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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading

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

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

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

 

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

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

Is Stoic Virtue as Off-Putting as it Seems? by Julia Annas

Is Stoic Virtue as Off-Putting as it Seems?

by Julia Annas

hercules and hydra

Stoic ethics can be more or less off-putting depending on which aspect of it you encounter, or encounter first. Many people responded to Admiral Stockdale’s reliance on Epictetus to survive captivity and torture, and similar accounts can draw people into Stoic ethics in a way that gets them to see what is inspiring about it. Stoicism is sometimes encountered by people who are suffering, or in terrible circumstances, and they come to see how Stoicism can help them come through without being irreparably broken.

But many of us are not in terrible circumstances, and we hope to enter Stoic ethics through the gate of their account of virtue. We want to be better people and to live better lives, and we ask how the Stoics see this project. And we run into a problem. Stoic accounts of virtue are notoriously abrasive and off-putting to someone who is not already committed to finding it worthwhile to explore Stoicism. The Stoics have a number of theses about virtue which are basic to their ethics, and they are notoriously repellent to the non-Stoic. This is not just our problem as citizens of the 21st century; this is a feature of Stoicism that was found off-putting in the ancient world.

Firstly, for Stoics virtue is not only necessary but also sufficient for happiness. To understand this, of course, we have to become aware that what the Stoics mean by virtue and by happiness are not what immediately springs to mind for us. Happiness is not a feeling or a mood, as so many recent books on happiness assume. It is eudaimonia, the flourishing of a whole life. Happiness, in this sense of eudaimonia, is our final end, the ultimate expression of our attempt to live a good life and to appreciate good values. So, if virtue is necessary and sufficient for that, it’s clearly the most important thing for us to be thinking about and trying to achieve in our lives. We come to Stoicism wanting to find out the right way to achieve happiness, eudaimonia , because this – how best to live – is the entry point to ethical reflection in the ancient world. We are told that what is necessary and sufficient for that is for us to become virtuous. So we turn eagerly to find what virtue is, since it is all-important for us to become virtuous.

What do we find? The Stoics tell us that there are no degrees of virtue; everyone is either virtuous or vicious, and given their demands on virtue, we are all vicious. Only the sage – the completely virtuous person – is virtuous, and, given that the sage is as rare as the mythical phoenix, we are all stuck with being vicious. If we’re not already Stoics we don’t really know even how to process these ideas. Why do the Stoics apparently make it so difficult for us to understand; why are the main things they say about virtue so much at variance with common-sense and ordinary beliefs?

The Stoics aren’t elitist about virtue; they think it is open to anyone in any walk of life. But this makes it even odder that their views about virtue are so off-putting, especially to ordinary people without philosophical training. We might start to wonder whether they really care about non-Stoics becoming Stoics. There is a contrast here with the Epicureans, who thought that becoming an Epicurean was urgent for non-Epicureans. A 2nd century CE Epicurean called Diogenes in the city of Oenoanda (in Asia Minor, modern Turkey) was distressed that his fellow-citizens’ lives were going so badly and unhappily, and so from ‘love of humanity’ he set up, at vast expense, a massive stone inscription, like a large permanent billboard, so that people using the market to shop and meet would have to encounter the truths of Epicureanism, which he was convinced would cure them. (Diogenes of Oenoanda fr. 3)

By comparison the Stoics seem to wait for us to come to them, and then to be willing to accept off-putting theses if we are seriously trying to become virtuous through Stoicism. We lack helpful Stoic discussion that helps us much if at all by way of easy introduction to Stoic ideas about virtue. And this is disconcerting. Thoughts about virtue and happiness are the starting point for ethical theories in general in the ancient world, and increasingly today many people find that they want to know what an ethical theory has to tell them about happiness and virtue.

So it is alarming to find, when you are aiming to become a Stoic, and to understand what is required of you, that:

  • There are no degrees of virtue
  • There are no degrees of vice
  • There is no state between virtue and vice; if you are not virtuous you are vicious.
  • Only the sage is virtuous. But
  • The sage is as rare as the mythical phoenix;
  • So, we are all vicious.[1]

To start with, there are no degrees of virtue. Either you are virtuous, or not; there is no such thing as being more virtuous or less virtuous. So, despite having rethought your life so as to give more money, more time and more energy to good causes, you are no more generous than you were. Despite your rethinking your priorities and your best efforts to live up to this, you are no more honest, brave or tactful than you were. Only when you become completely generous, honest, brave, tactful and have all the rest of the virtues in the right way will you become virtuous, that is, generous, honest, brave and tactful.

Nothing, it appears, could be more off-putting to a beginner; it doesn’t matter how hard, and how intelligently, you try, you will still be no braver, more tactful or whatever other virtues you aim for. (The beginner can be told that there are other reasons, elsewhere in the system of Stoic philosophy, for accepting this. For example, virtue requires knowledge, and knowledge does not, for the Stoics, come in degrees. But this hardly helps the beginner focus on becoming virtuous.) Since your best efforts don’t make you any more virtuous, why bother?

The flip side of this is no more encouraging. We ordinarily believe that most of us may be mediocre or even moderately bad, but not as bad as Hitler or Stalin, but the Stoics insist that there are no degrees of vice. They express this idea by appealing to cases where difference is not a matter of degree. A stick is either straight or it is crooked. (Diogenes Laertius, 7, 127) Blind puppies are just as blind the day before they see as they were at birth. (Plutarch, comm. not. 1063 A-B) If you are underwater in the sea, you drown whether you are an arm’s length from the surface or 500 fathoms down. (Plutarch, op.cit.) When you are not yet at your destination, you are not there, however far or near you are to it. (Diogenes Laertius 7, 120) With vice the claim that there are no degrees may seem even more offensive than with virtue. We may put up with being told that neither we nor anyone else is virtuous, but the levelling claim about vice leaves us wondering what the difference is between us and people that are extremely bad. Again, we find ourselves wondering what the point is of trying to improve, if however hard we try we are still no less vicious than the worst people.

Both of these off-putting theses can, however, be explained in ways that do make good sense. The idea that there are no degrees of virtue does not mean that there cannot be degrees of progress towards virtue. And the Stoics do believe this, since they talk about the person who is making progress in living better, the prokopton or ‘progressor’. When you reorder your priorties and try to live up to your new commitments, you are progressing towards virtue, and there can certainly be degrees of that. You may have progressed a little, or a lot. Given this, the Stoics can after all make distinctions among people who are progressing. We do this all the time, of course. Generally this takes the form of comparing our own progress with that of others, usually in a way which is unfavourable to ourselves: we find others to be better than we are in a variety of ways.

We look up to people who are braver, or more generous, or just nicer to others, than we are, and we are inspired to be like them in those ways. (We also compare ourselves favourably with others, since we can usually find people around us who are stingier or more cowardly than we are; but this obviously does nothing for our own ethical progress – it is likely to be counter-productive for that.) The Stoics are quite aware of the way we improve ethically by aspiring to become more virtuous than we are. Their theory allows for this – we just have to be careful how we conceptualize what we do. We are not becoming more virtuous, or increasing in degrees of virtue; we are progressing by degrees towards virtue, which is itself not a matter of degree.

Similarly we can draw distinctions between people even if there are no degrees of virtue. Strictly speaking, Plato was no more virtuous than the horrible tyrant Dionysius. But Plato at least was improving, whereas Dionysius was in a hopeless condition in which he could not improve. (Cicero, De Finibus 4, 56) Someone near the surface of the sea is more easily rescued than someone at the bottom. Someone near their destination has less distance to traverse than someone setting out. Distinctions that we make by talking about some people being more or less virtuous than others can be made in other ways. So the Stoics are not just flouting common sense; they can explain how their position is compatible with views we have about virtue and vice. But we still haven’t seen the point of the claim that there are no degrees of virtue.

The Stoics are insisting that virtue is an ideal that we work towards, not an endeavour that we have already made strides in. An ideal can inspire us to aspiration even if it is not something we can ever achieve, and it’s important for the Stoics that we think of it that way. Talking of virtue and vice having no degrees, and no state between them, emphasises the point that virtue is a state we are always trying to reach; there is no point when we can say, ‘Well, that was hard work, but I’m finally there; now I’m brave (generous, tactful or whatever).’

Becoming virtuous is life-long learning. This is an idea that we may find disconcerting; we almost certainly don’t want to think that we have to go on becoming virtuous right up to the day we day. The Stoics are aware of this, and want to counter it: by denying that virtue has degrees they keep right in front of our eyes the point that Stoicism is a continuing way of life. It’s not a Teach Yourself programme, where you teach yourself a subject which you then know, like learning a language, and then move on to do something else, fortified by what you have learnt. It’s a way of life which is a way of continually being and improving yourself. The initially off-putting views about virtue keep us aware of this.

It’s still hard to make sense of probably the most off-putting claim of all: only the sage is virtuous. (‘Sage’ has a lot of unfortunate suggestions, but at least it is gender-neutral, so is an improvement on the former use of ‘the wise man’ or ‘the virtuous man’.) When we put this together with the point that the sage is rarer than the mythical phoenix, we see that we are all vicious, the noblest among us as much as the thugs. The sage is the person who is completely virtuous, and this is a stage that none of us will reach. The early Stoics make things worse for us here by dwelling, frequently and prominently, on the thought that it is only the sage who is really what other people only think they are. The sage is the only king, the only doctor, the only general, the only money-maker and so on. Only the sage knows how to rule like a king, cure like a doctor, command like a general, and so on. Our sources for early Stoicism repeat and emphasise this point, sometimes at length.

This claim was widely ridiculed in the ancient world. Ancient authors point out that it is peculiar, to put it mildly, that the sage is the only king when he has no political authority, the only rich person when he is in rags, and so on. Plutarch, a 2nd century CE philosopher, tells us about a Spartan king, Eudamidas, who took a plain blunt approach. When a Stoic claimed that only the sage was a general, the king remarked that he couldn’t believe that, coming from someone who had never been in battle. (Sayings of Spartans 220e). Moreover, if the sage is the only king, the only doctor, the only lawgiver, cook, carpenter, rich man and so on, he will have to be absurdly omnicompetent. To function in all these ways, he or she will have to have the practical knowledge of how to cure people, cook food, manage money, make laws and so on. Lucian, a 2nd century CE satirist, claims, in his dialogue Philosophies for Sale, that the Stoic sage knows everything . So he will know how to cook, how to build, how to cure and so on – So Stoicism is a real bargain! (Philosophies for Sale 20).

The sage is the ideal virtuous person, as already noted – so aren’t the Stoics just taking over the idea of the virtuous person whom we should emulate? Sometimes we find this idea in ancient writers. We find it, for example, in Cicero, when he is setting out Stoic ethics in the person of Cato, in the third book of his work On Moral Ends. The Stoic sage, says Cato, is dignified and noble, and has a character which is constant. He is more truly a king than King Tarquin, the last king of Rome, driven out for his pride and cruelty. He is more truly rich than Marcus Crassus, a billionaire contemporary with Cicero who was notorious for his indifference to ethics in making money. (On Moral Ends III 75-76.) It looks as though the sage is brought in to make the point that we should aspire to be virtuous in what we do, rather than proud and dishonest. But this doesn’t get the sage right. The sage is, after all, the only king, and by comparison even the best king of Rome would not really be a king. He is the only rich person, and by comparison even the most honest and scrupulous billionaire would not really be rich. We are left with the full off-putting force of the Stoic theses about virtue.

