Many people have been asking for details about Stoicon 2019, Stoic Week, and the smaller, local Stoicon-X events that will be taking place later on in the Fall. These sorts of matters, of course, take quite a bit of time and work to sort out – not least since Modern Stoicism is an organization staffed entirely by volunteers – so we appreciate your patience in awaiting the details. We’re happy to have quite a few details to announce at this time about all three matters. Further details will be forthcoming in the months ahead!
Stoicon 2019 Athens
The annual Stoicon conference is one of the main events organized by Modern Stoicism. Attendance in recent years has been between 300-400 (depending on the venue), and it provides an excellent opportunity not only to hear excellent talks by experts on Stoicism, but also to participate in workshops, and to get to meet, greet, and converse with others interested in Stoicism. If you’d like to see some of the talks and workshops from previous years, check out the playlists in the Modern Stoicism YouTube channel.
The theme of this year’s conference is “Stoicism Comes Home“, and it will be taking place in Cotsen Hall, at the American School of Archeology at Athens. The conference date is Saturday 5th October 2019.
The following speakers have provisionally confirmed that they will be presenting. These details may be subject to change.
Donald Robertson (host), author of Stoicism and the Art of Happiness and How to Think Like a Roman Emperor
Alkistis Agio (host), author of The Stoic CEO
Jonas Salzgeber, author of The Little Book of Stoicism
Thomas Jarrett LTC, creator of Warrior Resilience Training
John Sellars, Lecturer in Philosophy at Royal Holloway, University of London, author of Stoicism and The Art of Living
Matt Sharpe, Professor of Philosophy at Deakin University
Massimo Pigliucci, K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York, author of How to be a Stoic and A Handbook for New Stoics
Christina Kourfali, author of Live like the Stoics
Peter Limberg, organizer of Stoicism Toronto
Christopher Gill, Professor Emeritus of Ancient Thought at the University of Exeter, author of The Structured Self in Hellenistic and Roman Thought and Naturalistic Psychology in Galen and Stoicism
Gabriele Galluzzo, Lecturer in Ancient Philosophy at the University of Exeter
David Fideler, author of Restoring the Soul of the World and The Pythagorean Sourcebook (ed.)
Piotr Stankievicz, Lecturer at the University of Warsaw, author of Does Happiness Write Blank Pages? On Stoicism and Artistic Creativity
Katerina Ierodiakonou, Professor at the University of Athens, author of Dialectic after Plato and Aristotle and Topics in Stoic Philosophy
Tickets will go on sale for Stoicon 2019 in Athens very soon! For now, you should follow our event page on Facebook for updates
Stoic Week 2019
Every year, generally following Stoicon, we also host an international event of much wider scope – Stoic Week – which thousands of people participate in worldwide (more and more each year). We provide an online course, with a workbook, exercises, and all sorts of other resources designed to help participants “live like a Stoic” for a week. It is also a great way to meet and interact with other people who have an interest in Stoicism, both locally and in the larger Stoic community.
This year, Stoic Week is planned to run October 7-13. As always, much closer to the date, we will have a newly revised version of the Stoic Week Handbook available for participants, and a variety of other useful resources (I might even- as I have in previous years – shoot a new sequence of videos for the upcoming Stoic Week)
During and around Stoic Week every year, groups, organizations, and institutions plan and put on a number of Stoic Week events. We do our best to publicize all of them as Stoic Week approaches, so if you know of one, or plan to organize and host one, make sure to get that information to us, and we’ll put it into the master list and the posts. If you’re not sure whether there is a Stoic group or organization in your area, you might check the International Stoic Fellowship to see if there’s a local Stoa near you!
Stoicon-X 2019 Events
Stoicon-X events are sort of like TED-X events – smaller local events organized to bring engagement, conversation, and discussion of Stoicism to a number of other communities around the world. They have been held so far on five continents, and there are more and more of them each year!
We’ll have more about the Stoicon-X events closer to September and October when most of them are projected to take place. At this moment, we know about five being planned – so if you’re organizing one that’s not on the list below, get in touch and we’ll get it into the list!
We’ll have more about the Stoicon-X events closer to September and October when most of them are projected to take place. At this moment, we know about five being planned – so if you’re organizing one that’s not on the list below, get in touch and we’ll get it into the list!
Toronto, Canada – September 8, Toronto Reference Library, organized by Peter Limberg – more information to come
New York City, USA – September 19th, at the New York Society for Ethical Culture, organized by Massimo Pigliucci – information here
Athens, Greece – October 6, Cotsen Hall of the American School of Classical Studies, organized by Donald Robertson – information here
Madrid, Spain – Date and Location: TBA, organized by Kellys Rodriguez – more information to come
Milwaukee, USA – Date and Location: TBA, organized by Greg Sadler and Andi Sciacca – more information to come
So, mark your calendars for Stoicon and Stoic Week, and start thinking about any local events you might want to organize or host. We’ll have a lot more information coming your way as we get closer to the dates!
Last week, I issued a call for people to contribute short pieces about their impressions of, and experiences from, earlier Stoicon conferences. These events have been held yearly in three main places – London, New York City, and Toronto – with Athens, Greece being added this year.
As the organizers for Stoicon 2019 in Athens get all the details sorted out and ticketing set up, I thought it might be interesting for our readership to hear from people who attended previous Stoicons. If there’s sufficient interest, we’ll put together a similar post of impressions and experiences of those who attended the smaller Stoicon-X events over the last few years as well!
