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Flash Sale: Stoicon 2019 Athens

For three days only, until Tuesday 10th September, you can snap up tickets for Stoicon 2019 Athens at the special earlybird discount price! That’s almost half the standard ticket price.

There are already nearly 300 people attending . See the EventBrite listing for more information, including the full program of speakers, or to book your tickets now.

Ethical Development in Stoicism and Confucianism by Brittany Polat

How do we make progress as Stoics? After we accept the theoretical tenets of Stoic philosophy, how do we put them into practice, day in and day out? I think these are all pressing questions for anyone who identifies as a Stoic and truly wishes to live in accordance with nature. And yet, not only is it difficult to follow the Stoic path, sometimes it’s even difficult to know what that path is. We’ve lost both the ancient institutions of philosophy (in which the school’s philosophical way of life was transmitted directly from master to student) and most of the original literature, as well. I’m guessing not many of us have ever seen another person living a Stoic life—we are pretty much winging it as we go along. We do the best we can with what we have. But I keep wondering what the process of ethical development really looks like, both on a day-to-day basis and over a lifetime. 

That’s why I’ve been looking into Confucianism. Like Stoicism, Confucianism is an ancient wisdom tradition with a focus on virtue, ethical development, humanitarian care for others, attention to the present moment, and the ideal of the sage. Like Stoicism, many key Confucian ideas are based on a theory of human nature and have a practical or therapeutic intent. But unlike Stoicism, Confucianism has been a revered and living tradition in Asia for 2,500 years, where it still continues to influence millions (billions?) of lives today. A wealth of Confucian thought has been passed down over the generations, and it has responded to and been informed by competing philosophies such as Daoism and Buddhism. In some important ways, therefore, Confucianism stands in for something we modern Stoics can only dream of: an ancient system of virtue ethics that has flourished at the heart of a remarkably rich culture for thousands of years. 

I’m just beginning my study of Confucianism, but it’s not hard to see its similarities to Stoicism. I believe we can round out our understanding of Stoic ethical development by learning how Confucians see things. Just to be clear, I’m not claiming that any Confucian and Stoic concepts are identical, or that Confucius’ conception of virtue is necessarily related to Zeno’s or Epictetus’ understanding of virtue. The two philosophies are completely independent of one another, and there are significant differences between the two that we need to keep in mind. (For example, their conceptions of virtue have different historical bases and different emphases.) Nevertheless, I’ve found that as a modern person who is trying to reconstruct habits of virtue in my own life, learning about another virtue-centered tradition has helped me better understand the process of ethical development. Greek philosophy does not have a monopoly on virtue, so why shouldn’t we learn as much as we can from other traditions?

Obviously, in this brief essay I will not have space to do justice to the richness of Confucianism, or to really offer a proper comparison between Confucian and Stoic concepts. I will just barely scratch the surface by focusing on two areas that have enhanced my thinking on ethical development: the sprouts of virtue and the unity of knowledge and action.  

The Sprouts of Virtue

The first idea comes from Mengzi (391-308 B.C.E.), a philosopher who lived soon after Confucius (551-479 B.C.E.) and fleshed out several principles that Confucius had alluded to but not clearly explained. For one thing, Confucius taught virtue and wisdom but did not clarify his views on human nature: why doesn’t everyone become virtuous? Is human nature inherently good or inherently bad? Different philosophers in the Confucian tradition put forward various and opposing answers to these questions over the next two thousand years. 

Mengzi, who is often considered the second sage of Confucianism, believed that human nature is inherently good, and that everyone has the “sprouts of virtue” within them. People do not always realize their potential for virtue if the sprouts are not properly tended. Factors such as a bad environment could cause the sprouts of virtue to wither, but more often it is “pernicious doctrines” and “lack of individual effort” that cause people not to reach their full moral potential.

For this reason, Mengzi insisted that we engage in active reflection about our behavior and our ethical context. It is through this reflection that we learn to extend our innate capacity for virtue outward into our lives. Modern Confucian scholar Bryan Van Norden describes the process like this:

“All of us will have righteous or benevolent reactions to certain paradigmatic situations. We feel love for our parents, which is a manifestation of benevolence…However, there are other situations in which we do not have these reactions, even though they are in the same ‘category.’ For example, a person who would find it shameful to have an illicit affair might think nothing of lying to his ruler to achieve some political benefit. ‘Reflection’ is a process by which we identify the relevant similarities between those cases in which we already have the appropriate reactions and those cases in which we do not yet react appropriately. This guides our emotions so that we come to feel similarly about the cases.”

There is a famous story about how Mengzi guided the ethical development of a king by helping him to cultivate the sprouts of virtue in his nature. The king once took pity on an ox that was being led to slaughter because the animal was frightened and bellowing; the king ordered the ox to be spared. Mengzi used this opportunity to point out the king’s budding sense of benevolence, and how he could cultivate and extend this same sense of benevolence to his human subjects. In the same way, we can all reflect on those times we have acted virtuously, and our sense of joy and pride in our actions will spur us on to more virtuous action. As Mengzi said, “If one delights in them then they grow. If they grow then how can they be stopped?”

Anyone familiar with Stoic philosophy will notice the parallels between Mengzi’s sprouts of virtue and the seeds of virtue discussed by Stoics like Seneca and Musonius Rufus. Musonius, like Mengzi, also had a quite optimistic view of human nature; he tells us, “There is an inborn capacity in the human being’s soul for proper living and the seed of virtue exists in each one of us.” 

But what I really like about Mengzi’s thought is his idea of extending our nascent virtue to a wider and wider range of contexts. Rather than trying to conquer a part of ourselves that is in conflict with virtue, we simply concentrate on what is already virtuous within us and apply it more and more broadly. This approach also seems to complement the idea of outwardly expanding concentric circles that we find in Hierocles’ description of oikeiosis: we expand what is already within us. We do so (it seems to me) through a cyclical process of enjoying and taking pride in our past virtuous actions, reflecting on how we can apply those same positive behaviors to new contexts, and then taking pride in our new virtuous actions. 

