Musings of a Blind Stoic by Peter Lyons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overall Findings

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

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

Table 1: Overall FindingsI

Impact on Flourishing

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

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

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

Table 2: Impact on Flourishing

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

Impact on Satisfaction with Life

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

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

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

Table 3: Impact on  Satisfaction with Life 

Impact on Emotions

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

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

Table 4: Impact on Positive Emotions

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

Table 5:  Impact on Negative Emotions

Impact on Stoic Attitudes and Behaviours (SABS 4.0)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All SABS items moved in the expected direction

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

Conclusions

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


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

[ii] See Appendix B.

[iii] See Appendix C.

Videos from Stoicon 2018

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

The Plenary Talks – The Morning

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

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

Kai Whiting – Stoicism and Sustainability (about 20 minutes)

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


Breakout Sessions – Talks and Workshops – The Afternoon 

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

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

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

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

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

Keynote Address – The Evening

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

The New SABS Scale

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

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

Stoicism and Well-Being

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

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

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

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

(0.47)

.45 

(0.43 )

.39 

(0.36)

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

.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 Table 4 :  Most active Stoic ingredients of SWL

 

# SABS Item Flourishing 

correlation

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

Table 5 :  Most active Stoic ingredients of Flourishing

 

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

 Table 6:  Most active SABS ingredients in terms of emotions

Conclusions

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stoicism: Living With Love and Anger

Wednesday, Dec 19, 2018, 7:00 PM

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

15 Stoics Attending

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

Check out this Meetup →

Pierre Hadot’s Stoicism by Matthew Sharpe

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

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

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

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

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

Four Key Antecedents

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Becoming Hadot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Stoic Approach to Travel and Tourism by William O. Stephens

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 William O. Stephens, the transcript of his talk during the breakout sessions – G. Sadler, Editor

 

How does a Stoic approach travel and tourism?  To answer this question I will mine lessons from the ancient Stoics Seneca and Epictetus.  These remarks apply to how today’s Stoics can be calm, confident, and content when traveling and on holiday tours.

Seneca

Consider automobiles.  The automotive trade journal Ward’s Auto estimated that in 2010 the number of motor vehicles in use in the world surpassed 1.015 billion.  This figure includes passenger cars, light, medium, and heavy duty trucks and buses.  In July 2014 an industry analyst calculated the total to be 1.2 billion automobiles.  The number of passenger cars is projected to reach 2 billion by 2040.  How does a Stoic think about owning an automobile?  Seneca gives us a clue.  There were no motorized vehicles in the ancient world, of course.  Ancient Romans who could afford them sometimes used horse or mule-drawn carriages.  Seneca writes (Letter 87):

The carriage I ride in its just a country wagon.  The mules give no evidence of being alive except that they are walking; the drover has his boots off, and not because of the heat, either.  I have a hard time persuading myself to let anyone see me in such a vehicle.  It’s perverse, but I’m still ashamed of doing what is right, and whenever we run across some more glamorous equipage I blush in spite of myself.  That’s proof that the habits I approve and admire are not yet firmly established. He who blushes in a shabby carriage will boast of an expensive one.  It’s only a little progress that I have made so far.  I don’t yet dare to wear my frugality out in the open; I still care about the opinions of travelers….[1]

Seneca’s point about a vehicle is that frugality is a virtue to admire.  So, whether your vehicle is pulled by mules or is an automobile, and whether it is modest, worn down, rusted, or even a complete clunker, it doesn’t matter.  The purpose of any vehicle is transportation.  Those who boast about their fancier, pricier vehicles suffer from ignorance.  Their boasts rest on false judgments.  A Stoic feels no shame riding in a clunker because she tries to be frugal and doesn’t worry about the false judgments of fools.  Image is everything to fools.  Image is nothing to Stoics.

