Interview with Donald Robertson

Interview with Donald Robertson, one of the founding members of Modern Stoicism, about his work on the team, organizing the Stoicon and Stoicon-x Toronto events, running the Stoic Week and SMRT courses, and developing SABS.

Donald Robertson hardly needs any introduction – but I’ll give him one here anyway!  He was one of the founding members of the Modern Stoicism team and project, long before it became formally structured as an organization.  He has made a number of important contributions to modern interpretation and application of classic Stoic philosophy, authoring several highly popular books, creating the Stoic Week meditation mp3 sound files, collaborating on the Stoic Week handbook , hosting the yearly Stoic Week and Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training online classes, writing hundreds of blog posts, providing talks and workshops. . . .

On top of all of that, Donald started and moderates the Facebook Stoicism group – which now has nearly 25,000 members – and took on the task of organizing this years’ Stoicon and Stoicon-x conferences in Toronto.  He has been interviewing the other speakers who will be giving talks and workshops at STOICON, and it is about time that our readers got to hear from Donald himself in that series of interviews.  So, here it is!

Q: Donald, do you want to begin by saying a bit about yourself and your involvement with Stoicism?

Thanks.  Well, I studied philosophy at Aberdeen University a long time ago, then did a masters in philosophy and psychotherapy at Sheffield University’s Centre for Psychotherapeutic Studies before training as a counsellor and psychotherapist and becoming a supervisor and trainer of other therapists.  I went on to write several books about psychotherapy, self-help, and philosophy.  My special area of interest is Stoicism and its relation to cognitive-behavioural therapy, and also to modern evidence-based self-help approaches.  

After leaving university, back in 1996, I discovered the Stoics and gradually began writing articles on Stoicism and giving talks about it at conferences.  Stoicism was a big revelation to me, and I found it invaluable in my work with clients as a cognitive therapist.  Then in 2005, I wrote an article on Stoicism and psychotherapy for one of the main British counselling journals.  I was then invited to write a book called The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy, which surveys all the psychological techniques found in Stoicism and compares them to similar ones found in modern cognitive therapy.  A lot of people asked me for a self-help guide to Stoicism in plain English, so I then wrote two books about Stoicism for Hodder’s Teach Yourself series: Build Your Resilience and Stoicism and the Art of Happiness.  

I’m a “techniques guy” in therapy – I specialise in cognitive and behavioural skills training.  Stoicism appeals to me because it contains an astounding armamentarium of psychological techniques, which are similar to those proven to be effective by research on modern cognitive therapy.  However, Stoicism is not merely a therapy, it’s something much more than that, a whole philosophy.

Q: What are you working on now?

For the past five years or so, I’ve been involved with the Modern Stoicism project.  I design and deliver the online courses called Stoic Week and Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT) and I’m also organizing the main Stoicon 2017 conference in Toronto, and also Stoicon-x Toronto.  At the moment, I’m doing research for a new book on Marcus Aurelius and his use of Stoicism, and I design my own online courses on Stoicism as well.  We also just announced the free Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT) 2017 online course, last night, and hundreds of people have already enrolled in advance.  (People should enrol now if they want to take part but the course officially begins on 16th July 2017.) 

Q: What is Modern Stoicism?

Modern Stoicism is a non-profit and philanthropic project that’s run by a multidisciplinary team of academic philosophers and classicists, and psychologists and cognitive therapists.  It includes some well-known authors in the field of Stoicism, including Professor Christopher Gill, of Exeter University, who founded the project along with his PhD student, Patrick Ussher.  I was one of the original members of the team and I’ve been involved ever since it started.  

Our main activities are published on this website and through social media, such as our @stoicweek Twitter account.  We run the Stoicon conference and Stoicon-x spin-off event each year.  We also run the Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT) online course.  However, our main activities are probably the Stoicism Today blog (run by Greg Sadler) and the Stoic Week online course, which I run with help from other members of the team.  

We also gather data on the effects of Stoic psychological training, using various outcome measures, and we publish the (anonymous) results as online reports.  We’ve been lucky enough to have our work covered throughout the media, including all of the British broadsheet newspapers, BBC radio, Forbes magazine, and many other newspapers and magazines around the world.

One thing I want to stress about Modern Stoicism is that it’s in no way separate from traditional or ancient Stoicism.  It’s intended to be inclusive so we welcome everyone who’s interested in Stoicism, whatever their background or orientation.  That includes religious Stoics, as well as atheistic or agnostic Stoics, or even people who know nothing about Stoicism and are just curious.  Basically, if you’re interested in Stoicism and didn’t die more than four hundred years ago then you’re a “Modern Stoic.”

Q: What is Stoicon?

Stoicon is an international conference on applying Stoicism to modern life, which we run each year, around October or November.  It was originally held in London, but now moves around different locations.  Last year it was held in New York City, and this year it’s going to be in Toronto, in Canada.  We have some of the leading authors in the field of Stoicism lined up to speak this year, and the theme is “Stoicism at Work”.  We also have a variety of parallel workshops and talks, which delegates can choose between.  I think it’s fair to say it’s really the main conference-type event on Stoicism that you can attend in person.  We’re expecting around 400 people to attend this year from all around the world.  Our keynote speaker, Professor Margaret Graver is a well-known academic and an expert on Stoicism and emotion so we’re all really looking forward to hearing her speak.

Q: What is Stoicon-x?

Stoicon-x events are held in different parts of the world.  They’re an opportunity for people to attend face-to-face in their own areas, as part of Stoic Week.  We have put together a set of helpful guidelines for anyone who would like to organize a Stoicon-x event.  We’re even holding one in Toronto this year, the day after the main Stoicon conference.  So if you’re really into Stoicism you can have a whole weekend of talks and workshops in Canada this year!  

One of the things we’re introducing this year is the idea of lightning talks.  These are brief 5-10 minute talks, where the speakers introduce themselves, with no gap in-between.  This allows us to give everyone an opportunity to speak, and to test out new speakers for future conferences.  We’re particularly interested in encouraging bloggers and those involved in other online Stoicism communities to step forward and speak to our audience because we want to be as inclusive as possible with regard to all the people who are around today and involved with Stoicism.

Q: What is Stoic Week?

Stoic Week is seven days during which we promote Stoicism internationally to a massive audience, free of charge.  We do that mainly through our online Stoic Week course, which attracted 3,400 participants from around the world last year.  As part of the whole event, we also run Stoicon and the Stoicon-x conferences around the same time of year.  So for a week, or two, there’s a lot of stuff about Stoicism going on.  The Stoic Week course is the perfect opportunity for you to get a flavour of what Stoic psychological practices are like.  

Some people have said it’s silly to think that you can be a Stoic for just seven days – Stoicism is for life not just for Christmas!  Of course, that’s not at all what we’re saying.  This is just a rapid introduction to Stoicism.  It gives people an opportunity to try out some Stoic psychological exercises and get a flavour of them, before deciding if they want to study Stoic philosophy more deeply.  We begin by recommending that people who are interested should read the ancient Stoics themselves, of course, but Stoic Week is a great practical introduction.  If you’ve read the books, or not, and you’re looking for something practical to try, Stoic Week is the obvious choice.

Q: What is Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT)?

Stoic Week is more about public engagement.  It’s an easy introduction to living like a Stoic.  We can gather some data from it but to really gather more meaningful data we needed a longer course, which is much more specifically focused on a handful of core skills.  That’s why we designed Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training, and thousands of people have now also completed that training online.  Our data show that, as we anticipated, when you do more Stoicism you get better outcomes.  So improvements on outcome measures of mood and wellbeing were roughly doubly for participants in this longer course than they were for Stoic Week.  If you’re serious about Stoicism and want to really train yourself in core skills then SMRT is your opportunity to do that with support from our team of experts and hundreds of other participants around the world.  (SMRT 2017 is currently enrolling and begins on Sunday 16th July 2017.)

Q: What is SABS?

We developed our own questionnaire called the Stoic Attitudes and Behaviours Scale (SABS), which allows us to do some pretty detailed statistical analysis on Stoicism and its benefits, when used alongside established measures of mood and wellbeing, of the sort commonly used in research on cognitive therapy and positive psychology.  Tim LeBon is responsible for administering the scales and reporting each year on the data we’ve collected.  As mentioned above, we’ve consistently found Stoicism has measurable benefits, although we’ve yet to carry out a proper randomized controlled trial on the skills training protocols we’ve developed.

Q: What is Stoicism Today?

Stoicism Today is our blog.  It’s without question the main resource for anyone looking for online articles on Stoicism, in my humble opinion.  That’s because anyone can submit posts there, and they do.  Again, it’s all about public engagement and being inclusive.  We encourage everyone with an interest in Stoicism to submit articles and we have an absolutely superb collection of writings from people who approach Stoicism from all walks of life.  Anyone can submit an article to Greg Sadler, the editor, for consideration, and at the time of writing, I think there are nearly 500 posts on that website.  So happy reading!


Interview with Piotr Stankiewicz

Piotr Stankiewicz (University of Warsaw) joined the Modern Stoicism organization team last year.  He recently provided an interview that will help the readership of Stoicism Today get to know him and his longstanding involvement in Stoicism better.

Q: How would you introduce yourself and your work to our readers?

A: I’m an author, lecturer and philosopher based in Warsaw, Poland. In 2014 I published a Polish book on Stoicism which did quite well. I teach part-time at the University of Warsaw and do a number of other things, Stoicism-oriented and not. For a couple of years already I’ve been running for a Stoic site on Facebook (in Polish), which has served to gather and organize a community around the Stoic ideas.

Q: When and how did you first become interested in Stoicism?

A: Back in 2006. Roughly speaking, I was trying to put my life in order and it turned out that the best way to do that was to arrange my thinking along Stoic lines. The curious thing is how swiftly the personal aspect turned into an academic and professional interest. Finally, I ended up getting a Ph.D. in philosophy, focusing on the Stoics, but more importantly, I quickly realized that I can add my two cents to the heated and open debate on modern Stoicism. I realized that my process of absorbing Stoicism needn’t to be mine only. I sat down to describe all of it – and this is how my mentioned book emerged.

