Stoic Week Day One: Life

Welcome to Day One of Stoic Week.

MondayWelcome to Day One of Stoic Week.

By now, you should already have completed the online questionnaire, introduced yourself to either our Facebook or Google community, and read the introductory chapters, in preparation for the week ahead.

Please read today’s chapter online or download the the handbook and read it offline.

Now take a moment to consider today’s morning text for reflection and post your thoughts or questions about this to our discussion group.

From Maximus [I have learnt the importance of these things]: to be master of oneself and not carried this way and that; to be cheerful under all circumstances, including illness; a character with a harmonious blend of gentleness and dignity; readiness to tackle the task in hand without complaint; the confidence everyone had that whatever he said he meant and whatever he did was not done with bad intent; never to be astonished or panic-stricken, and never to be hurried or to hang back or be at a loss or downcast or cringing or on the other hand angry or suspicious; to be ready to help or forgive, and to be truthful; to give the impression of someone whose character is naturally upright rather than having undergone correction; the fact that no-one could have thought that Maximus looked down on him, or could have presumed to suppose that he was better than Maximus; and to have great personal charm. – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 1.14

Stoic Week Starts Tomorrow!

Stoic Week starts tomorrow, on Monday 17th October.

Stoic Week HandbookStoic Week 2016 begins tomorrow: Monday 17th October.

Please enrol now, if you haven’t done so already and read the introductory chapters, in preparation.

Start by introducing yourself to our Facebook or Google discussion groups.  Remember to complete the initial online questionnaires.

The handbook is already available to read on the web.  The downloadable versions will become available at 00:00 GMT.  These include a PDF version for printing, MOBI and AZW3 versions for Kindle, and EPUB for other e-readers.

There are also French and German translations available on the download page this year.

Table of Contents

  • Introduction
  • What is Stoicism?
  • Stoic Week: Your Daily Routine
  • The Stoic Self-Monitoring Record
  • Monday: Life
  • Tuesday: Control
  • Wednesday: Mindfulness
  • Thursday: Virtue
  • Friday: Relationships
  • Saturday: Resilience
  • Sunday: Nature
  • After Stoic Week
  • Appendix: Further Reading

Conclusion: The Philosophy of CBT

The concluding chapter from The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (2010)

Excerpt from The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (2010), copyright © Donald Robertson. All rights reserved.

Lead me, Zeus, and thou, O Destiny,
Lead me wherever your laws assign me.
I follow fearless, for even if I should become reluctant,
Wretched though I may be, I shall follow still.
Fate guides the willing, but drags the unwilling with it.

– The Hymn to Zeus, Cleanthes of Assos.

The Philosophy of CBTI hope to have shown that the origins of psychotherapy and self-help, especially of a cognitive orientation, can quite reasonably be traced to classical philosophical schools such as Stoicism. I think the reader will also perceive that the philosophical tradition contains a number of concepts, strategies, and techniques, which might expand the clinical armamentarium of modern psychotherapy, providing new means of facilitating cognitive, behavioural, and emotional improvement in today’s clients.

As discussed in the introduction to this book, the Socratic tradition may also offer a broader and, unsurprisingly, more philosophical perspective on the practice of psychotherapy, unconstrained by modern presuppositions about the nature of psychotherapy as a profession. Considering the bigger picture, the place of modern cognitive therapy within a philosophical tradition stretching back roughly 2,500 years, allows us to see modern therapeutic concepts, strategies, and techniques, as part of a philosophical “art of living”, rather than merely the tools of a “job.”

The enormous literary and philosophical value of classical texts, such as the writings of Seneca or Marcus Aurelius, add another dimension to the study of psychotherapy for those drawn to the beauty of thought and expression in ancient literature. These works have survived many centuries, and certain individuals in one generation after another have been drawn to them for both consolation and inspiration. The life stories of these philosophers too are often remarkable. Seneca? Epictetus? Marcus Aurelius? Our knowledge of their character and circumstances, and times in which they lived, undoubtedly adds something to our appreciation of their wisdom when it comes to coping with adversity in all its hues. These were intellectual heroes, veritable warriors of the psyche, who knew bereavement, torture, exile, infirmity, warfare, political intrigue, and betrayal, and who were responsible for the care of others facing similar circumstances. Vice Admiral Stockdale, the Vietnam veteran, is perhaps our closest modern equivalent. He described the ancient world of Epictetus as a dangerous “buzz saw” of adversity and misfortune, and he found himself against a similar metaphorical buzz saw in the dungeons of the Hanoi Hilton prison, where he almost gave his life to avoid betraying the incarcerated soldiers under his command.