Piotr Stankiewicz – attended Stoicon 2016 in New York and Stoicon 2017 in Toronto – presented at Stoicon 2018 in London
Stoicon is absolutely great – I recommend it with all of my Stoic mind and all of my nonstoic heart. I attended Stoicons 2016, 2017 and 2018 and I harbor every intention to keep coming. Why? There is a plethora of reasons, but if you ask me to name one I will probably say something along the lines of: because of how people and ideas interact.
What does it even mean? Stoicism today is a global endeavor (our ancient predecessors would definitely approve, given their cosmopolitanism) so at the Stoicon you meet people from all over the globe. Sounds obvious but it’s still remarkable. The opportunity to meet in person people whose book you read, or folks you talked to online – is an opportunity you don’t want to miss.
Even in the contemporary, digital and connected world, where everything seems to be just a few clicks away, it’s still important to meet and talk face to face. Some would even say that particularly in the present world we should take care to meet in real life. More and more of our communication relies on devices, thus an actual meeting of another human becomes something to be cherished.
And not just people: ideas too. Stoicism has never been a monolithic church – diverse interpretations has always been in place. Diverse: i.e. contradictory sometimes, conflicting often. And this is something to learn first hand during Stoicon. Textbook stuff, hard facts, Marcus Aurelius’ biography – you can get to know all of that online. But Stoicon is the best to witness first hand that Stoicism is not just pale wisdom but a living and flourishing project. The discussion is going on. And it keeps attracting people. I’m hooked. Are you?
Lori Huica – attended Stoicon 2018 in London
I had been anticipating Stoicon 2018 in London for months, digesting as many classic Stoic fragments as I could, yet not fully knowing what the modern applications would be. After the initial feeling of awe at the magnitude of the event, I entered the large lecture hall where the agenda was introduced, chatted to some fellow attendees, listened to the introduction in utter elation, and thus began a year-long journey of internalising Stoic principles.
In spite of my attempts to do some thorough research before the event, the day proved to be full of entirely new learning opportunities, and every seminar and lecture I attended provided me with different concepts to grasp and apply. Two particularly memorable parts were a seminar on partenered relationships and a lecture on the link between Stoicism and sustainability. The former made me re-conceptualise the way I saw relationships, both philosophically and practically, whilst the latter was a refreshing take on environment-related issues and how philosophy might tackle these.
There were opportunities to network, as well as meet experts in the field, but for me what truly made Stoicon 2018 life-changing was the passion that all the people that had gathered at the Senate House that Saturday had for this way of living, this way of thinking. From newbies to veterans, every person in the room emanated fascination for the subject; it was this that translated into an urge to know more about what Stoicism entails, and so I did. I decided to join Stoic Week, to formally learn about Roman Stoicism as part of my degree and to really embody what it means to be a modern Stoic. Not only was it a life-changing event for me, but the daily lives of many are now impacted as I continue to embrace the philosophy and share it in whatever ways I can.
Randall Daut – attended Stoicon 2018 in London
Having been learning a bit about stoicism for 2-3 years, my wife and I decided to include Stoicon 2018 in a planned vacation to London. We both feel it was a worthy addition. Anthony Long’s reflections on the history of the resurgence of interest in stoicism were interesting as was his big picture of the important ideas in the philosophy. I liked learning about the results of stoic week as well. One notable finding was that “zest” or “great enthusiasm and energy” increased more than other variables during the week.
I enjoyed all the presentations, but I had special interest in Antonia Macaro’s comments on Stoicism and Buddhism, and I was intrigued by a presentation on sustainability and Stoic ethics. Unfortunately, I had to choose which of the breakout sessions to attend, but the choices were not overwhelming, and recordings are available. As a retired clinical psychologist, I enjoyed the recording of our local philosopher, Greg Sadler. The conference was well organized. I hope to attend another.
Travis Hume – attended Stoicon 2016 in New York and Stoicon 2017 in Toronto
I attended Stoicon 2017 in Toronto – my second visit to a Stoicon. I fondly remember it as a meaningful opportunity to meet with others interested in Stoicism, in addition to contemporary writers and philosophers on the subject. With each passing year, the event becomes more dynamic and engaging, with greater numbers and varieties of workshops and events; there is something suitable for anyone of any familiarity with Stoic philosophy.
I decided to go to Stoicon as part of a personal calling to learn all I could from the philosophy and others actively studying it. Each of the conversations I had at the event were meaningful, providing insight into each person’s practice and experience. The pacing and depth of each workshop and seminar was well-managed, making for constructive, fulfilling days. I easily recommend to anyone with the means to go to do so.
Mark Trumble – attended Stoicon 2017 in Toronto
Ever since I was a young boy I had wondered what the good was, and how to live it. At an early age I sought what the wisest men had said about it, so that I could have a better idea on how to live my life. This lead to the study of philosophy, both formally and informally, and this also lead to watching innumerable philosophy videos. If you watch videos on philosophy on youtube you cannot but help to run into Greg Sadler. After watching innumerable hours and taking some courses from him I decided to attend the Stoicon conference. I certainly wanted to meet him, as well as anyone else who was both knowledgeable academically, or who practically lived a good life. The lectures were useful in confirming what I knew, expanding and expounding what I I didn’t, and gave me direction in what to research and question further. While I was not turned instantaneously into a sage, it certainly made my path seem a little less solitary, and began to open new vistas of what a good life could look like.
