STOICON in New York, a Preview – Part I

STOICON in New York, a Preview – Part I

by Massimo Pigliucci


STOICON, the by now annual gathering of people interested in the theory and practice of Stoicism, is moving from London to New York, this year (and who knows where else in future editions, fate permitting). The event is scheduled for 15 October, and you can find more information here, tickets here, and even cheap accommodation with a fellow Stoic, here.)

The purpose of this post (and of a second one coming up in late summer) is to give you an idea of what the event will be like by introducing all our speakers and what they will be talking about, so that you can better appreciate some of the leading figures behind the Modern Stoicism movement (is that what it is?), as well as give your reasoned assent to the impression that this is a conference well worth attending…

I begin with Greg Sadler, the current editor of the very same Stoicism Today blog that you are reading. He lives and works in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, after being gone for 20 years — and very happy to be back there with his wife, Andi, a native of the place, like him. Greg started off as a more or less traditional academic (BA in Philosophy and Mathematics from Lakeland College, MA and PhD in Philosophy from Southern Illinois University), but rather unusually also did some teaching in a maximum security prison (no, he wasn’t an inmate). Over the years he has transitioned to a different career, still in philosophy, and occasionally still in the academy, giving talks, running workshops, or as a consultant, though he now more or less thinks of himself as a small business owner and entrepreneur.

Greg’s workshop at STOICON will focus on a classical Stoic theme: anger management. Anger remains just as problematic an emotion for us today as it was for those living in ancient times. Stoic philosophers provide us with a number of perspectives and techniques we can use to understand and address anger. Greg’s workshop will lead participants through examining, discussing, and applying insights drawn from Stoicism to deal with this troublesome emotion. He will talk about anger experienced by oneself, exhibited by others, and arising in our wider culture. (You can read one his essays on this, Other People’s Anger – Resources and Reflections From Epictetus.)

Next, I’d like to introduce you to Debbie Joffe Ellis, a licensed psychologist (Australia), mental health counselor (New York), and adjunct professor at Columbia University in New York City. She was born and raised in Melbourne, Australia, and is a well known public speaker and writer. For years Debbie worked with her husband, Albert Ellis, a renowned pioneer of modern cognitive therapies and the originator of the approach known as Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT). Debbie continues to present, practice and write about Ellis’ psychotherapeutic approach. Recognized as a world-renowned expert on REBT, she has been featured in a DVD produced by the American Psychological Association (APA) demonstrating and discussing the approach. The APA also published the book Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy that she co-wrote with her husband.

At STOICON, Debbie will give a talk in the morning and run one of the afternoon workshops. The talk is entitled “Albert Ellis: A model of Resiliency, Compassion and Stoicism in Action,” during which she will share some of the most significant events of the life of her husband, including a few of his most intense challenges and adversities — and the elegant and inspiring ways he applied his approach (influenced by elements of Stoicism) to enable him to cope, endure and overcome them. She will also show some rarely before seen video clips of him in his final years. Albert Ellis heralded in the cognitive revolution in psychology and psychotherapy, contributed to the changing of outdated and uncivil societal attitudes, and contributed to the well-being of countless millions of people through his writing, lecturing, counseling and example.

The workshop will be on “Introducing Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy: a Healthy and Empowered Way of Life.” Debbie will introduce the audience to the main aspects of REBT and its main techniques and applications. She will also give a live demonstration. As a consequence of learning the basics of this empowering, no-nonsense and compassionate approach, attendees will be able to recognize the inspiration and philosophy of Epictetus in the contributions of the Ellis’s, and be able to reflect on, compare and contrast their understanding of Stoicism with the wisdom of REBT.

Next up is my good friend Greg Lopez, who is very much interested in mindfulness. So, what is “mindfulness”? Sure, you may have heard of it, but can you define it off the top of your head? Give it a try now.

[pausing for you to give it that try, seriously…]

How’d you do? You probably got some aspects of it, but likely not all of it. Why? Because there is no one “mindfulness.” It’s a term with a lot of uses, and it means different things to different people. There’s not so much one “mindfulness” — but “mindfulnesses”!

At STOICON ’16, Greg, who is the founder of the NYC Stoics and a secular Buddhist, will go through two versions of mindfulness in both theory and practice: sati (Buddhist mindfulness as found in the earliest extant Buddhists texts) and prosoche (the Stoic practice of attention). Moreover, Greg will also be holding a special post-STOICON meetup. So if you’re from out of town, there’s reason to stick around!

