Interview: Walter Matweychuk

Walter Matweychuk will be one of the speakers at the Stoicon 2017 Stoicism Conference in Toronto, on October 14th.

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

I am a clinical psychologist who has the good fortune of having work I love. I conduct around thirty-five adult outpatient individual and couples psychotherapy sessions a week at the University of Pennsylvania and in my private practice in Center City Philadelphia. The problems of everyday living I help people with range from coping with emotional problems such as depression, anxiety, anger, and phobias to behavioral disorders like addictions, to resuming one’s life in the aftermath of rape, serious accidents, medical illness, and failing to obtain tenure.

I also train and supervise doctoral level externs in Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), the pioneering form of Cognitive Behavior Therapy, as well as teach a graduate course in Cognitive Behavior Therapy Theory and Applications at New York University in New York City. I maintain the website, REBTDoctor.com, which contains a great deal of freely accessible audio and video on Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy and do professional writing as well. I just completed, along with Dr. Windy Dryden, a book for professionals entitled Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy: A Newcomer’s Guide. In short I am a practicing psychologist who also trains and teaches psychologists, writes on and disseminates Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy.

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

I use Stoic ideas and Stoic quotations to teach people how to effectively manage their emotional and behavioral responses to both relatively small to immensely challenging adversities. I use Stoic ideas to potentiate my interventions as an REBT psychotherapist. Stoicism works hand in hand with Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy because Dr. Albert Ellis, the originator of this distinct form of cognitive behavior therapy, heavily borrowed from Stoicism to create Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy. Although I primarily recommend to my patients REBT self-help books for homework, I have also recommended Bill Irvine’s book A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy as a homework assignment to my patients.

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

I am continually striving to enhance my skills as a REBT psychotherapist and self-actualize as an individual. I want to have the happiest and most meaningful life possible with the only life I assume I will ever have to live. I also especially want to share Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy with the widest possible audience. Knowing Ellis borrowed heavily from Stoicism I assumed that by retracing the steps he took through reading the Stoics I might make further headway in accomplishing my previously stated personal goals. I am continually searching for ways to deepen my understanding of REBT and studying Stoicism seemed like a way of doing this.

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

The emphasis on identifying and focusing my effort on what is well within my domain of control and more or less being indifferent to those aspects of life and any given set of circumstances I cannot control. This single concept offers me incredible emotional leverage as I face personal adversity and as I teach and help my patients how to more effectively respond to their adversities. Secondly, when doing psychotherapy it is important to find language that resonates with patients in order to facilitate deep level emotional change. Although REBT has very powerful language associated with it, I judiciously sprinkle in Stoic quotes and ideas in order to keep the therapeutic dialogue fresh and interesting. Language and words in psychotherapy are like keys on a keychain. It is sometimes hard to know in advance which key will open a particular lock. By knowing and studying Stoicism I have some philosophical keys to try in my effort to open the emotional locks I am trying to pick, if you will.

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

Despite our great scientific and technological advances since the time of Epictetus people continue to struggle to manage their emotions, find meaning and happiness, and have difficulty coping with losses, deaths, medical illnesses, defeats, failures, and injustices. In my view Stoicism and Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy are efficient, powerful, and self-liberating tools I want to share with my fellow citizens of the world. Life is hard enough without needlessly making it harder by trying to control that which is outside our domain of control, while overlooking what is well within our sphere of control.

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

Stoicism and Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy have immensely affected the way I live and the quality of life I enjoy. I no longer experience depression, anxiety, anger, envy and shame as I once did going way back to high school and even before that. When I do have a flash of one of these very self-defeating and unhealthy negative emotions I quickly swap them out for healthy negative emotions. I do this by examining my philosophy and any rigid and extreme attitudes operating at the moment so that I am better able to do what I can do, if anything, to favorably influence the situation I am facing. Let me explain.

In high school I began to see that my perceptions of reality impacted my painful emotions. As a college student at the University of Pennsylvania I worked closely with Dr. Aaron Beck who originated (about five years after Ellis had created Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy) the second and a somewhat different form of cognitive behavior therapy. Beck’s Cognitive Therapy emphasizes and focuses on the inferences we make about reality and showed me how to check these inferences for erroneous assumptions and distortions in order to make certain these inferences are accurate and consistent with the available empirical data. This helps one’s emotions quite nicely when in fact our inferences about a given situation are distorted.

For example, if I have a medical symptom and think, “I have cancer and will die in the near future”, slowing down and checking to see if this is an accurate inference by consulting a physician will help alleviate my panic. However, what if in fact my inference is unfortunately correct and I do in fact learn the empirical data suggests I have an aggressive form of cancer and will likely die in a year or at most two. This is where Beck’s Cognitive Therapy begins to have some difficulty and where Stoicism and Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy shine.

These two closely related philosophies will enable me to face this existential adversity and cope with it. By having deep conviction in the liberating overlapping philosophes of Stoicism and REBT I do not have to panic or despair. I can choose my emotional destiny and still can have some degree of happiness right up to the end of my life. Although helpful in less dire situations, Stoicism and REBT are the philosophies to turn to when your worst nightmare is your reality. Since learning REBT and Stoicism I no longer fear the worst case scenario in my life when I think of things that might go wrong. I also am better able to have some happiness when things go wrong despite their presence in my life. In essence now that I know REBT and Stoicism I change what I can change and move on when I cannot change anything and still find a way to have some pleasure in my life despite the presence of adversity.

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

There are so many great Stoic quotations, so this is a very challenging question for me to answer. It used to be Seneca’s “Bring the mind to bear upon your problems” but it no longer is my favorite. I will select another by Seneca which is “Anger, if not restrained, is frequently more hurtful to us than the injury that provokes it.” I have selected this one simply because so much self-inflicted and other-inflicted damage and pain results from this unhealthy negative emotion whether one is angry at another person, himself, or in response to the situation in which he finds himself. This emotion is so seductive and yet so destructive that mastering the ability to not yield to anger at the tempting moment is an essential life skill if a person wants to be his best. Whether you hold anger in or let it out, anger significantly diminishes your creativity and problem-solving ability and can, paradoxically, undermine the persistence you bring to bear to solve the problem you face. I have also seen how anger corrodes or can suddenly end relationships, and the resulting pain that ensues from a moment of anger can be enormous and lifelong. I often silently say to myself as a way of preventing getting angry “Anger defeats me. Do not yield to it.”