Chuck Chakrapani – attended Stoicon 2016 in New York and Stoicon 2017 in Toronto – presented at Stoicon 2018 in London
Attending the Stoicon conference is an interesting experience. You get to meet like-minded people who live close to you and those who live thousands of miles away from you. Yet get to meet people who have been practicing Stoicism for fifty years and those who have been dabbling with Stoicism for five months. You get to meet the committed, and you get to meet the curious.
And then you have fascinating talks by scholars and practitioners. You have parallel sessions in which you can explore the topic that interests you more. And if you cannot get enough of it in one day, it is followed by Stoicon X the following day.
I have been attending Stoicon for the past three years and, for me, it is one of the most anticipated, ‘preferred indifferent’ events of the year!
We will be posting more information about Stoicon 2019 as it becomes available, so stay tuned. And if you can’t make the main Stoicon, keep an eye out for the smaller Stoicon-X events in different places all over the world (we’ll publicize information about those as well, as it becomes available).
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 myself, discussing the workshop that Andi Sciacca and I were scheduled to provide at Stoicon 2018.
Andi’s absence was unfortunate not just for me (and for her, of course – she missed the conference, and London) but also for the workshop attendees. We had designed the workshop together, drawing upon our experience and expertise in the subjects we were covering – and in some of those, putting Andi in the room more than doubles what I bring to the proverbial table. As a married couple who live, work, and study alongside each other, when we do any sort of event or presentation, there’s an interactive chemistry involved in everything we do. If you’ve seen me speak previously, and got something out of that or enjoyed it, imagine me paired up with an even more dynamic partner, and you can imagine what we anticipated that workshop to be like.
We gave co-presenting another shot in 2018, and decided to focus our workshop this time on something that we have drawn upon quite a lot in our own lives – what Stoic philosophy and practices can contribute to understanding and improving (or maybe even, if things are bad enough, saving) one’s personal relationships. About a month before Stoicon 2018, it became clear that Andi would not be able to join me in London, this time both for medical reasons and because one of us had to stay to care for an aged and well-loved family pet who was quite literally on his last legs (and for that reason, we actually gave thought and discussion to whether it might be best for me to cancel as well).
I flew out to London and gave our workshop, reading a brief note from Andi at the beginning, running along these lines:
I am glad that you are able to present the workshops and represent us both, given that I was unable to fly with you and be there myself. You can also say that I am finding the lessons learned from studying Stoicism to be very useful in our marriage, in my ability to grow our business and develop my professional life, in my management of chronic illnesses, and in my ability to navigate daily life.
Since I recorded fairly decent video footage from the workshop – which you can watch in full by clicking here – and since the workshop is far too long to provide a transcript of, I thought that it might be interesting to provide a short summary of the workshop that I did provide, and then to include some discussion of what Andi and I had originally intended that workshop to include (as well as some additional insights on her part)
The Structure of The Workshop
Given that we were to give the workshop twice, in one-hour breakout session blocks, we set it up to start with delving into the desires, ideas, assumptions about partnered relationships – marriages, romantic relationships, dating, and the like – by spurring some short discussion between us and the audience.
Then the plan was for me to discuss two topics
Classic Stoic Perspectives on Partnered Relationships
The Expanded Scope of Modern Partnered Relationships
After that, the bulk of the workshop was devoted to Stoic Practices and Perspectives and their application to partnered relationships.
#1 – Dealing With Appearances
#2 – Applying The Dichotomy of Control
#3 – Determining Roles and Duties
#4 – Understanding Emotions
#5 – Virtues and Vices
We then reserved a bit of time for Q&A and Discussion. Since both of our “lecture” styles are highly dialogical, taking questions and responding to comments throughout – and occasionally riffing off into digressions or jokes before coming back on point – we anticipated that we might not have as much time for the final official “Q&A” at the end, but that we could stick around between the two sessions and after the second session for individual discussions.
This is the sort of workshop that we can – and sometimes – do in shorter (30-45 minutes) and longer (2-3 hour) formats. When it’s shorter, I spend less time on the classic Stoic perspectives and strategies to thoughtfully adapt them to our contemporary culture. And we might do just two or three of the Stoic practices and perspectives applications. Longer presentations include more of those applications, more in-depth examination of Stoic discussions of partnered relationships, and also additional elements of the workshop that Andi brings in.
So this post is a bit of a departure from the series that we usually run after each Stoicon. I’m writing not only about the workshop that I did give, but also about the workshop that I didn’t give, but Andi and I would have liked – and had intended – to provide.
What Andi Would Have Added To The Workshop
One of the aspects of the workshop that I was particularly looking forward to, but which became unfeasible in Andi’s absence was the role-playing and modeling that we had intended to incorporate into each of the Stoic practices and perspectives parts of the workshop (which would have meant reducing the number of those application parts to four). In longer versions of the workshop, we have the participants themselves engage in some structured roleplaying.
Another warm-up exercise Andi had wanted to weave into our Stoicon workshop (and which we’ve done elsewhere) involved asking the audience about common relationship pitfalls they had encountered or experienced. This would then lead in to talking about ways in which Stoicism can help us rethink the common traps and tropes that lead us right into those relationship problems. Stoic philosophy and practice not only help us understand and work on problematic dynamics in our personal relationships, Stoicism also helps us to identify and recognize these when they occur and arise.
