'Resolute Dreaming: How Stoics Hope' by Andrew Overby

Resolute Dreaming: How Stoics Hope

by Andrew Overby

A Stoic take on the now classic Obama 'Hope' Poster. Sourced here.
A Stoic take on the now classic Obama ‘Hope’ poster. Sourced here.

In the world of one’s own thoughts and dreams, the world can sometimes take on new and surprising dimensions: things can be brighter, more interesting, more elegant, even more fun and enjoyable. It’s great to be king. Things move faster and few real-world issues appear in focus enough to darken the pristine imagery of imagination. Dream speeds on as a hare, the world plods along like the slow-going tortoise. To mind the gap in between, human beings need philosophy.

The real world, where time can be measured in centuries or eons, is a place crystalline and perfect imaginings emerge as imperfect wooden forms even under ideal conditions. Hardly surprising is the fact that disillusionment is often the result. This is where the Stoics are uniquely qualified to help.

The Stoics wrote that the world is a place we happen to inhabit for a time, not a place we are destined to lord over or one whose direction we should expect to dramatically influence. It is better, they maintain, to know that while things happen, they do not necessarily happen to us.

Yet Stoics also profess a belief that human beings can and should take an active part in public life, whether as a leading figure, a military general or an administrator of some type, or simply as a concerned citizen upholding his or her own small end of an implicit social contract to better the public good, to paraphrase Seneca’s letter to Lucilius, who oversaw ancient Rome’s vital grain supply but worried about himself and devoting all his energies to public work. Whatever the role, just do the best possible with what you have control over.

A practical example might illuminate how Stoics rectify these ideas that seem to contradict each other. How do we actively live in the world without being ensnared by it?

To echo American general-turned-president Eisenhower, who believed no prewritten battle plan survives first contact with the enemy, how do we keep dreams alive upon contact with the real world?

Consider the now-famous Stockdale Paradox: Vice Admiral James Stockade of the U.S. Navy was held as the highest-ranking POW naval officer in North Vietnam for more than seven years.

Before his deployment, he had studied some Stoic philosophy, which meant he was better prepared for this struggle than many of his fellow POWs. Many consoled themselves with the thought they would be home by Christmas, or by spring, or before next winter, or that the war would surely end soon, or maybe there would be a prisoner exchange. Day by day, their expectations went unmet and their dreams were whittled down to nothing.

In large part, they didn’t survive, their mental health consumed by soul-crushing despair as year after year passed by without relief. This tells us something about what the denial of desperately held dreams can do even to strong and resilient men.

Stockdale had faith in his dream of returning home again but didn’t allow himself to tie his hope to an external circumstance over which he had zero control. Instead, he turned inward and focused on keeping his mind free and resilient even if his body was trapped in a cell.

This is how he kept his head above water and his spirit strong for the better part of a decade. The Stoic teacher Epictetus would be proud.

What Stockdale possessed was not quite optimism, but a profound sense that he would ultimately realize his dream, whether that time was near or far off. Other POWs in Vietnam may have been optimists; Stockdale was firm in his hopeful equanimity.

In 1992, when Stockdale was the vice presidential nominee on a third-party ticket with Ross Perot, his resolute dreaming surely helped him as well—his story of Stoic dreaming probably inspired many of the voters who made this effort the strongest third-party showing America had seen in nearly a hundred years.

Consider also any “overnight success story”making its way around today. Whether it is a newly famous musician or a sports figure just coming into public view, whether it is a famous example like the carmaker Tesla Motors led by serial entrepreneur Elon Musk, or even an entire field like the relatively new industry of 3-D printing, “overnight”really means years of work and patience other people are now finding out about. Like Stockdale, individuals like these labored long and hard to unite world with dream.

In fact, Mr. Musk’s other company, SpaceX, the most successful of the companies seeking to democratize access to space and which was the first company to dock with the International Space Station, provides a contemporary example of striving despite setbacks and of resilient hope in the face of opposition—in other words, a Stoical resolve to see a dream through to its fruition.

SpaceX failed in its first three rocket launch attempts, bringing it very close to its demise and giving truth to its naysayers’criticism. Just before it would have folded, the company’s fourth launch in 2008 was a soaring success and SpaceX was back in business, still relying on a “first principles”logical approach derived from probabilistic reasoning that would be right at home among philosophers in ancient Greece, one which says an important task must be done even if the odds of failure are high. Certainly nothing will change if nothing is tried.

SpaceX is currently trying to launch a reusable rocket from a barge at sea (which it has done) and then land the rocket back down on the barge, something that has yet to accomplished by anyone—ever. The company has endured several failures to achieve this goal already.

Instead of concluding that companies have no business competing with governments in rocketry or that it simply cannot yet be feasibly done, the company learns from its failed attempts and immediately sets about preparing for the next one. Its engineers and employees know that each step brings them closer to fulfillment of their mission and they continue to have faith. SpaceX, too, dreams resolutely—like Stockdale, like the Stoics—giving us a live-action view of philosophy in practice.