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

My guess is that if you are interested in Stoicism you are also interested in applying this liberating philosophy to your life. With that in mind I have two recommendations. I would read books on both Stoicism and REBT because there can be a synergy created by doing this. I would start with Bill Irvine’s book titled A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy as it is so very accessible. Then I would go onto Epictetus’s Discourses. To me he is the hub of Stoicism. I would attend Stoicon on a regular basis to see and hear how Stoicism can be applied in different ways and meet fellow Stoics. I would regularly read Massimo Pigliucci’s website How to Be a Stoic as he seems to be quite the Stoic scholar.

I would also study the many self-help books written by Albert Ellis and Windy Dryden on Rational-Emotive Behavior Therapy. I sometimes think of REBT as the Cliff Notes of Stoicism or as a distilled, highly concentrated form of Stoicism. You will see how REBT efficiently teaches you how to implement the wisdom of Stoicism. You might even go and study the freely available audio and video found on my website REBTDoctor.com to facilitate your understanding of REBT. Finally, I would read a Stoic Quote every morning and write it on an index card. Carry it with you and try to find opportunity to apply that insight to any adversities you encounter during the day. Ryan Holiday’s book The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living would be a good source of useful Stoic quotations along with daily commentary Holiday makes on the meaning and implementation of each quotation. Most importantly attempt to use Stoicism (and REBT) to learn Stoicism! As Epictetus said “Learning that does not lead to action is useless.”

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

Life is hard for all of us. Stoicism and REBT can help you more effectively respond to life’s adversities and to self-actualize. These philosophies can help you either quickly terminate or entirely side-step needless suffering. Learn these powerful philosophies and then be a good model of them to others. When they display curiosity about how you maintain such equanimity in the face of adversity then introduce them to both Stoicism and REBT. Let them know your secret!

Stoicism Saved Me by Roger Johnston

Stoicism saved me in a way. My last deployment to Iraq was particularly trying. I was medivacced out with just three weeks left of the deployment. I recall as the helicopter crew chief told me we had crossed the Kuwait border and that I was safe, I was relieved that I survived a war zone, but was under no illusion that I was “safe.” I’m a son of a Vietnam vet. The war did not end for him when he got home, in many ways it had only just begun for me. Relief quickly faded to resolve as I was determined not to suffer the same fate as my father: being angry at the world.

During recovery, back in the States, I could tell that my deployment had changed me. Infuriated would be a good word for how I felt 10 years ago during as I began to mend. Google militant atheist and my picture would show up and I would look pissed in it. I felt betrayed by my country, coopted to fight for profit and gain. I had seen so much suffering. The anger was poisoning everything, and what made the poison spread even further was that I was angry because I was angry. I had turned into my father.

It is difficult to describe what war does to a person, which is probably why many combat vets are reluctant to share their experiences. I have found that Plato was astute in his observations of the human condition and his allegory of the cave describes the experience of war fairly accurately. Seeing war is like being brought to the entrance of the cave, you are exposed to what life really is and upon return to the back of the cave you see the shadows for what they are—

Illusions. Those still chained within who have not experienced seeing the sun or color will struggle to understand, perhaps even call you mad for telling them they are living a life of illusion. I find it an extraordinary insight, and the parallels for returning combat veterans are uncanny. It is one of the best explanations for non combat veterans to understand the struggles of combat veterans, it also helps combat veterans understand they are not “broken” but are just processing what it is like to see the sun, so to speak.

I do not recall where I read it, but someone had suggested that if you were to bring an ancient philosopher to the present they would not be far off the mark addressing the struggles of modern humans. I came to a similar conclusion: perhaps their wisdom could help with my rage. I was determined to take this anger on headfirst. I was not going to be doomed to another 40-plus years of anger and I knew avoidance behaviors like drinking or isolation were not going to help me master emotional regulation. I certainly recognized that I was essentially a puppet and the master of my strings was my emotions.

I revisited the philosophers of Greece and Rome; I figured they had experienced war often and perhaps had some insight on how to address this experience of being brought to the mouth of the cave. As fate would have it, my therapist was bringing up Stoic thinkers during my therapy. So I began to learn the Stoics’ philosophy in depth and apply any insight I discovered. I was first introduced to Stoic thought in high school and again in college in the early 90’s and recalled that Marcus Aurelius wrote a book called Meditations. I started there.

It does not take long when you begin to read a Stoic philosopher to realize that Stoicism is a philosophy of action. Marcus Aurelius is no different. Meditations was a compilation of his thoughts written in a journal. Many of his thoughts are calls to action, to improve, to remember, and above all live a life of virtue. So in the spirit of Marcus Aurelius, I will explain how I implemented Stoicism and took action to gain some sort of mastery over my emotions and quell the fire of anger.

I believe that one should start Stoic practice with non-emotionally charged circumstances, something you do daily. This could include shopping or interactions with strangers, but I think one of the best places to begin is driving. I’m not the only one to suggest this is a starting point for Stoic practice; other notable Stoic practitioners have made similar recommendations. For me, I started Stoic application to driving about nine years ago and I’ll share step by step how I did it and include insightful quotes from Marcus Aurelius to encourage taking considerate action.

For me this quote by Marcus Aurelius in Meditations was the starting point of my Stoic practice, “You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” So how does this apply to driving? Well, the answer is relatively straightforward; you have no control over other drivers, the street conditions, and traffic signals/signs; you only have control over your own driving. Period. When I first got home, I was very outside focused when driving. I would full on rage at other drivers, “what is that idiot doing?” and other profanity-laced variations. My daughters use to laugh at me and call me the Road Raged Dad. So, the first application for me began by asking a simple question: “Do you have control over what other drivers are doing?” The answer is always no. “Then why are you getting angry over something you can not control?”

