There Is Nothing Banal about Philosophy by Massimo Pigliucci

According to Socrates, the only evil is ignorance. This phrase has always been controversial, because it seems to be immediately refuted by the very well known fact that lots of people do bad things in full knowledge of what they are doing. Adolf Eichmann, for one, was not just a low level bureaucrat who followed orders during the Nazi program of extermination of the Jews. He was a high level officer who deliberately helped planning the deportations and killings, and who was openly proud of his “work.”

But it is always dangerous to dismiss something that a philosopher of the caliber of Socrates said, on the grounds that it seems prima facie (as philosophers are fond of saying) absurd. Far more likely it is that you have not fully understood what he meant. If that same Socratic attitude,
moreover, was then adopted and made part of their central philosophy by the Stoics, you can bet that there is more than meets the eye.

When I asked my colleague Nick Pappas, a careful and renowned scholar of ancient philosophy, about that famous Socratic phrase, he explained that the word actually used by Socrates is “amathia,” elaborating:

The root verb is ‘manthano,’ to learn. So etymologically the word just means a state of not having learned. Heraclitus uses the word a couple of times to mean extreme ignorance. It appears with more moralistic judgment in Euripides (Phoenissae, Medea, Bacchae), where it can mean stupidity or boorishness. These sources come before Plato. Within Plato the most interesting passage might be the Alcibiades Major 118a-c. There Socrates distinguishes the mere ignorance of ‘agnoia’ from the ‘amathia’ that Alcibiades and Pericles had.

Now Pericles and Alcibiades were not ignorant. On the contrary, they were among the most highly educated of Athenians. They were also not stupid. Again, we are talking about two brilliant minds. And they did what they did, in particular with regard to the eventually disastrous conduct of the Peloponnesian War by Athens, in full knowledge. Moreover, when Alcibiades repeatedly switched sides – from Athens to Sparta, then back to Athens, then to the Persians – he knew that he was doing something that his fellow citizens would consider wrong. But he thought so highly of himself, almost a god walking among men, that he felt entitled to do it. From his point of view, whatever course of action he decided on was the right one.

Socrates, of course, understood all too well that smart, educated and ambitious people are particularly prone to suffer from amathia, a sort of willful lack of wisdom. And he also knew that this condition typically leads not just to such people’s ruin, but to the ruin of entire populations
that follow them (often out of mere ignorance or stupidity, i.e., agnoia).

All of this is germane to an article recently published in Stoicism Today by Kevin Kennedy, who – like many others I have encountered – really dislikes my writings on amathia because he feels that they cheapen horrors such as the Holocaust.

Kennedy focuses on my discussion of the Eichmann case as presented in How to Be a Stoic. He correctly points out that Arendt’s interpretation of Eichmann as an example of “the banality of evil” has been criticized on the basis of both some inaccuracies in Arendt’s original account and because of new documents about Eichmann that emerged after the trial. This is all true, but makes no difference at all to my argument. In fact, if anything, it reinforces it.

Had Eichmann simply been a mindless bureaucrat who was following orders, he would have been no different from countless other Germans who allowed Nazism to flourish between 1933 and 1945. Those Germans were in turn no different from the Italians under fascism, the Athenians under Pericles and Alcibiades, even a good chunk of contemporary Americans under Trump. (No, I’m not comparing Trump to Hitler, I’m comparing the mindlessness of so many people who support obviously bad leaders, across time and cultures.) Those people were all victims of agnoia, not amathia.

Amathia is the more interesting condition because it illuminates in a new way the otherwise mysterious fact that some individuals with all the advantages of smarts and education still manage to engage in seriously immoral acts. In fact, Kennedy himself not only does not refute
my (well, really, Socrates’) argument, he repeatedly falls into contradiction throughout his article.

For instance, he writes:

[Eichmann] like the other main architects of the Holocaust, knew exactly what he was doing. He was aware of the suffering he was causing. … He also recognized that he was violating every moral and ethical standard developed over two thousand years within Western religious and philosophical thought. … He did so not just to please his superiors – as the Eichmann-myth would have it – but out of passionate ideological conviction. He shared the Nazi belief that the Jews were a parasitical race preventing their racial superiors, the Aryans, from taking their rightful place in the world, and he went to great lengths to ensure their destruction.

Precisely. Yes, the Nazi were aware that they were in violation of Western religious-philosophical thought. But they also were convinced that such tradition was corrupted, embodying the wrong morality, so to speak, and not one that would lead to the rightful (as they saw it) flourishing of the German nation and the Aryan “race.” That is a textbook case of amathia. Eichmann & co. did not get up in the morning, stand in front of a mirror and ask themselves with an evil grin: “what sort of horrors can I possibly commit today?” No, they were functioning under a different “morality,” and they were convinced that they were right. So was Alcibiades, and his righteousness cost the lives of tens of thousands of Athenians during the disastrous expedition against Syracuse.

Why think of people’s behaviors in terms of amathia rather than in the more stark, and psychologically satisfying, age old concept of good vs evil? Because Manichean, black and white conceptions of the world are not only not informative, but positively misleading. The world is complicated, and people even more so. It’s easy, and it feels good, to simply slap the label of “evil” on someone else and be done with it. But that label explains nothing, and does not prepare us for the next round of trouble, which is sure to come.

Kennedy doesn’t want any part of this, however. He writes:

The assertion that millions of Jewish men, women and children were slaughtered because the Nazis lacked knowledge of the true philosophical good is, while in a certain sense true, nevertheless a grotesque banalization of the Holocaust.

But we are never told exactly why invoking amathia as an explanatory concept is “a grotesque banalization.” There is nothing banal in Socratic and Stoic philosophy, though there certainly are paradoxa, a word that originally simply meant “uncommon opinions.” Kennedy seems to be confusing two very distinct concepts, understanding and justification, and it is precisely this confusion that leads him to be incensed by my suggestion that Eichmann was suffering from amathia. But to attempt to understand human actions is not at all the same as justifying them.

One of my literary and academic role models, the semioticist Umberto Eco, wrote a highly controversial editorial in a major Italian newspaper immediately after the attacks on 9/11, 2001. The title of the editorial was “Understanding Bin Laden.” Eco pointed out at the onset that what he wanted to do was to understand, not to justify. Nothing justifies the horrific destruction brought on New York City that day, but to say – as then President Bush did say – that the attacks were due to the fact that “they hate our freedom” is not only wrong, it truly is a “grotesque banalization.” Bin Laden was responding to decades of unwelcome interference by the US government in Middle Eastern affairs, not to mention to the presence of American military bases on what he considered sacred soil. That, in part, is what made him possible for him to recruit people who were willing to sacrifice their lives for what they thought was the greater good. Ironically, for those people it was the United States who was “the Great Satan.” See how easy, and irresponsibly dangerous, it is to slap the “evil” label and cause mayhem?

So, contra Kennedy, I think the concept of amathia is crucial not just to Stoic philosophy, but to our attempts to understand why people do horrific things. Such understanding is most certainly not aimed at justifying the Holocaust or anything else. Rather, it is aimed at preventing future occurrences of such horrors, by deploying strategies aimed at decreasing the likelihood tha future leaders will suffer from amathia. Let’s start by making the teaching of practical philosophy mandatory, if not for the general population at least for anyone elected to public office, and see if we can’t manage to reduce the chances of seeing another Eichmann, or Alcibiades.


Massimo Pigliucci is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. His books include How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life (Basic Books) and the second edition of Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk (University of Chicago Press). He blogs at FigsInWinter.

The Banality of Philosophy: A Response to Massimo Pigliucci By Kevin Kennedy

Photo of Hungarian Jews arriving at Auschwitz in May 1944. Photo by Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-N0827-318 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5367208

On January 20, 1942, a group of senior SS-officers and other high-ranking Nazi officials met at a luxurious villa, located on the picturesque Wannsee lake in southwestern Berlin, to discuss their plan to murder every last Jewish man, woman and child in Europe. They had been invited there by Reinhard Heydrich, the deputy leader of the SS and one of the main architects of the “final solution to the Jewish question.”

One of those present at this “Wannsee Conference” wast he 36-year-old SS-Obersturmbahnführer (lieutenant-colonel) Adolf Eichmann (1906-1962). At the time, Eichmann led the SS-Department IV b 4, which was responsible for the transportation of Jews to the ghettos, concentration camps and killing facilities in eastern Europe. He was also entrusted with organizing the conference, with writing the notes for Heydrich’s address to the participants and with producing a memorandum of what had been discussed and decided there (a document which would later provide crucial historical and legal evidence for the Holocaust).

After the war, Eichmann escaped to Argentina, where he lived for many years incognito, but in1 960 he was abducted by Israeli secret agents and brought to Israel. He was put on trial in Jerusalem, pronounced guilty of several major crimes – including mass-murder– and, on May 31, 1962, he was executed by hanging.

The Eichmann trial sparked a worldwide controversy after the publication in 1965 of the book Eichmann in Jerusalem, written by the German-American political thinker Hannah Arendt.[1] She had covered the trial as a correspondent for the New Yorker magazine, and had been granted access to Eichmann’s written testimony of his life. At the trial, Eichmann depicted himself as a simple bureaucrat who had only followed orders. (At one point, he blurted out the claim: “The popes ordered: I had to obey!”)

Eichmann’s perverted sense of duty, which had apparently left him oblivious to the suffering of his victims, inspired Arendt’s concept of the “banality of evil.” Eichmann appeared to Arendt not as a monster, but as a “clown” – a pathetically ordinary man who had sent countless innocent people to their deaths out of sheer thoughtlessness.[2] The problem with Eichmann, and with countless Germans like him, Arendt argued, was that they lacked the moral imagination to see the human consequences of their actions.[3] According to Arendt’s critique, Eichmann showed that evil need not be the result of malevolent intent, but of a simple failure to think. (Critics of Arendt were incensed because they believed that she had humanized a monster and therefore relativized his guilt. Many were also outraged because she had pointed out the complicity of some Jews in their own people’s destruction.)

Now, Adolf Eichmann has also become a regular topic of discussion within the Modern Stoicism community.  As many readers no doubt already know, one of the movements more prominent writers, Massimo Pigliucci, regularly presents Eichmann as a prime example of amathia, an ancient Greek philosophical concept, going back to Socrates, denoting a “lack of wisdom” which results from a failure to use one’s rational faculties. The term can also be understood as a kind of ignorance which results from a refusal to learn.[4]

Amathia can have horrific consequences, causing severe harm to others, even though the perpetrators harbor no evil intent. Socrates and Plato, as well as their respective students and schools of philosophy, shared this view. According to them, men and women never commit evil intentionally. Rather, they do evil because they lack the knowledge of what is truly good. Like the ancient Greek anti-heroine Medea – whom Massimo presents as a kind of “poster-girl” for amathia – they believe their acts are good or necessary. But they are tragically mistaken.[5]

The Stoics also adopted the doctrine of amathia. Marcus Aurelius, for example, states that if men do rightly what they do, we shouldn’t be displeased, if not, clearly they do it involuntarily and in ignorance. As every soul is unwillingly deprived of the truth, so it is deprived of the power of delivering to each man what he deserves. (Meditations, 11:18.) But intellect, by itself, is no safeguard against amathia. It needs to be guided in the right direction and exercised – something which Eichmann failed to do. Hannah Arendt saw Eichmann as

perfectly intelligent, but in this respect he had this sort of stupidity. It was this stupidity that was so outrageous. And that was what I meant by banality.[6]

 Arendt herself did not use the concept of amathia to analyze Eichmann’s debased moral condition. It seems rather that the philosopher Glenn Hughes was the first to view the Nazi atrocities as examples of amathia.[7] Massimo agrees with Arendt that Eichmann exhibited “intelligent stupidity” and he also concurs with Hughes that his crimes against the Jews resulted from amathia.[8] For Massimo, the case of Eichmann confirms the Stoic belief that people commit evil out of ignorance, an argument Massimo repeated at the 2017 Stoicon.[9]

Human beings can indeed do terrible things out of ignorance. History shows this over and over again. But the assertion that millions of Jewish men, women and children were slaughtered because the Nazis lacked knowledge of the true philosophical good is, while in a certain sense true, nevertheless a grotesque banalization of the Holocaust. In the case of Eichmann, moreover, it’s completely mistaken. He, like the other main architects of the Holocaust, knew exactly what he was doing. He was aware of the suffering he was causing, but it didn’t bother him in the least. He also recognized that he was violating every moral and ethical standard developed over two thousand years within Western religious and philosophical thought. He acted knowingly, willingly and voluntarily. Far from being a mindless automaton who was simply “following orders,” Adolf Eichmann went far beyond “the call of duty” in his efforts to hunt down Jews and send them to their deaths. He did so not just to please his superiors – as the Eichmann-myth would have it – but out of passionate ideological conviction. He shared the Nazi belief that the Jews were a parasitical race preventing their racial superiors, the Aryans, from taking their rightful place in the world, and he went to great lengths to ensure their destruction.

