Interview with Piotr Stankiewicz

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

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

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

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

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

Q: How could you describe your views on Stoicism?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q: Please do.

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

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

Q: Finally, what’s coming up next?

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

Q: Thank you for the interview.

A: Thank you and see you at the Stoicon.

 

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

Author: Gregory Sadler

Editor of Stoicism Today

8 thoughts on “Interview with Piotr Stankiewicz”

  1. I thank both Piotr Stankiewicz and Greg Sadler for Greg’s excellent interview of Piotr. I believe that this interview very accurately showcases Piotr’s views of modern stoicism and ancient Stoicism. I can say that with a good deal of confidence, because I “met” Piotr May 18, 2011. That is to say that he emailed me that day and our relationship, largely based on our mutual admiration of Stoicism, grew into a friendship over the next six years. So, it is both as his friend, as a student of ancient Stoicism and modern stoicism, and as a fan of this Modern Stoicism blog/website that I want to offer this reply.
    First, I echo Piotr’s view that stoicism need not be one monolithic philosophy that is the same for everyone who is drawn to some aspects of stoic thinking. On the other hand, the word “stoicism” needs to have some kind of core meaning, I believe, if the term isn’t to degenerate into meaninglessness. Indeed, even the word “philosophy” has to have a core meaning so that it doesn’t disintegrate into meaning millions of different things to millions of different people.
    However, I do want to challenge–or at least politely disagree–with several ideas Piotr expresses in this interview. Perhaps I should not offer my disagreements in this reply because replies here on Modern Stoicism ought to be relatively short. If so, then I apologize for the length of this reply and request that Greg contact me so that we can arrange for me to present my lengthy reply to Piotr as a separate post. Otherwise, a disclaimer first, then as short a reply as I can muster.
    The disclaimer is that I am a pale-fingered classicist. Well, sort of. I’m a Professor of Philosophy and Classics at a Jesuit university in Nebraska. My academic training in philosophy (primarily) cannot possibly NOT color my views about Stoicism, since I’ve studied Stoicism for over 30 years. That said, I self-identify as a stoic. What I mean is that I believe that stoicism (or Stoicism) is the best worldview, philosophy, religion, belief system—call it what you may—that is available.
    Second, I also share Piotr’s very positive opinion about Lawrence Becker and his book _A New Stoicism_, which will soon be published in a second, revised edition. But I find it a little odd, in a subtle way, that Piotr embraces much of Becker’s understanding of modern stoicism on the one hand, while Piotr distances himself from his view of how the ancient Stoics conceived of “following nature” or living in accordance with nature. Piotr is absolutely correct that Becker conceives of neostoicism (or what he refers to with a lower case “s” stoicism) as embracing the idea that to “follow nature” for a neostoic is to follow the facts as disclosed by the best empirical science, cosmology, literature, art, etc. I disagree with Piotr, however, when he claims:
    (a) “… on the social, political and technological levels “nature” today is much more malleable than it used to be in antiquity.”
    If by this he means that people today–non-philosophers and perhaps more generally non-academics–are looser and sloppier in their usage of the term NATURE than the ancient Greek Stoic philosophers, then he is of course correct. But if he’s talking about nature itself being more malleable today than it used to be in antiquity, then I disagree. The advancement of technological marvels, fueled by the advancement of the physical sciences, has allowed human beings to alter our planet in dramatic ways, from the creation and use of hydrogen bombs, to live-saving and life-prolonging medicines and surgical techniques, to jet airplane travel, computers, and the rest. The industrial revolution allowed many nations to extract oil and natural gas from the ground, convert it into jet fuel, fertilizer, plastics, and gasoline, and then use those resources to alter our very atmosphere with millions of tons of carbon dioxide and methane gases. Thus, we can thank technology for giving us the ability to populate so successfully (7.513 billion human beings and counting), and release such a volume of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere with our technologically advanced lifestyles and patterns of consumption, that we have endangered (and continue to endanger) future generations of not only human beings, but millions of species of other organisms with which we share “our” Earth.
    This brings me back to what the ancient Stoics meant by “living in accordance with nature” or “following nature” or “living consistently (with nature).” For the ancient Stoics, this meant both living in agreement with the things that occur in nature AND living in agreement with our own particular nature as human beings. The former is what the ancient Stoics also called living in agreement with fate. As for the latter, the ancient Stoics believed that we live in agreement with our particular nature when we do things like eating when hungry, drinking when thirsty, sleeping when tired, and behaving as sexual beings. The ancient Stoics believed that in addition to acting on our animalistic impulses, however, the special endowment or ability that we have as human beings is our power of REASON or rationality. To live in agreement with nature, then, meant most of all to live in agreement with reason. And they believed that if, over the course of a lifetime, we work very diligently day in and day out to strengthen our rational faculties and apply them consistently to our circumstances in life, then our reason can be perfected into a condition that they called VIRTUE (‘arete’ in Greek). So, to live in agreement with nature for humans ultimately meant to live in agreement with virtue.
