Enroll now for Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT) 2018

We’re pleased to announce that Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT) will be running this year starting on Sunday 25th November.   This is a free course, open to everyone.

The course lasts four weeks and enrollment has just opened but will close shortly.  So don’t miss out if you’re hoping to take part.

About SMRT

SMRT is a four-week intensive training course in core Stoic psychological skills.  It requires about twenty minutes of commitment daily for 28 days.  We therefore advise people not to enroll unless they’re sure they can commit the time and effort to complete the program.

SMRT was designed in 2014 by cognitive therapist, Donald Robertson.  Over 500 people took part in the initial program, and thousands more have completed SMRT since then.  It runs once or twice per year.

We collected data and analysed it, which showed fairly impressive improvements in established psychological measures of mood and quality of life.  Recent follow-up data show these improvements were maintained at three months.

SMRT was deliberately designed not as a general introduction to Stoicism but as focused skills training, modelled on the type of protocols used in clinical trials on CBT.  Stoic Week, our seven-day course provides more of a general introduction to Stoicism, if that’s what you want.  SMRT is for people who really want to focus on developing basic Stoic psychological skills through daily practice, over a sufficient period of time to show significant changes.

Dear Stoic… by Malachi Maguire

Dear Stoic,

Further to our conversation on Tuesday, I would like to add: that a man’s mind is not a see-saw, upon which there are the two occupants of reason and emotion, those two which are giving it its rise and fall. No. These two aspects of a man’s mind are not opposites straining to pull him in different directions, rather, they are both aiding him towards his purpose, so long, and only so long, as they take their council from his conscience. Now I know you’ll tell me different:

– Reason is the only council to which a man may listen, if, and certainly only if, that man also wants to be happy.

– Oh, I’ll counter, and what makes you think a man wants to be happy.

– Because the contrary, my dear Maguire, is misery.

– Is it though.

– It is, though.

– Might not a man want to be good rather than happy, they don’t necessarily go together you know.

And there it is, dear Stoic, the singular oversight of all stoical wisdom, it’s that it cannot conceive of any other purpose for man except that of massaging his feelings, rubbing them all the right way, so that he may not even fear death, certainly, you’ll say, if reason is allowed to oil its hands. Which would be grand if our purpose was only that of ameliorating mental states and not to attempt a change in the world’s arrangement. Evil, my dear Stoic, is the impact that the foot leaves as a print in the sand. So, it would be some philosophy indeed that concerned itself with the appearance of these prints and not, at all, with the feet that caused them, yet that is exactly what your philosophy is, my dear Stoic. You see, the good is a different purpose altogether. It seeks the cessation of suffering. Now, my dear Stoic, it’s tempting to confuse misery and suffering, suffice to say that misery is the mental state of distress, fear and anguish. On the other hand, suffering is the corporeal contact point of cruelty, oppression, or, in a word, evil. Therefore, if happiness seeks a cessation to misery, it does so only in so far as this mental state is individually ameliorated, be it through the lens of reason, which gives us less to momentarily fear, or, indeed just as ‘stoical’, I’ll say with a wink, through intoxication, to give the hedonist a look in, which gives us nothing to fear at all for as long as we remain intoxicated. Yet nothing has substantively changed in the arrangement of the world, evil reigns, oppression’s rod beats, and the body registers its scars. However, my dear Stoic, if one sees ones purpose as bringing about the good, rather than happiness, well then one is tasked with making concrete changes in how the world is arranged. So you see, my dear Stoic, any man who is convinced that his purpose is to seek happiness, over the good, will be a man who affirms the constancy of this suffering, the constancy of evil, and the constancy of its cruelties. No amount of rational meditation on how he might best ameliorate his miseries is going to do a God damn thing about how he is adversely effected by this now ever present evil, and he is giving no other obligation by your philosophy, dear Stoic, but that of affirming the constancy of that effectuation. What do you have to say for yourself my dear Stoic? Here’s what you will say:

– It’s a virtue philosophy, I make no theological argument… in fact, I have to say, you sound like one of those Christians who banned philosophy, Stoicism particularly, and burned down its library of learning…you’re an apologist for antiphilosophical sentiment.

– Listen, I’ll counter, the truth is we believe in different purposes: you happiness, me the good, and those purposes, dear Stoic, have an impact on the existence of evil, but if all you have is the accusation of an atrocity against papyrus, well then, dear Stoic, you haven’t got much of a defence against the counter accusation that your philosophy promotes a willingness to be evil’s accomplice, to be complicit in its constancy through an acquiescence born of a neglect of man’s true moral obligation, which, in the end, amounts to a disservice to him and a betrayal of all those who will continue to suffer merely because you prefer to perfume the bowl rather than getting rid of what causes the stink.

– That’s quite harsh.

– Do you think so?

– Well yes, you’ll say, not least because I do not accept that man has any other purpose but happiness, and that the good you put forward here is nothing but an illusion, one imagined in opposition to the ineluctable inevitability of our cruel tendencies, and therefore not something which can ever be achieved, and in that case, entertained as a source of false hope, it leads us to the neglect of a happiness we might possibly secure, to errantly chase an imagined good which, for all intents and purposes, is as insubstantial as last night’s dreams.

– My dear Stoic, I’ll counter, human life obtains its purpose through the practice of its use, why it’s exactly like a tree: a tree hasn’t been given any purpose for us by nature, no, it has none but that which is given to it by the practice of its uses: today an aesthetic object in my garden, tomorrow a log to be carved as my chair, or at another time tinder to light the fire that keeps me warm, for anyone to suggest that the tree has but one purpose for us, and that it is given to us by the tree, well then I‘ll have to say, such lunacy has a whole profession dedicated to its treatment, or if too advance – to its incarceration, and you, my dear Stoic, are such a lunatic for suggesting that all human life has the purpose of happiness, and that it’s given to us by life itself.

Listen, my dear Stoic, human life is a teleological either/or, and based on the practical implications of either purpose presented here before us – one or other will be judged to be superior by implication of its practical results. To dismiss one or other on the basis of the erroneous assumption that there is but one purpose to human life, and it is happiness, is to deny us the freedom to choose for ourselves what we might regard to be best for our lives, and in so doing you deny us a chance at pursuing good in the world, and therefore the possibility of diminishing some of its evil, for although it is true that the pursuit of the good hasn’t yet brought about the complete cessation of evil’s suffering, and therefore its vanquishment, it is also true that the pursuit of the good has diminished evil in many respects, for if it had not done so then we would still be living in a world that practiced the enslavement of our fellow man, the Apartheid of society by race, and the use of children for labour….

– Well, Epictetus was a freed slave and a stoic, you’ll rudely interject, as though it added anything relevant at all.

– But, I’ll counter, he did not prescribe a project of universal emancipation, now did he? No, he did not, I’ll answer for you to save time. And that’s my point, that we do not still live in a world as inequitable, cruel, or unjust as that in which each of your fellow stoics lived, in both ancient Greece and Rome, is solely due to the pursuit of the good over happiness. In fact, and you’ll be furious at me for saying this, but: your philosophy deserved to be burned to the ground, and if only in those ashes it would remain, but it’s not so, no, it makes a comeback. I dare say the rise in your philosophy’s popularity today is due, in no small part, to the rise also of that navel gazing, feel good, masturbatory of all philosophies – the self-help culture, which seeks\ happiness above the good, and happiness for them is nothing more than the amelioration of those anxieties which are associated with affirming the constancy of evil, in the despair of ever doing anything about it, and the bad conscience associated in being complicit in this constancy, all the while they are rubbing their overpriced balms into, one or other, of their bodily orifices so as to cleanse, whatever invisible nonsense they’ve called, their chakras.

So there you are, dear Stoic, I await your actual reply and if it is returned to me in the severity in which I imagine it will, well then, at least I can enjoy the levity of that ironic oxymoron: an un-stoical stoic.

Sincerely yours, Malachi Maguire.

 

Malachi Maguire was born in Ireland in 1936, (he’s now 82 and, presently, still amongst the living) and worked as a journalist for a local newspaper, the Clane Gazette, for 38 years, until his retirement in 2004. He now writes occasional pieces as a ‘retirement hobby’, rather than for professional reward.

Archive: Stoic Week 2018 Handbook

The 2018 edition of the Stoic Week Handbook has now been archived.

Over 8,000 people took part in Stoic Week this year.  However, if you want to download the resources and use them in your own way, and at your own pace, you can now do that via the link below:

Stoic Week Handbooks

Modern Stoicism is a non-profit organization run by a multi-disciplinary team of volunteers. If you’re interested in supporting our work please check out our new Patreon page and consider becoming a patron.