There were several other aspects of Stoicism that Andi tends to focus upon and highlight consistently. One of these is the emphasis that Epictetus places not only upon playing one’s own part – taking on one’s roles and associated duties – but also in understanding that others have their different, often complementary parts to play. A key aspect to good – or at least improving – relationships is allowing others to take on their own roles, without attempting to control that.
Another key idea that Andi and I have discussed quite a lot together, and which takes shape in another Stoic Practices and Perspectives portion of the workshop (we were debating substituting this one for one that made it into the Stoicon 2018 format) is reminding oneself of the transiency of the life one gets to share with one’s partner. This theme comes across most starkly in Epictetus’ Enchiridion 3, a passage in which he tells us that when we kiss our spouse, we should remind ourselves that they will one day die. This point, developed also by Marcus Aurelius and Seneca, doesn’t have to be viewed as a sign of morbidity or coldness, but rather as a suggestion that we value the time we get with our partners, and the imperfect persons they (and we) remain, during that time. We’re not entitled to infinite time, even if we mistakenly assume we’re going to have it, and if we realize that the partner we expect to have years or decades with could be taken back from us at any moment, we might look at them in a different and better light.
Another insight that we often close with – and we’re still teasing this one out – is that, if a partnered relationship is going to incorporate Stoic notions of justice, friendship, oikeiosis, and human rationality as social nature, one of the things that is called for is learning how to share space respectfully. Space not only in terms of physical space, but also the space of the relationship itself. This space includes dimensions such as conversation, chores and responsibilities, decision-making, joys and sorrows, short and long-term planning, and how time spent, just to name a few. It is all too easy for couples to divvy out the domains of “yours” and “mine”, when what is needed is a sense of “ours”.
As I sat down to write this piece, I thought I’d ask Andi as well what else – beyond the note she gave me to read to the Stoicon workshop participants – she might have wanted to say to them. In the short conversation that ensued, she stressed two main points. Both were personal, but also realization I expect many readers of Stoic philosophy can relate to, and parts of these connect up to what we did discuss in the workshop as I provided it.
The first was that lessons learned from Stoicism provided her with extra tools that positively augmented the value of other modalities of self-reflection. Stoicism coupled with elements from cognitive and dialectical therapeutic approaches help one deal with long term issues that impact one’s ability to have and maintain fulfilling relationships
The second was that Stoicism provides a very useful framework for examining, understanding, and managing one’s expectations. This is critical in every domain of life, but particularly so in that intense one of partnered relationships. Stoicism provides strategies to manage everyday stressors that put at risk one’s ability to listen effectively, be empathetic, and consider the needs of others (especially one’s partner).
As a last point, opportunities afforded to discuss, reflect, and engage Stoicism do benefit us as partners, not only because we are able to participate more fully in relationships through our shared interests and the work we do, but also because they create space for conversations important potentially for the entire web of all of our relationships.
Gregory Sadler is the Editor of the Stoicism Today blog. He is also the president and founder of ReasonIO, a company established to put philosophy into practice, providing tutorial, coaching, and philosophical counseling services, and producing educational resources. He has created over 100 videos on Stoic philosophy, regularly speaks and provides workshops on Stoicism, and is currently working on several book projects
Andi Sciacca is relatively new to Stoic practice and is pleased to be part of the Modern Stoicism movement. She is an ABD doctoral candidate with European Graduate School’s program in Philosophy, Art, and Critical Thought. She has served as the director of curriculum and program design for The Food Business School and the founding director of The Culinary Institute of America’s Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning. Andi also taught for The City University of New York, The State University of New York, Marist College, and the Bard College Prison Initiative. She now owns an educational consulting company in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
The Modern Stoicism organization engages in considerable work to promote understanding and application of Stoic practices and philosophy worldwide. In addition to the blog you’re reading, Stoicism Today, we host International Stoic Week (including the free course and handbook), organize the annual Stoicon, support Stoicon-Xs, carry out and report on research on Stoicism, and a number of other things.
Initiatives of this sort inevitably require some expenses and outlay, so the Modern Stoicism team (who are all volunteers) has started engaging in some fundraising and crowdfunding to support the ongoing work we do. This includes a relatively new Patreon page, on which we have started hosting exclusive content for monthly supporters.
Starting last month, we are publishing a monthly set of answers from a panel of Stoicism experts on a given question. This month the question is: What can Stoicism teach us about love? Answers were provided by Christopher Gill, Chuck Chakrapani, Piotr Stankiewicz, Massimo Pigliucci, and myself.
Here’s Christopher Gill’s response to that first question:
“I focus on a specific kind of love regarded as especially important by the Stoics; this is parental love or more broadly love for one’s family (in Greek, philostorgia). The Stoics see this as being a basic instinct in-built in all human beings (and indeed all animals), just like the instinct to preserve yourself and maintain life. (These are prime examples of the core human, and animal, motives to take care of oneself and others of one’s kind.)
In human beings, if we develop fully, this basic instinct is extended and diversified into more complex forms of social involvement and concern, including recognizing all human beings as part of a broader family, fellowship or state, in that we all share the central human capacities for rationality and sociability. But this does not mean that Stoics stop loving their children, their partners or their close friends; they see these relationships as an integral part of a wider set of connections they have reaching across humanity and indeed nature as a whole, of which human beings form a part.