    For these reasons I am not convinced that “living virtuously” is basically a vacuous slogan in discussions of stoicism. If it is, then wisdom means nothing, courage means nothing, justice means nothing, temperance means nothing, and there just aren’t any real virtues. I believe that the virtues are, to the contrary, as alive and well in 2017 as they were when Zeno talked philosophy in the Painted Stoa of Athens. I would even argue that in order to address the perils of anthropogenic global climate change and the ongoing decimation of biodiversity that most human beings are hell-bent on accelerating, modern stoics today had better do a better job of educating non-Stoics about what an ecologically wise, just, and humane life in agreement with nature, reason, and virtue looks like. But of course modern stoics can (and probably do) disagree among themselves about what a wise stoic (or Stoic) ought to do about climate change, geo-political conflicts, and whether to reproduce at all or not. So, I fundamentally disagree with my friend Piotr about desisting with using “following nature” in the teaching of stoicism today. I think it is vital to understand what this meant to the ancients AND what it means (or ought to mean) today.
    The ancient Stoics understood “living contrary to nature” to involve living VICIOUSLY. President Donald Trump (mentioned by Piotr) is an outstanding example of a man afflicted by many different vices. He is an egomaniac, a pathological liar with no concern for the truth, and a narcissist. Trump is greedy, petty, selfish, vain, and deplorably disinterested in wisdom or reading or working hard to learn things vital to his job as POTUS. Trump loves Kentucky Fried Chicken. His public comments explaining why he decided to pull the United States out of the Paris Climate Agreement betrayed his ignorance of what the agreement requires (unless he knew perfectly well the Agreement’s provisions and simply chose to make up fake claims about it to try deceive his listeners). So, I argue that D. Trump suffers from a number of vices and, measured by Stoicism, lives and acts contrary to nature. I don’t think this concept obfuscates, but, carefully understood, it clarifies what stoicism is about.
    (b) Piotr says that “floating the slogan of ‘following nature’ and hiding under the umbrella idea that we should do what nature commands us to do, all of this doesn’t get us anywhere.” I think this claim involves a misunderstanding. The ancient Stoics’ definition of the goal (telos) of human activity as “living in agreement with nature” or more succinctly “following nature,” is not a slogan, really. It is a definition that distinguished the Stoics from the ancient Epicureans, Skeptics, Platonists, and Peripatetics (Aristotelians). Epicurus and his followers, for example, argued that the goal (telos) of life is PLEASURE, that all animals, including human beings, do pursue pleasure and ought to do so consistently. The ancient Stoics rejected Epicurean hedonism and argued that from infancy through adulthood, human beings seek the things in accordance with their nature (food when hungry, and the rest). So, there isn’t any umbrella other than the one a Stoic might choose to deploy when it rains. The rain doesn’t command a Stoic to open her umbrella. Neither does “nature” command a Stoic to do so. Rather, the Stoic listens to her stomach when it has been empty for hours and a desire to eat arises. It is then up to the Stoic to assent to the impulse to eat or not, depending on whether it is reasonable to do so at that time and under the circumstances. Assent is at the heart of the autonomy that Piotr (and I) find compelling in stoicism. But nature is not some kind of external agent that commands a Stoic to eat or drink or sit or write or nap. A stoic listens to her reason, or, if she has become wise (i.e. a sage), listens to her wisdom, justice, courage, temperance, caution, etc. Nature, for the Stoics (and neostoics), is not the sky and the mountains and rivers and valleys and forests and deserts, or DNA, or gravity that COMMANDS. Nature is reason, and perfected reason is virtue (wisdom). The Stoic tries to heed what wisdom commends.
    (c) Piotr asks: “If one gets an artificial limb, does it cohere with nature? And what about a C-section? And how about wearing glasses, not to mention using computers to even do this interview?” These are excellent questions. But they’re not difficult to answer, if I understand ancient Stoicism and its legacy as modern neostoicism.
    If we substitute “wisdom” for “nature” in Piotr’s questions, then they become demystified. Does getting an artificial limb cohere with wisdom? Depending on the circumstances, sure, why not? Oscar Pistorius was wise to get artificial legs. He acted unwisely and unjustly when he murdered his girlfriend Neeva Steenkamp. Does getting a C-section cohere with wisdom? Yes, unless it is medically unwise to do so. The wise stoic giving birth would heed the expertise of her midwife or obstetrician. Does it cohere with wisdom to wear glasses? Here there are several options: laser eye surgery (if you can afford it), contact lenses (if you can learn how to put them against your bare eyeballs without developing irritation of the cornea), or eye glasses. It wouldn’t be wise to reject the technology of optometry to improve one’s vision.
    Does it cohere with wisdom to use computers? Indeed, it does. The wealth of information that Google and the internet makes available is fabulous, convenient, and sometimes even vital. But wisdom would also keep a Stoic from viewing a screen for too many hours a day at the cost of getting physical exercise, spending time outside looking at trees (studies have shown that viewing the three-dimensionality of trees is beneficial to the brain’s operation), eating healthy food and drink, enjoying music and art, and socializing with friends and family.
    To conclude, I am delighted that Piotr’s interview was published by Modern Stoicism, and that he joined the Modern Stoicism team last year. His doctoral dissertation is excellent and I strongly recommend his books. I believe that he very much ought to be given a session at Stoicon in Toronto in October (even though he is not a woman). I admire Piotr and his works on stoicism greatly. But it would be a very bad idea to skip over either what the ancient Stoics, or what Lawrence Becker the neostoic, understand by “living in accordance with nature.” Facts matter. And it’s a fact that we need Stoic wisdom and the other virtues now as much as ever.