Stoicism and Sustainability by Kai Whiting and Leonidas Konstantakos

 

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 Kai
Whiting and Leonidas Konstantakos, summarizing their plenary presentation at the conference – G. Sadler, Editor

It may seem that trying to incorporate the modern concept of sustainability into Stoic philosophy is like trying to force the proverbial round peg into a square hole. This hunch is backed-up by the various people who, following our Stoicon presentation in London, said that they were “astonished by the glaring connection between the two”. These kinds of comments satisfy us greatly, because they represent a clear demonstration of the applicability of modern Stoicism to 21st century problems, beyond those of a personal nature. What’s more, they give weight to the idea that the Stoic virtues of courage, justice, self-control and wisdom are fundamental to planetary wellbeing, no philosophical gymnastics required. Crucially, the public’s reaction at Stoicon reaffirmed our belief that sustainable development is intrinsically linked to humanity’s individual and collective progress towards virtuous thoughts and actions.

For those who did not attend in person, allow us to explain…

Sustainable Development and its Opposite

Contrary to popular belief, the terms “sustainability” and “sustainable development” are not synonyms of “environmentally-friendly”. Nor are they limited to a set of actions that one might consider as environmentally-conscious or “green”. Rather, the terms encompass the following definition:

Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs – Brundtland Commission (1987).

It is important to note that “future generations” do not necessary begin life in whatever village or hospital envisioned in 2050. Rather, they represent those babies born right now whilst you are reading this very sentence. These children along with their slightly older, and younger, cohorts represent the future – the next generation – who will inevitably have to tidy-up the mess and mistakes that we are currently making, and which we will take undoubtedly take limited responsibility for.  This is why locating the safe space between the three pillars (or spheres) of sustainable development: the environment, society and economy, is paramount to overcoming the most complex challenges of the 21st century.

In our presentation, we used the image associated with this article to didactically show the unmistakable connection between Stoicism and sustainability. Here, you can see that a white business man is eating more than his fair share of the Earth and tossing aside, without a second thought or a second glance, the crumbs that would otherwise fall from his table. Whilst this image depicts and contrasts the stereotypical fat white Western evil banker with the impoverished sub-Saharan African make no mistake – this is not a rich Global North vs poor Global South problem. Rather it is one of greed (as the opposite of self-control), cowardice, injustice and ignorance. In short, the cartoon portrays a world which propagates the Stoic vices.

Such a world is an unsustainable miserable existence for the many, who in supporting (or in turning a blind eye to) the few “more equal than others”, have not sought justice. Neither have they had the courage to punish greed. Further, the wisdom of knowing what to do, why to do it and how to do it has not been obtained. Thus, greed, injustice, cowardice and ignorance are the polar opposites of sustainable development.

An Anti-Stoic Approach

In order for humanity, non-human beings and the Earth to occupy the safe space defined by the term “sustainability” we must cherish the idea of a world where progress towards virtue is both encouraged and rewarded. More importantly we must take steps to ensure that it is so.  Yet, in a political climate where the likes of Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro are deemed charismatic leaders for their most un-Stoic of sentiments and approaches, appealing to common sense, and much less virtue, seems out of step. For some, it may even appear to be hopelessly naïve or futile. But who ever said being Stoic was easy? It certainly wasn’t Seneca.

Each individual’s Stoic journey is a tough one and progress towards eudaimonia (happiness, wellbeing) is a lifelong affair. It is as much about persistence and grit, as it is about having enough vision and desire to acknowledge the value in (sometimes) forsaking momentary pleasure for virtue. And, given just how hard it is for one person to make progress, we are under no illusion as to the near impossibility it is for enough people to coincide in ideas and values to make the difference.  But make the difference we must, because Trump and his tweets aren’t going to save us.  For how can nationalism ever hope to combat the global threat of sea level rise caused by climate change? How can a stream of social media updates help us put a stop to dubious computer algorithms, excessive material consumption, fake news and political apathy?

These are the challenges that we are facing today. They are borderless. They are real. They are complex. And, politicians peddling sexist, racist or nationalistic nonsense are not only out of touch with reality but dangerously ill-equipped to lead us into the 21st century – to the detriment of us all.

The Stoic Solution

So why do we think Stoicism can provide (some of) the answers? Because, as New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Arydern said, in her address to the United Nations, #MeToo must become #WeToo. And, by definition Stoicism, with its cosmopolitan ideal, is the embodiment of #WeToo. The latter will take vision and proactive steps, but we do believe that the Stoic community can provide solutions for everyday life according to Nature and to the facts. However before we can do this, we must recognise that Stoicism is more than a personal philosophy. After all, the personal is political. The ancient Stoics knew this and lived it.

We modern Stoics must return to our roots instead of hiding behind a superficial understanding of “it is beyond my control” or “one should learn to deal with insults”.  We have an obligation to participate in initiatives that break down social barriers.  We should stand beside women and non-white men trapped by a glass ceiling at work and elsewhere. We must make every effort to see things from their perspective, rather than deny the ceiling’s very existence when we are, in fact, standing on it. This is especially the case if we happen to be a straight white middle-class male with all the privileges that entails, through no fault of our own.  In Stoicism, the acknowledgement of fortune’s favour coupled with the need to use it for the betterment of humankind is nothing new. Indeed, Marcus Aurelius, Cato the Younger, Seneca and Musonius Rufus, as members of the ancient elite, all recognised that a position (role), comes with duties, whether they liked it or not.

If we are academics, we must return the philosophy to the Stoa, the marketplace for the exchange of ideas and not an ivory tower built on paywalls. Incidentally, this is why, where possible, Leonidas and I place our Stoic articles in open access. We use precious faculty resources or pay out of our own pockets so you, the reader, do not have to.

Finally, we must all encourage the development of good ideas and back them, regardless of who is stating them. Together, regardless of academic discipline or non-academic walk of life, we must all explore what Stoicism has to offer on a societal/global level, as sustainability is, by definition, about justice, self-control and wisdom, along with having the courage to take difficult decisions.

Stoicism Cannot Go it Alone

Whilst it may have sounded a bit like heresy at the Stoicon conference, we stand by our assertion that Stoic philosophy cannot answer all the questions that might be asked in the 21st century. It cannot even derive all the questions that need to be asked. In fact, in our presentation, we joked that in the word “philosophy” there was no such thing as “T.E.A.M” but that there was definitely an “I”. We said this because it reflects the perverse disincentives that exist in the academic field of philosophy, which serve to discredit teamwork to the point that partnering up can be a major obstacle for those young researchers trying to obtain the job security and prestige that comes from having track tenure.

This has to change. It is absurd to think that one brain can outsmart or out-think the multidisciplinary team required to tackle climate change, the threat of nuclear warfare or the technological disruption that comes with automation, artificial intelligence and mass unemployment. We are in right in thinking that we do need ethics but we also need to get a handle on the facts. That means that philosophers, engineers and international policy analysts, for example, must each recognise that they are only one piece of a puzzle and that they will need to come together to solve it.

So What Does All This Mean?

One of the great thinkers of our times, Yuval Noah Harari says in his new book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century:

If we want to survive and flourish, humankind has little choice but to complement local loyalties with substantial obligations towards a global community. A person can and should be loyal simultaneously to her family, her neighbourhood, her profession and her nation – why not add humankind and planet Earth to that list?

Having proposed adding the “Earth” to the circles of concerns in the academic paper that paved the way for the Stoicon presentation, previous to the publication of Harari’s third book, we are pleased that others are also independently reaching the same conclusions.

In a practical sense, we put forward the idea that if we Stoics agree that Earth should be included in the circles of concern then we cannot philosophically justify intensive farming because of its effect on soil and water quality, biodiversity and carbon emissions. Likewise, we must take steps to curtail the buying and throwing away of single use plastic cups and cheap fashion – there is no “away”.  Furthermore, and perhaps more critically, for those of us who wish to live according to Stoic principles, we cannot continue to support farming practices or diet choices that prevent a livestock’s capacity to live according to their Nature, because they are caged, stapled to the floor, tied-up or separated from their mother – which effectively rules out most of our meat and dairy suppliers.

In the presentation, as we will end here, we left the audience with a simple answer to a question that typically gets bounded about in the various Stoic Facebook groups:

Is it Stoic to… be unsustainable?

No, dear Stoics, it is not!

Kai Whiting is a university lecturer and researcher based at the University of Lisbon, Portugal. His specialist subjects are sustainable resource use and Stoicism. He Tweets over at @KaiWhiting and can be reached over at StoicKai.com

Leonidas Konstantakos is a college lecturer and researcher based at the Florida International University. His specialist subjects are Stoicism and International Relations.

 

Stoic Minimalism: Stripping the Dead Bark Off Orthodox Stoicism by Chuck Chakrapani

This article is based on the intent of a talk I delivered at Stoicon 2017, and written from the perspective of a practitioner rather than of an academic. It is also a personal perspective. Like Georges Clemenceau who said “War is much too serious a matter to be left to the military,” I feel that the Stoic philosophy is too important to be left to academic philosophers.