Q: How could you describe your views on Stoicism?

A: In the most general terms, I would say that we, the modern Stoics, mustn’t escape from responsibility. Our venerated predecessors, the ancient Stoics, outlined the general scope of Stoic teaching, but within these limits, we need to have significant liberty in how exactly we apply it to our life. Stoicism presents us with wonderful tools and devices, but it doesn’t give exact solutions tailored for each and everyone of us. Stoicism can be useful to us all, but it doesn’t offer a universal, one-size-fits-all answer. It’s our own responsibility to grab the Stoic apparatus and shape our own lives. Also, we need to keep in mind that, as Lawrence Becker puts it in his A New Stoicism, “the diversity of possible stoic lives – and the lives of stoic sages – is very great.” Indeed, there is sizable latitude here. And it’s up to us to decide which one of the available Stoic paths we pick. This is also how we get into modern Stoicism. This is where the pluralism and personal liberties of our time come to the fore.

Q: Could you say some more about this modern take?

A: It’s indeed one of the cornerstones of my understanding of Stoicism. I’m not particularly interested in the classicist’s, pale-fingers study of Stoicism. It is important, surely, but as for me, since day one I’ve assumed a fully present-day point of view. It’s something that we might roughly call the “paradigm of reinterpretation.” It’s also drawn from Becker, who put forwards the idea that we, the modern Stoics, shouldn’t engage in following the ancients blindly and reading them verbatim, but that we should instead try to translate the Stoic ideas into the present language and today’s conceptual framework. This is exactly my motto. In this regard I belong not to Orthodox, but rather to Reform or Modern Stoicism.

Q: And how would you describe the specificity of your approach?

A: I’m tempted (unstoically!) to start with a bit of a controversy and say this: I have a problem with the Stoic appeal to nature. With the idea of “following nature” I mean. I think that in the 21st century it confuses more than it clarifies and that we should desist from using it in teaching Stoicism. 

Q: Indeed, this is a bit of a surprise coming from a Stoic. Could you elaborate a bit more? 

A: I think there is no need to go over in detail what the ancient Stoics’ view on nature was. In brief: we need to follow nature, we need to live consistently with it. Nature is by definition good. Whatever is in harmony with it – is good. In other words, the traditional interpretation of Stoic ethics was that we need to find out what coheres with nature and then adjust ourselves to it. This picture is pretty clear I think. And this is exactly what my concern is: that is just a bit too neat and too simple. It’s the 21st century and talking about generic “following nature” doesn’t explain much ethically. It’s misleading, or, at the very least, it’s quite redundant. If we talk about it, we don’t really know what we are talking about.

Picture this. Someone comes up and says, “hey, we need to follow nature.” “Cool,” comes the reply, “but what do you mean specifically?” And this is only when the real conversation starts. In other words, floating the slogan of “following nature” and hiding under the umbrella idea that we should do what nature commands us to do, all of this doesn’t get us anywhere. What matters – are the specifics behind it.

Another point is that the very understanding of “nature” is much more obscure today than it used to be in antiquity. The impression I get from my studies of ancient Stoics is that the concept of “nature” was quite self-evident for them. It didn’t require much definition and explanation, it was something understandable per se. And it worked well in the ancient world (supposedly). The problem is that in our world, in the 21st century, the meaning of “nature” is anything but clear. We just don’t really know what we are talking about. Not to mention that on the social, political and technological levels “nature” today is much more malleable than it used to be in antiquity. If one gets an artificial limb, does it cohere with nature? And what about a C-section? And how about wearing glasses, not to mention using computers to even do this interview? This kind of issues are all relevant here.

Hence, overt focus on “consistency with nature” may be highly misleading. And that’s why I’m reluctant to this idea. But, just to be clear, I don’t think that the idea of “following nature” should be negated, or trashed. I rather think that it should be skipped.

Q: And where do we land once we decide to skip nature? 

A: For Becker, for example, “consistency with nature” means mainly “consistency with facts.” It means that we acknowledge the facts, that we don’t deny them. It means that we accept the facts on the ground, the ways of the world and, in general, how things work. And this is exactly the avenue I would go.

The next step is of course the question about how and where we learn the facts. I hold on to the quite old-school answer here, that, basically, we learn the facts from science and art. The latter may be a bit tricky, but the former is quite plain. Science teaches us how the world works and we, as Stoics, mustn’t oppose that. Thus, we will be happy to vaccinate our children. We won’t deny the Moon landing. Also, we will be eager to use iPhones, internet and whatever future technology comes about. In a word, going unscientific and anti-technological is also going unstoic.

Q: So, we know already that you are not particularly inclined to explain modern Stoicism through “follow nature.” How would you describe it then?

A: What I cherish in Stoicism is autonomy. I regard modern Stoicism as a fully autonomous story about humans and about the world. We don’t need to rely on other big narratives about the world, let alone shackling ourselves to them. This is a deep philosophical thing, but also a pragmatic choice on how to propagate our teaching. If we flirt too much with other voices, then our own message gets watered down.

So, I’m reluctant about desperate hunt for analogies and seeking validation in other traditions and intellectual currents. The power of Stoicism comes from within, not from the fact that other discourses say the same thing. But don’t get me wrong on this one. I’m not obsessed over some sort of abstract intellectual purity. I just think that if we want to really develop the Stoic thought in the 21st century, then we need to focus on our own, not on our competitors.

Let me use some examples. There is, for instance, psychotherapy. We, the Stoics, will be happy that many of the Stoic ideas go hand in hand with what, say, CBT says. But it doesn’t mean that Stoicism holds because CBT supports or validates it. Give us science in turn. We will fully embrace it (just as I said before!), we will use it, we will vaccinate the kids… but we won’t beg the scientists for endorsement, we won’t necessarily seek scientific validation. Give us Buddhism: we gladly accept that there is lots of common ground. But does it mean that Stoicism and Buddhism somehow “prove” each other’s validity? No, it’s definitely not so. And so on and so forth. 

Q: Do you think that modern Stoicism can be a remedy to the problems of the modern world?

A: Both yes and no. Stoicism is extremely helpful in putting our own, personal lives in order… but it’s not a system that provides easy and ready-made solutions to the problems of the world. Instead, it teaches and enables us how to think about these problems in an autonomous, responsible and constructive way.

I will put it this way. I don’t like when Stoicism is manipulated to provide support for an idea which comes from elsewhere. For instance, if I’m not actually thrilled by president Trump, then I need to be able to construct and present my own arguments why I don’t like him. We shouldn’t bend Stoicism to make it seem that it validates any particular position (political or other) that we happen to hold. As I said before, it’s the 21st century and the responsibility is ours. This includes that it is on us to find rational justification for whatever political values we believe in. We just shouldn’t rely on Stoicism in that. In this light, I have a problem with asking questions like “what do the Stoics think about gun control, climate change, Brexit, ISIS or president Underwood?” They all seem like a bit of stretch.

Q: If so, then let’s get back to where we began, i.e. to the personal side. How has Stoicism affected the way you live your own life?

A: It has had profound impact on me, but certainly there is also way to go. Yet, more importantly, despite all the Stoicism promotional things I do, I try not to suggest that I see myself as the greatest Stoic under the sun. I don’t walk around boasting. This would be unstoic by definition (pride comes before fall), but also, it’s ineffectual in propagating Stoicism. In my experience, the best one can do is not even “lead by example,” but rather employ some Socrates-esque style. That is, we need to inspire and encourage others to take on Stoicism… but on their own terms. This again reflects what I said about modern responsibility and pluralism of individual approaches.

This take is also reflected in the way my Polish book on Stoicism is written. In there I run kind of a seminar between the ancients authors, myself, and the reader. The book is not an ex cathedra lecture, but it’s a series of commentaries to carefully chosen excerpts from the ancients. It’s a depiction of my own struggle to interpret and apply the original Stoic teaching. And this process hopefully reiterates in the reader. Thus, by the very structure of the book I open space for interpretation and everyone’s own inquiry into what Stoicism is about.

Q: If they are open to such an inquiry, of course.

A: The decent popularity of the book testifies it works that way. But here is another thing. A friend of mine mentioned this to me once, and it has indelibly stuck in my mind. Here is the idea. Regardless of where we are headed next, it’s always highly beneficial to have a “Stoic stage” in one’s life. It will be our lasting asset, no matter if we go on and become full-blown Stoics or if our interest dwindles and we move on to something else. It’s just handy to have all these things conceptualized the Stoic way, at least once. This will be our enduring strength, our background that we can use if the need strikes.

That said, can I share one more personal experience? More around Stoicism than about it, but I guess it may be still relevant and of interest.

Q: Please do.

A: So, remember what the Stoics have to say about cosmopolitanism, about being a “citizen of the world?” In a way, I have my own experiences in this regard. Unlike most of the US- and UK‑based modern Stoics I happen to live on the cross of the English speaking and a non-English speaking world (Polish in my case). And this is a very particular position to be in, and a very interesting perspective.

It strikes me as deeply ambiguous how the intellectual and academic life is organized. On the one hand, a country like my Poland is, of course, very well connected and “in the loop.” We all live in the same digital, globalized world after all. And in this regard we are all “citizens of the world.” But on the other hand, the divisions are still very deep and the walls are high. The intellectual environments of different cultures and languages are still well separated and independent form each other. Being immersed in both, sitting on the fence, is a very specific position, both challenging and inspiring.

Q: Finally, what’s coming up next?

A: I’m currently working on the publication of my two large book-projects in English. One is a general introduction to Stoicism, in which I put forward in detail my take on Stoicism and how I see it. Along the lines I’ve tried to outlined above. The other one is an inquiry into another question that vitally interests me, i.e. into the trade-offs, or the costs of becoming a Stoic. Because, apparently, all those great Stoic benefits come at a price. But that’s a whole different story I think.