These examples are not the passing whims or wishes that must be separated from real dreams. They are not idle contemplations, but desperate hopes to increase the crawling tempo of this world. As Seneca wrote, you have time for what is most important in your life, but not including those many temporary things that can cloud your vision. These are not those.

Both Stockdale and SpaceX show us the importance of taking the long view—the longer your time span, the smaller problems feel and reality is easier to accept. In the long run, more desirable outcomes are probabilistic more than they are zero-sum deterministic affairs. Taking the long view can remind us that the cogs of this world most often move slowly.

These examples make clear what Stoics can offer: they give hope and calm in a world often full of trepidation and uncertainty, a sense of peace amid disorder. They represent a path for learning how to handle fear, failure, and rejection. The Stoics teach us how to do everything we can in pursuit of a goal, but to then let go of it.

Whether a prisoner’s release date or a company’s success is near or far, firm convictions and faith in the eventual outcome can carry the day.

The Stoic knows the fickleness of fortune but refuses to let this become an overwhelming barrier. The Stoic sees obstacles rise but refuses to stop trying to realize change, knowing that this is how things change, at whatever speed change may come. It is a cheery and rationally optimistic kind of resignation.

Where world and dream merge is in how a Stoic dreams: he or she dreams not by attaching expiration dates to perishable dreams but by patiently accepting that dreams must be held steadily while the world catches up.

Apart from time in New York City, where he attended university, and elsewhere, Andrew Overby has lived mostly in his native Texas. He spends his time thinking about technology, politics, and psychology. As a personal project, he’s reinventing the commonplace book for modern readers eager for deeper dialogue with the authors and wisdom they find most meaningful.

Release of O Estoicismo Hoje: Sabedoria Antiga para a Vida Moderna

‘O Estoicismo Hoje: Sabedoria Antiga para a Vida Moderna’ – Editato por Patrick Ussher e traduzio por Tais Paulilo Blauth.

Da ética estoica às emoções, de prefeitos estoicos e a atenção plena à filosofia prática, à criação dos filhos, à psicoterapia e às penitenciárias, de Star Trek e Sócrates a advogados estoicos, à literatura e ao viver estoico em geral, este livro apresenta uma coletânea abrangente de reflexões sobre como viver uma vida estoica hoje em dia. Você encontrará conselhos sobre como lidar com a adversidade, reflexões sobre a felicidade e a boa vida e depoimentos pessoais significativos de pessoas que colocam em prática o Estoicismo. Conhecerá também as ligações entre o Estoicismo e a psicoterapia, a meditação da atenção plena e as partes da cultura pop em que o Estoicismo surge inusitadamente. O livro será de interesse para acadêmicos e não acadêmicos, pois diz respeito às várias formas com que essa filosofia e modo de vida de 2300 anos permanece relevante para as preocupações e necessidades dos dias atuais.

Book is available for purchase here:

Apple Itunes: here.
Scribd: here.
Kobo: here.
Amazon Brazil: here.
Amazon US: here.

'How Stoicism Helped me Overcome Depression' by Andrew Overby

How Stoicism Helped me Overcome Depression

by Andrew Overby

Light at the end of the tunnel. Sourced here.
Light at the end of the tunnel. Sourced here.

We all start out wanting to change the world. Depressives hold onto this impulse longer than most, I think, and thus when the inevitable realization comes that we cannot, it hits home all the harder.

The realization that we are but players on the world stage and not its prime architect is one of those momentous but possibly subtle shifts in conscious awareness that separates some aspects of youth from adulthood, such an effect does it have. This is maybe one of the first intellectual brushes with human limitations.

Those prone to perfectionism and to dreaming big can be strongly affected. To simultaneously be a daylong dreamer and to know that one’s dreams of changing the world—by leveraging the force of one’s perceived destiny or willpower—are extremely unlikely to be borne out is to invite depressive thinking for a visit.

To some degree, this is my story. At 24, my adult life so far has consisted in some measure of making the circuit around the pull of this immense truth. I really have yet to reconcile the real world with the one I envision and the place in it I would wish for myself.

More than most, depressives would benefit from the words of prominent Stoics like the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius or like the former slave Epictetus. With his dichotomy of control in mind, we can keep before our mind’s eye that only some certain things are under our power to influence and others are beyond our ability to control. (In fact, I think the trichotomy of control introduced by William B. Irvine in A Guide to the Good Life is even better, with the addition of a third category in the middle for things we have some amount of control over). We must evaluate what control we have and learn to take comfort in letting go of that which we can’t influence.

This is exactly somewhere Stoic thinking can come in: Like those involved in the now-famous Quantified Self movement and who daily measure galvanic skin response, sleep patterns, diet, steps walked per day, among many possible metrics to score their own physical state, those able to with depressive tendencies or other negatively affecting mental health conditions need to monitor themselves.

This type of acknowledgement of what is ours to hold in our sovereign hands in contrast to those many things we cannot control at all seems to me like one area of Stoic practice that is rich with lessons for depressives—or anyone at all wanting to experience a bit more tranquility in daily life.