What Exactly Is Stoicism?

John Cooper, in Pursuits of Wisdom, points out that “In addressing Stoic ethical theory and the Stoic way of life, we face problems or a set of problems…”[1] not generally found in discussing most other philosophies. The set of problems Cooper talks about revolves around the fact that Stoicism is not the work of an authoritative figure or figures whose writings are still accessible. We have the works of Aristotle that define what Aristotle said; we have the works Xenophon and Plato that define what Socrates said; we have the works of Epicurus[2] to help us define Epicureanism.

But Stoicism, founded by Zeno around 300 BCE, was developed over a period of 500 years. During that time it had seven formal heads (scholarchs) and produced many influential Stoic thinkers. However, we are left with only a fraction, probably about 2%, of their writings, practically all of which belong to the later day Roman Stoics. What the Greek Stoics said from Zeno to the last Scholarch we know from the writings of people like the non-Stoic (but ‘sympathetic’) Cicero and (mostly anecdotal) Diogenes Laertius, who was hardly born when the last great Stoic Marcus Aurelius died. Even if we accept these sparse, and not always reliable, secondary sources as a balanced summary of what the ancient Greek Stoics actually said and meant, we find that the scholarchs had disagreements among themselves.

Even when the ancient Stoics were in agreement, many of the terms they used, such as virtue, god, and ethics, don’t mean the same things today. Again, the way they described things might have been innocuous at the time, but may be considered sexist, racist or in other ways inappropriate or outdated by today’s standards. We have no basis for saying that, were the ancient Stoics to live today, they would use the same examples and express the same ideas. This problem is exacerbated because of the long stretch of time during which Stoicism flourished.

We also must consider the concern that not everything that a Stoic said was based on Stoicism. Some of their views could be their own, colored by the time lived and not necessarily a part of Stoicism. But the extent to which their views reflected the times they lived or Stoicism in is hard to determine because they did not live in a single point of time either.

These observations may sound trite but it is easy to overlook them.

If we agree that there is no single authoritative work on Stoicism that is still accessible, that the ancient Stoics did not agree among themselves, that they may have said many things that were not rooted in Stoic philosophy itself, and that their thinking may have been colored by the long and varied times they lived in, we can more freely examine what Stoicism actually is.  We don’t have to consider everything that is in Epictetus’ Discourses, Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations or Seneca’s Epistulae Moralis, or the works of Cicero’s De Finibus Bonorum et Malorum as depicting the inviolable tenets of Stoicism. As Seneca says,

Will I not walk in the footsteps of my predecessors? I will indeed use the ancient road — but if I find another route that is more direct and has fewer ups and downs, I will stake out that one. Those who advanced these doctrines before us are not our masters but our guides.[3]

But this begs the question. If there is no authoritative source to refer to, how can we define Stoicism? Stoic minimalism is one approach to this thorny dilemma. It is the exploration of the question of what makes someone a Stoic with minimal assumptions. Because when there is no single authoritative source and no primary sources of different Stoic thinkers, any number of answers is possible. Disagreements far outnumber agreements. So Stoic minimalism asks the more limited question,

What are the fundamental premises with which one has to agree without which one could not be considered a Stoic?

This inverted approach has two advantages. It looks for agreement rather than disagreements among Stoic thinkers and permits the individual thinkers to pick and choose any other part of Stoicism that they find appealing, thus avoiding unnecessary controversies.

Who exactly is a Stoic minimalist?

Metaphorically, a Stoic minimalist is a curious but skeptical onlooker in the ancient agora, walking by the stoa poikile, stopping and listening carefully to the talks by the Stoics, appreciating their importance, and trying to figure out which part of the philosophers’ esoteric talks has any relevance to his (or her) life.

The Stoic minimalist understands (or assumes) that Stoicism is a rational philosophy of life and its purpose is to help anyone live a better life. It is not a religion and, therefore, nothing needs to be taken on faith, although some propositions could be axiomatic. Stoicism is an internally consistent system and no special training in theory outside of its basic framework is necessary to understand and practice its principles. However, the minimalist is less interested in academic distinctions or theoretical arguments that have no bearing on practice. In deciding what to accept, the Stoic minimalist uses following criteria:

  1. Does this concept have applications in real life?

When a concept has no obvious relevance to one’s life, the minimalist is free to ignore it.

  1. Is this concept potentially verifiable and widely accepted as a Stoic principle?

When a concept is not potentially verifiable or not generally regarded as essential to Stoicism, the minimalist is free not to accept it.

  1. Can the concept be interpreted unambiguously?

When the same concept can be interpreted in more than one way, or has multiple explanations, the minimalist feels free to choose the simplest and the most widely applicable one.

  1. Is the concept’s literal translation the same as its intended meaning?

When there is a difference between ‘word-for-word’ and ‘thought-for-thought’ interpretation of the Stoic principles, the minimalist chooses to accept the ‘thought-for-thought’ interpretation.

However,

A Stoic minimalist has no desire to distort Stoic principles. A Stoic minimalist is not a revisionist and is largely faithful to the teachings of Stoic philosophy and tries not to deviate from them except based on pre-specified criteria.

Are Stoic Physics or Logic relevant to a practitioner?

Orthodox Stoics held that Stoicism consisted of three subject areas:

  1. Physics                      How the universe is organized and run.
  2. Logic                           How to establish what is true.
  3. Ethics                         How best to live our lives.

They also believed Stoic physics and Stoic logic provided the foundation of Stoic ethics. So do many current-day academic philosophers such as Lawrence Becker[4], arguably the most prominent of contemporary Stoic theorists. But the contrary perspective that Stoic ethics can stand on its own goes back to the days of Zeno, the founder, and was adopted even before then by the Cynics.

Stoic ethics can be understood and practiced without any reference to Stoic physics or metaphysics, just as a high wire artist can perform extremely well without having any knowledge of the principles of physics that makes his act possible. There is no evidence that proficiency in Stoic physics and logic will make one a better Stoic any more than the knowledge of physics would make a high wire artist a better performer. Besides, many concepts of Stoic physics contradict the findings of modern science. It can also be argued that parts of Stoic arguments are fallacious. But none of these has affected the validity of Stoic ethics.  Stoic ethics has not changed, or has become less valid, because its physics and logic has turned out to be not entirely correct. Not one bit.

Rejecting Stoic physics and logic as non-essential (or even irrelevant) parts of Stoicism, especially for a practitioner, is not a revolutionary idea either. One of Zeno’s major students, Aristo(n) of Chios[5] [6], was one of the earliest Stoics to express this view. This is how Diogenes Laertius describes Aristo’s views:

[Ariston of Chios] wished to discard both Logic and Physics, saying that Physics was beyond our reach and Logic did not concern us: all that did concern us was Ethics. Dialectical reasoning, he said, are like spiders’ webs, which, though they seem to display some artistic workmanship, are yet of no use.[7]

As Brad Inwood (2018) explains it,

Aristo, from the Aegean island of Chios, argued that physical theory (including what we would call metaphysics) and logic were unproductive intellectual indulgences. Opposing him was Cleanthes, who emphasized natural philosophy (physics) and theology as well as ethics and logical theory. The difference between the two foreshadows important later tensions in the school. On one side you have a Large Stoicism, inclusive of all kinds of intellectual activity, arguing that the ultimately ethical goal of philosophy required knowledge across the entire range of topics of intellectual enquiry; this is the line taken by Cleanthes. On the other side you have Minimal Stoicism, the line taken by Aristo; like the Cynics, he focused exclusively on ethics: the practical application of human reason to the job of making one’s life better[8] [9].

As an aside, Aristo was no insignificant Stoic philosopher, but was rather influential for centuries to come. Some scholars[10] [11] reckon that it was the writings of Aristo that finally transformed the 25-year old Marcus Aurelius into a full-fledged philosopher as opposed to being a dabbler in rhetoric, as evidenced in his letter to his rhetoric teacher Marcus Fronto.

The rejection of Stoic physics and logic as something irrelevant to practitioners is as old as Stoicism itself. Or even older than Stoicism if we consider the views of Cynics as well. The Stoic philosopher, Posidonius, of the middle Stoa did not reject Stoic physics or logic, and yet,

[Posidonius] clearly treated ethics as the ultimate point of philosophy.[12]

The last undisputed scholarch

Panaetius ignored Chrysippus and rejected the notion of a phoenix cosmos.[13]

While Roman Stoics such as Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius and Seneca did not reject Stoic metaphysics, they did not give prominence to these topics either. The hugely prolific Seneca practically ignores Stoic physics in his writings except for what he says in Naturales quaestiones[14] (which is not a systematic work, but a collection of facts of nature from various writers, Greek and Roman, many of which are curiosities[15]). Epictetus and Marcus mention Stoic physics even less in their writings. Roman Stoics go out of their way to state explicitly (although not too often) that many of these theoretical topics maybe superfluous. Here is Epictetus talking about Stoic metaphysics:

What do I care whether everything that exists is made up of atoms, indivisibles, or fire and earth? … Questions that are beyond our understanding, we should ignore. It may well be that the human mind cannot grasp them. Even if you think they are perfectly understandable, what’s the use of understanding them? Should we not say those who think these things are an essential part of a philosopher’s knowledge are creating unwanted problems for themselves?[16]

Musonius Rufus also talked against the multiplicity of concepts and argued for (what appears to me to be) Stoic minimalism.