Some passages about the sage suggest that the idea is that as we improve in virtue we get to be more reflective about our activities, and so we acquire expertise about things that we previously did just as a matter of routine. Money-making, for example, and household management are regularly treated by Plato and Aristotle as something beneath the intellectual level, and notice, of the sage. The Stoics, however, throw out an intellectual bridge, claiming that running a household is not just a sub-theoretical knack, but ‘a state both theoretical and practical concerning what is advantageous for the household’, and that money-making is ‘experience of acquiring money from the right sources…..in collecting, preserving and spending money with a view to being well off’. So ‘only the virtuous person is skilled at money-making, recognizing what the sources are from which one should make money, and when and how and up to what point.’ (Arius 11d) Here a practical skill is intellectualized as a way of showing how its correct performance might indeed be one which requires the achievement of virtue. There are other passages to the same effect. It turns out, for example, that running a symposium and managing a love affair can both be described as virtues in terms of their intellectual basis. (Arius 5b9; see 5b12 for prophecy and being a priest)

This idea of intellectualizing roles applies fairly well to roles like king, general or carpenter, where there is a skill which can be performed well or badly, and the virtuous person will perform it better, because she has greater understanding of what is important, and the values involved in the situation. There are other cases, though, where this move is not available, for example the claim that only the sage is free. The sage is free, we are told, in the true sense of freedom, for only he has achieved true internal freedom, which is freedom from the passions and from the pull of conventional motivations. Here there is no attempt to provide a bridge from the everyday notion. The same is even more obviously true of the claims that only the sage is beautiful, tall and strong, even if by ordinary standards he is ugly, small and weak. He is rich, even if in rags, a king, even if without power, and so on. (Diogenes Laertius VII 122, Philo, Quod Omnis Probus, esp. 16-25, Arius 11g,k,m)

What is going on when we are told that only the sage is free, rich and so on? The Stoic idea of ethical improvement focuses, more than some other ethical theories do, on improvement as a whole. Virtue requires more than being good in one area of your life while letting things slide in another. You have to have the right kind of understanding of value over your whole life to be virtuous. (This is one reason why it is so difficult.) The virtuous person has an understanding of what in life is valuable, with the crucial insight that the value of virtue is different from the value of everything else, and that it should always take priority.

In one sense this understanding will be the same in everyone – it is the understanding which enables the virtuous person to discern what is right in each situation and to act accordingly. But in another sense the understanding will be different for everyone, because we live in a variety of societies and cultures. Some of us have different roles from others – we are teachers, firefighters, plumbers, professors and so on. And each of us has our own individual aspects of personality. So each of us will embody and express the understanding that the virtuous person has in our own situation and context, in our own roles and in a way influenced by our own personality traits. The Stoics say that the virtuous person will do everything well, as an expert musician plays all pieces well. (Diogenes Laertius VII 125, Arius 5b10). Virtue is the same in everyone in the way that the musician’s skill is the same skill in all her performances. But each performance is of a different piece of music.

When we take this into account, we can see that for the Stoics the sage is an ideal, but can’t be thought of as a single figure to imitate or emulate. The sage is the only king, but this is no use to me if I’m not a king; I’m a doctor. But the sage is the only doctor too, so I should emulate the sage – that is try to become virtuous, as a doctor. Kings and doctors have to aim to become virtuous – to take virtue as their ideal to pursue – in their own ways of life. But they are both taking the sage as an ideal – that is, trying to be virtuous, aiming continually to improve and to live better.

So the sage doesn’t have to be the person who knows this and that and the other thing, who knows what a doctor knows and what a plumber knows and what a general knows. The sage is the ideal of having a single kind of knowledge – the understanding which the virtuous person has. But this will be embodied differently, and so take different forms, in different people, depending on their role, situation and personality. So the Stoics keep insisting that the sage is the only king, doctor and so on – it’s a way of pointing out that whether you’re a king or a doctor your ideal is to be a virtuous king, a virtuous doctor and so on.

The sage is an ideal, but a more demanding and austere ideal than other ethical theories have. Virtue is all or nothing, not something we can have degrees of. We have to achieve it as a whole, and hence over our whole life. It’s a total transformation, one which makes all virtuous people share the same understanding in their different contexts. This is another way in which the Stoics underline the demandingness of their ideal, and the distance we are from it. We tend to think that we are pretty good people because in some areas of life we are good – generous, say, while conveniently forgetting that in other areas we aren’t – we’re disloyal, say. No, say the Stoics, you are virtuous (or not) as a whole.

So: is Stoic virtue as off-putting as it seems? I’ve tried to show that it is not elitism, or perversity, or not caring about attracting people to Stoicism, which makes the Stoics talk about virtue the way they do. They want to alert us from the start to the fact that Stoicism is demanding. It’s a way of life, and for it to do you any good it has to be the way you live, the way you live all of your life, not something you can treat like a self-improvement course. We might think that they should have had better PR to attract people to Stoicism. But they thought that you should clearly see, right from the start, that you’re being asked to transform your whole way of life. Why pretend that it’s easy?

[1] I’m not here going to follow up the thesis that all the vices and all the virtues are equal. Discussing this would require going into more technical Stoic discussion than would be helpful here. Also, I take it that this thesis doesn’t introduce a distinct way of being off-putting from the ones I do look at.

This post is the transcript of Professor Annas’ presentation at the STOICON 2016 conference.  The video of the conference can be viewed here (Dr. Annas’ presentation begins at 28:25)

Julia Annas is Regents Professor in Philosophy at the University of Arizona. She previously taught at the University of Oxford and Columbia University. She was the founding editor of Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy and is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She has published several books and many articles on ancient philosophy, especially ancient ethics, and in recent years has also published on contemporary virtue ethics.

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

Stoics Do Care about Social Justice: A Response to Irvine

by Eric O. Scott
justice statue

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

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

 

The Need for Justice

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Need for Charity

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Irvine’s Criticism of Social Justice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Alienating Effect on Minorities

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

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

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

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

 

Stoics for Justice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

by Leah Goldrick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Justice:

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

He goes on to say:

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

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

 

Determination:

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

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

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

 

Moderation:

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

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

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

Musonius also advised temperance with regards to food, asking:

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

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

 

Wisdom:

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

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

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

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

 

References:

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

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

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

 

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

Applying Stoicism: The First Decision by Travis Hume

Applying Stoicism: The First Decision

by Travis Hume

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stoic vs. Buddhist Mindfulness by Mary Braun

Stoic vs. Buddhist Mindfulness

by Mary Braun

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The first time I tried Buddhist meditation, I immediately felt my trachea shrink. Only a tiny, insufficient bit of air could move in or out. To learn Buddhist meditation, I had listened to a podcast. It said to notice and accept without judgement whatever happened. So, that is what I did. I noticed and accepted that my attempt to meditate had the effect of breathing powdered cement.

Being the diligent sort, I tried meditating again the next day. Again I got to notice and accept without judgement the sensation of being strangled. And again the third day.

I could not understand what was going on. I knew that I could not be getting into any physiologic trouble within two breaths of sitting down. I knew I should be able to sustain myself in a seated position, breathing comfortably for several hours. Using all my Stoic techniques that I did not yet know were Stoic, I convinced myself that I would sit for ten breaths regardless of how sure I was that I would suffocate. Ten breaths in and out. This was all I could manage for several days. With more practice of living with insufficient oxygen, I could go for twelve breaths, then twenty. Eventually I got to the point where it no longer felt like the Buddha was Darth Vader using the Force to strangle me from a distance

At the time, I was fresh out of medical school. My new situation allowed some scary thoughts to arise, such as, “you probably just killed Mrs. Smith by increasing her insulin.” Buddhist meditation allowed me to gain distance from these thoughts, and the added distance improved my equanimity. Even after the disturbing, rookie doctor thoughts stopped coming around, I found Buddhist meditation helpful for my overall equanimity, so I continued it.

As happens with many Stoics, my Stoic practice developed spontaneously as a response to difficulties in my life. I was orphaned when I was seven, causing the life I had known to evaporate. In order to survive this loss, using my own intuition I developed some potent Stoic techniques for tolerating difficult situations. Unfortunately, I did not develop any techniques for avoiding difficult situations. Thus my personal brand of Stoicism carried me straight from suboptimal foster care right into a bad marriage.

A couple of decades and several life changes later, my boyfriend introduced me to Stoic philosophy. I was shocked to discover how much of my self-developed philosophy of living and coping techniques those ancient Greeks had known about all along. Thus, well into middle age, I started the formal practice of Stoic philosophy. Those ancient Greeks had a trick or two to teach me. My life got even better with their help.

At this point, I rely on my Stoic techniques when things start to go wrong inside my head. Earlier this week, a dying patient was reviewing his life with me. He told me about how much he valued the teamwork he and his wife shared to raise their children. It is a beautiful story and my eyes start to fill with tears. No problem so far. I am not expected to be without feelings, but if my feelings take control of my thinking, I cannot focus enough to be a good doctor.

As I listen to my patient talk about how raising their children deepened his relationship with his wife, I realize the one thing I wanted most out of life was to raise my kids well. I married and had children with a man who always had his way and whose method of childrearing I disagreed with. I could not figure out how to challenge his child rearing ideas or how to divorce him for twenty five years. Now I am too old to have more children, and will never get to have the experience of raising a child with a partner. I didn’t get a father; I only got a mother for seven years. Life couldn’t even deliver me a decent husband. I don’t ask for much. My eyes are dripping tears now and I realize that I am not paying any attention to my patient.

I need to pull myself away from the attraction of self-pity and into the present. Even if I had the skills to turn my feelings off, that would not be helpful; I need them in order to take care of my patient. I remind myself of the Stoic maxim: “It seemed so to you at the time.”

I have a sense that I am shoving my foot in a slamming door. If I can keep the door from closing, I can maintain control of myself, and my equanimity will be only briefly disturbed. It feels as though the force of emotion that wells up must be countered with something forceful. If what I bring to bear on it is not forceful, it will fail. Once the tears start forming, my Buddhist practice has nothing to offer me. Once I have started to lose my equanimity, my emotions flood me if I attempt to use Buddhist techniques. I have found that only Stoic techniques overcome the waves of emotion. Buddhist techniques feel more general and unfocussed.

What my Buddhist meditation practice does offer me is a decrease in my overall reactivity. When I am meditating regularly, I am less apt to be bothered by the unavoidable emotional events of life. This pattern has repeated itself a dozen or more times. I fall away from my meditation practice. I become more easily riled. I recognize this and resume meditating. Things improve until I fall away from my meditation practice again.

I asked people on the Facebook Stoicism Group about their experiences, and learned this is typical. The only consensus was that Stoic mindfulness practices are useful for the immediately present threat to equanimity, and Buddhist mindfulness practices help strengthen equanimity overall.

It is not surprising to me that Buddhist meditation works well for us on a daily basis because it has been honed over thousands of years by hundreds of thousands of people. What is surprising to me is that it does not always work well for me and my Facebook friends. It surprises me that our Buddhist practice fails us in the pinch.

Why does Buddhism not include techniques like “Amor Fati” or negative visualization? Are these incompatible with the Buddhist philosophy? I do not know enough about Buddhism to answer that.

It seems to me that if there were a significant fraction of people whose needs were not being met by Buddhism, and that there were non-Buddhist techniques that met their needs, then Buddhism would have figured out how to respond to them. Either these techniques would have been incorporated into Buddhism or variant forms of Buddhism would have developed that were compatible with these techniques. I think it is more likely that the Buddhist techniques worked well enough for most people in the society in which Buddhism developed.

When I receive a disturbing impression and begin to formulate my response to it, Buddhism would say that I need to distance myself from that nascent thought and to examine it scientifically as I would someone else’s emotion. So far, this is very similar to the Stoic teachings on disturbing impressions as I understand them. Buddhism recommends that I next lean into the unpleasant emotion, to really examine it, get to know it and to realize that it will pass soon. This technique results in me wallowing in my emotion as I wait for it to pass. I become so attracted to it that I will grasp it firmly and become unable to function. Perhaps if I practiced this technique for decades, it would work, but the dying patient in front of me does not have decades while I grapple with my inner demons.

Stoicism offers me techniques that I can use right in the moment. Instead of leaning in, I counter the emotion with a maxim that I have prepared and have at the ready for whenever disturbing emotions arise. The part of my mind that is not wrapped up in my personal tragedy can recite Stoic maxims forcefully to counter the attraction of “I didn’t get and I want.” Stoicism gets between my mind and the idea it is about to grip onto and stays my grasp before it happens. For me, for the most disturbing impressions, this is what works.

There is an idea in neurology of over-learning. Things which one repeats thousands of times during one’s lifetime such as the ABC’s or the response to “how are you today?” are over-learned. When a person is demented and has lost the ability to think in any meaningful fashion, they can often still recite the ABC’s or other over-learned phrases. It seems to me that when I am caught by my deep feelings of deprivation and grief that I am like a demented person and can only say over-learned things. The little bit of my brain that is not sucked into the black hole of “I lack” can barely squeak out “It seemed so to you at the time.” If it can however, it breaks the spell and the attractiveness of the disturbing impression is diminished.

Another common observation is that Western culture has more emphasis on independence and individuality. It seems likely that this emphasis develops minds that are more likely to work with individually oriented techniques. Stoicism emphasizing my personal inner citadel rather than Buddhism emphasizing dissolution of myself feels more comfortable to me. When I am most in pain, standing steadfast against an ocean crashing against the seawall of my personal virtue makes me feel less pain whereas the paradoxical teachings of Buddhism simply frustrate me.