I make no pretence to be a classical scholar myself, just one who happens to be well-positioned to comment on the overlap between the two disciplines of classical scholarship and modern psychotherapy. However, I hope to have been able to provide a little more scaffolding within which others may erect a more comprehensive and refined account of modern psychotherapy within the Socratic tradition, inspired by Stoicism and other ancient therapeutic approaches. My grasp of ancient languages is quite limited but where necessary I have modified the existing translations, or produced hybrids of them, which seemed to me to better convey their technical meaning to modern readers, especially psychotherapists. Where possible, I’ve tried to check my translations with others more adept in these matters. Undoubtedly, one of the greatest obstacles to the reception of ancient texts among modern professionals engaged in similar work is due to the language used in common translations, which are often quite anachronistic themselves. I would like to think that one day translations could be made of key texts, such as the Enchiridion, using the same terminology used by modern psychotherapists, where appropriate. Perhaps most crucially, I would suggest that the term “emotional disturbance” better and more accurately conveys the meaning of pathé to modern practitioners of psychotherapy than the conventional translation as “passion.” The false notion of the Stoic as a “cold fish”, someone “intellectualising” or “rationalising” things defensively, at the expense of feeling, has done more to deter modern readers than any other misconception. This could be redressed, perhaps, by emphasising the opposite view and formulating an explicit account of Stoicism, as previously discussed, which centres upon its theory of the ideal Sage as being animated by a philosophical love of existence; free from passion, in the sense of emotional disturbance, but nevertheless full of love, as Marcus Aurelius put it. The analogy with Spinoza’s “intellectual love of God”, or Nature, might perhaps act as a guide in this respect. Spinoza himself presents a system of philosophical therapeutics so similar to Stoicism that it is tempting to see him as their true modern heir in this respect.

To further assist the reader, I have provided the script of an exercise called the “View from Above” which can easily be read to groups of students, and which I hope provides some taste of the kind of mental exercise that Socrates or Epictetus might have approved of. We have used this script with hundreds of people over the years, and consistently found that they enjoyed the experience and appeared to obtain some benefit from it. We have also experimented with audio recordings of the same script, on CD or MP3, which clients appeared to find helpful. Some people find these exercises so appealing that they repeat them on a daily basis. Indeed, I have also attempted to provide a schematic reconstruction of the daily regime or routine of a Stoic philosopher, to try to help modern readers better envisage their use of the various exercises discussed. This cannot be a perfect reconstruction, but clear support for it can be found in the preceding chapters, and I hope that it will make the overall “art of living” clearer, as well as highlighting the kind of self-discipline apparently required to follow the Stoic path.

In conclusion, I hope that this work can be extended to form the basis of a more coherent appraisal and assimilation of classical philosophy within the field of modern psychotherapy. I intend –fate willing as the Stoics might say– to continue to publish my own research in this area. However, this initial effort will have served its purpose if it draws others to the subject and brings forth further contributions from other psychotherapists who see something of value in the philosophical literature. I have found the literature of classical philosophy to be of tremendous personal value, and have also drawn inspiration from it in teaching, supervision, and clinical psychotherapy. I am certain that others will benefit from it in similar ways and if this book inspires them to read Seneca, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, or other ancient philosophers, then I will be satisfied that it has achieved something indisputably worthwhile.

How would the ancient Stoics have dealt with hate speech?

By William Irvine.  Reproduced with permission from the original article on OUPblog.


Insults have lately been making headline news. Last year, the world witnessed an attack on the offices of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. Eleven people were killed, and another eleven were injured. The attackers felt that some of the cartoons the newspaper had published had insulted the prophet Mohammed, and they were willing to sacrifice their own lives to right that wrong.

In America, political pundits were astonished by the rise of Donald Trump. The rise was fueled in large part by his willingness to insult other Republican candidates, along with a wide array of ordinary citizens. Trump insulted women. He insulted war heroes. He insulted journalists. And this was just the beginning. The New York Times recently published a list of 258 people, places, and things he had insulted—on Twitter alone. There were also many verbal insults.

On America’s college campuses, insults made headlines of a different sort. Students complained that they were being bombarded by insults. As a result, they felt humiliated and even downtrodden.

I was initially puzzled by these last reports. Had college campuses—including places like Yale University—been invaded by louts, bullies, and bigots? Further investigation revealed that what instead had happened is that students—in many cases, with the encouragement of the university faculty and administration—had defined down what counted as an insult. They had, as a result, become hypersensitive to insults, meaning that just about anything could count as one. On one campus, for example, students were cautioned against referring to a mixed group of male and female students as “you guys.” The females in the group might feel left out, and as a result, their feelings might be hurt.