Two discourses of Epictetus are especially worth reading for this topic. 1.11 is a dialogue with a father who is so anxious about his daughter’s illness that he cannot bear to stay at home and feels he must stay away – and claims this is a ‘natural’ reaction to her illness. Epictetus argues, by contrast, that the ‘natural’ thing for a loving father to do in this situation is to stay at home and help to look after the child. The discourse explores the difference between love as a kind of irrational ‘passion’ and as an emotion or motive shaped by reason and virtue.
3.24 is a longer and more complex discourse, which includes advice about the best way to express love of one’s family (philostorgia). One – rather tough – piece of advice is that we should express our love in a way that recognizes that, in the nature of things, our relationships to our loved ones can be broken by death, one’s own or the other person’s (3.24.84-8, and in abbreviated form, Handbook 3). These passages are sometimes taken out of context as suggesting that Stoics should remain detached from loving relationships. However, taken in context, the meaning is quite different.
Stoics should live in a way that is shaped by loving concern for other people; but they need to do so in a mature, humane way that acknowledges central facts of existence such as temporary absence from those we love and indeed death.”
As we gear up for Stoicon 2019, Stoic Week 2019, and all the Stoicon-X and other events that will be taking place later in the Fall, I thought it might be good to solicit and compile contributions from some of the many people who have attended any of the Stoicons we have held in past years, in London, Toronto, and New York. That way, those attendees could provide their impressions, insights, and other reflections to those who haven’t yet attended, but might be thinking about going to Stoicon 2019 in Athens.
If you are interested in sharing your views about your Stoicon experience here in Stoicism Today, I’m looking for short pieces ranging from 150-400 words. The piece is planned to run on Saturday, April 13, and the final deadline for consideration will be Thursday, April 11. You can email your contributions to me directly.
If you’re wondering what you might write about, here’s some useful prompts for jogging your memories and getting your creative juices flowing:
What were you looking forward to the most about Stoicon? Did the event measure up to your hopes or expectations?
What were the most valuable insights, ideas, or experiences that you took back home with you after Stoicon ended?
What was the most surprising thing about Stoicon for you?
Why did you decide to go to Stoicon? Was it worth it for you?
Was there anyone you were particularly keen on meeting or hearing speak? How was that for you?
Make sure to mention which Stoicon it was you went to.
I look forward to seeing what you, our readers, have to say. If we get sufficient turnout, and there’s enough interest in this topic, we’ll follow up the reader-contributed “Stoicon experience” post with one about Stoicon-X events as well!
A few years ago, when my daughter Poppy was four, she began asking me to tell her stories. I didn’t know any children’s stories, so I told her what came to mind: stories about Greek myths, heroes, and philosophers. One of her favorites is about the Athenian general Xenophon. Late one night, as a young man, he was walking through an alleyway between two buildings near the Athenian marketplace. Suddenly a mysterious stranger, hidden in the shadows, blocked his path with a wooden staff. A voice inquired from the darkness, “Do you know where someone should go if he wants to buy goods?” Xenophon replied that they were right beside the agora and the finest marketplace in the world. There you could buy any goods your heart desired: jewelry, food, clothing, etc. The stranger paused for a moment before asking another question: “Where, then, should one go in order to learn how to become a good person?” Xenophon was dumbstruck. He had no idea how to answer. The mysterious figure then lowered his staff, stepped out of the shadows, and introduced himself as Socrates. Socrates said that they should both try to discover how someone could become a good person, because that’s surely more important than knowing where to buy all sorts of other goods. So Xenophon went with him and became one of his closest friends and followers.
I told Poppy that most people believe there are lots of good things—nice food, clothes, houses, money, etc.—and lots of bad things in life, but Socrates said perhaps they’re all wrong. He wondered if there was perhaps only one good thing, and if it was inside of us rather than outside. Maybe it was something like wisdom or bravery. Poppy thought for a minute, then, to my surprise, she shook her head, saying, “That’s not true, Daddy!” which made me smile. Then she said something else: “Tell me that story again,” because she wanted to continue to think about it. She asked me how Socrates became so wise, and I told her the secret of his wisdom: he asked lots of questions about the most important things in life, and then he listened very carefully to the answers. So I kept telling stories, and she kept asking lots of questions. As I came to realize, these little anecdotes about Socrates did much more than just teach her things. They encouraged her to think for herself about what it means to live wisely.
One day, Poppy asked me to write down the stories I was telling her, so I did. I made them longer and more detailed, then I read them back to her. I started sharing some of them online, via my blog. Telling her these stories and discussing them together made me realize that this was, in many ways, a better approach to teaching philosophy as a way of life. It allowed us to consider the example set by famous philosophers and whether or not they provide good role models. I began to think that a book that taught Stoic principles through real stories about its ancient practitioners might prove helpful not just to my little girl but to other people as well.
