedom, or as Pierre Hadot writes, “that state in which the ego depends only upon itself.” He goes on to say that

we find in all philosophical schools the same awareness of the power of the human self to free itself from everything which is alien to it.

 Implicit in this wording is the acknowledgment that humans are typically enslaved by things that are by nature alien to us. To return to themselves, the Stoics put their philosophy into practice by means of daily exercises. According to Hadot,

all spiritual exercises are, fundamentally, a return to the self, in which the self is liberated from the state of alienation into which it has been plunged by worries, passions, and desires.

The ancient Stoics believed that philosophy is not merely to be learned, but lived. As Hadot writes in What is Ancient Philosophy?

According to the Stoic Epictetus, [some people] talk about the art of living like human beings, instead of living like human beings themselves . . . as Seneca put it, they turn true love of wisdom (philosophia) into love of words (philologia).

 Likewise, Musonius Rufus cautioned against “sophists” who “inflate themselves [with] a multitude of theories” and of so-called philosophers who are “decadent and soft.” He said young people no longer need to absorb all of these “theories that truly are enough to consume a man’s life.” Epictetus also complained about those of us who

never carr[y] out our reading or our writing in such a way that, when it comes to action, we could use the representations we receive in a way consonant with nature; instead, we are content . . . when we can analyze syllogisms and examine hypothetical arguments.

In contrast, philosophy was meant to be more than just a set of theories, but rather “a method for training people to live and to look at the world in a new way.”

The Stoics prescribed the use of “exercises” to strengthen and internalize our intellectual understanding of Stoic precepts, so that we are prepared to meet a range of misfortunes, whether minor irritations or serious adversities, with equanimity. It is not mere selfishness that makes us want to glide through life unperturbed. Consider how difficult it is to help someone–whether by physically lending a hand, volunteering your time, or listening to someone vent when they are suffering–when you yourself are weighed down with troubles. Stoicism provides a foundation for an ever-shifting terrain, thus enabling us to meet life’s inevitable setbacks more effectively. In turn, we can use this strength and stability to be more present in the world and to be better prepared to support those we love.

Hadot’s “Active” Stoic Exercises: Self-mastery, Accomplishment of Duties, and Indifference to Indifferent Things

Hadot describes several types of “spiritual exercises,” including the more well-known morning and evening meditations–in which you look ahead at the day to come, or reflect on the day that has passed, and consider how you either will, or did, follow Stoic teachings and pursue a sage-like path. He also discusses premeditatio malorum, in which you imagine misfortunes that could befall you and think about how you will meet them with strength and grace, as they are “indifferent,” are not up to us, and are therefore not evils.

Hadot goes on to mention, briefly, “active” Stoic exercises, including “self-mastery, accomplishment of duties, and indifference to indifferent things.”And, while Hadot does not elaborate in this essay on the background or origin of those exercises, he does describe them as “practical exercises, intended to create habits.” As it turns out, Hadot’s three types of active exercises correspond perfectly to Epictetus’ three areas of Stoic practice, known in Stoic commentary as the “three disciplines.”

In an essay on Marcus Aurelius, Hadot writes that Epictetus -“in Marcus Aurelius’ day, the greatest authority in questions of Stoicism”-noted three areas in which things “depend on us,” borrowing language from the famous dichotomy in Book One of the Enchiridion, stating that some things depend on us, and other things do not. According to Epictetus, “What depends on us are value-judgments, inclinations to act, desires, aversions, and, in a word, everything that is our doing.”

As Hadot writes

What depends upon us is the acts of our own soul, because we are able freely to choose them. . . . Among the acts of the soul which do depend on us, some correspond to the area of judgment and assent, others to the area of desire, and, finally, still others correspond to the area of inclinations to action.

 Of Hadot’s active exercises, then, self-mastery refers to desire, accomplishment of duties corresponds to action, and indifference to indifferent things refers to the proper use of judgment and assent.

Self-mastery (enkrateia)

Hadot stresses that to achieve self-mastery, one has to pare down one’s desires and aspirations drastically and limit them solely to moral virtue, which is the only thing that is “up to us.” Likewise, our aversions should be pared down to moral evil. Anything beyond these two spheres is not up to us, and to worry about it is therefore a waste of our time.

From ancient sources we see additional nuances of self-mastery. Diogenes Laertius describes the Stoic Zeno as a paragon of self-mastery and of the autarkeia or self-sufficiency described above. Zeno was known for his “frugality, contentment with poverty [and] detachment in social behavior.” An epigram by Zenodotus described Zeno as an inventor of self-sufficiency (autarkeia) who gave up wealth and founded a school that would be the “mother of fearless liberty.”

A. A. Long notes that Zeno lived in the public eye, but

in a manner which displays his indifference to the conventional marks of success and his profound satisfaction with what others would call asceticism.

 Long writes that enkrateia is not exactly the same thing as ataraxia (an untroubled state of mind), but nevertheless “all three Hellenistic movements posit an ideal of tranquility, for the attainment of which the essential condition is rational control of one’s desires.”

Although the emphasis for Zeno appeared to have been on renouncing material goods, there are a plethora of things in life that we could wish for that money cannot buy. Hadot describes “such desiderata as wealth and health” as not depending on us, and thus things that can make people unnecessarily unhappy when they are not present in life. It is true that health may depend on economic status, but even people with the most expensive health insurance get sick, and sometimes with little recourse.

Sometimes I find myself wanting peace and quiet so that I can read a book. This costs nothing, but it is still a desire to which I am at times overly attached. Another personal example is that I would like my child to act a certain way, e.g., respectfully and deferentially to dear old mom. Again, this is not a material good, but it is a desire, and it puts me at the mercy of a five-year-old who, while charming in many ways, does not always – or in fact ever – put my desires first.

Instead of working backward and subtracting things from a typical, non-Stoic way of viewing what is “necessary” or simply desirable in life -money, health, status, a romantic relationship, a quiet room, an abnormally sweet child – we need to brush it all aside and start with the bare minimum, and add to that. Moral virtue is all we should desire if we wish to achieve self-mastery. On the other side of the coin, moral evil is all we should seek to avoid. Difficult? Yes. Requiring superhuman abilities? Probably.

Indeed, Long observed that just as modern anthropology views people’s interests and needs as “largely social constructs,” the Hellenistic philosophies’ emphasis on austerity and self-renunciation amounted to “an invitation to enter an alternative world and acquire a new self.” He therefore describes Stoicism and other sects as “paradoxical,” but in the original etymological meaning of the word, namely, that they are “incongruous with commonplace beliefs [doxa].”

“Acquiring a new self” is certainly not something people, then or now, routinely do or even consider doing. It is a paradox in the sense that it is a teaching that it is completely out of step with common beliefs. People are entwined with their desires and identify with them strongly, hence their grave disappointment when things do not turn out as they wish. To acquire a new self would necessitate leaving the old one behind, abandoning the hopes, dreams and desires accumulated over many years.

Similarly, Hadot describes Stoicism and the other Hellenistic schools as requiring “a kind of self-duplication in which the ‘I’ refuses to be conflated with its desires and appetites, takes up a distance from the objects of its desires, and becomes aware of its power to become detached from them. It thus rises from a partial and particular vision to a universal perspective, be it that of Nature or that of the Spirit.” Instead of a completely new self, this seems more akin to a radically pared-down self, divorced from its desires and wedded instead to a cosmic viewpoint.

Hadot’s notion of a self “conflated” with its desires pinpoints the problem for us moderns. We have grown to believe that our desires are a part of us, an extension of our identity. (Witness the proliferation of “bucket list” broadcasts on social media.) Ridding ourselves of them feels like a loss of identity. And yet, it is only by accepting that we can stand alone, self-sufficient, wanting nothing but to be good people, that we free ourselves of dependence on things outside of us, whether money, social status, health, people who do what we want them to do, or whatever we else we have let ourselves believe we “need” to be happy.

The Enchiridion provides useful guidance on self-mastery, accomplishment of duties, and indifference to indifferent things. The self-mastery passages below can aid in fostering autarkeia. Per the first passage, if the company you are in does not affect your behavior, it means you are growing in self-sufficiency, and what the ancient Stoics described as a “steadfast disposition.” The remaining three remind us that the mind should be our primary concern. Desire for delicious food, luxurious accommodations, or fine clothing is seldom satisfied, but rather seems to grow the more we have those things. Keeping pleasure in perspective is crucial. Pleasure does not further your progress toward goodness, and is too often dependent upon outside stimuli. Pleasure can leave as quickly as it came, and one ought not attach oneself to such ephemera.

Self-Mastery Exercise Passages

“Lay down from this moment a certain character and pattern of behavior for yourself, which you are to preserve both when you’re alone and when you’re with others.” (Enchiridion, 33.1)

“In things relating to the body, take only as much as your bare need requires . . . exclude everything that is for show or luxury.” (33.7)

“It is a sign of a lack of natural aptitude to spend much time on things relating to the body . . . . No, these things should be done in passing, and you should devote undivided attention to your mind.” (41)

“When you receive an impression of some pleasure, take care not to get carried away by it, as with impressions in general; but rather, make it wait for you, and allow yourself some slight delay.” (34)

Accomplishment of duties (kathekonta)

Accomplishment of duties differs from the other two active exercises in that it ultimately depends on other people. It is key to recall the distinction between what depends on us and what does not, and to recognize that as we carry out our duties to others, what is up to us is our moral intention as we do it. The result of our efforts – how they are received, whether our relationship with the other person improves, whether their expectations are even higher in the future – this is not up to us.