At first, my responses to that question were some variation of the other driver was intentionally trying to make me mad. “That SOB knew I was coming and got over anyway,” for example. Which invariably leads to another question: “Are people intentionally trying to make you upset driving?” Of course they are not, most of them are driving for their own self-interest, trying to get to where they are going, caught up in their own world of concerns. Marcus Aurelius had a remedy for this false sense of injury and rationalized anger comes from a misapplied sense of justice, “Reject your sense of injury and the injury itself disappears.”

When I began my Stoic driving practice, I would constantly try and work from the premise that I only have control over how I drive and would focus on that. If someone were to cut me off, I would tell myself, “I can’t control him, only me, give him the space.” If I felt a sense of injury and reacted, I would say to myself, “No one can make you mad but you, own your reactions.” Again, only something I can control. So the first step was focusing on what I can control my driving and my reactions.

So for about six months I really focused on those two aspects of control, my driving and reactions. I was testing Marcus Aurelius’ advice, “You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” Over that time, I realized that there was a whole lot of things I can’t control and very little I could. So I visualized a very large circle representing all the things I can’t control and a small circle of the things I can. I narrowed my question whenever something came up while driving to “Are you focused on the large circle or taking action in the small?” If I answered yes to the first one, then I immediately shifted to the small circle. It has worked like a charm for me ever since. My angry reactions started getting less frequent and less intense and I contend Marcus Aurelius’ statement passes the test with flying colors.

After focusing on what I could control and let go of what I cannot, I continued my study of Meditations and came across this journal entry: “If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.” The part about estimations really stood out to me. It dawned on me after I read it that asking questions after the fact was all good and well, but If I master estimations then my need to navigate tricky reactions would be cut down dramatically. The light bulb came on and the hypothesis formed–a right objective view is key to equanimity.

To paraphrase Marcus Aurelius, at every instant circumstances and environment bombard us with information that gives rise to impressions or value judgments. According to the Stoics, we have to be very careful to give objective estimations or we may apply these reactionary value judgments to circumstances that require none. In essence, we become slaves to our emotions when we overly indulge in labeling events as “good or bad”, when in fact they may not be. So let’s apply this idea to driving. Imagine you encountered an erratic driver, flashing his lights, cutting people off, who ran a stop sign and was traveling well over the speed limit. Stop and think how you would react to a person driving in this manner. Now for many combat vets, including me, this instantly warrants the one-finger salute and a whole tirade of swearing and rage. Did you immediately create a value judgment as you imaged the situation?

Lets put Marcus Aurelius to the test again with an event in my own life. I had been practicing focusing on the small circle of control for about a year when I was on my way to see a Batman movie marathon. I was excited because the new third film was included. My son called while we were on the way to the show and informed us that he had been shot in the eye by a paintball. He was in shock, didn’t know what to do and called us instead of the 911 line. I was closer to him than any medical personnel so I rushed over to his location. I applied what I learned in combat life saver classes in the military, knew that time was paramount to save his eye.

Here is where the discipline of estimations comes into play, if you had seen me driving like maniac and somehow got the information that I was driving my son to the emergency room would your perception radically change? When I contemplated that day, I realized that I was applying reactionary value judgments on other drivers daily without knowing a damn thing that was going on with them. How do I know the reason why they are cutting me off? Or on the phone while driving? Or speeding? Could they be taking their son to the hospital? Rushing to get to the bathroom before they have an accident?

This story should drive home the point that misplaced value judgments skew our estimations. If you objectively look at a situation and have no real evidence of why people are doing what they are doing, then your emotional reactions are completely on you because you are the one placing the value judgments. When you begin to understand the power of estimations you realize you are better off demanding evidence, exercise more useful course of action and display emotional flexibility by realizing your views of the world may not be accurate. Those chained to the back of the cave are fairly certain about the shadows I suspect and that is where the real slavery begins.

So to simplify the second skill of applying objective estimations, I took a twofold approach. First I would visualize my trip ahead of time, running through my head any possible scenarios that may occur and applying objective estimations. For example, exiting the freeway I objectively visualize what traffic may do and thus be less prone to place reactionary value judgments when an incident does happen. The second half is, should a reactionary value judgment occur in real time then I would simply ask myself “Where is the evidence that your estimation is accurate?” or “Is your estimation useful to the point of taking right action?”

Combined with constantly being aware of which circle of control I was working in objective estimation took my Stoic practice to the next level. I’ve been testing Marcus Aurelius for about 10 years now and I have yet to prove him wrong. When I get angry, I know I’m focused on the large circle of what I can’t control and/or have placed a reactionary value judgment on circumstances that required objective estimations. I’ve found Marcus Aurelius right when he said reject your sense of injury and the injury disappears. Rejection is easy when objectivity is applied I’ve found.

In my journey, I never told my family about what I was doing nor asked them how I was progressing. I just did it and I can’t emphasize enough that Stoicism requires action, not talk or over-intellectualizing. It took years for them to see real progress. They remembered the antics of a cliché angry combat vet and those memories are hard to forget. One day – I never will forget – my daughters told me, “Dad you aren’t angry anymore.” That was after six years of taking action. I can report that it takes a lot to make me upset and lose equanimity today. I moved on from just applying these principles to non-emotionally charged events to o emotionally charged events like relationships. I think there is wisdom in applying skills in a daily, deliberate way as to work your way up to more difficult situations.

A decade of concerted practice has paid off. I get unsolicited feedback of “you are the calmest person I’ve ever met” often. To return to Plato’s cave allegory, I have learned to embrace what I have seen at the mouth of the cave, that if you call the shadows on the back of the cave anything other than shadows then your estimations need work. I realize those that have only seen shadows fall into the value judgment trap and are focused on the big circle of what they can’t control. Most of all I realize that combat was like being dragged to the mouth of the cave, but I’m not broken for experiencing it, just the opposite.