Seneca thinks that many people embark on trips to varied locales to shake off gloom and heaviness from their minds.  In American English the word vacation implies this motive.  To go on vacation or holiday is to suspend our work or study, to release ourselves from duty, business, or activity.  We vacate the usual burdens of our lives and seek temporary escape.  But Seneca believes that travel is useless for clearing a mind cluttered by burdens.  He writes: “You must change the mind, not the venue” (Letter 28. 1).  Travel does no good because the new countries you fly to, the cities you tour, and the sites you see, cannot relieve you of what weighed on your mind and drove you from home.  The mind must free itself from its burdens, and merely moving the body from place to place cannot do that.

For Seneca, frequent travel is a sign of disquiet.

“The mind cannot find strength in its leisure unless it stops looking around and wandering around.  To keep your mind within bounds, you must first stop your body from running away” (Letter 69. 1).

The mental burdens and gloom we experience result from the bad desires that become bad habits that harden into vices.  To dispel the heavy gloom, we must root out those vices.  This requires a protracted cure.

You should rest without interruption and forget your former life.  Let your eyes unlearn what they have seen; let your ears grow accustomed to more healthful words.  Every time you go out, your old desires are stirred anew, even before you reach your destination” (Letter 69. 2).

Travel to a new destination does not cure a sick, troubled mind.  The mind is cured when it leaves the baggage of its illness behind and, now unburdened, occupies a new, healthy place.  A Stoic’s real destination is a fit and healthy mind.

Seneca writes:

What has travel as such been able to do for anyone?  It doesn’t control pleasures, curb desires, check outbursts of temper, or mitigate love’s wild assaults: in a word, it removes no troubles from the mind.  It does not bestow judgment or shake off error; all it does is provide a change of scene to hold our attention for a moment as some new trinket might entertain a child. Apart from that, travel exacerbates the instability of a mind that is already unhealthy.  Indeed, the very movement of the carriage makes us more restless and irritable.  The result is that people who had been passionate to visit some spot are even more eager to leave it, just like birds that fly from one perch to another and are gone more swiftly than they arrived. Travel will acquaint you with other races, it will show you mountains of strange shape, unfamiliar plains, and valleys watered by inexhaustible streams.  It will enable you to observe the peculiarities of certain rivers— . . . yet it will not improve you, either in body or in mind. We need to spend our time on study and on the authorities of wisdom in order to learn what has already been investigated and to investigate what has not yet been discovered.  This is the way for the mind to be emancipated from its miserable enslavement and claimed for freedom.  But as long as you are ignorant of what to avoid and what to pursue, and remain ignorant of the just, the unjust, the honorable, and the dishonorable, you will not really be traveling but only wandering. Your rushing around will bring you no benefit, since you are traveling in company with your emotions, and your troubles follow along.  . . .  A sick person does not need a place; he needs medical treatment. If someone has a broken leg or dislocated a joint, he doesn’t get on a carriage or a ship; he calls a doctor to set the fracture or relocate the limb.  Do you get the point?  When the mind has been broken and sprained in so many places, do you think it can be restored by changing places?  Your trouble is too grave to be cured by moving around. Travel does not make one a doctor or an orator.  One does not learn a skill from one’s location.  Do you suppose that wisdom, the greatest of all skills, can be assembled on a journey?  Believe me, there is no journey that could deposit you beyond desires, beyond outbursts of temper, beyond your fears.  If that were so, the human race would have headed there in droves.  So long as you carry around the reasons for your troubles, wandering all over the world, those troubles will continue to harass and torment you. Are you puzzled that running away is not helping you?  What you are running from is with you.  You need to correct your flaws, unload your burdens, and keep your desires within a healthy limit.” (Letter 104)

So, Seneca believes that neither boredom nor discontentment are helped by trips because travel brings no self-improvement.  To find good reasons to travel we must turn to Epictetus.

Epictetus

Epictetus notes that religious festivals and athletic competitions attracted pilgrims and tourists in the antiquity.  Epictetus addresses a student who is desperate to see a magnificent gold and ivory statue of Zeus at Olympia fashioned by the famed artist Pheidias.