I have always read widely and in high school, having a passing familiarity with the well-known proper nouns of Western culture, I knew vaguely who the Stoics were. (I was impressionably taken with the fact that many prominent individuals had adopted at least parts of Stoicism for themselves—or at least had the desire to be seen in that light). I remember visiting the Clinton Library in Arkansas and hearing of the former president’s reverence for Marcus Aurelius’Meditations. It has sat in the back of my mind since those years.

More recently, I began exploring the Stoics’ wisdom in a more significant way, seeking to understand their beliefs and see what could be applied to my own life, which has included depression and the resulting missed opportunities and long-term underperformance that come with it. I had heard of comparisons with Buddhism and was eager to know more. I came across several books written for a general audience. Once I started reading, I was intrigued.

Here was a philosophy that tried to rationalize life, that did not seek to eliminate emotion or attachment but to instill a deep-seated appreciation for these by cultivating a kind of detached regard. It disregarded mass consumerism and the mad acquisition of new products simply to satisfy an urge for perpetual novelty. It has high regard for the entire human community, all of whose members makes up the cosmopolis to which the Stoics belong.

These philosophers emphasize duty and virtue, teaching practitioners to put themselves to their best use as rationally capable human beings as well as to seek excellence in the situations in life they find themselves in, whatever they might be—whether in, say, excelling in ruling an empire or excelling in teaching a classroom full of students. They urge equanimity in the face of life’s challenges. For my personality type and in light of my life experiences, Stoic thinking seems rather natural.

Turning Depression Into An Asset

If the test of Stoic thinking and ethics is how they are put into practice, then let me elaborate on a few practices that might prove valuable to others.

Actually, I think many who have dealt with depression or other mental health concerns will find themselves quite receptive to the contents of Stoicism. For them, and for anyone at all who’s interested in delving into fundamental insights into human psychology, it’s just a matter of hearing about the Stoics in an age that has largely relegated them to the sidelines.

Depressed people are rather self-aware; in fact, they are too self-aware, and too negatively so, often deriding themselves for small infractions of their own idealized standards, putting themselves down for not being perfect even in a world they recognize as being full of imperfections and human capital squandered.

Part of depression is fixating on failures in the past, ruminating continually on past events or circumstances and even drawing a kind of negative confidence from them. This type of thinking is antithetical to good outcomes at the present time, at least the vast majority of the time. It causes failure in the present, building a feedback loop whose hunger cannot be easily filled. One failure builds atop another, and now another.

Stoic thinking can help by teaching willing students how to separate past from present in the mind. To return to Epictetus’dichotomy of control, the past is something over which we have no control. We must learn how to mindfully control how we peer backward into the past and how to only do on our own terms when it may prove useful.

Depressives may also gain comfort by appreciating the Stoic injunction to treat adversity as a training ground for mental capacity and for resilience—generally speaking, for life. Focusing on what our response can be instead of what is happening to us, what is being done to us, what we cannot influence or have control over is the step needing to be taken by all individuals, depressed or otherwise, who wish to maintain a healthier balance in their daily living.

Enabled by Stoic habits, a depressive can turn this overly critical self-awareness into a strength. Having a clear-eyed vision of things as they really are (without losing tranquility) is quite an asset. Seeing reality rather than confirming only what we wish to see is a skill others would have to acquire. What’s known as “depressive realism”is a rough-cut diamond waiting to be fashioned into the glowing jewel that is a well-developed sense of resilience, one that can more easily withstand the slings and arrows of adverse circumstances.

Stoic empowerment extends to include both professional and personal concerns. It seems to me those with depression are less likely to be hypocritical than those who are not nor have been, as well as perhaps being less likely to tell lies. This is purely a subjective opinion, but being compelled to lay bare the emotional foundations of one’s mental state is going to produce more empathy, and be far less conducive to deceit or deception. In short, a depressed person is more likely to express honesty and empathy.

Empathy, for Stoics, is fundamental. With exercises like Hierocles’ Circle, expanding the realm of one’s concern outward from oneself to family, city, country, and then the world, and a commitment to acting in the public interest or taking part in public affairs, Stoicism prove itself like depression in the sense that integral to its patterns is a highly developed sense of empathy.

If empathy can be boiled down to a reasonable appreciation for the plight of another that goes deeper than surface-level social platitudes, then those with depression will naturally prove themselves capable in this manner. For others, the best way for a person to develop this empathetic skill-set might be with Stoic exercises. When it comes to emotional intelligence and empathizing, I think depressive actually have something others can learn from.  Where lessons await, however, is in empathizing without losing a level head, using emotion as a vital component of reason without ever subverting it.

This relates not to changing external events or happenings, but our responses to them. Changing the state of mind a person is in can be difficult (when it can be done), but realizing that it is only a representation of something rather than the thing itself can be a relief. Remembering that reactions differ from actual reality is vital.

Good habits can be a great help in maintaining mental health. Adapting to follow the best habits possible right now is an excellent step, allowing time for small steps to build up. Adaptation is powerful, and depressives are better suited for adapting than we often believe ourselves to be.