Like Vietnam combat veteran and POW James Stockdale has stated, I tested Stoicism and it passed with flying colors. As such I believe my life has been unleashed because of applying stoic concepts. But a word of caution as you practice Stoicism, I find that many in our society struggle when they encounter a well-practiced Stoic. It took my family years to adjust to my indifference about many things, my objective evaluations and calming of emotional reactions. It was worth the struggle and applied action. I wouldn’t trade my life for anything and my life has become unleashed. I’m currently trying to bring even more Stoicism in my practice to help vets. I talk about it all day long. In a real sense, Stoicism saved me and taught me how to address Plato’s concerns about the cave. I hope you find my applications useful and fate permitting, you apply them and test them for yourself.

 

Roger Johnston is a Clinical Social Worker who works with combat veterans and retired from the U.S. Army having experienced combat himself. Roger is currently in the crossing the return threshold stage of the hero’s journey and hoping to mentor others on their own hero’s journey.  Far from being a master of two worlds or a sage, Roger hopes to impart what little hard-earned wisdom he has learned in practicing stoicism for a decade.

Interview: Greg Sadler

Interview with Greg Sadler about his interest in Stoicism.

Dr. Sadler will be one of the speakers at the Stoicon 2017 Stoicism Conference in Toronto, on October 14th.

Gregory Sadler


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

I’m a guy who keeps pretty busy! I’m the current editor of Stoicism Today, a member of Modern Stoicism, and the co-organizer of the MKE Stoic Fellowship. All of those are volunteer positions, so I earn my living with my company ReasonIO, engaging in philosophical counseling, online teaching, public speaking, tutorials, and consulting. Through the Institute for Priority Thinking, I do ethics training and executive coaching. I also produce YouTube videos on a variety of philosophical thinkers and texts. After about a decade as a professor, I left the academy to do philosophy in more public, practical, and professional settings, but I still keep professionally active, by publishing and presenting in my field.

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

At times quite openly, and at other times, smuggling it in! When I’m training corporate clients in, for example, understanding and dealing with anger, they’re much less interested in where the ideas came from, and much more interested in what’s effective and applicable. Stoicism figures heavily into my work as a philosophical counselor, and I incorporate Stoic philosophy into a considerable portion of my public speaking, and teaching. I should mention, though, that rather than being exclusively a Stoic, I’m what you call an “eclectic” (much like Cicero), or if you like, a “pluralist”. I integrate and draw upon multiple approaches – Stoic, Aristotelian, (later) Platonist, even dialectical and existentialist – within my work.

When and how did you first become interested in Stoicism?

A long ways back, but at first only superficially. I’d say that I was attracted to some Stoic ideas – without knowing where they came from – back in my high school and Army days. And then I encountered Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and some modern treatments of Stoic ideas as an undergraduate philosophy major. But it was really only in my graduate studies that I’d say I really began to understand and appreciate Stoic philosophy’s scope, depth, applicability, and systematic nature. That happened through getting my hands on a copy of Epictetus’ Discourses. I got a second major spur to seriously studying Stoicism, once I became a professor, with my ongoing work on treatments of anger, emotion, and rationality.

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

That is a hard one for me to answer. Stoicism really is a systematic philosophy, and in my view – here a lot of people will say I’m dead wrong! – there isn’t just one single doctrine that is the most central. That said, if I had to pick one thing that I personally find most interesting about Stoicism, for me it would be a notion that we find most explicitly developed in Epictetus. It’s what he calls prohairesis, and what we often translate as “faculty of choice” or “moral purpose”, or (a bit misleadingly) “will”. This is the very core of the human person, and it is what we are working on – using itself to work on itself – when we are engaging in the kind of self-improvement Stoicism suggests we focus on.

In what ways do you think Stoicism still matters today?

The very number of people who are interested in Stoicism at present – and who stick with it over time – should tell us something! People from all walks of life and with all sorts of backgrounds are finding aspects of Stoic philosophy incredibly helpful or liberating when applied to their own lives. It’s one thing for academics and other professional practitioners to be interested in a philosophical approach, or even to apply it in their lives and talk about it with each other. It’s something entirely different when a philosophy from two millennia back has something to say to a much wider audience in our present-day culture.

How has Stoicism affected the way you live your life?

Not as much as it ought to have, or I’d have liked it to have! Oh – you were asking “How?”, not “How much?” I’d say that it has helped me place matters into perspective – with things that I do still sometimes let myself get quite affected by, more than I’d like. Getting angry, for instance: I do a lot of work on anger, and that was originally motivated by wanting to better understand and deal with my own feelings, responses, habits, and assumptions.

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

It’s one from Epictetus’ Enchiridion:

“When you are about to put your hand to some undertaking, remind yourself what sort of undertaking it is.”

We have a choice, but it is one that we have to make over and over again. What do we allow our desires and aversions to focus upon? For the Stoic, the way Epictetus puts it, it is keeping our prohairesis in accordance with nature. If we can stick with that – which isn’t easy, I’ll admit! – we’re going to be all right.

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

I’m a big believer in going to the original sources. There is a lot of excellent “secondary” literature on Stoicism available, most of which has been written in the last three decades. I’ve also produced a number of videos on Stoic thought – and have plans to create hundreds more – but that’s more or less like secondary literature as well. There’s nothing like actually reading the “big three” – Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius – and seeing for oneself what they taught and thought firsthand. You could add what we have of Musonius Rufus and Hierocles, and the very informative presentations of Stoic thought by Diogenes Laertes and Cicero.

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

Indeed I do! I think it’s quite astounding how quickly modern Stoicism has developed into a worldwide community of practice, connected up with each other in large part through the internet. It’s truly inspiring just to witness how many people have found Stoic philosophy to be useful to incorporate within their own lives. I’m also very pleased to to get to play my small part in the larger mission of the Modern Stoicism organization. I think there’s great things ahead for decades to come, and I’m looking forward to seeing what shape those take.