Outside of academic historical circles, however, this insight into Eichmann’s actions has not yet spread very far, not least because of the powerful influence of Hannah Arendt. Too many discussions about Eichmann – especially among philosophers – are still based on Arendt’s book about him.  But the historical research on Eichmann and the Holocaust have since advanced far beyond Eichmann in Jerusalem. Whoever wants to be conversant with the current state of the research should read the work by the German philosopher and historian Bettina Stagneth: Eichmann before Jerusalem.[10]  

Stagneth, like other contemporary Holocaust researchers, has availed herself of the many sources that have come to light since Eichmann’s trial. The most important of these regarding Eichmann are The Argentinian Papers, a compilation of writings by Nazis living in Argentinian exile, hoping to bring about a “Fourth Reich.” Among the Papers is a series of interviews Eichmann gave to its compiler and editor, the Dutch journalist Willem (“Wim”) Sassen (1918-2001), consisting of 1,300 written pages and 25 hours of taped material.

Some doubt the credibility of Sassen, who was a veteran of the Waffen-SS (he was a member of its voluntary Dutch division). Sassen also wrote for right-wing extremist publications after the war and belonged to a support network of exiled Nazis hiding in South America, a group that included the notorious Todesengel (“Angel of Death”) of Auschwitz, Dr. Joseph Mengele (1911-1979).[11] But it could also be argued that Eichmann would feel much freer to express his true convictions to a fellow SS-man than he would be to an Israeli prosecutor. In any event, Eichmann valued the Papers highly, instructing that they be published in the case of his death or capture.[12]The autobiographical testimony of Eichmann which Arendt used as a main source for Eichmann in Jerusalem, was actually written by him as part of his contribution to The Argentinian Papers. But it was fragmentary, and without the wider context of the entire document, which includes much more damning information about Eichmann, and which was not fully available in Arendt’s time, it was easier for her to view him as a technical bureaucrat instead of the vicious anti-Semite that he was. (In Arendt’s defense, the court that tried Eichmann also refused to admit the parts of the Papers they had as evidence, because their authenticity had not yet been verified.[13])

Furthermore, it now looks as though Hannah Arendt was not going to let any contrary evidence cast doubt on her novel and provocative interpretation of Adolf Eichmann and his crimes. One of the Israeli state prosecutors at the trial, Gabriel Bach, spoke in 2012 of what he saw as Arendt’s willful ignorance regarding Eichmann: “She misrepresented essential facts or ignored them”. When Bach first read Eichmann in Jerusalem, he was “astounded” to discover that Arendt, who had access to all the relevant documents at the time, had twisted the meaning of some of the most important of them into their opposites, “such as that Eichmann had clearly countered some of the clear orders of Hitler, in order to do even more damage.”[14] In truth, the evidence for Eichmann’s anti-Semitism is so overwhelming that it becomes hard to understand how anyone could still doubt it. But for many, it seems, that appears preferable to admitting that Hannah Arendt could have been so terribly mistaken.

As Stagneth says:

Humans simply prefer hope to despair. The theory of the banality of evil is a theory of hope: If evil arises from ignorance, the solution is as easy as a project of enlightenment. If we help people think for themselves, the world will be better. But—and this is an ugly “but”—there is an important difference between an inability to think and an unwillingness to accept thinking as worthwhile. Eichmann could think, and his writings and speeches are evidence of this. Follow the arguments, and you will find the thinker. This difference between “inability to think” and “mistrust of thinking itself” is crucial. Otherwise, we underestimate the real danger of National Socialism and every other ideology that wages war against reason. That’s the purpose of my research: to show that philosophy is defensible against this fundamental aggression. But I understand only too well why people, especially intellectuals, refuse to recognize this threat.[15]

What motivated Adolf Eichmann in his innermost being can never be proven without a doubt. We have to judge him on his deeds. But they alone are more than enough to damn him as a perpetrator of evil who was anything but banal. (Readers who find the term “evil” too theological are welcome to use the alternative “heinous crimes.”) After being sent to Budapest to organize the deportation of the Hungarian Jews to the death camps, Eichmann gave graphic descriptions of how he saw his role there. “Do you know who I am? I am a bloodhound!” “I keep the mills of Auschwitz grinding!” “I’m having the whole filthy band of Jews in Budapest murdered!”[16]

And it wasn’t the case that Eichmann was some kind of “desk criminal,” a pencil-pusher with no first-hand knowledge of the consequences of his actions. He didn’t need to “imagine” the suffering of his victims: he witnessed it first-hand. In Vienna, Eichmann personally participated in raids on the Jewish community there. It was his idea that “Jewish councils” also be set up in Vienna, so that the Jewish communities themselves assisted their persecutors in getting Jews to emigrate, while leaving their wealth and valuables to the Nazis.[17]

In an autobiographical text Eichmann wrote in prison – one which Hannah Arendt never saw, and which was then kept secret by the Israeli government for 15 years – he recalled witnessing many mass-killings. The sights were so grisly, he lamented, that he could only tolerate them by drinking heavily. He wrote that one mass-shooting he saw in Minsk was so bad he had to “drink schnaps like water.”[18] Nevertheless, Eichmann actively pursued the discovery of more efficient means of killing Jews. He held discussions on this topic with Rudolf Höss (1901-1947), commandant of Auschwitz, in the camp itself. Eichmann also personally inspected the gas trucks at Chelmno and the gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Far from being a passive recipient of orders with no convictions of his own, Eichmann proved himself, repeatedly, to be a committed Nazi and anti-Semite who showed tremendous energy and initiative when it came to the dispossession, transportation and mass-murder of Central Europe’s Jews.[19] In one of his interviews with Willem Stassen, Eichmann even belittled those who committed atrocities and then tried to distance themselves from their actions once the circumstances had changed. No one should claim they were only following orders, he said. “That is cheap nonsense, that’s just an excuse,” adding that humanitarian considerations only served to help “one comfortably ensconce oneself behind orders, edicts and laws.”[20]

To return to the central point, Massimo, as well as most Stoics, would no doubt contend that, while Eichmann certainly committed horrific crimes, he nevertheless did so out of amathia, out of ignorance of the true philosophical Good. In fact, Massimo anticipates criticism of using amathia to explain Nazi atrocities:

Whenever I say this [that Eichmann acted out of ignorance], someone is guaranteed to get outraged. What? Do I seriously mean to say that Hitler wasn’t evil? How could I possibly be so naïve? Or perhaps I harbor questionable sympathies? But as with many terms in philosophy, ‘evil’ and ‘ignorance’ don’t mean quite what we expect.[21]

In truth, both Hannah Arendt’s thesis of the “banality of evil” as well as the ancient Greek concept of amathia are complex ideas that defy “common-sense” thinking. In each case, the proposition is that those we consider to be evildoers are actually motivated by what they consider to be “good” or necessary. That is to say, they do not believe that they are doing “evil.” Some members of the Modern Stoicism Facebook group, responding to the same critique presented here, have agreed with Massimo that Eichmann indeed thought he was “doing good”, in the sense that he believed that ridding the world of Jews was necessary. In fact, in the most notorious part of The Argentinian Papers, Tape Number 67, Eichmann seems to confirm this view. Speaking at what was probably a small gathering of Nazis in Argentinian exile, Eichmann proclaimed: “What is useful for my people, is for me a sacred command and a sacred law. Jawohl.[22]

Nevertheless, to argue that Eichmann acted out of an ignorance of the good is to fundamentally misunderstand what the Nazis considered to be their world-historical mission: namely, to eradicate all obstacles to the ultimate triumph of the Germanic peoples in the racial struggle for survival. They knew full well that it was “wrong” to murder innocent human beings, they knew that what they were doing was “evil,” but that was precisely the point. As the Yale historian and Holocaust-expert Timothy Snyder has shown, the Nazis viewed traditional Western values such as the sanctity of human life, mercy, justice, fraternity and comity as Jewish lies that sapped the strength of the Aryan race.[23] They therefore had to be eradicated along with the Jews. They knew what “good” and “evil” were, but they consciously chose to pursue evil in full knowledge of the consequences.

Eichmann’s own familiarity with philosophy also went much deeper than what Arendt knew (or could have known at the time). Today we know that Eichmann was not only familiar with Plato, Spinoza, Kant, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, but he could also carry on fairly sophisticated discussions about them and their ideas. But he rejected the humanist elements of Western philosophy because they were incompatible with the crude social Darwinism favored by the Nazis. It was only in Jerusalem, when he was on trial for his life, that Eichmann concealed his own systematic anti-humanist world-view and placed his own ideas within the Western philosophical canon.[24]

Moreover, as Bettina Stagneth warns us, we should not to dismiss the “atavistic” ideology of Eichmann and the Nazis as “pseudo-philosophy.” Many academic philosophers at the time shared such views, including the man who arguably became the most important philosopher of the twentieth century, Martin Heidegger (1889-1976).  In 1933, the year Adolf Hitler came to power, Heidegger, referring to the tradition of Western rationalist thought, proclaimed: “We have renounced the idolization of an abysmal and powerless reasoning. We see the end of the philosophy which serves that.[25]” 

Adolf Eichmann committed evil purposely, willingly and knowingly.  There is a lesson here for modern Stoics: Just as the ancient Stoic belief in a sentient, wise, benevolent universe needs to be revised in the light of modern physics, so the Stoic doctrine that people only do evil out of ignorance needs to be modified in the wake of the Holocaust. Sometimes evil is done in full knowledge of its nature and its consequences.

To be sure, this is no new insight. St. Augustine, in his Confessions, believed that humans do evil, whether in the form of stealing pears or terrorizing entire populaces, precisely because they delight in the pleasure “of doing what we should not do”.[26] By breaking moral customs, norms and laws, men and women set themselves above the rest of humanity. But that doesn’t mean that Stoicism is helpless in the face of it. A Stoic education, for instance, could help prevent people from becoming evil in the first place. But we must also keep in mind that success is not guaranteed. Marcus Aurelius’ son and successor Commodus must have received quite a dose of Stoic philosophy while he was growing up, but that did not prevent him from becoming one of the worst tyrants to ever sit upon the imperial throne of Rome. Perhaps more importantly, Stoicism can guide our own actions as we try to respond to the consequences of evil, an important consideration in our own time, which is characterized by authoritarian demagogues, racism, terrorism, the ruthless exploitation of our natural resources and the reckless accumulation of individual wealth in full contempt of the general social welfare.