    William O. Stephens
    stoic@creighton.edu
    https://people.creighton.edu/~wos87278/Stephens/CV.htm
    23 June 2017

    1. “request that Greg contact me so that we can arrange for me to present my lengthy reply to Piotr as a separate post”

      You’ve long had my email, William, since we’ve corresponded recently.

      So you know you can simply email me with your proposed post, which I’m happy to take a look at – just as I would for any of our other readers and contributors.

    2. Hi William, the slots for Stoicon were assigned months ago. We had three times as many people’s names put forward as there were speaking slots available, which is great but unfortunately means a lot of people couldn’t be given slots to speak at the main conference. We do have a waiting list of speakers in case anyone drops out, though, which Piotr’s name is already on. I’ve also suggested that Piotr might want to consider putting his name forward for the lightning talk sessions at Stoicon-x Toronto, as that’s still an option.

    3. Dear William, WOW, this is a serious reply. I’m humbled by the volume and precision of this rebuttal. I think that the most proper way to respond to this is to say that, well, this deserves a post of its own. I mean, a few changes here and there (making this writing of yours less a reply to what I wrote and more of an independent voice of how you see Stoicism) and it’s a very nice presentation of your views on Stoicism. I really like the way you mentioned e.g. Paris Climate agreements, incumbent POTUS generally and also the point about substituting “nature” with “wisdom.” Swift and clean rhetorically, even if I disagree with the bottom line. The way you put your argument together – this was very fine. I suggest you rearrange this lenghty comment and make it an independent article! It really gets the reader to know where you stand.

      In other words: I presented my views, you countered them – and I’m deeply happy, this is an actual exchange of thought. Which is not really something you see everyday on the Internet, right?

      Two small-ball remarks only. First, I don’t think you are a pale-finger classicist. The pale-fingered guy wasn’t invented to cover people like you I guess. I meant those folks who are much more detached and – somehow – at the same time much more combatant about their views. The bookworm type rather.

      Second, I just loved the phrase “deplorably disinterested in wisdom” 🙂

    1. Dear Rwpeters: I won’t be talking during Stoicon, but I will be in Toronto that weekend. I will be present both during Stoicon and Stoicon-x. Will be happy to meet you. The backroom networking and coffee drinking are just as important as the offical part. See you there!

  2. I am interested in Mr. Stankiewicz’ first book. What is the status of its translation into English? Any estimate of its availability?

    Thank you for your kind assistance.

    1. Dear Salimpert, the work is plodding along and the irons are in the fire. Thank you for your kind interest! There is no precise estimate at this point, yet I’m sure that if you stay in the loop with modern Stoicism – the word will get to you once the book is out. Also, shoot me a quick email at mikolaj.piotr@gmail.com

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