Q: Thank you for the interview.

A: Thank you and see you at the Stoicon.


Piotr Stankiewicz, Ph.Dis a lecturer affiliated with the University of Warsaw in Poland, and the author of a bestselling Polish handbook of Stoicism (“Sztuka życia według stoików”).  He is currently working on making his Stoic books available in English. In the meanwhile he advances Stoic and non-Stoic agendas in his native Polish.

Musonius and Epictetus on “In Accordance With Nature” by Greg Sadler

Back in April, I authored a piece focused on a concept particularly central to Stoic Ethics, that of “living in accordance with nature”.  This was not a concept whose clarity the ancient Stoics could simply take for granted in their audiences – after all there were competing conceptions of “nature” (phusis) out there not only in philosophy itself but in the broader culture – but it seems to be one still more confusing to modern readers.

That is not surprising, given that we live in an era informed by centuries of progress in the modern sciences – in which more than one cosmology has been developed, relied upon for a while, and then supplanted by yet another (hopefully) more adequate one – and during which the understanding of the human being in relation to “nature” has seen some radical reinterpretations as well.  Many contemporary readers of Stoicism come to its key texts and thinkers eager to learn what they have to teach, but encumbered by unquestioned background assumptions about what the term “nature” must mean.

I argued that if one wants to understand what classic Stoics actually did mean by “nature,” and thus what would be “in accordance with nature,” there is nothing like actually reading what they had to say on the topic.  Fortunately for us, while we have lost nearly all of the literature of the early and middle Stoa, we still possess sources that provide us with some of their actual doctrines, arguments, and overall positions.  Diogenes Laertes and Cicero prove invaluable in this respect, and in my previous piece, I concentrated on what they had to tell us about what Stoics understood “in accordance with nature” to mean.

I promised to write a follow-up piece in which I would discuss what the representatives of the late Stoa whose texts we do fortunately possess have to say about this issue.  As it turns out, there is quite a lot, and their writings provide us with useful clarifications and additional examples.  In the case of Epictetus, there is also an interesting complicating factor, as he tends to speak much more of “the faculty of choice in accordance with nature” than of “living on accordance with nature,” and that accordingly will be discussed here as well.

Although I committed in that earlier piece to extend the discussion of “in accordance with nature” to its occurrences in Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius, three things became apparent in writing this post.  First, devoting sufficient discussion to the first two would result in a post just at the high end of the length within which we typically attempt to keep pieces here in Stoicism Today.  Second, even confining the discussion to Musonius Rufus and Epictetus, what I have set down here, while expressing essential points about their views on the matter, is really just scratching the surface.  Third and following from those first two, I realized that a fuller and more adequate treatment of what the Stoics mean “in accordance with nature” would make an excellent subject for a short book (a project upon which I have begun working).

Musonius Rufus on What Is In Accordance With Nature

The phrase “in accordance with nature” occurs several times in the Lectures we possess from Musonius Rufus, giving a clear sense of what he considered to fall within its scope.  He tells us that among the functions of the philosopher is to be “both a teacher and a leader of human beings in those things that are appropriate for human beings according to nature” (tōn kata phusin anthropōi kathēkontōn, lec. 14).  Philosophy, for Musonius, ought to be practically oriented – and likewise the practitioner of it, the philosopher.

When asked by an old man what the best means for dealing with old age is, he answered that it was “the very one that is for youth, to live following the path [hodōi] and in accordance with nature.” (lect. 17)  He goes on to explain

The nature of a human being did not arise on account of pleasure. Neither is this the case for the horse or dog or cow, and all of these creatures are much less valuable than the human being.  A horse would not be considered to have fulfilled its purpose by happening  to eat and drink and mate, and doing none of the things which are the proper work of a horse [hōn prosēkei]. . . Nor would any other animal if deprived of the functions proper to it and allowed to have its fill of pleasures; in short, according to this, nothing would be said to be living according to nature but what by its actions manifests the excellence [aretē] peculiar to its own nature. For the nature of each guides it to its own excellence; consequently it is not reasonable to suppose that when man lives a life of pleasure that he lives according to nature, but rather when he lives a life of virtue.

While we do come to feel, and even desire pleasure (and feel and are averse to pain) through natural processes, which stem from what we are endowed with by nature, pursuit and enjoyment of pleasure is not – for Musonius and other Stoics – what our nature is primarily about.  Each type of living being has its own specific nature, and with that, its own specific types of excellences.  Developing and expressing those excellences in action is living in accordance with nature.

The question then is what that means determinately for human beings.  Musonius unsurprisingly turns to discussion of the four cardinal virtues – prudence, justice, courage, and temperance – as distinctive modes of human excellence, that is, the excellences of a rational being.  He stresses that these virtues stem from the very nature of human being.  He also points out that if a person is fortunate enough to have got good instruction and put it into practice while young, living in accordance with nature becomes easier later on.

What else does Musonius contribute to our understanding of this key Stoic ideal?  One matter of longstanding controversy – particularly about whether it was appropriate for philosophers –  was marriage, and Musonius comes down decisively in favor of that institution, claiming that “if anything is in accordance with nature, then marriage appears to be so,” and providing this reasoning in support:

For, to what other purpose did the creator of mankind first divide our human race into two sexes, male and female, then implant in each a strong desire for association and union with the other, instilling in both a powerful longing each for the other, the male for the female and the female for the male? 6Is it not then plain that he wished the two to be united and live together, and by their joint efforts to devise a way of life in common, and to produce and rear children together, so that the race might never die?  (lect. 14)

Another thing that Musonius regards as in accordance with nature is the lifestyle and profession of the farmer, the “worker of the earth”.  Although a number of professions are compatible with engaging in philosophy, Musonius regards agriculture as particularly so, asking:

is it not more living in accordance with nature to derive one’s living from the earth, which is the nurse and mother of us all, rather than from some other source?  (lect. 11)

Other than small-scale growing in our own or community gardens, farming is not a practice, let alone a life-style available as a viable option to many of us today, but we ought to consider the point and purpose of what Musonius advocates.  He argues that it is better to have one’s own living depend as much as possible upon one’s own labor, rather than on others.  And he points out that there is no incompatibility – whatever people might think – between lecturing about and displaying the virtues, on the one hand, and performing manual labor, on the other.  Nor, for that matter, does working prevent a student from being able to learn.

That really is the key determinant, for Musonius, around which everything else centers in this matter of what is “in accordance with nature” – cultivating and acting in accordance with virtue.  He points out in lecture 2 that virtue is something possible for everyone.

All of us, he said, are naturally constituted by nature [phusei pephukamen] so that we can live blamelessly and well. . . .

In the conduct of life it is no longer only the philosopher whom we expect to be free from error, though he alone would seem to be the only one concerned with the study of virtue, but all human beings alike, including those who have never given any attention to virtue. Clearly, then, there is no explanation for this other than that the human being comes to exist inclined toward virtue [pros aretē].

A bit later in that lecture, he will speak of “seeds of virtue” within us by our natures.  Notice as well that the “all of us” Musonius invokes is genuinely inclusive.  Not only does he maintain that virtue is a live and natural possibility within all human beings irrespective of class or education, he also explicitly affirms that the same virtues apply to women and men.  In Lecture 3, entitled “That women should study philosophy,” he tells us

Women as well as men, he said, have received from the gods the gift of reason, which we use in our dealings with one another and by which we judge whether a thing is good or bad, noble or base. . . . Moreover, not men alone, but women too, have a natural desire and affinity [orexis kai oikeiōsis] toward virtue.  And women no less than men are constituted by nature [pephukasi] to be pleased by good and just acts and to reject the opposite of these.

Epictetus On Nature and What Is In Accordance With It

Musonius Rufus’ most celebrated student, Epictetus, also contributes considerably to fleshing out what “in accordance with nature” means for the Stoics.  One of the main innovations of his articulation of Stoic philosophy – identifying and discussing in great detail what he terms “prohairesis” (“moral purpose”, “faculty of choice”) – and his reformulation of “in accordance with nature” along those lines – is discussed in the next section.  This one focuses on his references to that phrase that do not bring in the notion of prohairesis, on what he affirms our nature to be or include, and on what aligns us with and realizes our nature as human beings.

Epictetus speaks to an audience that is already familiar in at least a superficial way with the Stoic teachings and works of his predecessors. So one of the first references to what is in accordance with nature occurs in a passage where he challenges someone who has supposedly read one of Chrysippus’ works to display his knowledge in practice.  What matters is:

How you act in your choices and refusals, your desires and aversions, how you go at things, and apply yourself to them, and prepare yourself, whether you are acting in harmony with nature or out of harmony with it.  If you are acting in harmony, show me that, and I will tell you that you are making progress. (1.4)

The expression Epictetus employs in this is sumphonōs tei phusei, “in harmony with nature” rather than “in accordance with nature”, but he tends to use those synonymously.  A bit later in that very chapter, he has Chrysippus say:

Take my books and you shall know how conformable and harmonious with [akouloutha kai sumphona] nature are the things which make me tranquil.

Epictetus tells us in general what “in accordance with nature” means or involves with human beings in a number of places.  In one, he speaks of a “law of life”:

We must do what follows from nature.  If in every matter and circumstance we intend to observe what is in accordance with nature, then it is clear that in everything we should make it our goal not to avoid what follows from nature nor to accept what is in conflict with nature. (1.26)

What then “follows from” (akolouthei) nature, particularly for us human beings?  What is in conflict with our nature and with nature in general? Although at times Epictetus speaks as if determining this is straightforward and self-evident, it sometimes requires a good bit of thought, and often goes against key assumptions common within the prevailing culture.

In passage after passage, for example, Epictetus emphasizes the fact that we all share a common human nature.  This commonality is something that social ranks, cultural status, and institutions can easily lead us to forget.  One example of this occurs when he points out that “all human beings by nature are members of one common household with each other” (3.24)  Another example of this is his reminder that other people – slaves for instance, for whom one possesses a bill of sale – remain nonetheless “kinsmen, brothers and sisters by nature” with the person who happens to hold power. (1.13)  What does that common human nature then involve?