I find that Buddhist techniques on an ongoing basis combined with Stoic ones on an as needed basis work best for me to maximize my equanimity. I do not have a good explanation for why. I am more at peace, at rest and am flourishing more than ever before in my life.

This reminds me of another Stoic technique that I practice. It has a Buddhist analog: I am grateful.

 

Mary Braun, MD is a board certified hospice and palliative care physician. In her work she helps people make decisions about their medical treatment, helping them elucidate their values, preferences, and goals given the constraints of their medical situation and their limited time to live. Mary began practicing an intuitive form of Stoicism as a child. She discovered Stoic philosophy in middle age. She finds Stoicism essential, not only for her personal life, but also to avoid having patients, their loved ones, and herself becoming overwhelmed by the difficulties of taking care of the sickest and most fragile patients in the medical system.

'Dealing with One's Own Anger – Resources and Insights From Epictetus' by Greg Sadler

Dealing with One’s Own Anger – Resources and Insights From Epictetus

by Greg Sadler

V0009398 A frontal outline and a profile of faces expressing anger. E Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org A frontal outline and a profile of faces expressing anger. Etching by B. Picart, 1713, after C. Le Brun. 1713 By: Charles Le Brunafter: Bernard PicartPublished: [1713] Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Two months back, I wrote a short piece setting out several insights and resources stemming from Epictetus’ Discourses, focusing specifically on how to understand and deal with anger felt, expressed, and acted upon by other people. I also promised a second piece, following up by setting out the practical wisdom Epictetus has to provide us bearing upon our own anger. Here in this blog post, I will partially make good on that promise, but also kick the proverbial can a bit further down the road by deferring some of the necessary discussion to a third and later post about Epictetus on the emotion of anger. In that piece, I plan to expand on the considerations and techniques for dealing with anger mentioned at the end of this post, and to examine the importance of reworking habits for managing anger.

The choice to confine this post to a manageable length is a deliberate one, and the main reason for it is that this topic (Epictetus, his discussions of anger, and their applications in the present) turns out to be one upon which a great amount can be said. After consideration of the resources for understanding and addressing anger contained in Epictetus’s works (not to mention Seneca, and to a lesser extent, Marcus Aurelius), I’ve embarked upon a new large-scale research and writing project, intended to culminate in what will be a (hopefully short) book on Stoicism and anger. Later on this Fall, I’ll be providing a workshop on that topic, including practical resources for managing anger, at Stoicon in New York City (and likely some additional workshops and talks on the topic during the Stoic Week that follows). For the present, here are some of Epictetus’ contributions to thoughtfully and productively dealing with anger.

 

Some Starting Considerations

There are numerous passages within the Discourses, in which Epictetus makes some reference to anger in one of its various aspects. Piecing these together provides a coherent and fairly systematic approach to understanding, controlling, lessening, and hopefully even ending one’s own anger. We are particularly fortunate, though, in that beyond those scattered discussions, there are actually several chapters of the book devoted specifically to Epictetus’ teachings about anger.

One of these is chapter 18 of book 1, titled “That we ought not to be angry with those who make mistakes.” That sounds like a sentiment that most of us can get behind, at least in principle. But, what sort of mistakes does Epictetus have in mind? Failing to hold the door open for someone laden down with packages, because one assumes they are going past the doorway? Failing to follow a recipe and serving a less than appetizing dish for dinner? Mixing up a coworker’s name with someone else’s in introducing him or her?

The sorts of mistakes or errors (hamartiai) Epictetus cautions us about in that chapter are wider and deeper reaching, reflective of mistaken viewpoints that fundamentally motivate a person. The kinds of people he has in mind are thieves, robbers, and adulterers. It seems natural to get angry at people like that, people who we think are not just making a small or innocent mistake, but actively doing wrong, and choosing to do so, often at considerable risk and despite the illegality, public condemnation, or possible consequences of their actions.

But why do they engage in the sorts of actions that they do? According to Epictetus, it is because they are either totally or at least partly mixed up about some fundamental matters, the sorts of things that Stoic philosophy ought to provide us with a better perspective upon. As a first point, he notes that these people

have gone astray and are mistaken about the most important matters, and in a state of blindness as well, not in the sort of vision that distinguishes between black and white, but in the judgement that distinguishes between good and bad things. (1.18)

Epictetus suggests that we ought to consider showing them how they have things wrong, to allow them an opportunity to get them right, fully understanding that many of the erring will not take that offered opportunity as such. He also notes that it doesn’t make sense for us to get angry with them, if we think matters through, when what would be more appropriate to the situation is to feel pity or compassion towards them (in his Greek, eleein, which could be translated by either term).

Second, he suggests that our own anger represents a failure on our own part to adopt the right perspective when faced with these kinds of situations, and these sorts of troublesome people.

If the loss of the greatest things is the greatest harm that that can happen to a person, and the greatest thing in a person is his or her faculty of choice [prohairesis], and if a person is deprived of this very thing, what ground do you still have for getting angry with that person? If you have to be put into a condition contrary to nature by the misfortunes of another, why don’t you pity that person instead, rather than hate that person? Let go of this readiness to take offense and the spirit of hatred. (1.18)

He asks a hard but necessary question to hear, when one is already angry or getting angry with people who not only one takes to be doing wrong, but who are in fact, doing wrong, and doing so quite often: “How is it that you have been so suddenly converted to wisdom that you get angry at foolish people?” From Epictetus’ Stoic perspective, anger on our own parts indicates to us that we ourselves either have not attained, or are straying from, the wisdom that we view as lacking in the “fools”.

Insofar as we are getting angry with them, we actually share some assumptions in common with the foolish or the morally bad, and this is an important third point Epictetus makes:

We admire the things of which these people rob us. After all, stop admiring your clothes, and then you’re not angry with the person who steals them. Stop marveling at your wife’s beauty, and then you’re not angry at the adulterer. Know that a thief or an adulterer has no place among the things that are your own, but only among those that belong to another, and that are not up to you. (1.18)

To many of us, uncompromising counsels of this sort are admittedly difficult to agree with entirely, despite whatever attraction or affinity we may have with Stoic doctrine as a whole. Notice though, what Epictetus follows this up with:

So long as you admire these things, be angry with yourself, and not with the people I’ve just mentioned. For consider, you have fine clothes and your neighbor does not. You have a window, and want to air them out. That person does not know what the good for human beings consists in, but thinks it resides in having fine clothes, the very same thing that you imagine. (1.18)

In Epictetus’ view, the emotional response of anger is always a sign and symptom of something going wrong on our part, not only within the particular situation, but in the overall structure of our thinking, feeling, valuing, and acting. In this chapter, he points out to us an irrationality involved our own responses and stances of anger towards those who are likewise behaving in fundamentally irrational ways.

We have the capacity to understand the irrationality, the mistakenness, the error involved in choices those people make that lead them to unjust, counter-productive, selfish, harmful, or unseemly actions – and indeed, ways of living and being. And since we have that capacity, it is up to us whether or not we exercise it. If we do, a more appropriate emotional response is pity or compassion (although it seems that from where Epictetus sits, that’s still a second-best response by comparison to not feeling any “contrary to nature” emotion). It may be difficult, but we can head off, lessen, or at least control our own anger by attempting to understand the other, and we are aided considerably in doing so by realizing that their own bad motivations mirror our own, those that lead us into anger at them.

 

Understanding How and Why Anger Arises

Why do we find ourselves getting – or already – angry? For the Stoics, this emotion is not some random, unforeseeable, occurrence that just happens to us. Nor is it merely an automatic response we have no control over, so that when someone does something offensive, harmful, threatening, or just plain wrong, we can’t help but react with anger. There are intelligible and general processes underlying specific situations in which particular people get angry. Understanding what those processes are, and how they work, is essential to managing or addressing anger over time.

Understanding anger as an emotional (and even bodily) response that is not just raw affectivity, but also has underlying thought-processes driving it, allows us to examine those thought processes. And that, in turn, can give us a certain degree of freedom, permitting us to recognize those processes at work, as well as to decide for ourselves whether those thought processes are as reasonable or as necessary as they present themselves to us as being. As Epictetus reminds us at numerous points in our work, our desires and aversions, our choices and denials, our assents, judgments, and assumptions are the sorts of matters that are in our power.

As a general rule, whenever we get angry, Epictetus would say, we have gone wrong not only in our evaluation of what is happening – quite literally in the “use” (khresis)  we make of external appearances or impressions (phantasiai) – but also in our practical reasoning about the matter in relation to other things. Put in other terms, anger arises because of what it is that we think good and bad, how we order and value things, and accordingly what we desire and are averse to.

For each of us, in our own case, if we are to understand, let alone to manage or even master our own emotions – particularly anger – we have to examine what it is that we do value, what it is that we do think to be good, and therefore desire (and correspondingly what we think to be bad, and are averse to). If we’re honest with ourselves, we may find (I know this is the case for me) that there are quite a few externals, matters that fall outside of the scope of our power, things that are strictly speaking neither good nor bad, that we treat as being genuinely good or bad. And we do this precisely because we do think and feel them to be good or bad, making some mistakes in those assessments.

In doing so, in many different ways, we make ourselves vulnerable to the world, and in particular to other people, most of whom one should not expect to be fully rational. In fact, as Epictetus points out, the one thing you can really count on them to do is to follow what seems to them – but likely isn’t in reality – rational.

In another chapter of book 1, he provides multiple examples derived from classical culture of persons who went tragically astray in their excessive anger – Medea, Achilles, and Agamemnon in particular. In each of these cases, the person was deceived about where the genuine good resided, thinking themselves deprived of what they took to be a good, and they responded to admittedly trying circumstances by becoming very angry and following the dictates of that passion. In Medea’s case, “she regards the gratification of her ire and taking vengeance on her husband as more beneficial than saving her children” (1.28), and she in fact kills her own children as a portion of the retribution she imposes upon Jason.

Medea’s is admittedly an extreme case, but whenever we get angry, according to Epictetus, we similarly allow ourselves to be drawn into mistaken lines of reasoning. These bring us to dwell upon certain key matters, getting them wrong in the process – what goods we have been deprived of, what bad things we have had to suffer, and most importantly what good is to be attained through imposing something bad upon someone else, as just retribution or as a merited reciprocal response.

How precisely do we get these matters wrong? The specifics will, of course, depend on particular persons in concrete situations. But there are some broad commonalities that can be picked out. One of the most central of these is the assumption that whatever has been done to, or happened to, us should not have occurred – perhaps, if we go even further, we might add that it should never occur, should not even be imagined, and so on.

What is the basis for this “should not” that we import, in our judgements and desires, to the situation? At bottom, it stems from wanting things to go our way – things that are, strictly speaking, out of our control, not up to us, but rather up to someone else. We want to keep or attain certain things that might be possible for us, but certainly don’t have to be ours. We also want to be treated by people in certain ways and not in other ways, not least because we view their actions and words as indicative of how they think and feel about us. In short, we want a world of people and events over which we have no real or lasting control to conform to our own desires about it – and when this does not occur, we feel ourselves wronged, get angry, and want to strike back.

 

Addressing Anger When It Arises

Developing a solid understanding of  he irrationality, the negative consequences, or the counter-productiveness of our anger certainly proves useful. For some people, those insights may even prove necessary, if they are to control or address their anger. But as many of those of us who research the emotion know all too well from experience, simply grasping certain weak points to one’s character, as well as the processes by which one consistently goes wrong, does not by itself change much.

A person can engage in analysis, self-scrutiny, or reflection interminably without necessarily addressing a problem. In fact, after a certain point, such theoretical or contemplative work can become a substitute for the practical effort required, much like the people Epictetus jokes about and criticizes, who confuse studying books of Stoic philosophy with actually putting it into practice (e.g. in 1.4  or 2.19). It’s also possible to go one step further, and still not address the problem. A person can make all sorts of resolutions, even work out quite complex plans, and still make no real progress with their anger.

Once a person realizes their emotional response of anger to be something bad for them, if they want to work upon their temper, he or she has to choose to do something about it. And there’s two main things to be said about this.  The first is that if the person really recognizes their anger as something bad for them, and truly does want to change it, that person has to choose some effective means towards that end. The Stoics offer a number of those means, but the real measure of their effectiveness is what happens when a person really does put them into practice.