Next, I asked myself who was the best candidate I could use as a Stoic role model, about whom I could tell stories that would bring the philosophy to life and put flesh on its bones. The obvious answer was Marcus Aurelius. We know very little about the lives of most ancient philosophers, but Marcus was a Roman emperor, so far more evidence survives about his life and character. One of the few surviving Stoic texts consists of his personal notes to himself about his contemplative practices, known today as The Meditations. Marcus begins The Meditations with a chapter written in a completely different style from the rest of the book: a catalogue of the virtues, the traits he most admired in his family and teachers. He lists about sixteen people in all. It seems he also believed that the best way to begin studying Stoic philosophy is to look at living examples of the virtues. I think it makes sense to view Marcus’s life as an example of Stoicism in the same way that he viewed the lives of his own Stoic teachers.
It’s the New Year and many people have resolved to recommit to
their fitness goals. As I made my way to the gym, I wondered what Epictetus
would have thought about about physical fitness and the place we ought to
accord it in our daily habits. In this short article, I’ll explore answers to
the preceding question and, along the way, offer some stoic-friendly fitness
Why do you do something rather than nothing? The aim of all
action is happiness. People find happiness in a variety of things and this
explains why people pursue different things: wealth, fame, reputation, power,
pleasure, etc.… But isn’t the part of life that gives us the greatest happiness
when we flourish in the face of adversity?
No life is free from misfortune, chance, and adversity. But in
facing such occasions we encounter opportunities to exercise and develop the
genuine foundations for a stable happiness: Strength, dignity,
equanimity, composure, stability, fortitude, persistence, and courage. None of
these virtues are meaningfully developed without facing some adversity. And no
person can live a happy life without these traits. So, if it’s a stable
enduring happiness you’re after—the Stoics council—develop your virtues.
So, what about physical health? Ought I to pursue it? It seems
like it’s also part of a happy life.
No my friend: enjoying health in the right way is good; making bad use of your health is bad.
Discourses 3. 20. 4
The Stoic view on physical health, like anything outside of your will, is that it is neither good nor bad. What matters is whether you make (virtuous) use of it and/or pursue it virtuously. A sound body enables a criminal to commit his crimes just as it enables a good person to do good deeds.
You should not pursue fitness merely for the sake of fitness.
This is why the whole bodybuilding/fitness industry would be such a travesty
for Epictetus. What do such lives amount to? They devoted 10s of thousands of
hours to making their muscles puffy. What kind of life is that?
So, does this mean I should be indifferent about my health? No. A
happy life is one in which we develop a beautiful soul. The body is the vessel
of the soul and so it’s important to care for the vessel that contains it.
Notice, however, that the reasons to pursue health and fitness are purely
instrumental, they are not ends in themselves.
There are a few other stoic reasons for caring about your health,
most of which are inherited from Socrates/Plato.
First, whatever burdens you must bear,
they are more bearable to the healthy person.
And yet what has to be borne by anyone who takes care to keep his body in good condition is far lighter and far pleasanter than those things subjected to the out of shape person.
Plato, The Republic
Why even in the process of thinking and not using our body, it is a matter of common knowledge that grave mistakes may often be traced to bad health. And because the body is in a bad condition loss of memory, depression and discontent often attack the mind so violently as to drive out whatever knowledge it contains.
Xenophon quoting Socrates
In short, in poor health we are more prone to bad decisions and a
weakened will in the face of challenges. We are less likely to do the kinds of
virtuous actions that beautify our soul. As the saying goes, “Fatigue
makes cowards of us all.” (Quote is attributed to both George Patton and
Vince Lombardi). And the unfit are easily fatigued.
Second, physical development is practice for the much
more difficult task of intellectual and moral development. It also cultivates
our affinity for Beauty. For that ancients, Truth, the Good, and Beauty are
inextricably connected and all are required to develop a beautiful soul.
People aren’t always immediately interested in the Good or Truth; but if the
three are tied together, an affinity for Beauty can draw them to the other two.
Physical beauty, however, is inferior to beauty of a soul. Having a beautiful soul requires knowing (and acting on) the True and the Good. It follows that cultivating a beautiful soul is much more difficult than developing a beautiful body. That is, is easier to get puffy muscles than it is to discover and act on moral and intellectual truth. Hence, especially for youth, it’s important that they at least have some aspiration for beauty-even if it’s initially of the inferior kind. This is a starting point to “show him the way to more appropriate objects of devotion”
Sherman, Stoic Warriors. p. 31
In Epictetus’s own words (concerning leading a youth to care for
having a beautiful soul):
But if he should come to me befouled, dirty, with whiskers down to his knees, what can I say to him, what sort of comparison can I use to draw him on? For what has he ever concerned himself with that bears any resemblance to beauty, such that I can redirect his attention, and say, “Beauty is not there, but here”? Would you have me say to him, “Beauty lies not in being befouled, but in reason”? For does he in fact aspire to beauty? Does he show any sign of it? Go and argue with a pig, that he should not roll in the mud.”
Discourses 3. 23. 27.
Some Simple Advice that Would Improve Most People’s Health and
Save them Money
Recall the earlier lesson that the unfit are easily fatigued,
that fatigue undermines our will and judgment, which in turn interferes with
developing a beautiful soul. In short, a developing a beautiful soul requires
we avoid fatigue to the extent that we can.
Think of health and fitness as a three-legged table. Each leg
represents one of
If you remove one leg, the table collapses. Also, if the legs
aren’t in the correct proportion, the table is unstable.