I really like Mengzi’s progressive, reflective, and encouraging approach to ethical development. It’s one that I think can help beginners as they get started on the path to virtue and can help all of us as we try for a deeper application of virtue in our lives.

The Unity of Knowledge and Action

Another Confucian idea that has influenced my understanding of ethical development is Wang Yangming’s theory of the unity of knowledge and action. Wang Yangming (1472-1529 C.E.) lived considerably later than Mengzi and was part of a revival movement known as Neoconfucianism. In the two thousand years that separated Wang from Mengzi and Confucius, Confucianism in China had faced serious competition from Buddhism and Daoism. Neoconfucians, therefore, were influenced by and forced to respond to Buddhist and Daoist ideas. Instead of focusing on the slow cultivation of virtue, as Mengzi had, many Neoconfucians sought to reach an enlightened state by eliminating selfish desires from their minds. They emphasized constant vigilance over one’s mind as a way to root out selfish thoughts and recover our original, pristine mental condition. Here is Wang’s description of the vigilance required to purify our minds:

“This effort must be carried out continuously. Like eradicating robbers and thieves, one must resolve to wipe them out completely…One must resolve to pluck out and cast away the root of the sickness, so that it can never arise again. Only then may one begin to feel at ease. One must, at all times, be like a cat catching mice—with eyes intently watching and ears intently listening. As soon as a single [selfish] thought begins to stir, one must conquer it and cast it out. Act as if you were cutting a nail in two or slicing through iron. Do not indulge or accommodate it in any way. Do not harbor it, and do not allow it to escape.”

This approach is intriguingly similar to the Stoic conception of prosoche, particularly as taught by Epictetus. And like Epictetus, Wang Yangming was a very inspiring teacher and moral therapist; in fact, he explicitly compared his instruction to medicine, declaring that he cured each student’s specific spiritual malady. 

Where Wang has helped me move forward in my own ethical understanding, however, is through his proposal that “knowledge is the beginning of action and action the completion of knowledge.” He believed that knowledge and action are simply on different ends of a single continuum. But not just any kind of knowledge will work; it must be real knowledge. Real knowledge is distinct from ordinary knowledge because is based on personal experience and touches all levels of the mind, including cognition and emotions. People may fail to act appropriately if they have merely ordinary knowledge about a situation. In contrast, once someone has real knowledge, they will always act appropriately:

“Real knowledge embraces both proper cognitive and affective aspects. In cases requiring moral action, one not only knows what to do but finds oneself properly motivated to do so. In genuine cases of real knowledge, an agent simply spontaneously moves toward the proper end. Those who possess such knowledge cannot help but act in accordance with it; this is what separates them from most of us, who possess only ordinary knowledge.”

I think this offers a satisfactory explanation of why people often act against their better judgment, and it makes wonderful sense in light of Stoic moral theory–with some modifications. Given the Stoic conception of impressions and assent, we could say that our judgments hold the power Wang Yangming ascribes to real knowledge. Judgment is so powerful that our actions will automatically follow from our judgments. When we have an impression, either we assent to something or we don’t. If we assent—that is, if we really, actually believe this is what we should do—we will automatically do it. It’s not possible to truly assent to a proposition and then fail to act on that assent. If that happens, then we haven’t fully assented in the first place.

The unity of judgment and action helped me realize that if my thoughts and actions do not align with my espoused principles, there can only be one thing to blame: my judgments. If we get our judgments right, we will get everything else right, too. Once you understand this, you understand why we must take such great care with our judgments. Everything else falls into place when we have and apply real knowledge of what is good, bad, and indifferent.

I hope you’ll agree with me that the Confucius, Mengzi, and Wang Yangming offer some delicious food for thought for Stoics. In Confucianism we find a long, rich, living tradition of ethical cultivation that emphasizes internal attention, appropriate actions, caring for other people, living in the present moment, and finding contentment in everyday life. Obviously, I’ve barely scratched the surface here, and there are many other points of convergence between Confucian and Stoic theories, as well as some significant areas of divergence. Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting that studying Confucianism will tell us anything about how the ancient Stoics practiced their philosophy, but rather that it can inform our conception of a philosophical way of life moving forward into the 21st century. As we all make a sincere effort toward virtue, we should welcome guidance from the sages of another accomplished, ancient, and influential tradition.

Further Reading

For this essay I have leaned extensively on two excellent books, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in the Confucian tradition:

  • Bryan Van Norden, Introduction to Classical Chinese Philosophy (Indianapolis, Hackett Publishing, 2011).
  • Philip J. Ivanhoe, Confucian Moral Self Cultivation (Indianapolis, Hackett Publishing, 2000), 2nd ed.

Also check out Eric Scott’s short but insightful blog post comparing Stoic and Confucian ethics.

Brittany Polat is the author of the recent book Tranquility Parenting: A Guide to Staying Calm, Mindful, and Engaged. You can follow her blog at Apparent Stoic or on Twitter @brittanypolat.

New Facebook Group for Research on Stoicism and Psychology

A new Facebook group has been created by Alex MacLellan for discussion of research on Stoicism and related topics in psychology. We hope this will provide a way for researchers involved in this field to network and share resources. Everyone is welcome to join, as long as you have an interest in research on Stoicism.

Modern Stoicism collects research data from Stoic Week and SMRT using the SABS scale and publishes the findings each year in a free report online.

The Stoic: September 2019

THE STOIC is a free monthly online publication of The Stoic Gym. The Modern Stoicism organization is partnering with the Stoic Gym (and if you look at the teams for both, you’ll see a good bit of overlap in membership).

If you’d like to check it out, or to subscribe, you can click here.