This last “insult” is an example of what have become known as microaggressions. They are such will-o’-the-wisp things that it takes training to spot them, and at many universities, there are people who are quite happy to provide that training. Once you start looking for microaggressions, though, you will find them everywhere, and as a result, you will end up feeling very insulted, which is what had happened on American college campuses.

At the same time as students were learning to spot microaggressions, they were being told that as individuals, there was very little they could do to defend themselves. What they had to do, when insulted, is to turn to the university administration for protection—or maybe even the campus police.

Double Herma of SenecaIf we could travel back in time and transport an ancient Stoic philosopher—someone like Epictetus or Seneca—back to the future, he would likely be astonished by efforts to sensitize students to insults. What these students need, he would assert, is to be desensitized! More precisely, they need to learn how to shrug off insults. Furthermore, telling students that they are helpless to deal with insults on their own only makes matters worse. Start thinking of yourself as a helpless victim, and you are likely to have a miserable existence.

The Stoics, after devoting considerable thought to how best to respond to insults, concluded that we would do well to become insult pacifists. When insulted, we should not insult back in return; we should instead carry on as if nothing had happened. It is, I have found, a very effective way to deal with many insults. On failing to provoke a rise in his target, an insulter is likely to feel foolish.

And if we feel that we simply must say something in response to an insult, the Stoics recommend that we engage in self-deprecating humor—that we insult ourselves even worse than the insulter did. I have experimented with this technique. A few years back, a colleague told me that as part of his research for a book he was writing, he was reading some articles I had written. I felt flattered. Then he lowered the boom: he explained that he was trying to decide whether he should characterize me as being evil or merely misguided.

There were many things I could have said at that moment, but I suspect that none of them would have been as effective as what I did say: “Why can’t you characterize me as being both evil and misguided?” It turned out to be a singularly effective reply. If I remember correctly, his only response was to complain that I need to take things more seriously—meaning, I guess, that when insulted, I need to let my feelings be hurt. By turning an insult into a joke, we prevent the insult from taking root in our psyche, where it will cause us to experience needless anguish.

What about hate speech, though? Should we remain silent in the face of a racist insult? It depends on the situation. But the one thing we should not do is take the insult personally. We should instead dismiss hate speech, in much the same way as we should dismiss the barking of an angry dog. We should keep in mind that the dog, not being fully rational, cannot help itself. The Stoics would add that if we let ourselves get angered or upset by a barking dog, we have only ourselves to blame.

The Stoics lived long ago and in a very different world than the one we inhabit. But because human nature has changed little in the last two millennia, their advice regarding insults remains as useful as ever. Has someone insulted you? If you can bring yourself to shrug it off, you will simultaneously reduce the harm it does you and deprive the insulter of the pleasure he might have taken in hurting your feelings. It is a win-win strategy.

Interview: Ryan Holiday

Interview with Ryan Holiday for Stoic Week.

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

It’s funny, introducing myself is probably my least favorite thing to do. I’ve always been an introvert and so one of the reasons I’ve always liked writing is that I don’t have to do that very often—I just say what I think or know and people take it or leave. Usually at parties, I introduce myself as “My name is Ryan and I am a writer,” and since most people assume writers are basically starving artist, that usually wraps up that part of the conversation and then we can talk about normal things and not work. The slightly longer answer is that I am an author who has written five books, three about practical philosophy and two about marketing and media. The latter due came out of my career as the director of marketing for American Apparel and my work with a number of other authors and public figures. My books on philosophy, The Obstacle is the Way, Ego is the Enemy and now, The Daily Stoic came out of my love of philosophy and history. They are filled with stories and advice for people who are trying to achieve things, solve problems and find their version of the good life.

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

I say that my books are books that feature stoicism as opposed to being works of Stoicism. I think it’s incredibly hard to add something new to the canon of ancient philosophy as a modern person. There is room to translate, extrapolate and illustrate—and that’s what I did in The Obstacle is the Way I took a single stoic exercise from Marcus Aurelius and built a book of inspiring historical stories around it. As a executive and an entrepreneur, Stoicism is also a part of my life. Something goes wrong—how do I respond? Stoicism is there. I have to make an ethical decision, I want to try to think about the Stoic definition of virtue. If I’m experiencing success—material or otherwise—well, what do the Stoics say about how to handle that. None of that is to say that I am perfect in my application (in writing or in life) but I try and I think I’m getting better the longer I do it.

