Stoicism, Sports, And Packers Fandom by Greg Sadler

Growing up as I did in Wisconsin in the 1970s and 1980s, you might think it a foregone conclusion that I would become a Packers fan.  For those readers unfamiliar with the American context, that’s our NFL football team, based in the small city of Green Bay (though playing some games in Milwaukee during my teenage years).  And I have indeed been a fan of our home team since my childhood.  During Fall and Winter, my wife and I watch as many of the games as we can – much easier to do, since we moved back to Milwaukee from where we were working in New York – and we engage in considerable conversation about the various aspects of the sport with our friends, neighbors, and family.  I even recently joined the “NFC North Trash Talk Division” Facebook Group (where I generally don’t post or comment, but do check out what members are saying).

Because of my commitments to and work with Stoic philosophy and practice, I get quite a few questions about being a sports fan in general, and more specifically about being a fan of NFL football.  To some people, sports just seem a silly or even irresponsible waste of time, unworthy of the attention of anyone with serious intellectual or practical pursuits.  Among them are the commenters who make the now-stale jibes about “sporting sports hard today, while we watch sportsball” and the like.  Others wonder how someone who studies and applies Stoicism –I don’t claim myself to be a Stoic, but I do draw heavily on their thought – could possibly get anything out of watching the Packers play, let alone care enough to engage in discussions about the team, their prospects, and the sport of football.

Let’s put the question bluntly. Aren’t these two things basically incompatible – a serious commitment to Stoicism, on the one hand, and being a genuine, committed fan of a sports team, on the other?  This is a topic to which I found myself devoting a considerable amount of reflection – particularly over the course of our now-losing 2017 season – and my answer is No.

In fact, as I’ll explain a bit later, since incorporating Stoic insights and practices into my own life, I’ve found watching my home team play a much more enjoyable experience, and I’d even say that I’ve become a better fan in the process.

Growing Up Green And Gold

The Packers were a spectacularly bad team during my formative years as a child, then a teenager, and then a young man.  They had won the first two Super Bowls, in 1966 and 1967, under the legendary coach Vince Lombardi, and all of the adults remembered those “glory years” quite well.  I was born in 1970, and that decade was not a good one for the Packers.  They had two winning seasons, one in 1972 and the other in 1978.  To their credit, they never dipped below winning four games in any of those seasons, but my most consistent memory of those days involves a lot of disappointment, frustration, and nostalgia.  Not just felt by the adults, but especially by us kids.  We would watch game after game, with the adults talking up how great the Packers had been, hoping that “this will be the year”, and see them lose more often than not.  They exemplified the quip about “managing to snatch defeat out of the mouth of victory.”

The 1980s were a little bit better in certain respects, since there were not just two winning seasons – 1982 and 1989 – but also (from 1981-1985) four seasons where the Packers managed to break even, winning as many games as they lost.  Comparatively, that felt like progress.  But that was also the decade when our closest rival, the Chicago Bears, were hot – they won the 1985 Super Bowl – and routinely pushed the hapless Packers all over the gridiron.  You’d see quite a lot of Blue and Orange (the Bears’ colors) up here in Wisconsin.  There were even more fair-weather-fans up here who switched to the much more successful Dallas Cowboys.

Looking back on it, growing up as a “Packer backer” in the 1970s and 1980s – not to mention growing up in Wisconsin at that time in general – functioned as an induction to what gets called “lower-case-s” stoicism.  This is that overall attitude of toughness, overcoming obstacles, enduring, stuffing down emotions, not displaying pain.  It is quite commonly referenced in the present as a “personality trait.”  That comportment was what the ball-players displayed on the field, and – particularly (though not exclusively) for us boys – it was what adults often demanded of us.  It actually served one well for the weekly ritual of watching the game together.  If you just expected the Packers to probably lose, the palpable disappointment in the air (and sometimes even rage) wouldn’t get to you as much.

The lower-case-s version of “stoicism” is something quite different from the actual ancient philosophy of Stoicism.  Although in certain contexts it may prove a useful disposition, it often hinders or prevents personal growth, productive and rich relationships, or even a cheerful engagement with life.  As far as sports and fandom go, while stoicism might be useful when sitting on a cold bench and cheering the team through inclement weather, a stoic attitude seems almost the antithesis of fun.  And quite honestly, quite often being a Packers fan – which was what was expected – back in those years was anything but enjoyable. It sometimes felt more like a never-ending obligation that, by virtue of growing up in this state, and within a family that stuck with the home team, you were just stuck with.

From 1992 on – my junior year in college – things changed, and the Packers developed into a powerhouse team.  There were a number of reasons for that, but I’m less interested in looking at those, and much more interested in the effects that success had.  From 1992 to 2004 – with the exception of 1999 –  the Packers racked up one winning season after another.  They went to the playoffs ten times, and won the Super Bowl in 1997.  There was a bit of a rough patch, with losing seasons in 2005 and 2008, and then from 2009 up to this year, the Packers have not only had winning seasons, but went to the playoffs every year, and even won yet another Super Bowl in 2010.