Before concluding, I would like to mention that I originally expressed my disagreement with Massimo on this subject on the Modern Stoicism Facebook page. Massimo generously devoted the time to give me a thoughtful response – for which I remain grateful – but he still begged to disagree. Massimo wrote: “Eichmann is a perfect example of amathia because he lacked wisdom, or he would have understood that what he was doing is ‘evil.’ The point is that he didn’t get up in the morning thinking ‘what sort of evil can I do today?’ but rather ‘how can I do my job well today?’ He may have ‘reflected’ on what he was doing, but from a standpoint of ‘ignorance’ (i.e., unwisdom, i.e., amathia).”[27]

Massimo here restates his argument that Eichmann acted out of ignorance of what is truly good. Again, this is to suggest that Eichmann, and all the other Nazis like him, murdered several million human beings because they weren’t thinking like Stoics. To reiterate, this appears to me to be both true, on one level, but also to be a banalization of the Holocaust. Moreover, Massimo remains mistaken about Eichmann, just as Hannah Arendt was. The historical record shows that Eichmann did not “get up in the morning thinking how he could do his job well” – in the sense that the kind of job he was doing didn’t matter. Eichmann’s words and deeds demonstrate instead that he devoted careful and sustained thought to how he could best execute the Nazi plan to humiliate, rob, expel, torture and murder Europe’s Jews.

In that sense, he truly did get up in the morning and ask “what kind of evil” he could do that day. Adolf Eichmann knew what he was doing. He was aware of the “Good” in the Western philosophical tradition, but he rejected it. The Nazis viewed Western humanist values as Jewish lies which only served to sap the strength of superior races and weaken them in the historical struggle for survival. That is why, in the eyes of the Nazis, the Jews had to be destroyed. Adolf Eichmann pursued this goal with energy, initiative and commitment. As the historian and Holocaust expert Yehuda Bauer puts it: “He was evil, but not banal. He read constantly, was highly intelligent and possessed broad knowledge. He referred to philosophy, to Kant. Hannah Arendt was wrong. Evil is never banal.”[28]

Hungarian Jews arriving at Auschwitz in May 1944. Photo by Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-N0827-318 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5367208

Kevin Kennedy is a German-American historian, lecturer, writer and commentator who lives and works in Potsdam, Germany. He is also the father of two children and a long-distance runner. He lectures on Prussian history, modern German history, and the Holocaust. In addition, he works as a local guide in Potsdam, Berlin and Dresden, and as a tour manager in Central Europe.


[1] In a 1965 West German television interview, Arendt said she rejected the label of “philosopher” for herself. Philosophers thought in eternal and universal categories, she said, something which she felt was no longer possible in the modern age. Arendt preferred to describe herself as a “political theorist,” Hannah Arendt and Political Theory. Challenging the Tradition, Edinburgh 2011, p. 1; for a discussion of the controversy: “The Excommunication of Hannah Arendt. Introduction by Amos Elon, in Hannah Arendt,” Eichmann in Jerusalem. A Report on the Banality of Evil, London, 2016, vii-xxiii.

[2] Arendt, p. 54.

[3] Arendt, p. 150.

[4] Massimo Pigliucci, How to be a Stoic. Ancient Wisdom for Modern Living, London 2017, pp.115-116.

[5] Pigliucci, pp. 109.110, 117-119.

[6] Interview with Hannah Arendt, quoted in Pigliucci, p. 113.

[7] Pigliucci, p. 116.

[8] Pigliucci, p.112-113.

[9] Do People Commit Evil out of Ignorance? by Massimo Pigliucci, https://modernstoicism.com/do-people-commit-evil-out-of-ignorance-by-massimo-pigliucci/ (last accessed on October 19, 2018).

[10] Bettina Stagneth, Eichmann vor Jerusalem. Das unbehelligte Leben eines Massenmörders, Hamburg, 2004. (English version: Stagneth, Eichmann before Jerusalem. The Unexamined Life of a Mass-Murderer, New York 2015.

[11] Adolf Eichmann vor Gericht: https://www.fritz-bauer-archiv.de/index.php/genocidium/eichmann-vor-gericht (last accessed on October 21, 2018),

[12] Stagneth, p. 535.

[13]The Lies of Adolf Eichmann. German philosopher Bettina Stangneth reexamines the Nazi commander—and the true nature of evil”: https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/10/the-lies-adolf-eichmann-told/381222/ (last accessed on October 21, 2018).

[14]  Als ich später ihr Buch las, war ich um so erstaunter, dass sie einige der wichtigsten Dokumente zum Teil ins Gegenteil verkehrt hatte – unter anderem die, die beweisen, dass Eichmann klar Führerbefehle hintergangen hatte, um noch mehr Schaden anzurichten, https://www.welt.de/kultur/history/article106393105/Er-sah-Leichenberge-und-stritt-fuer-einen-Anzug.htm (last accessed on October 21, 2018),

[15]“The Lies of Adolf Eichmann. . .”

[16] Ich bin ein Bluthund! Ich lasse die Mühlen von Auschwitz mahlen! Ich lasse das ganze jüdische Dreckspack von Budapest umlegen!, Stagneth, p. 80.

[17] Stagneth, pp.31.34.

[18] Holocaust. Das Böse ist niemals banal, Der Spiegel (33/99), http://www.spiegel.de/spiegel/print/d-14225495.html (last accessed on October 22, 2018).

[19] Stagneth, pp. 59-60, p. 63, p.80

[20] . . .das ist billiger Mumpitz, das ist eine Ausrede; humanitäre Ansichten [dienten nur dazu] sich bequemst hinter Verordnungen, Erlass und Gesetz zu verstecken, Stagneth, p. 285.

[21] Pigliucci, How to be a Stoic, p. 113.

[22]  Was meinem Volke nützt, ist für mich Heiliger Befehl und heiliges Gesetz, Stagneth, p. 391.

[23] Timothy Snyder, Black Earth. The Holocaust as History and Warning, New York 2015, pp.4-6.

[24] Stagneth, p. 288.

[25] Wir haben uns losgesagt von der Vergötzung eines boden- und machtlosen Denkens. Wir sehen das Ende der ihm dienstbaren Philosophie, Stagneth, 289. Heidegger made that statement at an electoral gathering of German scholars on November 11, 1933.

[26] St. Augustine’s Confessions or Praises of God in Ten Books, Dublin 1746, p. 47.

[27] https://www.facebook.com/groups/Stoicism/search/?query=Kevin%20Kennedy (last accessed on March 15, 2018.

[28]Er war böse, aber nicht banal. Er hat immerfort gelesen, war hochgradig intelligent und von breitem Wissen. Er bezieht sich auf die Philosophie, auf Kant. Arendt hatte Unrecht. Das Böse ist niemals banal, Holocaust. Das Böse ist niemals banal. Der Spiegel, 33/1999,http://www.spiegel.de/spiegel/print/d-14225495.html (last accessed on October 22, 2018).

Modern Stoicism In The New Year

As 2018 comes to a close – just a little more than six years after a first workshop at the University of Exeter – I thought it would be a prime time for a post discussing the activities, plans, and prospects of what has evolved into the Modern Stoicism organization. That’s what I set out in what follows below, with helpful perspective provided by other members of the team.

Before that (and at the end), I will also ask a bit of your time and attention as I make a fundraising appeal to you. As you might already know – or may read below – the Modern Stoicism organization does a lot of great work. Originally starting as a working group, it was recently formalized as a not-for-profit, and all of its work, activities, and administration are carried out by volunteers.

If you would like to make a monthly contribution to support the ongoing work of the Modern Stoicism organization, one of the best ways to do so is through our Patreon site. To learn more, or to make a monthly contribution, you can click here.

For those who would rather make a one-time donation, Modern Stoicism also has a Paypal account. Click here to be taken to the donations page.

What We Do At Modern Stoicism

10 years ago if you had scoured the internet for practical ideas on Stoicism, you wouldn’t have found very much. And if you were looking for any evidence that Stoicism helped people, you would have found even less.

Tim LeBon

During this last decade, the Modern Stoicism organization (originally Stoicism Today) and its team members have been centrally involved in the ongoing, rapid, and (to many) surprising growth of interest in adapting ancient Stoic philosophy to modern life. Here are the reflections of another team member on that development.

Who would have thought, even just a few years ago, that Stoicism – of all things – would go mainstream, appear in major international newspapers and magazine, and inspire people all over the world? A significant portion of that success and positive impact on human lives is the result of the efforts of the Modern Stoicism group, of which I am (Stoically…) proud to be a contributing member. From the Modern Stoicism blog to the annual Stoicon and Stoic Week, to two volumes of collected essays about Stoicism, this is the premiere site in the world to learn how to live like a Stoic.”

Massimo Pigliucci

These are among the major contributions and activities the Modern Stoicism organization provides.

Since 2013, we have organized yearly Stoicon conferences in Britain, America, and Canada. These bring together people interested in practicing and learning more about Stoicism with a variety of experts in the field, in an intense day of talks, workshops, conversations, and networking. We also help to organize and (in some cases) smaller local in-person events and conferences, called Stoicon-Xs (by analogy to the TED and smaller, local TED-X conferences).

Each year, International Stoic Week follows right after Stoicon. We provide an online class that allows people to incorporate Stoic practices and insights into their daily life for that week. The numbers of participants enrolled in the online course, downloading the handbook, participating in the exercises, and listening to the mp3 files increases every year. It is estimated that over 20,000 people have participated in Stoic Week over the last seven years. We develop, continually improve, and provide this class for free to people worldwide.

There is also a longer (4 week), more intensive online course – developed by Donald Robertson – which we also offer for free worldwide. This is the Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training course, and it runs yearly as well.

Each week (and sometimes more frequently), we publish a wide variety of content, contributed by numerous authors, here in Stoicism Today, which has become one of the most highly read blogs on Stoicism. As Massimo notes, the previous (and founding) editor, Patrick Ussher, also edited and published two excellent volumes bringing together some of the best articles from the blog.

What Else We Do

One of the other main functions of the Modern Stoicism organization is carrying out research on the application of Stoicism in people’s lives, looking for empirical evidence whether learning and using Stoic principles and practices makes any real difference. This involves considerable work gathering, interpreting, and reporting data, coordinated by our lead researcher, Tim Lebon

Now we have . . . mounting evidence that Stoicism really does help. . . . I’m particularly involved in the work on finding an evidence base for Stoicism. We know that Stoic attitudes and behaviours are associated with well-being, that being Stoic for  a week tends to increase well-being, that being Stoic for a month increases it by more and lasts for at least 3 month. We are in the process of developing a psychometrically-validated version of SABS, which tells you how Stoic are, and seeing whether the results stand for non self-selecting samples. We hope to continue show in what ways Stoicism helps and therefore contribute to its growth.

Tim LeBon

Since the very first workshop – which brought together academic experts, psychologists, and psychotherapists interested in Stoicism’s prospects for helping people improve their lives – this ongoing research project has been a major dimension of our work.

Another of the founding members of the organization has this to say about the wider aims and outcomes of our efforts.

There are two distinctive features of the Modern Stoicism movement. One is the positive and sustained collaboration in the organising team between different types of people (academics, writers and public presenters of philosophy, psychotherapists), all of us learning from and helping each other. The other, which is linked with the first, is our ability to present Stoic ideas in a way that has proved genuinely helpful to a really wide range of people across the world – men and women, young and old – and to show how it can shape and change lives for the better.

Christopher Gill

Another member highlights a further dimension in which modern study and application of Stoicism has significant potential.

 While it can (and does) transform lives of individuals, increasing sense of security and boosting overall satisfaction from one’s life, it also encourages political virtues.  Stoicism doesn’t promote withdrawal from community, quite the contrary, it provides a foundation for civility, social coherence and political responsibility. There is a great Greek and Roman tradition of Stoics’ investment in political affairs and we all learn from it in our own time, when so many of our democratic institutions falter

Piotr Stankiewicz

Our Goals for the Future

We fully intend to continue all of the areas and aspects of the work we have accomplished so far over the last seven years. You can look forward to seeing yearly Stoicon conferences and Stoicon-X events, yearly Stoic Week and SMRT classes, and weekly posts here in Stoicism Today. We’re still working out precisely what the plans are for Stoicon 2019, and we will be publishing information about that as soon as it is available.