The second is that when one does make that choice not just to examine and to face up to one’s own emotional response of anger, but to actually do something about it in order to improve one’s character, what that person is doing is using his or her faculty of choice, the prohairesis. This is a use of one’s capacity for choice that bears reflexively upon that very faculty, partly undoing and then reweaving the fabric of one’s character. Put in slightly different terms, we are able to use what we possess of freedom and rationality to increase that very freedom and rationality, thereby rendering ourselves more free, more rational through that very work.

At numerous points in the Discourses, Epictetus reminds us of the centrality of bringing and maintaining our prohairesis “in accordance with nature” as the primary good. Over and over, we are faced with making choices between the alternatives of keeping our prohairesis in accordance with nature or pursuing something else that we view as a good (or conversely avoiding something else that we take to be an evil). When we choose that something else, we would like to tell ourselves that the option before us is not an exclusive one, but Epictetus relentlessly stresses that it is, often using mundane examples.

Reminding ourselves what precisely is at stake is something that we can do to stiffen our resolve when we have to deal with our own anger, something that is admittedly difficult to do at first, since it means opposing a portion of oneself that is already pressing upon us, trying to direct our faculty of choice, to hijack our thinking, to dominate our feelings. If we’re making progress along the Stoic path, one recourse we have is to pause and consider that in giving in to anger, we direct our prohairesis away from a state of conformity to (not even to mention harmony with nature). In resisting it, in not allowing it to sweep us away or seduce our reasoning, we maintain our prohaireis in accordance with nature. Good or bad, what’s fundamentally good for us, or damagingly bad for us – that’s our choice.

Now though, that is rather abstract, isn’t it? When we are already agitated by anger, how many of us really find an appeal to the ideal of a prohairesis in accordance with nature all that compelling? Answering this requires a modicum of honesty about one’s own moral condition, because if the Stoics are right – and I think they are about this – such a consideration ought to be more compelling the more progress we have made. And if it isn’t all that helpful for us in actual situations in which we feel anger, then that is an index of the lack of progress we have made.

So, what else might we choose to do in order to manage our anger effectively? Epictetus does offer us a number of more concrete suggestions. Each of these, technically speaking, is a general way in which, whether we realize it or not, we do choose to bring or keep our faculty of choice in accordance with nature. In the aforementioned interests of keeping this post from becoming overly long, I simply list several of these more specific techniques or considerations here, with a brief description of each.

#1: Understanding Reasons Why – As noted earlier, people act the ways they do for reasons that we can understand. While people who engage in actions likely to anger us typically have irrational assumptions, thought-processes, emotional responses, desires, etc., what they do does seem rational to them. If we can see what they do as partly rational and partly irrational, it makes sense to us, and we then are less bothered by it.

#2: Distancing From the Appearance(s) – We are confronted constantly with all sorts of “appearances” (phantasiai) which suggest to us how they ought to be taken, and play into our own matrix of desires and aversions, opinions and assumptions. We don’t have to automatically assent to them, and this goes particularly for those that typically make us feel angry, for instance appearances having to do with whether we are being harmed or insulted, whether other people intend to harm or insult us, and so on.

#3: Reminding Ourselves of Our Humanity – When we fall into various moral failures, we metaphorically resemble certain classes of animals. Those having to do with anger are dangerous beasts of prey, engaging in behavior appropriate to them as animals, but not for us as human beings. Thinking along these lines, we can “bring before our eyes” what it is that we look like when we become angry (a classic anger management technique).  We can also remind ourselves that, as human beings, we possess capacities for choosing how we respond, and for approaching matters rationally.

#4: Removing Ourselves From Competition – If we take what other people view as goods (which are really externals and indifferents) to be genuine goods, we will inevitably be drawn into conflict (makhe) with other people over those goods (and also experience inner conflict as well – though that’s a separate topic). When we find ourselves getting angry – particularly when in contention with other people – we can remind ourselves about what status these externals have, and that we needn’t place ourselves into competition over them.

#5: Fulfilling Our Roles Towards Others – When we get angry with others, and particularly when we act upon that anger towards them, we typically transgress (at least in part) the role and the accompanying duties we have in relation to those people. We do have a choice whether we maintain, or even restore that role (being a friend, a neighbor, a fellow citizen, a family member, etc.) within ourselves, or whether we give in to anger. Conversely, we can also head off anger we might feel towards them when they don’t fulfill their own roles towards us, by realizing that this is their failure, and not up to us.

In a follow-up post here later on this Summer (or early this Fall), I’ll expand on each of these strategies, provide discussion of several additional approaches found in Epictetus’ Discourses, and also examine the role our habits play in addressing anger.

 

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

'Reflections of a Practising Buddhist on Stoicism' by Garry Bannister

Reflections of a Practising Buddhist on Stoicism

by Garry Bannister

buddhism-stoicism

If I were not a Buddhist, I would most likely be a Stoic. There are huge similarities between Modern Stoic philosophy and Western Buddhist teachings.  Amidst these there are three that I would like to examine in this essay. Firstly, the mutual belief in our innate ability to produce our own personal happiness. Like Buddhists, Stoics believe that happiness is not about the acquisition of assets such as money, celebrity or social position but by developing what we, in Buddhism, might call ‘skilful means’. In Stoic philosophy this same understanding is seen as learning how to develop the pertinent qualities that are essential for a human life; the development of ‘The Virtues’ such as wisdom, courage, justice and self-control.  Secondly, that all sentient beings are naturally beings who want to know and acquire a better understanding and a better world. This in Buddhist terms is known as ‘basic goodness’ or our ‘Buddha nature’.  Stoics would more probably refer to this phenomenon as a natural propensity to help others; an innate altruism which is common to all human and animal life. Like modern Western Buddhist practice, Stoics are encouraged to get involved in family life, in social and political activities[1] and to understand that we are, all of us, members of the one human family; we are brothers and sisters wherever we may be.  This is extremely close to the Buddhist teaching of ‘oneness’ and ‘non-separation’ or in modern philosophical terminology, the teaching of ‘non-duality’.  Finally, like Buddhists, Stoics, in their own particular way, affirm the importance of mind and hold that the universe itself is permeated by a providential principle of rationality and reason which in turn give shape and form to an intelligible universe, the understanding of which can generate a system of beliefs that informs our attitudes and desires in the most positively beneficial and constructive ways.

Before I start I want to explain clearly that the editor has asked me to write a account of my own personal Buddhist journey of 30 years in relation to what I have read and understood about Modern Stoicism.  I must also admit that I have only a nodding acquaintance with some of the principle themes of Modern Stoicism; only what I have gleaned from a very limited number of source-texts, academic publications and recently organised seminars. Therefore what I write is not in any way, shape or form a case of orthodox Western Buddhist teachings being compared to Stoicism but rather a few meagre offerings from one very idiosyncratic Buddhist practitioner.

It was a number of the fascinating articles that I read in the first publication of this journal that first attracted my attention to many aspects of Stoic Philosophy and which immediately inspired me to read once again the magnificently written Discourses of Epictetus [2] and the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. [3]  However, my main focus in this short essay will be on the modern movement itself which is being impressively lead by Christopher Gill of Exeter University and by Patrick Ussher in a myriad of seminars and well-organized gatherings in Britain and now also in the US.

I preface my meanderings by saying that often where Stoicism draws a line in the sand, Buddhist practice and teachings do not.  There is a transcendence in Buddhist teachings that is sometimes expressed in terms of ‘crazy wisdom’ or Koans[4]. Both Modern Stoicism and Western Buddhism are, however, obviously firmly rooted in the natural world; in our private and public interactions, our relationship to our environment and neither speak of some other path or way forward rather than by advocating unequivocally the application of wisdom[5] to all our interactions with this world and in our personal relationships with one another; be those relationships private, professional, social, political or any other.

When I say Stoicism ‘draws a line’, I am not implying or trying to insinuate from my perspective that Stoicism is, in anyway, somehow less than Buddhism but rather that it focuses itself on a different set of outcomes.  The example, I would give here is the difference between a Mercedes Benz and a Jeep.  These both can travel equally well along the highway. However, off-road perhaps a Jeep might well be a better choice of vehicle. Then again, if I were planning a long journey across Europe, a Mercedes Benz, I imagine, would be a more preferable choice. But first all, let us look at what Buddhism and Stoicism have in common.

As soon as the Buddha, Siddhartha, sits under the Bodhi tree in order to attain enlightenment, it is said that the devil, Mara, who in reality represents the unruly inclinations of the human mind, brings before him his daughters.  At first, they try to seduce him and then, when this fails, attempt to induce fear and terror in the Buddha.  But Siddhartha remains completely unperturbed and free of his passions – both the lustful passions of desire and also any experience of revulsion, or the passions of aversion.  Now if we look at this tale in the light of what Epictetus tells us, we quickly discover that when the prokoptôn, or the person wishing to follow the Stoic way, embarks upon developing “The Virtues”, that person will, we are told, consequently bring about his or her own eudaimonia or happiness.  Like most Ancient Greek words, the word, eudaimonia, has a more differentiated meaning than its English equivalent.  Eudaimonia in its original Greek meaning is happiness as in a form of a ‘flourishing of life’. It is a happiness that has within its constituent parts ‘ataraxia’ – imperturbability, ‘apatheia’ – freedom from passion or aversion and ‘eupatheiai’ – a sense of good feelings.  So these aspects of the desired Stoic ‘eudaimonia’ or enlightened state, are also key in the relationship of Siddartha to the daughters of Mara where he shows both imperturbability ‘ataraxia’ and ‘apatheia’ leading subsequently to  ‘eupatheiai’  or in Buddhist terms Nirvana.  It is quite clear that so far there is complete concurrence here with Buddhist thinking.  Where perhaps, Buddhist thinking diverges from the Stoic world-view, is when Stoics speak of our inability to change certain things because they are “outside our power” to do so. Stoicism would certainly hold to the position of there being many things that cannot be changed or influenced such as the fact that we are all going to die, that we, as conscious beings, will cease to exist and this is outside of our control and so must be accepted as such, if we are to proceed wisely focussing our energies and attention on those things in our lives that can be changed.  For Stoics, this philosophy is about life now, at this very moment, and living each moment in the most wise and positive way. However, in my own personal Buddhist understanding there is no such thing as death.  Death, illness, the world itself are all part of mind – an illusion. So what then is real?  Only experience is real.  The experience of pain, joy, the physical world, the world of forms is very real but its actual essence is empty and devoid of any real substance.  This, I believe, is a massively significant difference between the two philosophies and has far-reaching consequences as Buddhism interprets the observable material world as a manifestation of mind rather than “a-thing-in-itself”. This Buddhist belief brings with it the understanding that there is nothing outside of awareness and consciousness. So in philosophical terms, if Buddhism might be placed closer to the solipsism of George Berkley, Stoics would most probably be nearer to the worldview of John Locke. [6]

There have been a number of heated discussions in the past couple of years between Modern Stoics, in regard to interpersonal detachment.  Professor Gill addresses this issue in one of his seminars on Stoicism where he raises the concerns of scholars such as Richard Sorabji and Martha Nussbaum who consider that Stoic detachment might possibly hinder a fuller and more loving commitment to others due to a distancing of oneself or a remaining, to some extent, aloof from others.  In Stoic terms, Professor Gill directs our attention to two strands of development. Firstly, the development of wisdom and secondly our involvement in sustained interaction with those in our personal spheres and with those in public or global communities.  He points to the Stoic understanding that we are all brothers and sisters with one shared humanity and that Stoics have always maintained that there is an innate desire in humans and animals to look after and care for others. Wisdom dictates that there are no frozen truths in how to behave and he brings the example of a parent staying by the bed of its very sick child, rather than doing something “useful” like going to work.

However here again there is a notable difference in my Buddhist approach.  ‘Non-attachment’ in Buddhist terms is the realization that there is in fact no ‘other’ ‘oneness’ is ‘non-separation’ and so ‘non-attachment’ is our ability to let go entirely of any concept of duality, i.e. the mistaken idea that there is an ‘us’ and a ‘them’, a ‘me’ and a ‘what is not me’. We have seen this realization ermerge recently, albeit in a rather cloaked fashion, with popular protest slogans such as: “Je suis Charlie… Je suis Muslim… Je suis Juif… etc”. This solidarity phenomenon is now appearing spontaneously across the globe after major tragedies or any major acts of unethical aggression.  People instinctively feel today that they are one brotherhood and as Shakespeare’s Shylock put it so well “If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die?”  This human unity of our nature and being is very clearly emphasized and understood by the Stoics, but unlike Buddhism, there is a recognized separation inherent in Stoic teaching – a ‘me’ and a ‘not-me’.  In Stoicism the world is populated by individuals working together to achieve a mutual happiness or flourishing, whereas in Buddhism – there is no self, merely habituations and there are no individuals – simply a deluded conscious awareness misguided by a misleading world of perceptions[7].  So when a Stoic speaks about ‘interpersonal detachment’ – it makes little sense to a Buddhist like me as there is nothing to be detached from, except perhaps, our deluded perceptions.  The central teaching in regard to ‘non-attachment’ in Buddhism is compassion and pure compassion is ultimate wisdom.  Chögyam Trungpa[8] once defined compassion as “fearless generosity” and this is what the Buddhist ‘non-attachment’ means in it fullest sense.