Different people struggle with different “legs,”
however, I think sleep is the most often overlooked. You can do all the right
exercises at the right intensity and eat all the right foods in the right
amounts but if you aren’t getting enough sleep, your efforts are soon
undermined. During deep prolonged sleep, your body releases
hormones necessary for recovery and growth. You simply cannot recover
physically (or mentally) if these hormones aren’t regularly released into your
body. And, without quality sleep, these hormones will not be released into your
The fitness industrial complex offers no end of new supplements,
magic pills, special diets, exercise plans, and exercise innovation. Some of
them are useful, some of them not, most are only moderately so. But rarely do
you hear about sleep, and if you do, it’s often as an afterthought.
If sleep’s as important as I claim it is, why don’t we hear about
it as much as the other two legs? The answer is simple, Big Fit doesn’t make a
profit off of you sleeping. They can’t sell it to you (yet!).
But now I’ve told you what they don’t want you to know.
Figure out how much sleep you need and restructure your life such that you get
it. You’ll be surprised at what a difference it makes. It blows my mind how
much money people are willing to pay for supplements of questionable efficacy
yet unwilling to find a way to get one more hour of sleep a night. I’d be
willing to bet anything that an extra hour of sleep will do you more
good for your health than all your expensive supplements combined.
“Why are you willing to pay so much for supplements?”
“Because I want to be healthy.”
“I just told you that getting an extra hour of sleep will
help you much more than your supplements ever will. So, why don’t you get an
extra hour of sleep instead of staying up online or watching Netflix?”
“I know but I don’t want to have to change my life.”
“Fine. Then don’t complain about your health when I’ve just
told you how to improve it.” (Epictetus, The Imaginary Discourse)
Injuries and Setbacks
My first genuine interaction with Stoicism was Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations.
My first reaction to Stoicism was to throw the book across the room.
Why? Well, you know all those annoying self-help-y aphorisms like
“Everything happens for a reason” and “Every challenge presents
an opportunity”? Well, the Stoics were the OG’s (original gurus) of
self-help. They viewed their philosophy as being first and foremost a practical
guide to living well and a means of dealing with the inevitable difficulties
and misfortunes of life. There is deep wisdom in their teachings. The problem
is that, after 2, 000 years of being repeated ad nauseam and
out of context, they can seem like just one more vacuous platitude to scroll
past in our newsfeed.
How does all this fit with the theme of this article: fitness and
injuries? Let me illustrate.
Four years ago, I suffered perhaps the worst injury of my
grappling career. I rolled my right ankle and tore a bunch of soft tissue. I
was on crutches for 2 months, limping for a year and a half, and only recently
completely pain free. I still tape my ankle every judo practice as a
After about 6 months of no judo, I started doing some light
technique practice. Because I’d injured my dominant foot, I couldn’t practice
throws to my dominant (i.e., strong) side. The only way I was going to be able
to train at all is if I practiced to my weak side.
It took a full 2 years before I was able to begin training to my
strong side again. By that time, my weak-side throws were better than my strong
side throws. After a few months, my strong side caught up. The net result is
that now I can do some throws just as well to either side.
Without getting too far into judo technique, I’ll explain why
that’s such a huge advantage. To avoid a throw in judo or wrestling, you circle
away from the direction of the throw. If you walk into the direction of the
throw, you make your opponent’s job very easy since you are walking in the
exact direction required for the throw to be successful.
So, what happens when you can throw equally well on both sides?
If I attack one direction, you circle away from the throw. But circling away
from a throw in one direction is also walking into the throw from the other
direction. If I can throw in both directions, your defense to my initial attack
actually literally walks you into my attack from the other direction.
What’s the moral of the story? The simple one is that every
challenge presents an opportunity. The challenge presented to me was what very
easily could have been a career-ending injury. Instead, I chose to use it as an
opportunity to develop a part of my game I otherwise wouldn’t have spent as
much time on. The net result was to move me another step closer to the ideal
Think of your own injuries in the same way (And I promise, you
will have injuries, whether you train or not!). Maybe you injure your shoulder
or your back. Give your body a chance to heal from the initial injury, but now
figure out how to train around your injury and eventually restrengthen it. This
forces you to learn new exercises and improve your technique on ones you
already know. Doing it imperfectly now has real consequences. The long run
effect is to make you improve in ways you otherwise wouldn’t have if
circumstance hadn’t forced you to.
Now, he’s where part of me wants to throw the Discourses across the room. Surely,
some injuries are so bad and permanent that we will forever be impaired. An
extreme example might be paralysis. What kind of asshole tells someone newly
paraplegic, “hey, man, you should see this as an opportunity.” Now,
just because what the stoics say isn’t true in every case, doesn’t mean it
isn’t true in some cases. In my case it was true.
My own view is that, psychologically, we ought to err on the side
of stoicism when we are confronted by setbacks. I think there’s much more harm
in despair and giving up than there is in a mentality that seeks opportunity
and growth in misfortune.
To summarize, here’s the first lesson: Learn What You Would
not Have Otherwise Learned
You’re going to have setback in your fitness journey. This is the
nature of life. So whachugonna do abouddit? Give up and cry like a little baby
or find a way to learn and improve from it?
The more subtle message has to do with value. Initially–well,
let’s be honest–not just initially, but for a long time, I was genuinely
heart-broken by my injury. I wasn’t hopeful at all. Right before the injury, I
was the best I’d ever been. I was on track to test for my black belt. I was looking
forward to doing well in tournaments. I was upset because the injury interfered
with realizing what I valued: belt promotion, tournaments, winning.