Newcomers to Stoicism are sometimes surprised by the social element of the philosophy, having thought instead that it was about repressing the emotions and withdrawing from the world to minimize suffering. Such an approach, however, would not enable us to live in accordance with our nature, which is that of a rational human being who has obligations depending on the part we play: citizen, friend, parent, spouse. As Marcus Aurelius wrote:

For we are made for cooperation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth. To act against one another then is contrary to nature; and it is acting against one another to be vexed and to turn away.

 Seneca similarly tells us:

No school has more goodness and gentleness; none has more love for mankind or is more devoted to the common good. The goal which it assigns to us is to be useful, to help others, and to take care, not only of ourselves, but of everyone in general and of each person in particular.

 Hadot writes:

To find a basis for this theory of ‘duties,’ the Stoics return to their fundamental intuition: that of the living being’s instinctive, original accord with itself, which expresses the deepest will of nature. Living beings have an innate tendency to preserve themselves and to repel that which threatens their integrity. When human reason appears, natural instinct becomes reflective, reasoned choice: something is chosen because it responds to the natural tendencies, such as the love of life and of children, or love for one’s fellow citizens, which is based on the instinct of sociability.

The three disciplines–desire, action, and assent–overlap, as I will discuss further in the next section. To abnegate or rise above one’s own desires can be helpful as one embarks on carrying out duties to others. If we are too self-absorbed and focused on getting what we want, it impedes ethical growth. If we are spending all of our time in the office in hopes of getting a lucrative promotion, it is not likely we will be able to help a friend. If we are traveling the world checking items off of our bucket list, we may miss a phone call from an ailing parent.

The following passages from Enchiridion together form an overview of various facets of the Stoic obligation to be dutiful servants of others. One facet is that our role is not chosen, but assigned. This may strike us as constrictive, but it is simply reality. Naturally, we did not choose to be the child of our parents; that role was assigned. Our roles as citizens are also – usually – determined at birth. If we are parents, that general role is sometimes chosen, sometimes not; at any rate, if we decide to bear offspring, we do not know who that child will be. Our role as parent of this particular child is assigned. Since that is the case, it is fruitless to equivocate on our responsibilities in these roles: As the second passage notes, the social relationship is the measure of appropriate actions. We want to be the best child, citizen, parent we can be–even when it is difficult. The last passage reminds us that the ultimate outcome is beyond our control.

Accomplishment of Duties Passages

“Remember that you’re an actor in a play, which will be as the author chooses, short if he wants it to be short, and long if he wants it to be long. If he wants you to play the part of a beggar, act even that part with all your skill; and likewise if you’re playing a cripple, an official, or a private citizen. For that is your business, to act the role that is assigned to you as well as you can; but it is another’s part to select that role.” (Enchiridion, 17)

“Appropriate actions are measured on the whole by our social relationships. . . . ‘My brother is wronging me.’ Very well, maintain the relation that you have towards him; don’t look to what he is doing, but to what you must do if you are to keep your choice in harmony with nature.” (30)

“If anyone wants to be free, then, let him neither want anything nor seek to avoid anything that is under the control of others; or else he is bound to be a slave.” (14)

Indifference to Indifferent Things

This exercise is the one that relies most on our capacity for rationality, and which is most aligned with the Stoic topos of logic. Hadot describes logic as “the mastery of inner discourse.” By keeping a close watch on that inner discourse, we can see whether our logic is erroneous and thus conducive to emotional disturbances. The crux of this exercise is exactly as Marcus Aurelius described it in 11.16 of the Meditations:

One soul finds within itself the power to live a perfectly happy life, if we can remain indifferent towards indifferent things.

 Hadot describes this as an “interior” exercise, as opposed to self-mastery and accomplishment of duties, which are more focused on the world outside of our minds.

It is useful, since we are discussing logic and, by extension, wisdom, to look at that virtually unattainable yet nonetheless instructive ideal: the Stoic sage. Hadot quotes French philosopher Bernard Groethuysen, who emphasizes the sage’s relation to the cosmos:

The consciousness he has of the world is something particular to the sage. Only the sage never ceases to have the whole constantly present to his mind, never forgets the world, thinks and acts in relation to the cosmos. . . . The sage is part of the world; he is cosmic. He does not let himself be distracted from the world, or detached from the cosmic whole. . . . The figure of the sage and the representation of the world form, as it were, an indissoluble unity.

Once you re-orient yourself, you realize the universe is vast, is not a one-man show, and contains an infinite number of moving parts among which we should “make no difference” – Hadot’s clarification of the concept of “indifferents” in Stoicism. Indifference to indifferents does not mean closing yourself off emotionally from anything that might cause pain, and in the process leading a small, isolated life. On the contrary, by examining our inner discourse logically, in the context of this vast backdrop, we grow nearer to our ideal, the sage whose life is marked by ataraxia and autarkeia.

Along with an expanded view of the environment in which one lives, indifference to indifferent things encourages a refined focus on the one thing that is not indifferent: our moral intention. Hadot stresses that this “engages human beings to modify themselves and their attitude with regard to the world.” There is some overlap between this exercise and self-mastery because we focus only on the things that we can control and are important, so that we can achieve greater self-sufficiency. Indifference to indifferent things also meshes with accomplishment of duties; as we focus on the things we can accomplish in this life, we may turn our gaze to others and see opportunities to exercise our virtue there–and practicing indifference to indifferent things means we are not discouraged by the outcome of our attempts to help others.

The following passages should help us to clarify our thinking when logic eludes us and negative emotions take over.

Indifference to Indifferent Things Passages

Remove your aversion, then, from everything that is not within our power, and transfer it to what is contrary to nature among those things that are within our power. (Enchiridion, 2.2)

Don’t seek that all that comes about should come about as you wish, but wish that everything that comes about should come about just as it does, and then you’ll have a calm and happy life. (8)

Practice, then, from the very beginning to say to every disagreeable impression, ‘You’re an impression and not at all what you appear to be.’ (1.5)

With regard to everything that happens to you, remember to look inside yourself and see what capacity you have to enable you to deal with it. . . . And if you get into the habit of following this course, you won’t get swept away by your impressions. (10)

Conclusion

It is a pitfall of Stoicism that in attempting to understand the elaborate taxonomy of topoi, disciplines, cardinal virtues, and so on, we might forget to put philosophy into practice. I myself have found that getting lost in an abstract world of concepts that originated thousands of years ago can be an attractive antidote when one has overdosed on social media and “fake news.” It is by putting Stoicism into practice via philosophical exercises, however, that we resist the temptation to become sophists ourselves, who have lost sight of the transformative, ethical purpose of Stoicism: to lead virtuous lives and live up to our potential as rational humans and citizens of the world. Pierre Hadot and other modern commentators are invaluable in that they have read between the lines of the ancients’ teachings to distill plausible exercises that we can use today. By reflecting every day on the themes animating these teachings, we inch toward wisdom and tranquility.

Anitra Russell studied classical languages and literature in high school and at university and has recently renewed her studies. She blogs about Stoicism at astoicremedy.com.

Confessions of a Stoic Hypochondriac: Stoicism And Major Surgery by Alexander Ott

I’ve been dying since the age of 8. I’ve died from leprosy, AIDS, brain tumors, cholera, TB, rabies (at least four times), the plague, and many other oft-mortal afflictions I have since forgotten. Amazingly, from all these, I have recovered. Further, I’ve been going blind for years, but still miraculously see—albeit with assistance of pretty strong glasses. I am—or perhaps was—a full-blown hypochondriac.

You can imagine, then, when my primary care physician identified a heart murmur (caused by a leaky heart valve) in a regular physical when I was 31—meltdown time. Add in some suspect family history of heart issues, and now I clearly had something medically verifiable to worry about!

And so it went—sometimes better, sometimes worse—for about 15 years, with regular, rather terrifying trips to the cardiologist for an echocardiogram to ensure that the heart valve wasn’t getting worse, necessitating surgery. Until about three years ago, that is, when my uncle introduced me to Stoicism. This ancient Greek and Roman philosophy of life fundamentally reoriented my perspective on my condition in particular and on my life more broadly. It ultimately helped me make it through what I consider the three stages of my health “event”; let’s call them:

  1. Bad news coming? Prepare for it.
  2. Open-Heart surgery: Why worry?
  3. Surgery is done: I made it, right? 

Bad news coming? Prepare for it.

I scheduled my regular echocardiogram for 3 pm on Thursday, November 10, 2016. Instead of my usual approach to the echo, trying to pretend it’s not happening, I decided to use Stoic philosophy to prepare. Having immersed myself for the past three years in the thoughts and practices of the ancient Stoics—Epictetus, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius—as well as those of modern interpreters such as Donald Robertson, Ryan Holiday, and Pierre Hadot, this seemed an ideal opportunity to confront my life-long existential fears.