Now if we return to Stoic ‘interpersonal detachment’ we can perhaps now see that it is, in fact, a subset of ‘non-attachment’. And hence the principal of Buddhist non-attachment would, for me, provide a more comprehensive answer to those concerns raised by Richard Sorabji and Martha Nussbaum.  If we ask ourselves what would the compassionate person do (i.e. the wise person) then there is no doubt that he or she would organise their actions in such a way as to lessen the distress and the pain of “others” no matter what “personal” cost (or courage) that might entail.

Finally, from what I have read on Stoicism, our belief-systems also enjoy other similarities. If Buddhism is, as the Dalai Lama suggests “a science of mind” then Stoicism is every inch a science of mind. Modern Stoicism is an uncompromising investigation into the workings and the relationships of mind with the world.  The belief in a Providential and rational world implies that the universe is intelligible and, according to the ancient Stoics at least, benign.  Both philosophies also construct their beliefs, not from sacred texts, but from negotiable beliefs that have been wrought and derived out of human experience.  Texts are, of course, consulted in both Buddhist and Stoic debates but are not the dogmatic glue of either philosophy.  In the case of Buddhism, the differing traditions have a wide variety of texts according to their specific lineages and as for the Stoics, they gather together their various strands of thought from a wide variety of sources that have been developed through wise and intelligent observations in all areas of human activity from the writings of Emperors to the deliberations of modern psychologists. But for both it is within the mind itself that all heaven and hell are created and reside. One very telling text from Marcus Aurelius explains clearly this central understanding in Stoic reasoning which I’m sure Modern Stoicism would also endorse. In this particular passage, Marcus Aurelius is observing how people are generally inclined to go off somewhere, to a different place far away; to a retreat or off to the coast in order to relax and find some peace. But in the text Aurelius wisely, to my mind, observes:

“…this is altogether unphilosophical, when it is possible for you to retreat into yourself at any time you want.  There is nowhere that person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind, especially if he has within himself the kind of thoughts that let him dip into them and so at once gain complete ease of mind; and by ease of mind, I mean nothing but having one’s own mind in good order.” [9]

If this excellent translation does not implicitly imply that we should seek solutions within oneself then Marcus Aurelius again emphasizes his point by recommending that we all should constantly give ourselves time-out for this inner personal retreat in order to renew and replenish our lives.[10]

And Aurelius is right, we are frequently inclined to think that if only we could manage to go somewhere else, or to acquire some particular item then we would achieve true contentment but my Buddhist practice has shown me over the years the exact opposite, i.e. that Nirvana is not achieved by the acquisition of anything material but rather by the removal of that which obscures and creates confusion.

So, if I’m correct, that the bedrock of Modern Stoicism is a deeply compassionate philosophy rooted in rationality, logic and analytical observation of the natural world around us, it is therefore, in its essence, fundamentally materialistic and follows to some greater or lesser extent a Feynmanian[11] attitude, whereas my understanding of Buddhism would be, hopefully, an eventual transcendence of the very beliefs and science that inform the precepts of my perceived worldview.  There is a wonderful and greatly celebrated Buddhist tale which, for me, quintessentially identifies this key and very basic distinction between the two philosophies.  And it goes like this:

Hui-Neng was totally illiterate and looked after himself and his elderly mother by collecting and selling firewood.  One day Hui-Neng was going about his business when he heard some verses being recited from the Diamond Sutra[12].  He was so impressed by this that he immediately went to the monastery of the 5th Patriarch, Hung-Jen.  Hung-Jen took Hui-Neng into his monastery to do menial tasks. Eventually however, it was time to choose a new Patriarch. Shen-Hsui was the most intellectually brilliant of all the monks in the Monastery and so he composed a poem to prove that he was worthy of the position:

“The Body is the Bodhi tree, The mind – a mirror bright, Take care to keep it dust-free, So it may reflect the light”

Shen-Hsui’s verse, like Marcus Aurelius in his meditations, urges us to maintain clarity in our thinking and constant vigilance in regard to our behaviour, for only then shall we cultivate and maintain a mind that is “in good order”.  Nonetheless Hui-Neng was not greatly impressed by this and so he decided to compose his own poem:

‘In truth there is no Bodhi tree, No mirror on a stand, There’s nothing there but emptiness, No place for dust to land.’

After reciting this poem, Hui-Neng was installed as the 6th Patriarch but he had to run for his life from the other monks and go into hiding. Buddhist practice is not about dealing with life, it is life. It’s aim is to reflect the true nature of the mind its reality which is, in Buddhist terms, absolute emptiness.

Therefore, may I end this short essay by commending all my Stoic friends whose philosophy in worldly terms offers, for all those who practise it correctly, clarity of mind, an ordered and purposeful life, but most importantly of all a deep inner eudaimonia or happiness that cannot and will not be frustrated by the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”.  I am firmly convinced that it is those who follow such a resourceful philosophy who will, in the end, achieve their personal dreams and aspirations by accessing their own maximum inner potential… fearlessly, wisely and of course, with good temperance. It is undoubtedly people with such a mindset as the Stoics, who will become the best captains of industry, the most honest politicians, the wisest and the wealthiest in this material world while alas, I and my Buddhist friends will be still up a mountain somewhere in Tibet, watching our village being ransacked by hostile invaders.  But, I suppose, that is why I am a Buddhist and not a Stoic.

Garry Bannister was born in Sligo, Ireland, in 1953. His first encounter with Buddhism was at the age of 16 when a friend purchased a book of Buddhist Koans.  It was not until his mid thirties, however, that he became a practising Buddhist.  At first, it was Zen that attracted his interest because of its simplicity and minimalism.  Bannister has a wide experience in various western Buddhist teachings and presently practises Nichiren Buddhism. He attended Trinity College Dublin where he studied Irish and Russian. On receiving a scholarship, he went to Moscow State University where he graduated with an MA in Russian language and literature and also, later, successfully defended a PhD in comparative linguistics.  Bannister’s main interest today is the Irish language and its literature. He has many publications in this area and is presently working at St Columba’s College, Dublin.

Notes [1] The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, Volume 1, Soka Gakkai: “No worldly affairs of life or work are ever contrary to the true reality….the Lotus Sutra  explains that in the end secular matters are the entirety of Buddhism.” (page 1126). [2] Our knowledge of the philosophy of Epictetus and his method as a teacher comes to us mainly via two works composed by his student Arrian, The Discourses and the Handbook. [3] One of my main references being Prof. Gill’s Marcus Aurelius Meditations Books 1-6, translated with an introduction and commentary (Oxford University Press, 2013). [4] A ‘koan’ is a story that points to the ultimate nature of reality. Paradox is essential as it transcends conceptual or logical thought. [5] I would argue that in both Stoicism and Buddhism wisdom is key because if we are wise then we will undoubtedly be courageous, just and capable of maintaining self-control. [6] This is a very loose comparison just to illustrate the huge chasm that lies between the metaphysical and the materialistic strands in philosophy. [7] In Mahayana schools reality is often described in terms of two truthsrelative and absolute. Relative truth can be either perverted relative truth or pure relative truth.  The example is often given of a person observing a rope and perhaps believing the rope to be a snake (i.e. perverted relative truth)or another person who sees the rope as a rope (i.e. pure relative truth… perhaps the stoic view?). Whereas absolute truth is the understanding or realization that there is no rope there at all. [8] Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche was a Tibetan monk who came to Britain in 1960’s an is the founder of Shambhala Buddhism in the West; one of the largest Western Schools of Modern Buddhism. [9] Prof. Christopher Gill – Marcus Aurelius Meditations Books 1-6, translated with an introduction and commentary (Oxford University Press, 2013); Book 4, section 3. [10] ibid. “So constantly give yourself this retreat and renew yourself” [11] ‘Feynmanian’ –  a word I made up myself, based on the modus operandi of the world famous scientist, Richard Feynman (1918 – 1988) whose approach to investigating all phenomena of the natural world was consistently rooted in factual observation. James Gleicksummed Feynman’s approach up as “What scientists create must match reality.” from ‘Genius, The life of Science of Richard Feynman’ (1992) page. 324. [12] The Diamond Sutra is a very ancient text containing a discourse between the Buddha and one of his senior monks, Subhuti

'How to Become Virtuous' by Tim LeBon

How to become virtuous – Lessons from Compassion Focussed Therapy (CFT)

by Tim LeBon

“If someone is able to show me that what I think or do is not right, I will happily change, for I seek the truth, by which no one was ever truly harmed. It is the person who continues in his self-deception and ignorance who is harmed.”
― Marcus AureliusMeditations 6.21

Many people are attracted to Stoicism because it seems to  offer something more profound than the usual self-help palliatives. Stoicism proposes philosophy as a foundation for wise living. One aim of the Stoicism Today project has always been to increase awareness of Stoic ideas and practices. The Stoicism Today team has written booklets, recorded guided meditations, started Facebook groups and given workshops at annual conferences to help spread Stoicism.  At the same time it has aimed not merely to disseminate information about Stoicism but also to test Stoicism out and develop it into a modern Stoicism. To this end the Stoicism Today team has designed and administered  questionnaires, emphasised  some elements of Stoicism more than others  and incorporated a number of ideas from contemporary psychology. Marcus Aurelius (Meditations, 6.21) alludes to one way to achieve personal and philosophical growth, namely to treat criticism as useful feedback. In this article I want to tackle two criticisms of Stoicism. By addressing them I hope to  work towards making Modern Stoicism  even more wise and helpful.

Two comments about Stoicism have  given me particular cause for reflection. One came from participants at the  London Stoic Conference  of  2014.   They pointed out that whilst many speakers had talked the importance of virtue, they hadn’t fully explained what virtue was or how we could become more virtuous.  My Stoicism Today colleague Christopher Gill has since responded to the question  What is Stoic virtue?.[i]  He points out that the cardinal virtues are not plucked out of thin air.

“Taken together they [the virtues]  make up the qualities essential to leading a full human life. The four are: (wisdom) understanding how to act and feel correctly; (courage) knowing how to act and feel correctly in situations of danger, in facing things seen as fearful (above all, death and other ‘disasters’); (self-control) knowing how to act and feel well in situations arousing other emotions such as desire, appetite, lust; (justice) knowing how to act and feel well in our relationships with other people, at individual, family or communal level, knowing how to act generously and with positive benevolence, with friendship and affection”

The Stoic cardinal virtues then are key qualities required to flourish as a human being. Here I will look at the second part of the question – how to become more virtuous. To be sure there is already much in Stoicism and the Stoic Week handbook  about  developing virtue. This is not the place to rehearse the  plentiful advice contained in the handbook. On careful examination, though, it could be argued that much of this (for example counsel such as “control the controllables” and “only virtue really matters”) relates more to to Stoic wisdom  than the other specific virtues.  One approach would be to collect all the Stoic maxims we can find about specific virtues – and this would actually be a very useful thing to do – the question is – what else can we do?

How to best build justice, self-control, courage, wisdom and other virtues is essentially an empirical question. One of the key take-home points from contemporary psychology is this:- Whilst  some plausible methods  turn out to work well, other, equally plausible ideas do not.[ii] Thinking about how to develop virtue in our armchairs will only get us so far. A promising idea is to look at  modern evidence-based psychologies to see if they can tell us anything about how to develop virtue.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Mindfulness

Two obvious candidates are Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Mindfulness.  Perhaps they could help us be more virtuous.  Although the focus of CBT is traditionally on reducing emotional distress rather than building virtue, CBT has a huge evidence base and should not be dismissed too lightly. We can certainly use CBT to help us develop the habit of thinking  more realistically and constructively, which is definitely part of wisdom.  Furthermore CBT practitioners have developed a large toolkit of techniques that can be adapted to build individual virtues. Behavioural experiments, guided discovery, exposure to feared situations, thought records and   formulation – to name but a few CBT tools – could all be adapted to help develop virtue. [iii] For example, to build courage you could challenge unhelpful negative thinking (“great harm will come to me if I tell the truth”) and develop behavioural experiments – for example “plan to do one act of courage today, record your predictions as to negative and most likely outcomes, note what happens and decide what you can learn from the experiment”. To build self-control you could learn to challenge thinking biases that contribute towards a lack of self-control. For example, you could challenge the short-term bias of the thought “What I gain in the short-term is more important than what I lose in the long-term”. CBT could also help you  environments more conducive to virtue. For example “In order to go out for a run every day I will put my running clothes next to my bed so I put them on when I get up.” Donald Robertson’s Stoic self-monitoring record sheet is an excellent example of  how  drawing  on CBT has already helped modern Stoicism teach us how to build the virtue of wisdom –  see also  my Stoic worry tree.