A close up of a sign

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SEPTEMBER 2019 ISSUE: CONTENTS

  • JOHN SELLARS – Beyond ambition: Getting off the treadmill of desire
  • DONALD ROBERTSON– Canadian Stoicism 
  •  KAI WHITING – Beyond consumption: Becoming sustainable
  • MEREDITH A. KUNZ – Beyond ’busyness’: Embracing the present
  • FLORA BERNARD – Beyond dying: Living urgently
  • CHUCK CHAKRAPANI – Beyond the obvious: Seeing things differently. Examine impressions before accepting 
  • JONAS SALZGEBER– Beyond annoyances: Playing the game of equanimity
  • STOICISM IN PLAIN ENGLISH – Virtue is its own reward (Seneca ‘On the Happy Life’) 
  • STOIC NEWS AND EVENTS– News on Stoic events around the world; Stoic Fellowship around world; Stoic publications and more

Meta-Interview with Donald Robertson

Donald Robertson and I (and to be honest, the entire Modern Stoicism team!) seem to be perpetually busy people, but Donald has been still more actively engaged with the wider world, spreading the word about Stoicism, since the publication of his newest book, How To Think Like A Roman Emperor. He has given an impressive number of interviews in just the last few months.

I was remarking on this in some correspondence with him, and then thought – what if we did an interview specifically about that? Donald always has a wealth of interesting things to say to our readers. Maybe an interview about the recent interviews. . . a meta-interview, if you like. Given our schedules, we had to carry it out via email rather than voice or video recording, but I’m very pleased with the results, which follow below.

Before that, however, here’s a round-up of the interviews Donald has done lately:

Greg: Since publishing your book, How To Think Like a Roman Emperor, you’ve had more than the usual number of interviews.  How many would you say you’ve done?

Donald: Ha ha!  I’ve done at least fifteen, maybe closer to twenty something.  (One more now, of course!) I enjoy doing interviews and interviewing other people about Stoicism.  I’ve been lucky to be asked to do various things.  

Greg: What is the most interesting question you’ve fielded from those interviews?  If it’s hard to decide, pick a few!

Donald: Brett McKay, who hosts The Art of Manliness podcast, asked me about Stoic rhetoric and what it means, as I like to put it, to “speak wisely”, according to the Stoics.  That’s an aspect of the philosophy that’s often neglected, although I think it’s quite foundational in some ways, and important also from my perspective as a cognitive therapists.  The way we use language shapes our cognitions, which shape our desires and emotions. 

The Stoic literature is full of references to good and bad ways of using language.  Marcus Aurelius is constantly reminding himself what to say in the face of certain challenging situations in life.  That includes questions he asks himself, ways of describing events, and even how he prays.  The Stoics were famous for speaking concisely.  We say “laconically”, after Laconia, the region of Greece where Sparta is located.  Cicero actually says at one point that the Stoics talked like Spartans.  They clearly valued “plain speaking” (parrhesia) like the Cynics before them but they appear to have been more willing than the likes of Diogenes of Sinope to adapt their communication to the emotional needs of the listener.  Marcus, for instance, tells himself not to lecture others like a schoolmaster, or humiliate them in public, but to speak to them in a friendly and appropriate manner. 

I think that’s very relevant today, e.g., where people are talking about Stoicism on the Internet and try to use it as an excuse for being abusive or trolling others.  The ancient Stoics wouldn’t have considered that virtuous.  It seems to me that the Stoics believed that our speech should communicate truth and wisdom in a way that’s suitable to the needs of the audience and avoids being crude or causing offence unnecessarily.  

Greg: People often have misconceptions about Stoicism.  What would you say are the most prevalent ones?  Do you have any idea why they keep popping up?

Donald: The most common misconception about Stoicism is that it’s just about being mentally tough or unemotional.  That seems to me to be largely caused by people confusing the words “Stoicism” (capitalized) and “stoicism”.  The former denotes a school of Greek philosophy, the latter is just the modern-day concept of a “stiff upper lip” coping style or personality trait.  In some respects, perhaps, the Stoics were stoic but it’s really not the same thing.  If being “stoic” means just concealing or suppressing our painful emotions then that’s quite opposed to what Stoicism teaches.  It’s also important because “stoicism” has been the subject of a number of psychological research studies, which generally show it’s quite unhealthy, whereas Stoicism is the philosophical basis for modern cognitive therapy, and teaches much more nuanced and healthier ways of coping with our emotions.

Greg: What is the most bizarre or off-the-wall question you’ve been asked in your interviews?  How did you respond to it?

Donald: I get asked sometimes who the most Stoic US president was, which is a question I usually plead the fifth on because I’m not American.  (I’m Scottish but I live in Canada.)  To be honest, I don’t like to evaluate modern-day political figures in terms of Stoicism except in relation to specific examples of behaviour perhaps.  It’s easier to criticize politicians in terms of Stoic ethics than to use them as role models.  

Greg: Are there any Stoic practices or principles that you find helpful to apply when you’re doing an interview?  

Donald: If I remember rightly, the Dalai Lama once said that all you have to remember when doing public speaking (or interviews) is to do your best to try to communicate the truth honestly.  I think the Stoics would agree with that – speak plainly.  You’re definitely not going to please all the people all the time that way.  Nevertheless, it’s always the best way to approach things.  I think it’s also good to avoid strong value judgements or emotive language, or rather to be aware when you’re using this sort of language and to use it selectively and with mindfulness.  

Greg: Do you find that people often mix up upper-case-S Stoicism and lower-case-s stoicism when they’re interviewing?

Donald: Sometimes.  Not too often, though, because, to be honest, I often find that they’ve read some of my online articles or books beforehand and they’re starting to get the idea that Stoicism, the Greek philosophy, isn’t reducible to stoicism, just toughing it out and having a stiff upper-lip.  I did have one interview recently where the interviewer’s questions seemed more like a series of criticisms of Stoicism, which I had to answer, and perhaps some of those were based more on the more widespread notion of “stoicism” as emotional suppression rather the more nuanced approach to emotions found in ancient Stoic philosophy. 

Greg: Without naming names, have you ever turned down an interview because you were concerned about a particular site, podcast, etc.