One of our most esteemed academic speakers will be Julia Annas, a professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Arizona in Tucson. She has published a number of books, including Intelligent Virtue (Oxford University Press, 2009), in which she presents a new account of virtue and happiness as central ethical ideas, arguing that exercising virtue involves practical reasoning of a kind analogous to what we find when people exercise a practical skill. Annas also wrote Ancient Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2011) where she guides her readers through a number of ancient debates, moving away from the presentation of ancient philosophy as a succession of great thinkers, and giving a sense of the freshness and liveliness of ancient philosophy, as well as of its wide variety of themes and styles.

At STOICON Julia will give a talk on “Is Stoic virtue ethics as off-putting as it seems?” As we would surely agree, Stoic ethics has been found inspiring by many. But when we look at some of the claims that the Stoics make, particularly about virtue, they seem rather off-putting. We find that according to the classic Stoic doctrine only the wise person is virtuous, while everyone else is vicious, since there is nothing between virtue and vice. And to make things worse, the wise person is as rare as the phoenix. There are no degrees of becoming virtuous: it’s like being one foot under water, which is just as much below the surface as being 20 feet under. According to the Stoics, virtue is the only thing that is good (and vice the only thing that is bad), and it alone is sufficient for happiness. This position appears to be so extreme as to make it seem pointless even to start trying to become a virtuous Stoic. But Julia will examine some of these claims and show how they can be understood to be more reasonable in the context of other claims, and of Stoic theory as a whole. She will also address the issue of why the Stoics did present their ethical views in such very counter-intuitive ways.

Next up is long-time STOICON presence, Christopher Gill, a professor of Classics at Exeter University in England. Chris’ research area is ancient philosophy or thought, especially ethics and psychology. His most recent books are on Marcus Aurelius Meditations Books 1-6, translated with an introduction and commentary (Oxford University Press, 2013) and Naturalistic Psychology in Galen and Stoicism (Oxford University Press, 2010). Chris retired at the end of 2013, but remains active in research, publication, participation in conferences and public engagement. His main current project is a book on Stoicism and its potential contribution to modern thought; this is supported in 2015-16 by a Leverhulme Emeritus Research Fellowship.

At STOICON ’16 Chris will be giving a talk on “Can you be a Stoic and a political activist?” He will begin by challenging a common stereotype about what living a Stoic life involves. People sometimes suppose that Stoics thought you should accept with equanimity any situation in which you find yourself (including situations of political injustice) as being the result of Fate. Stoics do think you should accept situations which are genuinely inevitable, including your own eventual death and that of those close to you. But they do not think you should passively accept situations that you can reasonably try to do something about, even if this only consists in protesting against injustice. A good number of Roman Stoics, in fact, protested against what they saw as political injustice by the emperor in power at any one time; as a result they were often regarded as trouble-makers and sometimes killed or exiled. So, if we follow the ancient Stoics in this respect, there is no reason why we should not be a political activist, if we have a principled reason for acting in this way.

Finally, for this first installment, let’s turn to our keynote speaker, best-selling author Ryan Holiday, author of The Obstacle Is The Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph. Ryan is a media strategist and prominent writer on strategy and business — yeah, petty far from an academic philosopher, we like to mix things up that way. After dropping out of college at nineteen he went on to advise many bestselling authors and multiplatinum musicians. He served as director of marketing at American Apparel for many years, where his campaigns have been used as case studies by Twitter, YouTube, and Google and written about in AdAge, the New York Times, and Fast Company.

At STOICON Ryan will give the closing talk in the late afternoon. Drawing on a singular passage from Marcus Aurelius (“The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way”), Ryan will speak about the Stoic art of turning obstacle upside down. He will provide his insight into the success of some icons of history — from John D. Rockefeller to Amelia Earhart to Ulysses S. Grant to Steve Jobs — the use of an approach that let them turn obstacles into opportunities. Faced with difficult situations, they found their way to astounding success. Some of these figures had studied Stoic philosophy as young men or women — others understood it only intuitively. In any case, Ryan suggests, they were not exceptionally brilliant, lucky, or gifted. Their accomplishments came from the application of timeless philosophical principles that aim at excellence in any and all situations. He’ll also talk about how he came to Stoic philosophy and how he’s tried to apply it in his own life, in his writing and in his career in business.

Stay tuned for more STOICON ’16 speakers and topics coming your way soon…

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