Nor is there any need for students to master all this current mass of precepts … These theories are enough to consume a whole lifetime.[17]

We can also find many passages in Meditations that state that Stoic principles will work even if we don’t accept its metaphysics. For example,

Either all things proceed from one intelligent source and come together as in one body, and the part ought not to find fault with what is done for the benefit of the whole; or there are only atoms, and nothing else than mixture and dispersion. Why, then, are you disturbed?[18]

Of course, there is the academic contention that we need Stoic physics and Stoic logic because they provide the foundation for Stoicism.[19] Without necessarily challenging that point of view, I would like to relate my personal experience[20] as a practitioner. While I have been familiar with Stoicism for decades, I have not read much about Stoic physics and Stoic logic until last year. After studying Stoic physics and Stoic logic more closely last year (Including a full length book on Stoic Physics[21]) I can confidently say my understanding of Stoicism has not increased any more than it did after reading one of the Harry Potter books.  In my view, for a practitioner, neither Stoic physics/metaphysics nor Stoic logic adds anything useful to the understanding of Stoicism. Going back to my analogy, physics has nothing to teach a high wire artist on how to perform well.

Stoicism has also been acknowledged as the source of some models of psychotherapy, most prominently Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) and Rational Emotive and Behavior Therapy (REBT). It is also used by the US military and the NHS in the UK. In all these cases (where the application of Stoic principles is the focus), Stoic physics or logic plays – and can play – no part. I believe it is fair to say that the resurgence of Stoicism in the past decade is largely due to practitioners for whom Stoic physics and logic hold no relevance.

Because the minimalist believes that Stoic ethics is a self-contained system that can be built on verifiable and self-evident truths (or on axioms if necessary), she avoids all religious and metaphysical explanations in preference to potentially provable propositions. (A Stoic minimalist, however, is not necessarily against religion or metaphysics.)

Stoic ethics is a self-c0ntained logical system. For a minimalist, Stoic ethics is a rational, self-contained system that can be built from the first principles and the essence of Stoicism can be found only in Stoic ethics rather in physics or logic.

What Did Stoics Mean by Ethics, God, Virtue and Nature?

Ancient Stoics used four concepts repeatedly: god, ethics, virtue and nature.  What did they mean by these words? It is not a question of simple translation. Meanings of words change over time. When, in a Sherlock Holmes’ story, Conan Doyle described someone as ‘gay’, he certainly did not mean homosexual. It gets more complicated when we try to translate 2,000-year old Greek or Latin[22] into 21st Century English. Even scholarly translations run into problems such as these:

  • Should we translate words as they were written, or as they were understood at that time or as they mean now?
  • If an expression meant something different when it was written, should the translator still use the same expression or its equivalent today?
  • If a word-for-word translation makes a passage difficult to understand (because of the differences between ancient Greek or Latin and modern English), should a translator still stick to the way it was written or change it so the meaning and import of the passage is better understood?
  • What do we do with the gaps in ancient texts and corruption of textual material, as is the case with Meditations and other ancient Stoic works?

These are not just theoretical issues. As an example, both Amy Richlin[23] and C.R. Haines[24] translated Marcus Aurelius – Fronto communications ‘word-for-word’. However, because Richlin uses current slang where Haines uses Victorian slang, their translations read differently, in some places substantially so. Because of their different perspectives, in some places where Haines’ translation (which is titled Marcus Cornelius Fronto: Correspondence) is flat, Richlin’s (which is titled Marcus Aurelius in Love) is lurid.

When we come to words with religious and moral overtones such as god, ethics and virtue, the issue gets more complicated. Does it make sense to understand these terms as we commonly understand them now? The minimalist believes that ancient Stoic writings were not religious scriptures. If we are to understand the essence of Stoicism, we should be less concerned about the exact words that ancient Stoics used, but interpret them to correspond to what they would mean now. Let’s start with ethics.

Ethics, as we understand the word now, relates to moral right and wrong. However, Stoicism is a eudemonic philosophy and its goal is eudemonia (happiness or the good life, however one defines it). Stoic ethics was not concerned with moral right or wrong. What is ethical is whatever contributes to eudemonia. What is unethical is whatever doesn’t contribute to eudemonia.

STOIC ETHICS. The minimalist holds whatever contributes to happiness (eudemonia) as ethical and whatever moves away from happiness as not ethical. 

Similar to ethics, ‘virtue’ has also moral and religious overtones. What did ancient Stoics mean by virtue? According to many Stoic scholars such as Christopher Gill[25], “virtue is a form of expertise or skill, knowledge of how to live well.”

STOIC VIRTUE. The minimalist accepts the definition that Stoic virtue is the knowledge needed to achieve happiness.

Ancient Stoics are considered to be pantheists. Christopher Gill[26] says that god in Stoicism stands for the “inherent rationality and order” of the universe. For the ancient Stoics god is the totality of nature. If god is the totality of nature and its ‘inherent rationality and order’, the term ‘god’ can be interpreted as ‘the way things are’ or ‘the way things work’. Yet, when one read a passage like this in Discourses,

How else could it come about so regularly … when he [god] tells plants to flower they flower, and to bud,  they bud, and bear fruit, they bear it, and to bring their fruit to ripeness, it ripens … how else could it be that the moon waxes and wanes and the sun approaches and recedes …[27]

the image it evokes is of a god that is no different from the Judeo-Christian God of the Bible (and many other religious traditions).  It appears that god has intent and he tells the universe what to do. From this perspective, the description of god as seen in the writing of Stoics like Marcus Aurelius or Epictetus can hardly be distinguished from any other description of god (except that the Stoic god is not vengeful, does not punish or reward human beings.)

The philosopher Plotinus who was, among other things, influenced by Stoicism even doubts if the ancient Stoics truly believed in god and offered this assessment:

[The Stoics] bring in god for the sake of appearances.[28]

What does this all mean to a Stoic minimalist? Can an atheist or agnostic be a Stoic?

Stoicism is a prescription for action, no matter what happens or how it happens. So it doesn’t matter why something happened. . In this vivid passage, Marcus Aurelius dismisses – even mocks – our preoccupation with theory and points out that practice of Stoic ethics is all that matters.

The cucumber is bitter? Then throw it out.

There are brambles in the path? Then go around them.

That’s all you need to know. Nothing more.

Don’t demand to know “why such things exist.”[29]

What we have control over is only what we are going to do next. Viewed this way, whether god made something happen or something happened randomly is of no importance to a Stoic. Either way, we have no control over the way things presented to us by the universe.

GOD. The minimalist views god as nothing more than things being the way they are.

To a minimalist, it matters little whether a Stoic believes in god or is an atheist or is an agnostic. It has no bearing on the practice of Stoicism.

The Stoic premise of living in accordance with ‘nature’ is a vague idea. But Stoics defined this in specific ways. In fact, Stoics talked about several types of “nature” that one should be ‘in accordance with’, using a process known as reconciliation. Hierocles[30] argued that there were four types of reconciliation corresponding to the four cardinal virtues: self-reconciliation (wisdom), social reconciliation (justice), bodily reconciliation (courage), and external reconciliation (moderation). In short, we should live in accordance with human nature and the nature of this universe. Thus, to live without friction, we need to cultivate two types of accordance:  accordance with human nature and accordance with the nature of the world.

What is in accordance with human nature? The thing that sets human beings apart from other animals is rationality.[31] So to live according to nature is to live rationally. What is in accordance with the external world? It is accepting whatever happens as a given. Thus one who acts in accordance with nature acts rationally and does not struggle against reality.

STOIC ‘NATURE’. To the minimalist, ‘living in accordance with nature’ means accepting the world as is (over which they have no control) and acting rationally in response to what is (over which they do).

 What Exactly is Stoic Minimalism?

So far we have discussed,

  1. Stoic ethics is the essence of Stoicism and it is eminently capable of standing on its own, without having to be propped up by Stoic physics, metaphysics and other gobbledygook;
  2. Stoic concepts like god, nature, ethics and virtue are better understood if we use their modern thought-equivalents rather than word-equivalents.