In preparation for the echo appointment and the possible bad news I would receive, I practiced the premeditatio malorum, the anticipation or premeditation of adversity. The Stoic concept here is that anticipating a difficult scenario allows one to better handle it when the scenario or something similar to it occurs. As the Roman Stoic and Statesman Seneca noted: “He robs present ills of their power who has perceived their coming beforehand.” This notion is borne out by research on similar approaches in cognitive behavioral therapy—which itself has origins in Stoic thought (see Donald Robertson’s Stoicism and the Art of Happiness).

Approximately once every other day in the three weeks leading up to the appointment, I would close my eyes on the train ride home from work (don’t try this if you drive to/from work) and engaged in a very specific premeditatio malorum: imagining receiving bad news from the cardiologist. This “imagining” took the form of a 10-15 minute meditation in which I would picture myself arriving at the cardiologist’s office, doing the echocardiogram, talking to the cardiologist, and receiving the news that I would need open heart surgery or that my problem was so severe that it was inoperable. (I know this sounds really uplifting, but bear with me!) While this wasn’t a particularly pleasant imagining, becoming accustomed to the negative news prepared me well for the actual “bad news” event.

Additionally, in the meditation I constantly kept the fundamental Stoic notion in front of my mind: certain things are in our control, and others are not. And Stoics consider those things not in our control to be “indifferent.” In the Stoic view, they should not bear upon our sense of peace and tranquility because we cannot control them. Matters including the body—such as whether my heart is malfunctioning—are clearly beyond my direct control. However, what I can control, through training and practice, is how I react mentally to those things beyond my direct control. As Shakespeare’s Hamlet noted, in a very Stoic phrase, “Nothing is good or bad but thinking makes it so.” Or, as the Stoic teacher Epictetus put it: “It is not things themselves that upset us but our judgements about these things.”

I’m happy to report that, given my preparation, receiving the “news” from the cardiologist that I would need open-heart surgery was nearly an anti-climax. I expected it. Even the candor and bluntness from my cardiologist about my situation was more amusing than disturbing. It was almost like watching a movie I had seen many times before—it had lost its emotional punch.

Open-Heart surgery: Why worry?

After discussing the echocardiogram results with multiple cardiologists—essential due diligence—it was clear that surgery was the best courses of action to repair or replace the leaky valve sooner rather than later. Waiting for it to develop into a geyser was medically inadvisable, shall we say. The good news was that the likelihood of a successful repair or, if needed, replacement of the valve was very high. The bad news was that it was open-heart surgery. As in, they cut you open, stop your heart, cut around in it, restart said stopped heart, and close you back up. For a hypochondriac, even a newly Stoic one, yikes!

I settled upon two approaches to the impending surgery. The first was to embrace the Stoic concept of “hic et nunc”—the here and now. That is, an intense focusing—a mindfulness really—on the immediate moment. The Stoics believed that one of the challenges of humanity is its ability to ruminate on the past and anticipate the future.

As Seneca noted:

Wild beasts run away from dangers when they see them. Once they have escaped, they are free of anxiety. But we are tormented by both the future and the past.

Roman emperor and Stoic Marcus Aurelius admonished himself to

Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.

Instead of getting lost in worry over the future surgery, I did my best to enjoy and live in the moment—appreciating the beauty and wonder of all the things around me, from my own ability to walk, talk, and see, to the company of colleagues, friends, and loved ones. If anything, my ability to do this successfully was amplified by the upcoming surgery as I was able to more easily appreciate the things around me.

At certain times, though, such as during a morning or evening meditation, I did consider the upcoming surgery—after all, Stoicism does ask us to prepare for challenges. We are not to live in ignorance of challenges that will arise, but we are to prepare rationally and within the context of what we can control and not control. What, then, was the Stoic attitude I took toward the upcoming operation? Acceptance—it is what it is. As the Stoic teacher Epictetus exhorted his students: “make the best of what is in our power, and take the rest as it naturally happens.” Once it was clear that surgery was the logical approach, the only thing to do was to accept it as simply necessary. Those things we cannot control we should accept as a natural part of existence.

Ah, but what if I died because of the surgery? While this wasn’t likely, it wasn’t impossible either. Having the operation was a whole lot more dangerous than my average day, after all. The doctors seemed quite confident, but, then again, it wasn’t their heart that was getting stopped, cut up, and restarted. Not only that, but if I didn’t die from surgery, surely I will die at some point (we all do—sorry to be a downer!). As Epictetus noted: “I am not eternal, but a human being; a part of the whole, as an hour is of the day. Like an hour I must come and, like an hour, pass away.” While I cannot claim to have overcome this existential challenge, I was able to wrestle with the issue without too much fear. One approach I took was to appreciate that there are far worse ways to die than on the operating table—after all, you are out cold and unaware of what is occurring. As I went into surgery early on March 22, this thought provided some comfort.

Surgery is done: I made it, right?

I wake up with a start; I have tubes coming out of everywhere and my arms are strapped down. Breathing tube, chest tube, catheter, etc. My wife is talking to me—nurses, machines, beeping. I motion for something to write on and scrawl something about the breathing tube and when it might come out. My wife says that it’s coming out soon, but the nurse needs a doctor’s approval. I write, “I can take it out—I’m a doctor,” and then I sign it. That makes her laugh: I’m a doctor of education—not an MD—so while I might be able to theorize about an educational problem, I’m not exactly qualified to remove anyone’s breathing tube, never mind my own. Well, at least my sense of humor is intact.

Two main issues arose while recovering in the hospital: First, the loss of independence and control. Second, the fear that something bad was going to happen—some sort of complication. I did better with the first issue than the second, but Stoicism was helpful for both.

Being in recovery from major surgery means a radical loss of control of bodily things. You can’t even go to the bathroom on your own. Thankfully, Stoicism is perfectly aligned for this sort of challenge. As already mentioned, Stoics view things outside the mind as fundamentally not in our (full) control. This applies to all the things that happen to us—those things in the hands of Fortune—as well as the bodily matters over which we exercise only partial control. This acceptance of loss of control is an essential way to remain content and tranquil when in what otherwise would be a frustrating situation. Epictetus exhorted his students as follows:

Being educated [in stoic philosophy] is precisely learning to will each thing just as it happens.

The Stoics often advocated going beyond acceptance of external events. One should embrace the situation as you find it thrust upon you, for it exists as it is at the instant it is occurring and so it cannot be otherwise. As Seneca said:

A good person dyes events with his own color… and turns whatever happens to his own benefit.

How, then, to turn this event to my own benefit? The flip side of your lack of bodily autonomy after surgery is your dependence on others—in particular, the nurses, technicians, and other health care professionals whose job it is to help you get better. In these exceptional human beings a wonderful Stoic opportunity presents itself. Stoicism, in contrast with the stereotype of a “stoic” person, encourages us to engage fully with other people, for they share a spark of the divine in their ability to reason. As our brothers and sisters, according to Marcus Aurelius:

We were born to work together like feet, hands, and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower.

Seneca notes of Stoicism that

No school has more goodness and gentleness; none has more love for human beings, nor more attention to the common good.

I’m naturally an outgoing person, very engaged with those I meet. But I made a special effort to be so in the hospital—as much as possible treating each person as an individual, thanking them for the work they do, and being upbeat and optimistic about whatever somewhat unpleasant thing they needed to do to me next—poking me with needles, waking me up at 3 am to take my blood pressure, making me eat hospital food. The good cheer I gave out was returned to me many, many times over, not only by the staff but simply by my own actions. As Marcus Aurelius asked:

How then can you grow tired of helping others when by doing so you help yourself?

The most difficult part of recovery was the implicit existential threat—amplified by the incessant beeping of the monitors to which I was connected. Two days after surgery, I developed atrial fibrillation (“AFib”), which is the heart beating rapidly and out of sync—mine was moving at 130 beats per minute. AFib is common enough after open-heart surgery, but that didn’t make it any less scary. To deal with this unexpected challenge, I returned to Stoic meditations, in particular, one known as the “view from above.”

This meditation involves imagining yourself leaving your body and floating up above it, slowly moving up to a perspective far above the earth. In doing this, you picture yourself surveying all around you and seeing how small you are in the broader scheme of existence—just one soul and one life among billions, all inhabiting a planet that, from a distance, looks to be just a “pale blue dot” in the words of astronomer Carl Sagan. This meditation helped me put my life in perspective, as only one among many, part of a broader whole. True, it, too, will end; if not now, then in 10, 20, or 30 years. Acceptance of this fact can help one live a fuller life, while we have one to live. Contemporary Stoic author Ryan Holiday notes, “Reminding ourselves each day that we will die helps us treat our time as a gift.”

I’m happy to report that I’m home now as I write this, with surgery three weeks in the past, feeling quite well. AFib is now under control, thanks to a well-calibrated “Zap!” from a defibrillator last week. My wife says my heart has got the beat now, thankfully! I am extraordinarily thankful to all those who helped me get through this—from an incredibly skillful surgeon, caring and talented doctors, nurses, and other health care workers to loving and supportive family, friends, and co-workers. I am also thankful for an ancient philosophy called Stoicism, which is as powerful at addressing the human condition today as it was in Ancient Greece and Rome.