Quite a few of the team members have already made major contributions to the growing modern Stoic literature in the form of books. Among them, I should mention Christopher Gill, John Sellars, Tim LeBon, Donald Robertson, Massimo Piglicucci, and Piotr Stankiewicz (as well as emeritus team members Jules Evans and William Irvine). You can look forward to seeing additional work along these lines by our team members in the coming years, including some new works coming out next year.

Modern Stoicism also maintains and adds resources to its YouTube channel, including videorecordings of some of the Stoicon presentations (so if you missed the conference, you can still see selected talks and workshops). For my own part, I will further develop my own stock of YouTube videos on key aspects of Stoic philosophy.

The psychological research will continue and expand, coordinated ably by Tim Lebon, and we are discussing some additional research projects. (Perhaps we’ll have another blog post specifically about that in this coming year). You’ll also see the Stoic Week sets of reports annually.

Another project that I’m anticipating this year is getting work underway on a third volume of Stoicism Today.  We’ll be taking a selection of the better articles from the past several years, having their authors polish them up (and in some cases expand them), and publishing another edited volume. We’ll also be looking for translators to help us get those articles into other languages as well.

Our Appeal To You

As you can well surmise from what you’ve read (and many of you readers likely already knew this), our organization, Modern Stoicism, does a lot of work important in – even essential to – the larger modern Stoic community. Nearly all of that work is done on a completely volunteer basis (there are a very few, frugal stipends for particularly time-consuming and demanding parts).

The team members put in countless hours of work, making it possible for people all over the world to enjoy and benefit from the Stoicon conferences, the Stoic Week and SMRT classes, the Stoicism Today blog (just to mention a few of these matters).

Why are we asking for money then? (you might ask). Although none of us are making money from these activities, pretty much everything does require some to be spent.

All those beautiful or striking images you see in the Stoic Week handbook, or the Stoicon schedule, or in parts of this site are the work of a graphic designer, to whom we pay just wages (justice is after all one of the cardinal virtues). Booking in a venue for Stoicon takes some significant outlay. Hosting websites has its own expenses.

If you’ve benefitted from the online classes, in-person conferences, or weekly articles Modern Stoicism has made available – if you’d like to give something back – or if you’d like to help us continue our work – then please do consider starting the new year by making a contribution!

Again, if you’d like to learn more about becoming a monthly supporter on Patreon, click here. If you’d rather make a one-time donation, click here for our Paypal page. From all of the members of the Modern Stoicism team, let me thank all of our supporters in advance!

And for everyone, just a few days in advance, from all of our team, let us wish you a happy and productive New Year!

How Buddhist is Stoicism? by Antonia Macaro

Each year, after the Stoicon conference, we ask the speakers and workshop leaders to provide transcripts or summaries of their presentations, so that our readership can enjoy some of the same opportunities for learning as the conference attendees.  We continue that series now with this piece by Antonia Macaro, summarizing her plenary presentation at the conference – G. Sadler, Editor

My talk at Stoicon 2018 was based on part of my book More than Happiness: Buddhist and Stoic wisdom for a skeptical age. Being a sceptical person myself, who had been interested in Buddhism and Stoicism for a long time but who could never quite take on board the more metaphysical principles that were tied up with them, I was interested in finding out what might be left if we discarded those more metaphysical aspects. Would that be just a few tips to be happier, as is often the case in the more popular versions of both Buddhism and Stoicism? This is what often happens with mindfulness.

My hunch was that there must be much more that we could usefully bring into our lives. I was also interested in exploring the similarities and differences between the traditions. Of course the perspective I arrived at is the result of a personal search. Others might choose to highlight different aspects. In any case, I like to think that both the Stoic philosophers and the Buddha would have approved of this kind of questioning approach, even if it were to lead to conclusions that are at odds with traditional ones.

Historical Background

The question of a potential direct transmission of philosophical ideas from Greece to India or vice versa is very intriguing, but the evidence we have is very limited. One way to think about this is that, as Stephen Batchelor points out, there was no East and West at that time, and the area between Greece and India in the 5th and 4th centuries BCE was in many ways ‘a single, interactive cultural sphere’. The area was occupied first by the Persian empire and then by the empire of Alexander the Great, and there must have been channels of cultural transmission through diplomatic and trade routes.

One of the few things we do know is that the Greek sceptical philosopher Pyrrho of Elis travelled to India with Alexander the Great in 334 BCE. He didn’t write anything but is said to have brought back a philosophy of agnosticism and suspension of judgement that had tranquillity as its aim. It has been claimed that these ideas were directly derived from early Buddhism.

Similarities

Of course there are many differences between Buddhism and Stoicism, but here I focus on some of the similarities that seem most striking to me. The overarching commonality is the diagnosis of the human condition. The Buddhist word for this (which is also the first ‘noble truth’) is dukkha: suffering or unsatisfactoriness. The description of dukkha is this:

birth is dukkha,
ageing is dukkha,
illness is dukkha,
death is dukkha;
union with what is displeasing is dukkha;
separation from what is pleasing is dukkha;
not to get what one wants is dukkha.

The main idea is that unsatisfactoriness is inseparable from life. Even if we have a great life we are all going to get what we don’t want and will eventually lose what we want and love. So given the way reality is (impermanent and dukkha), we are completely deluded when we believe, as we do, that the things of the world can make us happy or determine our unhappiness. In Buddhism these things are known as the eight worldly conditions:

  • gain and loss
  • fame and disrepute
  • praise and blame
  • pleasure and pain

The Stoics would have been very comfortable with the view that attachment to the things of the world is misguided. Diogenes Laertius left us the following list of Stoic indifferents (which we mistakenly think of as good or bad):

life, health, pleasure, beauty, strength, wealth, fair fame and noble birth, and their opposites, death, disease, pain, ugliness, weakness, poverty, ignominy, low birth, and the like.

Medical Metaphors

Both traditions saw themselves as providing a kind of treatment for this delusion. And to describe this they both adopted what we could call medical metaphors. The parallel is with medical explanations of physical afflictions. For instance, an infection is caused by bacteria and the therapeutic procedure is to reduce their population by taking a course of antibiotics, thereby restoring health. In a similar way, the disease that both traditions saw themselves as targeting is in broad terms human suffering; the cause is ultimately ignorance of how things really are and what’s truly valuable in life, which expresses itself in craving for and attachment to the things of the world; the treatment is following the path; the state of health is understanding and non-attachment, leading to tranquillity.

In particular, for the Stoics the disease was the faulty judgements that attribute good or bad to things other than virtue or vice (and which are inseparable from emotions, which are like the symptoms of the disease), and philosophy is the cure.

In Buddhism there are the four vipallāsas, or distortions of perception:

Sensing no change in the changing
Sensing pleasure in suffering
Assuming self where there’s no self
Sensing the unlovely as lovely.

We should, of course, do the opposite: appreciate that everything is impermanent, empty of self and inseparable from suffering, and therefore realise that what looks lovely on the surface actually isn’t.

Therapy

While both traditions saw themselves as providing a therapy or treatment, it’s best not to take these words too literally when it comes to comparisons with contemporary psychotherapies. Of course there are connections between these traditions and modern psychotherapeutic approaches. But what ‘therapeutic’ meant for them is not the same it means for us. Their aim wasn’t simply to feel better or function better, or even to achieve any particular mental state. What they were interested in was understanding how things really are and acting in accordance with this understanding, so something more like living truthfully.

Happiness

Another similarity between Buddhism and Stoicism is that they are both wary of what we could call ordinary happiness, arising from the satisfaction of our desires and from things going well in the world. For instance, Seneca writes that joy based on external things is constantly subject to turning into suffering:

we often say that we are overjoyed that one person was elected consul, or that another was married or that his wife has given birth, events which, far from being causes for joy, are frequently the beginnings of future sorrow.

Similarly, the Sutta Nipāta says:

what others speak of as happiness, this the noble ones speak of as misery.

There is real joy and happiness to be had in both traditions, joy that is more reliable and lasting, but it’s just not to be found where we normally look for it. Real joy is a by-product of other things, and the main ones I found are these:

  1. ethical conduct
  2. insight and understanding
  3. meditative states (mainly in Buddhism)

Common Elements

It’s interesting that one formulation of the Buddhist path points to these very areas as the fundamental ones to develop:

  • Sīla (morality or ethical action)
  • Samādhi (concentration or meditation)
  • Pañña (insight or wisdom)

Some scholars have argued that it’s sīla and pañña that are the essential elements. The two are described as very interdependent:

Just like two hands washing each other, ‘wisdom is purified by morality, and morality is purified by wisdom: where one is, the other is, the moral man has wisdom and the wise man has morality, and the combination of morality and wisdom is called the highest thing in the world’.

Developing insight helps to identify the right thing to do, just like working on one’s moral attitudes helps to see things in a less self-centred way. Again, a similar interrelation exists in Stoicism.

The third element is samādhi. It might look like this doesn’t have a parallel in Stoicism, but we only have to scratch the surface to see that it does. In the texts samādhi refers mainly to states of concentration, but it is a broad term that can mean meditation more generally. Walpola Rahula, author of What the Buddha Taught, even translates it as ‘mental discipline’. There is also another word in the Buddhist texts, bhāvana, which refers to mental and spiritual exercises intended to cultivate wholesome states. This included things like reading and reciting the texts and seems readily comparable to Stoic askēsis.

Translating this into more current terminology we could say that the elements of a good life are: seeing clearly, living ethically and a daily practice supportive of these aims. We don’t have to agree with either Buddhism or Stoicism about what cultivating each of these means exactly, but we can readily see that they are important areas to develop in a good life, and that this is independent of any good feelings arising from them. Seneca has a good analogy for this:

Just as in a field that has been ploughed for corn some flowers grow up in between, yet all that work was not undertaken for this little plant, however much it pleases the eyes … so too, pleasure is not the reward or the motive of virtue but an accessory.

Seeing Clearly

For both Buddhism and Stoicism, seeing clearly is about learning to mistrust misleading appearances and to value things properly. In Stoicism this means appreciating that virtue is the only good and vice the only evil, and challenging the faulty judgements (also known as emotions) that things other than virtue are good. In Buddhism there are complex views about views, but failing to see the truths of dukkha, impermanence and not-self would clearly be a pretty wrong view.

What could this mean for us? What should we value? To some extent that is for each of us to think through for ourselves. For me seeing clearly does involve accepting dukkha, impermanence and lack of control as givens in our life, and therefore choosing our values carefully, questioning some of the more superficial desires we have.

Buddhism and Stoicism tended towards the ascetic. I would include more of our embodied nature and emotional experience in the good life. There are things that have great importance in our lives and should be valued in full appreciation of their impermanence, such as relationships with people. Yes, valuing these things will make us more vulnerable to suffering, but it seems a price worth paying for the sake of a richer life.

In more general terms, seeing clearly is about critical thinking, valuing reason, looking for evidence, cultivating curiosity, awareness, reflection and intellectual honesty. It is also about a healthy scepticism and humility, about realising that our powers are limited and there’s a lot about the world and ourselves that we can probably never know. In this we could follow Marcus Aurelius, who wrote: ‘Things are wrapped in such a veil of mystery that many good philosophers have found it impossible to make sense of them.’

Living Ethically

The second element of the Buddhist path is ethics. Of course this is a central part of the Stoic path too, as virtue is synonymous with living according to our rational nature. Both traditions have a very high ethical ideal. Both the sage and the awakened person are thought of as having internalised morality to such an extent that their moral judgements are always correct and appropriate, and wholesome actions always flow effortlessly. In Buddhism, the awakened person has completely overcome the three ‘unwholesome roots’ of greed, aversion and delusion, and acts only out of their opposites – non-attachment, kindness and wisdom.