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

I was 19 years old and I attended a conference with the radio and television host Dr. Drew Pinsky. I asked him for a book recommendation and he put me onto the Stoics. To say that recommendation changed my life does not go far enough. It has in fact directed the entire course of my life. Marcus Aurelius was what Tyler Cowen calls a “quake book” for me. It shook everything I knew about the world. I’ve since turned to it hundreds of times—good times and bad times—and consulted it in my most difficult moments. After Marcus, I fell in love with Seneca and then Epictetus. Then I moved on to Pierre Hadot. I believe I found your work and the connection to CBT shortly after that. It’s been a ten year journey now, and I still feel like I am at the very beginning of it. The books don’t change, but like Marcus quoted from Heraclitus reading them is like stepping into a river. We are not the same and they are not same because of it.

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

There’s a line that I like in Hays’s translation of Marcus Aurelius that I think sums up Stoicism and that I use as a good summary of the idea. I can actually type it from memory, here:

Objective judgement, now at this very moment,
Unselfish action, now at this very moment,
Willing acceptance, now at this very moment, of all external events.
That is all you need.

To me that captures the three disciplines (perception, action, will) very nicely. It tells you how to see the world, how to act in the world, and how to come to terms with the world. It is indeed all one needs. You could spend a lifetime trying to just live that quote.

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

Well, look we’re in a resurgence of Stoicism precisely because it does matter today. The reason that its found resonance with entrepreneurs and athletes alike is because not only are we in tumultuous times, but like the days of the Romans, many of us ‘stand alone in the universe.” What I mean is that with the decline of religion, even a decline in ideas like patriotism, leaves a vacuum. How should one life? What metric should they judge their decisions by? What matters? What doesn’t? These are questions that Stoicism helps answer. Or at least, they help me answer.

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

Like I said, Stoicism has helped me professionally and personally. I’m somewhat unique in that I also partly make my living studying and writing and speaking about this philosophy. I feel very lucky in that regard—because I would be doing it anyway. In any case, it is rare that a day goes by that I don’t think of some Stoic precept or idea.

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

A different times in my life I have loved different parts of Stoicism, but right now I really love this line from Marcus: “To accept without arrogance, to let it go with indifference.” We translated it in even pithier form in The Daily Stoic: “Receive without pride, let go without attachment.” To me it’s one of those perfect expressions like “And this too shall pass.” It’s a recipe for any and every situation. It makes you better in good times, stronger in bad times.

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

I usually tell them to start with the originals. Don’t read about Stoicism, read the Stoics. I think Marcus Aurelius is the most accessible, but Seneca is better for those who want more of a narrative and exposition. Epictetus is probably the hardest one to start with. One of the reasons we created The Daily Stoic was to give people a place to get a sampling of all the big three and then some of the others like Zeno and Cleanthes. You can also go to DailyStoic.com for a daily email of Stoic thinking and interviews. I’m a big fan of r/Stoicism on Reddit as well and post there pretty often because the discussions are great.

But the best way to start is the same way people have been starting with centuries: with one the text of one of the masters. Read it and think about it and read it again!

Obstacle is the WayQ: Do you have anything else that you wanted to mention while we have the chance?

Not really—I hope people like what I have to say. Not everyone understands or appreciates what I’ve tried to do with Stoicism but I do hope they can see that I am genuine in my interest (I don’t want to say passion) for Stoicism and I’ll talk about it with anyone, anywhere. I always try to explain that the vast majority of people are turned off to philosophy because of how its historically been taught, but if you sell them on what philosophy can do for them they are much more open to it. That’s what my writing is about and I’m going to bring Stoicism to as many people as I can that way!


Ryan Holiday is the author of three books on Stoicism: The Obstacle is the Way, Ego is the Enemy, and his latest The Daily Stoic.

Interview: William Ferraiolo

Interview with William Ferraiolo for Stoic Week

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

Some of my work might be worth reading, but I am an insignificant man who will soon pass on (as is true for all of us) and be forgotten. Most of the work I have published thus far can be found here.

I also have a book coming out in 2017. The title is Meditations on Self-Discipline and Failure: Stoic Exercise for Mental Fitness. That looks like a shameless plug, and it is, but I am far more interested in people reading my work and, hopefully, deriving some benefit from it, than I am in those people “getting to know me”. I don’t particularly matter. I am comfortable with that.

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

I am a philosophy professor, but I do not teach any courses explicitly devoted to Stoicism or any related subject matter. That is not up to me (a condition that I embrace with a Stoic/Nietzschean attitude of amor fati). The primary use of Stoicism in my work pertains to dealing with my colleagues, my students, and our administration. In the absence of a Stoic inclination, I might do things that would result in losing my job and getting arrested. Instead, I frequently remind myself that other persons, their words, and their behavior, are not entrusted to my control and, therefore, ought to remain matters of rationally cultivated indifference (though I do pay attention).