Donald: No.  I’ve thought about doing that, though, and perhaps came close a couple of times.  Sometimes I don’t agree with the interviewer’s politics, to the extent that their views somewhat concern me, but I’ve always found it works out for the best if I talk to them anyway.  I’ve handled some quite awkward questions, although I did sidestep one about politics because I felt it would have caused too much of a diversion if I’d given an honest answer live on air to the presenter.

Greg: You’ve been studying, applying, and teaching Stoicism for years and years.  Is there anything new that you’ve learned or realized about Stoicism as you’ve been doing these interviews?

Donald: Yes.  It’s really confirmed, first of all, that there’s a huge potential audience out there for Stoicism among people who don’t know much about it or who only having a passing acquaintance with, say, The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.  People from all walks of life are drawn to Stoicism because they think it might offer a philosophy of life that could contribute to mental health and emotional resilience – and they’re right about that.  People often have some reservations about Stoicism but those tend to be tied up with the common misconceptions about the subject.  So when we address those, the philosophy becomes much more appealing. 

People seem very relieved to discover, for instance, that the Stoics weren’t actually telling us all to suppress our emotions and that they didn’t expect us to become doormats who stay at home, passively accepting fate, instead of pursuing active lives.  I also realized that the qualms many newcomers express about Stoicism today are probably much the same as the questions ancient Stoics had to tackle from their students.  

Greg: What question do you wish that the interviewers would have asked but didn’t? 

Donald: There are two:

Q: What are the best books to read to gain a deeper knowledge of Marcus’ life or The Meditations?

A: The short answer is that I’d recommend Hadot’s The Inner Citadel and there are several modern biographies of Marcus Aurelius but I’d recommend Anthony Birley’s over Frank McLynn’s, I think.  I also think that The Earl of Shaftesbury’s Philosophical Regimen is an incredibly valuable companion to The Meditations.  There are lots of other things I could recommend but that’s the short list.

Q: What’s the single most important psychological practice in ancient Stoicism

A:  That’s probably the one I’d describe as a form of “cognitive distancing”, which is basically encapsulated by the famous quote from Epictetus: “It’s not events that upset us but our opinions about events.”  Marcus frequently refers to this as the “separation” of our mind, or opinions, from external events, as if it were a kind of psychological purification – a cognitive katharsis.  I think that’s pretty foundational.  Someone who hasn’t grasped the significance of that hasn’t really grasped the ABCs of Stoicism but it’s arguably quite a subtle concept.  

Greg: Are there any interview questions that you’re tired of being asked and answering?

Donald: Not really.  “How did you first become interested in Stoicism?” is a good question, so I don’t mind answering it, although I’m asked it over and over again so I can feel myself starting to take a deep breath before launching into the same story.  I try to tell it in slightly different ways sometimes.  Questions about common misconceptions of Stoicism are common but they’re important so I don’t mind answering them.

Greg: Are there any places in particular that you’d like to do an interview, that you haven’t been asked to yet?  

Donald: I’m always happy to do interviews in print, in podcasts, on television or radio, etc.  There are lots of places I think it would be good for me, or someone else, to do one – mainly because it would reach a different audience. 

I’d like to see an interview in a publication aimed at nurses, for example.  More interviews for journals and other publications aimed at psychologists and therapists.  I’d like to see interviews reaching sports psychologists and coaches.  I’ve been doing some things for the military recently, and have a talk coming up for the US marines, so I’d like to see more interviews that reach out to that audience.  I also wrote an article recently with a former NYPD officer, about Stoicism and alcoholism – and I’d like to see more interviews and articles about Stoicism in publications that reach people recovering from addictions. 

Finally, there’s a lot of interest from the business community as well – I’ve written recently about Marcus Aurelius and the leadership qualities he admired in previous Roman emperors.  How to Think Like a Roman Emperor was reviewed in The Wall Street Journal and that was followed by some interest from people like Wharton business school.  I’d like to see more interviews and articles, though, for entrepreneurs and leaders in the business world. 

Here is a list of Donald’s recent interviews, listed by source. Click on the links to watch, listen, or read!

Modern Stoicism Expert Panel Posts – The Universe as One Living Creature

One of the perks for Patreon supporters of the Modern Stoicism organization are access to discussions by our panel of experts on Stoicism on selected topics. We’ve all been extraordinarily busy – as you can well imagine – so we haven’t quite managed yet to get them done on a monthly basis, but we plan to do so going forward.

This month, the passage suggested by one of our Patreon supporters is:

Constantly think of the universe as one living creature, embracing one being and soul; how all is absorbed into the one consciousness of this living creature; how it compasses all things with a single purpose, and how all things work together to cause all that comes to pass, and their wonderful web and texture.

Marcus Aurelius

Our panel members who weighed in this month on the topic are: Massimo Pigliucci, Christopher Gill, Greg Lopez, Chuck Chakrapani, and Tim Lebon, and their full discussion can be found here, on the Patreon site.

To give you an idea what the panel discussions comprise, here is Christopher Gill’s contribution to the discussion this month, responding to that passage from Marcus above:

The ancient Stoics saw the universe as a unified, organic entity (or animal), as Marcus describes, and one shaped by providential power. They also regarded all human beings as an integral part of the natural universe, though unusual among animals in having rationality (and being sociable in a rational way). They also believed human beings are capable of making independent, rational choices which contribute to the broader web of causes or ‘fate’.

We moderns may find it difficult to accept all these ideas, particularly the idea that the universe is a unified and providential whole. However, we have very good reasons to see ourselves as an integral part of nature’s broader pattern – we human beings have for too long seen ourselves as masters of the world and able to use it wholly for our own ends – and this has led to the environmental crisis we find ourselves in today.

We need to recover a sense of ourselves as part of nature as a whole and to live accordingly. Also we can recognise the force of the Stoic view that, as humans, we have special capacities (rationality, choice) while still forming part of the larger web of causes, and that we should do what we can to make our contribution to this larger web a positive one.

Stay tuned for next month’s discussion!