Gregory Sadler is the Editor of Stoicism Today and the president of ReasonIO. His popular philosophy-focused YouTube channels contain nearly 100 video lectures on Stoic philosophy

Interview: Chuck Chakrapani

Dr. Chakrapani will be one of the speakers at the Stoicon 2017 Stoicism Conference in Toronto, on October 14th.

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

I am a psychologist by training, and a data scientist by profession. I don’t approach Stoicism as a scholar, expert or philosopher, but as a student. A student sitting in the back row of Epictetus’ lectures, trying to figure what he is saying and (if it made sense), how to apply it to my own life. My view of Stoicism is that it contains some profound insights which, if applied to our everyday life, can change it for the better. And in short order.

My work (besides to my day job) currently centers on making the Stoic writings accessible to anyone interested in them. My book Unshakable Freedom shows how Stoicism can be applied to your life, no matter who you are or what you do. The Good Life Handbook is a slightly rearranged plain English version of Enchiridion. The current blog series Discourses in Plain English re-expresses Epictetus’ Discourses in modern English. For the past year or so, I have been devoting 20 to 30 hours a week to reading and writing about Stoicism.

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

This is a simple question. The way you do anything is the way you do everything. If I clearly see that “it is useless to worry about things over which I have no control” it applies equally to whether I get into a traffic jam or whether my presentation is received poorly by my colleagues. It is as useless to worry about a promotion that you did not get as it is to worry about a steak you already overcooked. Once you internalize some profound passages of Stoicism such as Marcus Aurelius’

Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness – all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil. But for my part I have long perceived the nature of good…” (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations II.1)

it often short circuits your frustration when you find someone annoying, unjust, or unfair. From my perspective, the principles apply equally to your work and to the other parts of your life.

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

I have been involved in Stoic thought practically all my life. When I was still a nerdy high school kid, I picked up a book by Marcus Aurelius To Himself, also called Meditations. Marcus Aurelius seems to have a special appeal to people who, like him, governed countries – America’s Bill Clinton, Prussia’s Frederick the Great, China’s Wen Jiabao – to name a few. The version I read was also a translation by a governor of a country – C. Rajagopalachari, the last Governor General of India. To me, Meditations was just an emperor’s thoughts which I found interesting. Several years later, I picked up a copy of Enchiridion. I still didn’t know much about Stoicism and didn’t connect it to Marcus. Later still, I came across Discourses, and for the first time, realized that they all refer to the same philosophical system, Stoicism. Subsequently, I tried to understand it as system of philosophic thought.

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

The opening sentence of the Enchiridion.

Some things are in our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, our reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not our own doing.” (Epictetus, Enchiridion I.1. Robin Hard’s translation.)

To me, this is the sword of wisdom that cuts through so much of our cluttered and confused thinking. For years I struggled with Niebuhr’s serenity prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change things I can, And wisdom to know the difference.

I don’t know about others, but for me, “wisdom to know the difference,” wasn’t easy to come by. Epictetus defined it to me.

Add to this the Marcus Aurelius quote I referred to earlier, and now we know the words and behavior of others don’t bind us either. All that is left for us is to enjoy the festival of life.

These two passages contain more practical wisdom than one hundred self-help books. Don’t worry about things you have no control over and don’t be reactive to what others say or do. That’s it. If you fully internalize the meaning of these two passages, I believe your life will change dramatically for the better.

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

Stoicism is timeless. When I read Epictetus, for example, I cannot help but wonder, “How is it that the same philosophy appealed to the least and the most powerful men living at about the same time? How is it that the thoughts of a slave, who lived two thousand years ago far removed in every respect from the world we live in today, resonate with me, are relevant to me, and make my days better?” We are psychologically the same. The form changes but the matter remains.

So, it is not question of whether Stoicism matters today. I don’t believe there ever was a time when it did not matter. There were only times when people thought it did not matter.

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

Sometimes I describe myself as a “Stoic minimalist.” I don’t practice Stoicism as such but use a few principles of Stoicism that have the potential to change one’s life. I already mentioned two. There are two more.

Don’t grow peevish about trivialities: Vinegar is bad, it’s sharp; the honey is bad, it upsets my constitution; I didn’t like the vegetables.” (Epictetus, Discourses, IV.4.25. Robert Dobbin’s translation)

The final one comes from these two quotes:

“I have to die. If it is now, well then I die now; if later, then now I will take my lunch, since the hour for lunch has arrived – and dying I will tend to later,” and

You will be able to view each and every day as a festival.
(Epictetus, Discourses I.1.32 & IV.4.46. Robin Hard’s translation)

As a Stoic minimalist, I just try to remember these four thoughts when I face any friction.

  1. Is this under my control or am I simply spinning my wheels?
  2. Am I reacting to someone without exercising my choice to act the way I want?
  3. Am I getting peevish about trivialities?
  4. Am I enjoying the festival of life that’s right in front of me?

Sure enough, things get better. I don’t always remember, and I don’t always succeed. But I remember enough and succeed enough that I can say that my life is far better because of that.

I am content to employ a few basic principles which, when practiced consistently enough, elevates the quality of my life and makes my life run smoothly. Maybe not all the time, but something like 90% of the time. And that is good enough for me.

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

I am glad you asked, because Stoic philosophers, especially Epictetus, are so eloquent, there can’t be just one. My favorite is this by Epictetus:

I have this purpose: To complete you, to free you from restraint, compulsion, hindrance, to make you free, prosperous and happy…and you are here to practice these things.” (Discourses II.19.29).

This is a breathtaking promise. It is audacious, uncompromising, unconditional, and unequivocal. Why is this my favorite? Not just because it is bold, but because Epictetus stood by it and never went back on that promise as long as he lived.

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

My advice would of course be biased. It would depend on why someone wants to learn about Stoicism. If they want to increase their general knowledge, I would perhaps refer them to someone like Massimo Pigliucci or Greg Sadler or Donald Robertson, who are far better qualified than I. But if advice-seekers want to better their lives, I would advise them to read something simple like the Enchiridion and reflect on the passages that particularly appeal to them. Apply them to their lives and internalize the principle. They don’t have to rush immediately to read Discourses, Meditations or Epistulae Morales There is time enough for that. A few profundities make one’s life far better than tons of trivialities.