A second candidate is Mindfulness.  Mindfulness has become part of the Zeitgeist, there is proven benefits that it can help [iv], and there is a good argument for incorporating mindfulness  into Stoic Practice.[v]  Learning mindfulness – the capacity to take a step back and respond rather than react –  could certainly be a  useful part of virtue training. However, there is reason to doubt whether learning mindfulness is there is to learning to be virtuous.

One problem is that mindfulness without the rest of virtue mindfulness could actually do harm. As Mathieu Ricard  – a veteran of thousands of hours of mindfulness and a well-known exponent of mindfulness – points out – “a sniper waiting for his victim: … To succeed in his ominous goal, he has to ward off distraction and laxity, the two major obstacles to attention. The practice of mindfulness thus needs to be guided by right view and insight  …and motivated by the right intention”. In other words, mindfulness needs to be guided by virtue and wisdom –otherwise it can be used in the service of morally indifferent of even evil ends – such as becoming a more skilled sniper.

So far we have found two evidence-based psychologies that can help us provide tools to develop virtue – CBT and mindfulness. We can and should incorporate these ideas into our approach – but it would be even better if we could find an evidence-based approach already uses these ideas and is more focussed on building virtue rather than part of virtue. We will return to this quest, after considering the second criticism of Stoicism that has given me much food for thought.

This objection will already be   familiar to many readers. Some critics say that Stoicism  comes across as a cold, unemotional philosophy, perhaps thinking of Star Trek’s Mr Spock. Unfortunately, this impression isn’t restricted to those who are ignorant of Stoicism. No less a philosopher than  Martha Nussbaum  has gone on record as saying that   ”Stoicism  is an anti-compassion tradition“. Of course, Nussbaum’s view is highly contentious. Unlike Epicureanism, its ancient rival, Stoicism has always had a strong political dimension. Hierocles’s concentric circles  provides ample  illustration of  Stoicism’s benevolent concern for the whole of mankind.  Perhaps the issue isn’t so much about Stoicism not really being compassionate, but about how Stoicism presents itself. Maybe Stoicism  needs to put its most compassionate foot forwards.

However it isn’t just compassion to others that’s an issue, it’s also compassion to oneself. A couple of years ago, after I gave a workshop which included the Evening Meditation exercise, someone came up to me and said “This is all very  interesting, Tim, but I’ve got a bit of  a history about being hard on myself, and my worry is that this material will make it worse”.  It has to be agreed that the language of Marcus and Epictetus does  not always appear very self-compassionate. To take a few  examples from Marcus’s Meditations

 “Yes, keep on degrading yourself, soul.” (2:6)

 “Stop talking about what the good man is like, and just be one” (10:16)

“Enough of this wretched, whining monkey life”. (9.37)

It could very reasonably be argued that Marcus knew this was the best way of giving himself a good pep talk, and that he wasn’t suggesting that everyone else would be motivated by the same language. Marcus was, as far as we know, writing his Meditations purely for himself. However unlike Marcus, we are writing for a broader audience, including those who already have a tendency to be too self-critical. So perhaps we need to be mindful of the dangers of using compassionate language which isn’t compassionate.

So far we have looked at two  apparently separate topics. First, how to help people become more virtuous. Second, how Stoicism might benefit from presenting  itself in a more compassionate and self-compassionate manner. It would be very good news indeed if there was an evidence-based therapy that addresses both of these concerns.

Compassion-Focussed Therapy and Compassionate Mind Training

It’s entirely possible that there is such a therapy, and it’s name is Compassion Focussed Therapy (CFT)  and its related set of practices Compassionate Mind Training(CMT).[vi]  CFT  is an integrative, evidence-based,   third-wave CBT therapy developed largely in the UK by psychologist Paul Gilbert and colleagues.  CFT draws on ideas from CBT and mindfulness as well as neuroscience (e.g. Porges’s polyvagal theory.), developmental psychology (e.g. attachment theory) and philosophy, especially Buddhist ideas relating to compassion.

 A key idea  is that we have three emotional regulation systems. These are

  1. The threat system, associated with negative emotions such as fear and anger, which motivates us to deal with threats
  2. The drive system, associated with dynamic positive emotions such as excitement and achievement which motivates us to move towards pleasure and success and
  3. The soothing  and affiliative system which is associated with calm positive emotions such as contentment and trust, which manages distress and promotes bonding. [vii]

Each state has typical emotions, motivations and neurochemistry. The ultimate aim  of  CFT/CMT is to develop a compassionate self which is strong enough to achieve optimal emotional balance between these three emotional systems.

In order to do this, CFT/CMT  takes people through a number of stages, as follows:-

1)       Clearing up misconceptions about what is meant by compassion. A key point is that there is much more to compassion than just being kind and warm. CFT/CMT follows the Dalia Lama in defining compassion as

“a sensitivity to the suffering of self and others, with a deep commitment to try to relieve it”.

To do this, you need much more than just sentimental warmth and kindness. If you ask people for examples of compassionate people, they will give you names like the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jesus, Mother Teresa, Florence Nightingale and  Gandhi. These people may be are warm and kind, but they are also courageous, strong, wise and responsible.  When CFT/CMT tries to build compassion, it also tries to build these other qualities.

It was when reading this that I had one of those “Aha” moments. Virtue in ancient philosophy means justice, courage, wisdom and self-control. Compassion in CFT/CMT is sounding  a lot like like virtue in Stoicism and ancient philosophy. If CFT/CMT provides an evidence-based route to building “compassion”, could this help us with building virtue?

2)      The second stage of CFT/CMT is psychoeducation about the brain, including the new brain and old brain, the amygdala and the three emotional regulations systems. An important message here is that we all have “tricky brains” and many of us have difficult pasts.  The behaviours that cause  you problems are not your fault.  However learning to  deal skilfully with your reactions and tricky brain is your responsibility.   Note that CFT/CMT uses truly compassionate language – combining warmth and non-judgement with the need for courage and responsibility.

3)     The next [viii]  stage of CFT/CMT involves building up and strengthening the compassionate self. These include:-

  • Soothing Compassionate Breathing. Breathing more slowly and deeply than usual for a few minutes to get into the habit of getting the soothing and affiliative system on line
  • Safe Place Guided Meditation.  Imagining a safe, welcoming place to help get the soothing and affiliative system on line.
  • Mindfulness Learning how to choose a response rather than merely react
  • Ideal Compassionate Self Guided Meditation.  Having got the soothing system on line first with soothing breathing, imagining yourself having the qualities of compassion –kindness, confidence, maturity, strength and authority, wisdom and insight– and imagining acting in a compassionate way.
  • Ideal Compassionate Other Guided MeditationImagining compassion flowing to you from another ideally compassionate being, imagining what advice they would give you – to help you  build up the feeling of what it is like to feel compassion.
  • Compassionate Letter WritingUsing expressive writing to understand your problems compassionately and planning how to deal with them more skilfully.
  • Behavioural experiments Testing out more helpful strategies that cultivate compassion and self-compassion.

Can CFT/CMT help Modern Stoicism?

We are now in a position to explore whether CFT/CMT can help.   Modern Stoicism and CFT/CFT have many similarities but there are also important differences.

  • Stoicism is routed in philosophy, so we can expect  from Stoicism more insight into the nature of wisdom as well as the  many ancient practices and readings to develop it to draw on
  • CFT/CMT is routed in modern science, so we can anticipate that it is based on a contemporary understanding of the brain   (“in accordance with nature”) and will include  many evidence-based techniques

Table 1 below gives a more complete comparison of some of the similarities and differences between Stoicism and CFT/CMT

STOICISM

CFT/CMT 

Aims to build Stoic Wisdom and Virtue Aims to  build Compassion (which it turns out means building other virtues)
Early morning meditation & Negative visualisation  to help prepare for the day and build wisdom & virtue Ideal Compassionate Self meditation to help prepare for difficult situations and build compassion and other positive qualities
Evening meditation & “sage on your shoulder” to help review the day and build wisdom & virtue Ideal Compassionate Other meditation to help get a sense of compassion and reflect on how to deal well with difficult situations
Marucs Aurelius’s Meditations – his own personal diary to help him develop Stoic virtue Compassionate Letter Writing – expressive writing to help people develop a compassionate stance to themselves 
Recognises the need to be vigilant so “first  movements” so they don’t turn into full-blown negative emotions  Developing Soothing Compassionate Breathing & Mindfulness, first as exercises, then in difficult situations, to calm down the threat and drive systems and bring the soothing and affiliative system on-line so the compassionate self gets a chance to respond
To some extent, a reputation for being cold and unemotional Whole focus is on being more compassionate and self-compassionate
Based on ancient philosophy Based on  science including neuroscience and psychology

Table 1: Stoicism and CFT/CMT – a comparison

5 Practical Ideas for Modern Stoicism

I believe that there is the potential for a powerful synergy between Stoicism and CFT/CMT. To conclude, here are five  practical ideas which address the two concerns raised and could help Modern Stoicism be wiser and more helpful.

1)      Use the language of compassion and self-compassion

If we start to use more compassionate language, then there is less risk Stoicism will be confused with a non-compassionate or even anti-compassionate practice.  Here are some good sayings to try out

  • “We are all fallible human beings.”
  • “It’s not your fault.”
  • “You can’t choose what’s happened to you so far – your genes, your upbringing – but you can choose how you respond to it.”
  • “Work towards being the best possible version of yourself.”

All of these are often used in CFT/CMT  and would l I believe would sit well in Stoic Training.

2)      Learn soothing breathing and mindfulness so you have a better chance to notice the “first movements” and bring the green soothing system on line.  Here are some links to recordings:- http://www.compassionatemind.co.uk/resources/audio.htm

3)      Use CFT-informed Compassionate Self meditations as rehearsals for the day ahead and for challenges you face in general. These are eyes closed exercise, starting with soothing breathing. Like an actor, you  imagine yourself with all the elements of virtue – wisdom, courage, persistence, justice, compassion, self-control, moderation. You  imagine yourself behaving in a virtuous way, even when difficulties arises.  This is obviously similar to the morning meditation and negative visualisation – the value added is in incorporating ways to bring the soothing and affiliative system on-line and to rehearse using specific virtues.

4)      Use CFT-informed  ideal compassionate-other  meditations to review how you’ve done in the day in facing life’s challenges. Again, this is an eyes closed exercising starting with soothing breathing. You   Imagine an ideal virtuous other  – someone who fully embodies the virtues – wisdom (including Stoic wisdom), courage, persistence, justice, compassion, self-control, moderation. You imagine yourself  interacting with this being – and that they are encouraging you, being warm to you, and also helping you become the best version of yourself. [ix]

5)      Blending CMT/CFT/CBT/Mindfulness & Modern Stoicism

The Idea is to blend Stoic ideas about wisdom and other specific virtues using compassionate language and evidence-based methods like soothing breathing, mindfulness and compassionate self meditations.  Over Stoic week 2015  I wrote a script for several of these, on  self-control, the  serenity prayer (Stoic Wisdom) and Stoic compassion . Here I will give the full script and a recording on persistence, an important quality modern psychologists call  “grit”.

Modern Stoic Meditation on the Virtue of Persistence

Epictetus would  say that there were two vices much blacker and more serious than the rest: lack of persistence and lack of self-control.  Lack of persistence stops us from enduring hardships that we need to tolerate, lack of self-control stops us from resisting pleasures or other things we ought to resist.

‘Two words,’ he says, ‘should be committed to memory and obeyed by alternately exhorting and restraining ourselves, words that will ensure we lead a mainly blameless and untroubled life.’ These two words, he used to say, were ‘persist and resist’.”
Epictetus, Fragment 10, “Discourses and Selected Writings”

Anyone who says that philosophers are too obscure or complicated should be made to read that quote.  Stoicism couldn’t be simpler. We must commit the words “Persist and Resist” to memory and keep saying them to ourselves. Move over mindfulness,  recite the “persist and resist” mantra instead.