Now we are ready to explore the contents of Stoic minimalism.

The basic principle that has been around since the founding of Stoicism – the dichotomy of control – can be considered the cornerstone of Stoicism, summarized succinctly by Epictetus:

  1. Some things are up to us and others are not. [We can achieve happiness by confining our thoughts and actions to what is under our control.]

This first principle – that we can achieve happiness or Eudemonia[32] by confining our thoughts and actions to things under our control (‘up to us’) and ignoring what are not (‘not up to us’) – contains the wisdom needed to achieve happiness, but we cannot achieve it by directly pursuing it, because doing so will have unintended consequences (such as overindulgence, uncontrolled greed, antisocial behavior, attaching too much importance to transient pleasures, etc.,) that may lead one in the opposite direction. Directly going after happiness is not the way to achieve it.

  1. One cannot achieve happiness by directly pursuing it.[33]

So what is the way to achieve it? The practice of excellence. Eudemonia or ‘excellent disposition of the soul’[34] is the result of pursuing excellence (virtue) and this is all we need to concern ourselves with and it is the only good. But if the aim of Stoicism is achieving happiness, how can practicing excellence be the only good? There are many answers to this.[35] [36]  One way to look at this is to consider our natural state as eudemonic. To achieve it, all we need to do is to remove hindrances to it through pursuing excellence. We don’t have to do anything. As we remove the hindrances (or vices) of foolishness, injustice, cowardice, intemperance and the rest, we achieve the eudemonic state.[37]

  1. Practicing excellence is the only good.

The corollary to the third principle is that, to achieve excellence as conceived by Stoicism, we need special knowledge in four different areas: self, others, our desires and our aversions. The special knowledge we need is wisdom (in all our dealings), justice (in dealing with others), moderation (in dealing with our desires), and courage (in dealing with our aversions). Having these four types of special knowledge or virtues together leads to excellence.

3a. Excellence is achieved through four types of special knowledge: wisdom, justice, moderation and courage.

This, in my view, is Stoic minimalism. Rationality is the principle, virtue is the means, and eudemonia is the end. Anyone who accepts these three principles, in my opinion, is a Stoic irrespective of whether they agree or disagree with anything else about Stoicism.

When we thus cut out the dead bark of Stoic physics, logic and religiosity, “its paradoxes, and the willful misuse of language, … its extravagance,” [38] and get rid of our devotion to a literal interpretation of what was spoken 2,000 years ago in a different time, a different culture, and a different place, out comes a shiny, timeless philosophy of the essence of Stoic wisdom, Stoic minimalism.

I don’t profess to be a Stoic (or any other kind of) scholar. So let me stand back and give the final word on Stoic minimalism to the well-known Stoic scholar, Brad Inwood:

The narrow focus on ethical improvement is also an authentic component of ancient Stoicism.[39]

That is also my response to the critics of Stoic minimalism who are dismissive of it as just “life-hacking” and not “real Stoicism”.

NOTES

[1] John M. Cooper, Pursuits of Wisdom. Princeton University Press, 2013.

[2] Even though the available works of Epicurus are also limited, they are consistent because they are the work of single person.

[3] Seneca, Letters to Lucilius, XXXIII.11

[4] Lawrence Becker. A New Stoicism. 2nd edition. 2018.

[5] Ariston of Chios. Encyclopaedia Brittanica.

[6] Different from similar sounding Aristo(n) of Ceos, a Peripatetic philosopher.

[7] Diogenes Laertius, The Lives of Eminent Philosophers, VII.161.

[8] Brad Inwood, Stoicism: A Very Short Introduction to Stoicism, Oxford, 2018.

[9] Also see Introduction. Stoicism: An Intellectual Odyssey in The Cambridge Companion to the Stoics. Edited by Brad Inwood, Cambridge University Press. 2003.

[10] C.R. Haines. Marcus Cornelius Fronto: Correspondence Vol. I. Loeb Classical Library, 1919,  see footnote 1 on page 218.

[11] Amy Richlin. Marcus Aurelius in Love. The University of Chicago Press, 2006, see endnote 12 on page 142.

[12] Brad Inwood, A Very Short Introduction to Stoicism, Oxford, 2018.

[13] M. Andrew Holochuk. The Stoics: A Guide to the Perplexed. New York: Continuum, 2008. (Panaetius did not reject Stoic physics completely but did not accept Chrysippus’ version of it. What is of relevance here is that no matter who believed what version of Stoic physics, it made zero difference to Stoic ethics.)

[14] Seneca, Natural Questions, Volume I: Books 1-3 & 4-7. Tr. Thomas Corcoran, Loeb Classical Library. 1971

[15] From the Wikipedia entry Naturales quaestiones.

[16] Epictetus, Fragments. (Emphasis mine.)

[17] Musonius Rufus, Lecture 11.

[18] Marcus Aurelius. Meditations. IX.39

[19] See for example, Massimo Pigliucci. How to be a Stoic, 2018. Basing his arguments on Pierre Hadot’s original exposition (The Inner Citadel, 1998), Pigliucci makes the point that discipline of desire and the virtues that relate to them (courage and temperance) are based on Stoic physics. Even if this is true, it does not follow that Stoic ethics can only be derived from Stoic physics and Stoic logic, and not in any other way. A sufficient condition cannot be assumed be a necessary condition.

[20] I acknowledge the fact that personal experience is not proof. But, I don’t think it is totally irrelevant to the discussion either.

[21] Samuel Sambursky, Physics of the Stoics, Princeton University Press, 2016.

[22] Some scholars argue that while this is a problem with ancient Greek, it is not so with Latin. But as I point out elsewhere in this article, ancient Latin texts are not totally exempt from multiple interpretations.

[23] Amy Richlin. Marcus Aurelius in Love. The University of Chicago Press, 2006.

[24] C.R. Haines. Marcus Cornelius Fronto: Correspondence Vol. I & II. Loeb Classical Library, 1919.

[25] Christopher Gill, What is Stoic Virtue? Modern Stoicism, 2015. (http://modernstoicism.com/what-is-stoic-virtue-by-chris-gill/)

[26] Christopher Gill, in Introduction to The Discourses (Tr. Robin Hard), London: J. Dent, 1995.

[27] Epictetus. The Discourses I.14.3 (Tr. Robin Hard), London: J. Dent, 1995.

[28] Plotinus. The Philosophy of Plotinus: Representative books from the Enneads. Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1950.

[29] Marcus Aurelius. Meditations. VII.50. (Tr. Gregory Hayes),

[30] Ramelli, I. (2009). Hierocles the Stoic: Elements of Ethics, Fragments, and Excerpts. Translated by D. Konstan. Society of Biblical Literature: Atlanta, GA.

[31] Epictetus. Discourses I.1.

[32] Eudemonia (eu=good, daimonia=spirited) is a single concept with multiple shades of meaning. For example, when Socrates, Nelson Mandela and Gandhi were thrown in prison, they had means of not being imprisoned in the first place or means of getting out. They chose not to because doing so would have put them in conflict with their nature and made them unhappy. In fact, Gandhi told the judge that he had no option but to send him to jail, which he was willing to accept completely, if the judge believed the law to be just. So what, to an outsider, is an unflourishing life was indeed a flourishing one for them. They did not consider a preferred indifferent as the source of their happiness.

[33] The idea that happiness cannot be achieved by directly pursuing it is a recurring theme in many disciplines. For example, John Stuart Mill, while discussing Utilitarianism, has this to say on happiness: “Those only are happy who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way.” John Stuart Mill , The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill. e-artnow, 2017

[34] John Sellers. Stoicism. University of California Press, 2006.

[35] Mark Tullius Cicero. Paradoxa Stoicorum.

[36] A. A. Long (ed.) Problems in Stoicism, London: Athlone, 1971.

[37] This is not one of the standard explanations. A Stoic minimalist is free not to accept it as there are many alternative explanations.

[38] St. George Stock. A Little Book of Stoicism. Ten Cent Pocket Series No. 347.

[39] Brad Inwood, A Very Short Introduction to Stoicism, Oxford, 2018.

 

Chuck Chakrapani is President of Leger Analytics and a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Ryerson University. He is the author of Unshakable Freedom: Ancient Stoic Secrets Applied to Modern Life and several other books on Stoicism.  He is also the founder of the Stoic Gym website.

Stoic Week 2018 Demographics Report by Tim LeBon

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

 

Stoic Week is over, we hope you enjoyed it and found it helpful.  This is the first in a series of articles reporting on what we  learnt from it. Today we have answers to the following questions

  • How many people took part? Were there more men or women? Which gender is more Stoic?
  • How old are the participants of Stoic Week? Do you get more Stoic as you get older?
  • Which countries took part and which countries are the most (and least) Stoic?
  • Do people take part in Stoic Week more than once? Are people more Stoic the more times they do Stoic Week?
  • Why do people take part in Stoic week?