Updates About Stoic Week, Stoicon-X Events, and Stoicon

We’ve been getting a lot of inquiries about the upcoming Stoic Week, the Stoicon-X events, and the main Stoicon over the last month, and that’s a sign that it’s time for some updates and additional information about all of those Stoicism-themed happenings in September and October.

Stoic Week 2019

Every year, Stoic Week begins right after the main Stoicon conference. This year it starts on Monday, October 7 and runs through Sunday, October 13. Stoic Week offers participants the opportunity to “live like a Stoic” (the original title for the week the first year it was offered), by participating in a structured set of daily Stoic exercises and short readings from Stoic texts. These can be found in a downloadable handout, which we update each year, and make available here on the Modern Stoicism site shortly before Stoic Week begins.

Another key feature of Stoic Week is the free online course which we offer each year. The course contains useful resources for participants and discussion forums, in which participants from all over the world can discuss their experiences and insights as they work through the exercises and readings. We will open enrollment for the online class a few weeks before Stoic Week kicks off, and we will post the link to the course here once enrollment begins (you’ll also see posts in the Modern Stoicism social media as well).

Each year we have offered the online course has seen thousands of new students enroll in the Stoic Week course. Most people who take the course once repeat the course year after year. There are always some new materials from the previous year, but even better, working through the course (in my experience) offers a great opportunity for a weeklong Stoic “tuneup”.

All over the world, 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 will add it to the master list and the upcoming 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 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 more and more of them get added each year!

Here is the schedule for the eight Stoicon-X events this year:

  • Sunday, September 8 – Stoicon-X Toronto (organized by Peter Limberg)
  • Thursday, September 19 – Stoicon-X New York (organized by Massimo Pigliucci and Greg Lopez)
  • Sunday, September 22 – Stoicon-X New England (organized by Pete Fagella and Mac Deshaies)
  • Sunday, October 6 (directly following Stoicon) – Stoicon-X Athens (organized by Donald Robertson and Piotr Stankiewicz )
  • Saturday, October 12 (during Stoic Week) – Stoicon-X Moscow (organized by Stas Naranovich)
  • Saturday, October 12 (during Stoic Week) – Stoicon-X London (organized by John Sellars)
  • Saturday, October 12 (during Stoic Week) – Stoicon-X Milwaukee (organized by Andi Sciacca and Greg Sadler)
  • Saturday, October 26 – Stoicon-X San Francisco (organized by James Kostecka)

STOICON-X TORONTO

This event runs from 9 AM-? (they’re having “the Drunken Symposium as the last scheduled event), and features Chuck Chakrapani, John Vervaeke, Donald Robertson, and Massimo Pigliucci as speakers. Tickets range from CA$79.00 to CA$99.00. The event is being held at the Toronto Public Library. For more information and ticketing, click here.

STOICON-X NEW YORK

This event runs from 6 PM – 8:30 PM, and features talks by Donald Robertson, Willian Irvine, and Massimo Pigliucci. The event is hosted at the New York Society for Ethical Culture, and is free (with a $5 suggested donation). For more information or to RSVP, click here.

Stoicon-X New England

This event will be hosted in Newtown, Massachusetts, and runs from 12 PM to 6 PM, followed by a potluck dinner from 6 PM to 8 PM. It is scheduled to include presentations, music, games, lectures, games, social time, practical exercises, and short lightning talks. Snacks will be provided. Tickets are $15.00 for this event. Ticketing and information are now available via Eventbrite.

Stoicon-X Athens

This event will be hosted at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, and follows the main Stoicon conference held the day before it. It runs from 9 AM to 1:30 PM. Speakers for this event include Alkistis Agio, Kathryn Koromilas, Chrysoula Kostogiannis, Chuck Chakrapani, and Donald Robertson. Peter Stankiewicz will be organizing the short “lightning round” talks. Tickets for the event are  €42.89 (with fees) Ticketing and information are now available via Eventbrite.

STOICON-X MOSCOW

This event will be hosted at the Фаланстер (Falanster) bookstore bookstore in the center of Moscow. Tentative plans have Andrei Lebedev and Kirill Martynov as featured speakers. The meeting time at this point is TBD. We will provide more information in a mid-week post here in Stoicism today as it becomes available. For more information, you can contact the organizer.

STOICON-X LONDON

This event will be hosted at the Senate House, Bloomsbury, and runs from 10:30 AM to 5 PM. The event involves talks in the morning followed by smaller group workshops in the afternoon.  Tickets for the event cost £16.22 (with fees, and include refreshments and lunch.  Tickets and information are now available via Eventbrite.

STOICON-X MILWAUKEE

This event runs from 10 AM to 3 PM, and is hosted at the Central Milwaukee Library. Featured speakers include Kevin Vost, Dan Hayes, and Daniel Collette. It will also involve a set of 3-5 minute “lightning-round” talks and a workshop by Andi Sciacca and Greg Sadler. This is a free event, but due to the space (65 participants maximum), participants must have a ticket. Tickets and information are now available via Eventbrite.

STOICON-X SAN FRANCISCO

At this point, details for this event remain TBD, but they will be provided as they become available. It will be hosted at a local library in the San Francisco area. For more information, you can contact the organizer.

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.

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 are lined up for a day of talks and workshops:

  • 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, Associate 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, Katerina Ierodiakonou (Greece), Professor at the University of Athens and at the University of Geneva, editor of Dialectic after Plato and Aristotle and Topics in Stoic Philosophy, etc

Tickets and more information on the main Stoicon conference can be found on the Eventbrite page.

Stoicism and The Art of Manliness

The highly popular Art of Manliness website has featured Stoicism several times. Our own Donald Robertson was recently interviewed by Brett McKay for the Art of Manliness podcast, which you can hear below.

Donald Robertson on The Art of Manliness

The Art of Manliness have also interviewed Ryan Holiday and William Irvine about Stoicism in the past, and their website includes several interesting articles on Stoicism.

Also from The Art of Manliness

Last Chance: Earlybird Discount Tickets for Stoicon 2019 Athens

Stoicon 2019 Athens

The earlybird discount offer for Stoicon 2019 in Athens is about to finish. So if you still haven’t booked this is your final chance to save money on the cost of the trip. See the event listing below for the full program and to book your tickets.