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

I sometimes wonder if people make it more complicated than it need be to reap the benefits of Stoic thought. Isn’t it simple enough just to follow what makes sense to us, test it to see if it works? If it does, why does anything else matter? Why check if there is a god or not? Or even if you are virtuous or not? Maybe I am missing something. I don’t know.

Chuck Chakrapani is the founder of The Stoic Gym and the author of Unshakable Freedom, A Fortunate Storm, and The Good Life Handbook

Forgotten Realms? Stoic Philosophy’s Potential For Modern Secular Humanism by Sascha Rother

Studying philosophy should be of great value for all Secular Humanists. It represents a cultural endeavor to examine the human condition seeking answers to existential questions, answers that are not necessarily atheistic, but in many cases non-theistic or at least agnostic in their outlook. Moreover, philosophies, in particular those of Graeco-roman antiquity, offer elaborate world-views, showing people how to lead the “good and happy life”, which makes them especially attractive for adherents of a more practical Humanism.

It is therefore not surprising that, with the growing number of non-religious people, and people looking for ethical values outside (their) religion, there has been another renaissance of books written on that topic, further accompanied by talks, discussion groups in social media, as well as international activities (e.g. Stoicon). Although one can find offerings of this kind on almost every major ancient philosophical school (especially books on living), two schools nowadays particularly stand out: Stoicism and Epicureanism.

Being a Secular Humanist myself, I came across Stoicism about three years ago, and reading the works of the three great Roman Stoics, Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, as well as partaking in Stoic Week, I became attached to that philosophical tradition. Since then, I have been trying to communicate the ideas of Stoicism within the Humanist community, but found only a few, interested in this matter. Those with whom I could discuss it in more detail seemed rather skeptical, or even opposed to Stoicism; instead, they quite fervently sided with Epicurus. Looking at material of various Humanist organizations, and books by various authors, I soon realized that this was not by all means a national peculiarity: Stoic philosophy seems to have relatively little place within the Secular Humanist community. In contrast, Epicurean thought seems to thrive, and citations of his philosophical works regularly appear in all kinds of Humanist publications.

In his “Very Short Introduction” to Humanism the philosopher Stephen Law even considers Epicurus to be virtually the greatest among the predecessors of modern (i.e. secular) Humanism, since he adopted Democritus´s atomic model, and because of his criticism of religion and its belief in gods. Interestingly, however, although he does mention Seneca and Cicero, he does not say anything about Seneca´s close affiliation to Stoicism, nor does he say anything about the influence of Stoic thought (at least in part) on Cicero´s philosophical and political works. Given the fact that communities of Secular Humanists are predominantly atheistic in their outlook – in fact many advocate the natural sciences as the best way to understand the human existence, and there is a strain of Humanists who propose what they call Evolutionary Humanism – could it then be that there is some bias in their reception of classic ancient philosophies?

To clarify things, it is not my aim to refute Epicureanism, nor do I want to persuade Secular Humanists not to read his works or those of related authors; as Seneca used to say, “there are a lot of good ideas” to be gained from it, so “one should not trouble themselves where they come from”. Rather, I want to encourage Humanists of all sorts to study Stoic philosophy, as still today it is one major root of our understanding what humanism is about. To do this, I will address the area of physics (without theology), theology, and ethics, putting Epicurean and Stoic perspective side by side, and see if there are misconceptions on both sides.

As I already mentioned, philosophers, such as Stephen Law, but also others (like German philosopher, author, and speaker of the secularist Giordano-Bruno-Foundation, Michael Schmidt-Salomon), argue that Epicurus is the primary source for modern Humanism due to his advocating the atomistic word-view of Democritus. Schmidt-Salomon goes even further attributing him almost first-hand authorship of evolutionary theory. Now, two questions may be asked here: firstly, whether from a scientific point of view these perspectives will entirely stand up to scrutiny; and secondly, whether Epicurus was indeed the only philosopher who could be regarded as an advocate of these ideas.

As to the first point, there is no doubt that the sources, which both Law and Schmidt-Salomon refer to, could be understood in a way that, from hindsight, allows for a modern scientific interpretation. In the letter to Herodotus phrases like “changes (i.e. in the matter) are achieved through rearrangement, adhesion, or dissolution of atoms” sound as if Epicurus is anticipating what we know as modern chemistry; however, other assumptions of Epicurus concerning the origin of atoms, their indestructability, as well as their proposed movements are likely to dampen such expectations.

This is still more the case if we look at Schmidt-Salomon´s claim that Epicurus in fact anticipated Darwin´s evolutionary theory. Again, although parts of De Rerum Natura, in which Lucretius refers to Epicurus natural philosophy and cosmology, can be read accordingly (“Survival of the stronger and more useful animals”), it lacks essential elements of Darwin´s theory, namely the common ancestry of all organisms. Quite to contrary, its vision of extinct (if we can attribute this term to him) animals shows a rather crude and, to a certain degree, almost mythological idea of what the selection process and genealogy of animals (and other organisms) might be like. This, however, is not surprising, as it took Darwin a five-years voyage, and more than 20 years of additional research, until he dared to publish what became to be the most important theory in modern biology.

To do Epicurus some more justice, we must add that Stoicism in this regard does not do any better. Even if we interpret the Stoic concept of the Heraclitian flow of the elements in an ecological fashion (i,e, the interdependency of organisms and matter exchange in ecological systems), something that John Sellars terms the Gaia hypothesis, we are certainly better off without it. Looking further into other areas of both, Epicurean and Stoic natural philosophy and cosmology (e.g. the nature of earth quakes), we perceive similar, but from a modern perspective crude ideas about how nature works. Finally, we have to acknowledge that over-extending the boundaries of philosophical arguments as deductive tools for natural phenomena will likely lead us astray.