Would I still consider myself a hypochondriac? Perhaps at times, but one far better equipped to deal with life’s challenges. I have found that this experience, and my reaction to it in a Stoic context, has changed my perspective on life in a fundamental way, undermining the fear at the root of hypochondria. I am hopeful that this article can help others discover ways to overcome their personal challenges—both real and imagined!

 

Dr. Alexander Ott is associate dean of academic affairs at Bronx Community College of the City University of New York. He holds an undergraduate degree in philosophy from SUNY Geneseo and a master of arts and doctor of education degrees from Fordham University. Dr. Ott has been studying and practicing Stoicism for three years.

Interview with Donald Robertson

Interview with Donald Robertson, one of the founding members of Modern Stoicism, about his work on the team, organizing the Stoicon and Stoicon-x Toronto events, running the Stoic Week and SMRT courses, and developing SABS.

Donald Robertson hardly needs any introduction – but I’ll give him one here anyway!  He was one of the founding members of the Modern Stoicism team and project, long before it became formally structured as an organization.  He has made a number of important contributions to modern interpretation and application of classic Stoic philosophy, authoring several highly popular books, creating the Stoic Week meditation mp3 sound files, collaborating on the Stoic Week handbook , hosting the yearly Stoic Week and Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training online classes, writing hundreds of blog posts, providing talks and workshops. . . .

On top of all of that, Donald started and moderates the Facebook Stoicism group – which now has nearly 25,000 members – and took on the task of organizing this years’ Stoicon and Stoicon-x conferences in Toronto.  He has been interviewing the other speakers who will be giving talks and workshops at STOICON, and it is about time that our readers got to hear from Donald himself in that series of interviews.  So, here it is!

Q: Donald, do you want to begin by saying a bit about yourself and your involvement with Stoicism?

Thanks.  Well, I studied philosophy at Aberdeen University a long time ago, then did a masters in philosophy and psychotherapy at Sheffield University’s Centre for Psychotherapeutic Studies before training as a counsellor and psychotherapist and becoming a supervisor and trainer of other therapists.  I went on to write several books about psychotherapy, self-help, and philosophy.  My special area of interest is Stoicism and its relation to cognitive-behavioural therapy, and also to modern evidence-based self-help approaches.  

After leaving university, back in 1996, I discovered the Stoics and gradually began writing articles on Stoicism and giving talks about it at conferences.  Stoicism was a big revelation to me, and I found it invaluable in my work with clients as a cognitive therapist.  Then in 2005, I wrote an article on Stoicism and psychotherapy for one of the main British counselling journals.  I was then invited to write a book called The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy, which surveys all the psychological techniques found in Stoicism and compares them to similar ones found in modern cognitive therapy.  A lot of people asked me for a self-help guide to Stoicism in plain English, so I then wrote two books about Stoicism for Hodder’s Teach Yourself series: Build Your Resilience and Stoicism and the Art of Happiness.  

I’m a “techniques guy” in therapy – I specialise in cognitive and behavioural skills training.  Stoicism appeals to me because it contains an astounding armamentarium of psychological techniques, which are similar to those proven to be effective by research on modern cognitive therapy.  However, Stoicism is not merely a therapy, it’s something much more than that, a whole philosophy.

Q: What are you working on now?

For the past five years or so, I’ve been involved with the Modern Stoicism project.  I design and deliver the online courses called Stoic Week and Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT) and I’m also organizing the main Stoicon 2017 conference in Toronto, and also Stoicon-x Toronto.  At the moment, I’m doing research for a new book on Marcus Aurelius and his use of Stoicism, and I design my own online courses on Stoicism as well.  We also just announced the free Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT) 2017 online course, last night, and hundreds of people have already enrolled in advance.  (People should enrol now if they want to take part but the course officially begins on 16th July 2017.) 

Q: What is Modern Stoicism?

Modern Stoicism is a non-profit and philanthropic project that’s run by a multidisciplinary team of academic philosophers and classicists, and psychologists and cognitive therapists.  It includes some well-known authors in the field of Stoicism, including Professor Christopher Gill, of Exeter University, who founded the project along with his PhD student, Patrick Ussher.  I was one of the original members of the team and I’ve been involved ever since it started.  

Our main activities are published on this modernstoicism.com website and through social media, such as our @stoicweek Twitter account.  We run the Stoicon conference and Stoicon-x spin-off event each year.  We also run the Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT) online course.  However, our main activities are probably the Stoicism Today blog (run by Greg Sadler) and the Stoic Week online course, which I run with help from other members of the team.  

We also gather data on the effects of Stoic psychological training, using various outcome measures, and we publish the (anonymous) results as online reports.  We’ve been lucky enough to have our work covered throughout the media, including all of the British broadsheet newspapers, BBC radio, Forbes magazine, and many other newspapers and magazines around the world.

One thing I want to stress about Modern Stoicism is that it’s in no way separate from traditional or ancient Stoicism.  It’s intended to be inclusive so we welcome everyone who’s interested in Stoicism, whatever their background or orientation.  That includes religious Stoics, as well as atheistic or agnostic Stoics, or even people who know nothing about Stoicism and are just curious.  Basically, if you’re interested in Stoicism and didn’t die more than four hundred years ago then you’re a “Modern Stoic.”

Q: What is Stoicon?

Stoicon is an international conference on applying Stoicism to modern life, which we run each year, around October or November.  It was originally held in London, but now moves around different locations.  Last year it was held in New York City, and this year it’s going to be in Toronto, in Canada.  We have some of the leading authors in the field of Stoicism lined up to speak this year, and the theme is “Stoicism at Work”.  We also have a variety of parallel workshops and talks, which delegates can choose between.  I think it’s fair to say it’s really the main conference-type event on Stoicism that you can attend in person.  We’re expecting around 400 people to attend this year from all around the world.  Our keynote speaker, Professor Margaret Graver is a well-known academic and an expert on Stoicism and emotion so we’re all really looking forward to hearing her speak.

Q: What is Stoicon-x?

Stoicon-x events are held in different parts of the world.  They’re an opportunity for people to attend face-to-face in their own areas, as part of Stoic Week.  We have put together a set of helpful guidelines for anyone who would like to organize a Stoicon-x event.  We’re even holding one in Toronto this year, the day after the main Stoicon conference.  So if you’re really into Stoicism you can have a whole weekend of talks and workshops in Canada this year!  

One of the things we’re introducing this year is the idea of lightning talks.  These are brief 5-10 minute talks, where the speakers introduce themselves, with no gap in-between.  This allows us to give everyone an opportunity to speak, and to test out new speakers for future conferences.  We’re particularly interested in encouraging bloggers and those involved in other online Stoicism communities to step forward and speak to our audience because we want to be as inclusive as possible with regard to all the people who are around today and involved with Stoicism.

Q: What is Stoic Week?

Stoic Week is seven days during which we promote Stoicism internationally to a massive audience, free of charge.  We do that mainly through our online Stoic Week course, which attracted 3,400 participants from around the world last year.  As part of the whole event, we also run Stoicon and the Stoicon-x conferences around the same time of year.  So for a week, or two, there’s a lot of stuff about Stoicism going on.  The Stoic Week course is the perfect opportunity for you to get a flavour of what Stoic psychological practices are like.  

Some people have said it’s silly to think that you can be a Stoic for just seven days – Stoicism is for life not just for Christmas!  Of course, that’s not at all what we’re saying.  This is just a rapid introduction to Stoicism.  It gives people an opportunity to try out some Stoic psychological exercises and get a flavour of them, before deciding if they want to study Stoic philosophy more deeply.  We begin by recommending that people who are interested should read the ancient Stoics themselves, of course, but Stoic Week is a great practical introduction.  If you’ve read the books, or not, and you’re looking for something practical to try, Stoic Week is the obvious choice.

Q: What is Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT)?

Stoic Week is more about public engagement.  It’s an easy introduction to living like a Stoic.  We can gather some data from it but to really gather more meaningful data we needed a longer course, which is much more specifically focused on a handful of core skills.  That’s why we designed Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training, and thousands of people have now also completed that training online.  Our data show that, as we anticipated, when you do more Stoicism you get better outcomes.  So improvements on outcome measures of mood and wellbeing were roughly doubly for participants in this longer course than they were for Stoic Week.  If you’re serious about Stoicism and want to really train yourself in core skills then SMRT is your opportunity to do that with support from our team of experts and hundreds of other participants around the world.  (SMRT 2017 is currently enrolling and begins on Sunday 16th July 2017.)

Q: What is SABS?

We developed our own questionnaire called the Stoic Attitudes and Behaviours Scale (SABS), which allows us to do some pretty detailed statistical analysis on Stoicism and its benefits, when used alongside established measures of mood and wellbeing, of the sort commonly used in research on cognitive therapy and positive psychology.  Tim LeBon is responsible for administering the scales and reporting each year on the data we’ve collected.  As mentioned above, we’ve consistently found Stoicism has measurable benefits, although we’ve yet to carry out a proper randomized controlled trial on the skills training protocols we’ve developed.

Q: What is Stoicism Today?

Stoicism Today is our blog.  It’s without question the main resource for anyone looking for online articles on Stoicism, in my humble opinion.  That’s because anyone can submit posts there, and they do.  Again, it’s all about public engagement and being inclusive.  We encourage everyone with an interest in Stoicism to submit articles and we have an absolutely superb collection of writings from people who approach Stoicism from all walks of life.  Anyone can submit an article to Greg Sadler, the editor, for consideration, and at the time of writing, I think there are nearly 500 posts on that website.  So happy reading!