When depressing or frustrating thoughts come to mind, the thought substitution technique might work. This means turning an unhelpful thought into one more helpful at the time. A thought about a past event or a memory about an old acquaintance that proves troubling can be turned to something more constructive with mental discipline and practice. Perhaps an unhelpful urge to focus on something negative can be made into a trigger for a taking a positive action. Many have used memories like childhood bullying or some kind of past anguish to spur themselves onward to achieve goals as adults; this seems like a potentially helpful route for those seeking to align depressing history with Stoic virtue.

A very valuable Stoic practice is that of negative visualization. This exercise is about visualizing all the bad things that could happen, all the things that could go wrong, every wound that might be reopened, every point of vulnerability, every secret exposed to sunlight, every mistake turned into a major faux pas. For a depressed person, this might feel more like putting names to faces seen before, I think, than an entirely new experience. I imagine many others would find this exercise somewhat morbid, but I suspect many depressives would appreciate it.

The second component I would add to the negative visualization exercise is its counterpoint: gratitude. Imagine feeling grateful everyday. This is an excellent habit. Before sleeping, think about the day’s events, or something more permanent. Consider those who have prepared the way and laid the groundwork. This exercise is very useful.

Humility is also a valuable aspect of Stoic thinking. Being plain in appearance or diet is a mark of humility. Depressed people often feel they have been humbled, but there is value in translating that into a general, pervasive sense of modesty, when possible.

Remembering one’s own smallness in the larger context of the universe and all living things within it can be useful for alleviating some anxiety by providing some of the mental distancing from an immediate reaction or stressful situation that Stoic habits are meant to instill.

The final exercise I would offer is the headline rule: This practice is imagining one’s actions being displayed in the headline of a newspaper—presumably, one that everyone reads. It is simple, and easy to conceptualize. This is like the spotlight effect—except pretend that everyone truly is going to be watching and discussing. If something would not look good on the front page of a newspaper, it might not be a virtuous action.

What all of the above ultimately come down to is making active choices. At best, passivity is neutral—if it does not actually worsen or prolong matters. This is not always possible, yet engaging in some series of actions—really, making a series of choices—is all a person can reasonably try to hold himself or herself responsible for. If there is anything that Stoics can teach those with mental health concerns, it is that employing reason can lift some of the burden.

References & Recommendations:

Hadas, M., The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca: Essays and Letters. W.W. Norton & Company, 1968.

Evans, Jules. Philosophy For Life and Other Dangerous Situations: Ancient Philosophy for Modern Problems. New World Library, 2012.

Irvine, William B., A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. Oxford University Press, 2009.

Ussher, Patrick. (eds.), Stoicism Today: Selected Writings Volume One. 2014

Apart from time in New York City, where he attended university, and elsewhere, Andrew Overby has lived mostly in his native Texas. He spends his time thinking about technology, politics, and psychology. As a personal project, he’s reinventing the commonplace book for modern readers eager for deeper dialogue with the authors and wisdom they find most meaningful.

Announcing Stoic Week 2015

Announcing Stoic Week 2015

Modern-day Meditations on Marcus Aurelius

2nd – 8th November

Stoic Week 2015

Do not act as if you were going to live for a thousand years… while you are alive, while it is still possible, become a good person. – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Enrol Now…

You can now enrol for Stoic Week 2015 at the website below, using the enrolment key “Marcus” (without the quotes).

Modern Stoicism

Follow our Twitter account @Stoicweek or see our Facebook group for more information.  See below for further contact details.

What is Stoic Week?

Stoic Week is an online and international event taking place this year from Monday 2nd to Sunday 8th November.  2015 will be the fourth year in a row that Stoic Week has run.  Anyone can participate by following the daily instructions in the Stoic Week 2015 Handbook, which will be published online. You will be following the practice of Stoic philosophers for seven days.  You will also be discussing the experience of adapting Stoic ideas for modern living with other participants in our online forums. The aims of the course are to introduce the philosophy so that you can see how it might be useful in your own life and to measure its psychological benefits.  This year’s  theme is The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, the most widely-read of all Stoic authors.

What is Stoicism?

Stoicism is an ancient Graeco-Roman school of philosophy.  It has an emphasis on practical training and lifestyle changes aimed at improving our moral character and psychological wellbeing.  The Stoic school was founded around 300 BC by Zeno of Citium.  At the core of Stoicism is the idea that virtue, or strength of character, is the most important thing in life. The  central doctrine of Stoicism is that we should ‘follow Nature’.  This means perfecting our own rational nature as human beings, through developing the cardinal virtues: wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation.  It also entails expressing our social nature as human beings,  by involvement in family life and society and by treating all human beings as brothers and sisters. So Stoicism is simultaneously a philosophy of inner strength and outer excellence.  Many people today are interested in Stoicism because of its similarities to modern self-help literature and its influence upon the evidence-based psychological strategies employed in cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT).

What sort of Course is it?

The course guides you through all the basic ideas of Stoicism. Each day has its own theme, exercises to practise,  and reflections from original Stoic texts to consider. It has been written by the Stoicism Today team, an interdisciplinary group of academics and psychotherapists. You are also encouraged to take wellbeing surveys before and after the week, so we can measure the effectiveness of the course.