EventBrite: Stoicon 2019 Athens

Stoic Reflections From The Gym (part 2) by Greg Sadler

Several months back, I wrote a post derived partly from experiences as a middle-aged man going to the gym, and partly by reflections on Stoic philosophy and practice. Those reflections set out some of what Stoicism contributes to understanding the things that come up in the course of regular physical exercise. They also derive from my own application of – and mulling over – Stoicism as I’m in the course of my tri-weekly grind.

I had intended to write a set of follow-up pieces going further into this topic a bit sooner, but as many of you readers can relate, there are only so many hours to each day, and seemingly innumerable demands continuously eating up those blocks of time – usually more than they have been allotted. Not wanting to allow too many weeks and then months to slip by before authoring at least one sequel post, I set aside some time to add another three of those reflections here.

Making and Maintaining Time For Exercise

A commitment to exercise regularly is very easy to make. People do it all the time, especially as a New Years resolution, or after a doctor’s visit during which one’s physician stresses the need to lose weight, strengthen muscles, help one’s bones or joints, increase flexibility, or better one’s cardio-vascular system. Health clubs and gyms typically see a boom in membership in January, and many people who sign up use the facilities only a few times. Others don’t go at all. Some don’t cancel their memberships, but don’t use them either.

There are, of course, all sorts of alternatives to joining a gym. One can take a class, exercise on one’s own, or even get involved in pick-up games at community centers. There are meetups specifically for those who want to exercise in various ways, including just taking walks. Many workplaces have programs intended to get people moving and more active (in the American context, I write from, these are often tied to the health insurance offered by the company – the idea is that healthier employees result in lower insurance payouts). One can also just exercise on one’s own outside or in one’s own place – that was my preferred way, at earlier points in my life.

It is easy to make a choice to exercise, and even to elevate it to the status of a “commitment”. Following through on that is considerably harder. Physical exercise – at least until one has reached a point where this is no longer the case – is difficult, painful, tiring. It demands that one make a choice, or better put, renew the choice one has made, over and over again. That is what a commitment that one sticks with really looks like – a whole sequence of similar choices, maintaining at the least the direction that one started out in, if not necessarily the initial speed or attitude.

Maintaining commitment to exercise affords and opportunity – and also demands, in whatever degree we have it – the virtue that Stoics identified as courage or bravery (fortitudo in Latin, andreia in Greek). There are multiple modes of courage – what the Stoics called “parts” of that virtue – and some are more centrally involved in sticking with physical exercise one has committed oneself to. Perseverance (tharraleotes), which Arius Didymus tells us the Stoics defined as “knowledge ready to persist in what has been correctly decided”, and Industriousness (philoponia), which is “knowledge able to accomplish what is proposed, without being prevented by the toil” (Epitome of Stoic Ethics 5b2) are particularly relevant.

In working through just one of the fourteen weight-machine exercises that comprise my circuit workout, there are ample opportunities to choose not to follow through each time I go to the gym. And correspondingly, in order to keep the commitment to exercising my body fully, choices have to be made over and over again. It’s easy at the start of the first set. Depending on how I’m feeling and how much weight I’m using, it might be a good bit tougher near the end of the first set of repetitions. By the third set, if I’m using the right amount of weight, and not taking overly-long breaks between sets, the repetitions have become much more demanding. Each one towards the end requires an effort to push through pain and fatigue.

Sometimes I find myself tempted to round the number down. I notice my thoughts suggesting that it would be fine for me to do ten reps instead of twelve on the last set. Nobody else would know, since I’m on my own – fortunately, as an overweight near-50 year old, I enjoy near invisibility at the gym – and I’m not accountable to anyone else. Those thoughts suggest that since I’ve already done two whole sets, it would be all right to back off a bit on the final set. They arise less often than when I first resumed lifting a year and a half ago, but I still have to decide to push through to the end. In one sense, that’s bad, but in another – as I’ll discuss below – it’s not.

Choices and commitments not only have to be made at the gym. Before that, one has to actually make the time for exercise, and that requires choices and commitments as well. Busyness, fatigue, and occasional illness are the main factors that renders those difficult for me. For others, it might be a sort of laziness. Or it could be disorganization and distraction. Some may experience reluctance stemming from worries about others judging them on the basis of their present bodies. All of these challenges can be analyzed from the perspective of Stoic philosophy, revealing that they involve varieties of desires and fears, as well as associated assumptions, judgements, and typically developed habits.

As packed as my work schedule is between teaching classes, meeting with clients, engaging in consulting work, shooting videos and creating other content, varied duties with the Modern Stoicism organization and the Stoic Fellowship, among other things, I would sometimes find myself moving my scheduled workout around on my Google calendar to later times or to the next day. As work tasks took longer than planned, and time ran out, I inevitably skipped workouts. With old pets who occasionally require considerable care, children who visit from time to time, and a wife I chose a life with, I also prioritized family time over workout time. Over the five weeks of my kids’ summer visitation, in order to maximize our time together, I cut back considerably on both work and on workouts.

From a Stoic perspective, what we do or don’t make time for, particularly in relation to other things, reflects what Epictetus would call the price we actually place upon those things, on what we take to be goods or values, evils or disvalues, and the relative rankings of those in relation to each other. These valuations or prioritizations have both cognitive and affective dimensions. They reflect what we do – and have done – with what he calls our rational faculty and our faculty of choice (prohairesis, also sometimes translated as “moral purpose”).

There’s a bit of good news and bad news involved in that. The bad news is that since what we choose and do – as with anyone else – flows naturally from the established structures of thought and volition, largely determined by established habits and assumptions, unless we choose to use those two faculties to examine and modify themselves, we will go on along those same lines. Skipping scheduled workouts will keep on happening, as other things assume higher priority when push comes to shove.