 

The Stoic Fellowship – Supporting Stoic Communities by Nick Guggenbuehl

“There is no enjoying the possession of anything valuable unless one has someone to share it with.” – Seneca

In the winter of 2008, I slipped into a dark depression. I had just moved to a new city, ended a relationship with my first love, and found it nearly impossible to escape from a nagging sense of loneliness. What’s worse is that I became dreadfully incapable of mustering the courage to build meaningful relationships in my community as had come so easily at other times in my life.

Each day felt as if I was crawling deeper into a prison of my own making with no recollection of where I had come from or how to escape.

This prison ended up being a tiny four-walled room with two windows, a closet, and a door to the outside world that might as well have been barred shut. Most people would have called it a bedroom. But for me, it served as a perpetual reminder of my self-induced isolation.

I recall a time when I noticed a mouse pop its head through a hole near the radiator on the south-facing wall. Almost immediately, a wave of comfort flowed through me as if an old friend had stopped by to visit. For weeks thereafter, I left crumbs near that hole to make sure that my new friend had reason to return. Like I said – it was a rough winter.

On the north-facing wall were fifty square mirrors affixed in a ten-by-five grid, likely used by the tenant before me in an erotic display of narcissism. For me, on the other hand, those mirrors routinely forced me to look at someone I no longer recognized. I hated those mirrors.

On one cold February afternoon, I wandered over to my university’s humanities library to pick up a book. I was studying philosophy and neuroscience at the time, and to make matters worse, was in the midst of a semester on French Existentialism and Organic Chemistry.

Making my way to the checkout counter, I happened upon a recently returned book with the bust of what looked like an ancient philosopher on its cover. Having finished what I thought was a comprehensive course on ancient philosophy, I was surprised to have never come across Seneca. Needless to say, I left the library with an extra book that afternoon, and my life was never the same.

I couldn’t put it down. Each letter brought maxims that I had felt for so long but was utterly incapable of articulating. Over the course of a month, I must have read those letters a half dozen times with almost every other line underlined or annotated in the margin. In fact, I even decided to write my favorite quotes on the mirrors in my room. What had once been a reminder of my fragility now served as my greatest source of strength and inspiration.

Seneca, controversial as he may be, pulled me out of a moment of despair and reinvigorated my zest for life.

Fast forward to the autumn of 2014, and I found myself in another new city after another failed relationship had resulted in many months spent wandering around Europe in an all-too-cliche effort to find purpose. This time, however, I was armed with a few of my closest friends in Seneca, Marcus, and Epictetus.

With my confidence restored, I set out with the intention of joining a community of like-minded Stoics. Having found none, I decided to strike the first match and see if its light could draw in a few others. The community soon became known as the Minnesota Stoics, and that first flicker of light eventually grew into a flame of nearly 400 members.

We meet once a month, and I’ve found that each gathering tends to wash away the dust of my everyday life, often providing an unparalleled clarity and stillness that lasts for days. This experience continues to reinforce the value of Stoicism when actively practiced in a community of people from every conceivable walk of life.

The founding of the Minnesota Stoics isn’t an isolated story. In early 2016, I had the great fortune of meeting James Kostecka of The Redwood Stoa and Greg Lopez of The New York City Stoics, each of whom had established a community well before mine. Their wisdom and guidance helped shape the Minnesota Stoics in its early days and continues to do so today.

What excited the three of us back then, however, was not just maintaining an ongoing dialogue between our Stoas; it was a shared desire to create a sense of belonging to something bigger than ourselves, our city, and our country. What came to follow was a decision to focus our efforts on building the foundation for a Modern Stoa. We’d do so by helping to build, connect, and foster communities of Stoics that meet in real life all over the world. This initiative eventually came to be known as The Stoic Fellowship.

 

“The first thing which philosophy undertakes to give is fellow-feeling with all men.” -Seneca

James, Greg, and I embarked on this journey in 2016. Though deliberately shy in our first year, we’ve had the fortune of building and connecting over a dozen communities worldwide through word-of-mouth alone. We also recently incorporated as a 501c3 nonprofit with a formal board of directors and three committees each with a team of ready volunteers.

With this solid footing in place, we’re ready to introduce ourselves to the world and begin assisting anyone who would like to build a community of their own.  The Stoic Fellowship welcomes all aspiring and dedicated Stoics.  We aim to provide tools and resources for local group development, maintenance and growth.  We also support participation, coordination, and collaboration among the member Stoas, and promote the collective work of The Fellowship in collaboration with related individuals, groups and organizations.

Please do not hesitate to contact us, and we’ll do everything we can to help you share in the joy and serenity that comes from living this ancient philosophy with others in your community. For those interested in starting a group, our team is ready to help. From establishing a group and organizing the content for your first few meet-ups to getting the word out to those in your area, we’re here for you.

The Stoic Fellowship’s grand aspiration is that one day all people, regardless of location, identity, or financial means, will have access to a living and vibrant community of Stoics that contributes positively to a peaceful, healthy, and sustainable world. You can help us get there by joining or starting a community today!

Nick Guggenbuehl is one of the founders of The Stoic Fellowship and currently serves as its President and Director of Resources. When not gathering with fellow Stoics, he spends his time running the product team for a small healthcare technology startup and taking advantage of the vast wilderness that surrounds his Minnesota home.

Interview with Piotr Stankiewicz

Piotr Stankiewicz (University of Warsaw) joined the Modern Stoicism organization team last year.  He recently provided an interview that will help the readership of Stoicism Today get to know him and his longstanding involvement in Stoicism better.

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

A: I’m an author, lecturer and philosopher based in Warsaw, Poland. In 2014 I published a Polish book on Stoicism which did quite well. I teach part-time at the University of Warsaw and do a number of other things, Stoicism-oriented and not. For a couple of years already I’ve been running for a Stoic site on Facebook (in Polish), which has served to gather and organize a community around the Stoic ideas.

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

A: Back in 2006. Roughly speaking, I was trying to put my life in order and it turned out that the best way to do that was to arrange my thinking along Stoic lines. The curious thing is how swiftly the personal aspect turned into an academic and professional interest. Finally, I ended up getting a Ph.D. in philosophy, focusing on the Stoics, but more importantly, I quickly realized that I can add my two cents to the heated and open debate on modern Stoicism. I realized that my process of absorbing Stoicism needn’t to be mine only. I sat down to describe all of it – and this is how my mentioned book emerged.

Q: How could you describe your views on Stoicism?

A: In the most general terms, I would say that we, the modern Stoics, mustn’t escape from responsibility. Our venerated predecessors, the ancient Stoics, outlined the general scope of Stoic teaching, but within these limits, we need to have significant liberty in how exactly we apply it to our life. Stoicism presents us with wonderful tools and devices, but it doesn’t give exact solutions tailored for each and everyone of us. Stoicism can be useful to us all, but it doesn’t offer a universal, one-size-fits-all answer. It’s our own responsibility to grab the Stoic apparatus and shape our own lives. Also, we need to keep in mind that, as Lawrence Becker puts it in his A New Stoicism, “the diversity of possible stoic lives – and the lives of stoic sages – is very great.” Indeed, there is sizable latitude here. And it’s up to us to decide which one of the available Stoic paths we pick. This is also how we get into modern Stoicism. This is where the pluralism and personal liberties of our time come to the fore.

Q: Could you say some more about this modern take?

A: It’s indeed one of the cornerstones of my understanding of Stoicism. I’m not particularly interested in the classicist’s, pale-fingers study of Stoicism. It is important, surely, but as for me, since day one I’ve assumed a fully present-day point of view. It’s something that we might roughly call the “paradigm of reinterpretation.” It’s also drawn from Becker, who put forwards the idea that we, the modern Stoics, shouldn’t engage in following the ancients blindly and reading them verbatim, but that we should instead try to translate the Stoic ideas into the present language and today’s conceptual framework. This is exactly my motto. In this regard I belong not to Orthodox, but rather to Reform or Modern Stoicism.

Q: And how would you describe the specificity of your approach?

A: I’m tempted (unstoically!) to start with a bit of a controversy and say this: I have a problem with the Stoic appeal to nature. With the idea of “following nature” I mean. I think that in the 21st century it confuses more than it clarifies and that we should desist from using it in teaching Stoicism. 

Q: Indeed, this is a bit of a surprise coming from a Stoic. Could you elaborate a bit more? 

A: I think there is no need to go over in detail what the ancient Stoics’ view on nature was. In brief: we need to follow nature, we need to live consistently with it. Nature is by definition good. Whatever is in harmony with it – is good. In other words, the traditional interpretation of Stoic ethics was that we need to find out what coheres with nature and then adjust ourselves to it. This picture is pretty clear I think. And this is exactly what my concern is: that is just a bit too neat and too simple. It’s the 21st century and talking about generic “following nature” doesn’t explain much ethically. It’s misleading, or, at the very least, it’s quite redundant. If we talk about it, we don’t really know what we are talking about.