 . . . you regard it as a misfortune to die without seeing such sights. But when there is no need to travel at all, and where you are already, and Zeus is present in his works—will you not desire to contemplate these things and understand them?  Will you never perceive either who you are, or for what you have been born, or the purpose for which this vision has been given to you?[1] (Disc. 1.6)

From a Stoic’s perspective, the entire natural world is a spectacle worthy of study and admiration.  The earth, the sky, and all of nature’s wonders in between provide those who are circumspect with plenty to see and appreciate.  Epictetus urges the fellow who is dying to travel to eye glitzy statuary to recognize that he was not born and given vision for the purpose of being entertained at a remote location.  Even the most dazzling artifacts pale in comparison with natural wonders imbued with divine craftsmanship.  If the determined sightseer does travel all the way to Olympia, then she ought to appreciate the spectacle of the artwork and tolerate any discomforts of the tourist destination.  If the trip is judged to be worth the trouble, then the Stoic takes the hassles in stride, remaining calm without complaint.

A legitimate reason Epictetus gives for travel is to be an intelligent cosmic spectator.  A trip to see a famous work of art is not necessarily illicit, so long as it is undertaken with due caution and the right motive.  The right motive is to behold and appreciate a wondrous, enduring spectacle of the cosmos.  A wrong motive would be to want to gawk at a flashy, cunningly crafted statue on the false belief that such an artifact remotely approaches the beauty, grandeur, or wise governance of Nature.

What does a Stoic think about going on holiday to escape the grind of one’s workaday life?  Epictetus believes that a Stoic does not need a vacation.  A Stoic is content with where she is and whatever sights surround her.  A Stoic perceives in these sights orderliness and good management.  She understands that vision is to be used for the purpose of discerning this providential governance.  Contemplating the natural marvels within her ambit is entirely up to her.  A Stoic does not yearn to glimpse what lies beyond the horizon.  In contrast, a desire for “quiet and leisure, and travel” makes you abject and subservient to those who control your access to quiet, leisure, and travel (Disc. 4.4.1).

So, a Stoic doesn’t hanker to go sightseeing.  But neither does a Stoic resist traveling when it is required.  Epictetus cites with approval the willingness of Socrates to be sent on campaign and leave Athens (Disc. 4.4).  Socrates was too wise to set his heart on leisurely conversations with young men in Athens when military service called him away.  Socrates was content to follow the will of god.  A Stoic does not make herself anxious wondering what her final geographical destination will be.  Nor does she fret about how long it will take to arrive.  Instead, she rejoices in what each moment brings on each step of her journey.

When his student bemoans being far from his familiar friends and familiar places at home, Epictetus scolds him.  He tells him that he deserves to be homesick and cry because he foolishly judged that he would never need to leave home.  In so doing, the student has:

… become more wretched than ravens or crows, which, without groaning or longing for their former home, can fly where they will, build their nests in another place, and cross the seas” (Disc. 3.24.6)

The student objects that ravens and crows react that way because they lack reason.  Epictetus responds that the gods gave us reason not to make us live our lives weeping in misery (Disc. 3.24.7).  Rather, Epictetus insists that the power of reason enables human beings to be at least as happy as ravens and crows, who are never homesick and relocate without distress.  Notice that it is not wings that make such birds capable of traveling and establishing new homes without misery.  They can do so even lacking the degree of reason human beings possess.  It is their nature as animals that migrate freely and without anguish.[2]  Nature has similarly made human beings animals that locomote.  We are not made to remain rooted to one spot like plants (Disc. 3.24.8).

And, if any one of our friends should leave his home, should we sit and cry, and when he comes back, should we dance and clap our hands like children? Shall we never wean ourselves, and remember what we have heard from the philosophers . . .  that the world is one great city, and the substance out of which it is formed is single, and there must necessarily be a cycle of change, in which one thing gives way to another, and some things are destroyed and others come into being, and some things remain where they were and others are moved.

Stoics believe that we all inhabit a single cosmopolis (universal city).  Changes within this one cosmopolis include day and night, the four seasons, coming to be, passing away, and movement.  On this view, travel is never worrisome.  Wherever one ventures, one remains at home within the world.  The Stoic traveler cannot be alienated from the cosmic city that embraces all locales.  The Stoic ‘citizen of the universe’ can never become lost.[3]  Cosmopolitanism also explains why exile is no evil for the Stoic.  Banishment from a particular locale in no way unsettles her residency in the cosmos.[4]

Not only does the idea of the cosmopolis provide geographical comfort to the Stoic traveler, it also provides solidarity among its residents.  Whenever we travel with fellow travelers, we are with our fellow citizens of the world.  Stoics can remember absent friends while judging that the travels that separate them from us is inevitable, not regrettable.  A Stoic can take cheer with whatever company she has.  She is equally content with no human company at all.[5]  Strangers encountered along a journey should not be feared as threats but welcomed as friends.  Stoic traveling therefore precludes xenophobia, racism, and cultural provincialism.

Friends are often a reason to travel.  Epictetus thinks there are circumstances when it is necessary to risk one’s life for one’s friend, and circumstances when one ought to die for one’s friend (Disc. 2.7.1–3).  He cites the example of Maximus sailing all the way to Cassiope during the winter with this son, in order to see him on his way (Disc. 3.7.3).[6]  If a father ought to accompany his son on a risky voyage, then it stands to reason that a similar occasion would call for someone to travel with her friend.  So, just as one’s friendships with others can warrant travel, so too can one’s familial responsibilities.

Epictetus says that a Stoic must be ready to perform whatever task she is assigned.  This includes travel, since it is not possible for everyone to stay in the same place, nor is it better (Disc. 3.24.31).

Everyone’s life is a kind of campaign, and a long and complicated one.  You must observe the character of a soldier and perform each act at the bidding of the general” (Disc. 3.24.34; cf. Ench. 17).

Therefore, if her employer sends a Stoic on a business trip, she should do as she is asked.

How does travel relate to our purpose, according to Epictetus?  Our roles determine our purposes.  He says:

What is the usual practice, then?  People behave like a traveler, who, returning to his own country, comes across a good inn on the road, and because the inn pleases him, remains there. Have you forgotten your intention, man?  You were not traveling to this place, but only through it.  ‘But this is a fine inn.’  And how many other fine inns are there, and how many pleasant meadows?  But only to be passed through on the way. Your business is the other thing; to return to your country, to relieve the anxieties of your family, to perform the duties of a citizen, to marry, to have children, and to hold public office. For you have not, I think, come into the world to pick out the most charming places, but to live and act in the place where you were born, and of which you have been appointed a citizen. (Disc. 2.23.36–39)

Epictetus’ students traveled far from their homes to his school in a small town in northwest Greece.  So, I think Epictetus would say that it is perfectly fine to travel to London to attend Stoicon and learn about Stoicism, so long as we return home and carry out our responsibilities to our family, friends, co-workers, and fellow citizens.

A Stoic must remember, Epictetus teaches, that the material possessions we come to own can be taken away from us.  They don’t belong to us forever.  Moreover, our spouses and children are mortal, and so they do not belong to us permanently either.  As long as other people and possessions are with us, we must daily remind ourselves that they are only on loan to us.  Therefore, we ought to take care of them as travelers treat an inn (Ench. 11; cf. Disc. 4.1.107 and Ench. 7).  The people we love are mortals and a Stoic is convinced that we should love them on these terms.

What if a storm threatens our trip?  Epictetus was convinced that reason could dispel false beliefs, foolish judgments, and groundless fears.  Reason equips the Stoic traveler with peace of mind amidst the storm of uncertainties of life.  Flight delays, flight cancellations, turbulence, and the rudeness of other passengers are all beyond the control of the airline passenger, and so need not disturb a Stoic traveler.  Treating airline personnel and fellow-passengers with courtesy, on the other hand, is up to a Stoic and so is her responsibility.  The maintenance of one’s automobile and driving it safely are up to the motorist.  The weather, road conditions, traffic, and the road rage of other motorists are not.  The latter challenge one’s equanimity, but the motorist is responsible only for the former.  One need not believe in Zeus, cosmic reason, or divine providence to find such considerations reasonable.  One need only believe that reason is nature’s gift to us.

Would doubt about divine providence block the judgment that it is perfectly fine that one’s boat is sinking or that one’s lorry has broken down?  I think today’s Stoic traveler who suspends belief in divine providence would not judge it good per se that her boat is sinking or that her lorry has broken down.  But she can feel confidence in her ability to cope with such challenging and easily foreseeable events.  Today’s Stoic traveler would not judge these events to be demoralizing mishaps, but occasions requiring resourcefulness and level-headed problem-solving.  To judge herself to be victimized by such travel mishaps is a mistake.  Such urgent situations are times to swim vigorously toward floating debris, or to make for shore while assisting others if possible.  They are not times for decrying her terrible luck.  They are times to roll up her sleeves and apply her automotive know-how, seek roadside assistance, or get walking.  They are not times to kick the bus or yell at the lorry driver.  A Stoic is convinced that she is never victimized by the bumps along the road she travels.  While she may never reach her real destination, namely, is to become fully virtuous and wise, a Stoic relentlessly propels herself forward, straining to approach that goal as closely as she can.

[1] Translations, sometimes modified, are from C. Gill (ed.). The Discourses of Epictetus, tr. rev. by Robin Hard.  London: J.M. Dent, 1995.

[2] Montiglio, 212 thinks that in 3.24.6 Epictetus represents migratory birds as the ideal of freedom, since they can choose to fly (wander) wherever they want but we have no such freedom.  This misunderstands Epictetus’ conception of real freedom, which is the internal mental disposition of desiring only what is in one’s power always to achieve, not the physical ability to move about in space unhindered.

[3] For a discussion of what “getting lost” means in the relationship between wandering and knowledge for Odysseus and Dio Chrysostom, see Montiglio, 202 and ch. 3.

[4] See Disc. 2.6.20–25.  The same holds for prison.

[5] See Disc. 3.13.1–6 where Epictetus defines desolation (e0rhmi/a) as the condition of being bereft of help and vulnerable to injury rather than the condition of being alone.  Stoics must train themselves to become capable of being self-sufficient, as Zeus is at the ekpurōsis.

[6] As noted above (Skeel 93; Casson 149–150), sea voyages in winter were especially dangerous.

[1] All translations of Seneca’s Letters on Ethics are from A.A. Long and Margaret Graver, Univ. of Chicago Press (2015).

 

William O. Stephens is Professor of Philosophy and Classical Studies at Creighton University. He is also President of the Beta Chapter of Nebraska Phi Beta Kappa Society. He is the author of Marcus Aurelius: A Guide for the PerplexedStoic Ethics: Epictetus and Happiness as Freedom, and The Person: Readings in Human Nature, and the translator of Adolf Bonhöffer’s  The Ethics of the Stoic Epictetus. He has published many articles on such topics as Star Wars and Stoicism, the film Gladiator (2000) and Stoicism, Stoic views of love, death, animals, sportsmanship, travel, and ecology, and on philosophical vegetarianism.

Sunday 25th: Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT) 2018

Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT) 2018 is now enrolling and due to start on Sunday 25th November, when enrollment will close.  Every year we get people contacting us to say they missed the enrollment window so please don’t miss out!

SMRT is a FREE four-week course provided by Modern Stoicism, a nonprofit organization run by a multidisciplinary team of volunteers.  It’s an intensive skills training approach to Stoicism.  Visit the website for more information.

Click the button below to enroll now or to learn more…

So far 2,544 people have registered in advance so we’re aiming to reach three thousand by Sunday.  We’ve been running SMRT since 2014 and it keeps on growing into a bigger event each year.  Last year we had about 1,800 participants so we’ve already gone way beyond that number this time round.

Set a reminder for the introductory live webinar:

 

Coffee Is Just Hot Bean Juice: Radical Objectivity and Stoicism by Dominic Vaiana

2,000 years ago, the most powerful man in the world took his seat at a prestigious banquet, only to remind himself that his glass of vintage wine was just old, fermented grapes, that his roasted pork was nothing but a garnished dead pig, and that his robe was simply the hair of a sheep soaked in shellfish blood.

This man was Marcus Aurelius, the first-century Roman emperor who, despite having autonomous power over what was arguably the most dominant empire in history, never allowed his authority and luxuries to corrupt his perceptions. How easy would it have been for such a figure to become preoccupied, much like today’s power-hungry egomaniacs are, with fantastic stories to exaggerate the importance of his wine, his meal, and his clothes?

And yet he resisted.

But cultivating this sober, pragmatic worldview was no easy task for Marcus. Indeed, it was the byproduct of relentless mental discipline, much of which is captured in his Meditations. Among the strategies he implemented to tame his ego was, for lack of an official term, radical objectivity: using contempt to put luxuries in their proper place, seeing “valuable” assets as simple, material objects and evaluating them accordingly.

When we have meat before us and other food, we must say to ourselves: ‘This is the dead body of a fish, and this is the dead body of a bird or of a pig, and again, this Falernian [wine] is only a little grape juice, and this purple robe some sheep’s wool died with the blood of a shellfish’…This is how we should act throughout life: where there are things that seem worthy of great estimation, we ought to lay them bare and look at their worthlessness and strip them of all the words by which they are exalted. For the outward show [of things] is a wonderful perverter of reason, and when we are certain the things we are dealing with are worth the trouble, that is when it cheats us most’ (Meditations, 6.13).

Translation: take life at face value so you can focus on what’s important.

This art of radical objectivity eventually became a fundamental aspect of Stoicism, the school of philosophy which Marcus Aurelius inadvertently became a figurehead of after his death. And while he certainly didn’t invent radical objectivity per se, he did popularize it. His emphasis on mental clarity and self-restraint in a superficial world is woven into a number of Stoic discourses throughout history. The teachings of Epictetus, the Greek slave-turned-philosopher who lived during the same era, ran parallel to Marcus’ meditations:

Don’t let the force of an impression when it first hits you knock you off your feet. Just say to it: ‘Hold on a moment; let me see who you are and what you represent. Let me put you to the test.’

What a liberating thought: to know that we’re in charge of deciding whether we let glamor and excessive emotion conflict with our reasoned choice. It would seem self-evident to remind ourselves of this when, say, shopping for a car or trembling with excitement at the feet of a celebrity. How much tension could we relieve ourselves of by taking our desires off the pedestal we’ve blindly placed them on?

And yet we allow our perceptions to dictate our well-being.

Say what you will about philosophy, but now more than ever we need a mental framework that can subdue our baseless desires and bring us back down to Earth. Marcus Aurelius and the other first-century Stoics were undoubtedly among the most disciplined and pragmatic thinkers in recorded history, but it would be foolish to suggest that it was more difficult for them, along with those they taught, to resist the allure of consumerism than it is for us in 2018. Sure, there was fine wine and expensive clothing 2,000 years ago. But today, each of us must wake up and confront a multibillion-dollar marketing and advertising industry whose sole objective is to reverse any progress we make towards clarifying our perceptions.

There are men and women who devote their lives to manufacturing gadgets that are more addictive than cigarettes and brands that are more loveable than our own family and friends. And they are good at it. We need these things, we are told. They are part of our identity. Any marketing veteran knows that the less a product or service serves some utilitarian function, the more it implies about identity. But in a time when most of us have our primal, utilitarian needs met (food, water, shelter) charlatans and hacks have free reign to create identities for us.

Who would’ve thought the solution was written in a notebook 2,000 years ago?

Philosophy, particularly Stoicism, isn’t about asking vague questions that make life complicated. Philosophy is about setting our feet on the right path, one that leads to a good life characterized by clarity, not biased perceptions.

How often do we exaggerate the importance of our possessions or that which we wish to possess? How often do we put a veneer of sophistication over life’s trivialities? We tell ourselves stories about the most frivolous purchases in an attempt to enrich our lives. Ironically though, all these stories do is set us up for disappointment when we can’t get them (or when they’re taken away.) Picture the girl frantically checking her phone, equating Instagram likes with fulfillment. Or the grown man inwardly melting down when nobody notices his new BMW.

What would Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, or Seneca say about these scenarios? Surely, they would point out the emptiness that results from getting so worked up over what isn’t under our control. Perhaps they would encourage channeling that energy towards a more tangible purpose.

Most philosophical and theological traditions agree that desire, though it is the root of suffering, will always be an inherent part of the human condition. But the last thing we should do is chastise ourselves for it, or worse, pretend we don’t desire anything. As the Jesuit priest Anthony de Mello noted, the more we renounce something, the more power it has over us. Going minimalist for a month or throwing out our possessions is like putting a Band-Aid over a gunshot wound – it won’t fix the root of the problem. Instead, we should follow the example of Marcus Aurelius and lay our desires bare, ponder their worthlessness, and “strip them of all the words by which they are exalted.” It is by understanding our desires, and the emptiness of them, that we lose interest.

The question remains, then, what does being Stoically objective mean in a contemporary sense? We don’t have a creed, doctrine, or rulebook to answer that question, (nor do we need one) but it doesn’t hurt to have some inspiration. That being said, here are some applications of the Stoic art of radical objectivity with a 21st-century twist:

Single batch, artisan, or gourmet coffee is hot bean juice.

Social media apps are for-profit dopamine factories.

A Mercedes-Benz is an assortment of steel, plastic, and glass.

A Rolex is a miniature clock made out of rocks and metal.

Balenciaga shoes are pieces of leather stitched to rubber.

Celebrities are flesh-and-blood mortals with just as many, if not more, problems than we have.

The next time you feel inferior for not “living the good life,” see how transformative this exercise can be. Often by default, we hand over so much control to our biased judgements, even to the point of going into debt or sacrificing our wellbeing and sanity for the sake of them.

Take Apple watches for example: there are millions of people who own them, and millions more who want them. And why not? After all, Apple describes it as “the ultimate device for a healthy life.” But once you strip away the story and the fancy packaging, what more is it than a 1.5-square-inch piece of stainless steel strapped to your wrist that turns you into a puppet, jerking your head with each vibrating notification?

It’s only by managing our impulses that all of these things, watches, clothes, cars, lose their power over us. Not to mention, this can save us a lot of money.

This is not to reduce life to some sterile existence devoid of meaning. On the contrary, radical objectivity adds meaning to life: once we peel the glamour away from our material desires, the clouds begin to clear – what’s left are the priceless aspects of life, ones that can’t be reduced to physical attributes: companionship, wisdom, purpose, fulfillment.

To see things for what they truly are, without their ornamentation or status, is not only difficult but unpopular. Even if you don’t go as far as to relive Thoreau’s Walden, it’s not uncommon to draw strange looks when you abstain from luxuries that you can easily afford. And when that itch to blow money inevitably manifests itself, remember this observation from Seneca, who tutored the self-destructive Roman emperor Nero:

Slavery resides under marble and gold.

Outward show is often an indication of inward conflict. As Marcus Aurelius again reminds us, when we become certain that our accomplishments and possessions are more important than they truly are, it’s then that we are under their spell.

Dominic Vaiana is a writer and media strategist based in St. Louis, Missouri.

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.