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

I never took any courses in graduate school that even mentioned Stoicism. This now strikes me as very odd. How does one obtain a Ph.D in philosophy without studying any of the Hellenistic schools – or any Buddhism for that matter? I became interested in Stoicism because I always had a bad temper, and I seem to have inherited an inclination to anxiety and depression from my father. When I was around 30 years old, and my knees and neck were destroyed from wrestling, football (American), and boxing, I knew that I could no longer release anxiety and the attendant aggression in combat and collision sports. A propitious encounter with the Enchiridion of Epictetus saved me from myself (so far, at least).

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

The centerpiece of Stoic counsel is learning to distinguish clearly between that which one can control and that which one cannot. The crucial correlate is emotional and psychological renunciation of any self-centered desires concerning that which lies beyond one’s control. How much needless frustration, anxiety, and despair issue from the obsession with events and conditions that lie beyond the direct control of the will? How much better off would we be if we just reallocated our intellectual energy to the small sphere of conditions over which we do have direct control (i.e. our will, our attitudes, our virtue, etc.)? I have enough flaws of my own to keep me busy. I will leave the external world to unfold as it may.

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

I live in the United States, and it is, in my judgement, a fading empire in precipitous (and irreversible) decline. Indeed, much of the Western World may be on the same moribund downslope. When the nation and culture that you grew up thinking of as “yours” (simply because you were born into them) start to become unrecognizable, corrupt, and self-destructive… Stoicism really comes in handy. I will pay attention, and I will observe the coming collapse, but I will do my best to avoid becoming what I behold. When I find myself mourning the impending loss of “my” culture, I remind myself that it is “mine” only by happenstance, and that nothing is really “built to last” in any event.

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

I now spend much more time and intellectual energy trying to rectify my own character and my own behavior than I did before I discovered Stoicism. This leaves far less time and energy for carping and complaining about other people, the state of political or economic affairs, or the dearth of wisdom and virtue in the public sphere (though I still manage to do all of that a lot more than a good Stoic should).

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

Book Two of The Meditations starts with:

Begin the morning by saying to thyself, I shall meet with the busy-body, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. But I who have seen the nature of the good that it is beautiful, and of the bad that it is ugly, and the nature of him who does wrong, that it is akin to me, not only of the same blood or seed, but that it participates in the same intelligence and the same portion of the divinity, I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him, For we are made for co-operation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth. To act against one another then is contrary to nature; and it is acting against one another to be vexed and to turn away.

Do that in earnest, and the day passes in relative serenity.

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

Start with Epictetus. Nearly all of the most beneficial techniques in modern CBT and REBT can be found in his Discourses and Enchiridion. From there, move on to Seneca and Marcus Aurelius. After working through the other ancient sources, check out the modern resurgence of Stoicism (of which events like Stoic Week are a wonderful part) and the authors of contemporary works about the application of Stoic techniques. This stuff still works!

Meditations on Self-discipline and FailureQ: Do you have anything else that you wanted to mention while we have the chance?

When you find that the world is driving you batty, remember that the world is not yours to control, and try to understand that whatever it is that is troubling you can be rectified… by working on yourself. That task is more than enough for any of us. Leave the world be. It never asked for your help.


William Ferraiolo has recently written a book entitled Meditations on Self–Discipline and Failure, due out in 2017.

Now Available: Stoic Week 2016 Handbook

The Stoic Week 2016 Handbook is now available to read in advance.

Stoic Week HandbookThe Stoic Week 2016 Handbook is now available for you to read in advance, in order to prepare for Stoic Week, which begins on Monday 17th October.

You can now read the online (web) version of the handbook, and complete the preliminary online forms.  The offline versions of the handbook, for use with e-readers, and printing, will not be available until Stoic Week begins on the 17th.

Interview: Tim LeBon

Interview with Tim LeBon for Stoic Week.

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

I’m a psychotherapist, life coach and educator who specialises in CBT and has a long-standing interest in the practical applications of philosophy. I’ve written two books. Wise Therapy is for counsellors interested in how philosophy can inform their work. Achieve Your Potential with Positive Psychology is for anyone who would like to discover what the new science of well-being has to offer. I’ve been part of the Stoicism Today project since its early days. My main job has been to design and implement research to determine whether Stoicism helps or not. We have got very positive results, and the more I learn about Stoicism and its positive impact, the more I have been drawn to Stoicism.

