This year, Stoic Week will take place from Monday 25th of November to Monday 2nd of December. We are applying for funding to improve the resources available for the week, including a vastly improved booklet; more audio recordings of Stoic askeseis (spiritual exercises); and more robust measurements and scales. We decided it would be best to put all our resources into improving the resources available for the next Stoic Week in November/December, rather than rush everything for a Stoic fortnight in February. This way, there will be a strong foundation for Stoic weeks to run annually in future. At the moment, we are also investigating funding for other exciting projects related to adapting Stoicism for today, which could take the project in exciting parallel developments.
So keep practising Stoicism! Perhaps invite some friends and classmates to be Stoics for a week, or two weeks, and let us know how you get on!
For example, here in Exeter, we will be having out own Stoic week amongst staff and students in late February and early March.
This is a chapter, reproduced with kind permission, from the forthcoming work 50 Philosophy Classics, by Tom Butler-Bowdon and published by Nicholas Brealey. The book will be published on the 14th March, 2013.
In this guest piece, read about Heraclitus, the first Greek to place such attention on the idea of the Logos, or the rational underlying structure of the universe, a concept which later underpinned the practice of ancient Stoicism. Read and post your thoughts!
One of the great philosophers before Socrates and Plato, Heraclitus was the eldest son of the leading family of Ephesus, one of the main cities of the ancient Greek world and famous for its temple of Artemis.
We do not know a huge amount about Heraclitus, except that he avoided involvement in politics, was something of a loner, and, at a time when it was normal for philosophers to play a part in politics and communicate their ideas in speech, he focused on the written word. As a result, his thoughts survived him and his book of sayings became famous in the ancient world. Plato and others discussed him, but his influence was greatest among the Stoics.
It’s interesting to think about the shift, in late Stoicism, from the worship of Divine Nature to the cursing of Lady Fortune. I’m thinking particularly of Seneca’s consolatory letter to Marcia, where he writes this extraordinary passage:
We have come into the realm of Fortune, and harsh and invincible is her power; things deserved and undeserved must we suffer just as she wills. With violence, insult, and cruelty she will maltreat our bodies. Some she will burn with fire, applied, it may be, to punish, it may be, to heal; some she will bind with chains, committing the power now to an enemy, now to a fellow-countryman; some she will toss naked upon the fickle sea, and, when their struggle with the waves is over, she will not even cast them up on the sand or the shore, but will hide them away in the maw of some huge monster; others, when she has worn them down with divers diseases, she will long keep suspended between life and death. Like a mistress that is changeable and passionate and neglectful of her slaves, she will be capricious in both her rewards and her punishments. What need is there to weep over parts of life? The whole of it calls for tears.
Now, in other essays Seneca talks explicitly about Providence and Nature, and praises both. But he also often talks about Fortune, and the pitilessness we can expect at Her hands (it is usually anthropomorphized as a Her). There seems to me a tension there, an ambiguity about the forces that rule the universe. Are we the children of the Logos, a wise and benevolent god or goddess who orders all things to perfection, or are we under the sovereignty of Lady Fortune, a cruel and merciless bitch? Or possibly both?
One finds a similar ambiguity in Boethius’ Consolations of Philosophy, in which the narrator meets two goddesses – Lady Fortune, who is an evil seductress, and Lady Philosophy, who will help free the narrator from the wiles and devices of Lady Fortune. I haven’t read Boethius’ great work for a few years, and I’m no academic expert on either him or Seneca, but I wonder if there is a shift in late Stoicism towards more of a Christian or Gnostic view of Nature, in which it’s possible that external reality is under the sovereignty of an evil agency – Lady Fortune, similar to the Gnostic demiurge or the Christian idea of Satan – while there is a higher agency who is trying to free us from imprisonment by this lower malevolent deity.
Before Stoicism, of course, the Greeks got round this problem by characterizing Demeter, goddess of Nature, as both evil pitiless bitch and all-loving benevolent mother. Nature could be vicious and cruel to humanity, as personified by Demeter Erinys, Black Demeter, the grieving, venguful mother of Persephone. But she could also be placated, through the Eleusinian Mysteries, and humanity could come back into a more harmonious relationship with Her.
After the Socratic revolution, humans weren’t quite sure which aspect of Nature to see, either the loving benevolent face of Demeter the harvest goddess, or the vicious and vengeful face of Demeter Erinys. It’s like the famous optical illusion of the old hag / beautiful young girl. And that ambiguity, that optical illusion, is apparent in Seneca’s switching between Providence and Fortune. So it seems to me, anyway. I wrote about this in the past for a Stoicism blog series I did for the New Statesman, here.
In this Perspectives Article, John Sellars, Lecturer in Philosophy at Birkbeck College, London, discusses Philosophy as Medicine: Stoicism as Cognitive Psychotherapy.
“Distinct from philosophy of medicine is the idea of philosophy as medicine. Might philosophy itself have some therapeutic value? I want to explore this question by looking at the way in which ancient Stoic philosophy claimed to be a form of therapy and also the perhaps unexpected way in which a number of key figures in the development of modern cognitive psychotherapy have cited Stoicism as a key influence on their work. In short I shall try to show both that ancient Stoic philosophy is itself a form of cognitive psychotherapy and that it stands behind modern forms of cognitive psychotherapy as well…
This is a guest article, by Rohan Healey, author ofGreeks to Geeks: Practical Stoicism in the 21st Century. In this article, Rohan discusses the value of Stoic ideas for understanding the difference between making a ‘promise’, and making an ‘agreement’. Rohan also has a blog, which you can read here.
Why You Should Never Make a Promise
One of the most important aspects of the Stoic Philosophy of ancient Greece and Rome was the importance of distinguishing between what is within our power and what is not. And once distinguished, the idea is to concern ourselves only with what we do control and to stop worrying about what we don’t. However you do not need to be a philosophy professor to see the benefits of thinking this way, all you need is a little common sense. When we make a promise to another human being we are essentially saying that we can control that which is actually outside of our power to control. If I were to organise a date and I say “I’ll see you at 2pm on Tuesday, this time I promise!” I am telling you that I have the power to be there at that time regardless of outside circumstances, this of course is a lie. Now let’s say that Tuesday comes around, I’m on my way to the date but there is a traffic accident some way up the road and I get stuck in traffic while the emergency services do their thing.