Picture this. Someone comes up and says, “hey, we need to follow nature.” “Cool,” comes the reply, “but what do you mean specifically?” And this is only when the real conversation starts. In other words, floating the slogan of “following nature” and hiding under the umbrella idea that we should do what nature commands us to do, all of this doesn’t get us anywhere. What matters – are the specifics behind it.

Another point is that the very understanding of “nature” is much more obscure today than it used to be in antiquity. The impression I get from my studies of ancient Stoics is that the concept of “nature” was quite self-evident for them. It didn’t require much definition and explanation, it was something understandable per se. And it worked well in the ancient world (supposedly). The problem is that in our world, in the 21st century, the meaning of “nature” is anything but clear. We just don’t really know what we are talking about. Not to mention that on the social, political and technological levels “nature” today is much more malleable than it used to be in antiquity. If one gets an artificial limb, does it cohere with nature? And what about a C-section? And how about wearing glasses, not to mention using computers to even do this interview? This kind of issues are all relevant here.

Hence, overt focus on “consistency with nature” may be highly misleading. And that’s why I’m reluctant to this idea. But, just to be clear, I don’t think that the idea of “following nature” should be negated, or trashed. I rather think that it should be skipped.

Q: And where do we land once we decide to skip nature? 

A: For Becker, for example, “consistency with nature” means mainly “consistency with facts.” It means that we acknowledge the facts, that we don’t deny them. It means that we accept the facts on the ground, the ways of the world and, in general, how things work. And this is exactly the avenue I would go.

The next step is of course the question about how and where we learn the facts. I hold on to the quite old-school answer here, that, basically, we learn the facts from science and art. The latter may be a bit tricky, but the former is quite plain. Science teaches us how the world works and we, as Stoics, mustn’t oppose that. Thus, we will be happy to vaccinate our children. We won’t deny the Moon landing. Also, we will be eager to use iPhones, internet and whatever future technology comes about. In a word, going unscientific and anti-technological is also going unstoic.

Q: So, we know already that you are not particularly inclined to explain modern Stoicism through “follow nature.” How would you describe it then?

A: What I cherish in Stoicism is autonomy. I regard modern Stoicism as a fully autonomous story about humans and about the world. We don’t need to rely on other big narratives about the world, let alone shackling ourselves to them. This is a deep philosophical thing, but also a pragmatic choice on how to propagate our teaching. If we flirt too much with other voices, then our own message gets watered down.

So, I’m reluctant about desperate hunt for analogies and seeking validation in other traditions and intellectual currents. The power of Stoicism comes from within, not from the fact that other discourses say the same thing. But don’t get me wrong on this one. I’m not obsessed over some sort of abstract intellectual purity. I just think that if we want to really develop the Stoic thought in the 21st century, then we need to focus on our own, not on our competitors.

Let me use some examples. There is, for instance, psychotherapy. We, the Stoics, will be happy that many of the Stoic ideas go hand in hand with what, say, CBT says. But it doesn’t mean that Stoicism holds because CBT supports or validates it. Give us science in turn. We will fully embrace it (just as I said before!), we will use it, we will vaccinate the kids… but we won’t beg the scientists for endorsement, we won’t necessarily seek scientific validation. Give us Buddhism: we gladly accept that there is lots of common ground. But does it mean that Stoicism and Buddhism somehow “prove” each other’s validity? No, it’s definitely not so. And so on and so forth. 

Q: Do you think that modern Stoicism can be a remedy to the problems of the modern world?

A: Both yes and no. Stoicism is extremely helpful in putting our own, personal lives in order… but it’s not a system that provides easy and ready-made solutions to the problems of the world. Instead, it teaches and enables us how to think about these problems in an autonomous, responsible and constructive way.

I will put it this way. I don’t like when Stoicism is manipulated to provide support for an idea which comes from elsewhere. For instance, if I’m not actually thrilled by president Trump, then I need to be able to construct and present my own arguments why I don’t like him. We shouldn’t bend Stoicism to make it seem that it validates any particular position (political or other) that we happen to hold. As I said before, it’s the 21st century and the responsibility is ours. This includes that it is on us to find rational justification for whatever political values we believe in. We just shouldn’t rely on Stoicism in that. In this light, I have a problem with asking questions like “what do the Stoics think about gun control, climate change, Brexit, ISIS or president Underwood?” They all seem like a bit of stretch.

Q: If so, then let’s get back to where we began, i.e. to the personal side. How has Stoicism affected the way you live your own life?

A: It has had profound impact on me, but certainly there is also way to go. Yet, more importantly, despite all the Stoicism promotional things I do, I try not to suggest that I see myself as the greatest Stoic under the sun. I don’t walk around boasting. This would be unstoic by definition (pride comes before fall), but also, it’s ineffectual in propagating Stoicism. In my experience, the best one can do is not even “lead by example,” but rather employ some Socrates-esque style. That is, we need to inspire and encourage others to take on Stoicism… but on their own terms. This again reflects what I said about modern responsibility and pluralism of individual approaches.

This take is also reflected in the way my Polish book on Stoicism is written. In there I run kind of a seminar between the ancients authors, myself, and the reader. The book is not an ex cathedra lecture, but it’s a series of commentaries to carefully chosen excerpts from the ancients. It’s a depiction of my own struggle to interpret and apply the original Stoic teaching. And this process hopefully reiterates in the reader. Thus, by the very structure of the book I open space for interpretation and everyone’s own inquiry into what Stoicism is about.

Q: If they are open to such an inquiry, of course.

A: The decent popularity of the book testifies it works that way. But here is another thing. A friend of mine mentioned this to me once, and it has indelibly stuck in my mind. Here is the idea. Regardless of where we are headed next, it’s always highly beneficial to have a “Stoic stage” in one’s life. It will be our lasting asset, no matter if we go on and become full-blown Stoics or if our interest dwindles and we move on to something else. It’s just handy to have all these things conceptualized the Stoic way, at least once. This will be our enduring strength, our background that we can use if the need strikes.

That said, can I share one more personal experience? More around Stoicism than about it, but I guess it may be still relevant and of interest.

Q: Please do.

A: So, remember what the Stoics have to say about cosmopolitanism, about being a “citizen of the world?” In a way, I have my own experiences in this regard. Unlike most of the US- and UK‑based modern Stoics I happen to live on the cross of the English speaking and a non-English speaking world (Polish in my case). And this is a very particular position to be in, and a very interesting perspective.

It strikes me as deeply ambiguous how the intellectual and academic life is organized. On the one hand, a country like my Poland is, of course, very well connected and “in the loop.” We all live in the same digital, globalized world after all. And in this regard we are all “citizens of the world.” But on the other hand, the divisions are still very deep and the walls are high. The intellectual environments of different cultures and languages are still well separated and independent form each other. Being immersed in both, sitting on the fence, is a very specific position, both challenging and inspiring.

Q: Finally, what’s coming up next?

A: I’m currently working on the publication of my two large book-projects in English. One is a general introduction to Stoicism, in which I put forward in detail my take on Stoicism and how I see it. Along the lines I’ve tried to outlined above. The other one is an inquiry into another question that vitally interests me, i.e. into the trade-offs, or the costs of becoming a Stoic. Because, apparently, all those great Stoic benefits come at a price. But that’s a whole different story I think.

Q: Thank you for the interview.

A: Thank you and see you at the Stoicon.

 

Piotr Stankiewicz, Ph.Dis 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.

Musonius and Epictetus on “In Accordance With Nature” by Greg Sadler

Back in April, I authored a piece focused on a concept particularly central to Stoic Ethics, that of “living in accordance with nature”.  This was not a concept whose clarity the ancient Stoics could simply take for granted in their audiences – after all there were competing conceptions of “nature” (phusis) out there not only in philosophy itself but in the broader culture – but it seems to be one still more confusing to modern readers.

That is not surprising, given that we live in an era informed by centuries of progress in the modern sciences – in which more than one cosmology has been developed, relied upon for a while, and then supplanted by yet another (hopefully) more adequate one – and during which the understanding of the human being in relation to “nature” has seen some radical reinterpretations as well.  Many contemporary readers of Stoicism come to its key texts and thinkers eager to learn what they have to teach, but encumbered by unquestioned background assumptions about what the term “nature” must mean.

I argued that if one wants to understand what classic Stoics actually did mean by “nature,” and thus what would be “in accordance with nature,” there is nothing like actually reading what they had to say on the topic.  Fortunately for us, while we have lost nearly all of the literature of the early and middle Stoa, we still possess sources that provide us with some of their actual doctrines, arguments, and overall positions.  Diogenes Laertes and Cicero prove invaluable in this respect, and in my previous piece, I concentrated on what they had to tell us about what Stoics understood “in accordance with nature” to mean.

I promised to write a follow-up piece in which I would discuss what the representatives of the late Stoa whose texts we do fortunately possess have to say about this issue.  As it turns out, there is quite a lot, and their writings provide us with useful clarifications and additional examples.  In the case of Epictetus, there is also an interesting complicating factor, as he tends to speak much more of “the faculty of choice in accordance with nature” than of “living on accordance with nature,” and that accordingly will be discussed here as well.