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

My background in both philosophy and psychology is pretty broad – philosophically I find elements of Aristotle, Epicurus, the Utilitarians and Existentialists insightful as well as the Stoics. As for psychology, I have trained as an existential psychotherapist and Cognitive Behavioural Therapist (CBT) as well as being informed by Positive Psychology and Compassion Focussed Therapy (CFT) and third wave mindfulness-based CBT approaches. When I’m working with a client I draw on the approach that has the most evidence base for their problem. Where the evidence doesn’t point towards one specific approach I try to find the best blend of approaches given my understanding of their issues.

So where does Stoicism fit into the mix? Many readers will be aware that Stoicism heavily influenced the founders of CBT, Beck and Ellis, so in a sense I am making use of Stoicism every time I practice CBT.  But there’s a lot more to Stoicism than the nuggets appropriated by CBT. For example, the Serenity Prayer wisdom of distinguishing between what you can control and what you can’t and then focusing on what aspects of your life you can control can be a revolutionary paradigm shift for people people have had an adverse life event – illness, bereavement, redundancy or being dumped.

When clients present with depression and anxiety, best practice is to use the most evidence-based approach for their problem, which is often CBT. Even in these cases though, Stoicism can sometimes turn out helpful in quite unexpected ways. One case I remember well was a man who presented with severe and chronic generalised anxiety disorder i.e. he worried a lot. We worked for a few sessions using traditional CBT, and we made some progress. Next session he walked in with a smile on his face announcing he felt completely differently about life. “What’s happened?” I wondered out loud. “Well, I googled you and saw that you were into Stoicism. So then I googled “Stoic videos” on YouTube and, wow, did they make a difference!” With the help of Marcus Aurelius and negative visualisations, this chronic worrier had come to realise that that the things he worried about – money and status – didn’t actually really matter in the grand scheme of things. Stoicism had reached the parts that other therapies could not reach!

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

I first read the Roman Stoics when I was an undergraduate, but to be honest I was put off by some of the metaphysics and seemingly uncompassionate language. Reading Richard Sorabji’s Emotion & Peace of Mind was a real game-changer for me as it clarified how a distinctly Stoic understanding of the emotions could be both plausible and helpful. I wrote a bit about this in Wise Therapy back in 1999. But it was only much later in 2012 when I joined the Stoicism Today team that I got a deeper and more sympathetic understanding of Stoicism, through reading and discussing Stoic ideas and taking part in Stoic Week myself. Trying out the version of Stoicism put forward in the Stoic Week Handbook is a really good way of understanding the ideas better and learning which of the many tools are helpful for you personally.

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

The things that really stand out for me are Stoicism’s focus on wisdom and virtue and its practical exercises. Other Greek philosophies such as Aristotle and Plato were great on theory but much less helpful when it comes to practice. Over hundreds of years the Stoics developed a gamut of tools to help develop wisdom and virtue. The more you go into it, the more you realise the wealth of highly readable books and helpful meditations and other practices that are available.

I now see Stoicism as working at 3 levels. At level 1, there are all the exercises you can use without necessarily going into Stoicism at a deeper level – such as the Serenity Prayer, morning and evening meditations, negative visualisation, View from Above and concentric circles of Hierocles.

At level 2 you begin to see Stoicism as a complete system, with its own views on what matters in life (ethics), the nature of the universe (metaphysics) and how we should use reason (logic). Level 2 has its benefits and drawbacks. On the plus side, Stoicism is a lot more powerful once you buy into all of its ideas. For example, at level 1 the Serenity Prayer tells you to focus on what you can control. The level 2 Stoic takes this much further as she believes that that the only thing you can really control is your own thinking and action. How exactly should you control your thinking and what should you do? According to level 2 Stoicism, you should live according to the virtues – so you should be wise, courageous, just, self-controlled and have a love of all humanity. This is within your control and, the Stoics add, if you do this, you will also be an excellent and flourishing human being. The Stoics then claim that being an excellent human being is all that really matters – virtue trumps feeling good every time.

So if you are upset by something – for example, to take the topic of my 2016 Stoicon workshop, the idea that Donald Trump might be the next US President, you first tell yourself to focus only on those aspects of the situation you can control. You next think about how you can respond virtuously to the situation – which in this case might be doing all within your powers to help those adversely affected by any policies that worry you.  It was this kind of paradigm shift that my chronically worried client experienced. Overnight he had become a level 2 Stoic, and that had shifted his perspective so much that he really didn’t care so much about what the Stoics call “preferred indifferents” which had been driven his generalised anxiety disorder.