Nature has given us faculties we share in common with other animals, but also distinctive human endowments, such as the capacities to contemplate or reflect (theōria) and to understand (parakolouthesis), and to conduct our lives (diexagogē) in harmony with nature (1.6).  The capacity to reason – a faculty that Epictetus notes is reflexive (i.e. applying to itself as well as other faculties) – is given to us by nature precisely in order for us to be able to deal with (or rightly “use”) appearances or external impressions (phantasiai, 1.20).  This extends to judging them and understanding them, so in performing those functions well, we realize and perfect our rational nature, and thereby live more in accordance with nature.

We are also by our nature creatures that are endowed with a number of desires and aversions.  In the case of human beings, however, these require rational development.  Epictetus stresses a distinction between an initial, basic self-love (philauton) of the human being as an animal, focused on attaining what one identifies and then pursues as goods simply for oneself, and a more fully developed, rationally extended attitude towards oneself, others, and genuine goods. (1.19)

When Zeus wishes to be “Rain-bringer,” and “Fruit-giver,” and “Father of men and gods,” you see for yourself that he cannot achieve these functions, or get these titles, unless he is profitable to the common interest.  To speak in general, he has constituted the nature of the rational animal so that it cannot attain its own proper and individual goods unless it contributes something to the common interest. (1.19)

Both attending to one’s own proper goods and taking the broader focus on the goods of others and of one’s communities are forms of oikeiōsis – a key idea of Stoic Ethics that Epictetus explicitly mentions in that passage – a fundamental way in which rational human beings do develop and act in accordance with nature.

Epictetus provides a number of more specific examples illustrating clearly and concretely what “in accordance with” or “in harmony with nature” means in some determinate area or aspect of life.  We will look at a few of those shortly, but before that, it may be useful to explore some implications of a short passage, almost a throwaway line.

Who has ever made a sacrifice in thanks for having desired well, or for having used choice in accordance with nature? (1.19)

He points out that we give thanks to the gods – or perhaps in our time, we might say, exhibit a sense of gratitude and acknowledgement – for what we consider good.  Most people in both our time and his tend to value other things than what puts us into proper alignment with nature, even though that is where we ought to find our genuine good.  Is Epictetus suggesting that we ought to give thanks for desiring well or using choice in accordance with nature?  If we do those things, those are up to us, after all, so it would seem strange to make some gesture of gratitude, wouldn’t it?  And yet, those are in significant part where our most proper good does lie, according to Stoic doctrine.

One concrete example in which Epictetus applies his more general views is furnished by “familial affection” (philostorgia).  When he clarifies the meaning and effects of what this term rightly applies to with one of his interlocutors – who claims he was simply behaving “naturally” (phusikōs) –  Epictetus tells him that it remains to be seen whether that person really was acting “naturally”, which would mean “in accordance with nature” (kata phusei).  That cannot simply be what tends to happen, or what people tend to do.

First convince me of this, that you were acting naturally. . .  and then I will convince you that whatever is done in accordance with nature is rightly done. . . For by your line of reasoning, we would have to say that tumors are produced for the good of the body, just because they occur, and in general, that to go wrong (hamartanein) is in accordance with nature, just because nearly all, or at least most of us go wrong in matters. (1.11)

He points out to the man – who claims that precisely out of familial affection he was led to leave the sickbed of his ill child – that his behavior was wrong and unreasonable.  What would have actually been in accordance with nature would to do as others – his daughter’s mother, nurse, and tutor – did in the situation, to remain with the sick child.

Another set of useful examples are provided by various duties, stemming from roles and relationships that we are either born into, find ourselves involved in (sometimes to our surprise!), or even willingly chose to take upon ourselves.  These extend to a number of aspects of our lives:

The duties of citizenship, marriage, raising children, reverence to the divine, taking care of parents – in general, desire, avoidance, choice, refusal, and in doing each of these to do them as they ought to be done, that is, in accordance with our nature (hōs pehpukamen, 3.7)

He goes on to clarify what this means:

To act as free human beings, as noble, as self-respecting. . . . And it is our nature to subordinate pleasure to these duties as their servant, their minister, so as to arouse our interest and keep us acting in accordance with nature (kata phusin).

Fulfilling our roles and the demands they involve with – to use another term that Epictetus employs in many places – fidelity (pistis) is precisely one way in which we human beings act and live in accordance with nature.  In doing so, we often find ourselves having to choose or go against some of the inclinations or desires we do “naturally” feel.  For instance, when Epictetus counsels a brother wishing to reconcile with his sibling who remains angry with him (1.15), telling him that all he can do is to keep or bring himself in accordance with nature.  He adds that making that commitment is not something accomplished once and for all, but requires an ongoing and organic growth, akin to that of a cluster of grapes that require time to form and ripen.

Prohairesis In Accordance With Nature

Among the most interesting and innovative features of Epictetus’ interpretation of Stoic philosophy is his focus on prohairesis – a term that we generally translate as “faculty of choice,” “moral purpose,” or even (a bit misleadingly) “will”.   He references it constantly throughout the Discourses and Enchiridion, as the very center or core of the human being, the character that we develop and bring with us to every situation (for better or for worse).  It is intimately connected with the rational faculty (to logikon) and the ruling faculty (to hegemonikon) – in fact, all three of those are different ways of articulating and conceptualizing the same basic human reality.

I won’t attempt to provide a fuller treatment of this complex matter here – if you like, you can watch my recent presentation of prohairesis in this seminar – but it is important to explain why we would want to focus on it particularly when looking at Epictetus and the issue of what is in accordance with nature and what is not.  Suffice it to say that for Epictetus, the prohairesis is not just one faculty among others.  It is the very core of the person, who quite literally is his or her prohairesis (4.5)

Prohairesis is not the only faculty or function of the human being that Epictetus focuses upon as being in accordance with, or not in accordance with nature.  He frequently speaks of the “ruling faculty” as something that the human being ought to have or conduct in accordance with nature. Since the faculty of choice, the rational faculty, and the ruling faculty are distinguishable but not actually separable, those references explicitly to the ruling faculty should be understood as equally applying to the faculty of choice.  We should thus similarly associate the many references made to the rational faculty, and its function of “using appearances in accordance with nature” (e.g. in 3.3.).

Epictetus also writes at a number of points about using desire and aversion, choice and refusal, assent (sunkatathesis) and other functions in accordance with nature or not (e.g. 1.21, 2.14, and 3.9).  But as he also tells us, all of these fall within the scope of the prohairesis.  So using any of them in accordance with nature in some way involves one’s prohairesis as well.  There are considerably more references, however, in the Discourses and Enchiridion to prohairesis in accordance with nature.

One key feature of the faculty of choice is that by its very nature – or if you like, as nature produces it, is – something that is fundamentally free.  Epictetus emphasizes this point repeatedly, for example:

You have a faculty of choice free by nature of hindrances and constraint. . . Can anyone prevent you from assenting to truth? No one at all.  Can anyone force you to accept the false?  No one at all. Do you see that in this sphere, you have a faculty of choice free from hindrance, constraint, obstruction?  In the sphere of desire and choice, is it otherwise? (1.17)

At another point, after noting first that other faculties are determined and given their direction by the prohairesis, and that other faculties can be hindered or interfered with both by the prohairesis and by things that are outside of the field of choice (aproaireta), he raises a leading question:

What is by its very nature capable of hindering moral purpose? Nothing that lies outside the field of choice, but only the faculty of choice itself when turned in the wrong way [diastrapheisa]. For this reason the faculty of choice becomes the only vice, or the only virtue (2.23)

In that last line, Epictetus drives home that where virtues or vices reside – as dispositions either in accordance with nature or against nature – is precisely within the prohairesis, which possesses the freedom sufficient to move one away from the vices and towards the virtues.  Elsewhere, he affirms that – unless we willingly give over this power to another (e.g. by desiring something outside of our power, but which that other person controls) – nobody is actually master over another person’s faculty of choice (4.12).  When asking at another point, what ultimately determines a persons faculty of choice, he answers that “faculty of choice compelled faculty of choice” (1.17)

We determine whether we bring or maintain our faculty of choice in accordance with nature, and Epictetus identifies and discusses a number of means by which we can do this.  Having correct judgements or opinions (dogmata) ready at hand when we run into challenging situations  – which typically involves the preparatory work of learning, understanding, and committing to memory those expressions – is one key way.  Another would be to take an assessment of our habits, and to begin to gradually retrain them towards what would be more in accordance with nature.

We can also look to a number of specific examples Epictetus provides, cases in which we can reframe the situations in which we find ourselves.  In each of these sorts of situations, he advises the same basic approach. Realize that you are faced with a fundamental choice between two possibilities.  These are not just possible courses of action, but options for how to conceptualize and value matters, and then act accordingly.

One of these is the famous example of going to the baths in Enchiridion ch. 4. This is not an institution many of us can immediately relate to, to be sure, but it is easy enough to extend it to any other situation in which we and other people are in a place for some activity.  One might think of going to a public swimming pool, or to have a picnic in a park, or attending a concert.  Inevitably, there will be some unpleasant or inconveniencing interactions with others.  When we are going into situations like those, Epictetus suggests we pursue the following:

Remind yourself what the nature of that activity is. . . . [S]traightaway say to yourself “I want to bathe and at the same time maintain my faculty of choice in accordance with nature”. . .  For in this way, if anything that hinders you from bathing happens to arise, you will have ready at hand the saying “Well, this was not the only thing I wanted, but also to keep my faculty of choice in accordance with nature; and I won’t keep it [in that way] if I get upset over the things that occur.”