So, if ancient theories (Epicurean and Stoic) about nature have only limited value for a proto-scientific, humanist world-view, can anything other be drawn from it? Again, in De Rerum Natura, and Epicurus’ letter to Herodotus, the reader is advised to study nature as a means to realize the rationality of nature and “thus to soothe the soul”. For the Stoics, nature as they perceived it held no miraculous components, as everything was governed by a rational principle, the Logos. So, if there was no need to worry about natural events, could there be any other value to studying nature? It seems that Seneca got it right, when in his treatise “On Earthquakes”(book 6 of his Naturales Quaestiones) he expressed the following:

[…] It is a worthy enterprise to investigate the causes behind these occurrences. What, you ask, will justify this effort? The reward will be to know Nature, and no prize is greater than this. The subject has numerous features which will prove useful, but the perusal of this material contains nothing more beautiful in itself than that by means of its own splendor it engages the minds of men and is cultivated, not for the sake of profit, but for the wonder it excites. […]

“Isn´t it wonderful?” Nothing other than this exclamation by the physicist Carl Sagan (Pale Blue Dot), who is often invoked by Secular Humanists of all sorts to emphasize the beauty and awe-inspiring nature of a world-view based on natural science, could have echoed more this statement by Seneca, which also alludes to the Stoic notion of humans being integrated parts of a greater whole.

If Epicureanism cannot rival Stoicism with regard to natural philosophy, maybe it will do so when we look at their theology? Wasn’t Epicurus an atheist per excellence, whereas Stoics were committed to a belief in a god/God? To be precise, Epicurus never denied the existence of gods. He actually had quite an exact idea what they were like (i.e. made of). And the Stoics?

Considering myself a 9.9 atheist on a 1-10 scale, I have to admit that it took me a while to get over this talking about God/god, especially when I started reading Epictetus; but also the question about a providential universe, as discussed from Seneca on to Marcus Aurelius might be potentially off-putting to strict non-believers. However, one must take into account that by “god/God” the Stoics did not understand a personal (monotheistic) Deity that intervenes into the affairs of human beings. Rather, the more or less equal use of the terms “god,” “logos,” cosmos,” “nature” suggests that everything, including the human condition, could be understood in a rational, yet overarching way.

The transcendent aspects of this might be attractive to some, whereas to others they are not. But do we necessarily have to buy it all? As we have already seen in the case of natural philosophy, we should be careful about any uncritical reception. Nevertheless, one might argue, Epicureanism and Stoicism were meant to be taken as a whole, not cherry-picked for individual doctrines. I whole-heartedly disagree, and as I will now argue in the last part, we even have to do this for the sake of the most important part of Stoic philosophy, its ethics.

Both, Epicureanism and Stoicism were ethics-driven philosophies, meaning that physics (including theology), logic (i.e. cognition, thinking and language) were subordinated to the fundamental question as to how one should live the best life possible. For the Epicureans, pleasure and absence of pain were the ultimate goals in life. Everything else was to be seen in dependence of this principle, including virtue.

We must praise that which is noble, the virtues, and things of this kind, if they create in us the feeling of pleasure. If they fail to please us, we should not bother about them.

I encourage people to strive for endless pleasures, not for futile virtues, the fruit of which one can only hope to earn being full of restlessness.

Although Epicurus and adherents of his philosophy repeatedly tried to emphasize that by pleasure they primarily sought mental, not bodily pleasures (see: Letter to Menoeceus), we know from Cicero (in On Ends) that the ambiguous use of the word “pleasure” (Greek: hedoné) continuously raised problems, and apparently certain sayings by Epicurus also revealed this ambiguity to the term:

The beginning and root of all good lies in the belly; even wisdom and everything derived from it, is related to this pleasure.

Now, the Stoics would be the last to deny physical needs, and they readily acknowledged not only food, but also health as something that is naturally preferred by humans. However, it is also indifferent in relation to leading a good life – meaning for the Stoics a life, in which a person matures to the state, where they feel a strong inclination to care for the need of other human beings as much as for their own. The concentric circles of Hierocles give a good example of this attitude.

Or, as Marcus Aurelius put it:  “Human beings have come into the world for the sake of one another.”  This did not mean they were naïve concerning the potential malice which humans would often inflict upon each other, as he continued: either instruct them, then, or put up with them.”

We also find this attitude in another famous passage of his Meditations (II, 1):

Say to yourself at the start of the day, I shall meet with meddling, ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, and unsociable people. But I […] then can never be harmed by these people, nor become angry with one that is akin (i.e. of the same mind and origin) to me, nor can I hate him, for we have come into being to work together. […] To work against one another is therefore contrary to nature.

With this Marcus refers to the human nature particularly, but also to the greater nature, of which humans are a part. This is in stark contrast to Epicurus, one of whose fragments might be understood as a direct reply to the Stoic position:

Don´t let yourselves be fooled, you people, not be seduced, nor deceived! Believe me, there is no natural community for those endowed with Reason. Whoever says so, is cheating on you!

It is not surprising that from an Epicurean perspective the best life was conducted outside society, surrounded only by a lose array of like-minded friends; certainly, no philosophy probably had individualism spelled out larger than Epicureanism, and it is not surprising that the “pursuit of happiness” built into the American constitution by Jefferson bears these traits. It might also explain why many Secular Humanists, through their sense of non-religiousness, feel especially attracted to this kind of world-view. However, there is a bit of aloofness and self-indulgence to it, which in a way counteracts the claim of (modern) Humanism to strive for a better society.

But, looking at the US, and though-out world history, we also repeatedly find a strong emphasis on duty and public engagement (see e.g. T. Roosevelt, Citizenship in a Republic), and we encounter individuals like Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, or Martin Luther King, who through their commitments did neither seek pleasure, nor try to avoid pain. Instead, and regardless of any cost, they decided to do what they felt was right.