How many people took part? Were there more men or women? Which gender is more Stoic?

Gender Total 2018

%

2017

%

2016

%

Average SABS score

2018

Male 2283 62 65 66 373
Female 1375 37 34 33 368
Decline to state 27 1 1 1 (364)
Other 21 1 0.5 (383)

Table 1: Stoic Week 2018 by gender  (*Percentages in this and other tables may not add up to 100% due to rounding)

  • More people completed the Stoic Week questionnaires than in 2017. 3899  people did so, an increase from 2860 in 2017 which was more than the 1798 in 2016. This was despite a longer SABS questionnaire to complete and the requirement to ask for GDPR consent. 3555 did not finish the questionnaires although they started and only 196 denied consent. This gives a total figure for 7650 people who accessed the questionnaires.
  • The ratio of males to females was 62% to 37%. This compared with 65% to 34% last year showing a slight increase in number of females talking part.
  • Men were marginally more Stoic then women as measured by SABS scored, though those who identified as “Other” ((admittedly a very small sample) were the most Stoic.

How old are the participants of Stoic Week? Do you get more Stoic as you get older?

Age 2018

%

2017

%

2016

%

Average SABS score 2018
Over 65 7 381
56-65 14 17 (was over 55) 13 (over 55) 381
46-55 20 18 17 375
36-45 22 22 21 372
26-35 23 27 25 366
18-25 13 15 22 366
Under 18 1 1 1 (369)

Table 2: A wide range of ages take part in Stoic Week. It does seem that you get more Stoic as you get older.

 Which countries too part and which countries are the most (and least) Stoic?

Country No % Average SABS Score
United States 1388 37 382
United Kingdom 832 22 363
Canada 310 8 377
Australia 158 4 376
Germany 155 4 356
Russian Federation 75 2 346
Netherlands 68 2 358
France 61 2 370
Spain 39 1 372
Ireland {Republic} 38 1 384
Sweden 34 1 364
New Zealand 31 1 363
Switzerland 31 1 361
Brazil 30 1 366
South Africa 29 1 379
Italy 23 1 370
Ukraine 22 1 344
Denmark 19 1 364
Poland 19 1 368
Belgium 18 0 369
China 17 0 376
India 17 0 376
Argentina 16 0 374
Finland 16 0 355
Austria 15 0 369
Portugal 15 0 377
Japan 14 0 376
Mexico 13 0 386
Norway 13 0 372
Czech Republic 12 0 335
Israel 12 0 363
Singapore 11 0 402

Table 3: Stoic Week 2018 by country

For the first time we obtained specific country data. Table 3 shows all countries with more than 10 participants in Stoic Week. Of these, the most Stoic were Singapore, Mexico, the Irish Republic and the United States. Least Stoic were the Czech Republic, the Ukraine and the Russian Federation.

Do people take part in Stoic Week more than once? Are people more Stoic if they’ve taken part a number of times?

Number of times participated in Stoic Weeks previously 2018% 2017% 2016

%

SABS
0 73 79 77 366
1 17 13 14 384
2 6 5 6 396
3 3 2 3 399
4 or more 2 1 1 423

 Table 4: Stoic Week 2018 : Previous participation

More than 70% of participants are first-timers, but those who do take part appear to be significantly more Stoic as a result.

How much do participants say they know about Stoicism?

Knowledge of Stoicism 2018 2017%  2016   % SABS
None 10 9 11 348
Novice 28 30 33 359
I know a bit 42 41 39 374
I know quite a bit but not an expert 19 19 16 398
Expert .8 0.5 1 429

Table 5: Stoic Week 2018

Most people say that know a bit about Stoicism, which as many as 10% doing Stoic Week without knowing anything about it. There is a strong association between how much people know about Stoicism and how Stoic they are according to the SABS.

Identification with being a Stoic 2018 SABS
Definitely not a Stoic 6 335
More not a Stoic than a Stoic 10 347
Neutral or I don’t know 37 356
I am more a Stoic than not a Stoic 38 388
I consider myself to be a Stoic

 

11 421

Table 5: How Stoic do  participants rate themselves? How closely does this connect with their SABS score?

For the first time, we asked people to what extent they identified as  a Stoic. Interestingly, about the same number are neutral as think they are more Stoic than not Stoic. A relatively small number consider themselves to be a Stoic whilst as many as 6% are doing Stoic week despite definitely not being a Stoic, which is perhaps surprising.

Why did people take part in Stoic week?

Below is the “word cloud” for the reasons given for taking part in Stoic Week.

Recent Blog Pieces on Stoicon 2018

This year, at Stoicon 2018 in London (organized by John Sellars, assisted by Amy Valladres) , we again hosted over 300 participants and fielded a number of talks and workshops!  In the weeks following, quite a few people wrote about their experiences at the conference, the conversations they had, the talks or workshops they attended, and what they learned.

Since Stoicon is one of the main events planned and put on every year by the Modern Stoicism organization, I thought what these participants had to say would likely be of interest to our readership, particularly those who could not attend the conference.

Below is a list of the longer pieces about Stoicon 2018 out there at present.  Several are in other languages, but if you can’t read those, there’s always the translate function in your browser, or Google Translate!

Retour sur la Stoicon 2018 à Londres by “Zenon” (in French).  This is a quite detailed, very thorough, in-depth overview of each portion of the conference, from the first session to the plenary address.  A host of excellent photos as well.  In my view, if you read only one piece on the conference, this is the one to select.

Londyński zlot stoików by Piotr Stankiewicz (in Polish).  I don’t read Polish (unfortunately), but I do know Piotr, so I had a strong sense it was going to be good.  When I was able to read this piece in translation, that was the case.  A good discussion of the plurality of modern Stoicism

What the Hell is Stoicon? by the author of “The Will To Freedom” blog.  Another excellent overview of the event, along with some background and a discussion about travel as well.

So far, I haven’t seen any other longer pieces discussing the conference.  If I’ve missed any, by all means, send them my way, and I’ll read them, then add them to this listing of recommended posts.

On Judge Kavanaugh, and Why We Need a Stoic Sage on the U.S. Supreme Court by Ronald Pies

Americans seem to agree on very little, these days, as was vividly demonstrated by the recent appointment of Judge Bret Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court. But I suspect that almost any American acquainted with the term “stoic” would agree that Judge Kavanaugh’s emotional testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee1 was, well— not very “stoical.”

To be sure: Kavanaugh was dealing with a situation that virtually anyone would find emotionally overwhelming, and that few of us could face with equanimity. And yet, I want to argue that the kind of person we need on the Supreme Court is one who embodies the even temperament and high moral values of the ancient Stoic philosophers.

But wait—aren’t “stoics” people who deliberately quash all their emotions and never allow themselves to feel joy or sadness?  Aren’t they, like Star Trek’s Mr. Spock, obsessed with logic at the expense of intuition and empathy? Why would we ever want such an emotionally stunted individual on the U.S. Supreme Court, which, after all, deals with such emotionally-charged issues as abortion, religious freedom, and gun control?

But, as most readers of this website know, the popular stereotype of Stoics and Stoicism is far removed from the school of philosophy that flourished in ancient Athens and Rome, and which profoundly influenced modern-day figures like Vice Admiral James B. Stockdale, who endured seven and a half years of imprisonment and torture in North Vietnam.2,3

No, the ancient Stoics—men like Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Seneca—did not believe in suppressing emotion or eradicating joy and sadness. Rather, they argued that maintaining the proper mental attitude would lead, quite naturally, to a state of equanimity and emotional balance. The proper attitude, for the Stoic sage, meant seeing the world for what it is: a place filled with unpleasant people and events, but also a place of joy—if only we keep a clear head, and act in accordance with Nature and virtue.  For the Stoic, it is not things or events or people that upset and unhinge us, but our attitude toward these things. As Marcus puts it:

Things do not touch the soul…our perturbations come only from the opinion which is within…4

The Stoics placed little value on material possessions, fame, or wealth, arguing that acting in accordance with virtue was the only lasting and genuine good. Indeed, the Roman statesman Seneca taught that:

A good character is the only guarantee of everlasting, carefree happiness.5

The Stoics had a keen awareness of human mortality, and its central role in shaping our behavior. Marcus Aurelius cautioned that:

since it is possible that you may depart from life this very moment, regulate every act and thought accordingly.4

Finally, the Stoics believed in the sacredness of the common bond that unites all human beings. As Marcus Aurelius put it:

A man’s joy is to do what is proper to man, and man’s proper work is kindness to his fellow man.6

Some people link the Stoics with a kind of fatalism or determinism—as if the Stoics believed we must accept things as they are, no matter how bad, and have little power to change them. This, too, is a misunderstanding of Stoicism. It’s true that the Stoics saw the universe as strictly governed by the law of cause and effect. But as the scholar of Stoicism, A.A. Long has pointed out:

…fate is not assigned to me independently of who I am and what I do.  We co-determine our fate by the decisions that we [make] and by the responses we give to our circumstances.7

The Stoics firmly believed in opposing cruelty and injustice, while also acknowledging that sometimes our best efforts will fail.8

 Judge Kavanaugh Measured Against the Stoics

Now as to Judge Kavanaugh: I do not know whether he does, or does not, embody Stoic virtues in his everyday life, or in his approach to interpreting the law. Yet for me, as an ethicist—and entirely apart from the allegations of sexual abuse made against him— Kavanaugh’s appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee raised serious questions regarding his temperament and character. The historian Nils Gilman, writing in The American Interest, makes important points about the kind of person we ought to appoint to the U.S. Supreme Court, citing a number of quintessentially Stoic traits. A Supreme Court justice, Gilman writes,

…must be above suspicion, at numerous levels. Politically, they must seem reasonable and neutral. Intellectually, they must be clear and open-minded. Morally, they must be above reproach… Instead [in Judge Kavanaugh], we were greeted by a man barely able to contain his emotions, claiming partisan victimhood, and all but explicitly vowing revenge. This…was simply an unacceptable moral posture for anyone seeking a Supreme Court appointment, regardless of the underlying truth of the charges leveled against him. What Kavanaugh’s speech indicated—what it in fact performed—was a traducing of the moral values we expect a Supreme Court justice to embody: solemnity, equanimity, maturity, forbearance, and yes, sobriety (in the moral sense). Even if he was a man wronged, Kavanaugh’s conduct was, to use a moral concept often deployed in the military, “unbecoming” of a Supreme Court Justice.9

The Stoic Sage and the Supreme Court

In an important discussion of the “Stoic Sage”, philosopher Massimo Pigliucci raises many caveats, if not objections, regarding the whole notion of the “Sage.”10 He cites the wonderfully acerbic comment by Cicero:

It happens more often that a mule begets than that a Sage comes into existence. (On Divination 2.61).

For the Stoics, perhaps Socrates came as close to being a Sage as was humanly possible.

Notwithstanding these concerns, we can arrive at least a rough “character sketch” of the Stoic Sage, in terms relevant to the sort of person we ought to seek for appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court. A short list of requisite traits would surely include the five cited by Gilman: solemnity, equanimity, maturity, forbearance, and sobriety. But a much more comprehensive list can be extrapolated from the virtues Marcus Aurelius lists, at the beginning of his Meditations. (These are essentially the principles of character and comportment that Marcus himself absorbed from the most important people in his life). As I would summarize the most important of these character traits, they include:

  • Showing good morals and the governance of one’s temper
  • Acting with modesty
  • Showing piety, beneficence, and abstinence (not only from evil deeds, but from evil thoughts), and simplicity in one’s way of living
  • Avoiding partisanship (“…to be neither of the green nor of the blue party at the games in the Circus, nor a partizan either of the Parmularius or the Scutarius at the gladiators’ fights…”)
  • Enduring labor and having few desires
  • Refraining from meddling in other people’s affairs, or readily listening to
  • Not busying oneself about trifling things
  • Refraining from showing oneself off as a disciplined and benevolent person
  • Being easily pacified and reconciled with respect to those who have offended one, once they have shown a readiness to be reconciled
  • Maintaining undeviating steadiness of purpose, and remaining oneself, even under adverse conditions (“…to be always the same, in sharp pains, on the occasion of the loss of a child, and in long illness…”)
  • Looking to nothing else but reason as a guide
  • Being both “most resolute” and yet yielding, and not peevish in giving instruction
  • Conveying gravity without affectation
  • Looking carefully after the interests of friends, and tolerating ignorant persons, and “those who form opinions without consideration”.
  • Never showing anger or any other passion, yet being affectionate toward others
  • Refraining from fault-finding and chiding others in a reproachful way
  • Loving truth and justice, and respecting the freedom of the governed
  • Maintaining cheerfulness, mildness of temper, sweetness and dignity, in all circumstances; and doing one’s duty without complaining
  • Taking reasonable care of one’s bodily health
  • Being “…able both to abstain from, and to enjoy, those things which many are too weak to abstain from, and cannot enjoy without excess.”

[Quoted material is from the translation by George Long 4]

I leave the reader to decide how close Judge Kavanagh came to evincing one or more of these traits in his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. (A full transcript of his opening statement and a short video clip are available online, via the New York Times11). My own impression of Kavanagh’s demeanor and comportment before the Committee is similar to that of Nils Gilman. I do not believe that Judge Kavanagh demonstrated anything like “solemnity, equanimity, maturity, forbearance, and sobriety.”

That said, it is possible that in his comportment “on the bench”, and in the substance of his judicial rulings, Kavanagh exhibits some or even all of the traits Marcus Aurelius embraced. Certainly, some colleagues have attested to Kavanagh’s good character. For example, Sarah Day, who worked with Kavanagh at the White House between 2002-2006, described him as:

…smart, funny and kind. He is generous with his time, compassionate towards others, diligent in his work, and the kind of person you hope will advance to the highest levels of his profession…He is a thoughtful leader, a champion of others, and exactly the type of person you hope would be nominated to the position of associate justice.12

Perhaps. We will need to reserve final judgment until we have more “observational data”, based on Kavanagh’s comportment, demeanor, and, of course, the quality and tenor of his judicial decisions, after sufficient time on the Supreme Court. Indeed, a rush to judgment would be both unfair and “un-Stoic”. As Marcus cautions us:

A man must be well informed of many points, before he can pronounce surely about the actions of others. (Meditations, Book 11, no. 18).13

That said, it remains unclear whether, in approving Kavanagh’s appointment to the Supreme Court, the U.S. Senate was “well informed of many points”, or whether it acted largely out of haste, passion, and ignorance.

 

References

  1. https://www.npr.org/2018/09/27/652366140/kavanaugh-and-christine-blasey-ford-testify-before-senate-judiciary-committee
  2. https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/02/02/how-to-be-a-stoic/?_r=0
  3. https://www.usna.edu/Ethics/_files/documents/stoicism1.pdf
  4. The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. Translated by G. Long. Boston, Shambhala, 1993. Available at: http://classics.mit.edu/Antoninus/meditations.1.one.html
  5. Seneca, Letters from a Stoic. Translated by Robin Campbell, Penguin Books, 1969.
  6. Marcus Aurelius: Meditations. Translated by A.S.L. Farquharson. New York. Knopf, 1946.
  7. https://modernstoicism.com/stoicisms-ancient-and-modern-by-tony-a-a-long/
  8. Pies R: Everything Has Two Handles. Hamilton Books, 2008
  9. https://www.the-american-interest.com/2018/10/03/being-morally-serious-about-the-supreme-court/
  10. http://brewminate.com/on-the-nature-of-the-stoic-sage/
  11. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/26/us/politics/read-brett-kavanaughs-complete-opening-statement.html
  12. https://www.centralmaine.com/2018/09/10/another-view-above-all-else-kavanaugh-a-good-man/
  13. http://files.libertyfund.org/files/2133/Aurelius_1464_LFeBk.pdf

Ronald Pies is Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry and Lecturer on Bioethics & Humanities at SUNY Upstate Medical University and Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Tufts University School of Medicine. He is the author of Everything has Two Handles: The Stoic’s Guide to the Art of Living and The Three-Petalled Rose.

The One Habit of a Highly Successful Stoic by Brian Earl Johnson

The Quest to Get Organized

When I was starting graduate school, I was very concerned about how I was going to manage it all. I had already worked hard as an undergraduate, sometimes juggling six classes a semester. But, I knew that the workload was about to get tougher because I was headed off to a graduate school that proudly sold t-shirts emblazoned with “Where fun goes to die” and “Hell does freeze over.”

Detecting my uncertainty, a buddy recommended that I get organized with a day planner. He was a fan of the Franklin Planner system and he urged me to take the seminar. I definitely like what I saw in the seminar, especially its emphasis on determining what my values are. Since I was already planning on studying philosophy with an emphasis on ancient ethics, I felt entirely comfortable defining my values. One of the clearest then was a commitment to lifelong learning.

While the Franklin Planner brought some measure of order in all I had to do, something wasn’t quite working, either. The paper planner was cumbersome, especially since it had two full pages for each day. Since it made sense to carry a full semester or quarter at a time, it was a heavy book that had to go around with me to my classes. At that time, there were certainly electronic organizers (Palm Pilots), but I did not find those satisfactory either. Paper was both tactile and larger so it engaged my senses better; I have felt vindicated about that dissatisfaction now that an emerging set of studies show that we learn better when we write by hand and when we use printed books as opposed to ebooks.