The good news, of course, is that we can willingly choose to rethink how we value and prioritize. We can take cognizance of and modify our habits. In the case of physical exercise, we can remind ourselves of its value and necessity. If we want to take care of the bodies we have been given – which is the rational and practically wise thing to do – then we do have to make time for regular exercise. And that means then that once we have made that time, we have to follow through and maintain that time by not allowing other matters to keep us from using it in the way and manner we decided.

Returning To An Abandoned Routine

Interesting and illuminating analogies can be drawn between physical conditioning, which has some value, and the training of the soul, which from a Stoic perspective possesses a much greater value. In order for any lasting changes to be made, a person must deliberately and repeatedly engage in exercises, choosing over and over again to build and develop new capacities. Those processes of self-improvement, of building what is good and strong in us, and rooting out what is bad and weak, work best when they are continuous, but that is rarely the way things work out.

When it comes to regular exercise not only might one end up breaking one’s scheduled pattern, failing to make or maintain the needed time, abandoning one’s routine for other matters valued more highly. Illness or fatigue can also create obstacles. In fact, those can present hindrances even more for working out than they do for daily reading and study of Stoic texts, or regularly engaging in Stoic exercises. It can be difficult to maintain mental focus when sick or overtired, which may make a session of reading or practical exercise less effective. But it can prove harmful to the body to exercise while ill or sleep-deprived.

One of the adages I inevitably tell my students when I teach Ethics classes or material, is that studying practical philosophy isn’t just supposed to provide us with the guidelines for making the right decisions every time. It is also there to help us, after we’ve made the wrong ones, to figure out just how much we’ve messed up, and what we can do to get ourselves back on track. Stoic ethics is no exception in this respect. When you read through the works we possess by Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius, you will find many passages dealing precisely with that general issue, often focused on particular lapses, mistakes, and deviations.

If getting one’s body back into shape – or perhaps for some, getting it into proper condition for the first time – is something that one decided to be valuable, and still thinks it to be valuable, but one hasn’t managed to stick with regular exercise, then as with any other matter where one notices a contradiction or conflict between the things one thinks, says, values, chooses, and does, then some self-examination is called for. Simply making excuses for why one neglected exercise, or pretending one didn’t have a lapse, or wishfully thinking to oneself that one is going to simply pick right back up and get right back into exercise – these aren’t responses that are likely to be effective.

But once a person acquires some understanding of why what they seem to have resolved to do doesn’t actually happen – when they are the person who gets to determine it – then using that insight, they can change what happens going forward. In my own case, realizing that despite the value I seemingly set upon bodily health – and my realization that regular exercise is a necessary means to that health – I wasn’t getting to the gym regularly enough prompted me to take a look at my habits, assumptions, emotions, and choices involving work.

I’m still practically speaking a workaholic, but by engaging in self-examination and thinking matters through, I was able to break the habit of allowing work obligations to displace scheduled workouts from my calendar, and thereby my day. I saw the larger pattern comprised of many small “just this time” incidents, and then was able to gradually establish a new pattern. Deliberately reminding myself of my realization and resolve that, if I want this body to serve me well past middle age (fate willing of course), I had to keep those workout appointments I’d made by hitting the gym – each occasion that I would have allowed work to spill over into my workout times – that allowed me to get back on track.

A nasty flu bug hit here in the Midwest earlier this year – one that took weeks for most people to get over – and that put my workouts on hold as well. Skipping workouts due to illness is different than not persevering in making time, because as noted above, it may indeed be prudent not to exercise while ill. But what is the same in both cases for physical exercise – and for Stoic practices more generally – is the need to get oneself back on track when we have temporarily put them on hold.

This is where advice from classical Stoic philosophers can be helpful in providing perspective. Without making excuses for ourselves, we can realize that in our failure to follow through and keep commitments to ourselves to exercise, we are no different than any other person who has made a similar mistake. We can forgive ourselves the lapses without forgetting the need to change what within is led to those lapses. As classic Stoic philosophers point out, instead of getting upset with someone for a moral failing, it is more productive to show a person where they went wrong and then leave it up to them what they decide to do with that information. In the case of ourselves, we are that very person, and feeling guilty or angry with ourselves is less likely to get us back into the gym than allowing ourselves to make a new start.

After an absence from the gym, one really does need to make a new start. You can’t really make up for the workouts you missed by assigning yet more exercise to your body. That past time is gone, and that potential exercise that you might have done exists nowhere but in your imagination. All you do have is the present set of real moments and the indeterminate future stretching out in front of you. This is where the Stoic theme of “dealing with appearances” (phantasiai) assumes its importance. That imagination of where you had hoped to be, if you had stuck with the workouts that you missed – that’s an appearance, and one that you can examine and reject, when you encounter it. The sensations of your body as you resume your exercise, whether you feel strong or weak, doing well with an exercise or struggling with it, the pain and fatigue – all of those are appearances as well. The measures of the weights, the repetitions and sets, the time spent doing cardio or in a class – those quantities are all appearances.

We draw a host of judgements from those appearances, often with emotional correlates, all of which we can examine and even rework from a Stoic perspective. When I have gone back for a workout after missing more than a week, I have learned to prime myself to find out in the interaction between my body and the weights machines, what my current capacities really are and to carry out my workout in accordance with those. I do the same with the cardio machines (treadmill, elliptical, rowing, etc.). Invariably, I discover I have lost some ground, which makes good sense, since that’s the way bodies work. If you don’t exercise muscles, they get weaker. If you don’t do cardio of some sort, your endurance lessens. Trying to do the workout that you think you ought to be able to do, ignoring the time spent not exercising – or even trying to compensate for it – is making a bad or unreasonable use of all of those appearances.

A better use is to start up again where you find yourself. So you have to do less weight on all or most of the exercises in a weights circuit. Is that something bad for you – or something bad about you? Not at all. When I’ve been too invested in those numbers, and feeling bad about not being able to lift as much as before, I’ve found it useful to remember one of Epictetus’ short analyses of mistaken inferences.

