Stoic Week 2012: The Student View

Christopher Thompsett, first year undergraduate student of Classics at Exeter University, offers his view of the Live like a Stoic trial, 2012. This report will be published in the forthcoming journal Pegasus, published by the Classics Dept. here at Exeter.

Stoic Week: The Student View

Christopher Thompsett

 From the 26th November to the 2nd of December 2012, volunteers worldwide participated in the first ‘Stoic Week’, an endeavour which would put to the test the philosophical school of Stoicism in applying its ethical theories to contemporary life. ‘Stoic Week’ was set up as a satellite of the Classics and Ancient History Department’s recent work on Health and Wellbeing in the Ancient World, which is considering what may be learned from the Ancient World’s practices in psychotherapy and diet for modern day living. The team which organised it included Professor Christopher Gill, Professor of Ancient Thought here at Exeter and Dr. John Sellars, lecturer in philosophy at Birkbeck in London. Making the work truly interdisciplinary, however, was the involvement of leading psychotherapeutic professionals, such as Dr. Donald Robertson, author of The Philosophy of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (which examines the Stoic roots of this therapy), and Tim LeBon, author of Wise Therapy, who, among other things, provided wellbeing surveys and questionnaires for the measurement of any psychological benefits. What started as a project for students taking Roman Philosophy here ended up attracting interest from all parts of the world, with 130 officially taking part. In this report, I hope to give some personal reactions to the events of the week in which we followed Stoic principles, reactions from fellow students, and also those who shared their experiences online through the blogosphere and in the press.

Prior to studying Roman Philosophy, it was very difficult to know what to expect from ‘Stoic Week’. Perhaps this is because of the modern cultural resonances of being a Stoic. The term ‘Stoicism’ has, for British culture, become inseparably linked with the trench and Blitz spirit, the Keep Calm and Carry On stiff-upper lip. For a Stoic, indeed, acceptance of those things which are outside of one’s control is an important factor. However, just as Epicureanism has often been malignly portrayed as hedonism, Stoicism has been portrayed as a cold philosophical creed, for which emotion was considered a hindrance for leading the good life. The two ideas, stiff upper lip and apatheia are not entirely dissimilar. Both stress acceptance of those things which cannot be changed, yet the outward reflections of them are entirely different. As was to become clear, Stoicism has at its heart the striving for eudaimonia, or “human flourishing”. For a Stoic, the goal is to lead a happy life, and happiness comes from not merely trying to remove negative emotions, but also from trying to cultivate good ones. This comes from gaining control and understanding the importance of individual responsibility for how one reacts to misfortune in one’s life, and the importance of maintaining a structured life based on ethical principles.  As Professor Gill, in the introduction to the ‘study booklet’ which participants followed for the week, wrote:

“I think one very valuable thing that Stoicism can offer is the idea that we can give our lives structure or coherence. More precisely, we can all give our lives structure or coherence (not just special people) – and we can do this in spite of all the problems and setbacks that seem to threaten any coherence our lives might otherwise have.”[1]

In line with this intention to develop a more structured, ethical, life, the study booklet included a host of Stoic exercises (or ‘askeseis’) to follow. The exercise which was found to be the most useful, according to a survey of participants after the trial, was a reflective ‘retrospective evening meditation’. This involved, for example, writing a journal to consider to what extent Stoic precepts were followed throughout the day (as Marcus Aurelius did in his Meditations). Another exercise, in the form of an audio recording provided by Dr Donald Robertson, was the ‘view from above’ meditation, which encouraged the listener to think of each individual as part of a wider world network of causes and effects, gradually seeing both one’s place in the world and one’s (important) role within it. On a personal level, the application of Stoicism to day-to-day life provided the most challenges, such as waking up earlier than usual for meditation. Waking up in the morning has always been a problem: it is a mixture of laziness and inertia, the feeling that sleep will be undoubtedly more interesting than learning Greek principal parts. But, of course, for Stoic Week, I had the words of Marcus Aurelius to inspire me when I woke up:

 

“Early in the morning, when you find it so hard to rouse yourself from your sleep, have these thoughts ready at hand: ‘I am rising to do the work of a human being’.”[2]

 

It is this feeling of purpose which pervaded the Stoic advice given to me during the week, and which is an integral part of the Stoic school. This motivation, however, can only take one so far towards the ideal Stoic sage. Mornings, with or without Marcus Aurelius, will always be difficult. But other than these marked incidents where I actively called to mind Stoicism, very little changed from day to day (there was still Latin to attend at 9 a.m.) Those to whom I spoke also concluded that they had not turned into Stoic sages overnight. The process of habituation was slow and it is comforting to remember that, for the Stoics, the sage figure acted as a kind of perfect ‘guide’ for one’s action in life, and was not someone that one would actually become. In any event, one would need more than a week of ‘Stoicism-lite’ to get to grips with ‘Stoicism proper’.

