Studying Philosophy in Athens: the Case of Zeno by Christina Kourfali

Each year, the Modern Stoicism organization organizes the main Stoicon conference, and helps to promote local Stoicon-X events. Over the last several years, we have developed a tradition here at Stoicism Today of publishing as many of the talks and workshops from Stoicon and Stoicon-Xs as blog posts, in order to allow our readership who were unable to attend these conferences the benefit of those speakers’ expertise. We continue this year’s sequence of posts with a summary of Prof. Christina Kourfali’s Stoicon talk which follows below (a longer version of it may be found here) – Greg Sadler, editor, Stoicism Today

Zeno was already 22 years old when he came to Athens and we must wonder what his general level of knowledge was, what instruction he had received that led him to pursue higher philosophical education in this city. We can certainly accept what Laertius mentions: “His father, Mnaseas, being a merchant often went to Athens and brought away many books about Socrates for Zeno, while he was still a boy. Hence he had been well trained even before he left his native place” (D.L. 7.2.).

Zeno and Cynics

Picture him, then, as a cultured young man, in 312 BC sitting in a corner of the ancient agora at a bookshop “on reading the second book of Xenophon’s Memorabilia. He was so pleased that he inquired where men like Socrates were to be found. Crates passed by in the nick of time, so the bookseller pointed to him and said, “Follow yonder man.” From that day, he became Crates’ pupil” (D.L. 7.2-3).

There is no doubt that Crates was a master of Zeno because the latter has written the book Recollections of Crates. However, “later Stoics may have exaggerated Zeno’s connection with Crates, through whom they traced their spiritual ancestry to Diogenes of Sinope, Antisthenes, and finally Socrates himself” (Hahm D. (1977), p. 220).

In any case, Zeno seems to have been taught by the Cynics: 1. The rejection of the encyclic lessons, for they do not consider the acquisition of knowledge an end, but the achievement of personal virtue. 2. The principle that “Life according to Virtue” is the End to be sought. 3. The view that virtue can be taught and whatever is intermediate between Virtue and Vice is perceived as indifferent.

But Zeno, in the end, did not pursue the way of the Cynics, and this wasn’t because he was shy, as suggested by Laertius, but because of his perception of the idea of “living in accordance with nature”. For Zeno the term “nature” had a whole different substance.

Zeno and Megarians

 The Megarians – coming from the city of Megara – were also active in Athens at that time. As Laertius reports, Zeno attended the lectures of Stilpo. It is even said that Stilpon was such a capable master that many followed him, abandoning their own masters. This might also have been done by Zeno, though Crates may have put forth strong resistance. As Laertius refers: “When Crates laid hold on him by the cloak to drag him from Stilpo, Zeno said, “The right way to seize a philosopher, Crates, is by the ears: persuade me then and drag me off by them; but, if you use violence, my body will be with you, but my mind with Stilpo” (D.L. 7.24).

Stilpo was famous for disputation but best known for his apatheia. Indeed, when Demetrius Poliorcetes destroyed and pillaged Megara, Stilpo declared that he had lost nothing, since he had maintained his virtue and knowledge. «We should probably not think of Zeno as becoming a formal student of Stilpo», notes Hahm, «for this would have meant moving to Megara. But it is quite likely that Zeno attended his lectures when Stilpo visited Athens» (Hahm D. (1977), p.221).

Diodoros Cronos and his student Philo of Megara are also included in Zeno’s Megarian teachers. Zeno worked hard at dialectic with Diodorus (fl. 300 B.C.), who had an enormous impact on Stoicism in general. He was among the first explorers of propositional logic, and became particularly known for the Master (or Ruling) argument, which is based on three sentences, so named due to the fact that to retain all three is impossible because of their mutual conflict.

The Influence of Plato and his Academy

Laertius mentions (7.2) that Zeno had been Xenocrates’(396-314 B.C.) pupil. Sandbach questions Laertius’ view, arguing that it is chronologically impossible; “if Xenocrates was not already dead when Zeno arrived in Athens, his death cannot have been far off” (Sandbach F. H. (1985), p. 13). However, Zeno could have caught up, even for a little while, with attending Xenocrates. Besides, his views were supported by his pupil Polemo, successor to his school and admittedly Zeno’s teacher.

Polemoled the Academy from 314 to 276B.C., and was chiefly known for his fine character, which set an example of self-control for his students. The Stoics probably derived from Polemo:

1. Their concept of oikeiosis (an accommodation to nature),

2. The importance of living according to nature, and practical philosophy,

3. That the kosmos is god.

David Sedley stresses: «If I am even half-right in my reconstruction, the continuity between the physics of the late fourth-century Academy and the physics of the Stoa is a profound one. Zeno, it seems, really did learn his physics from his Platonist teacher Polemo» (Sedley, D.N. (2002), p. 77-78).

The same view was seconded by Laertius with the following anecdote hinting that Zeno taught at his school what he had learned at Polemo: «Polemois said to have addressed him thus: “You slip in, Zeno, by the garden door –I’m quite aware of it– you filch my doctrines and give them a Phoenician make-up”» (D.L. 7.25).

The view of Laertius is obviously exaggerated; however, as Gr. Reydams-Schilst argues, it is almost certain that via Polemo the Old Academy helped to shape Stoicism.

We ought not, finally, to overlook the idea of the four cardinal virtues, perhaps most famously articulated in Book 4 of Plato’s Republic (427e–435c, 441c–443c), which was embraced by the Stoics, as in much other subsequent Greek and Roman philosophy: phronêsis, sôphrosunê, andreia, dikaiosunê.

However, since Zeno was not a member of the Academy, he was able to adopt what he thought proper from the physics of Platonists, such as the theory of two principles, but at the same time to ignore what did not interest him, such as the tripartite division of the Soul or its incorporeality. The stoic view that the Soul is corporeal would make both Plato and Aristotle turn in their graves. This freedom led to the birth of a new philosophy. Finally the Stoics read and developed Plato’s cosmology independently of Academic interpretation.

Zeno and Peripatetics

When Zeno came to Athens, Aristotlewas already dead, but his pupils were active in the city, notably Theophrastus. It is, however, a fact that the biographical tradition does not mention a Peripatetic among Zeno’s masters. The only reference to Aristotle ascribed to Zeno is in his report of how Crates the Cynic was once reading Aristotle’s Protrepticus.

However, both earlier and contemporary scholars are certain of the substantial relation between the peripatetic and stoic philosophy. Carneades’ view that the Stoics and Peripatetics taught essentially the same ethical doctrines is well-known, varying only in their terminology. For example, to express disposition/mood, the Stoics prefer διάθεσις, but intending the sense of the Aristotelian ἕξις.

After all, the Aristotelian school was in its early days much concerned with problems of ethics. It would be rather strange if the Stoics did not take notice of what was being said in the Lyceum (Rist J. M. (1980), p. 1.).

It is widely known that there were two different sets of Aristotle’s books: the ones containing notes on his lessons taught at his school, the works of Corpus Aristotelicum, the esoteric ones, as we know them, and those published by Aristotle for common use, the so-called exoteric (It should be noted that no exoteric book exists today).

Zeno had the opportunity during his twenty years of study either to obtain permission from the Peripatetics to become familiar with the esoteric books of their school (the Corpus Aristotelicum) or to read the exoteric ones released by Aristotle himself and being available in the libraries or the bookstores of Athens, or, finally, attend Theophrastus’ classes.

We are certain that Theophrastus had in his possession the Corpus Aristotelicum, but we do not know whether, or not, they were accessible to outsiders. It is, then, highly doubtful that Zeno might have read the esoteric books, but very probable to have read some of the exoteric ones.

It should not be forgotten that Zeno had studied his philosophical predecessors. Among the works written by himself, as Laertius mentions, are also the Pythagorean Questions and the Homeric Problems in five books. Why would he not have read, then, Aristotle’s works, as well, which had been circulating in the Athenian agora?    

Finally, we should reasonably accept the fact that Zeno had come into contact with Theophrastus. “Theophrastus was beyond doubt the most popular lecturer of the day; his lectures attracted a total of two thousand students. It would be strange if Zeno had lived in Athens, thirsting for instruction, without having heard so much as a single lecture of Theophrastus”, argues Hahm.

Plutarch even mentions an anecdote according to which Zeno said with reference to Theophrastus’ numerous audience ‘his choir is indeed larger, but mine had the sweeter voices’. The anecdote clearly hints both to the simultaneous coexistence of the two lecturers and to the affinity of their subject matter.

It is clear from the above that Zeno came into contact with Theophrastus and that he was aware of Aristotle’s views. After all, one could accept Aristotle’s and Zeno’s views as the natural consequences of the independent reaction of the two men to the same problems (Sandbach F. H. (1985), p. 55), although Aristotle’s answers to the theories postulated by Plato had preceded the appearance of Zeno’s philosophy by many years.

Anyway, if the above is true, that is, the fact that Zeno was influenced in shaping his philosophy both by his contemporary and the earlier philosophers, then the truth of the anecdote about Zeno’s love of learning is incontestably proven: “A dialectician once showed him seven logical forms concerned with the sophism known as “The Reaper,” and Zeno asked him how much he wanted for them. Being told a hundred drachmas, he promptly paid two hundred: to such lengths would he go in his love of learning.” (D.L. 7. 25)

The zealous Zeno, however, was a pioneer in that he succeeded in creating a completely new, independent and systematic philosophy, which uses knowledge to provide man with a life in harmony with his nature, a blissful life. Still today, we should feel grateful to Zeno –this great philosopher– who meticulously studied the philosophical tradition, while listening to the best teachers of his day, and in the end managed to critically embody the great wealth of ancient Greek philosophy either by embracing his predecessors’ best answers, or by giving his own answers to the questions being posed. Working hard, he devised a new original philosophical system that can teach any human being the way to enjoy life.

Christina Kourfali teaches Stoic philosophy as a way of life in Thessaloniki of Greece, and has established a community called Stoiccloud. She is the author of Live Like The Stoics: How to Get Self-Awareness and Serenity, and a variety of articles on Stoic philosophy. She has spoken at related conferences, and is a high school director teaching self-awareness to her adolescent students.

How to Practice Epictetus’ Disciplines for a Good Life by Massimo Pigliucci & Gregory Lopez

Stoicism is a practical philosophy. That means that the theory is not to be considered for its own sake, but only insofar as it aids practice. Then again, practice without theoretical guidance not a philosophy would make! Which is why at the latest Stoicon, in Athens, one of us (Massimo) ran a workshop based on some exercises we developed together and published in our A Handbook for New Stoics (The Experiment, published in the UK as Live Like a Stoic, Penguin). Three of these exercises, one from each of Epictetus famous three disciplines, are detailed below. If you wish, you can download exercise-specific sheets from the publisher’s web site, to help you in your practice.

Each exercise has the same basic structure: it begins with a hypothetical vignette illustrating a potential real life situation. We then look at a pertinent quote from one of the ancient Stoics, which inspires the exercise. The theoretical context of the quote is explained, and then the actual exercise — meant to be carried out for at least a week — is presented. We hope this will be useful for your daily practices!

Discipline of Desire & Aversion: Discover what’s really in your control, and what’s not

It’s easy to think that we have control over our lives when things are going the way we want. But what happens when we experience uncertainty? Consider Alice, who faces this question at her job. Her quarterly performance review is coming up, and though she’s been doing well, a familiar anxiety floods her body as negative what-if scenarios cross her mind. Could learning more about what’s really in her control help Alice? What effect would that have on her psyche?

Of all existing things some are in our power, and others are not in our power. In our power are thought, impulse, will to get and will to avoid, and, in a word, everything which is our own doing. Things not in our power include the body, property, reputation, office, and, in a word, everything which is not our own doing.

Epictetus, Enchiridion, 1

Epictetus’s words may be more familiar to you in the form of the famous Serenity Prayer adopted by a number of twelve-step programs:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

The prayer was written by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in 1934, but it reflects wisdom that is common to Jewish, Christian, and Buddhist traditions, and of course to Stoicism. Indeed, the underlying concept is central to Stoic practice and is often referred to as the “dichotomy of control.” Epictetus begins the Enchiridion — his manual on Stoicism — with it, and it is one of the most cited Stoic sayings, having countless applications in daily life.

Let us first understand exactly what Epictetus means by his words. He is dividing the world into two big chunks: the set of things under our (complete) control and the set of things not (completely) under our control.

The basic idea is that it is imperative to use our mental energy to focus on what is under our complete control, while regarding everything else as indifferent. For those things that are not under our complete control, it isn’t that we stop caring about them, but rather that we come to a deep understanding that we cannot guarantee that these indifferent things will turn out the way we wish them to. The way we come to this understanding is through constant practice. This practice is the path toward ataraxia, the Greek word meaning serenity. We become serene by training ourselves to only want what is completely in our control — so in a very real sense, we’ll be serene because we always get what we want! This is the promise of the Discipline of Desire.

Taking a closer look at Epictetus’s categories, what does he say is in our control, and what is not? Under our control, according to him, are “thought, impulse, will to get and will to avoid, and, in a word, everything which is our own doing.” We need to be careful here, because these English words don’t necessarily carry the same connotations as their original Greek counterparts. Moreover, modern Stoics (such as ourselves!) may want to take into account advances in the cognitive sciences that were not available to Epictetus, and so we may arrive at a somewhat modified list of what truly is under our control. To understand what Epictetus is getting at, let’s break down the process further, starting with “thoughts” since it is listed first (for good reason).

“Thought” here is the English translation of hypolepsis, literally “grasping under” or “taking up.” More figuratively, this means “judgment” or “opinion” (similar to scooping up an idea or viewpoint — you’re grabbing under it to grasp or cradle it). These can be types of thoughts, and are not necessarily fully conscious ones. Epictetus may have listed “thought” first as it’s the first step in how we upset ourselves: we judge things to be inherently good or bad. Sometimes these judgments are explicit (e.g., thinking to yourself That guy’s a moron!). But they don’t have to be. For example, if you get angry at a person, you are implicitly judging the person’s actions as bad, even if the words “that person is doing a bad thing” never cross your mind.

Next comes “impulse” (horme in Greek). This is an impulse to act, but not necessarily in a base or automatic way (what we may think of as impulsive). Pulling your hand away from a hot stove and screaming is not an impulse in the way Epictetus uses the term. Instead, impulses come about from the first step of “thought” or “judgment.” If you judge something to be good, you’ll want it. If you judge it to be bad, you’ll want to avoid it. Impulses are then urges to act based on value judgments.

From thought (the judgment) and impulse (the desire to act) comes the “will to get and to avoid.” We decide if it is worth spending the energy, time, and money. For example, we consider these expenses when buying a brand-new car, reflecting the value judgment that possessing it is a good thing. Then we go about and make complex plans to acquire the new car. So our complex, conscious actions come about from value judgments and impulses to act.

Epictetus claims that all three of these things (thoughts, impulses, and the will to avoid and to get) are ultimately under our control. It is no accident that these three areas of complete control correspond to Epictetus’s three disciplines: you work with thoughts in the Discipline of Assent, impulses in the Discipline of Action, and the will to avoid and to get in the Discipline of Desire. In this way, Stoic practice trains you to master all areas of what in theory you can control. That’s Stoic training in a nutshell.

Just because these things are in your control doesn’t mean that they aren’t sometimes influenced by external factors (such as other people’s opinions) or by internal ones (such as your physical sensations or more automatic urges, like a craving for a snack). But, ultimately, they are under your control because you can make a conscious decision to ignore your cravings or to override the opinions of others when it comes to your own choices.

What about the sort of things that Epictetus says are not under our control? They include “the body, property, reputation, office, and, in a word, everything which is not our own doing.” This is a very large set that essentially comprises all things external to our conscious mind. Our body can get sick despite our best efforts at taking care of it; we may lose our property because of accident or theft; our reputation may be ruined due to circumstances we cannot influence; and we may lose our job through no fault of our own.

You may object that the sort of things we just mentioned are, however, under our partial control. They are not similar to, say, the weather, about which we can truly do nothing at all. Of course, Epictetus knew this! What he is saying here is akin to a “best bet argument”: if you bet your peace of mind on things not completely in your control, you’re willingly forfeiting part of your happiness to random chance.

This exercise will help you explore the dichotomy of control. Take time now to choose when you’ll do the exercise each day for the rest of the week. Try to place the exercise toward the end of the day. You can plan to do it at a specific time (e.g., at 9:00 pm) or after an activity you do every day (e.g., brushing your teeth at night).

Sit down at this time Monday through Saturday of this week and choose something that happened that day to write about. It can be anything from seeing a friend for lunch to a meeting at work. We suggest that you choose an event that wasn’t too emotionally upsetting, which could make the exercise more difficult, and you’re just starting out! List what aspects of the event were completely in your control and which weren’t. It may help to add some quick reasons why the thing was or wasn’t in your complete control.

If you have trouble with the exercise, you can use Epictetus’s suggestions of separating out value judgments, impulses, and what you wished to avoid or obtain, as things under your complete control. You can also try separating aspects of the event by “internal” factors (thoughts, desires, wishes) and “external” factors (results), since we can mostly control what goes on inside our heads, and much of what we can’t control happens in the outside world. Don’t feel shackled to these categories. Part of the goal of this exercise is to see whether Epictetus’s suggestions hold true to your experience. Perhaps you’ll find he was correct, and perhaps not.

By doing this exercise daily, looking at specific events in your life, you’ll start to internalize what is really under your complete control and what isn’t. This exercise will also give you a clearer picture of what exactly you should focus your desires and aversions on to achieve peace of mind.

On the seventh day of the week, after you’ve practiced exploring the dichotomy of control, set a timer for 5 to 10 minutes and write your impressions down. Was this exercise useful to you? How? Did you discover anything about yourself or your world? Did you find it useless? Is there any way you could tweak your approach to make it easier or more useful in the future?

Discipline of Action: Cut Out Busyness

Many of us live in a culture where being busy is a badge of pride. Having full days means you get things done. This signals that you’re a productive member of society and value hard work. However, being busy has its downsides. Consider Liam, who lives a productive professional and family life. His days are always packed. He often has to turn down spending quality time with friends, and also loses out on time for himself. While the Stoics valued making the most of your time, can taking things on be taken too far?

     “You will hear many of those who are burdened by great prosperity cry out at times in the midst of their throngs of clients, or their pleadings in court, or their other glorious miseries: ‘I have no chance to live.’ Of course you have no chance! All those who summon you to themselves, turn you away from your own self. . . . Check off, I say, and review the days of your life; you will see that very few, and those [that are] the refuse . . . have been left for you. . . . Everyone hurries his life on and suffers from a yearning for the future and a weariness of the present. But he who bestows all of his time on his own needs, who plans out every day as if it were his last, neither longs for nor fears the morrow.” (Seneca, On the Shortness of Life, 7)

Time is the only thing that, once loaned, can never be paid back, and therefore the one resource we really need to be careful to apportion wisely. Seneca was writing two millennia ago, but he may as well have been speaking in the twenty-first century: our lives are becoming ever busier, but not necessarily more meaningful. The first question a Stoic would ask of someone who is too busy is whether they have their priorities straight. Are we paying sufficient attention to what is most important in our lives, or are we being distracted by inconsequential or downright destructive pursuits? The second issue is one of quality versus quantity, as we moderns would put it. While the phrase “quality time” is more than a bit overused, it gets to the idea that we cram too much into our days, which is not a good recipe for life, or even to get those things done. There is empirical evidence that beyond a certain threshold, more hours spent on a task can actually be deleterious. The reason is simple: human beings need rest and a variety of stimuli in order to keep their minds focused.

There are two other aspects of busyness that Seneca focuses on and that are worth mentioning. The first is that there are few days left, and those are the “refuse,” that is, the lowest quality ones. Seneca is referring to people who have lived long enough that they begin to sense the final stretch. Looking back at their lives, they realize that their time has not been used well. We certainly don’t want to get to that stage only to find that we’re out of time, do we?

Second, we should plan each one of our days as if it were our last. This is another example of Stoic motivation: awareness of death gives value to life. Imagine for a moment if today really were your last day. We bet you would spend it very differently, focusing on things that are important to you, not on trivialities. Of course, you don’t know which day will be your last, or how much time you may have ahead of you, so you should feel the same sense of urgency every day.

Don’t fret about the future, and don’t regret the past. The future hasn’t come yet, and the past is outside of your control. It is the present that demands your attention — a demand that requires you to make important decisions about how you are going to spend this day, and every day, in the moment.

The Discipline of Action can be as much about culling useless actions as it is about cultivating virtuous ones. With this exercise, we encourage you to “check off your days” in order to see if there are any actions that should be cut.

Take some time each night to review how you spent your day, and whether your activities satisfied two factors: they served “your own needs,” that is, helped build character, and they were truly important.

At the end of each day, write up to three activities you did and ask yourself if doing them helped preserve or build your character and whether they were important. Would you still do them, or something like them, if you knew your life were to end soon? The things you list can be short and trivial (e.g., browsing social media, having a beer, or texting a family member) or long and significant (e.g., working on a major project or running a marathon). A mix of both types of activities will be useful, since those that only take a few minutes can add up to huge chunks of time over a lifetime!

The Discipline of Action is ultimately about one goal: to act intentionally to become a better person. This exercise allows you to see how many of your current actions help you in this pursuit. With this in mind, you can make more informed, deliberate decisions about how to act, in order to improve as a person.

After spending a week cataloguing your actions throughout the day, take some time to reflect on them. Review your notes from the week, then write about any trends you’ve noticed. Did you discover any recurring activities that aren’t fulfilling, and don’t improve your character, or help you carry out your responsibilities? Did you discover some actions that you’d like to keep, or do more frequently?

Discipline of Assent: Analyze Anger

We are told that we should pause before acting when we are angry. But while pausing is a useful first step to cope with anger, it’s only the first step. What should one do after pausing? Zhang Wei chose a cognitive approach. When he found himself getting angry at his son for misbehaving, he paused and then used this exercise to assess the situation more logically.

The greatest remedy for anger is delay; beg anger to grant you this at the first, not in order that it may pardon the offense, but that it may form a right judgment about it. If it delays, it will come to an end. Do not attempt to quell it all at once, for its first impulses are fierce; by plucking away its parts we shall remove the whole. . . . Some offenses we ourselves witness: in these cases let us examine the disposition and purpose of the offender. Perhaps he is a child; let us pardon his youth, he knows not whether he is doing wrong. Or he is a father; he has either rendered such great services, as to have won the right even to wrong us, or perhaps this very act which offends us is his chief merit. . . . Suppose that it is a disease or a misfortune; it will take less effect upon you if you bear it quietly. . . . Is it a good man who has wronged you? Do not believe it. Is it a bad one? Do not be surprised at this; he will pay to someone else the penalty which he owes to you — indeed, by his sin he has already punished himself.

Seneca, On Anger, 2.29–30

Seneca picks up the theme of pausing while angry, arguing that delay is, in fact, our chief defense against anger. Do not try to dominate anger, as it escalates quickly and easily overcomes reason in the heat of the moment. Counterintuitively, avoidance, not confrontation, is the winning strategy. Seneca then goes further by advising us to pick apart the causes of our anger; to examine them calmly and carefully, as if on an operating table (but not while you are angry). You need to consider who or what is the cause of your anger. It makes no sense to be angry at a child, for example, since they are incapable of using reason correctly. The better response is to patiently teach them how to behave more reasonably. Perhaps it’s an adult who is causing offense, maybe your own father. In that case be tolerant of his misstep, because he has done so much for you in the past. Or maybe he is right in what he is saying and you should be listening and learning, rather than going off in a huff.

What if you are angry at an inanimate object, or a natural phenomenon, such as a disease? What sense is there in that? Is getting upset and yelling at your computer going to make it apologize to you and stop glitching? We bet that your reaction is more likely to make things worse, not to mention make you look foolish. Diseases and other calamities are part of life, and, again, attacking them isn’t going to help you; you’ll simply feel worse than you might otherwise. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to fix your computer or cure the disease. On the contrary, reacting calmly and reasonably is far more likely to help you accomplish those goals than outbursts of rage.

Seneca adds two important concepts for our consideration: not only should you not be surprised that some people do unethical things, but take comfort that they will likely get what’s due to them. And in acting unethically, they are already hurting themselves. The first superficially sounds similar to the Stoic version of karma: Logos keeps track of people’s deeds, and in the long run balances out the ledger. Is Seneca somehow saying that we should put faith in karma? We don’t think so.

More likely, Seneca is deploying the Stoic notion that human beings are inclined to virtue by nature, or, as we moderns would put it, we evolved a tendency toward prosocial behavior. This means that most people will object, and sometimes react, to wrongdoing. So, the person who is hurting you today is likely (at least statistically) to get his due at some point in the future. This implies that virtuous behavior is a good bet for flourishing, which is an argument that some modern virtue ethicists, such as Rosalind Hurthouse, make as well.

The second claim, that the wrongdoer is actually hurting himself, derives from the Stoic notion that virtue is the only true good because it is the only thing that can only be used for good. It follows that vice is the only true evil, while everything else is a preferred or dispreferred indifferent. We also know from the dichotomy of control that our judgments of what is good and bad are entirely up to us. So the man that Seneca describes is doing wrong of his own volition, and, as a result is staining his soul or his character, depending on your perspective. This is the worst thing someone could do, according to Stoic philosophy. The joke is on the one who is doing wrong by you. There’s no reason to get upset.

With this exercise you will practice pausing when angry, but also take things one step further: recognize where your anger is pointed, and then counter the anger by analyzing it rationally. You can try this on paper for the first few days of a week, but we encourage you to do this on the fly if you’re able.

Seneca gives a few common objects of anger along with ways to rebut them. To warm up, identify objects of anger and possible rebuttals. Writing your analysis and rebuttals out on paper may help you get the hang of things, but with repeated practice you’ll be able to do this even better in your head.

Now that you’ve warmed up, here is the technique to practice whenever you feel the stirrings of anger:

  • Pause, using whatever method works best for you.
  • Name the object of your anger.
  • Rehearse and meditate upon a rebuttal for the causes of your anger.

Feel free to revisit your rebuttals in your head over the course of a week. It may help to mentally rehearse some possible rebuttals to angry thoughts when you have the time and inclination.

This exercise tackles the root cause of anger: our thoughts. Remember, the Stoics believed that it’s our own thoughts that cause our anger, and our thoughts happen rapidly. With enough practice, the stirrings of our anger will turn less and less frequently into full-blown passion.

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Excerpted from A Handbook for New Stoics: How to Thrive in a World Out of Your Control © Massimo Pigliucci and Gregory Lopez, 2019. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, The Experiment. Available wherever books are sold.

Greg Lopez is a practicing secular Buddhist and Stoic, founder and facilitator of the New York City Stoics meetup, co-host of Stoic Camp New York, Director of Membership for The Stoic Fellowship, and co-organizer of Stoicon 2016. He also runs a nonprofit that uses cognitive behavioral therapy, which is what led to his interest in Stoicism. His professional and academic background is in pharmacy and basic science. His other interests include psychology, statistics, philosophy, and swing dancing.

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

Announcing: Modern Stoicism Toronto

We’re delighted to announce that we now have a small team working to represent the Modern Stoicism movement in Toronto, Canada, headed by Donald Robertson and Adam Piercey.

NEWS: Come along to our FREE launch event in Toronto.

Toronto has one of the largest Stoicism communities in the world, perhaps the largest. Donald, author of How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, and Chuck Chakrapani, author of Unshakable Freedom, are both based in Toronto. We also have several academics based in the universities here with an interest in Stoicism, and there’s a course on Stoicism coming soon to the University of Toronto.

Stoicon, the international Modern Stoicism conference took place in Toronto in 2017 and we will be hosting it again this year. In the lead up to that event we’ll be working to develop the Stoicism community locally. See the Stoicon Toronto 2020 page on the Modern Stoicism website for more information on the conference.

Over the past year there have been lots of free talks and events on Stoicism held in Toronto and we’re planning to build on that in 2020 by setting up a regular monthly practice group, which anyone can join. We’ll also be having a variety of other talks and workshops on Stoicism in the lead up to the main conference.

So far we’ve had talks about Stoicism and love, Stoicism and anger, and general introductions to the subject. During the year ahead, we’re hoping to focus on developing a format that will allow newcomers to feel welcome while providing regular participants with a reason to keep coming back by including varied content from reading and discussing Stoic texts to group contemplative practices. We’d love your input and look forward to seeing you there.

Staying Connected

The first step is the creation of several social media accounts to help everyone stay in touch. Join us on as many of the channels below as you want, so that you don’t miss out on any information about Stoicism in Toronto or the surrounding area.

In the Press

Introducing The Aurelius Foundation by John Sellars

At Stoicon-X in London last October we had a short presentation introducing The Aurelius Foundation, a new non-profit organization led by Justin Stead. I first met Justin around six months earlier, when he attended a weekend course on Stoicism led by Christopher Gill and myself. Justin was already well versed in Stoicism and had been developing the idea for the foundation for a while. Since then, Justin and I have met up a number of times to progress things further, culminating in his presentation at Stoicon-x. In the presentation Justin outlined his vision for this new venture:

  • The VISION of the Aurelius Foundation is to increase awareness and to share the principles of Stoic philosophy based on the four cardinal virtues of Wisdom, Justice, Temperance and Courage in the pursuit of happiness.
  • The foundation endeavours to share this philosophy to help young people consider how they might plan their journey through life and support their considerations of how to live a life that contributes to the greater good.
  • The foundation is dedicated to youth and youth development through the education of higher principles and values of stoic philosophy to bring positive and constructive change through their life contributions to improve upon the many challenges in the world today.

Justin’s presentation generated lots of interest and discussion, and the whole thing was all the more intriguing because there wasn’t any further information available at that point. Well, now there is. It now has a website up and running at https://www.aureliusfoundation.com where people can sign up for regular updates.

More importantly, the foundation’s first event is now planned for Friday 6th March in London. This event will be an opportunity for people to learn more about the basic ideas behind Stoicism and to hear from people who apply Stoicism in a variety of personal and business contexts – from professional sport to prisons to business and finance. (I’ll be presenting in the morning, setting out the central ideas in Stoic ethics and talking about Marcus Aurelius.)

The goal of the event is to offer guidance and support for people at the outset of their adult and professional lives in the 18 to 30 age group. It hopes to bring together university students, recent graduates, and young entrepreneurs in order to foster useful networks for the future. If you fall into this age group, or know someone who does, then this might be of interest.

The all-day event – completely free – will be in central London (W1). Refreshments will be provided throughout the day. In order to register for a place, visit https://www.aureliusfoundation.com/events/lets-talk-stoicism

The Stoic – February 2020

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

The theme of this issue is ‘Stoic Every Moment’. Contributors include many prominent modern Stoics: Donald Robertson, Sharon Lebell, Kai Whiting, Meredith Kunz, Flora Bernard, Jonas Salzgeber, Jeff Rout, and Chuck Chakrapani. If you’d like to check it out, or to subscribe, you can click here

FEBURARY 2020 ISSUE CONTENTS

  • CHUCK CHAKRAPANI. Being a Stoic Every Moment of the Day                
  • DONALD ROBERTSON. The Golden Rule of Stoicism                                                                    
  • MEREDITH A. KUNZ. A Stoic Cyclist: When People Behave Badly on the Road                 
  • JONAS SALZGEBER. Play Your Given Roles Well                                                                            
  • KAI WHITING. Stoicism and the Pursuit of Happiness                                                      
  • SHARON LEBELL. Stoic response: Caring for the  Community                                           
  • FLORA BERNARD. Being Grateful for What we Learned From Others                                  
  • JEFF ROUT. Cultivating True Friendships            

Stoicism for Something Bad by Mary Braun

John (not his real name, details changed) hates his job. He is healthy and comes in every few months to talk about getting off his anti-depressant. He thinks his boss is a jerk who makes him do demeaning things that should really be the job of the newer people on the team. He makes more than he thinks he could anywhere else because he’s been at this job a long time. Maybe, he thinks, his boss is trying to make him quit so he can be replaced with a cheaper, younger new hire. He wants to quit his job. He doesn’t want to take a decrease in income. Quit. Stay. Quit. Stay. He explains both points to me every time he comes in.

He’s so depressed he doesn’t do much besides watch TV when he comes home from work. He doesn’t mountain bike, which he used to love and he’s made no progress on that genealogy project he’s been talking about for a decade. He’s stuck. Clearly, the meds aren’t working sufficiently for him. We’ve changed them a couple times and that makes no difference. He’s tried therapy with three different therapists and that doesn’t seem to help. This is the type of patient to whom I suggest Stoicism.

Stoicism is not medicine, and I am reluctant to suggest it to anyone who seems to have an active medical issue. The idea of my patient going to the emergency room for treatment that I could have given them in the office if I hadn’t been too busy suggesting they give Stoicism a try is appalling. I’m a doctor, not a philosopher. I am competent to diagnose pneumonia, but am I competent to suggest or teach philosophy?

On the other hand, I think Stoicism works and would help a patient like John. Is it compassionate to withhold it? Just like, I don’t need to be a surgeon to diagnose appendicitis, I don’t need to be a philosopher to diagnose “needing a life philosophy.” But, if I’ve diagnosed his problem as “needing a life philosophy,” suggested he start exploring life philosophies, and then another doctor makes him better by giving him a pill that I could have prescribed, would he be justified to be upset with me?

A doctor’s business is care of the body, and my official title is “health care provider.” We can define “health” as broadly as we like, but I do not think it can be expanded enough to include “needing a life philosophy” and, yet, I see people who are suffering for lack of one. One of the ways I solve this problem is to have philosophy books in my exam rooms and to run late. It used to work better. Now that everyone has an iphone, I find people are more likely to be watching cat videos than taking advantage of a chance to read William Irvine for free.

Another of the ways I solve this problem is to preface anything I say about Stoicism by saying, “I am telling you this, not as your doctor, but as a fellow suffering human being.” These are my credentials for philosophy teaching. Sometimes life sucks and I’ve had to cope, too.

I have to prioritize what we are going to talk about with every patient. It is rare that I get to things like would you like a shingles vaccine and even rarer that I get to “wear your seatbelt.” I feel that I cannot help my patients with their existential issues until all of their physical issues have been addressed and yet sometimes the existential issues are driving the physical issues.

If I have a patient who is not healthy physically, I feel obliged to spend all of our precious time together talking about traditional medical topics. By coming to see me, my patient has declared in which realm they think their problem lies. If their teeth were troubling them, they’d see a dentist. If their soul was troubling them, a chaplain. At least in theory, if my patients were seeking a life philosophy, they would be at the philosopher’s office. Since they have come to a doctor’s office, we talk about their body, not philosophical issues.

Because of this, the rare healthy may get an inoculation of Stoicism from me. The unhealthy, who would benefit more from it, do not. The patient who would benefit the very most from a discussion of Stoicism rarely gets even a homeopathic dose of it from me. He (or she) is one who has recently been diagnosed with Something Bad. Having Something Bad means that now one probably knows what is going to kill one and using Google, one can easily find how long before 50% of the patients with one’s very own diagnosis die. Examples of Something Bad are: acute leukemia, metastatic colon cancer, severe COPD, or Lewy Body Dementia. There are plenty of others. A diagnosis of Something Bad challenges one’s life philosophy like little else.

Having your philosophical techniques honed before your doctor says “I don’t like the feel of this lymph node,” or “Let’s get a biopsy of that shadow on your chest xray” works better than scrambling around while you’re waiting, at home, awake at 2 am, for the results. If you haven’t gotten your diagnosis of Something Bad (yet), let’s stop wasting time! If however, you have recently been told you have Something Bad, do not despair. These techniques are just what one doctor wishes she could order and they will start helping you immediately.

The Dichotomy of Control

A common starting place for Stoic reading is Epictetus’ Enchiridion which opens with “Some things are in our control and others not.” Because there are two options, it is called the dichotomy of control: thing are under one’s control or they are not under one’s control.

Having Something Bad is not under one’s control. Some Bad Diagnoses have risk factors which are under our control: smoking, sun tanning, or excessive drinking, for example. However, which person with the risk factor gets the disease and which doesn’t is not under our control. Every smoker, regardless of their level of smoking knows a smoker who smoked more and died at an old age from something completely unrelated to smoking. “It’s not fair. How come they didn’t get lung cancer and I did?” Every cardiac patient who eats well and jogs daily also knows a dozen obese people much older than him who have not exercised since their youth and who do not have cancer. Certainly, there are risk factors, but who gets a particular Bad Diagnosis and when is a matter that is not under our control.

Bill Irvine uses the idea of a trichotomy of control (some things are partially under my control). I happen not to find this extra division helpful, but some people do. I would grant that sometimes having Something Bad is sometimes partially under my control, but certainly not fully. Whether or not I smoke is under my control, but whether or not I get lung cancer, regardless of how much I smoked, is not.

I observe that people who remember that getting their Bad Diagnosis is out of their control tend to do better. “Getting lung cancer was out of my control. I have it. The more energy I waste in thinking about why I got lung cancer, the less I will have available for figuring out what to do about it.”

When I consider my own history, I can feel very upset that my mother died at 39. Why did she get such a bad diagnosis? On the other hand, I can recall that I have taken care of children with cancer who died before graduating from high school. Why was she spared this fate, a precondition for my very existence?

An exercise that I find helpful is to turn “Why me?” around into “Why not me?” Whenever I wonder “Why me? Why did my mother die when I was seven?” I can challenge myself with “When my mother died is out of my control. Why was I lucky enough to have my mom for seven years? Plenty of women die in childbirth. This was equally out of my control.”

Gratitude

A very easy step from “Why not me?” is to gratitude. Continuing the personal example above, I am grateful my mom was alive for my first seven years.

If you wonder how important the classical Stoics thought gratitude was, read the first book of Meditations. Marcus lists people and situations he is grateful about. This goes on for page after page. 

I do find that patients who are more grateful are happier. There is research supporting this that you can google easily.

If you have just gotten a Bad Diagnosis and wants to start developing a gratitude practice, consider what getting your diagnosis exactly a year ago would have meant for you. Consider what getting it during an earlier season of your life would have been like. It may come easily to you to be grateful that you did not get your diagnosis as you were helping plan your child’s wedding last year. Perhaps you will simply feel gratitude for the ensuing year of everyday experiences you have had and the bigger store of wisdom and coping skills you have attained.

Another easy way to identify things you are grateful for is to consider the things you will be saddest to let go of whenever you die. Those are, in all likelihood, things you are grateful to have now.

Fasting, Taking Cold Showers, and Other Tough-Guy Techniques

The Stoics, and especially their philosophical cousins the Cynics, emphasized trials of doing without various niceties of life to help one recognize how few the true needs are. They would fast for a while or eat only lentils, sleep on the ground, or do without servants. One would be able to recognize that, while a soft bed is comfy, it’s not at all required. Gratitude for that soft bed would come more naturally. Whether or not you sleep on whatever bed you have is completely under your control, unlike your Bad Diagnosis. The practices build on each other naturally.

Having practice with what is essential and what is not can be helpful when one is called upon to make medical decisions. The treatment of Something Bad may require one to reclassify some bodily functions from essential to non-essential. It can be surprising to learn which of the things you thought you required prior to getting your diagnosis is actually nice, but not necessary. Your disease may ask you “what is life without the nicety of a functioning anal sphincter?” And you will have to answer in order to choose your treatment path.

You will have to make decisions in coping with Something Bad. Some doctors disagree with me, but I think it is helpful to notice when there is a choice to be made and to be explicit that one has made a choice. If you have a diagnosis of Something Bad, you have likely made some choices already. Most people with Something Bad have chosen to work up their symptoms. Some people with incredibly severe symptoms prefer not to know more and do not take the steps you may have taken to get your diagnosis. Or maybe you opted to have a mammogram. Not everyone does. Chances are good you’ve made a number of choices already. Chances are good you have many, many more choices yet to make.

Patients will frequently come to me and say, “I have no choice. The oncologist says I have to do this medication or surgery or radiation treatment.” Nothing could be further from the truth. You do have a choice! You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do! It’s your body! What the cancer doctor is saying is that if you do this treatment, it will give you an increased likelihood of living longer, or better. You are deciding (or are allowing the cancer doctor to decide for you) that the nuisance, pain, discomfort, nausea, whatever of this treatment are worth the likely benefit. Because you are making this choice, you really are in control. You are not in control of what benefit you actually get from the treatment or how bad the side effects are for you, but it’s your decision to do the treatment.

My observation is that people who realize that they made a choice are less disturbed by their symptoms. Yes, I have not been able to eat for three days, but that is a side effect of this chemo. I chose this chemo knowing it would be tough because it would give me a better chance of living longer.

Some people decide that the potential to live longer is not worth the loss of function it would require. Some people decide that it is. Having been the one to make that decision for themselves, however, makes the suffering which ensues from whichever choice they have made much more tolerable. The Stoic practice of finding out how much one can do without can help inform these decisions. Sometimes how little one needs to be happy is a shock.

Once I took care of a young woman who would die soon if she didn’t accept being fed through her veins. She and her husband had owned a restaurant together. Eating and drinking had been such an important part of her life that she was not sure that life would hold any meaning if it continued beyond the point where she could eat and drink. She said no. Her husband begged her to try, however, so she did. The next time I saw her, she was beaming. “It is so intimate to have him hook me up every night and give me what I need. I love it. It has brought us closer.” She lived another very happy, very intimate six months.

Something Bad will demand that you consider what delicacies of life are actually essential. It may be that you will determine that life without functioning bowels or bladder or eating or walking or seeing is actually perfectly acceptable. Or it may be that you will decide such a life is not acceptable. 

Stoics may take cold showers, but patients with Something Bad are cutting to the bone. They often discover that very basic things healthy people consider essentials are actually niceties.

Premeditatio Malorum

People often identify Premeditatio Malorum as the distinctive Stoic practice. The Stoic imagines their fear (my cancer will progress) in as great a detail as they can tolerate (I will be unable to control my bowels, I’ll have to use a bag, I’ll be too weak to take care of it myself, my family will have to do it for me, I’ll be so embarrassed) and then considers this state in light of their basic virtue (will I still be able to be wise, just, courageous, and equanimous in this state? Clearly, I would be.

The opportunities to practice these virtues would be multiplied, not diminished. Thus my basic value is not decreased.) Not all patients would view the maintenance of virtue as the thing that keeps their life worth living, but the question one asks can be adapted for what is important to the individual doing the exercise. The practice remains very valuable if one remembers to do the whole practice and doesn’t allow one’s self to start in the middle or get side tracked before the conclusion.

This first step is not a Stoic step. Starting here will allow you to adapt the exercise for your own belief system, if it is a non-Stoic belief system. If one is a Stoic, one believes that virtue is the only good. Being virtuous is what gives one’s life meaning. If one does not believe this, the work starts here. The beginning step is to figure out what one’s deepest hope is, or possibly what one feels one specifically offers to the universe. For some people this can be accessed as what gives their life meaning. If I were doing this practice by myself, I might write the answers down on an index card. These deep issues are where you’re going ultimately. If this seems like too abstract an idea for your life, keep reading anyway. Give me a chance to bring it down to the concrete and accessible. We’ll get there. I have helped people with all kinds of belief systems with this exercise. I bet you’ll find it helpful, too.

The thing about having Something Bad is that you know Bad Things are coming. You are quite likely to die from Something Bad and in fairly short order. This fact—death is in sight—sits at the back of the mind of every patient with Something Bad. Every patient I’ve ever met does the “identify your fear” part of Premeditatio Malorum instinctively. Going the next step and determining that their virtue, or whatever gives their life meaning, would not be affected by the losses they are imagining is what makes this practice special. Doing the middle steps only can get people into trouble and the patients that I see who are having the hardest time are often those who get stuck, wandering in the fear part of this practice.

If I happen upon a patient who is suffering because they have started down this path and gotten lost, I will spend the time with them to get them unstuck, even if it means I will be running late for the patients who come after them. This is very important work to do. Patients who are stuck here have imagined the thing they are most afraid of in great detail. I ask them to look at it and listen to what they say. Starting with the first step “what makes life meaningful to you?” would be greeted with derision or possibly anger. But that is what I am trying to figure out with the hurting person in front of me.

People will often tell me things like, “I worry how my kids will grow up without me to watch over them.” (Their worry might be can my kids grow up well without me? or it might be how will my kids survive the viciousness of the world? or it might be will my kids feel the abandonment of my death so acutely that they will be unable to trust others in the future?) Sometimes I hear “I don’t want to burden my loved ones with cleaning me up when I can’t control my bowels any more.” (Their question is something like “Will my family still love me if I am helpless or disgusting?” Or it might be “Do people love me only because I am strong and independent?”) I try to explore these things to learn what is the deepest belief or wish. Oftentimes, the patient cannot put words to it themself. I take my best stab at what it might be and then wander around with them until by a change in their demeanor I can tell we’re close.

Stoics find it helpful to realize that they will still be able to be virtuous even if their worst fear comes to pass. Christians could gain comfort from premeditatio malorum by recalling that they can still love Jesus even if their worst fears come to pass. Often there is a deeply held belief like “If I were a good mother, I would find a way to keep from dying,” that is causing pain. It can be tough to find, but doing this work will help ultimately.

The final step in premeditatio malorum is to consider what impact on one’s deepest hope is caused by the fears that one is ruminating upon. For the woman who believes “if I were a good mother, I’d find a way to keep from dying,” I would concentrate on helping her find ways to be a good mother after her death (writing letters or other means of posthumous communication, perhaps). For the person who is worried about who will help guide their children after their death, we might identify people who could help and figure out if giving her children this list or talking to the potential helpers or some other action would be most helpful. For the person who wondered if he’d be loved in his weakened state, we’d consider times that others were loved when they were weak, perhaps, or possibly an open conversation with the patient’s family about what her he was likely to need, what they thought they would be able to do that their abilities have nothing to do with their love for him, and where else they might get help would likely ensue.

After we have identified the painful belief, visited the worst fear in great detail, figured out what is essential to do, figured out that we have control over at this point and made some plans to do those things, I circle back and try to help the patient see that the thing they were most in fear of is not a threat. Usually they have figured this out for themselves already.

Call Things After Their True Natures

One of the funny places in the Meditations is where Marcus describes sex as friction followed by mucous. The technique of describing things prosaically can be helpful when one has Something Bad. “A single cell has decided its chances are better if it goes it alone,” “They’ll put a little tube into my kidney that will poke out my back and drain my urine directly into a bag,” “I’m done breastfeeding babies, so those parts have outlived their utility.”

Meditate on Your Mortality

Stoicism emphasizes the reality that we are all well on our way to death. Really meditating on this requires a certain amount of courage as well as imagination for the average person. A Bad Diagnosis sets one’s imagination on fire and provides the courage needed to get started. It is much easier to always be aware of the fact that I am dying if I know there is only a fifty percent chance I’ll be alive in five years. Prioritizing one’s life as though one is going to be dead soon tends to produce decisions oriented towards the deeper desires. Remembering that one will be dead soon tends to cause one to consider how one will be remembered by loved ones after one’s death. Acting in a way that seems likely to cause good memories in the future is also likely to cause a better today. Thus, the person with the Bad Diagnosis benefits from regarding their imminent death.

Different people have different hopes for the time around their death. I hope yours is as easy and as meaning filled as you would like it to be. My observation is that these practices help when you get a Bad Diagnosis. And, what is Life but a universally fatal condition? What diagnosis could be worse than Life? Our Bad Diagnosis is coming soon enough. Let’s get practicing.

Mary Braun, MD is a primary care physician in rural New Hampshire specializing in internal medicine and palliative care. In childhood, Mary began practicing an intuitive form of Stoicism to cope with being orphaned. She discovered Stoic philosophy in middle age. She applies ideas from Stoicism not only for her own life but also to help her patients.

Meet the Boston and New England Stoics by Pete Fagella

This post by Pete Fagella is the first post in a new series that we will be running regularly here at Stoicism Today. There are a number of local Stoic groups and organizations, and we are going to create a space for the organizers and leaders to tell their stories, impart useful lessons, and get the word out about their meetings and activities – Greg Sadler, editor

My name is Pete Fagella and I am the facilitator and founder of the New England Stoics. Roughly two years ago this month I reached out to the Stoic Fellowship – the international organization that helps coordinate between local Stoic groups – to inquire if there were any groups in my area. There were none at that time, and the fellowship helped me start this one. 

I sent the fellowship an email expressing interest in becoming part of a local group. I received a response from Greg Lopez who told me that although no group at that time existed, there were people who also wanted to be a part of one. Greg asked me if I would be willing to take the lead, I thought to myself “why not”.

Greg sent me a list of all of the people who had expressed an interest and introduced me to them via e-mail. He introduced me to an organizing tool called doodle and after many emails back and forth and through the use of doodle who had planned our first meeting. The fellowship was critical to help our baby group reach this important phase.

At that time, we were not using the Meetup platform, so we had to promote ourselves on our own web page which we have since replaced with an improved site and a mailing list. As people would come to our meetings, we added them onto the mailing list and used that to notify previous attendees of future meetings

The first meeting was like no other. There was no specific topic, nor any foundation as to how to proceed. We mostly just got to know each other and discussed what drew us to each other. This was an experiment about whether such a group was feasible. Several significant events happened during this meeting:

  • we adopted our name, The New England Stoics
  • we learned that people would come to meetings if we had them
  • our leadership team was created.

We stayed an hour after closing, nobody realized the time and the staff at Panera Bread didn’t tell us. Immediately afterwards I informed Greg of our success and we started the process of being listed as part of the Stoic Fellowship.

Following meetings were about specific topics though we had no discernible pattern. We would discuss a variety of times such as death, the definition of good, happiness, whatever we would think of really. Mostly we were trying to understand stoicism ourselves at that time and by meeting in a group we were able to start to help each other understand. Admittedly, I still have a lot to learn.                         

However, after several attempts we begin to figure out what worked and what didn’t. We realized quickly that having a team of people involved in the planning process was much more beneficial than a single individual. I would have ultimate say in what we did but as a team we would discuss the events of the previous meeting and determine how to improve. The most difficult challenge was deciding where to meet, we tried many different places and times.

At first, we wanted to have a rotating meeting location in different towns so that people from all over the region would have better chances to attend the meetings. We were after all, at that time, the only group in the entirety of New England. This did not have the result we hoped for, regulars still came, but not many new people. For the regulars it was an inconvenience to go so far out of their ways for some of the locations. We decided to centralize our meetings and this seems to have had positive results.

Stoicon is an annual event in which Stoicism is discussed in great deal by experts in the field. The event attracts hundreds of people but unfortunately it is not accessible to many people. Consequently, the Stoic Fellowship and Modern Stoicism encourages the local groups to have a miniature version of this event called Stoicon-X.  At first, I did not think that we had the numbers to have an event of this scale. We would often only have 3-4 people show up at our meetings. However, I was convinced by the other people in my team that we would try it anyway.

We created flyers to put around the region and posted the event on Eventbrite. We would hold the event in Worchester, Ma at the first Unitarian Church. Four of us would be involved in the event, each having their own individual speeches. We spent a lot of time on conference calls with each other hammering out the details.

In October of that year we hosted our first Stoicon-X event. Roughly 12 people showed up. Marc opened up the event with Stoicism 101 talking about the history and basic theory of Stoicism. John, who was a trained therapist discussed psychotherapy’s Debt to Stoicism & Intro to Philosophical Counseling. Tim had a speech entitled “The Intellectual Scalpel: Naming and Classification”.  I hosted the event and discussed Stoicism and how it applies to social dynamics. Additionally, we performed a 10-minute play. John played the Stoic friend, Marc played the un-Stoic friend and I played a man who was seeking advice. We had refreshments and the entire thing lasted four hours.

Stoicon-X New England was a tremendous success. I realized that if we could have this much success on our small web site with minimal advertising then we could do wonders on Meetup. I could not afford to pay for Meetup, however, but another option existed. If you pay for Meetup you are allowed to have several slots for groups. The Stoic Fellowship helps groups that do not have Meetup to get in touch with other groups with free Meetup slots. I reached out to Greg Lopez again and he put me in touch with David Emory, facilitator of the Colorado Springs Stoa. David was extremely generous and we can thank our success primarily to him. We were able to create a Meetup slot under his account. If anybody is in the Colorado Springs area I highly recommend finding his group on Meetup.

With the Meetup page we were able to attract a much wider audience. We also had more confidence in our ability and knowledge of the material. We had individual meetings discussing each of the four stoic virtues, Wisdom, Courage, Temperance, and Justice. We talked about friendship, and reliance, and even death. We met new people and really began to grow.

The following Memorial Day we held a Stoic Camp in northern Maine. Tim attended the Wyoming Stoic camp and had mentioned it in the past. Marc had a cabin that he shared part time with other people. We married these two thoughts together and the idea for a New England Stoic camp was born.

We decided that Epictetus would be the focus of our event. The academic portion would define Stoicism and its history, would give a historical background on Epictetus himself, and would delve into the Discourses. We also had time for journaling. The camp however, was far from just academics; we had a lot of recreation as well.

Between 10-15 people showed up at the camp depending on the day. We were all asked to pack our own lunch, but we ate dinner as a group. I made pasta with homemade sauce one night, and we had BBQ another night. We hiked to several water falls and even had some of our lectures there, we even tested our Stoicism by playing the board game “Risk” which nearly ended several friendships. We also dedicated some quiet time for people to reflect and go on nature walks. Along with the cabin itself, the property had a yurt. We would listen to podcasts on Stoicism, but most importantly the yurt is where the New England Stoics adopted our event tradition. At the conclusion of our major events (not regular meetings) we set a timer for 60 seconds and when the timer goes off, we let out a mighty roar. It’s a lot of fun.

Almost immediately after the success of the camp we began to plan Stoicon-X 2019. This time we had three speakers, Zeph, Marc, and myself. This event actually took less planning then the first Stoicon-X. By this point we had already planned two major events so we had some experience. We learned from the camp the value of having dinner together. We learned from the first Stoicon-X and also the camp how time can escape us. Consequently, we decided that 2019 would last for 6 hours and was to be followed by a 2-hour pot luck dinner. We sold the tickets on Eventbrite and advertised on meetup as well as through Stoicism Today.

The next October we had our second Stoicon-X which had twice as much as the first in terms of attendance. I hosted the event and talked about why we practice philosophy, and I read from Cicero. Zeph discussed internals vs. externals, taking into account the challenges we face in modern society like mental illness that the ancient Stoics lacked a medical understanding about. He also addressed other road blocks to having true control of our own thoughts and impressions. Marc talked again about the history of Stoicism; he also did a speech on life philosophies. Additionally, Marc gave detailed recommendations on various online sources of information to learn more about Stoicism.

We had two break-out activities and an extended break time. The first break-out activity focused on knowing what is in your control, and what is not. We broke into 3 groups; in the groups we all discussed minor problems that we encountered, and using the information from Zeph’s speech on internals vs externals, we addressed the individual problems. We made sure to ask people to show us silly issues like being stuck in traffic and not divulge sensitive information.

The second break-out activity was a concentration on negative visualization. We again broke into 3 groups, but we rotated the people to create new groups. We wanted people to imagine mildly unpleasant things happening to them and discuss how to resolve them. We asked them to again not get too personal and to imagine events like a shoelace breaking. The ultimate point was to encourage people to appreciate things when we have them.

During the break, we had many books laid out with reviews placed inside the cover. We had a YouTube video of Donald Robertson at the Stoicon X Toronto. We had a station for gratitude letters, and we had snacks. The event went really well, and we handed out books as prizes, including Donald Robertson’s latest book How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, the Meditations, and several others. People had the options to just socialize or participate in some of the activities. At the end of the meeting we all went outside and let out a mighty roar.

The proceeds from the event went back into the group. We took no profit. We were able to fund a more integrated website www.nestoics.Org that includes a blog, and links to our Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, our mailing list, and of course a link to our Meetup page, which at this point has over 250 people. 

The historic North End of Boston was the home of Paul Revere, and its still there. A few blocks away is the Old North Church. As the story goes, in the year 1775 the British had occupied Boston. Revolutionaries had expected armed conflict to begin soon and began to store weapons near the towns of Lexington and Concord. All of Boston was surrounded by colonial militia. A plan was set in place that from the Old North Church they would observe the British army. If the army began to march by land, one candle would be displayed in the church, and if by sea it would be two. The British marched by land and from the Old North Church one candle was observed by Paul Revere and he gallantly rode his horse to warn the colonials who had time to prepare. Thus, began the Revolutionary War. History tells us that this story was true to a degree but embellishes the role of Revere being the solo rider, in truth many people were involved.

 We currently meet in this neighborhood, with its cobblestone streets, surrounded by all this history and so much more. Each month, one of our meetings is known as the “Philosopher’s Café”. This is a free-flowing conversation about whatever is on our minds. This is a great opportunity for those who are curious about Stoicism to learn the basics, while at the same time making new friends and creating possible mentorships.

Our vision is for people to be able to come in off the street and if they are in need of guidance, that we may be able to provide a possible option for them to explore. We are not at all interested in pushing our ideals on others, but if people are curious, we’d love to share. The dream of the Philosophers Café is to create more regulars who we can help grow into the virtuous people they want to be, we want to help people become happier and help the world to be a better place. 

We recently started a new type of meeting. Traditionally we decide on a specific topic to discuss and just go with that, sometimes we will have topics relating to the previous meetings but not always. Having consulted with Greg Lopez while on conference call with several other Stoic group facilitators, I was introduced to a new idea called a practice group.  

In addition to being a ranking member of the Stoic Fellowship, Greg is also the facilitator of the NYC Stoics. In his group he has developed essentially a class that is designed to help the aspiring Stoic Philosopher on how to essentially move from reading about Stoicism to living as a Stoic. There are 11 classes, meant to be one month apart. Each class contains readings and exercises. The entire program follows a sequential pattern such that each class is a pre-requisite to the next. Greg was generous enough to allow me to use this program. As of this publication we have had the first of the 11 classes and it was an amazing success.

As a general rule we will alternate every two weeks between the Philosopher’s Café and the practice group. We will not deviate from the practice group schedule, however we may on occasion substitute the Philosopher’s Café with special events such as Stoic Camp, Stoicon-X, or anything else we develop. Anything that will end with a mighty roar! We want to increase our presence to beyond the region, and endeavor to live up to the reputation the higher New England education has made for itself.

Geographically the New England Stoics is the largest group between the giants in New York (run by Massimo Pigliucci and Greg Lopez) and in Toronto (run by Donald Robertson). We want to be the bridge that brings New York and Toronto together. We can serve as either a stopover point for those traveling in between or as an easier option for people who live just out of reach for either. We are still relatively small, but we plan to be here for a long time, and we hope to bring others along for the ride.

In February, 2020 we will be marking our two-year anniversary. As of this publication we have 276 people signed up for our meetup with more joining at a steady rate. The meetings have gone from an average of 3-4 people to now between 10-15 people. We meet every two weeks and the vast majority of our events are free (unless they end with a mighty roar).

This group would not have been able to reach the status of where we are today without the help and generosity of so many people. I want to thank Greg Lopez who helped bring us all together and played a critical part in the development of this group. I want to thank Tim Howe for helping me in those very early days to head up our IT. It was with his help that we were able to attract those first members. He was also critical in the planning of Stoicon X 2018 and the stoic camp. I want to thank Marc Dashaies for sticking with us for nearly the entire adventure. Marc was who first suggested we have Stoicon-X 2018, he helped plan it he has also been a part of every other event and every other meeting we have had since. I want to thank John Monfredo who helped plan, and gave a wonderful speech at Stoicon X 2018. I want to thank David Emory of the Colorado Springs Stoa for giving us his free meetup slot. Without his help we would not have the membership that we do, nor would we have met the wonderful people we now know. Meetup introduced Zeph Chang to the group, and I want to thank him for all his effort in helping to plan everything that has happened after the Stoic Camp. Zeph is the man who revamped our online presence, he created the new web site and helped to integrate our entire online presence into a single platform.  It was also Zeph who allowed us to use his house for Stoicon X 2019. He has been a good friend and a critical member of the leadership team. I want to thank Donald Robertson and Greg Sadler for the wisdom given to me as advice, and for their help in promoting our group and our events. Finally, I want to thank all of your for taking the time to read this article, I hope you enjoyed it.

I am not only the facilitator of the New England Stoics but I am also the regional support volunteer for the North East United States which includes all of New England and New York. Our mascot is the bald eagle and currently has four groups:

If you are interested in joining any of these groups please click on the links. If you would like more information or are interested in starting your own group in the North East Region feel free to join our discussion group on Facebook entitled “Stoicism Boston and New England”.  Please now take 60 seconds to reflect in silence and follow it by a mighty roar!


Pete Fagella has been studying Stoic philosophy for the past 10 years. He currently runs the New England Stoics philosophy group out of Boston but lives in New Hampshire. He is  currently studying Latin and for fun spends time with his children.

Are Stoics Less Angry than Other People? Stoic Week 2019 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 2019, which you can download a copy of (with all of the appendices) by clicking here.

Introduction

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 2019, and will report on whether this relationship has been maintained. In 2019 we obtained additional information about the relationship between Stoicism and anger, as measured by the Anger Disorder Scale (ADS-S). A second innovation this year was the introduction of another iteration of  the Stoic Attitudes and Behaviours Scale (SABS v5.0). This report will indicate which of the 60 items of the new SABS scale are the most and least associated with life satisfaction, flourishing, positive and negative emotions and with anger – in other words, which items appear to be the most active ingredients of Stoicism in these respects. The other reports in this series will discuss the effect of taking part in Stoic Week (part 3) and summarise participant feedback and suggest future directions of research (part 4). Details about the scales used are given in the Appendices of this report.

What Were My Scores Like Compared to the Average?

If you took part in Stoic Week, you will have been given average scores at the start of the week for other participants at the start of a previous Stoic Week for some of the measures. But we didn’t have the scores for Stoic Week 2019 then (obviously!), and we didn’t have comparative scores for the Anger Scale or for the new SABS scale. So, here you are. How do you compare with the average score?

  • Life Satisfaction (SWL)        23
  • Emotions (SPANE)             5
  • Flourish                                 43
  • Anger (ADS-S)                     34
  • Stoicism (SABS 5.0)             300

The New SABS Scale

Stoic Week 2019 saw the introduction of SABS 5.0, a 60-item questionnaire described in Appendix A. This scale builds on the work done with the invaluable work Ray DiGiuseppe and others to eliminate items with inferior psychometric properties. We are also working towards validating the SABS 5.0 and providing sub-scales (for example “Stoic Worldview” and “Values awareness and Stoic mindfulness”. As the work on subscales is still provisional, it will be reported at a later date.  

Stoicism and Anger

Theoretically, we would expect Stoic attitude to help with anger management. We would anticipate that Stoics would not just act in a less angry way, they would also get angry less often than non-Stoics because non-Stoics often get angry at things beyond their control.

Previous Stoic Week research results have indeed suggested a strong inverse relationship between Stoicism and anger. However, this has relied on the single anger item question in the SPANE questionnaire. Since anger management is potentially an important benefit of practising Stoicism, the relationship between Stoicism and anger warranted further investigation. Consequently, this year we asked participants to fill in a validated anger questionnaire, the 18-item ADS-S (see Appendix B) to understand the relationship between Stoicism and anger when anger is measured in a more robust manner and which also separates out the degree to which people feel anger, the degree to which they feel vengeful, and the extent to which they act angrily. Table 1 below gives the results.

Anger overall  (ADS-S) Anger-In (ADS-S subscale 1) Anger Vengeance (ADS-S subscale 2) Anger Reactivity (ADS-S subscale S) Anger single item (SPANE)
-.44 -.45 -.31 -.35 -.32

Table 1: Correlation and Stoicism and Anger at the start of Stoic Week 2019 (1725 participants)

The more sophisticated measure of anger provided by the ADS-S than the single scale item in the SPANE gives a significantly stronger relationship between Stoicism and a lack of anger (.44 compared to .32). The ADS-S divides anger into 3 subscales. Subscale 1, the anger-in scale, represents the degree to which people are likely to feel anger and repress, or not express their anger. Stoics are particularly less likely to do this (.45 correlation), putting a lie to the notion that Stoics repress feelings (the “stiff upper lip”). Stoics are also likely to be less vengeful (subscale 2) and less reactive with their anger (subscale 3). It will be interesting to see how the scales and subscales change when people try to practice Stoicism in Stoic Week. We would predict a reduction in anger and in particular, a large reduction in subscale 1 (anger-in).

Stoicism and Well-Being

We can tell how Stoic someone is by their score on the SABS 5.0. By measuring their well-being at the same time, we can determine the extent to which Stoicism is associated with well-being.

  Flourishing Emotions (SPANE) Life Satisfaction (SWL)
STOIC ATTITUDES AND BEHAVIOURS 2019: 0.64
2018: 0.54 2017: 0.47
2019: 0.59 2018: 0.45 2017: 0.43 2019: 0.50 2018: 0.39 2017: 0.36

Table 2 Overall association of Stoic Attitudes and Behaviours with various scales (2019 Stoic Week compared to 2018 and 2017 Stoic Weeks)

As table 2 shows, Stoicism is associated to  a very high degree of Flourishing and a balance of positive over emotions and (to a slightly lesser degree) satisfaction with life. Over the years as we have worked to improve the SABs, the correlation coefficients are somewhat higher using the new SABS 5.0.

Stoicism and Emotions

We can also see which emotions are most associated with Stoicism. The trends found in previous years continue to be supported. Stoicism is not just associated with not feeling bad, it is also strongly associated with feeling contented and positive.

Emotion 2019 2018 2017 2016
Negative -.47 -0.35 -0.36 -0.29
Bad -.42 -0.31 -0.32 -0.28
Unpleasant -.39 -0.29 -0.27 -0.24
Sad -.38 -0.26 -0.28 -0.26
Angry -.32 -0.24 -0.27 -0.24
Afraid -.34 -0.24 -0.23 -0.26
Contented .49 0.36 0.33 0.35
Positive .49 0.36 0.32 0.31
Happy .43 0.35 0.29 0.28
Good .47 0.34 0.32 0.32
Pleasant .41 0.34 0.32 0.3
Joyful .41 0.32 0.28 0.26

Once again, as we have continued to revise and improve the SAB the correlation coefficients with the various measures emotions have increased.

Table 3: Correlation of SABS 5.0 scores and emotions as measured in SPANE

Degree of Stoicism and Well-being

The above findings lend considerable support to the view that Stoicism is associated with higher degrees of well-being and less anger. But how much difference does it make? We attempted to tease this out by looking at the differences in well-being for those who are the most and least Stoic. This is shown in table 4 below.

  Participant Scores
Ranking on the SABS 5.0 Life Satisfaction Emotions Anger Flourishing Stoicism
Top 10% 28 14 26 50 371
Top quarter 27 11 28 49 351
Top half 26 9 31 47 331
Average 23 5 34 43 300
Bottom half 21 2 37 39 269
Bottom quarter 19 0 39 37 257
Bottom 10% 17 -2 41 33 235

Table 4: Difference in life satisfaction, the balance of emotions, anger, flourishing according to the degree of Stoicism (Start of Stoic Week 2019, n=1725)

Those who are the most Stoic (top 10%) are much higher in well-being and lower in anger than the those in the top 10%. One possible way to read table 4 is to say that the biggest gains are to be made with those people who are least Stoic. If someone moved from the bottom half to just average levels of Stoicism, one would anticipate quite significant gains in well-being – assuming that causation goes in the direction of being Stoic to well-being, which may not be completely founded.

Stoicism’s Most Active Ingredients

Which Stoic attitudes and beliefs are most associated with life satisfaction, flourishing, positive emotions and the absence of anger? By finding the correlation between SABS 5.0 items and each measure, it is possible to answer these questions. Tables 5 -8 below provide the answers for each scale. Note that since these associations are correlations, we cannot be sure of the direction of causation, so these findings require a certain amount of qualification.

# SABS Item Life Satisfaction Correlation
19 I spend quite a lot of time dwelling on what has gone wrong in the past.* 0.46
33 I spend quite a lot of time worrying about the future.* 0.42
26 When I have a problem, I am good at taking constructive action in a timely manner. 0.41
41 If things don’t go well for me, I can’t lead a good life.* 0.35
38 When a negative thought enters my mind, I remind myself that it is just an interpretation of the situation. 0.35
48 Even when I can’t do anything more about a problem, I still worry about it a lot.* 0.35

Table 5:  Most active Stoic ingredients of Life Satisfaction

If you wanted to look at one element of Stoicism indicative of satisfaction with life, it would be someone not dwelling on the past

# SABS Item Flourishing correlation
26 When I have a problem, I am good at taking constructive action in a timely manner. 0.54
12 I usually do the right thing. 0.46
19 I spend quite a lot of time dwelling on what has gone wrong in the past.* 0.45
22 When making an important decision I ask myself “What really matters here?” 0.44
33 I spend quite a lot of time worrying about the future.* 0.43
14  I am committed to helping humanity in general. 0.43
38 When a negative thought enters my mind, I remind myself that it is just an interpretation of the situation. 0.43

Table 6:  Most active SABS ingredients in terms of Flourishing

The single element of Stoicism indicative of flourishing is taking constructive action in a timely manner,

The absence of worrying is most associated with having a positive balance of emotions.

33 I spend quite a lot of time worrying about the future.* 0.56
19 I spend quite a lot of time dwelling on what has gone wrong in the past.* 0.56
48 Even when I can’t do anything more about a problem I still worry about it a lot.* 0.52
38 When a negative thought enters my mind, I remind myself that it is just an interpretation of the situation. 0.43
41 If things don’t go well for me, I can’t lead a good life.* 0.42

Table 7:  Most active SABS ingredients in terms of emotions

# SABS Item Anger
19 I spend quite a lot of time dwelling on what has gone wrong in the past.* -0.46
33 I spend quite a lot of time worrying about the future.* -0.42
48 Even when I can’t do anything more about a problem, I still worry about it a lot.* -0.41
41 If things don’t go well for me, I can’t lead a good life.* -0.34
38 When a negative thought enters my mind, I remind myself that it is just an interpretation of the situation. -0.34
26 When I have a problem, I am good at taking constructive action in a timely manner. -0.33
15 I treat everyone fairly. -0.32

Table 8:  Most active SABS ingredients in terms of emotions

Dwelling on the past is most associated with anger.

 

Conclusions

These findings are particularly significant as they indicate the association of degrees of Stoicism with other qualities such as life satisfaction and anger. A key finding is that Stoicism is not associated with repressing anger and so it puts a lie to the “stiff upper lip” notion. It also gives participants comparative scores for SABS 5.0 and the anger scale, which were not available at the time they took part in Stoic Week

 They are taken from a large sample (1765 participants) of varying demographics and allegiance to Stoicism. They are however, a self-selecting sample and more likely to be allied to Stoicism than the general public. Moreover, since they are correlational they do not indicate the direction of causation. The next report in the series will provide information about how these measures change after participants have taken part in Stoic Week.

Tim LeBon is the author of Wise Therapy and Achieve Your Potential with Positive Psychology. He is a philosophical life coach with a private practice in London and also an accredited CBT psychotherapist working in the NHS. He is a founder member of the Modern Stoicism team.