A very similar discussion occurs when Epictetus counsels an official who imprudently took sides in a comedy contest, and found himself at odds with the crowd.  He provides the same advice about going into a matter with the understanding that one has to choose to keep one’s prohairesis in accordance with nature. (3.4)

To bring this follow-up discussion of “in accordance with nature” to a close, it may be useful to highlight one final aspect of Epictetus’ view, in this case, derived explicitly from the example Socrates provides.  Epictetus tells us:

Socrates bore very firmly in mind that no one is master over another person’s ruling faculty. He willed, accordingly, nothing but what was his own. And what is that? [Not to try to make other people act] in accordance with nature, for that is something that belongs to another  but, while they are attending to their own business as they think best, himself no less to keep and conduct his [ruling principle] in accordance with nature, focusing just on his own, so that those others might be in accordance with nature too. (4.5)

We cannot directly bring other people into accordance with nature, even though it is rational for us to desire that as their proper good.  What we can do is to focus on the labor involved with our own faculties of choice, our own lives, and our own actions.  And if we put in the consistent and cumulative work required for that, we can perhaps move them by experience and example.

Gregory Sadler is the Editor of the Stoicism Today blog.  He is also the president and founder of ReasonIO, a company established to put philosophy into practice, providing tutoring, coaching, and philosophical counseling services, and producing educational resources.  He has produced over 100 videos on Stoic philosophy, regularly speaks and provides workshops on Stoicism, and is currently working on several book projects.

Poor but Happy? Aristotle and the Stoics on External Goods by Gabriele Galluzzo

Can we be happy without money, political power, good looks, or friends? Can we in other words be happy without external goods, that is, the external things that we may come to acquire and that seem to contribute to our prosperity? No one will deny that these are important, perhaps vital, questions for us today, and for the times we live in. But the issue of the role played by external goods in human happiness was much debated in ancient philosophy as well, and the rather diversified answers offered by ancient philosophers can certainly make a contribution to modern discussions, besides being interesting in themselves.

Today I wish to consider two ancient answers to the problem of external goods, Aristotle’s and the Stoics’. In brief, Aristotle believes that we cannot be happy without at least some external goods, while the Stoics insist that we can. Although Aristotle and the Stoics offer incompatible answers to the problem of the external goods, it would be misleading to ignore their common starting-points and background. Both Aristotle and the Stoics are to some extent heirs to a (Socratic) tradition that identifies the possession and exercise of the virtues (courage, self-mastery, justice, good judgement etc.) with the full expression of our nature as human beings, that is, with the full expression of our rationality.

Thus, for both Aristotle and the Stoics, happiness is inseparable from the possession and exercise of the virtues. Differences remain, though. While for the Stoics virtue is the only component of happiness, and the external goods play no role in it, for Aristotle happiness consists of an internal component, the virtues, and an external component, the external goods. Which position is preferable? And which is more consistent? To answer these questions we need to examine more closely the arguments advanced by Aristotle and the Stoics in favour of their respective positions. Let us begin with Aristotle.

In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle provides a rather complex understanding of what is good for human beings. He claims that there are three kinds of goods: the goods of the soul, i.e. mainly the virtues; the goods of the body, e.g. good health; the external goods. And he clearly implies that all three kinds of goods are necessary for happiness. Of particular interest is what he has to say about the external goods, which are our main concern today:

It seems clear that happiness needs the addition of external goods, as we have said; for it is difficult if not impossible to do fine deeds without any resources. Many can be done as it were by instruments – by the help of friends, or wealth, or political influence (Aristotle, NE, I.8).

Does Aristotle have an argument in favour of the inclusion of external goods among the components of human happiness? Yes, he certainly does. As the text quoted suggests, Aristotle’s main argument is an argument from realism. Human life is constrained and conditioned by external circumstances. Therefore, human happiness, as opposed for instance to divine happiness, should take into account the external circumstances by which we are constrained and conditioned. In this light, it may become difficult or even impossible to see how we could pursue our ethical ideals without having at least some resources. How can we be generous, for instance, if we’ve got no money? How can we change the world for the better without any political influence or a network of good friends to help us in our endeavours? And it seems reasonable to think, at any rate, that the complete absence of resources may become an objective obstacle to doing the many good things we want to do.

One might object to Aristotle’s line of argument that virtue, if it is real virtue, should be self-sufficient. If we are good people, what more do we need to be happy? Without entirely denying that the highest good for human beings should be self-sufficient, Aristotle still insists that ‘self-sufficient’ here should be taken in a realistic and, as it were, ‘human’ sense:

We do not mean by ‘self-sufficient’ what suffices for someone by himself, living a solitary life, but what is sufficient also with respect to parents, offspring, a wife, and, in general, one’s friends and fellow citizens, since by nature a human being is sociable (Aristotle, NE, I.7).

We do not live in a vacuum, but in a complex natural and social environment, which inevitably puts constrains on what we can or cannot do. Our relationship to other people make a difference to our happiness, Aristotle believes, and so do, too, the material resources we may come to possess. Perhaps, Aristotle’s general stance may look even stronger if we think that the lack of external goods may sometimes be an objective obstacle not only to the exercise of the virtues, but also to their acquisition. Conditions of extreme poverty, continuous engagement in a struggle for life and survival, as well as the absence of appropriate models, may prevent people from acquiring the right state of character in which virtue properly consists. It is difficult, one might urge, to think about improving ourselves if our circumstances are harsh or discouraging. And, even if we should manage to acquire the virtues, it seems difficult to see how we could fully exercise them without resources.

Whether we find it attractive or not, Aristotle’s position should not be misunderstood or hastily misjudged. For one thing, Aristotle does not believe for one second that happiness consists in the possession of external goods, or that the internal and the external components of happiness carry equal weight, as it were. It is not money, or power, or good looks, or friends that make us happy, but virtue. It is the possession and exercise of the virtues that fully express our nature as human beings. It remains true, however, that for Aristotle the complete absence of external goods might prevent us from fully acquiring and exercising the virtues.

Thus, while it is clear that none of the external goods as such makes us happy, it is difficult for Aristotle to see how we could be happy without them. In the same vein, Aristotle is not advocating indiscriminate money-making; nor is he recommending us to surround ourselves with friends, whatever their character might be. Quite the contrary, Aristotle holds that it is only a certain level, the right level, of material comfort that we should pursue. Actually, an invitation to moderation in the acquisition and use of external goods, as well as the recommendation that they be used ethically, as it were, remain constant features of Aristotle’s ethical teaching. Thus, for Aristotle, the possession of external goods is intended to remove potential obstacles to our happiness rather than making a positive contribution to it.

Similarly, he insists that the only true kind of friendship is the one in which all friends are virtuous people (NE, VIII.3). Friendships based on mere pleasure, or on utility, are not durable and so make a very limited contribution to our wellbeing and flourishing. Thus, Aristotle’s attitude toward friendship is selective: his pages on true friendship in Books VIII and IX of the Nicomachean Ethics are rightly famous, as is, too, his charming depiction of a real friend as ‘another self’ (NE, IX.9). Still, one might feel slightly uncomfortable with the thought that happiness is denied to those who, for one reason or another, do not find themselves in the condition to form friendships.

As compared to Aristotle’s, the Stoic position appears to be far more radical and less inclined to compromise with common sense. This impression is certainly true to a large extent, though it requires qualification, as we shall shortly see. For the Stoics we can be happy and flourish without the concourse of external goods. Virtue is the only component of happiness, and external goods play no role in it, strictly speaking. Since external goods make no contribution to our happiness, they are rightly classified among the ‘indifferents’, the things in other words whose presence or absence makes no difference to happiness.

Before we consider some controversial aspects of the Stoic view, it may be helpful to look at a couple of important motivations for taking this position that are intuitively rather appealing. To claim, as Aristotle does, that external goods play a role (though a secondary one) in our happiness implies that our happiness is not entirely up to us or in our power. If we need money, reputation, success, political influence etc. to be happy, then our happiness is inevitably conditional, at least to some extent, on favourable external circumstances and perhaps on just a little bit of luck. For, try as we may, we may not be able to secure for ourselves some of the external goods that make life comfortable; and even if we do secure them, we may just lose them through no apparent fault of our own, due to unfavourable external circumstances. This may seem a rather shaky and weak conception of happiness. As moral agents, we would intuitively be more comfortable with the idea that our happiness depends on us, that it is our efforts to become good that matter and that nothing external could take that away from us. This is certainly the way the Stoics see things when they claim that the external goods make no contributions to our happiness, since they are not (at least not entirely) ‘up to us’, while virtue in principle is. It is up to us to embark on the journey to virtue that will eventually make us happy – and it is not obviously clear what could take virtue away from us once our journey is complete. It is particularly Epictetus (1st/2nd century AD) who insists on external goods not being up to us, but his ideas are broadly in line with traditional Stoicism:

Some things are up to us, while others are not up to us. Up to us are conception, choice, desire, aversion and, in a word, everything that is our own doing; not up to us are our body, our property, reputation, office and, in a word, everything that is not our own doing. Furthermore, the things up to us are by nature free, unhindered and unimpeded; while the things not up to us are weak, servile, subject to hindrance and not our own (Epictetus, Ench., 1.1-2).

Another, related motivation for favouring the Stoic view is that Stoic happiness appears to be inherently much more democratic than its Aristotelian counterpart. If happiness is entirely up to us and does not depend on favourable external circumstances, then literally everyone can be happy, regardless of their social, economic and life circumstances. If virtue is all that matters to happiness, and virtue cannot be impeded by external circumstances, then no one is cut off from happiness, at least in principle, as long as they have the right moral character. But this is certainly not the case with the Aristotelian view, on which external circumstances play an important role in our happiness. It seems that Aristotelian happiness is not open to everybody, but only to those who can have access to the relevant level of comfort – i.e., presumably, those with the appropriate kind of upbringing, education, social status etc. Although we might think that this is a realistic price to pay for happiness, given what human life happens to be, it is difficult to shake off the feeling that Aristotelian happiness is sufficiently exclusive and many people are inevitably cut off from it.