And, something else was awkward for me with the planner: as a student, my schedule was relatively fixed so the primary “action” of my planner was in the sprawling to do list. In the paper planner, the to do list is kept in a kind of bookmark that one moves with each day. My list felt out of control because it was constantly having new items (such as reading assignments or test preparation) and it seemed so Sisyphean to keep re-writing it on new cardstock.

In my third year of graduate school, two books came my way at just the right time to help me solve this ongoing puzzle about how to organize my life.

First, I read Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. I read the book because I had decided to work over the summer at a retail store where the Franklin Planner company sold their products. The had merged with Stephen Covey’s organization to become Franklin-Covey. (Although they are now out of the brick and mortar storefronts, the company remains by having returned to its roots in offering seminars on getting organized). I liked many ideas contained therein from the so-called “big rocks” exercise to its approach to negotiating: win-win or no deal

But, I was most taken with how Covey approached getting organized. Not only did he prefer the broader week-at-a-glance approach, but he urged that we organize our life around our roles. He writes that

We each have a number of different roles in our lives – different areas or capacities in which we have responsibility. I may, for example, have a role as an individual, a husband, a father, a teacher, a church member, and a businessman. And each of these roles is important.” (from the chapter, “Begin with the End in Mind”)

He adds that, when we draw up a mission statement for our lives (a common practice in the “get organized” literature), we should look at each of your roles. “What are the values that should guide you [in those roles]?”

Second, in my Greek reading group at school, I was assigned the job of translating and commenting on Epictetus’ Discourses 1.2, “How may a man preserve his roles on every occasion?” That discourse resonated powerfully with the approach I had already learned from Covey. I had been experimenting with organizing my life around my roles and I had found, exactly as Epictetus declared in Discourses 2.10 that once we know our roles, it is often immediately obvious what to do. In turn, this role-bound approach helped me to see with greater clarity what was more important (as opposed to what was merely urgent but not important) — another helpful idea I had picked up from Covey.

It was the confluence of these two books that started me on my path of researching Epictetus, eventually yielding my own book on him, The Role Ethics of Epictetus: Stoicism in Ordinary Life.

The Habit of Epictetus: Identify and Prioritize Your Important Roles

Foundational to Epictetus’ account of roles is his distinction between two sets of roles: one set contains a single member, our role as a human being. The other set includes the myriad of our specific roles such as sister, brother, citizen, teacher, soldier, and so on. These latter roles entail natural relations of family but also acquired roles of marriage, friendship, and our profession.

From the get go, Epictetus insists that our human role is the most fundamental and we must never compromise our humanity — lest we become wild beasts, sheep, or worms. This role requires that we must act as human beings. For ancient philosophers, being human is a normative concept: a human being is not whatever a human being does. If we act like beasts, for example, we have failed our humanity and become no better (if not worse) than a dumb animal. For a Stoic, that is a fate worse than death.

What does our role as a human being require of us? Here are some highlights according to Epictetus:

—To be rational. Epictetan rationality has both an internal and an external aspect. Internally, rationality pertains to how we use our mind; we must be logical. Externally, rationality means that we deal with each other by means of persuasion instead of by the fist. Of course, I may have to raise my own fist to protect myself against those who are blatantly irrational, but force is always the last recourse. Animals, by contrast, have violence as their first and only recourse.

—To act as a citizen of the world. Cosmopolitanism was first explicitly identified as a virtue by Diogenes the Cynic, but it was the Stoics who made it a universal value. We should all recognize that we are citizens of the world first and then, secondarily, citizens of some local state.

—To treat externals as indifferent. The Stoics readily accept that life presents us with a wide array of preferables (health, political freedom, family, etc.) and we should pursue them. But, we should not, they held, treat such externals as ethical goods. By this stance, he believes, we preserve our volition and our inner freedom. We also eliminate the passions.

—To engage in self-reflection, that is, to examine our actions from an ethical point of view.

About our various specific roles, Epictetus has much to say, but I would like to extract two key ideas for this blog post.

First, Epictetus is emphatic that we limit our specific roles to our capacities, to what we can do. He considers this aspect utilizing both a humble and a grand-scale example. On the humble scale, he talks with a man who unrealistically fantasizes about outfitting his city with civic structures because it has need of them. Epictetus replies that the city also has need of shoemakers and blacksmiths. It is:

sufficient if each man fulfill his own proper function … ‘What place, then, shall I have in the State? says he. Whatever place you can have and at the same time maintain the man of fidelity and self-respect that is in you. (Handbook, 24.4, Oldfather translation)

Epictetus similarly wonders about the grand-scale role of Socrates, a role that demanded immense prowess. In looking to that role, Epictetus urges us to recognize that not all horses can become swift (Discourses 1.2.24). We should recognize that Socrates was a kind of Olympian of the spirit and surely only a few have the talents to compete in the Olympics.

In both cases, I am reminded of Cal Newport’s iconoclastic book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You in which he argues, in almost Stoic fashion, that basing your career on passion is dangerous. Newport urges that we should adopt the mindset of a craftsman who utilizes deliberate practice to make his abilities so good one can’t be ignored. Or, as Epictetus puts it:
Yet a bull does not become a bull all at once, any more than a man becomes noble, but a man must undergo a winter training, he must prepare himself and must not plunge recklessly into what is inappropriate for him. (
Discourses 1.2.32).

Second, these roles define who we are and they are absolutely worth living for and dying for. This life and death language is especially dramatic in Discourses 1.2 where Epictetus is debating about an imperial order that all philosophers shave their beards. For Epictetus, a philosopher’s beard has the same status as, say, a modern Sikh and his beard and turban. Epictetus sardonically observes that the Emperor may cut off Epictetus’ head but not his philosopher’s beard because Epictetus’ role is not up to the Emperor (1.2.28-29). In much the same way, Epictetus praises the Olympic athlete who chose death rather than a life-saving medical castration because such s castration would have meant giving up his role as an Olympian (1.2.25-26). Better a dead Olympian, than a role-less man.

Epictetan Success

By appealing to our roles, Epictetus has hit upon a language that his listeners evidently found meaningful and intuitive. Given the popularity of Stephen Covey’s work, this role language still resonates. We should ask, then, what is the highly successful Stoic? On Epictetus’ terms, such a Stoic is four things:

  1. One is fundamentally a good person because one’s humanity is the bedrock of all action.
  2. One is a motivated person; that is, one is motivated to realize one’s roles because it is essential to who one is. Our roles determine what we see as reasonable or unreasonable. Epictetus points out how we can endure anything we find to be reasonable (1.2.1-8).
  3. One is a realistic person; by selecting roles that match our talents, we set realistic goals about what success for us should look like. In rather inspirational language he says, “For I shall not be a Milo [a great wrestler] … and yet I do not neglect my body ; nor a Croesus [an extremely wealthy King], and yet I do not neglect my property ; nor, in a word, is there any other field in which we give up the appropriate discipline merely from despair of attaining the highest” (1.2.37)
  4. One is a patient person; what matters is playing one’s role well. “Remember that you are an actor in a play … For this is your business, to play admirably the role assigned you …” (Ench. 17)

Roles without Stoicism?

Although Epictetus was quite the purist about Stoicism and he could be quite austere — even morbid (cf. fragment 26) — in his advice, he seems to have been open to the possibility that appealing to roles is meaningful even for those who are not Stoics.

Epictetus reveals this side when he says: 

for I should not be unfeeling like a statue,  but should preserve my natural and acquired relations as a man who honors the gods, as a son, as a brother, as a father, as a citizen” (3.2.4; my translation).

And, he puts that into practice in Discourses 1.11, “Of family affection,” when he talks with a father who ran away (owing to grief) from a sick daughter. It would have been all too easy for Epictetus to tell this father that his daughter is not a good, that she is a matter of indifference (cp. 3.3.5-10). Instead, he engages the father (dare I say with empathy?) in an exchange about what it is most natural for a father to do: to care for his child.

This side of Epictetus has always been welcome news to me since I do not, in fact, consider myself a Stoic. But, in committing myself to the fulfillment of my roles, I readily consider myself an Epictetan. It was Covey who taught me that roles are the key to getting organized, but it was Epictetus who taught me that roles are the key to realizing virtue.

 

Brian Earl Johnson is an associate professor of philosophy at Fordham University in New York City. He earned his doctorate from the University of Chicago in 2007 and specializes in ancient Greek and Roman ethics. Johnson is the author of The Role Ethics of Epictetus. He has contributed an essay, “The American Diogenes: Mark Twain’s Sacred Profanity” in the volume, Mark Twain and Philosophy. He also appears in chapter 2 in Mark Adam’s hilarious book, Meet Me In Atlantis; therein, Adams and Johnson discuss the origin of the Atlantis myth in Plato.