…but if we imagine, I say, that they (i.e. the gods) take no counsel about our affairs, it is still possible for me to take counsel about myself, and it is for me to consider where my own benefit lies. And the benefit of every being lies in what accords with its own constitution and nature. Now my nature is that of a rational and sociable being. As Antoninus, my city and fatherland is Rome; as a human being, it is the universe. So, what benefits these, is the sole good to me.” (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations VI, 44)

As Marcus Aurelius rightly recognized, the Stoic tenet of virtue as the basis of a good human life stands firm with or without a divine stamp of approval (see also: W. Ferraiolo, 2015). His saying also reflects the notion that the fabric into which our individual existence is woven is not only affected by our relationships at a communal level, but that as human beings we also contribute to the well-being of all humans, as well as our planet.

Given the many global challenges we are facing today, there is great need for public engagement, and a renewed cosmopolitan outlook. In this regard, Stoicism has a lot to offer that modern Humanists might want to get to know and then incorporate.

 

Sascha Rother is a natural scientist by training and got his PhD in Biochemistry. Living with his family in the city of Hannover, located in northern Germany, he is currently working as a teacher at an integrated secondary school. In his free-time he volunteers for the German Humanist Association (HVD) of Lower Saxony, where he currently holds the office of the local chairman.

Tickets Now Available for STOICON 2017

Ticketing is now set up for the Stoicon 2017 conference, which will be held this year Saturday, 14 October in Toronto at the Holiday Inn Toronto-Yorkdale.  You can view the conference schedule, order tickets, or find more information by clicking here.  The central theme for Stoicon 2017 (and for Stoic Week) is Stoicism at Work.

Earlybird discount tickets are available for online purchase.  There are also discounted tickets available for students in full-time education and for those aged 65 or older.  There is also a discounted rate available for rooms at the Holiday Inn Toronto-Yorkdale.

If you are interested in Stoic philosophy, whatever your background or occupation, this conference is meant for you. Our aim is to make Stoic philosophy accessible to everyone by highlighting its practical relevance to the everyday challenges people face in different aspects of modern life.

The keynote speaker is Margaret Graver, Professor of Classical Studies at Dartmouth College, author of the groundbreaking study Stoicism and Emotion.

Stoicon also features plenary addresses by Donald Robertson, Massimo Pigliucci, Chuck Chakrapani, Ronald Pies, Walter Matweychuk, and Jules Evans.

The breakout sessions will include longer (45 minute) talks by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman, and 90 minute workshops by Christopher Gill & Tim LeBon, Col. Thomas Jarrett, Greg Sadler & Andi Sciacca, and Donald Robertson.

STOICON In Toronto – October 2017

Earlier this week, we announced some of the information for this year’s Stoicon conference, coming up this Fall – Saturday, October 14 2017. After several years of being held in London, last year’s conference took place in in New York City (and with over 330 attendees, was so far as we know the largest gathering of people interested in Stoic philosophy in history).  This year, Stoicon will be held in another major metropolis – Toronto – and we are expecting it to be just as engaging a conference as the previous ones!

The theme selected this year – for both Stoicon and Stoic Week – is “Stoicism at Work”, a topic quite timely in our present era.  The conference will take place at the Holiday Inn, Yorkdale in Toronto.

Tickets can be booked online via EventBrite.

We will be posting more details about hotel rates and tickets for Stoicon in the coming months, here in Stoicism Today.  Keep an eye out for details forthcoming about events on the Sunday following the conference as well!

The full schedule – Fate permitting! – for the conference is available.  The morning will be devoted to a set of plenary talks by expert Stoic writers, researchers, and practitioners (and of course, informal conversations over coffee during the breaks).  After a break for lunch, we then resume and break out into a set of smaller sessions.  These provide either longer (45-minute) talks or intensive 90 minute workshops, focused on the key themes of the conference.  Then, after a short break, we reconvene for a talk by the renowned scholar, Margaret Graver, and then carry on the conversations at the reception.

Schedule

8 – 9am Registration and coffee

Plenary Sessions

  • 9am Introduction: What is Stoicism?
    Donald Robertson, author of Teach Yourself Stoicism
  • 9.30am How to be a Stoic: Conversations with Epictetus
    Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, author of How to be a Stoic
  • 10am The Stoic Minimalist: Practicing Stoicism, Avoiding Controversies
    Dr. Chuck Chakrapani, author of Unshakable Freedom: Ancient Stoic Secrets Applied to Modern Life

10.30am Morning break (30 min.)

  • 11am Stoicism, Buddhism, and Judaism
    Dr. Ronald Pies, author of Everything has Two Handles
  • 11.30am TBC
  • 12pm Stoicism and Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT)
    Dr. Walter Matweychuk, author of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy: A Newcomer’s Guide
  • 12.30pm Stoicism and Sport
    Jules Evans, author of Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations

1 – 2.30pm Lunch break: 

2.30 – 4pm Parallel Talks & Workshops

  • Stoicism and Values Clarification (Workshop)
    Prof. Christopher Gill, author of The Structured Self in Hellenistic and Roman Thought
    Tim LeBon, author of Wise Therapy
  • Stoicism and Creativity (Talk)
    Ryan Holiday, author of The Obstacle is the Way
  • Stoic Perspectives on Leisure, Work, Duty, Discipline, and Vocation (Talk)
    Stephen Hanselman, author of The Daily Stoic
  • Stoicism and Military Resilience (Workshop)
    Col. Thomas Jarrett, developer of Warrior Resilience Training
  • Dealing with Difficult People At Work – Stoic Strategies (Workshop)
    Dr. Greg Sadler, editor of Stoicism Today, co-founder of ReasonIO
    Andi Sciacca, COO of Big Mind Institute, co-founder of ReasonIO
  • Introduction to Stoic Psychological Skills (Workshop)
    Donald Robertson, author of The Philosophy of CBT: Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy

4 – 4.30pm Afternoon break

4.30 – 5.15pm Keynote: Stoicism & Emotion
Prof. Margaret Graver, author of Stoicism and Emotion

5.15 – 5.30pm Closing

5.30 – 7pm Reception
For more information, please subscribe to this blog, follow us on Twitter, or on Facebook.  As noted above, additional information about the conference will be announced in the coming months.