The downside of level 2 Stoicism is that there may well be parts of the Stoic system that you don’t find very plausible or helpful. For myself, I struggle with the idea that virtue completely trumps not feeling bad and that feeling good matters so little. I find it more plausible to see there being a balance between being good, feeling good and doing good. That’s where level 3 Stoicism comes in. Here you integrate the acceptable parts of Stoicism into your own worldview. In effect, that’s what historically Stoics like Seneca did, and it’s what some modern Stoics do too. There is of course the question of how much you have to buy into level 2 Stoicism to be called a Stoic rather than someone who isn’t a Stoic but finds some Stoic ideas useful. Historically Seneca came into the first category and Cicero the second. Personally I find this debate less useful than trying to work out the details of a helpful and plausible Stoic-informed philosophy of life and its attendant practical applications. That’s what I want to focus on, and that’s the direction of my current personal research.

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

I firmly believe we need an alternative to religion to help foster living well. Relativism and pure hedonism are not very good alternatives. Psychology and science can help us learn what techniques work, but philosophy is needed to help us think about what matters in life and the nature of flourishing. Philosophy is needed in the search for wisdom. Stoicism has a large treasure chest of wise ideas and practices. My hope is that if blended with the best of twenty-first century science, psychology and psychotherapy practices it can help us build an effective philosophy for living for the twenty-first century.

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

For many years I was a part-time level 1 Stoic, using things like the Serenity Prayer when I needed them. These days I would say I am an advanced level 1 Stoic, working towards being a level 3 Stoic. For example, recently I’ve developed a little computer application which sends me several emails each day from a database of my favourite Stoic quotes, grouped by theme such as morning meditation, evening meditation, love of humanity, Stoic mindfulness and Stoic wisdom. I think these help me to be a better person, but I consider myself very much a prokopton – a work in progress.

Q: What are some of your favourite Stoic quotations and why?

Here are some of my favourites:

Some things are under our control, while others are not under our control. Under our control are conception [the way we define things], intention [the voluntary impulse to act], desire [to get something], aversion [the desire to avoid something], and, in a word, everything that is our own doing; not under our control are our body, our property, reputation, position [or office] in society, and, in a word, everything that is not our own doing. – Epictetus, Handbook 1

What a great opening to The Handbook! No preamble, straight into perhaps the single most useful nugget of Stoic wisdom.

Reason should be our guide. All our actions, from the smallest to the greatest, must follow her lead. As she directs, so we should do.  – Seneca Moral Essays, III 87

Great advice, especially when we think of reason as meaning our ability to stand back and think about what matters most in a situation, all things considered. This might well require training and practice.

If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable. – Seneca, Letters LXXI

Yes! I like to include this in my morning meditation to help me think about where I want to head that particular day as well as overall in life.

Virtue depends partly on training and partly on practice. You must learn first, and then strengthen what you’ve learned by practice. – Seneca, Letters Vol III

Right again! We won’t become more Stoic or more virtuous unless we commit to it, just as if we were learning a new language or a musical instrument. And how much more important is learning to be an excellent human being than learning these other things?

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

That’s an easy one. My advice is to do Stoic Week if you haven’t done it before. If you have done it before, do it again because, as Seneca says, excellence requires training and practice.  Practising Stoicism is by far the best way of finding out about it. You’ll find plenty of suggestions for further reading in the Stoic Week Handbook.

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

I would very much encourage people to come into Stoicism with an open mind. There will be bits you probably find puzzling or hard to agree with. That’s fine. Stoicism is a set of philosophical ideas, not a religion. So decide for yourself which parts you agree with, and use them. I hope you find them helpful.


Tim LeBon is the author of Wise Therapy and Achieve your Potential with Positive Psychology.

Interview: Christopher Gill

Interview with Christopher Gill for Stoic Week.

Christopher GillQ: How would you introduce yourself to our readers?

I’m a scholar of Greek and Roman philosophy. I’ve retired from University teaching (at the University of Exeter, UK) but I’m very actively involved in research, writing, and giving talks.

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

Although I]ve worked on many aspects of ancient philosophy in my career, in recent years I’ve focused on Stoic philosophy and writings, such as Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. I’m currently writing a book (Learning to be Good: Stoic Ethics and its Modern Challenge) about the features of Stoic ethics that I think are most important, and which can contribute most to modern philosophical thinking. I’ve also been closely involved since 2012 in a movement, ‘Stoicism Today’, which aims to present core ideas of Stoic ethics as guidance for a wide audience.

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

Over the last few years, I’ve come to think that, of all the ancient philosophies on which I’ve worked, Stoicism is the one that provides the best framework for living a good life. My involvement with the public presentation of Stoic principles is more recent, and was sparked by a small workshop I held at Exeter in 2012. This led to some fascinating collaborative work on the online course (‘Live like a Stoic for a Week’), run from 2012 to the present year, and large-scale public events on Stoicism in London (2013-15) and this year in New York (‘Stoicon’, Oct 15). It has been exciting working with psychotherapists like Donald Robertson and Tim LeBon, and Jules Evans a philosophical writer; Patrick Ussher, a PhD student of mine has contributed greatly to this movement too. I think this project could go on being helpful to people for many years to come.