How can I Share my Experience of Stoic Week?

There will be very active discussion boards during Stoic Week on the course website. You can also share your reflections  via social networks via our Stoicism Twitter account, and our Facebook and Google+ groups.

How can I Meet Other People Interested in Stoicism?

If you live in the UK, there is a one-day conference being held at Queen Mary, University of London, on Saturday  November 7th. There are 300 places available, so you should book now to avoid disappointment.  Videos and audio recordings of this event are planned, and will be uploaded on to the Stoicism Today website in the weeks that follow Stoic Week. You can see a video of last year’s London event: Stoicism Today Conference.

Tickets are available here. Further details are available on the relevant post, to be found here.

There are also other events being organised around the world. Get in touch  if you are organising an event and would like it listed on the blog.

What Were the Findings of Last Year’s Study?

Last year, around 2,500 people took part in Stoic Week worldwide. Our findings supported the view that Stoicism is  helpful. Participants reported a 16% improvement in life satisfaction, a 10% increase in flourishing, a 11% increase in positive emotions and a 16% reduction in negative emotions. We developed a special Stoic Attitudes and Behaviours Scale (SABS), which showed increases in Stoic attitudes (12%) and behaviours (15%) in the course of the week. It also showed a consistently positive relationship between adopting Stoic attitudes and behaviours and improvements in well-being.

What about Stoicism in Schools and Universities?

Are you a teacher or lecturer who might be interested in Stoic Week?  Why not download the Stoic Week booklet and share it with your students to try out Stoicism for a week, and invite them to write up their experience for the blog….

Stoicism in the Media

In previous years there has been a lot of media interest in Stoic Week and Stoicism in general.  If you would like to run a feature on Stoic Week, please get in touch. You can read of the previous media interest in Stoic Week on our Stoicism  Today blog.

Please share this page with anyone you think might be interested.  You can post it on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and other social networks.

How can I Contact the Stoicism Today team about Stoic Week 2015?









Subscribe to the Stoic Week 2015 calendar for updates:

Right here – WordPress


Make sure to subscribe to the blog (subscription box in the upper right-hand corner of the blog) to ensure you receive further information about how to register for Stoic Week and to download the 2015 booklet closer to the time.

'In Praise of Rationality' by Alister Cox

In Praise of Rationality

by Alister Cox

Editor’s Note: Alister Cox explores his own intellectual and philosophical journey over the last 60 years, ranging from Christianity to Epicureanism and finally culminating in his interests in Stoicism.

All this talk of Stoicism, not least the debate it has launched about whether its modern devotees constitute a ‘religion’, has struck in me a double chord. First, I was brought up in a profoundly Christian home. Second, a study of the Greco-Roman world was the staple not only of my education but of the first half of my career in the teaching profession. Unsurprisingly, from my youth right through to my retirement (which began 20 years ago), I have been fascinated by the interface between those two mighty systems: they have shaped our world for two millennia, but do not sit comfortably together. My personal explorations of that ‘discomfort’ have extended over 60 years and touch on Stoicism at several points.

[1] The challenge to Christian belief. I was an earnest youth and imbued not only with devout Christian beliefs but with the notion that such beliefs should be subjected to rigorous rational scrutiny. I can be seen to have worked hard at this by some learned talks I delivered, all of them drawing on things I knew or hastily researched about the Greco-Roman world. At school, without even meaning to be provocative, I discoursed on ‘Christianity, the step-child of Paganism’, finding how extensively it was influenced by the polytheistic culture into which it was introduced. At Oxford (under the title ‘Christ, Culture and Compromise’) I analysed the profound tensions between Christian and Greco-Roman thought-patterns, expecting to ‘disturb’ my biddable audience but scarcely foreseeing that the most ‘disturbed’ by it all would later be me! The choice in its simplest form was between a God-centred and a Man-centred perspective, and I must have enjoyed quoting Tertullian, whose stance was proclaimed with truculent clarity: ‘What is there in common between Athens and Jerusalem? What between the Academy and the Church? What between heretics and Christians? Away with all projects for a ‘Stoic’, a ‘Platonic’ or a ‘dialectic’ Christianity! After Jesus Christ we desire no subtle theories.’ I probably already knew that I was on the side of ‘subtle theories’.