Although I committed in that earlier piece to extend the discussion of “in accordance with nature” to its occurrences in Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius, three things became apparent in writing this post.  First, devoting sufficient discussion to the first two would result in a post just at the high end of the length within which we typically attempt to keep pieces here in Stoicism Today.  Second, even confining the discussion to Musonius Rufus and Epictetus, what I have set down here, while expressing essential points about their views on the matter, is really just scratching the surface.  Third and following from those first two, I realized that a fuller and more adequate treatment of what the Stoics mean “in accordance with nature” would make an excellent subject for a short book (a project upon which I have begun working).

Musonius Rufus on What Is In Accordance With Nature

The phrase “in accordance with nature” occurs several times in the Lectures we possess from Musonius Rufus, giving a clear sense of what he considered to fall within its scope.  He tells us that among the functions of the philosopher is to be “both a teacher and a leader of human beings in those things that are appropriate for human beings according to nature” (tōn kata phusin anthropōi kathēkontōn, lec. 14).  Philosophy, for Musonius, ought to be practically oriented – and likewise the practitioner of it, the philosopher.

When asked by an old man what the best means for dealing with old age is, he answered that it was “the very one that is for youth, to live following the path [hodōi] and in accordance with nature.” (lect. 17)  He goes on to explain

The nature of a human being did not arise on account of pleasure. Neither is this the case for the horse or dog or cow, and all of these creatures are much less valuable than the human being.  A horse would not be considered to have fulfilled its purpose by happening  to eat and drink and mate, and doing none of the things which are the proper work of a horse [hōn prosēkei]. . . Nor would any other animal if deprived of the functions proper to it and allowed to have its fill of pleasures; in short, according to this, nothing would be said to be living according to nature but what by its actions manifests the excellence [aretē] peculiar to its own nature. For the nature of each guides it to its own excellence; consequently it is not reasonable to suppose that when man lives a life of pleasure that he lives according to nature, but rather when he lives a life of virtue.

While we do come to feel, and even desire pleasure (and feel and are averse to pain) through natural processes, which stem from what we are endowed with by nature, pursuit and enjoyment of pleasure is not – for Musonius and other Stoics – what our nature is primarily about.  Each type of living being has its own specific nature, and with that, its own specific types of excellences.  Developing and expressing those excellences in action is living in accordance with nature.

The question then is what that means determinately for human beings.  Musonius unsurprisingly turns to discussion of the four cardinal virtues – prudence, justice, courage, and temperance – as distinctive modes of human excellence, that is, the excellences of a rational being.  He stresses that these virtues stem from the very nature of human being.  He also points out that if a person is fortunate enough to have got good instruction and put it into practice while young, living in accordance with nature becomes easier later on.

What else does Musonius contribute to our understanding of this key Stoic ideal?  One matter of longstanding controversy – particularly about whether it was appropriate for philosophers –  was marriage, and Musonius comes down decisively in favor of that institution, claiming that “if anything is in accordance with nature, then marriage appears to be so,” and providing this reasoning in support:

For, to what other purpose did the creator of mankind first divide our human race into two sexes, male and female, then implant in each a strong desire for association and union with the other, instilling in both a powerful longing each for the other, the male for the female and the female for the male? 6Is it not then plain that he wished the two to be united and live together, and by their joint efforts to devise a way of life in common, and to produce and rear children together, so that the race might never die?  (lect. 14)

Another thing that Musonius regards as in accordance with nature is the lifestyle and profession of the farmer, the “worker of the earth”.  Although a number of professions are compatible with engaging in philosophy, Musonius regards agriculture as particularly so, asking:

is it not more living in accordance with nature to derive one’s living from the earth, which is the nurse and mother of us all, rather than from some other source?  (lect. 11)

Other than small-scale growing in our own or community gardens, farming is not a practice, let alone a life-style available as a viable option to many of us today, but we ought to consider the point and purpose of what Musonius advocates.  He argues that it is better to have one’s own living depend as much as possible upon one’s own labor, rather than on others.  And he points out that there is no incompatibility – whatever people might think – between lecturing about and displaying the virtues, on the one hand, and performing manual labor, on the other.  Nor, for that matter, does working prevent a student from being able to learn.

That really is the key determinant, for Musonius, around which everything else centers in this matter of what is “in accordance with nature” – cultivating and acting in accordance with virtue.  He points out in lecture 2 that virtue is something possible for everyone.

All of us, he said, are naturally constituted by nature [phusei pephukamen] so that we can live blamelessly and well. . . .

In the conduct of life it is no longer only the philosopher whom we expect to be free from error, though he alone would seem to be the only one concerned with the study of virtue, but all human beings alike, including those who have never given any attention to virtue. Clearly, then, there is no explanation for this other than that the human being comes to exist inclined toward virtue [pros aretē].

A bit later in that lecture, he will speak of “seeds of virtue” within us by our natures.  Notice as well that the “all of us” Musonius invokes is genuinely inclusive.  Not only does he maintain that virtue is a live and natural possibility within all human beings irrespective of class or education, he also explicitly affirms that the same virtues apply to women and men.  In Lecture 3, entitled “That women should study philosophy,” he tells us

Women as well as men, he said, have received from the gods the gift of reason, which we use in our dealings with one another and by which we judge whether a thing is good or bad, noble or base. . . . Moreover, not men alone, but women too, have a natural desire and affinity [orexis kai oikeiōsis] toward virtue.  And women no less than men are constituted by nature [pephukasi] to be pleased by good and just acts and to reject the opposite of these.

Epictetus On Nature and What Is In Accordance With It

Musonius Rufus’ most celebrated student, Epictetus, also contributes considerably to fleshing out what “in accordance with nature” means for the Stoics.  One of the main innovations of his articulation of Stoic philosophy – identifying and discussing in great detail what he terms “prohairesis” (“moral purpose”, “faculty of choice”) – and his reformulation of “in accordance with nature” along those lines – is discussed in the next section.  This one focuses on his references to that phrase that do not bring in the notion of prohairesis, on what he affirms our nature to be or include, and on what aligns us with and realizes our nature as human beings.

Epictetus speaks to an audience that is already familiar in at least a superficial way with the Stoic teachings and works of his predecessors. So one of the first references to what is in accordance with nature occurs in a passage where he challenges someone who has supposedly read one of Chrysippus’ works to display his knowledge in practice.  What matters is:

How you act in your choices and refusals, your desires and aversions, how you go at things, and apply yourself to them, and prepare yourself, whether you are acting in harmony with nature or out of harmony with it.  If you are acting in harmony, show me that, and I will tell you that you are making progress. (1.4)

The expression Epictetus employs in this is sumphonōs tei phusei, “in harmony with nature” rather than “in accordance with nature”, but he tends to use those synonymously.  A bit later in that very chapter, he has Chrysippus say:

Take my books and you shall know how conformable and harmonious with [akouloutha kai sumphona] nature are the things which make me tranquil.

Epictetus tells us in general what “in accordance with nature” means or involves with human beings in a number of places.  In one, he speaks of a “law of life”:

We must do what follows from nature.  If in every matter and circumstance we intend to observe what is in accordance with nature, then it is clear that in everything we should make it our goal not to avoid what follows from nature nor to accept what is in conflict with nature. (1.26)

What then “follows from” (akolouthei) nature, particularly for us human beings?  What is in conflict with our nature and with nature in general? Although at times Epictetus speaks as if determining this is straightforward and self-evident, it sometimes requires a good bit of thought, and often goes against key assumptions common within the prevailing culture.

In passage after passage, for example, Epictetus emphasizes the fact that we all share a common human nature.  This commonality is something that social ranks, cultural status, and institutions can easily lead us to forget.  One example of this occurs when he points out that “all human beings by nature are members of one common household with each other” (3.24)  Another example of this is his reminder that other people – slaves for instance, for whom one possesses a bill of sale – remain nonetheless “kinsmen, brothers and sisters by nature” with the person who happens to hold power. (1.13)  What does that common human nature then involve?

Nature has given us faculties we share in common with other animals, but also distinctive human endowments, such as the capacities to contemplate or reflect (theōria) and to understand (parakolouthesis), and to conduct our lives (diexagogē) in harmony with nature (1.6).  The capacity to reason – a faculty that Epictetus notes is reflexive (i.e. applying to itself as well as other faculties) – is given to us by nature precisely in order for us to be able to deal with (or rightly “use”) appearances or external impressions (phantasiai, 1.20).  This extends to judging them and understanding them, so in performing those functions well, we realize and perfect our rational nature, and thereby live more in accordance with nature.

We are also by our nature creatures that are endowed with a number of desires and aversions.  In the case of human beings, however, these require rational development.  Epictetus stresses a distinction between an initial, basic self-love (philauton) of the human being as an animal, focused on attaining what one identifies and then pursues as goods simply for oneself, and a more fully developed, rationally extended attitude towards oneself, others, and genuine goods. (1.19)

When Zeus wishes to be “Rain-bringer,” and “Fruit-giver,” and “Father of men and gods,” you see for yourself that he cannot achieve these functions, or get these titles, unless he is profitable to the common interest.  To speak in general, he has constituted the nature of the rational animal so that it cannot attain its own proper and individual goods unless it contributes something to the common interest. (1.19)

Both attending to one’s own proper goods and taking the broader focus on the goods of others and of one’s communities are forms of oikeiōsis – a key idea of Stoic Ethics that Epictetus explicitly mentions in that passage – a fundamental way in which rational human beings do develop and act in accordance with nature.