Other aspects of the Stoic teaching on external goods may appear intuitively less appealing. It is obvious for instance that for Aristotle there is a hierarchy of goods, with the good of the soul (mainly the virtues) occupying the top of the ranking and external goods being somehow towards the bottom (the goods of the body, such as health and health conditions in general, could arguable be seen as intermediate between the other two classes of goods). This may seem a reasonable position to take, as it gives virtue pride of place but still describes other things as intrinsically or at least significantly good. Reasonable as this position may seem, it certainly not the Stoic view. For the Stoics, since virtue is the only component of happiness, it is also the only good, while all other things, including of course the external goods, are not good, as they make no contribution to happiness. Things other than virtue are not bad, either; they are neither good nor bad, i.e. indifferent.

One obvious objection to the Stoic view is that some of the indifferents clearly seem to be better than others. The Aristotelian external goods, for instance, seem to be better than their opposites: wealth seems to be better than poverty, good reputation better than bad reputation, beauty better than ugliness etc. And so it might seem that there is little point in denying that some of the external things are in fact good. The Stoics, however, are well aware of this objection. Early on in the development of the school, they introduced a distinction between ‘preferred’ and ‘dispreferred’ indifferents and insisted that preferred indifferents do have some value for us and we are naturally inclined to pursue them (Cicero, Acad., I.36-37). Aristotle’s external goods clearly fall within the class of preferred indifferents – and so the Stoics do not deny that external goods have value and so are normally preferable to their opposites. The following testimony by Diogenes Laertius (3rd century AD) illustrates particularly well the Stoic position.

The Stoics say that some things are good, others are bad, and others are neither of these. The virtues – prudence, justice, courage, moderation and the rest are good. The opposites of these – foolishness, injustice and the rest – are bad. Everything which neither does benefit nor harm is neither of these: for instance, life, health, pleasure, beauty, strength, wealth, reputation, noble birth…are not good but indifferents of the ‘preferred’ species (Diogenes Laertius, 7.101-103).

We have a natural preference for material comforts and so the Stoics do not deny that they are normally preferable to their opposites. While granting that much to the Aristotelian position, they Stoics still insist that Aristotle’s ‘external goods’ are not actually good, though they have value. But now we can start seeing that, when the Stoics say that only virtue is good, or that all other things (including material comforts) are not good, they are using ‘good’ with a stronger meaning than we are used to – a meaning that is perhaps captured by such expressions as ‘unqualifiedly good’, ‘unconditionally good’ or ‘good in all circumstances’. Thus, their view is that only virtue is unconditionally good, or good in all circumstances, while all other things, including Aristotle’s external goods, are not unqualifiedly good, or good in all circumstances, and so not good, strictly speaking.

But if this is the Stoic position – and there are reasons to think that it is – it is not hard to find arguments in its support. The Stoics argue for instance that external goods are open to misuse in a way that virtue clearly is not (Diogenes Laertius, 7.103). It is all too easy, for instance, to think of cases in which we make bad use of money, reputation, political influence or social status, while it is not obvious how we could possibly make bad use of our good character and of our virtue. Thus, although the Stoics grant that external goods have value and certainly recommend making good use of them, they still insist that it is wrong to call them unconditionally good.

Perhaps an Aristotelian might reply to this argument that, while ordinary people may make bad use of external goods, the virtuous person will always make good use of them in all circumstances. Thus, external goods are open to misuse only for people who are not wise. This reply is not entirely unfair to the Stoic doctrine: for the Stoics, one ancient source informs us, the manner of using the indifferents, and the external goods in particular, is constitutive of happiness, though it is possible for us to be happy without them (Diogenes Laertius, 7.104). So, it is certainly true for the Stoics that the virtuous person will make consistently good use of external things.

But in another respect, the Aristotelian objection is partly off the mark, the Stoics would think. For the point is not only that one could make bad use of external goods, but also, and perhaps more importantly, that there could always be a conflict between the pursuit of external goods and the preservation of our virtue. Suppose, for instance, that we are virtuous and we are prepared to make good use of the political influence we have been gaining over the years. Still, it might be the case that, at some point, the only way for us to maintain a certain level of political influence is to compromise with an inhuman dictator or tyrant – which obviously we should not do as this is incompatible with our virtuous character. It is not difficult to think of similar examples of conflict involving money-making, good reputation etc. All this shows, the Stoics would insist, that, sometimes at least, the pursuit of external goods may hinder our moral ideals rather than fostering them, as the Aristotelians seem to think. And this is enough to show that Aristotle’s external goods cannot aptly be described as unconditionally good or beneficial, and so as strictly speaking good.

Should we go for the Aristotelian or the Stoic view on the external goods? This is a question that I am happy to leave for the reader to answer. What is important is not to misconstrue either position. While Aristotle assigns a role in our happiness to external goods, he certainly takes this role to be instrumental, and still believes that happiness has mainly to do with the possession and exercise of the virtues. Conversely, while the Stoics maintain that Aristotle’s external goods are not good, strictly speaking, they do not deny that external goods have value and do not discourage us from pursuing them as long as they are compatible with the possession and exercise of the virtues. The two positions, however, remain distinct and both have costs and benefits. At the end of the day, one may find Aristotle’s realistic understanding of happiness more convincing. But the price to pay for this is a rather exclusive and undemocratic conception of happiness. On the other hand, the Stoic idea of happiness is democratic and in principle open to everybody. But one may still wonder, of course, whether it is in fact attainable.

[1] This post is the transcript of Gabriele Galluzzo’s worshop at the STOICON 2016 conference.

Gabriele Galluzzo is a Lecturer in Ancient Philosophy at the University of Exeter. His main areas of research are Aristotle’s metaphysics and its medieval reception, but he is equally interested in how ancient philosophy has come to shape contemporary thought and ideas. His books include: The Medieval Reception of Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Book Zeta and Universals in Ancient Philosophy. Read more about Gabriele’s work here.

Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy and Stoicism – An Interview with Debbie Joffe Ellis

Continuing on with our series of posts on the plenary talks and workshops from Stoicon 2016, we have these reflections by a speaker who gave both a plenary talk and a workshop, Debbie Joffe Ellis.  As the editor of Stoicism Today, I took the opportunity to interview her about her Stoicon 2016 workshop, about Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), its affinities with Stoicism, her late husband (Albert Ellis), and her own practice.

GBS: Let’s talk, then, about the workshop.  So you gave a talk and delivered a workshop. How did the workshop go, and what were you focused on primarily?

DJE: The workshop went very well and the room was full with attendees. I focused on presenting the theory, methods & techniques of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, its philosophical component, and the fact that it can be more than just an effective evidence based approach – it is also a way of life and living for those who choose to apply it as such. From now on I will refer to Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy as REBT. One of the more powerful aspects of the workshop was giving a live demonstration of the approach, not a role-play, but the ‘real thing’ with a volunteer from the attendees present. When people get to see REBT applied, and observe how enlightening and empowering it can be in just a brief period of time, they can gain a deeper understanding of how impactful, substantive and effective an approach it can be. In the demonstration, which lasted only for about 25 minutes, the volunteer, and those viewing the demonstration, shared that surprising, major and beneficial insights were experienced.

REBT was influenced by the writing of the stoic philosophers. I mention that when I give presentations, whether at gatherings of psychologists or at a gathering like this Stoicon, and Al [Albert Ellis] acknowledged that influence when he spoke and when he wrote about the development of his approach.

There were other influences but some of the main tenets of REBT include ideas seen in Stoic writings, so I pointed that out as I went along in my workshop.  I described the main aspects of REBT and what sets it apart from the other approaches, particularly the cognitive ones, because REBT is the approach that heralded in the cognitive revolution in psychotherapy. Before it came along in the early 1950s, Sigmund Freud was the lord of the psychotherapeutic universe.

My husband was the first one in the field of psychology to so effectively challenge the tenets of psychoanalysis. In so doing, he received criticism and hatred – and was branded as “stupid” and “superficial” and worse than that.  But he continued on with his efforts because he believed so strongly in the efficacy of his approach and the efficiency of REBT. One can rightly say that he applied some of the stoic principles in his choice to not be affected by the barbs of others. He persevered in doing and sharing what he believed was most helpful for most humans, and as a result he succeeded in changing the world of psychotherapy and other fields.

Al saw REBT as not only the way to minimize emotional disturbance, but more than that – to create a life of quality, a life of self-created meaning that contributes not only to one’s self, but to the well-being of other humans and to the environment. REBT is a very holistic approach and way of being. In my view it is the most holistic approach of all the approaches in my field that I know of.

There are some misconceptions and false impressions about REBT. I don’t know if Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius or the other Stoics suffered from such things – because I think their place in history is seen as secure, along with their writings.

My husband wrote his first paper about REBT, which was then just called RT – “rational therapy” – in 1953. It was published in 1955. The Cognitive Therapy approach of Aaron Beck, came out fifteen years later, and he has acknowledged the help of my husband in creating the approach. Beck is part of the University of Pennsylvania, which has done enormous research on CBT, and I think that’s one of the reasons CBT is so well known.  There wasn’t that volume of research done on REBT. Nonetheless, the research done on CBT unsurprisingly supports the premises of REBT because much of CBT is based on the premises of REBT.

Interestingly, some of the misconceptions about REBT include that it came after CBT, or that it’s an offshoot of CBT.  Now there are newer cognitive approaches, some referred to as part of the “Third Wave” of cognitive approaches. One can recognize the components of REBT and Epictetus within them, and sadly, most of them don’t give credit where credit is due.

GBS: You know, I’m looking right here at Beck’s Cognitive Theory and the Emotional Disorders. I’m just reading through the index and there are of course a number of references to Ellis, but there is only one reference in the entire book to Epictetus. So what I think I’d like to ask is this:

With Ellis there is a much more clear lineage drawn out to Stoic philosophy as well as, like you pointed out, to many other sources that he’s synthesizing. We see people like Donald Robertson, for example, who is a cognitive behavioral therapist and is very cognizant of how Stoicism and that come together. Do you think that there is perhaps a chance that as Cognitive Behavior Therapy developed, it lost some of that connection to some of the inspirations of your husband?