Then other questions began to raise their heads later on in the week, which put Stoic ethical principles to the test. A young man approached me asking for money in the vicinity of Exeter Central Station. He often begs in that area and I had seen him before, and had always refused him money. I find giving to beggars very difficult out of principle: there is an all too likely chance that one’s money is fuelling the drugs underworld. Pretending that one does not have any money is an often used lie of mine (frankly anyone who knows me could conceive of me going out without money, though that was not the case on this occasion). I decided from the doctrine of Stoicism that since I had the power to hand over the money, it was in my moral duty to give it and for others to consider their own moral positions. Later, in discussion with others, it was suggested that whilst it is quite clear that I had the power to give the money, I also had the power not to give the money. The Stoic emphasis on knowing what is in one’s power might actually be about understanding that the performance of right action is always something I can do, no matter what the circumstances. This highlights a question about Stoicism as an ethical creed. Whilst Stoicism might stress the mindset of individual human agency it does not always tell us what we should do, or, at least, knowing the exact Stoic ethical position needed for the above situation would have required much more study than one week could ever have allowed for. Therefore, it might have been better for the situation if I had not dropped my normal ethical frameworks.

As the week continued, the project began to be noticed by the national press. Patrick Ussher, the seminar leader for the Roman Philosophy course and coordinator of the online Stoicism Today blog, wrote for The Guardian‘s online page in order to put across this new reinterpretation of Stoicism on a wider scale.[3] However, the project received not entirely favourable press coverage. For example, Julian Baggini’s article in The Independent argued that the problem with Stoic Week was that it encouraged choosing your philosophical system based purely on its ‘therapeutic’ benefit, rather than on, for example, the intrinsic value of seeking the ‘good’. He wrote:

“It would be as stupid to become a Stoic because tests showed it tended to make people happier than Aristotelianism as it would to choose your religion, or lack of it, on the basis of which one tended to make people feel better.”

I think Baggini had misunderstood the project. In fact, Stoicism was considered ‘therapeutic’ in the ancient world, but in a different sense to Baggini’s understanding of that word. For the ancient Stoics, the attempt to live the ‘good’ life was itself ‘therapeutic’: a kind of therapy which, certainly, was not about just ‘feeling better’. In addition, when we compare Stoicism to our own contemporary forms of psychotherapy such as ‘cognitive behavioural therapy’, Stoicism has the potential to bring something more to our own therapeutic modes today. For example, its therapy draws on a rigorous philosophical structure in which therapy through meditation can be combined with ethical principles. Finally, the idea was not that we were ‘becoming’ Stoics so that suddenly those who had existing beliefs would somehow be ‘converted’ to Stoicism, but that it could provide some kind of additional basis for encouraging quality of life. Those who had pre-existing religious beliefs tended to suggest that the Stoic exercises which were practised during the week helped them to cast a different light on those religious beliefs that they held, rather than believing that they felt some kind of inherent conflict between the two, a point which emphasizes the values of Stoicism as a philosophical way of life.

One of the experiences which indicated the practical advantages of Stoic Week came from abroad. Joe Callahan from Massachusetts, USA, wrote on his blog about how he ended up in the emergency room after an accident, and in recovery decided to put Stoicism into practice. Stoicism provided for him a way of accepting those things which were outside his control, and of responding to those events with a calm disposition:

“I recognized that no likely result of this accident would prevent me from continuing my business, my practice of martial arts, my studies or anything else I wanted to do. Some things might have to be adjusted and be inconvenient but that was all about external conditions and not the well-being of my mind or character. All these thoughts did have a calming effect.”[4]

This story provided the way in which Stoicism can be effective in coping with serious trauma and for maintaining a positive outlook in the most difficult of circumstances. Of course many within the student body did not have life-changing experiences as a result of Stoic Week. Those that took part in the project, whom I interviewed recently, feel that they have had slight but noticeable change to their views on dealing with problems. Tim LeBon’s report at the end of Stoic Week after statistical analysis of the questionnaires showed an increase of approximately 10% on various measures of wellbeing and particularly in facilitating responses to negative emotions. For my part, Stoicism gives one better acceptance whether one ends up in hospital or is required to rise for an early morning lecture. And so, as I enter back into a world largely forgetful of Marcus and Epictetus, and yet again the trains have been delayed due to an incident at Ealing Broadway, it is time to put Stoicism into practice once again.


[1] Study Booklet, 4.

[2] Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 5.1.  (tr. Hard)

[3] For links to this, and other articles which appeared in the press, see the endnotes.

[4] From the blog agathoi.wordpress.com.

For more on the ‘Stoicism Today’ project:

Visit the blog for articles, resources, videos, the original booklet which participants followed during the trial, and for the report of the week: http://blogs.exeter.ac.uk/stoicismtoday/

Baggini, J. ‘Why are we so obsessed with therapy?’, The Independent.[1]

Ussher, P. ‘Be Stoic for a Week! Stiff upper lip not required’, The Guardian.[2]

Vernon, M. ‘A reminder that Stoicism can be divine’, The Guardian.[3]

For the more general information about work on the Ancient Healthcare: Modern Wellbeing project at Exeter University, see also: http://blogs.exeter.ac.uk/ancienthealthcare/


[1] http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/why-are-we-so-obsessed-with-therapy-8372420.html

[3] http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2012/dec/04/stoicism-can-be-divine-stoic-week

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