Epictetus provides a number of more specific examples illustrating clearly and concretely what “in accordance with” or “in harmony with nature” means in some determinate area or aspect of life.  We will look at a few of those shortly, but before that, it may be useful to explore some implications of a short passage, almost a throwaway line.

Who has ever made a sacrifice in thanks for having desired well, or for having used choice in accordance with nature? (1.19)

He points out that we give thanks to the gods – or perhaps in our time, we might say, exhibit a sense of gratitude and acknowledgement – for what we consider good.  Most people in both our time and his tend to value other things than what puts us into proper alignment with nature, even though that is where we ought to find our genuine good.  Is Epictetus suggesting that we ought to give thanks for desiring well or using choice in accordance with nature?  If we do those things, those are up to us, after all, so it would seem strange to make some gesture of gratitude, wouldn’t it?  And yet, those are in significant part where our most proper good does lie, according to Stoic doctrine.

One concrete example in which Epictetus applies his more general views is furnished by “familial affection” (philostorgia).  When he clarifies the meaning and effects of what this term rightly applies to with one of his interlocutors – who claims he was simply behaving “naturally” (phusikōs) –  Epictetus tells him that it remains to be seen whether that person really was acting “naturally”, which would mean “in accordance with nature” (kata phusei).  That cannot simply be what tends to happen, or what people tend to do.

First convince me of this, that you were acting naturally. . .  and then I will convince you that whatever is done in accordance with nature is rightly done. . . For by your line of reasoning, we would have to say that tumors are produced for the good of the body, just because they occur, and in general, that to go wrong (hamartanein) is in accordance with nature, just because nearly all, or at least most of us go wrong in matters. (1.11)

He points out to the man – who claims that precisely out of familial affection he was led to leave the sickbed of his ill child – that his behavior was wrong and unreasonable.  What would have actually been in accordance with nature would to do as others – his daughter’s mother, nurse, and tutor – did in the situation, to remain with the sick child.

Another set of useful examples are provided by various duties, stemming from roles and relationships that we are either born into, find ourselves involved in (sometimes to our surprise!), or even willingly chose to take upon ourselves.  These extend to a number of aspects of our lives:

The duties of citizenship, marriage, raising children, reverence to the divine, taking care of parents – in general, desire, avoidance, choice, refusal, and in doing each of these to do them as they ought to be done, that is, in accordance with our nature (hōs pehpukamen, 3.7)

He goes on to clarify what this means:

To act as free human beings, as noble, as self-respecting. . . . And it is our nature to subordinate pleasure to these duties as their servant, their minister, so as to arouse our interest and keep us acting in accordance with nature (kata phusin).

Fulfilling our roles and the demands they involve with – to use another term that Epictetus employs in many places – fidelity (pistis) is precisely one way in which we human beings act and live in accordance with nature.  In doing so, we often find ourselves having to choose or go against some of the inclinations or desires we do “naturally” feel.  For instance, when Epictetus counsels a brother wishing to reconcile with his sibling who remains angry with him (1.15), telling him that all he can do is to keep or bring himself in accordance with nature.  He adds that making that commitment is not something accomplished once and for all, but requires an ongoing and organic growth, akin to that of a cluster of grapes that require time to form and ripen.

Prohairesis In Accordance With Nature

Among the most interesting and innovative features of Epictetus’ interpretation of Stoic philosophy is his focus on prohairesis – a term that we generally translate as “faculty of choice,” “moral purpose,” or even (a bit misleadingly) “will”.   He references it constantly throughout the Discourses and Enchiridion, as the very center or core of the human being, the character that we develop and bring with us to every situation (for better or for worse).  It is intimately connected with the rational faculty (to logikon) and the ruling faculty (to hegemonikon) – in fact, all three of those are different ways of articulating and conceptualizing the same basic human reality.

I won’t attempt to provide a fuller treatment of this complex matter here – if you like, you can watch my recent presentation of prohairesis in this seminar – but it is important to explain why we would want to focus on it particularly when looking at Epictetus and the issue of what is in accordance with nature and what is not.  Suffice it to say that for Epictetus, the prohairesis is not just one faculty among others.  It is the very core of the person, who quite literally is his or her prohairesis (4.5)

Prohairesis is not the only faculty or function of the human being that Epictetus focuses upon as being in accordance with, or not in accordance with nature.  He frequently speaks of the “ruling faculty” as something that the human being ought to have or conduct in accordance with nature. Since the faculty of choice, the rational faculty, and the ruling faculty are distinguishable but not actually separable, those references explicitly to the ruling faculty should be understood as equally applying to the faculty of choice.  We should thus similarly associate the many references made to the rational faculty, and its function of “using appearances in accordance with nature” (e.g. in 3.3.).

Epictetus also writes at a number of points about using desire and aversion, choice and refusal, assent (sunkatathesis) and other functions in accordance with nature or not (e.g. 1.21, 2.14, and 3.9).  But as he also tells us, all of these fall within the scope of the prohairesis.  So using any of them in accordance with nature in some way involves one’s prohairesis as well.  There are considerably more references, however, in the Discourses and Enchiridion to prohairesis in accordance with nature.

One key feature of the faculty of choice is that by its very nature – or if you like, as nature produces it, is – something that is fundamentally free.  Epictetus emphasizes this point repeatedly, for example:

You have a faculty of choice free by nature of hindrances and constraint. . . Can anyone prevent you from assenting to truth? No one at all.  Can anyone force you to accept the false?  No one at all. Do you see that in this sphere, you have a faculty of choice free from hindrance, constraint, obstruction?  In the sphere of desire and choice, is it otherwise? (1.17)

At another point, after noting first that other faculties are determined and given their direction by the prohairesis, and that other faculties can be hindered or interfered with both by the prohairesis and by things that are outside of the field of choice (aproaireta), he raises a leading question:

What is by its very nature capable of hindering moral purpose? Nothing that lies outside the field of choice, but only the faculty of choice itself when turned in the wrong way [diastrapheisa]. For this reason the faculty of choice becomes the only vice, or the only virtue (2.23)

In that last line, Epictetus drives home that where virtues or vices reside – as dispositions either in accordance with nature or against nature – is precisely within the prohairesis, which possesses the freedom sufficient to move one away from the vices and towards the virtues.  Elsewhere, he affirms that – unless we willingly give over this power to another (e.g. by desiring something outside of our power, but which that other person controls) – nobody is actually master over another person’s faculty of choice (4.12).  When asking at another point, what ultimately determines a persons faculty of choice, he answers that “faculty of choice compelled faculty of choice” (1.17)

We determine whether we bring or maintain our faculty of choice in accordance with nature, and Epictetus identifies and discusses a number of means by which we can do this.  Having correct judgements or opinions (dogmata) ready at hand when we run into challenging situations  – which typically involves the preparatory work of learning, understanding, and committing to memory those expressions – is one key way.  Another would be to take an assessment of our habits, and to begin to gradually retrain them towards what would be more in accordance with nature.

We can also look to a number of specific examples Epictetus provides, cases in which we can reframe the situations in which we find ourselves.  In each of these sorts of situations, he advises the same basic approach. Realize that you are faced with a fundamental choice between two possibilities.  These are not just possible courses of action, but options for how to conceptualize and value matters, and then act accordingly.

One of these is the famous example of going to the baths in Enchiridion ch. 4. This is not an institution many of us can immediately relate to, to be sure, but it is easy enough to extend it to any other situation in which we and other people are in a place for some activity.  One might think of going to a public swimming pool, or to have a picnic in a park, or attending a concert.  Inevitably, there will be some unpleasant or inconveniencing interactions with others.  When we are going into situations like those, Epictetus suggests we pursue the following:

Remind yourself what the nature of that activity is. . . . [S]traightaway say to yourself “I want to bathe and at the same time maintain my faculty of choice in accordance with nature”. . .  For in this way, if anything that hinders you from bathing happens to arise, you will have ready at hand the saying “Well, this was not the only thing I wanted, but also to keep my faculty of choice in accordance with nature; and I won’t keep it [in that way] if I get upset over the things that occur.”

A very similar discussion occurs when Epictetus counsels an official who imprudently took sides in a comedy contest, and found himself at odds with the crowd.  He provides the same advice about going into a matter with the understanding that one has to choose to keep one’s prohairesis in accordance with nature. (3.4)

To bring this follow-up discussion of “in accordance with nature” to a close, it may be useful to highlight one final aspect of Epictetus’ view, in this case, derived explicitly from the example Socrates provides.  Epictetus tells us:

Socrates bore very firmly in mind that no one is master over another person’s ruling faculty. He willed, accordingly, nothing but what was his own. And what is that? [Not to try to make other people act] in accordance with nature, for that is something that belongs to another  but, while they are attending to their own business as they think best, himself no less to keep and conduct his [ruling principle] in accordance with nature, focusing just on his own, so that those others might be in accordance with nature too. (4.5)

We cannot directly bring other people into accordance with nature, even though it is rational for us to desire that as their proper good.  What we can do is to focus on the labor involved with our own faculties of choice, our own lives, and our own actions.  And if we put in the consistent and cumulative work required for that, we can perhaps move them by experience and example.

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