DJE: I do think there is a good chance that is the case. Sadly, I am learning that in some colleges these days students of psychology or counseling study CBT, and REBT is barely presented. They are deprived of much valuable knowledge if they don’t learn about REBT and don’t learn its influences. They also miss out by not learning about the immeasurable influence REBT has had on the theories they do study.

Some speakers and writers about CBT and other approaches under the cognitive umbrella have recommended that a person distances themselves in some way from their thoughts.

REBT, more than substantially urging people to simply have objective awareness as much as possible about their thoughts, goes a lot deeper. It says, rather than distance oneself from the unhealthy thoughts, identify them.  Identify them really clearly, and as you do so, identify elements within them that are irrational, because one of the main premises of REBT is that when we think in an irrational way in response to adversity, we create unhealthy emotions.  And when we think in rational, healthy ways about the same adverse happenings, then we create and experience healthy and non-debilitating emotions.

So REBT says don’t distance yourself, identify the thoughts instead, and then come up with a healthy new beliefs. I’m not saying Cognitive Behavior Therapy doesn’t advise doing that – but what I have observed is that in REBT the means to do so are much more specific, more precise and we learn the ways to dispute irrational beliefs logically and pragmatically and realistically.

GBS: So with having emotional responses that are more productive, is it safe to say that REBT envisions the emotions as playing an important role in motivating us to do what’s good for us – or what’s good for others? So, that if we didn’t feel those things, there would be something lacking or less effective?

DJE: I love the way you put that question. Yes, most definitely. Another thing that REBT offers that I haven’t seen so much in the other cognitive approaches, is that it does teach us the difference between what is called healthy, negative emotions and unhealthy, negative emotions – negative not meaning bad, but meaning not pleasant, not joyful, not happy. So when you think in rational ways in approach to adversity, the healthy negative emotions created could do as you suggested, and would possibly motivate us to do what we can to create a beneficial change or at least to avoid doing anything that would cause destructive or debilitating outcomes.

Healthy negative emotions include concern instead of unhealthy anxiety and panic that debilitate, NOT motivate. Other healthy emotions are sadness and grief rather than their debilitating counterpart of unhealthy depression. Depression debilitates – whereas sadness and grief, experienced for example if someone we love dies, or for some – when they don’t get the outcome they want in a political election, do not debilitate, and often motivate one to take productive action. Fueled by those healthy feelings we might be more likely to consider, “What, if anything, can I do about this situation?” If someone creates despondency rather than sadness, they are less likely to reflect on what they might do that could be productive in the circumstance.

Another example would be healthy anger versus unhealthy rage. When we communicate in a rational way, from a place of healthy anger – about something we consider unfair, unjust, or worse – we are able to choose what we do or say. We don’t impulsively lash out or act in self-defeating ways. Healthy anger allows us to acknowledge that something is bad or unjust, and yet, we are able to think and speak rationally and avoid behaving in rash ways that may harm or thwart our purpose. On the other hand, rage often ends up creating outcomes that do not support our goals and can create much destruction.

The final example of healthy vs unhealthy negative emotions that I’ll mention here is that of experiencing healthy regret, which allows us to reflect and potentially avoid the possibility of repeating a behavior that was not good or productive. The unhealthy emotional counterparts of regret are shame and guilt, which can paralyze and have us feel and believe that we’re worthless. We damn ourselves, which can inhibit us from learning and moving forward in productive ways, and that then often creates added unhealthy emotions of depression and/or anxiety. REBT repeatedly reminds us that each of us has worth, simply because we exist. We may act in good or bad ways, but that doesn’t make us good or bad people. We are living beings, with worth, who can act in a variety of ways. Hopefully we choose to act in more life-enhancing and respectful ways than otherwise, but for those who don’t, their worth isn’t diminished despite any bad and disturbed behaviors. That assertion has frequently been a controversial aspect in REBT!

GBS: Let’s move on to talking about the session itself. You said that you had volunteers – or, maybe I’m mistaking it – either one volunteer or perhaps multiple ones – and you worked through some things in a very transformative way in the session itself.

DJE:  I had only one, because the workshop was only 90 minutes and the demonstration – you know, often I plan for it to be around 15-20 minutes when I only have 90 minutes, but this one was very compelling and things were being revealed, so there was only one – and it lasted about 25 minutes.

It’s not appropriate for me to give the name of the person, or to say anything to identify him or her. One of the things that I request in such a workshop is that in order to help such a person who bravely volunteers to feel safe enough to disclose what is going on for them and what their issues are to a room of people is a level of confidentiality. I request permission to talk at a later time about some of the issues that may emerge if doing so can help others, but also commit to not identifying that person nor transgressing the promise of privacy.

One of the reasons I do these live demonstrations (and when I ask for volunteers, I emphasize the need for them to share real issues and real problems, not engage in role-playing) is that they can provide deep and beneficial insights to one and all present. When real issues have been presented, I’ve never had non-productive demonstrations! The beauty of being and witnessing someone being real, authentic and open to considering the REBT principles and encouragement, is that when transformation happens in 15-20, or even 25 minutes, it certainly gives the person experiencing the session directly, and the viewing audience members, concrete evidence that when we change our thinking, we can change our emotions.

So in the case of the person who volunteered at Stoicon, and I won’t say whether the person was male or female, they brought up an issue related to relationships, and in a short period of time, through identifying their irrational beliefs, and questioning them, this person was able to see things differently and able to challenge their original beliefs. They could then clearly see that those former beliefs they were so convinced of weren’t universal truths! In fact, some of them were not true at all! Their restrictive unhealthy feelings changed to healthy ones, right there and then!

What REBT reminds us to do is to focus on what is possible, even when certain elements in our situation are realistically negative, so that we get to consider a broader perspective. In the demonstration not only did the person willingly participate, they appeared to be highly motivated to change, and that always helps. This person was determined to help themselves to suffer less, and in addition to following my guidance as we identified irrational beliefs, they willingly disputed some of those premises, which seemed gospel truth before reflecting and realizing such notions were far from fact or truth.

So in 25 minutes there was kind of a “WOW!” and the person who volunteered expressed great gratitude. Many of the attendees who came up later to share feedback said, “WOW!” In that short period of time – to identify the self-defeating thoughts, challenge them, broaden the perspective, realize what is realistic and factual, and deciding on clear goals to focus on going forward – this person transformed their emotions.  A pretty good use of time and effort I’d say! Some critics of REBT accuse it of being too general. I don’t think so!

GBS: No, no –it’s very interesting – and one of the things I was going to ask you in particular that you started to touch on is:  With the audience… do they end up – to some degree – saying, “Oh – I have this sort of issue as well.”  Or do they respond affectively to doing this?  It seems there would be quite a number of different reactions people might have.

DJE: Well, the answer to your question is an unequivocal “Yes”, and “Yes!” Many of the people who view live demonstrations say, “I can relate to that. I have something similar going on, or similar enough.” And then others, who may not have that specific, let’s say, relationship or other issue, still have the tendency to think in irrational ways and make themselves unnecessarily emotionally disturbed in other scenarios.  So even though they may not relate to the same exact circumstance that was explored in the demonstration, they learn from watching the way I and the volunteer hone in on identifying the irrational beliefs, the way they are disputed, and the way we then come up with effective, rational healthy beliefs.

And then, what is very important to keep in mind, and what I emphasize the importance of in any workshop I give, is that for most people to maintain any benefit from an epiphany or realization that occurs during a workshop or the like, requires more than just gaining the new understanding. For most people, the awareness of the change and the ability to make it long-lasting, requires effort, ongoing effort. Homework. REBT offers cognitive, emotive and behavioral forms of homework. An example of a cognitive one might be the person reading and focusing on the healthy new beliefs that were created in response to identifying and disputing the toxic ones. Those toxic beliefs may have been there for decades and decades, depending on the age of the person, and until REBT they often viewed them as universal truths rather than realistically as unhealthy, irrational beliefs that burdened and restricted them. Usually homework is to be done for at least 30 days.

Some people who view a demonstration respond:  “I can strongly relate and I’m going to do what you suggested to the volunteer!” Others simply learn more about how to apply the approach to their own situation.

GBS: That’s quite a range…

DJE: Yes. That’s why I love what I do. I love sharing this because it’s not complicated – it’s quite common-sense – and for people who are motivated to change, it’s not…difficult, it just takes effort. Persistence, some patience, and ongoing effort.

GBS: You know, it strikes me that that’s another place where Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy differs from, say, Freudian depth psychology, or other approaches as well, because you could actually do a demonstration of it.  If someone is going to be psychoanalyzed, it could be years of going to the therapist before something would come out of it.  It’s not going to be that immediate – getting at something that somebody else could look at from the outside and say, “I think maybe that would work for me, too.”

DJE: You just identified the reason my husband created his approach! He was trained in psychoanalysis – in his day and age when studying psychology one didn’t have a choice. Al studied it and was practicing it. He observed that for some people he worked with who were undergoing psychoanalytic therapy, they might have felt better and gained some insights, but they weren’t actually getting better, and they weren’t learning how to take responsibility for the creation of their emotions. They continued to think in the ways that created their emotional disturbances in the first place.

Al wanted to help as many people as possible in his life-time and beyond to learn that we, if we’re not cognitively impaired, do have the power to create our own emotional destinies. We may not have such power to control many of our circumstances – but certainly we have a choice in how we think about them, in how we react and respond, and feel about them. And so, exactly what you said, unlike the long-term nature of most psychoanalytic approaches…. REBT is a magnificent short-term therapy for many people, and the more motivated a person is to change, and the more they make effort, their more likely they will achieve their therapeutic goals efficiently and effectively.

Whether a person is receiving REBT therapy, or applying the principles themselves in self-help mode, one can ask -how quickly are they going to experience change, and lasting change at that? The answer is – the more they do, do, do, the more effectively and substantially they change, change, change!