Persist and Resist

  • At the time when we feel like giving up, we can train ourselves to become aware of the negative  thoughts that make us feel that way. We can then remind ourselves  “This thought is  just an impression in my mind and not an objective fact like it claims to be.”
  • For example, if you are running a marathon  and thinking “I  won’t be able to finish” remind yourself

                “This is just a thought, not a fact.”

  • As well as negative thoughts, people often give up because of a setback or an  obstacle . Here the Stoic advice to think of what the sage would do in this situation is valuable. When it comes to dealing with setbacks, I really admire the attitudes of Winston Churchill and Thomas Edison.
  • Churchill said “Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”
  • Thomas Edison suggested Negative results are just what I want. They’re just as valuable to me as positive results. I can never find the thing that does the job best until I find the ones that don’t.” When asked by a journalist how he had coped with failing in his first 10000 attempts to invent the lightbulb he responded “I   had not failed. I had just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
  • The Stoics give us one more relevant piece of wisdom in the analogy of the archer. An archer should take accurate aim, and then accept  fate if the arrow gets blown off course. In the same way we should focus on what is under our control and not get discouraged if fate prevents success. We should control the controllables.
  • So the Stoics give us four excellent pieces of advice when it comes to persisting and developing grit. We can use the mantra “persist”, we can challenge the validity of discouraging thoughts, we can reframe failure in the same way as the sages on success and failure do, and we can focus on what we can control and leave the rest to fate.
  • Let’s spend a few moments using a visualisation informed by Stoicism and Compassionate Mind Training  to help us build up the virtue of persistence.
  • So think of something you want to achieve – it could be developing Stoicism into daily rituals, or changing career, or getting fitter – or something else that is important to you.
  • If you are comfortable doing so, now close your eyes and prepare for this modern Stoic meditation.
  • First to help your mind be in a calm state, let’s try a few moments slow soothing compassionate breathing.
  • Imagine trying to achieve this and then something getting in the way. Now in your mind’s eye imagine saying to yourself “Persist, Persist”. Next imagine a negative thought getting in the way – perhaps “I’ll try again next year when circumstances are better”. Remind yourself that this thought is just an opinion, it’s not an objective fact. Reflect, like Thomas Edison did, on what you can learn from this setback. Perhaps you’ve learnt another way not to do it!
  • Next  think of something you can do that is under your control to take you in the right direction. Imagine doing it, whilst repeating to yourself–persist, persist, persist. Then imagining yourself persisting until you succeed.
  • Finally imagine feeling satisfied for having persisted, despite the temptation to give up, putting into practice the virtue of persistence.

To conclude, in this article I have taken Marcus Aurelius’s advice to learn from criticisms of Stoicism to heart and explored how CFT/CMT can help develop modern Stoicism into a more compassionate practice that can develop specific virtues. We can now see that Marcus’s advice is itself an example of true self-compassion, meaning not sentimental warmth but a wise, responsible, courageous commitment to improving the well-being of oneself and others.

Tim LeBon is a BABCP accredited CBT therapist and UKCP registered existential therapist, an APPA and SPP registered philosophical counsellor and is also trained as a life coach  and integrative counsellor.He is a past Chair of the Society for Philosophy in Practice (SPP) and the founding editor of Practical Philosophy. He is  the author of Wise Therapy (Sage, 2001) and Achieve Your Potential with Positive Psychology (Hodder, 2014) . You can read more about Tim’s work on his blogSocrates Satisfiedand his website.

References

[i] See Gill, G. (2015) What is Stoic Virtue? http://blogs.exeter.ac.uk/stoicismtoday/2015/11/21/what-is-stoic-virtue-by-chris-gill/

[ii] See LeBon, T. Achieve Your Potential with Positive Psychology pp xi-xvi   (Hodder Teach Yourself Series, 2014) for some examples of how some very plausible ideas about personal development don’t actually work so well in practice.

[iii] See  LeBon, T. (2014) chapter 9 for more on the CBT toolbox.

[iv] See LeBon, T. (2014) chapter 10 for more on mindfulness.

[v] Though as Patrick  Ussher has argued, Stoic mindfulness (prosoche) has a bigger part of Stoic virtue, and is a bit different from mindfulness.

[vi] CFT was originally developed to help people who have particularly high degrees of shame and self-criticism, who often didn’t respond particularly well to standard CBT.  Of particular interest to us though is that is how CFT is now being extended to include broader populations. The training that is aimed at the general population as well as a clinical one is called Compassionate Mind Training (CMT) and it is this  part of CFT that is particularly relevant to us here.  For the rest of this article I will refer to this approach as CFT/CMT, because our focus is more on helping the general population than on psychotherapy.

[vii] See http://media.psychology.tools/worksheets/english_us/emotional_regulation_systems_en-us.pdf

[viii] In CFT (as opposed to CMT) there would be aim important  third stage – understanding  your problems in terms of unhelpful – but understandable – strategies developed- often sub-consciously – to deal with threats your “tricky brain” didn’t have a better way to deal with. For example, someone who fears overwhelming emotions such as sadness and loneliness may have developed drinking as a means of avoiding these emotions This understanding of problems in a new way is called a compassion-focussed formulation

[ix] See http://blogs.exeter.ac.uk/stoicismtoday/2015/06/14/how-to-become-more-virtuous-and-less-like-basil-fawlty-tim-lebon/ for my 2014 workshop which was aimed at developing an Ideal Stoic Advisor.

'Dis-ease (Mental Health)' by Zachary G. Augustine

Dis-ease (Mental Health)

from Philosophy for Any Life: an open-source self-help book

Augustine Book Proper

by Zachary G. Augustine

Editor’s Note:  This piece follows on from Zachary’s previous post.  The book is freely available to download at philosophyforanylife.com.

Anxiety

Today I escaped from anxiety. Or no, I discarded it, because it was within me, in my own perceptions – not outside.
—Marcus Aurelius[i]

There is a real danger in focusing too much on learning about techniques as opposed to implementing them. The goal of therapy aims to break the linguistic circle of reading-and-thinking, ad infinitium, and to prompt a shift toward action.

Those who experience anxiety know unpleasantness of thinking too much. An apt description of anxiety is one of ‘rumination’. Those with social anxiety may ruminate on what could go wrong in a social interaction, or endlessly repeat inconsequential events. Those with more generalized anxiety may ruminate about nearly anything. The word itself refers to the digestion method of large grazing animals (like cattle) that ferment cellulose by holding it in a special, extra stomach for a long period of time. Cattle must sleep standing up because the slurry of grass and digestive juices would otherwise spill into their other stomachs.

Not that cattle aren’t infinitely interesting, but the point is that rumination has a negative connotation, one of referring to the lower animals. That is, while humans are distinguished in our ability to pause and think through problems (as no one has ever seen a cow ponder), we are also responsible for deciding, that is, stopping thought and resuming action at an appropriate time. Ultimately, humans are distinguished by action in combination with thought, not either alone. And action without thought is worse than ignorance, for the base form of judgment is one of blindly trusting the desires and judgments of the body. This leads to consequences that you would not otherwise accept. The opposite is also true: Thought by itself moves nothing.[ii]

Treatment depends on honest and good judgment of oneself. A key factor is the recognition of your own anxiety-producing practices. You must find their root, which tends to be mental and verbal in origin.[iii] Problems can seem large when they are dealt with in an excessively verbal manner – anyone who has sat in on a bureaucratic meaning can attest to the damaging powers of bloated words. Rather, you will feel relief if you can develop your own techniques to break the verbal cycle. To get outside of your own head, so to speak. The techniques themselves vary based on the situation, but fundamental to all of them is correctly identifying that your recovery is within your own control, the acceptance that it may be difficult and a willingness to try in spite of this, and a responsibility to take your recovery into your own hands. Kabat-Zinn summarizes the importance of this disposition:

“The deciding factor…is the willingness of the patient to try to do something for himself or herself to cope with some of the pain, particularly when it has not responded fully to medical treatment alone. People whose attitude is that they just want the doctor to ‘fix it’ or to ‘make it go away’ are not good candidates. They won’t understand the need to take some responsibility themselves for improving their condition. They might also take the suggestion that the mind can play a role in the control of their pain to mean that their pain is imaginary, that it is ‘all in their head’ in the first place.[iv]”

The notion that pain is real but mental is crucial to the whole effort of recovery. This is not to deny that pain feels bad or can impact our lives. But it to deny, firmly and absolutely, that we can do nothing about it. While we cannot outright ‘cure’ our mental ailments, we can minimize them to the point of nonexistence. Even more so, we can learn from them and grow into a stronger, more loving person than had we never experienced that kind of pain. In the end, any ailment ends up being an impetus to change, an opportunity for growth. But it is only an opportunity, one you have to actively take. The ailment itself is changed through this realization, just as you are changed by the ailment, and changed again by acceptance of the ailment: in all three cases, suffering ceases the moment it acquires meaning.[v] You may find that the pain itself lessens once you stop fixating on it. (This was certainly my experience.) Instead, a positive outlook actually and physically makes your situation easier to bear. The key is to direct your energy toward other activities, almost as if you are distracting your mind, long enough to show yourself that you can think about other things besides an unpleasant situation. And once you begin to think that, it will become easier and easier to distract yourself until you no longer feel compelled to think of the pain as a hindrance.

Mental health treatment must be viewed as an ongoing process of change, not merely just a cure delivered to an otherwise static patient. As patients, we often want doctors to change our bodies in order to relieve our minds. But relief often only comes from the opposite: we must make up our minds, and then our bodies will follow. Doctor’s simply won’t say this, because it defies their job description, and the ideal we hold of them. It is a matter of shifting the locus of control from an external antidote to an internal one already contained within your mind. Realize truly what is within your control, and what is without. Here especially, be patient as you learn to accept these things. You will feel frustrated. Things you wish you could be now, ideas yet unfulfilled, shapes you can see the outlines of but never materialize, a thought you grasp for only a moment before it disappears and is replaced by the nagging pain of knowing that you’ve forgotten. This is frustration. But you can teach yourself not to accept frustration and work through it. You can cultivate the muscle of patience and understanding, through forgoing false judgments in favor of reality and all its flaws. This is because, “the value of attentiveness varies in proportion to its object. You’re better off not giving the small things more time than they deserve.”[vi] And the pain you feel is outside of your control, and thus not something worth focusing on.[vii]

Obsession

When your mind becomes obsessed with anything, you will filter everything else out and find that thing everywhere.
—Pi[viii]

You can’t change the fact that this obsession exists. For you, it’s real. Don’t waste energy denying that.

But you can modulate your response.

This is the problem I felt most acutely. I developed irrational fears about things that never used to bother me. I knew they were irrational but I couldn’t stop. That was the worst of all.

I became fixated on ways I might accidentally or intentionally hurt myself. I was afraid that I might hurt myself. Through that fear, I became afraid that I might want to hurt myself. This fear grew and I ended up causing myself a lot of emotional suffering. My fear of suffering directly caused my suffering, because I was stuck in certain mental feedback loops. It is illogical, ironic, and borderline insane. But through simply feeling fear, worrying about fear, and worrying about worrying about fear, I spiraled downward and watched as I let my obsessions begin to impact my daily life. (This happens to be a good litmus test for looking more objectively at the state of your own problems – to what extent do your problems impact your life on a daily and long-term basis?)

I developed an irrational fear of knives, scissors, heights, and driving. I knew it was ridiculous – I had no intention of ever hurting myself – but in spite of this knowledge I could not stop worrying that one day I might. If any of those situations presented themselves, I froze. If I was cooking in the kitchen, I was watching the knives. I would sweat constantly, my heart stuttering as I walked up a tall staircase for fear that this time I would lose control entirely, have a mental breakdown, and throw myself off.

These obsessions carried over into my personal relationships. It became difficult to drive to see my friends. I became worried about trivial matters, like small sums of money or arguments with strangers on the Internet. These were ways that I could express my desire for control, in however small a way. I was so afraid of losing control that I lost it. Now, I am at peace with the fact that much is outside of my control.