A few years later I had to admit to myself (to my huge relief, it must be said) that I had deserted the Christian fold, and in semi-public recognition of this I found a sufficiently friendly audience before which to explore yet another aspect of the battle-lines surrounding the Christian creed, this time those which define moral ideals. Under the quizzical title ‘To do as Rome does?’ this was published by the journal Greece and Rome – precisely 50 years ago in fact. I prefaced it along lines which rather defined my little world: ‘Anyone faced with religious doubts is also faced with the problem of morality in the following form: he is likely to be told that if he abandons the religion he must abandon the moral aspirations, which he will no longer have motive or means to fulfil. An intelligent doubter must ask himself if this is true.’ The scene was thus set for my account of what I called ‘Roman morality’, the complex of ideals which in the pre-Christian world constituted what the Romans called virtus (bravery, toughness, energy, self-reliance, self-control). This is where Stoicism came in: explaining that ‘intellectual Romans had by the first century BC superimposed on their traditional national ethic a philosophy which a Greek had invented but which might have been tailor-made for the Roman temperament and moral outlook’, I deployed a quote from Marcus Aurelius which still means much to me: ‘The business of life is more like wrestling than dancing, for it requires us to stand ready and unshakeable against every assault however unforeseen’.  Asking why this Stoic creed of tough self-sufficiency went out of vogue, I suggested that it succumbed to Christianity, a faith which preached human non-self-sufficiency, man’s inability to face the problems which beset him; ‘the assertion of self’ in Christian thinking is the archetypal sin.

[2] Lucretius Stoicism went down well with the Romans as a ‘guide to the good life’, but alongside it (and generally seen as radically different) was the school of thought founded by Epicurus and projected with passionate enthusiasm by Lucretius. My experience of this great Roman poet started in school but was strongly reinforced at university and remained steadily with me as I learned to deploy his striking argumentation in the classroom. My most original experiment was probably to introduce him to teenage youngsters, choosing for them passages in relatively simple Latin and concentrating on his treatment of the physical world, where his approximations to modern scientific thought are frequently astonishing. When I managed to get a set of such passages published (‘Lucretius on Matter and Man’), they turned out to be controversial in some quarters because I had not included one of his greatest ‘purple passages’ – the account, told with scornful indignation, of Agamemnon’s slaughter of his own daughter at the behest of the gods. My supposition had been that his savage conclusion (tantum religio potuit suadere malorum, ‘such are the heights of evil to which religion has driven men’) was too strong a meat for youngsters – which may say more about me than about them in the 1960s. I remembered the coy way in which school textbooks had side-stepped the thrust of the author’s indignation, translating religio as ‘superstition’ – which I find to my astonishment is how it’s rendered in the Penguin version. I don’t doubt that religio to Lucretius meant what it means to us: he had no time for it, and made it clear that any gods in his scheme of things could have no interest whatsoever in human behaviour, let alone attempt to pervert it; they are too busy enjoying that trouble-free calm which most earthly mortals strive for in vain.

If I have been influenced by Lucretius in my own philosophy of life, it is not only for his hostility to religion but for his countless ‘proofs’ in Book 3 that we mortals are truly mortal: with death our elements disperse, including those finer particles which compose our ‘spirit’ (anima). This was part of his crusade to rid men of their fears and anxieties, which clustered notably around the unknowns of an afterlife: if we accept his account of the state of mind of his contemporaries, we must deduce that they were as terrified of what lay beyond the grave as was the common man of later Christendom. In my own upbringing those medieval fears had been replaced by a much more utopian heavenly vision, but my own considered reaction was, first, to disbelieve even that sanitised version (in the name of the harsh physical realities laid out by Lucretius), and then to learn to relish that disbelief, unsure how one could enjoy eternity. Apparently this is unusual: more Brits believe in an afterlife than believe in God!

In all this I haven’t at all forgotten Stoicism. It’s true that amongst its many divergences from the rival Epicurean school we must count the place it reserved (a) for the Divine, even if vaguely and pantheistically conceived, and (b) for an afterlife, even if only for the privileged few who count as the saintly ‘wise men’. But my recent flicking through of Seneca’s ‘Moral Essays’ (the most exhaustive, if not the most edifying, of Roman sources for Stoicism) has clarified for me the clear gulf which separates him from the religious creeds which now compete for our attention: for him, God or gods there may be (or may not be, he seems not much to mind), but crucially he agrees with Lucretius that the Divine brings no demands to bear upon mankind. That’s why for me Stoicism Today can only be a ‘philosophy’, not a ‘religion’, and why I was rather reassured to read of the number of ‘atheists’ it has recruited.

[3] In praise of rationality  I come at last to what readers of this are likely to regard as a central concern – the role of ratio (‘reasoning’) in the management of life, rationality as a trusted tool.The concept holds a place of honour in both the Roman systems of this study – not surprisingly when each traces its ancestry to that teasing propagator of rational enquiry, Socrates. I’ll start with the Epicureans and Lucretius, whose De Rerum Natura is a masterly construct of the mind. In the Prologues to each of his six Books (of which I did a study published in Greece & Rome in 1971) he treats poetically of the range of fears and anxieties which make of man’s life a misery; there then follows, making up the bulk of each Book, a lengthy technical discourse designed to allay such anxieties through scientific insight; and as the hinge between these two sections we find (no less than four times) an identical three-line formula of transition. These lines are of such primary importance that they deserve to be quoted here in the Latin:

Hunc igitur terrorem animi tenebrasque necesse est
                        non radii solis neque lucida tela diei
                        discutiant, sed naturae species ratioque.