So, you hit on one of the core differences between REBT and some other cognitive approaches, and the approaches of Freud and others who came after him in the psychoanalytic field. Do we want to have tools that will help us creating healthy behavior, and minimize emotional suffering and maximize enjoyment in what would take less time for many clients in all probability?  Stoic philosophy influenced Al’s own philosophy of life and living, and his approach of REBT reminds us of the importance of using the mind in constructive ways. Life contains suffering and loss, and in order to maximize joy, we had best not create and add unnecessary suffering and pain through thinking in unproductive and self-defeating ways.

GBS: So it seems that cultivating autonomy of the person who is engaging in the therapy is a core value.

DJE: Yes. Exactly – it is a core value. And it’s not just about focusing on ‘me being me’, but also about having social interest and caring about the well-being of others, helping others, and also being sensitive to the environment and not being destructive. REBT encourages us to do what we can to prevent or change any changeable human-made destruction that is going on. So it’s very holistic, as I said earlier, a core premise is that we’d best be aware of how we create our own meaning, our own emotions, our own behaviors and let’s choose the healthy ways of life and being in the world and with others, and let’s also help others whenever possible. When we help others it contributes to greater self-awareness, choice and a sense of empowerment. When we help other people, it helps us to help ourselves. In the spirit of credit where credit is due, I do want to mention that one of the people who also influenced Al was Alfred Adler who – in his approach to psychology also encouraged social interest. Adler had some components in his approach that were more aligned with psychoanalysis, but in terms of social interest and some other components of his theory, my husband did appreciate Adler’s work.

GBS: So there’s something, to go back to Stoicism, like the Stoic conception of cosmopolitanism, and extending affection outward from the people that we’re very close to, to wider and wider circles to all humanity, or all rational beings – and maybe we’ll find out some day that dolphins are rational, or elephants are rational in the sense the Stoics meant – and it seems there is something very similar to that in REBT.

DJE: I believe that dolphins, elephants and other creatures on our remarkable planet operate within states of consciousness and thinking that as yet few, if any, humans can even imagine. There are countless documented accounts of such creatures behaving in altruistic ways, demonstrating compassion, play, humor, kindness, and experiencing grief. Such experiences are unlikely to be stimulated by the primitive fight-or-flight part of their brains! Yes, it will be fascinating if we can learn more about the way these noble animals think. In the meantime I fervently hope that more humans learn to respect and appreciate all forms of life, not only their fellow-humans.

GBS: I imagine you’ve been doing these sorts of workshops and demonstrations for a number of years – and you saw your husband doing them as well.  Is there something that you’ve learned over the course of doing this over and over and over again…?

DJE: I guess one of the first and easiest answers that pops to mind, as I mentioned to you earlier, is that the more motivated a person is to make ongoing efforts in order to create beneficial changes, the more likely it is that they will change. There is a psycho-educational component to REBT – people are taught to help themselves and not rely on the therapist or teacher of the approach. When I give workshops, whether they’re the 90-minute ones, like I did at Stoicon, or when I do half-day or all-day workshops, one of the things I continue to notice is that on occasions someone may volunteer for the demonstration, and then they want me to do most of the work, and/or they have an expectation that the impact of their years of unhealthy thinking and feelings should be easy to change. On occasion someone may want me to agree with them when they’re blaming other people for their own misery – and they soon discover that (for their good) they won’t get that from me!

I remind them that yes, I don’t suggest that they deny or excuse it as okay when behavior from others is brutal or insensitive, and it is important to face and accept reality. REBT doesn’t distort or repress facts, nonetheless people have a choice of either thinking they’re victims and to consequently feel depressed, unworthy, and/or enraged at the wrong-doer, OR of acknowledging that this or that rotten thing happened but that they can choose to acknowledge and recognize that: (1) they survived, and (2) that when people act in very bad ways, it’s not necessarily because they’re totally evil – but because they are thinking in disturbed ways.

And rather than putting energy into damning such people, it’s better for individuals to put more energy into thinking, “Yes, they did a bad thing but I choose to focus on the fact that I survived. I can unconditionally accept myself and focus on what I can do in this circumstance. I can stubbornly refuse to continue to create and feel unhealthy emotions that eat away at me, and don’t change the past. I choose to focus on what is good in the here and now, and to dispute any thoughts that create emotions that rob me of life, vitality, greater joy and wellbeing.”

Something I have observed over the years is that the people who get the most out of REBT are those who are willing to put the most effort into thinking, feeling and acting differently after they learned what they learned from the workshop or the lecture.

And then another thing I’ve observed over the years is how many people believe similar irrational beliefs until they recognize the harmful consequences of doing so and are willing to dispute them. Two major REBT components that I want to highlight – that are presented in REBT are 1) the identification of three core irrational beliefs from which a multitude of others come and also, 2) the emphasis that REBT has on the importance of unconditional acceptance that the other cognitive behavioral processes do not emphasize as much.

So, firstly, the three core irrational beliefs are: First, “I must do well and be approved or loved by other people.” Secondly, “You must treat me well and act the way I think you should.” And finally, “Life should be fair and just.”

The unconditional part of REBT is seen in its urging of us to make effort to experience more often and deeply the components of unconditional self-acceptance (USA); unconditional other acceptance (UOA); and unconditional life acceptance (ULA). Accepting doesn’t mean liking – and it doesn’t mean indifference – and it doesn’t mean neutrality in terms of behavior or in seeking consequences for those who have performed bad actions. It means accepting reality, human fallibility (our own and that of others), and remembering that we have resilience and can choose to make efforts to cope successfully when bad things happen.

For example, if someone has treated me very badly, REBT would remind me to work on having unconditional other acceptance of them. That doesn’t mean liking what they did – and if they acted in brutal ways, it would be abnormal for me to like such behavior. It doesn’t mean unconditional other acceptance tends towards an attitude of not doing anything about bad stuff. No way!  REBT would encourage a person to take action if it seems that could be constructive.

A common criticism of me and my husband in relation to unconditional other-acceptance is heard when people say, “How can you say to someone who has been raped or abused – or their family has been killed – to have unconditional other acceptance?” Well, REBT doesn’t say it’s easy, but reminds us that if we don’t make such effort, we will continue to suffer for the rest of our lives. We will continue to carry bitterness and hatred and rage and, from a holistic perspective, it’s well known that this creates physical illness.  There is a lot of research proving that. We make ourselves sick, emotionally and often physically. And it doesn’t do any good. So, how do you accept someone unconditionally when they’ve done a horrible thing to you?

Well, here is what REBT recommends. If we are willing to consider the fact that if any one of us had the abuser’s genetic makeup, if any one of us had been brought up the way they had, if any one of us had similar experiences as those that they had in their young and adult lives, if we believed what they believed, and finally, if any one of us was thinking what that person was thinking when they did whatever ugly act they did – then we probably would have done the same thing. A person who commits brutality is brain damaged – and I don’t say that sarcastically: I say it literally. A person with a healthy brain and mind does not rape and murder.

Thinking in that way doesn’t take the abusive person off the hook. A person who has been abused and yet chooses to work on forgiveness and unconditional acceptance will be more likely to respond to the atrocious acts in a steady, calm and productive way than the person who immerses himself or herself in rage or in bitterness. And finally, on this point, we know that it is humanly possible. There are plenty of examples that show it is possible, where a person who has been abused has chosen not to hate the perpetrator. There are people who, in the past, knew someone who had been a murderer of someone close – and could sincerely feel and say, “We forgive him. We forgive him.”

GBS: Absolutely.

DJE: And another thing that REBT emphasizes that other cognitive approaches may not disagree with, but they don’t emphasize it as much, is the power of gratitude. As I did mention earlier, REBT reminds us to focus on what still is good – especially during the brutal chapters of our lives. I wrote an article about just that in the Journal of Spirituality in Clinical Practice, published by the American Psychological Association, in March, 2015.

GBS: I think the only school that I see that has a similar emphasis on gratitude is the positive psychology people – but they tend to approach it in a very different way.

DJE: You are correct in that and, to his credit, Marty Seligman, who is considered the father of positive psychology, has often acknowledged the tremendous influence Al’s work had on his own.

GBS: That makes sense. This is going to get back a little bit more into ancient philosophy – but Cicero, who is a Stoic of sorts, but who disagrees with them on some key things. For example, about grief, he says the Stoics don’t acknowledge it the way they should.

He calls gratitude the mother of all the virtues, which is an interesting departure. And that gets quoted a lot – but then nobody reads the rest of the Cicero work that it comes from. But he seemed to have thought that it was really central and that without it there is something lacking to these other good dispositions.

DJE: I agree with that. And so does REBT.  Gratitude doesn’t dilute any of the other dispositions you mention – it enriches lives. When we live with a sense of awe and wonder, we bring upliftment to everyday life – even in mundane circumstances!  There is plentiful, and growing, research on the positive impact on the cardiac health of people who practice gratitude and who experience awe and wonder in their lives. REBT has from the get-go asked people to focus on that which is awesome and wonderful.

Al wasn’t about encouraging people to live a nice, neutral life that was devoid of any suffering. He encouraged people to live an intentional life, to work towards experiencing greater joy and tranquility, and to accept the probability that life would contain some loss and suffering. He also taught us how to focus on the positives in life and not elevate healthy sadness and grief into states of debilitating emotional suffering when adversities were experienced. He encouraged people to live lives infused with moral and ethical preferences and choices. REBT is largely about creating the healthy emotions when times are tough, whilst at the same time being mindful of allowing the experience of awe, wonder and gratitude for the opportunity to live this human life to infuse our awareness and enrich our minds, bodies and spirits.

Dr. Debbie Joffe Ellis is a licensed Australian psychologist, licensed New York MHC, and adjunct professor at Columbia University TC. She presents and teaches in her home city of New York, throughout the USA and across the globe.  You can watch the videorecording of her plenary speech at Stoicon 2016 here