“I am richer than you are, therefore I am superior to you”; or “I am more eloquent than you are, therefore I am superior to you”. The following conclusions are better: “I am richer than you are, therefore my property is superior to yours”; or “I am more eloquent than you are, therefore my elocution is superior to yours”. But you are neither property nor elocution

Enchiridion, ch. 44

The context would suggest that this reminder applies to cases where we are likely to mistakenly assume our own superiority over other people, or where we need to deal with other people’s assertion of superiority over ourselves or yet others. But it can equally apply to our own assessment of ourselves. If a month earlier, I could easily lift ten pounds more weight on a pulldown machine, and now find myself struggling to get through my three sets with the reduced weight, that doesn’t mean that I have become less of a person. It does mean that I can’t exercise with as much weight. How much weight one can use and the moral status of oneself as a person are two totally different things. If I do want to be able to lift more weight, then I need to exercise. If I want to become a better person, well there are Stoic exercises and insights for that as well!

Some Final Thoughts Keeping The Body In Perspective

Applying Epictetus’ passage along those lines, distinguishing one’s physical capacity from one’s moral condition and development, might then raise a question about the body and exercise from a Stoic perspective that I discussed in the previous post in this series. Strictly speaking, the body and its attributes – like health, strength, or endurance – is an indifferent. We are no more our bodies, their appearances, or their capacity for exercise than we are our wealth or our ability to speak well, right? Epictetus goes so far at one point to say that what a person really consists in, is prohairesis. So why place such a focus on bodily exercise as something important from a Stoic perspective?

I’ll devote additional discussion to this entirely legitimate question in a later post in this series. For now, to bring this to a close, I’ll just point out two things worth mulling over.

One of them is the frequency of Stoics drawing analogies between physical exercise, condition, and even the use of the body, on the one hand, and the understanding, development, and use of what is more at the core of who we are. This is what the Stoics called the ruling faculty (to hegemonikon, which, arguably, turns out to be the same as the rational faculty and the faculty of choice, at least in Epictetus). Bodies don’t start out automatically in good condition, and require the right kinds of exercise in order to improve in health, strength and other attributes. And this goes even more for our souls, which require considerably more attentiveness and work in order for us to more fully realize the potentials of our rational nature.

One of those analogies that I find particularly helpful, as I try to stick with incorporating and continuing bodily exercise comes from Epictetus:

How long will you wait to think yourself worthy of the best things?. . . You have received the philosophical principles which you ought to accept, and you have accepted them. You are no longer a child, but a full-grown adult. If you are now neglectful and easy-going, and always making one delay after another. . . . then without realizing it you will make no progress . . . . Make up your mind, therefore, before it is too late, that the fitting thing for you to do is to live as a mature person who is making progress. . . .[R]emember that now is the contest, and here before you are the Olympic games, and that it is impossible to delay any longer, and that it depends on a single day and a single action, whether progress is to be lost or to be saved.

Enchiridion, ch. 51

We can apply this advice that emphasizes the importance of each choice at each present moment just as readily to physical exercise as we can to applying Stoic philosophy and practices. Each repetition we force our body’s muscles to carry out (particularly the difficult ones at the end!), each minute one keeps pumping away -sweat-soaked and fatigued – on the elliptical is that single action. And whatever bodily exercise one does not only can be, but calls to be incorporated in a broader Stoic perspective.

One of Seneca’s discussions casts light on this. In a letter presenting Stoic arguments about the equality of virtue (an interesting topic, which I’ll examine more fully in another post), he looks at a contrast some would make between the matters in which virtue is exercised:

“What then,” you say; “is there no difference between joy and unyielding endurance of pain?” None at all, as regards the virtues themselves; very great, however, in the circumstances in which either of these two virtues is displayed. In the one case, there is a natural relaxation and loosening of the soul; in the other there is an unnatural pain. Hence these circumstances, between which a great distinction can be drawn, belong to the category of indifferent things, but the virtue shown in each case is equal.  Virtue is not changed by the matter with which it deals; if the matter is hard and stubborn, it does not make the virtue worse; if pleasant and joyous, it does not make it better. Therefore, virtue necessarily remains equal.

Letter 66

To be sure, the examples he discusses in that letter (and the one following) are more extreme than just making through one’s workout at the gym – include bravely enduring torture, showing fortitude in illness, or dealing with exile – but the same logic applies to exercise. It offers us the opportunity to develop and deploy the virtues in engaging with goods that “manifest only in adversity”. Seneca even clarifies this matter in relation to the Stoic conception of what is “in accordance with nature”.

The two kinds of goods which are of a higher order are different; the primary are according to nature, – such as deriving joy from the dutiful behaviour of one’s children and from the well-being of one’s country. The secondary are contrary to nature, – such as fortitude in resisting torture or in enduring thirst when illness makes the vitals feverish. “What then,” you say; “can anything that is contrary to nature be a good?” Of course not; but that in which this good takes its rise is sometimes contrary to nature. For being wounded, wasting away over a fire, being afflicted with bad health, – such things are contrary to nature; but it is in accordance with nature for a man to preserve an indomitable soul amid such distresses. To explain my thought briefly, the material with which a good is concerned is sometimes contrary to nature, but a good itself never is contrary, since no good is without reason, and reason is in accordance with nature.

Letter 66

I’ll leave off here with a brief interpretative suggestion. In one sense, physical exercise of the sort that one typically does at a gym – deliberately pushing oneself to limits of strength, endurance, flexibility, or other bodily qualities – are indeed unnatural. The pain or fatigue one endures is hopefully not anywhere near as intense as being tortured on a rack, of course, and the circumstances are very different, since one chooses to work out. In another sense, physical exercise is something in accordance with nature, not only because it enables us to develop our bodily capacities and to maintain our bodies in a state of health, but also because when conducted well, the “use” or “dealing with” the indifferents that our bodies are can provide a locus for exercising the virtues.

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 teaches at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design. He has created over 100 videos on Stoic philosophy, regularly speaks and provides workshops on Stoicism, and is currently working on several book projects.