But the stoic is concerned with internal goods: wisdom,
perseverance, composure, courage, and so on. These are the goods that make us a
complete person and that most reliably contribute to living a good life. These
are the fruits we ought to pursue. And I ultimately gain the sweetest fruits of
all by refusing to quit and continuing to persevere in the face of misfortune:
What will you make of illness?
I will expose its true nature by outdoing myself in calmness and serenity; I will neither beg the doctor’s help, nor pray for death. What more could you ask? Everything, you see, that you throw at me I will transform into a blessing, a boon–something dignified, even enviable.
Discourse III. 21. 14-15
[Y]ou have inner strengths that enable you to bear up with difficulties of every kind. You have been given fortitude, courage, and patience. Why should I worry what happens if I am armed with the virtue of fortitude? Nothing can trouble or upset me, or even seem annoying. Instead of meeting misfortune with groans and tears, I will call upon the faculty especially provided to deal with it.
‘But my nose is running!’ What do you have hands for, idiot, if not to wipe it? ‘But how is it right that there be running noses in the first place? Instead of thinking up protests, wouldn’t it be easier just to wipe your nose?
Discourses 1. 6. 28-32.
In other words, it is through the various challenges life inevitably sends our way that we most develop our virtues – the true and reliable foundations for a happy life. And who are you to think of yourself as so weak as not to be able to face such challenges?
Suck it up buttercup. You kan dou eet!
All that energy you spend complaining about your ankle, your
back, your neck, etc… isn’t going to heal it. You might as well redirect your
efforts toward addressing it. Wipe your nose!
Here’s the second lesson: Focus on What Really Matters
In the long run, in facing injuries and misfortune, you develop
the traits that have genuine value: Fortitude, courage, perseverance, wisdom,
Brace yourself: It’s not puffy muscles or being able to lift a
certain amount of weight that matters for a good life. It’s the character
traits you develop that allow you to manage and overcome, not only your current
injuries and health problems, but future ones too.
This is another way of expressing the earlier Socratic point:
Physical fitness and sports are a controlled environment for character
development. In fitness/sports, more than in any other endeavor, there’s a
strong correlation between effort and results. The lessons learned and traits
you develop are meant to prepare you for the more difficult domains of
intellectual and moral development. Intellectual and moral challenges are
infinitely more demanding than any physical ones.
Too many people think puffy muscles or round booties are the
final goal and despair when they’re thwarted. Such people never surpass the
most basic level of development as human beings. They are incomplete human
beings and they never fully achieve complete lasting and reliable foundations
for a good life.
I know. It’s all so easy to say. Personal development is
extremely difficult and takes time. However,
Nothing important comes into being overnight: even grapes and figs need time to ripen. If you say you want a fig now, I will tell you to be patient. First, you must allow the tree to flower, then put forth fruit; then you have to wait until the fruit is ripe.”
Discourses 1. 17. 7.
Fact: In pursuing your fitness goals you will get
injured. You will also get sick. You will get overwhelmed
with work and social obligations. These will set you back. Crying
about it won’t change anything. Neither will anger, sadness, nor quitting. So,
Adopt that OG (Original Guru) self-help mindset: See an
opportunity to learn to train differently and improve your technique. Better
yet, see this as an opportunity to develop the virtues. When you face the next
inevitable setback, you’ll be better equipped to handle it.
Epictetus often compares the quest for happiness (through the
exercise and development of virtuous character) to athletic competition. There
are important disanalogies. First, in the contest of life we compete against
ourselves, not against others. Second, we compete over and over, through
repeated opportunities for achievement. We are defeated only until we decide to
get back in the race. Life gives us new opportunities in which happiness may
Even if we fail here and now, no one stops us from competing again, we don’t have to wait another four years for the next Olympics, but as soon as a man picked himself up and renewed his grip on himself and shown the same enthusiasm he is allowed to compete. And if you give in again, you can compete again, and if once you win, you are like someone who never gave in. Only, don’t let sheer habit make you give in readily and end up like a bad athlete going around being beaten in the whole circuit like quails that run away.
(Discourses 3. 1-5)
Jigoro Kano (founder of judo) echos something similar in this
The man who is at the peak of his success and the man who has just failed are in exactly the same position: Each must decide what to do next.
Now, go work out for the right reasons!
Ami Palmeris a PhD candidate in applied philosophy at Bowling Green State University. His research focuses on political epistemology and civic virtue in an environment of widespread misinformation and political polarization. He blogs at Wrestling with Philosophy and offers a free online critical thinking course at Reasoning for the Digital Age.
Stoicism is coming home! We’re delighted to announce that Stoicon 2019 will be taking place in Athens on Saturday 5th October. The main event will be followed by the Stoicon-x Athens mini-conference on Sunday 6th October, for those of you who want an extra day of philosophy.
The venue will be the beautiful and modern Cotsen Hall of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. The event organizers are Donald Robertson and Alkistis Agio.
Stoicon is the annual, international conference on modern Stoicism, organized by Modern Stoicism Ltd. This will be its seventh consecutive year. It’s normally attended by 300-400 people from around the world, with a shared interest in applying Stoicism to modern living. Previous speakers include Ryan Holiday, Julia Annas, William Irvine, Margaret Graver, and A. A. Long.