The gist of this is as follows: our spiritual angst (terror animi), akin to dark clouds (tenebrae), needs the equivalent of bright sunlight (radii solis) to chase it away, namely (a) observation of the natural world, and (b) correct reasoning about it (as near as I can get to naturae species + the all-important ratio). It’s precisely what we would call a ‘scientific approach’, but Lucretius is also a poet and loves playing with the vivid images of light out of darkness: what man needs is the bright light of reason – rational elucidation, intellectual enlightenment.

It’s an ambitious project but one which was well understood in the ancient world, where what had to count depended not on some divine revelation but on the best that man could manage for himself – and his best, they reasonably argued, was his brain-power, his mastery of language and thought. This was above all the credo of the Stoics, who liked (it is true) to reinforce it with some sort of cosmic link (God as Ratio writ large) but expected no heavenly support for what was essentially a human project. I’m reminded of the modernist shift in Christian theology where the vague tenet ‘God is Love’ is reinterpreted as a concealed moral imperative (‘go out and love one another’): it suited the Stoics equally to feel that their chosen priority was written in the skies. But since the aim thus defined is to ‘cultivate rational calm’ there’s a striking difference from the Christian precept: you don’t need to ‘go out’ to do it.

This aspect of Stoicism understandably raises some questions for many would-be ‘modern Stoics’, whether or not under specifically Christian influence: that’s all very well, we find them saying, but what about concern for others? Seneca felt bound to answer that identical charge from some of his contemporaries, but he was not particularly apologetic about it. He insisted for example that pity was a spiritual malady (aegritudo animi), incompatible with the target of a mind at peace (serena mens). Equally threatening to it, he argued, were such emotions as excessive grief: ab amara quadem libidine dolendi animus recipiendus est, ‘the mind needs to be rescued from any kind of morbid pleasure in grieving’.

[4] Stoicism Today & CBT I have tried to hint throughout that my thoughts about the above collection of subjects took shape a long time ago when I was a young man, feeling my way both in my studies and in my life.The effect on me may have been permanent, contributing to what in retrospect looks like a ‘philosophy of life’, but for decades any precise thought about it all has been left on the back burner. Hence the big surprise to be suddenly confronted in these recent times with vivid recalls of what I once thought and felt, coming at me with all the trappings of modernity – and near-simultaneously from two seemingly diverse sources.

The first was my chance glimpse of Stoicism Today in action: a crowded amphitheatre of enthusiasts giving it a try, ready to identify the relevance to them of ideas first floated nearly 2½ millennia ago. As I thereafter followed their internal debate, I have been struck by certain distinct varieties of approach: were we seeing the emergence of differing ‘schools’ within this new allegiance, not without signs of acrimony on the borderlines? Some may be looking for ancient wisdom to fill a vacuum left by a Christianity in retreat: they worry if their new fidelity can’t be called a ‘religion’ – which to my thinking it cannot. Some may be more than happy to call themselves both Christian and ‘Stoic’, sweeping aside all reminders of the ‘humbleness before God’ which was expected of sinful mankind: I even wonder if this is a typically trans-Atlantic posture – in keeping with a ‘yes-we-can’ philosophy which has a Stoic feel to it.  Others evidently hope that this rediscovered creed will at least offer a place for regular prayer-like meditation – an admirable project of course but not one which need depend on the little-known habits of the Stoics of old. For me it is enough to feel that some of these pre-Christian ideas have contributed to my ‘philosophy of life’ without constituting for me either a ‘religion’ or a call to daily meditation.  ‘Philosophies’ are personal and private, whereas religious allegiance is by nature and tradition a public and social commitment.

Another big group, I began to understand, is interested in Stoicism as therapy. It surprises me if they believe they are following a lead explored by the Greco-Roman Stoics (for which I know no evidence), but of course it’s all to the good if ideas deriving from the ancient world can contribute to an eclectic approach to modern psychotherapy. This brings me to the second of my eye-opening discoveries of recent years, resulting from the experience within my family of depressive episodes needing professional care. I quickly learned that modern practice is almost equally divided between drug-treatment, designed to rectify the body chemistry, and something which is simply known as CBT, which looks for active cooperation from the person affected. I found myself initially puzzled by the acronym: T (‘therapy’) I could do, and BT (‘behavioural therapy’) was conventional wisdom, but what was the C? ‘Cognitive’, I was told, and my first reaction was puzzlement: it seemed poles apart from ‘behavioural’. I learned that indeed it is – and with a belated flash of insight I saw that this semi-technical label ‘cognition’ refers to a procedure well-rehearsed in the pre-Christian world, that of bringing the mind systematically to bear on problems before they threaten one’s serenity. The originators of CBT knew this full well: their aim was to put modern practice firmly in line with the tenets of ancient Stoicism. My contribution has been to argue that an almost comparable case can be made for Lucretius, as champion of a supposedly rival school.

Rationality is the unifying bond. The principle was never more simply expressed than by Seneca: adhibe rationem difficultatibus – ‘bring the mind to bear upon your problems’. Easier said than done of course, but there’s copious advice available, not least from Stoicism Today!