There are several perspectives we can take away in this respect, for instance the importance of intentions. In Buddhism there is a concept of wholesome actions, which are those that have wholesome consequences on ourselves and others, and these tend to be actions that are untainted by greed, aversion and delusion. So it comes down to intentions.

In Stoicism too, it is important to act with a virtuous intention, as in the famous archer’s analogy: what matters is intending to hit the target and doing our best to do so; what happens when the arrow leaves the bow is beyond our control. Seneca writes that when

a person sits by a sick friend, we approve. But doing this for the sake of an inheritance makes one a vulture awaiting a corpse.

Another way to think about this is in terms of ideal qualities, and a central one is compassion.

Compassion

In Buddhism, compassion is very strongly emphasised. According to the texts the Buddha agreed to teach out of compassion, despite being initially reluctant. Compassion is strongly related to kindness but is not very clearly defined in the texts, which often rely on stories:

Someone on a long journey becomes sick and exhausted. He is alone between two villages, both far away. Someone comes along and, seeing this, reasons that if the sick traveller were to be accompanied to a village and given food and medicine he would definitely recover.

The message is that we should be concerned about other people being free from suffering. But compassion has a tricky side, because too much dwelling on suffering can lead to aversive, unwholesome mental states. The dangers of compassion were felt even more strongly in Stoicism, in that compassion will often involve a judgement that something bad has happened to someone, and most of the time this would be a faulty judgement.

If we feel compassion for a beggar in the street, for instance, it’s probably because we think they are in a bad situation. In Stoic terms this is an emotion, which like other emotions betrays faulty thinking about the value of indifferents. Just like in our own case it’s not appropriate to feel pain as a result of things going wrong in the world – because these are really neither good nor bad – for the same reason it’s not appropriate to suffer alongside another person. Epictetus advises not to think of a consul as a happy man, or a poor man as wretched:

All these are judgements, and nothing more; and judgements concerning things outside our choice.

In both traditions it is important to be concerned for others’ wellbeing and motivated to do what we can to help others to be free from suffering. But compassion needs to be handled carefully. In Stoicism being compassionate without buying into faulty judgements means remembering that what is bad is not the actual situation but the suffering person’s understanding of it. In Buddhism we should counter aversive feelings by practising compassion without attachment, like the Buddha himself. Compassion, therefore, should be understood more as a slightly detached concern than anything like ‘feeling with’. That is why it needs to go hand in hand with equanimity.

Equanimity

Equanimity is a central goal in both Buddhism and Stoicism. The Stoics used the term apatheia to refer to their ideal of being free from passions. This is similar to upekkha in Buddhism, which refers to a sense of looking upon the goings-on in the world with a balanced awareness, without getting too involved in the ups and downs of the eight worldly conditions. It is important to point out that equanimity was valued not because of the mental state itself but because it reflected a truthful understanding of the world. Like compassion, equanimity runs the risk of being corrupted, in this case by indifference, and therefore it needs to be tempered by compassion.

Compassionate equanimity

Compassion and equanimity are complementary, and should be developed together, as a kind of compassionate equanimity. This marriage of compassion and equanimity is a slightly awkward one, in that there is a tension between withdrawal and engagement. Epictetus defended this by saying that some detachment is actually essential for fellow feeling, because if we allow love, for instance, to follow its natural course it can easily turn into its opposite. For me it’s an open question whether this is really viable, or whether caring inevitably involves attachment and leaving oneself vulnerable to suffering, just like any kind of complete tranquillity is likely to slide into indifference.

But if we take the ideal of compassionate equanimity with a pinch of salt, we can definitely adopt the two qualities as inspiration, because in practice most of us are likely to be very much in need of bringing both more kindness and more even-mindedness into our lives.

Spiritual practice

Our mental habits are engrained and hard to shift. Even if we know that everything is impermanent and no worldly thing can ever give us lasting satisfaction, it’s still difficult not to perceive things otherwise. This is why we need some kind of spiritual practice (the third element of the path).

Seneca for instance wrote:

Just as some dyes are readily absorbed by the wool, others only after repeated soaking and simmering, so there are some studies that show up well in our minds as soon as we have learned them; this one, though, must permeate us thoroughly. It must soak in, giving not just a tinge of colour but a real deep dye, or it cannot deliver on any of its promises.

Both Buddhism and Stoicism knew that to achieve the deep transformation they were after intellectual understanding was not enough, so the practical training was an integral part of the path. In Buddhism there were different kinds of meditation and a formal meditation practice, whereas in Stoicism as far as we know the practice involved more things like reading and memorising texts, daily reflection and visualisations, with the aim of really embedding the principles into daily life.

In concrete terms, the first aim of this daily practice is to become more aware of the contents of our mind, in particular the embryonic initial appraisals of good and bad that are normally outside our awareness. In Buddhism, for instance, that involves learning to catch what are usually called ‘feelings’, or immediate reactions to things in terms of good, bad and neutral. Similarly with the Stoics’ ‘impressions’ about the world, which tell us that things outside our control are good or bad, and that we should pursue or avoid them.

If we learn to notice these impulses we’ll be more able to take some distance from them and avoid acting on them automatically, therefore we’ll also be more likely to respond to things in a more reasoned and balanced way. Being able to do this could certainly be useful for any of us, as a lot of the time we do tend to react on the basis of habitual patterns and unreflective values and impulses.

Doing this requires developing what we could call mindfulness. We could spend a long time talking about the many definitions of mindfulness, but at bottom it’s a way of paying attention, a skill used differently in different Buddhist meditation practices. There are various analogies for this skill in the Buddhist texts. One is that of a cowherd watching his cows from the distance. Another is that of a gatekeeper of a town. Again this has a parallel in Stoicism. Epictetus, for instance, says that the philosopher ‘keeps watch over himself as over an enemy in ambush’.

Mindfulness can help to de-automatise habitual responses. And this is the foundation of ethical behaviour, because by creating that space between impulse and reaction we give ourselves the opportunity to respond to things with kindness and wisdom instead of greed, aversion and delusion. Of course this is difficult, which is why we need practice (which can but does not have to be a formal meditation). This is something that would surely come in handy for most of us in our daily lives.

Antonia Macaro is an existential psychotherapist with a long-standing interest in both Buddhism and Stoicism. She is the author of Reason, Virtue and Psychotherapy. Her most recent book, More than Happiness: Buddhist and Stoic Wisdom for a Sceptical Age, is published by Icon.

Musings of a Blind Stoic by Peter Lyons

My father first pointed it out. When I say to people I am partially sighted they often respond by saying that they also wear glasses. They then jump in their car and drive off. My father is now totally blind. He is nearing the end and is dying slowly and sadly. I cared for him for a decade. He went into a home last year. My little sister made the call. I was unable to do it because I loved him too much. I have 20 percent vision. The joys of genetics.  A few years ago I was down to 10 percent. A cataract operation gave me a reprieve. My life at that stage was a blurry daily routine of silhouettes and shadows. It still is. But at least I can now decipher the label on a whiskey bottle.

I was raised a Catholic. My parents demanded we attend church until our teens. In the later years I slept in on a Sunday and offered to attend a later mass. I then snuck off to the local train station for a smoke with the other nascent non believers. I would recreate inspired imaginary sermons when my mother queried my attendance.  I found the faith aspect of religion hard to accept. The controlling aspects relating to sex and sin now seem little more than the frustrated rantings  of pious men trying to deny their natural urges to give their creed substance. The concept of sin still largely eludes me. Most sin appears more ignorance or self harm than biblical wrongdoing.

Yet our reality necessitates a belief system. A code of conduct. Otherwise we truly are dust in the wind. Buffeted by random gales.

I am unsure how I stumbled across Stoicism. My elementary education suggested a stoic was a granite faced hard man unable or unwilling to display emotion. A man with the emotional capacity of a gnat. How wrong I was.

Stoicism meets a basic need for me. A practical belief system to meet the vicissitudes of life. I am a blind man in my middle years. I am a thinker unable to accept dogma or the preachings of other equally flawed souls who claim to have the answers. The world abounds with false prophets often delusional, frequently self serving.

The practicality of Stoicism is its main appeal to me. I have learned to recognize and appreciate what I can and can’t control. My attitude and opinions and responses lie within my domain of influence. Most else lies outside.

What I can’t control I have learned to let go. I constantly seek virtue in my thoughts and actions yet virtue is very elusive in its definition. I suspect it means right action and thought. It implies constant vigilance to ensure all interactions are as positive as possible no matter how trivial.

I appreciate the stoic concept of logos. A godly power that shapes the universe. Not a nice old guy with an avuncular expression and white beard sitting on a cloud benevolently observing his creations. More an awareness that we are all part of a whole. A universal flow of which our transistory existence is a tiny fleeting part. A flash of compiled unique atoms in a universal drama that will continue to unfold long after we return to the whole, just as it did before we gained consciousness.  We are each a unique flash in the pan. No more, no less. This provides perspective. Our individual irrelevance should allow us to explore our positive potential without fear of failure. We should cling to this understanding to ensure we make the most of our transitory being.

I appreciate the Stoic emphasis on negative visualisation. Maybe it suits my inherent morbidity. The cult of relentless positivity that accompanies modern consumer capitalism deludes and diminishes our existence in its shallowness. It invites disillusionment. None of us escape aging, decay and death so why deny it? Use this understanding to  appreciate the pleasure and potential of existence. To value each moment. Youthful fairy tales of “happily ever after ” are destructive in their creation of unrealistic illusions of reality.

Of course we should not feed our children tales of holocaust and genocide but the extreme opposite does not invite robustness or an appreciation of reality.  I have yet to meet such a blessed soul who has encountered ” happily ever after.” Maybe a large element of self delusion is a requisite for a good life. Pity us realists. Yet We are generally poorly served by the fairy tales of our youth. They set us up for failure and disillusionment. They deny the complexity yet subtleness and beauty of reality. Adversity shapes character for better or worse. if we taught our young this crucial message they would have a greater appreciation that the obstacle is the way. That meeting and dealing with adversities is core to our existence. That a smooth ride is the exception rather than the norm. Instead  we feed them tales of an unrealistic nirvana of human existence. Cruelty by deception.

Negative visualisation inspires positivity in me. What is the worst case scenario? Is it really that bad? Can I cope with it if it actually does transpire? The worst case scenario is often death. As a blind man who has cheated death on several occasions I no longer fear this inevitability. What I do fear is not making the most of my potential in the meantime. I once resolved to attain a meaningful tattoo each time I cheated the reaper. I am now running out of concealed  body space. Check the forehead and shins of the blind. If they are an active person these body parts will bear substantial scar tissue as a legacy. My falls are legendary. Unfortunately soft yielding females to break my falls have eluded me. Although I did once sit on a patched Hells Angel member at a gym, further adding to my scar tissue.

The Stoic belief in daily reflections has been a revelation to me. I am a writer and teacher so always felt that introspection came naturally to me. Yet the physical process of a daily written reflection has greatly enhanced my well being. It provides perspective. I send it to a dearly trusted friend each day. The physical process of writing seems to dissolve minor irritations. Many prove so irrelevant  they don’t warrant a sentence. Yet at the time they mattered. Regular Written reflection provides useful perspective

I often read the ancients. Marcus Aurelius, Seneca and Epictetus feel like old friends. This may sound pretentious. I don’t care. They feel like people whose company I would have loved. They talk about timeless issues and this makes them real to me. They are not blighted by prejudice or dogma. They aRe honest and open in their musings. They don’t hide their flaws. They are not seeking sainthood just wisdom. They are seekers of the “good life.” They are sincere in their quest for understanding what is the best way for a human to live his or her life. To encounter such voices is to recognise that others have thought the same thoughts, experienced the same feelings, sadnesses and joys. It is a panacea for loneliness.