So believe me when I say even some of your own thoughts are outside of your control. That’s a horrible feeling – to lose control of yourself. But it is manageable, I promise.  Don’t get discouraged, “Don’t let your imagination be crushed by life as a whole. Don’t try to picture everything bad that could possibly happen. Stick with the situation at hand, and ask, ‘Why is this so unbearable? Why can’t I endure it?’ You’ll be embarrassed to answer.”[ix] Take that feeling of embarrassment, and focus on that. Laugh at how strange your mind works, how silly sometimes you are. Don’t invalidate the way that you feel or the things that grab your attention. But see the humor in it, and take them for that they are worth. How things that seemed urgent a moment ago now don’t make much sense.

Depression

If you look for the light, you can often find it. But if you look for the dark, that is all you will ever see.—Iroh[x]

Depression is the inability to imagine a future.[xi] It is the assumption that your current mental state will continue indefinitely, and that such a continuation would be bad. Why would it be bad? Because your current mental state feels unpleasant, you don’t want it to continue. It would be bad because it is bad to have your current feeling continue indefinitely. It is a vicious feedback-loop. It is illogical. But, it is nonetheless real.

Depression can occur by itself or in tandem with other conditions. Often, more fundamental problems such as anxiety, phobias, or other chronic conditions wear you down. They may weaken your overall health, and leave you more susceptible to other things: difficulty sleeping, worsening eating habits, weakened immune system, etc. It is often in situations like this that one can begin to feel discouraged. And that is the breeding ground for depression, a capstone added on top of your health problems when your back was already strained. You didn’t ask for this, but you have to face it nonetheless. If you begin to feel depressed for other reasons, you obviously have to deal with the root problem. Learning to handle your anxiety or OCD can take the edge off of growing depression before it becomes a full-blown problem.

That said, depression can have no other illnesses exacerbating it. It may seem that there is no physical reason for it; this may be true. In that case, it is important to get help. It could be as simple as not getting enough vitamin D, or it may be an issue that needs to be talked through. The only way you can know is if you get help. But in any case, reasonable or unreasonable, physical or mental, you can construct your own sense of meaning in your life. This meaning can be anything you can think of. And having some sort of focus, even if it appears simple or is just a hobby, will always make your condition easier to bear. And before you know it, you’ll feel much better.

Chronic conditions

Nothing but what you get from first impressions. That someone has insulted you, for instance. That – but not that it’s done you any harm. The fact that my son is sick – that I can see. But ‘that he might die of it,’ no. Stick with first impressions. Don’t extrapolate. And nothing can happen to you.
—Marcus Aurelius[xii]

It’s important to stay positive, and it is always possible to do so. Those words mean little by themselves. But behind them is a deep truth relevant to all of our lives. Living is painful, and often for no good reason. But life in itself is reason enough to keep going – it is always worth it, and it is always possible to believe as much, if you choose.

Take every step you can to improve your overall well-being. Any positive change you make will also have effects on your ailment. There is no reason for your pain; it is random, or unlucky, or unforeseeable. But there is always a reason to endure pain. It acquires meaning when you choose to endure it. For pain only becomes suffering when you cease to endure it. That word is important; it is active, it is everlasting, it is optimistic. It says that you have within you a willpower that you can always stretch further than before, and always replenish quicker than last time. It may not get better, but it will get easier.

Despite your ailment, you will wake up every day with determination, energy, and hope. It may not feel like it now, but it will. To wake up every day and face a new set of challenges is wonderful. You just happen to have more challenges than some people. But you also have less than other people, and for that you should be thankful. There was no way to know where you would end up on the random spectrum of what life has dealt us. And even now, although things may seem bad, there’s no way to know where you’ll end up. Won’t it be interesting to find out.[xiii]

It may end as quickly as it began, or not at all. It could stop and come back. But the answer in every case is the same: do the best you can. Don’t let yourself get discouraged by a lack of external progress, for the only progress that matters is internal.

Often these kind of things are what you have to learn to live with. And when you finally feel defeated and are about to give up, you resign to the fact that this is something you will have to get used to. You will just have to deal with it, and make the best of it. Then, at that precise moment, it passes. Paradoxically, when you stop trying to get rid of it, it disappears. This is something that requires suffering to realize. You have to go through it to understand: it didn’t go away. It’s still there. Only, now, it doesn’t bother you. What you did instead was learn that it doesn’t need to bother you. You learned how to get around, despite the obstacles. Only by fully and honestly submitting to the reality of the situation can you come to live with it in the best way possible.

Recovery

Pain is neither unbearable nor unending, as long as you keep in mind its limits and don’t magnify them in your imagination.
—Marcus Aurelius[xiv]

A positive attitude is integral to your recovery. What if what was holding you back this entire time, preventing your recovery, was your negativity? What if just by changing your mindset – which is always within your power – you can change your life? Then you have nothing left to fear. Often, paradoxically, it is our behaviors that sustain our illnesses. Like the addict who realizes his deteriorating condition and wants to change, but lacks the resolve to do so yet. Perhaps that addict is used to feeling this way. Perhaps he has come up with behaviors that no longer give him comfort, but are simply familiar. And so the addict continues, not because he enjoys it anymore, but because he’s frightened of change. As Aurelius says

Frightened of change? But what can exist without it? What’s closer to nature’s heart? Can you take a hot bath and leave the firewood as it was? Eat food without transforming it? Can any vital process take place without something being changed? Can’t you see? It’s the same with you – and just as vital to nature.[xv]

As difficult as it may be, you need to want to change. What you want to do is suspend the doubts of your mind for long enough to act positively. Action has great positive changes on the body; this much is well known. If you change your physical state, if you achieve a basic state of physical health and activity, your mind will follow. And if you change your mental state, it will be easier to change your physical state in the future. And then you know how it works, and that it can be done, and it becomes much, much easier.

This takes time. Be patient with yourself.  There will be times when it feels hopeless, when the pain is unbearable. When it would be easier to return to your old ways. This is good! It shows that your body is resisting the changes you are trying to implement. This means that you are close to overcoming the body’s resistance. Feel the pain (don’t deny that it’s there) but don’t give into it fully. “Unendurable pain brings its own end with it. Chronic pain is always endurable: the intelligence maintains serenity by cutting itself off from the body, the mind remains undiminished. And the parts that pain affects – let them speak for themselves, if they can.”[xvi] Maintain control of your mind despite the pain – always keep a bit of yourself pulled back a bit to watch what’s happening to yourself. Just watch.

Through this act of self-observation (metacognition) your pain will lessen as you come to understand yourself better. You will reinforce a self-imposed divide between body and mind, one that nature would rather do away with, reducing you to little more than an animal. But as anyone who can endure great pain can tell you, the body cannot rule the mind; they should never converge to the same entity.

Do not hesitate to ask for help; for your worries about appearing burdensome are a just another internal barrier you have erected to bar your own recovery. You are far more conscious of your own faults in this regard than anyone else – it is just as likely that those close to you want to help, but don’t know how or are afraid to ask. It is your responsibility to ask for help, and you will be floored by the support that you receive. The stigma surrounding mental health issues is already disappearing rapidly, and what little that remains is mostly imaginary. Your problems, however, are real, and any barrier to your recovery must be overcome. Any stigma is then useless or illusory, and can be safely ignored. Do not be afraid; everyone you could possibly encounter during your recovery wants nothing more than for you to succeed.

Do not be discouraged if progress is slow. As Hemingway says, “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places. But those that will not break it kills.”[xvii] It is okay to be broken, for you will always heal stronger. And to break in some areas and recover is infinitely better than the alternative. I want everyone to become strong at the broken places, and I hope that this book will help you in some way. But these words are no substitute for serious medical help, if that is what you require. So please, ask for help when you need it, because there are some things that are outside of your control.

In the end, you will find yourself stronger than had you never faced any difficulties. You will look at yourself and be proud of who you became. And you would do it all over again if given the chance. Because if you didn’t, you wouldn’t have learned anything. You wouldn’t be as strong as you already are now, or nearly as strong as you will become. It will all be worth it. Always.

Friends and Family

We must not force crops from rich fields, for an unbroken course of heavy crops will soon exhaust their fertility, and so also the liveliness of our minds will be destroyed by unceasing labour, but they will recover their strength after a short period of rest and relief: for continuous toil produces a sort of numbness and sluggishness.
—Seneca, On Peace of Mind

There is a constant tension between asking those close to you for help and remaining silent. You need support more than anything, but it can be impossible to communicate something you don’t fully understand or even accept yourself – so how is anyone else supposed to? And that feeling of burdening those close to you never quite goes away. But I have been on both sides of that emotional support system, and I can guarantee you that there’s nothing they would rather do than help you. So please reach out to them. It will be as relieving for them to help you as it will be for you.

If you know someone who is struggling, you must understand they are already beyond frustrated with themselves. They already feel immense lot of guilt, shame, embarrassment, and helplessness. Constantly they feel as if they are a burden. So you must take great care to not add to this weight.

Also recognize that they express this internal frustration outward, and often to those closest to them. So take any negativity they express with reservation, for surely it does not reflect upon you and your actions. Even if you treat them with nothing but kindness, you will inevitably receive responses from them that are unwarrantedly negative – from your perspective. If only they could see that things aren’t as bad as they’re making it out to be. From theirs, the world is drained of its color, and you would have to be blind to not see it. Keep that in mind.

If this happens, reflect that you have far more perspective, willpower, and patience than they do in their current state. Don’t criticize their behavior, which is a direct representation of their mental state, which they have little control over (at this moment in time). To criticize any of this – to express your frustration or empathy or pity for their sorry state – is to further degrade their already minimal self-worth. You may feel frustrated that they can’t exit their slump. But surely they feel this same frustration ten times more strongly. It’s not that they don’t see it, it’s that they feel powerless to do anything about it. It is a compulsion, a necessity. And an unfortunate byproduct of that is you will have to shoulder some unpleasant encounters, reassurance, and complicated or otherwise stressful situations. Be patient, for your patience is one thing you can do to help.

Don’t take how they treat you personally; they may feel so trapped that they likely don’t have much else they can do other than lash out at you in this way. Remember that your willpower goes ten times as far as theirs. In their state, it is almost as if they are a different person.

With your support, they will emerge stronger than they were going into the ordeal. And when they come through the other end – and they always will – they, with their newfound perspective, will be incredibly thankful for how you helped them. The previous feelings of guilt and shame will be replaced with only love. The sense of burdening one another fades, instead replaced by an image of the posts of a new foundation: what weight would crack one alone is effortlessly supported by multiple. While similar things would be crushing alone, they are that much easier to bear when we rely on each other. It will be because of you they succeeded, and they, too, will help you to succeed. That is what a meaningful relationship is, and it is perhaps the strongest thing there is.

Zachary G. Augustine is a student of philosophy and history at the University of Chicago. Besides writing, Zach does contract work and teaches as a graphic designer and is an advocate for open content, tech education, and mental health. Take a look at his work or send him an e-mail at zacharyaugustine.comZachary has written an open-source self-help book, based on Stoicism, which you can find at http://philosophyforanylife.com.

References

[i]Ibid., IX.13.

[ii]Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics.

[iii] “There is evidence within the CBT literature that a preponderance of verbal processing in the form of rumination is associated with a range of psychological symptoms, overgeneral memory, and poor problem solving (e.g. Watkins, 2008). Conversely, the ability to flexibly integrate verbal and sensor/perceptual information may be the hallmark of more adaptive processing.” Richard. Stott, Oxford Guide to Metaphors in CBT: Building Cognitive Bridges, Oxford Guides in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 19.

[iv] Kabat-Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living, 287.

[v]Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning.

[vi]Aurelius, Meditations, 2002, IV.32.

[vii] A theme repeated often in the excellent Richard Carlson, Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff – and It’s All Small Stuff: Simple Ways to Keep the Little Things from Taking over Your Life, 1st ed. (New York: Hyperion, 1997).

[viii]Darren Aronofsky, Pi, Drama, Thriller, (1998).

[ix]Aurelius, Meditations, 2002, VIII.36.

[x]The Legend of Korra, Animation, Action, Adventure, (2012), bk. 2 Episode 10: A New Spiritual Age.

[xi]Steven Soderbergh, Side Effects, Crime, (2013), http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2053463/. This movie may be disturbing for those with mental health illnesses, but this phrase taken alone sticks with me as an accurate depiction of depression.

[xii]Aurelius, Meditations, 2002, VIII.49.

[xiii]The Legend of Korra, bk. 4 episode 2: Korra Alone.

[xiv] Aurelius, Meditations, 2002, VII.64.

[xv]Ibid., VII.18.

[xvi]Ibid., VII.33.

[xvii]Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms, 1st Scribner classics ed. (New York: Scribner Classics, 1997).