Biographical note – or autobiographical, since the author has been invited to draft it! Here are some precisions of points left vague in the above. Family background: Father a Methodist minister, but generously tolerant of his son’s eventual ‘aberrations’. Schooling:  Kingswood School, Bath – which provided boarding education in those days for large numbers of such ‘sons of the manse’. It managed to combine its Christian ‘mission’ with a resolute pursuit of academic excellence. University: thanks to the above I found myself arriving at Oxford as a Scholar of New College, there to study that marvellous combination of Classics and Philosophy which was known as ‘Mods & Greats’. Career:  Having used Classics as a passport into teaching, I later branched out and ended up as Headmaster of the Royal Grammar School, Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Retirement: By a surprise twist I moved with my wife to France, where we have spent a very happy 20 years. One fruit of that period has been the preparing of lectures on French culture and politics for groups of the Alliance Française. A common element in my intellectual explorations over 60 years has been an interest in the History of Ideas.

STOICON 2015 – Tickets Now Available To Book


The third annual conference from the Stoicism Today team


Click HERE to book your tickets!

Important information

Date: 7th November 2015

Location: The Francis Bancroft building, Queen Mary University Mile End road campus. See map here – it’s building number 31.

Registration starts at 8.15 AM and the first talk commences at 9 AM.

Speakers and Workshop Leaders

William Irvine, author, A Guide to the Good Life

Bettany Hughes, presenter of BBC series ‘Geniuses of the Ancient World‘

Massimo Pigliucci, author of How To Be A Stoic blog, organizer of New York Stoic Camp, and author of forthcoming book on modern Stoicism

Emily Wilson, author of The Greatest Empire: A Life of Seneca

Vincent Deary, author of How We Live trilogy

Christopher Gill, editor of editions of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius

John Sellars, author of Stoicism

Donald Robertson, author of The Philosophy of CBT

Jules Evans, author of Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations

Tim LeBon, author of Wise Therapy

Others will be announced soon!

The day’s talks and workshops will run from 9 to 5, with lunch and tea and coffee provided. Then, from 5.30 to 7.30 there will be a drinks reception in the beautiful Octagon Room at Queen Mary. All food and drink is inclusive in the £30 ticket price.

There will be an opportunity for delegates to present their own work on modern Stoicism / practical philosophy in a poster session during lunch. If you’d like to do that, email Jules Evans at jules.evans@mac.com.

There are also a limited number of free tickets for volunteers to help us out with the running of the day – email Jules Evans at the address above to get involved. 

Note: Stoic Week the online course will also be running that week. More details soon.

Click HERE to book your tickets!

'The Grey Garden: On the Stoic Use of Material Goods' by Sherman J. Clark

The Grey Garden: On the Stoic Use of Material Goods

by Sherman J. Clark

As here. Sourced here.
Sourced here.

Imagine that you live with many others in a dreary grey garden surrounded by a high stone wall. You and the others live there permanently. This is your world. You know or suspect that there is larger world outside your wall; but since you can never leave the garden, pragmatic members of your community do not give it much thought.

Fortunately, the drab dullness of your world is relieved by the presence of many brightly-painted wooded boxes. Some are blue, some red, some with elaborate multi-colored patterns. Naturally, these bright boxes have become objects of desire in the grey garden. People compete for them, display them, measure status by their accumulation, and become experts on the relative aesthetic merits of differently-colored boxes.

You do not have much interest in brightly-colored boxes, really; but since they seem to be the best or only thing going, you stave off melancholy by trying to get in the spirit. Why be a wet blanket? Perhaps you call them “preferred indifferents” and try to take whatever pale hollow pleasure can come from bright empty things. Besides, that is how people reckon success in your world; and no one wants to be a failure. Perhaps you are able even to develop or display some worthwhile virtues through how carefully or cleverly you collect and arrange your boxes—much as Epictetus suggested one can make use of an otherwise-pointless game of ball. You remain aware, however, that they are still just empty boxes; and you wish there were something more. Your grim and walled-in world seems to you “weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable.” But you are a modern Stoic pragmatist, not a moody Danish prince; so you carry on, finding what meaning and pleasure you can in your grey garden and its bright boxes.

Then you discover something. If you carry two or three boxes—any two or three—over by the garden wall and stack them on each other, you can stand on them. And if you stand on them, you can see over the wall. And what you see there takes your breath away.

Much more beautiful. Sourced here.
Sourced here.

Over the wall you see an astonishing world of rich complexity and beauty, next to which your painted boxes pale in comparison. The sight of that remarkable larger world fills you with the deep and deeply-human pleasure of awareness and understanding. New and wonderful things are revealed to you every day, offering a rich and never-ending spectacle of layered depth and order. And you begin to appreciate as well how your small grey garden fits into the larger world and is part of an exquisite pattern—beyond your ken, but beautiful. You know you will never see or comprehend all of it—and that you will thus never grow weary of what you see.

You no longer need to stave off melancholy. And you certainly no longer care about or even give a thought to the rewards or honors that your world offers to those who collect the most or brightest boxes. All you want or need are a few sturdy ones, any color will do, because you now know what they are good for—what even empty things can sometimes help you see.

Sherman J. Clark is a Professor of Law at The University of Michigan Law School