We Moderns are constantly buffeted by transitory distractions. We are living in the most connected and affluent age in human history. Yet a void remains. A lack of real purpose and meaning. A sense that materialism cannot fill despite its superficial allure. Hedonism and consumption can provide fleeting satisfaction. Fame and fortune create Micheal Jacksons, Elvis Presleys, and that Trump guy. Religion requires faith in revealed truths. Stoicism provides a practical recipe for living a good life in the here and now. It is little wonder this gem of a belief system is experiencing a renaissance.

 
Peter Lyons teaches Economics at Saint Peter’s in Epsom, Auckland and has written several Economics texts.

Stoic Week 2018 Report Part 3: Impact on Well-being by Tim LeBon

One main activity of the Modern Stoicism organization is carrying out research on the impact of adopting Stoic practices, perspectives, and principles on those who do so.  Every year we run the Stoic Week online class, and we also gather valuable data through the surveys before and after participants engage in the class.  Tim LeBon is our lead quantitative researcher, and he does invaluable service in compiling and interpreting the data collected, producing a set of Stoic Week Reports.  This is the third report for this year, which you can download a copy of (with all of the appendices) by clicking here.

This report forms the third part of the report on Stoic Week 2018. Over  600 participants completed a set of questionnaires  both at the beginning and end of Stoic week, allowing us to assess the impact of doing Stoic Week on self-reports on well-being and on levels of Stoicism. For the first time we were using SABS 4.0, a longer and more comprehensive measure of a participant’s degree of Stoicism.

Overall Findings

In terms of improvements in well-being over Stoic Week, the results were similar to previous years, though slightly reduced on some measures. The completion rate was also broadly comparable with previous years.

  Stoic
Week
2018
Stoic
Week
2017
Stoic
Week
2016
Stoic
Week
2015
Stoic
Week
2014
No of participants at start 3702 2870 1803 2503 1953
Valid questionnaires completed at end 852 689 270 726 566
Increase in Flourishing 8% 10% 10% 10% 10%
Increase in Satisfaction with Life 12% 14% 15% 15% 16%
Increase in Positive Emotions 9.5% 11% 10% 10% 11%
Reduction in Negative Emotions 14% 14% 14% 14% 16%
Increase In Stoic Attitudes and Behaviours 10% 9% 11% 13% 12%
Completion Rate 23% 24% 15% 29% 29%

Table 1: Overall FindingsI

Impact on Flourishing

Participants reported on average a 8% overall increase in Flourishing[i]

Table 2 below shows the impact of Stoicism which on each element of Flourishing.

Flourishing Scale Item 2018 2017 2016 2015 2014 2013 Theme
1. I lead a purposeful and meaningful life. 12 15 15 16 14 10 Purpose and meaning
2. My social relationships are supportive and rewarding. 10 13 13 11 11 10 Relationships
3.  I am engaged and interested in my daily activities. 10 12 8 10 10 10 Engagement in activities
4. I actively contribute to the happiness and well-being of others. 7 10 10 10 8 8 Benevolent
5.  I am competent and capable in the activities that are important to me 6 8 6 7 8 5 Competent
6. I am a good person and live a good life. 7 8 8 8 9 8 Ethically Good
7. I am optimistic about my future. 9 11 10 12 11 18 Optimism
8. People respect me. 5 7 9 7 7 5 Respected

Table 2: Impact on Flourishing

As in previous years, results suggest Stoicism has a particularly large positive impact on purpose and meaning (item 1.)

Impact on Satisfaction with Life

Participants reported an  average 12% increase in satisfaction with life overall as measured by the Satisfaction with Life Scale.[ii].

Table 3  below shows which aspects of Satisfaction with Life increased the most. As in previous years, the theme of acceptance(question 5) showed by the biggest increase – 17%.

Percentage change by each question 2018% increase 2017% increase 2016  % increase 2015 % increase   2014 % increase 2013 % increase Theme
1. In most ways my life is close to my ideal 13 16 10 20 15 18 Life is ideal
2.The conditions of my life are excellent 10 11 13 13 15 11 Externals met
3. So far I have got the important things I want in life. 9 10 10 13 13 11 Needs met
4. I am satisfied with my life 11 14 13 14 15 17 Satisfaction
5. If I could live my life over, I would change almost nothing 17 19 24 20 17 17 Acceptance

Table 3: Impact on  Satisfaction with Life 

Impact on Emotions

There was a substantial increase in positive emotions and decrease in negative emotions as reported by participants who took part in Stoic Week.  There was a greater shift in negative emotions than positive emotions (14% as opposed to 9,5%) as measured by the SPANE.[iii]  The positive emotions that showed the biggest changes in 2018 were “contented“ ( up 14%). All the negative emotions  showed a significant reduction of between 13 and 15%. Tables 4 and 5 below shows the impact of Stoic Week on positive and negative emotions.

Positive Emotions 2018 % change 2017 % change 2016 % change 2015 % change 2014 % change 2013 % change
Average
positive
9.5 11 10 10 11   9
Contented 14 14 15 14 14 12
Joyful 11 14 12 13 13 12
Happy 10 11 7 11 9 9
Good 7 9 8 9 10 7
 Pleasant 8 9 9 9 10 8
Positive 7 9 10 8 13 8

Table 4: Impact on Positive Emotions

Negative  Emotions 2018 % change 2017 % change 2016 % change 2015 % change 2014 % change 2013 % change
Average negative -14 -14 -14 -14 -16 -11
Unpleasant -13 -15 -17 -16 -17 -8
Bad -15 -16 -12 -15 -17 -11
Negative -15 -15 -16 -14 -17 -12
Angry -14 -12 -13 -14 -15 -13
Afraid -13 -14 -13 -12 -14 -10
Sad -15 -13 -14 -12 -14 -10

Table 5:  Impact on Negative Emotions

Impact on Stoic Attitudes and Behaviours (SABS 4.0)

The Stoics Attitudes and Behaviours Scale (v4.0) is a scale being developed by the Modern Stoicism team to assess a person’s degree of Stoicism. Appendix D contains a full list of items, their meanings and also the range of scores at the end of Stoic Week 2018. Comparisons in SABS scores before and after Stoic Week allow us to assess whether participants changed with respect to being Stoic taking part in StoicWeek. It also enables us to see in which ways they became more Stoic.

Table 6 below gives the changes in average scores for each item between the beginning and end of Stoic Week for2018. Overall there was an 10% increase in assenting to Stoic attitudes and behaviours from an average of 378at the start and 416 for  those completedStoic week .The average SABS for everyone who started (including non-completers) was 372 which would give an average increase of 12%.

# Item start end % change
1 I think about what the ideal wise and good person would do when faced with various misfortunes in life 4.8 5.5 15.1
2 It can sometimes be a good thing to become angry at people. 4.1 4.8 14.7
3 I try to anticipate future misfortunes. 5.4 5.5 2.6
4 The best idea is to give up trying to control people and instead focussing on ourselves and our own behaviour. 6.2 6.5 5.1
5  Even if my circumstances in life are favourable, I will not be consistently happy unless I develop the right understanding and character. 5.9 6.2 5.1
6 As long as you have the right attitude, you can lead a good life even in the most difficult circumstances. 5.7 6.0 5.2
7 I rehearse rising above possible future misfortunes. 5.4 5.8 7.2
8 To flourish as a human being all you need is good understanding and  good character. 4.8 5.5 15.9
9 I take active steps to reduce the suffering of others. 5.1 5.5 8.3
10 It doesn’t really matter what other people think about me as long as I do the right thing. 5.3 5.9 12.8
11 I spend quite a lot of time dwelling on what has gone wrong in the past. 3.7 4.5 22.4
12 I often think about how small humanity is compared to how big the universe it. 5.1 5.4 7.2
13 I consider myself a part of the human race, in the same way that a limb is a part of the human body. 5.1 5.7 11.7
14 When making a significant decision I ask myself “What really matters here?” 5.3 6.0 12.2
15 We can sometimes influence how others behave but we can’t completely control other people. 6.4 6.5 2.2
16  I cannot really be harmed by what other people say. 4.4 5.4 22.4
17  I am committed to helping humanity in general. 4.5 5.3 18.0
18  The universe is a living thing. 5.0 5.1 3.9
19  I need quite a lot of money in order to be happy. 5.0 5.3 7.7
20  When I have a problem, I am good at taking constructive action in a timely manner. 4.9 5.4 10.4
21 It is good to think about life as an ongoing journey towards becoming a better person. 6.2 6.5 4.8
22 Having good understanding and good character is all that is required in order to be happy. 4.7 5.5 16.8
23  I am committed to helping my friends. 5.8 6.0 4.6
24  We can’t really control other people. 6.3 6.5 3.9
25 There is a rational and orderly plan in the universe and in the causation of events. 3.6 4.2 17.9
26 When making a significant decision I reflect on what a good role model would do. 4.6 5.4 17.1
27 Nothing except our judgements and voluntary actions are truly under our control in life. 5.9 6.3 6.9
28  I pay attention to my judgments as I am making them. 5.1 5.7 10.7
29  I need to be well thought of by others in order to be happy. 4.2 4.8 13.7
30  I spend quite a lot of time worrying about the future. 3.5 4.2 20.5
31  If bad things happen to you, you are bound to feel distressed. 3.4 4.0 16.8
32  Bad luck could stop me being happy. 4.0 4.7 18.3
33  I  pay attention to my thoughts about what I intend to do  before I act on them. 5.1 5.7 11.0
34 I treat everyone fairly. 5.2 5.8 10.2
35  Whatever happens to you, it’s possible to rise above it and feel calm. 5.3 5.9 11.0
36  If things don’t go well for my friends, I can’t lead a good life. 5.0 5.2 3.2
37  I want to become a better person ethically. 6.3 6.5 2.8
38  When a negative thought enters my mind, the first thing I do is to remind myself that it is just an interpretation of  the situation. 4.3 5.3 22.1
39  We should learn to accept things that are outside our control. 6.2 6.4 3.1
40  It is right to feel intense and overwhelming grief after a significant loss. 2.5 3.0 17.3
41  I view other people as fellow-members of the brother/sisterhood of humankind. 5.4 5.6 5.5
42  Peace of mind comes from accepting that you should not care about things outside your control. 5.4 6.0 10.2
43  Viewing other people as fellow-members of the brother/sisterhood of humankind helps me to avoid feeling angry and resentful. 4.9 5.4 11.4
44  If things don’t go well for me, I can’t  lead a good life 4.7 5.3 11.2
45  Every day I think about how small we are in comparison with the whole universe. 4.2 4.8 15.9
46  Our voluntary actions are amongst the only things truly under our control in life. 5.8 6.2 6.3
47  It is my duty to help others. 5.4 5.8 5.6
48  I can’t control how I feel. 4.9 5.4 10.4
49  I do not act on urges when it would be unwise to act on them. 4.6 5.2 13.1
50  Recognizing that being the best kind of person is the only thing that matters helps me face how short life is. 4.8 5.5 14.0
51  I need to be in good health in order to be happy. 3.7 4.3 17.5
52  I regularly spend time reflecting on what is most important for me to live a good and happy life. 5.1 5.7 10.0
53  I usually do the right thing. 5.3 5.7 6.9
54 Every day I spend some time reflecting in a constructive way on how I am doing as a human being. 4.3 5.3 21.9
55  I do the right thing even when I feel afraid. 4.8 5.4 12.1
56  Improving my ability to reason well and develop good judgement is very important. 6.4 6.5 1.7
57  I am committed to helping my family. 6.2 6.3 1.5
58  Every day I spend some time thinking about how I can best face challenges in the day ahead. 4.8 5.5 14.9
59  The universe is benevolent in its overall plan. 3.7 4.2 13.3
60 I regularly think about the inevitability of death. 5.0 5.2 4.1
61 Pleasure is one of the most important things in life. 4.2 4.7 11.2
62 Our judgements are amongst the only things truly under our control in life. 5.7 6.2 8.9
63 Even when I can’t do anything more about a problem I still worry about it a lot. 3.3 4.2 27.4
64 I care about the suffering of others. 5.8 5.9 2.1
65 Every day I reflect on how all human beings are just like me in important ways. 4.3 5.0 15.8
66 I often do what I feel like doing rather than doing what I believe to be the right thing. 4.4 5.0 12.4
67 I try to treat everybody fairly even those people who I don’t particularly like. 3.9 4.7 17.9
68 Every day I think about our place in the universe. 5.5 5.8 5.9
69 I see my happiness as fully compatible with caring for other people. 5.4 5.8 6.9
70 There is no overall plan to the universe. 3.2 3.7 14.3
71 I think about my life as an ongoing project to become a better person. 5.9 6.2 6.0
72 I try to treat people fairly even those people who have behaved badly towards me. 5.3 5.7 8.1
73 If things don’t go well for my family, I can’t lead a good life 4.4 4.8 10.2
74 Improving my ability to do what an excellent human being would do is very important to me. 5.9 6.2 5.6
75 I am committed to helping in my local community. 4.8 5.3 9.8
76 The universe embodies wisdom. 4.1 4.7 14.0
77 Some things that matter a lot for my happiness are outside my control. 3.7 4.5 23.2

Table 6: Impact of taking part in Stoic Week 2018 on Stoic attitudes and behaviours

The SABS items that showed the biggest percentage increases  during Stoic Week were as follows

# Item Start score End score % change
63 Even when I can’t do anything more about a problem I still worry about it a lot. 3.3 4.2 27.4
77 Some things that matter a lot for my happiness are outside my control. 3.7 4.5 23.2
11 I spend quite a lot of time dwelling on what has gone wrong in the past. 3.7 4.5 22.4
16  I cannot really be harmed by what other people say. 4.4 5.4 22.4
38  When a negative thought enters my mind, the first thing I do is to remind myself that it is just an interpretation of  the situation. 4.3 5.3 22.1
54 Every day I spend some time reflecting in a constructive way on how I am doing as a human being. 4.3 5.3 21.9
30  I spend quite a lot of time worrying about the future. 3.5 4.2 20.5

The SABS items which had the highest scores at the end of Stoic week were as follows:

# Item Start score End score % change
24  We can’t really control other people. 6.3 6.5 3.9
15 We can sometimes influence how others behave but we can’t completely control other people. 6.4 6.5 2.2
4 The best idea is to give up trying to control people and instead focussing on ourselves and our own behaviour. 6.2 6.5 5.1
56  Improving my ability to reason well and develop good judgement is very important. 6.4 6.5 1.7
37  I want to become a better person ethically. 6.3 6.5 2.8
21 It is good to think about life as an ongoing journey towards becoming a better person. 6.2 6.5 4.8
39  We should learn to accept things that are outside our control. 6.2 6.4 3.1
27 Nothing except our judgements and voluntary actions are truly under our control in life. 5.9 6.3 6.9
57  I am committed to helping my family. 6.2 6.3 1.5

All SABS items moved in the expected direction

The 10% change in Stoic Attitudes and Behaviours overall is significant in that it supports the view that it is changes in level of Stoicism that is mediating the change in well-being rather than other variables, such as a placebo effect.

Conclusions

For the fifth year running, taking part in Stoic Week led to a significant increase in well-being on all measures and in degree of Stoicism. The more comprehensive SABS 4.0 gives us more detail about which Stoic attitudes and behaviours changed the most.


[i] See Appendix A for a description of the Flourishing Scale.

[ii] See Appendix B.

[iii] See Appendix C.

Videos from Stoicon 2018

This year, we were able to record video footage from each of the plenary talks at Stoicon 2018, and from two of the breakout talks and one of the  breakout workshop sessions as well.  If you couldn’t make it to London for Stoicon – or if you did, but would like to review any of those talks, you can find all of them linked to below.  Click on any of the links to be taken to that video.

The Plenary Talks – The Morning

Tim LeBon – Report on Stoic Week Research (about 20 minutes)

Catherine Edwards – Strategies of Visualization in Seneca’s Letters (about 35 minutes)

Kai Whiting – Stoicism and Sustainability (about 20 minutes)

Antonia Macaro – How Buddhist is Stoicism? (about 30 minutes)


Breakout Sessions – Talks and Workshops – The Afternoon 

Liz Gloyn – Lessons in Stoic Leadership from Seneca (about 24 minutes)

William Stephens – A Stoic Approach to Travel and Tourism (about 22 minutes)

Dan Lampert – Comparing Stoicism to Minimalism: Two Paths to Virtue 
(about 20 minutes)

Piotr Stankiewicz – Two Great Misinterpretations of Stoicism: Ascetic and Conservative (about 30 minutes)

Gregory Sadler – The Stoic Heart: Stoicism and Partnered Relationships (a bit over an hour)

Keynote Address – The Evening

Anthony Long – Stoicisms Ancient and Modern (around 50 minutes)

As you will be able to tell by watching the videos, at this year’s Stoicon (as in earlier years),we had an excellent line-up of highly engaging speakers, connecting ancient Stoic philosophy to the situations and issues of modern life.  On a personal note, I’ll mention that I particularly enjoy being able to view the breakout session talks I couldn’t myself attend (as I was leading a concurrent workshop).  We’ll doubtless have another set of equally great talks and workshops at this coming year’s Stoicon. 

We hope you enjoy these videorecordings and find them useful in understanding and applying Stoicism in your own practice!

Are Stoics Still Happier? Stoic Week 2018 Report part 2 (of 4) by Tim LeBon

 One main activity of the Modern Stoicism organization is carrying out research on the impact of adopting Stoic practices, perspectives, and principles on those who do so.  Every year we run the Stoic Week online class, and we also gather valuable data through the surveys before and after participants engage in the class.  Tim LeBon is our lead quantitative researcher, and he does invaluable service in compiling and interpreting the data collected, producing a set of Stoic Week Reports.  This is the second report for this year, which you can download a copy of (with all of the appendices) by clicking here.

 

A strong positive relationship between Stoicism and well-being has been well documented in previous Stoic Week reports.   This article analyses the findings from analysing questionnaires from the start of Stoic week 2018 and in addition introduces the improved version of the Stoic Attitudes and Behaviours Scale (SABS v4.0) . Future reports will discuss the effect of taking part in Stoic Week (part 3), summarise participant feedback and suggest future directions of research (part 4).

The New SABS Scale

Stoic Week 2018 saw the introduction of SABS 4.0. A small team of helpers  (thank you all!) reviewed SABS 3.0 and critiqued each question in terms of its clarity and simplicity. In addition, the data from Stoic Week 2017 was analysed with the extremely valuable assistance of Ray diGuiseppe to eliminate items which did not have good psychometric properties.

The result is a 77 item questionnaire as described in Appendix A. If you took part in Stoic Week, you might like to turn straight to Appendix A where we say a little bit about each of the 77 items,  provide comparison data for each item (average, low and high scores).. We intend in future to further refine the SABS scale, producing a psychometrically valid SABS 5.0 with a number of subscales.

Stoicism and Well-Being

The relationship between Stoicism and well-being has been well documented in previous reports. This section summarises the findings and answers questions that interested readers are likely to ask.

Q: In the past you’ve found significant correlations between  level of Stoicism (as measured by SABS) and the various well-being measures. Has this been replicated?

A: Indeed it has. With 3702 valid scores the probability of the correlations indicated in table 1 below being accidental are less than 1 in a million. The correlations are slightly higher than in 2017 (figures in brackets are those for 2017) The highly significant correlation between Stoicism and many measures of well-being has now been replicated with large samples over 5 years . See appendices A, B , C and D of the full report for further information about each scale.

  Flourishing Emotions (SPANE) Life Satisfaction (SWL)
STOIC ATTITUDES AND BEHAVIOURS .54 

(0.47)

.45 

(0.43 )

.39 

(0.36)

Table 1 Overall association of Stoic Attitudes and Behaviours with various scales (2018 Stoic Week compared to 2017 Stoic Week)

.

Q: OK, so that looks like a solid finding, at least for the sort of people who take part in Stoic Week.  In general, Stoics are still  happier than non-Stoics. I  seem to recall that in previous years you also listed how Stoicism was associated with particular emotions, as measured by the SPANE scale. What were these results this year?

A: Table 2 below shows that as in 2017, there is a significant positive association between Stoicism and each positive emotion. There is also a significant negative correlation between every negative emotion and Stoicism. We can’t  be so confident about which emotions are most connected with Stoicism as the differences are quite small and changeable.

Emotion 2018 2017 2016
Negative -0.35 -0.36 -0.29
Bad -0.31 -0.32 -0.28
Unpleasant -0.29 -0.27 -0.24
Sad -0.26 -0.28 -0.26
Angry -0.24 -0.27 -0.24
Afraid -0.24 -0.23 -0.26
Contented 0.36 0.33 0.35
Positive 0.36 0.32 0.31
Happy 0.35 0.29 0.28
Good 0.34 0.32 0.32
Pleasant 0.34 0.32 0.3
Joyful 0.32 0.28 0.26

Table 2 : Correlation of SABS 4.0 scores and emotions as measured in SPANE

 

Q:  All this talk of correlation coefficients is a bit confusing for me. Can you just tell me how much difference it makes to my happiness whether I am Stoic or not?

A: Remember that these findings do not necessarily imply causation, so we can’t say that being more Stoic makes you more happy. However we can look at the group of people who are in the top and bottom 10% in terms of Stoicism and compare their well-being scores on the various scales.  Table 3 below gives this information 

  SABS SWL SPANE FLOURISH
Top 10% SABS Average 459.3 27.2 10.7 48.3
Bottom 10% SABS Average 291.9 18.8 -1.0 33.7
Average 372.3 23.1 4.6 41.5

Table 3: Top and Bottom 10% in Stoicism and their scores in various scales (2018)

As can be seen, those in the top 10% as measured by SABS score significantly higher than the average in all well-being scales, whilst those in the lowest 10% score significantly lower. We will also see in the next report whether doing Stoicism for a week improves well-being (it has in previous years) which would support a causal explanation of this correlation.

 

Q: The SABS scale now covers a really wide range of Stoic attitudes and behaviours. Can you tell which items are most connected with well-being?

A: Yes, tables 4,5 and 6 below show what appear to be the most “active ingredients” in terms of Satisfaction with Life, emotions and flourishing respectively. It appears that different items are most associated with life satisfaction and emotions on the one hand and flourishing on the other. The items connected with overthinking about the past or present have a big impact of Life Satisfaction and emotions. However practical wisdom and courage and justice are more potent when it comes to flourishing. 

# SABS Item Satisfaction with Life correlation
11 I spend quite a lot of time dwelling on what has gone wrong in the past. 0.40
20  When I have a problem, I am good at taking constructive action in a timely manner. 0.39
30  I spend quite a lot of time worrying about the future. 0.35
53  I usually do the right thing. 0.31

 Table 4 :  Most active Stoic ingredients of SWL

 

# SABS Item Flourishing 

correlation

20  When I have a problem, I am good at taking constructive action in a timely manner. 0.50
53  I usually do the right thing. 0.45
55  I do the right thing even when I feel afraid. 0.41
23  I am committed to helping my friends. 0.36

Table 5 :  Most active Stoic ingredients of Flourishing

 

# SABS Item SPANE emotions correlations
11 I spend quite a lot of time dwelling on what has gone wrong in the past. 0.50
30  I spend quite a lot of time worrying about the future. 0.50
63 Even when I can’t do anything more about a problem I still worry about it a lot. 0.47
20  When I have a problem, I am good at taking constructive action in a timely manner. 0.40

 Table 6:  Most active SABS ingredients in terms of emotions

Conclusions

These findings replicate previous research about the relationship between Stoicism, life satisfaction, flourishing and the emotions. A more comprehensive SABS scale (SABS4.0) has helped us to be more confident about the validity these findings.

You can download the full report, with the appendices, by clicking here.

Tim LeBon is the author of Wise Therapy and Achieve Your Potential With Positive Psychology.  He can be contacted via email at tim@timlebon.com.  His website is  http://www.timlebon.com

Stoicism Talk in Toronto: “Stoicism: Living With Love and Anger”

ErosDonald will be in Toronto for a while, and is giving a talk there about Stoicism’s relevance for our emotions and relationships in the modern world, and how to apply its concepts and techniques in practice.

Please RSVP via the webpage below if you’re interested in coming along and joining the conversation.

Stoicism: Living With Love and Anger

Wednesday, Dec 19, 2018, 7:00 PM

Hart House (South Sitting Room)
7 Hart House Circle Toronto, ON

15 Stoics Attending

What can Stoic philosophy teach us about handling our emotions in relation to other people? Quite a lot, it turns out. Love and anger are two of the main themes in The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. He described the ideal Stoic as being full of love and yet free from the grip of unhealthy passions, such as anger. Donald will be explaining how …

Check out this Meetup →

Pierre Hadot’s Stoicism by Matthew Sharpe

Alongside Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius themselves, if there is one figure whose work underlies the rise of modern Stoicism, it would be the French philosopher, Pierre Hadot.

Hadot passed away in 2011.  He remained unaware of the extraordinary growth in interest in Stoicism that his own works on ancient philosophy were helping to inspire in the English-speaking world, aided by Michael Chase’s lucid translations.  But he would not have been altogether surprised by today’s “return to the porch”.

Hadot spent much of his adult life working as a philologist and historian of philosophy, producing recondite studies with long lists of references to works in multiple languages.  Yet, in interviews, Hadot would confess that he believed that Stoicism and Epicureanism could be meaningfully revived in the later modern world, by ordinary men and women.

Later in his life, Hadot also admitted to writing esoterically.  He wanted, he said, to issue in between the lines of his texts a quiet invitation to readers to take the ancient philosophies he was describing seriously—not simply as conceptual edifices, but as offering reasoned ways of life.

It is this protreptic aim to make people “love a few old truths”, in one of Hadot’s favourite quotes, that most distinguishes Hadot’s work from many other scholars’ who have returned to the study of Stoicism since 1970.  In fact, Hadot’s reading of the Stoics is highly distinctive, and reflects his own debts to several key thinkers who informed and inspired him.  Given Hadot’s influence today, it is perhaps worthwhile then to recount his influences, and to consider what Hadot took from each in turn.

Four Key Antecedents

First, surprisingly, comes the 20th century philosopher of language, Ludwig Wittgenstein.  In 1958-‘59, Hadot became one of the first French authors to write on Wittgenstein’s work.  He was initially attracted to the eccentric Austrian philosopher due to the mysticism that emerges at the end of Wittgenstein’s early work, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, in which Hadot heard echoes of his own youthful mystical experiencesBut it was Hadot’s encounter with the later Wittgenstein’s notion of “language games”, in the Philosophical Investigations, that would prove decisive for Hadot’s approach to ancient philosophy. 

According to this idea, we can only understand the meaning of any utterance, sentence, speech, essay or book by understanding the context from which it emerged, and the particular intention it reflected in that context.  In a way which it is fair to say that Wittgenstein himself never dreamed of, Hadot saw that this insight could have profound effects on how we read ancient philosophical texts.

Often, as in a case like Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, modern commentators have found ancient philosophical writings to be poorly composed, needlessly fragmentary, even self-contradictory.  But perhaps, Hadot wondered, this is because they did not understand the historical context and “language games” which these old books originally belonged to.

When we for instance see Marcus’ Meditations not as a failed draft of a systematic treatise, like that a modern philosopher might attempt, but as notes written to himself in which the philosopher-emperor tried to vividly recall his Stoic principles, the book lights up in a wholly new way.  We see that it is in no way a literary failure.  It is testimony to:

a person training himself to live and to think like a human being … the personal effort appears … in the repetitions, the multiple variations developed around the same theme and the stylistic effort as well, which always seeks for a striking, effective formula … when we read [the Meditations] we get the impression of encountering not the Stoic system, although Marcus constantly refers to it, but a man of good will, who does not hesitate to criticise and to examine himself, who constantly takes up again the task of exhorting and persuading himself, and of finding the words which will help him to live, and to live well … (Hadot, Inner Citadel, 312-313)

Probably the second greatest influence on Hadot’s reading of Stoicism is the work of his wife, Ilsetraut Hadot, including her extraordinary study: Seneca und die grieschisch-römische Tradition der Seelenleitung (Seneca and the Graeco-Roman Tradition of Spiritual Direction, first published in German in 1969, and 2014 in French).

At the same time as Pierre Hadot was beginning to apply his post-Wittgensteinian methodology to ancient texts, Ilsetraut Hadot was independently developing the argument that ancient philosophers were above all “spiritual directors”: counsellors, models and living guides for students, more concerned with forming the latter’s characters than in dazzling by their conceptual creations or rhetorical finery.

It is in this way that we must for instance read arguably Seneca’s most famous work, the Letters to Lucilius, Ilsetraut Hadot arguesIn one dimension, as the sequence of letters develops, Lucilius is given more and more of Stoic theory, in longer and longer instalments.  But in another dimension, related to Lucilius’ personal development, Seneca as spiritual director continually returns his pupil to the basic ethical precepts of Stoicism. Lucilius is enjoined to deeply internalise and enact these precepts in his life, even as his theoretical understanding of their physical and logical bases expands over the course of the text.

The third key influence on Hadot’s Stoicism is the German author, Paul Rabbow.  Rabbow’s 1954 study Seelenführung: Methodik der Exerzitien in der Antike already argued that, in the ancient philosophical schools, philosophers had prescribed “moral exercises” to their pupils: “procedures or determinate acts, intended to influence oneself, carried out with the express goal of achieving a moral effect … to be always repeated or … linked with other actions to form a methodical ensemble.”

Hadot’s conception of philosophical “spiritual exercises” is avowedly indebted to Rabbow’s conception of these “moral exercises”, like the premeditation of death or evils which we see recommended in Seneca, or the nightly examination of conscience which looks back to Pythagoras.

Without the conception of such exercises, Hadot argues, large swathes of the philosophical texts of the Epicureans and Stoics just do not make sense. For these texts are, in one of their dimensions, texts of exhortation (paranêsis) and spiritual guidance, in which different forms of spiritual exercise are described and recommended.

Fourthly, and again perhaps surprisingly, Hadot’s reading of Stoicism bears the marks of a decisive encounter with the great French scholar Victor Goldschmidt’s 1953 work, Le Système stoïcien et l’idée de temps (The Stoic System and the Idea of Time).

We see this debt not only in Hadot’s focus on Marcus (although this already marked out Goldschmidt’s engagement with Stoicism from many other scholarly treatments of the school).  Above all, this debt is apparent in Hadot’s stress upon the idea of attention to the present moment as a defining dimension of Stoic ethical or spiritual practice.  We do not find any such emphasis in pre-Hadotian anglophone commentators on Stoicism.

Goldschmidt had already noted how this stress upon being attentive to the present follows from the key Stoic distinction between what is and is not in our control.  “The present alone is our happiness,” as Hadot would quote Goethe: certainly, the present is the only temporal tense in which we can act and suffer.

Hadot also took from Goldschmidt however the “cosmic” dimension to such Stoic prosochē.  This is the sense that a person can only wholly “be in the moment” to the extent that s/he is able to understand everything that happens as necessary to the greater Whole of the natural order.  In this way, as Hadot will stress, the Stoic Sage discerns this Whole in every instant, in even the most incidental things:

For instance: when bread is baked, some parts of it develop cracks in their surface. Now, it is precisely these small openings which, although they seem somehow to have escaped the intentions which presided over the making of the bread, somehow please us and stimulate our appetite in a quite particular way … Ears of corn which bend toward the earth; the lion’s wrinkled brow; the foam trailing from the mouth of boars: these things, and many others like them, would be far from beautiful to look at, if we considered them only in themselves. And yet … if one possesses experience and a thorough knowledge of the workings of the universe, there will be scarcely a single one of those phenomena which accompany natural processes … which will not appear to him, under some aspect at least, as pleasing (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, III, 2).

Becoming Hadot

So, when and how did Hadot’s distinct vision of Stoicism, bringing together these diverse influences, take the form we find it expressed in The Inner Citadel, Hadot’s masterwork on Marcus Aurelius (of 1992, translated in 1998)?

Hadot begun lecturing on Marcus’ Stoicism at the École Pratique des Hautes Études in 1971, and his first article on “physics as a spiritual exercise” in the Meditations was published the following year.

Hadot focuses in this piece on those fragments in the Meditations wherein Marcus enjoins himself to look at external things dispassionately, not referring everything back to his own individual hopes and fears.  This exercise is closely related to the “view from above”, in which the philosopher-emperor strives to look down upon his worldly concerns and weigh them in the cosmic scale: as the minute, passing, repetitive and, in a word, “indifferent” affairs that they are, relative to the Stoic perspective for which virtue is the only good.

It is however in a 1978 piece on Epictetus that Hadot’s central insight into understanding Roman Stoicism as a way of life emerges.  As the piece’s title reflects (“Une clé des Pensées de Marc Aurèle: les trois topoi philosophiques selon Épictète”), Hadot contends here that we can discern a “key” to understanding Marcus’ Meditations in Epictetus’ Discourses. 

This key will be known to many readers.  It begins from the idea that there are three exercise topoi or disciplines “in which the man who is going to be good and excellent must first have been trained” (Epictetus, Discourses, III, 2): those of judgment or belief, action, and desire.

Adolf Bonhoeffer had already seen, in the late 19th century, how Epictetus recurs to these three disciplines throughout his Discourses. However, Bonhoeffer had not aligned these three practical disciplines with the three parts of Stoic philosophical discourse: those of logic, ethics, and physics.  The alignment of Stoic logic with the discipline of judgment, Stoic ethics with the discipline of action, and the discipline of desire with Stoic physics is original in Hadot’s post-1978 work.

Hadot will from here on begin to talk of a “lived” or “practiced logic”, which consists in monitoring one’s inner thoughts for the fallacies and distortions engendered by our passions; a “lived ethics”, which concerns how we relate to others, including how we for instance should respond to perceived or real insults (it’s not our problem, unless the criticism is true, but then we should change); and, most singularly, a “lived physics”.  This discipline consists in cultivating the ability to accept whatever happens concerning externals like power, fame, and money as necessary within the greater Whole, and to always understand the limits of what we can control (our thoughts, desires, and impulses).

With this alignment of the three Epictetan exercise-disciplines with the three parts of Stoic theory, Hadot forged that link between Stoic theoretical discourse and the practice of spiritual exercises which is most distinctive to his reading of Stoicism.

A person cannot be a Stoic, for Hadot, without developing theoretical understandings of the physical and logical bases of the Stoic way of life.  Otherwise, s/he will be more like a Cynic or Aristo of Chios, who broke from the Stoic school, thinking ethics alone sufficient.

Yet a person cannot be a philosopher full stop, if s/he only develops her theoretical understandings, perhaps writing books or papers.  Otherwise, s/he will remain more like a sophist or scholar of Stoicism, than a Stoic philosopher.

Cue the modern Stoic movement, whose reach now extends far beyond the walls of academia, into that agora of everyday life that the steps of the original Painted Porch opened onto.  To end figuratively, today we might well imagine a portrait of Pierre Hadot, alongside those of the great Hellenistics, smiling gently down from the ornamental friezes.

Matthew Sharpe teaches philosophy at Deakin University in Australia.  He is presently working on a coauthored work on philosophy as a way of life throughout Western history, and a series of translations of Pierre Hadot’s essays, with Federico Testa (both texts are due to appear with Bloomsbury in 2019).