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

There are quite a few, but here are three for a start.

  1. The idea that the basis for happiness lies within our power, because it does not depend on acquiring wealth or position or even on the health and well-being of our loved ones, but on leading a good life, or developing the virtues. So happiness consists in leading the best possible human life (‘the life according to nature’ as Stoics put it), and other things, while they do matter, do not form the basis for happiness in the same way.
  2. The idea that all human beings have the innate capacity to develop towards virtue and happiness, regardless of our specific inborn character, social background or educational level. Also, the idea that human beings form a kind of cosmic brotherhood (or sisterhood), and are ‘citizens of the universe’ because we all share this capacity. And also the idea that developing virtue and relating properly to other people are intimately interconnected.
  3. The idea that life is an ongoing project or journey towards the goal of becoming virtuous (and so happy) and relating better to other people and to the world or universe of which we form an integral part. Achieving virtue is not easy – even making progress towards it is not easy – but nothing else matters so much.

I think these are a really powerful set of ideas. I feel they form a key part of my framework for living and that they can do so for many other people.

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

I think Stoicism matters today because it offers a strong and coherent ethical framework, which can help us as it has helped people over the centuries since it was evolved in the 3rd century BC. I also think there are several pressing major problems facing us today that Stoicism can help us to reflect on. For instance:

  • Global warming and the environmental crisis. Stoicism teaches us to think about ourselves (human beings) as integral parts of the larger world and not just isolated individuals. It also teaches us to connect trying to develop the virtues and shaping our lives as parts of a larger whole. Global warming requires us to change our modern life-style fundamentally and Stoicism can help us to put this into practice.
  • Socio-economic inequality. Stoicism teaches us that happiness does not depend on becoming rich as individuals (or as corporations or nations) but on trying to lead a good human life and to develop the virtues. This can help to provide an ethical basis for tackling the huge gap between very rich and everyone else (greater even than in ancient Rome) that we are experiencing today.
  • The refugee crisis. We are living through the largest movement of people across the globe since the end of the Second World War. Stoicism reminds us that all human beings form part of a single brotherhood or sisterhood (or co-citizenship) and that our moral concern and sympathy should extend across local and national boundaries.

Q: Has Stoicism affected the way you live your life?

I think it has influenced the way I have lived my life for a number of years. For instance, when my wife died (aged 52) of cancer in 2010, I found it helpful (though not easy) to hold in mind the Stoic principle that our happiness depends on ourselves and not on our situation. I also found it helpful to reflect on my wife’s positive and inspirational approach to life and her caring attitude to other people and to try to build that into my life as far as I could. Being forced to confront the inevitable reality of death has given me a new realization of the value of life and the need to try to make something worthwhile of life while we can. These are all insights that Stoicism had too and that we can use Stoic writings to reinforce.

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

I think Marcus Aurelius puts some deep Stoic ideas in a powerful way, perhaps I could give two:

Do not act as if you were going to live for a thousand years. The inescapable is hanging over your head; while you are still alive, while it is still possible, become a good person. – Meditations, 4.17

 

Whenever you want to cheer yourself up, think of the good qualities of those who live with you: such the energy of one, the decency of another, the generosity of another … There is nothing so cheering as the images of the virtues displayed in the characters of those who live with you, and grouped together as far as possible. So you should keep them ready at hand. – Meditations, 6.48

The first passage sums up much I have said already – life as a project in self-development, the urgency of trying to live well while we can, the idea that happiness depends on ourselves and not on circumstances. The second passage brings out the importance of responding to what is valuable in other peoples’ lives and characters and trying to build their qualities into the way we live our own lives. It reminds us that, although Stoicism urges us to be take charge of our own lives this does not mean becoming isolated individuals or failing to value and care for those around us.

Meditations of Marcus AureliusQ: What advice would you give to someone who wanted to learn more about Stoicism?

Try and find some Stoic writings that you find helpful and illuminating and read them carefully and thoughtfully. These might be Epictetus’ Discourses, Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, Seneca’s Letters or his essays. Or you might want to tackle a more theoretical (but still readable) version of Stoic ethics, such as Cicero’s On Duties or On Ends 3. And, as E. M. Forster put it, ‘only connect’ these ideas and writings with your own daily life.


Christopher Gill is the author of several books, including The Structured Self in Hellenistic and Roman Thought.  He also authored commentaries on the modern translations, by Robin Hard, of Epictetus’ Discourses and Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations.