Of Skunks, Sauerkraut and Stoicism: by Erik Knutzen and Kelly Coyne

My wife and I are “urban homesteaders” — that is to say, low-tech, low-rent Martha Stewarts. Urban homesteading is a DIY, self-reliance movement consisting of a wide constellation of activities, from edible gardening to home brewing, from keeping chickens to bread baking, from frugal living to community building. It’s an eminently practical lifestyle.

That practicality is why stoicism works so well as the philosophical operating system of urban homesteading. While Foucault and Hegel might help me navigate the epistemological frontier, when I’m staring at a carefully tended vegetable bed that just got destroyed by a skunk, you can bet I’ll reach for the Seneca.

Peaches in Erik’s and Kelly’s Garden

When you spend much of your time, as we do, rummaging around on the Island of Forgotten Skills, trying to teach yourself crafts long forgotten by your grandparents, you’re certain to run into setbacks, frustrations, and plenty of outright failure. The skunks, so to speak, are everywhere.

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Stoic Week Around the World

Stoic Week Around the World

Stoicism was marked out in antiquity for its cosmopolitan spirit. The Stoics claimed that, by nature, we are all inherently social beings, and that it is our duty to contribute to the welfare of humanity, or to the ‘common good’. ‘I am a citizen of the world’ was their motto.

And, in 2013, Stoic Week is happening all over the world, from Canada to India, from Ireland to Thailand. In this post, I survey some of the Stoic Week activity that has been going on this week.

First of all, let’s take a look at Stoic Week in the media.  Stoic Week was covered worldwide in different newspapers and news websites, from The Financial Times, Times Literary Supplement, Spectator, Daily Telegraph and Channel 4 in the UK, the Toronto Globe & Mail, Elle Magazine in Canada, the Delo in Slovenia, the Irish Times in Ireland, the Las Vegas Guardian Express and Top News US in America.

On the radio, Chris Gill spoke to BBC Wales (The Jamie Owen Show) and on the BBC Today programme with Angie Hobbs. Meanwhile, Patrick Ussher spoke on the BBC World Service (36.30-42.20), and Jules Evans debated Stoicism with Edith Hall and Mark Vernon on BBC Nightwaves (26.30-42.20). On Monday, when the World Service and Today programme interviews were broadcast, the blog had 25,000 hits and 1,200 extra sign-ups.

Events have been taking place worldwide too. In the UK, events were organised by Philosophy in Pubs, Kings College London, and Reading University. Workshops were also given to the NHS and to a group of Exeter MBA students interested in ethical business. Through social media, groups met in New York and in Canada in Montreal. In Ireland, and in Bangalore India too, events were held for Stoic Week.

Readers of the blog also contributed guest pieces for the wee – from pieces on Stoicism in Sport by a gap-year student, to Stoicism and Urban Homesteading, to Stoicism and Logotherapy, the therapy created by Victor Frankl, a survivor of the Holocaust.

Schools took part too, including  including Wellington, Shrewsbury, Brooke House Sixth Form College in London, St. Cuthberts, the James Allen Girls’ School, all in the UK, and also a school in the Netherlands, Hermann Wesselink College, and Jerudong School in Brunei.

Students in Brunei make laurels for Stoic Week!

Mike Hobbiss, the teacher who organised Stoic Week activities along with his students at Jerudong School wrote into the blog:

‘Today was ‘Think like a Stoic’ Day at Jerudong International School, Brunei. There’s a definite irony in how hard it is to remain stoic when organising a whole school event on Stoicism. The stresses of organisation were an excellent tool for testing out the ideas themselves! Acceptance was a real challenge when a key member of the organising committee was off sick, for example!The students took to the various Stoic-themed activities around school really well, and at the very least, they have had an experience of a very different world view than they might normally get. A very successful day.’ 

In addition, dozens of bloggers around the world have written about and participated in the events surrounding Stoic Week.  The link below leads to a Google Blog search that should display recent blog posts about Stoic Week:

Recent Blog Posts About Stoic Week 2013

Any other Stoic week events you attended which you think should be included here? Did you find any bloggers’ posts particularly inspiring? Post your thoughts below!


Features: Stoicism and Global Ethic for a Better Life

Today the Handbook explores the theme of Stoic philanthropy. To complement this, Professor Mark Pavliha of the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia, has written a thought-provoking piece on the Stoic ideal of the ‘community of humankind’, comparing the Stoic ideal with the purpose of the Global Ethic foundation, which posits the ‘the vision of a global transformation of ethical awareness: whether at a worldwide, national or local level, men and women are dependent on shared basic ethical values, criteria and attitudes for peaceful coexistence.’

Stoicism and Global Ethic for a Better Life 

Professor Marko Pavliha, Slovenia

Let me start with the three hypotheses which are indeed statements of facts, at least for those who can see and listen with their hearts.

Firstly, that humankind plays dangerously with its existence in many irresponsible ways, including the abyss between rich and poor, destruction of the environment and climate, lack of renewable energy, physical and psychological diseases, demographic explosion, wars, terrorism and other violence, discrimination, racism, corpocracy, patocracy, partitocracy and so forth.

Secondly, that in order to survive we must reach a higher level of consciousness; the process depends primarily on each individual, the healthy family and continuous holistic, ethical upbringing and education. There is a frightening and at the same time promising quote attributed to André Malraux: “The 21st Century will be spiritual, or it will not be.”

Thirdly, that it is also the politics in all spheres, from the cities and municipalities to regions, countries and international community, which is responsible for “the politics of well-being”. Antagonism between left and right political groups ought to be overcome by civic society with independent, non-party parliamentary members, ministers and other functionaries which will establish a connecting “triple”, moving the political pendulum from egoistic parties towards the people.  Politicians should serve the people and not vice versa, or according to Carne Ross, we need “the leaderless revolution” with ordinary people taking power and changing politics. A political renaissance and enlightenment shall lead to a modern, third millennium legislation and policies as the basis for humanized educational programs in kindergartens, primary and secondary schools and universities. Upbringing is much more than mere lecturing on countless pieces of information, it is about academic excellence, moral integrity and kindness.

So how can we improve our minds and hearts?

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Day Six of the Stoic Life: How's it going?

Everyone please feel free to comment below and share your experiences from the sixth day of Stoic Week!

Please post on anything to do with your practice of Stoicism today. Some questions you might consider to help with this:

  • How did the morning reflective text by Marcus help to set your intentions for the day?
  • How did you cultivate philanthropy today? Did you find it easy or hard?
  • How central to Stoicism do you think is philanthropy and doing good to others?
  • Do you have any questions?

If you are blogging about the week, or if you are doing a video diary, please also feel free to post links to those below.

Features: 'I think every child should learn Stoic philosophy' : Conversation with John Lloyd

 New to Stoicism Today? Check out Stoic Week 2014, Nov. 24th-30th!

This article first appeared on Stoicism Today as part of Stoic Week 2013, a week in which over 2,000 people worldwide followed this Handbook for daily living, which modernised the ancient Stoic philosophy as a way of life….

Jules Evans interviews John Lloyd, the TV producer behind Not the Nine O’Clock News, Blackadder, Spitting Image and QI, talking about how ancient philosophy helped him to get through five years of depression.

How did you come across Stoic philosophy?

I’d had 10 years of unalloyed success as a TV producer in the 1980s – I’d made three blockbuster telly shows, I’d got married, I had two children, two houses, two cars, one whole wall of my office covered in awards, I had money, I was in decent health. And then on Christmas Eve 1993, I woke up and couldn’t see the point of anything. It was like running into a wall. I’d had a couple of really awful betrayals, which seemed to happen to me serially – I’d help people then they’d shit all over me. I went right down the hole, became fantastically depressed, very angry and resentful, and spent a lot of time under my desk crying. I was a commercials director then, very successful. And the worst thing was I couldn’t understand why I was so unhappy because I had everything. I had no reason to be depressed.

So how did you cope?

The way I saw it was, I had to turn the same kind of determination and intelligence onto myself that I would normally apply to my programming.  I set out out quite specifically to look for the meaning of life. I needed to find a better reason to go on living than the usual one, which is ‘he who dies with the most toys win’. That didn’t work for me anymore, I’d got the toys and they weren’t satisfying to me. Let’s see if anyone has any better ideas.

I started reading frantically.  I started with physics, I learned about quantum mechanics, and it astonished me. I learned what E=MC2 means for the first time – that matter is equivalent to energy and there’s nothing solid there really. Then I read The Agony and Ecstasy, about the life of Michelangelo. And in there it mentions how the Medici wanted to recover the wisdom of the ancients, particularly Pythagoras. I thought he was the guy who invented the triangle. I discovered he was one of the greatest philosophers in history. I thought: that’s it! My God! I’ve discovered Pythagoras, no one else knows about this. I went to Foyles, to the Classics section, and said rather smugly, ‘do you have any books on sixth and fifth century BC Athens’, thinking there would hardly be anything, and he pointed, there was a whole wall on those two centuries in Greece. I staggered back, thinking it would take ten lifetimes to read all that, and that it’s too late at 42.

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Day Five of Stoic Week: How's it going?

Everyone please feel free to comment below and share your experiences from the fifth day of Stoic Week!

The First Book of the Meditations 

Please post on anything to do with your practice of Stoicism today. Some questions you might consider to help with this:

  • How did the practise of preparing for adversity, or for a difficult event, go?
  • Did you use the audio recording for it? How was that?
  • How has the consistent practice of the morning and evening meditations helped this week?
  • Do you have any questions?

If you are blogging about the week, or if you are doing a video diary, please also post links to those below.

The Philosophy of Stoic Mindfulness by Patrick Ussher

Buddhism and Stoicism share much in common, whilst also having enough differences to give the practitioner versed in one tradition pause for reflection when encountering the other. Both Stoicism and Buddhism, especially in their more contemporary ‘engaged’ and non-renunciant forms, are highly pragmatic philosophies with a focus on the here and now. Marcus Aurelius, emperor of the Roman Empire (161-180 AD) whose private philosophical diary the Meditations survives, writes that ‘each man only lives in this present instant…all the rest either has been lived or remains in uncertainty’ (3.10). So too Thich Nhat Hanh:  one ought ‘to be aware that we are here and now, and the only moment to be alive is the present moment.’ The advice Marcus Aurelius gives himself will resonate with the Buddhist practitioner:

‘Every hour focus your mind attentively…on the performance of the task in hand, with dignity, human sympathy, benevolence and freedom, and leave aside all other thoughts. You will achieve this, if you perform each action as if it were your last…’ [2.5].

In this context, it is not surprising that, within Stoicism, something strongly akin to ‘mindfulness’ holds a central place. Epictetus, the ex-slave whose teachings survive in four volumes (the Discourses) and a condensed Handbook (Encheiridion), calls it prosoche, which can be translated as ‘attention’ [Discourses 4.12]. He reminds his students that prosoche is essential for living an ethical life, and that even less obviously important acts, such as singing or playing, can be done with prosoche. Indeed, its applications are unlimited. ‘Is there any part of life,’ he says, ‘to which prosoche does not extend?’ Maintaining prosoche is a vital part of Stoicism:

‘Do you not realize that when once you have let your mind go wandering, it is no longer in your power to recall it, to bring it back to what is right, to self-respect, to moderation?’ [4.12].

The importance of cultivating a focussed mind in Stoicism is reminiscent of the Buddha’s saying in the Dhammapada that ‘Not a mother, not a father will do so much….a well-directed mind will do us greater service’ (Dh.43). That something so similar to ‘mindfulness’ was central to what it took to be a Stoic is inherently fascinating. But, ‘hang on a minute!’ you might say. ‘The Stoics did not have anything like sitting meditation, anchoring awareness in sensations, or focussing on the breath – their version of mindfulness can’t be all that similar to Buddhist ‘mindfulness’, can it?’ Indeed, what we might call Stoic ‘mindfulness’ is something with its own distinctly Stoic purposes. So what is it that makes Stoic ‘mindfulness’ distinctively ‘Stoic’?

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A Stoic Search for Meaning: Stoicism and Viktor Frankl

‘A Sketch of the Stoic Influences on Viktor Frankl’s Logotherapy’

Stephen J. Costello, PhD.

For centuries, Stoicism was the most influential philosophy in the Graeco-Roman world. Founded by Zeno of Citium in the fourth century BC who taught from a stoa (a painted porch or colonnade) in Athens, it was to attract into its ranks men as diverse as Epictetus the slave, Seneca the lawyer and Marcus Aurelius the emperor. In the context of the Ancient classical Greek tradition, philosophy was understood to be a therapy of the soul and the site of spiritual exercises, persuasively argued for and highlighted by Pierre Hadot in his What is Ancient Philosophy? and Philosophy as a Way of Life.

It was Stoicism, arguably, that was the preeminent practical philosophy of the time. This older view of philosophy as praxis, as a care of the self or cure of the soul, may be traced back to Socrates’ maieutic method and more systematically to Plato’s understanding of the nature of philosophy itself (therapie der Seele). This applied interpretation was alive and well with the Stoics but ruptures in the Middle Ages and in modernity and returns in the nineteenth-century with Nietzsche and Kierkegaard and in the twentieth-century with various thinkers such as Viktor E. Frankl, Eric Voegelin, Jan Patocka, Michel Foucault, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and others who retrieve the ‘ancient consolation’. That said, there were some notable exceptions down the centuries such as Michel de Montaigne and the Earl of Shaftesbury.

Viktor E. Frankl

In this present paper, I want to state the case for some Stoic sources underlying Frankl’s logotherapy and existential analysis.

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Day Four of Stoic Week: How's it going?

Everyone please feel free to comment below and share your experiences from the fourth day of Stoic Week!

Please post on anything to do with your practice of Stoicism today. Some questions you might consider to help with this:

  • Did you manage to employ the maxim ‘we are not disturbed by events but by our opinions of events’ in the face of any difficult or stressful situations today? How did that go?
  • When in a stressful situation, did it help to examine your thoughts with the question: ‘what is up to me here’?
  • Who did you pick as your role model? And how did that help and in what situations?
  • How did you find the texts for reflection?

If you are blogging about the week, or if you are doing a video diary, please also post links to those below.