2017 has been a very rough year for the team, and consequently for their fans.  Our star quarterback, Aaron Rogers, had his collarbone broken during a rough sack, and that seriously handicapped the team. His replacement, Brett Hundley – who had been mentored by Rogers to step in for precisely this sort of situation – proved a major disappointment when given the opportunity. There have been a number of other issues as well.  The once impressive Packers defense has been weak, giving up far too many points, failing to stop passes and runs, and missing tackles.  The offensive line failed to protect the quarterback and to open up lines for the run game.  The rosters have been decimated by injuries.  One could go on and on.

What’s particularly interesting to see – from a Stoic perspective – are the reactions exhibited by many of the fans.  After two decades, they have become accustomed to seeing the Packers dominating their division rivals, consistently winning games and seasons, and going on yearly to participate in the playoffs.  Expectations have been raised, and when – as is the case this year – they cannot be met, the fans experience and exhibit all manner of negative emotions.

Each of these emotional responses – and the judgements typically associated with them – are familiar to students of Stoic philosophy.  I’ll just mention one example.  The Stoics distinguished a number of distinct sorts or modalities of anger (see for example, the discussions in Diogenes Laertes, Cicero, and Arius Didymus), and all of those show up in the reactions of Packers fans in the present.

“We deserve a team that goes to the playoffs every year!” is the judgement.   As strange as that may sound, I do hear quite a few people saying that.  Since we are definitely not making the playoffs – and might even have a losing season – this leads to anger, and then settling on targets for their outrage.  That often takes the form of demanding that someone be fired – the head coach, for instance, or the defensive coordinator, or the general manager.

Fear is another emotion that arises while watching the very game itself, and for many fans this interferes with their enjoyment that should be their prime reason to view it.  I have known some usually quite rational people who lapse into strange (and sometimes, I suspect, made up on the spot) superstitious behavior and attitudes while a football game is on.  Some get upset if you to speculate about the score, or what the teams might do next, fearing you might “jinx” the game.

Packer games are serious business for many people here in Wisconsin.  But it is possible to maintain perspective and equanimity while participating in this communal sports-watching. For me, a game remains just a game – even if I allow myself to get drawn into the general excitement in years when the Packers move from success to success.  And when current fans start complaining loudly about lackluster performance, I remember back to those years of my youth, when we dutifully watched a team that we hoped might do better than their usual, but fully expected not only to lose the game but to play poorly at points as well.  I remind myself that the very nature of the sport is that teams rise and fall.  After all, I grew up during one of those long periods when the Packers did poorly.  That lends a certain, very useful, perspective.

Should A Stoic Be A Sports Fan?

Up to this point, as I’ve narrated a bit of Packer history, reflected on my own Wisconsin upbringing, and mentioned a few insights from Stoicism, I haven’t really discussed the main question that I started with – is a commitment to upper-case-S (i.e. the genuine article) Stoicism compatible with being a sports fan?  Or is fandom something that, as a person makes progress along the Stoic path, they would necessarily need to leave behind?

It really depends on what we understand being a “fan” to involve.  The understanding some people have of what it means for them to be a fan clearly does include some elements that are quite frankly not only incompatible with Stoicism, but with other forms of virtue ethics as well.  The term “fan” is believed to derive, as a shortened form, from the longer word “fanatic,” and there certainly are many contemporary fans whose behavior, language, priorities, and attitudes exemplify that original meaning.

If you think about what professional team sports – particularly those that enjoy a massive fan base – entail, then from a capital-S Stoic perspective there are a number of problematic aspects.  Consider just a few, stemming from Epictetus’ teachings about the dichotomy of control and the right use of appearances.

Being a football fan carries the risk of placing undue emphasis on a combination of things that are outside our control.  Our own body is something, strictly speaking outside our control, and that goes all the more for what other people’s – for example those of your own favored team – do or don’t do, suffer or strive for.  Add an opposing team, or weather and field conditions, and you have a prime example of the type of thing Epictetus counsels us against allowing our desire and aversion to reach out to.  Other externals include social status (i.e. bragging rights) the thoughts and feelings of other people, and winning itself – the Greeks had a name, philonikia, for the desire for beating others.

Stoics don’t believe that a person should simply shun externals, or even not care about them at all – that’s not what Stoic “indifference” (adiaphoria) really means.  But it is vitally important to assign them their proper place in the scheme of things.  Whether or not one’s local team wins or loses isn’t something that should really matter for the Stoic, and it definitely should not be assigned a higher value than, for example, spending quality time and developing good relationships with family members and friends, let alone cultivating the virtues – wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance.  The “bonding” that people claim occurs through watching games together, or the instant camaraderie available when encountering a fellow fan (as a Packer backer, I can count on finding some fellow fans practically anywhere in the USA) is often very shallow, and can easily become a substitute getting in the way of things that should matter more to the Stoic.

Some fans not only allow their desires and aversions to become deeply entangled with the externals of professional sports, they go beyond this by assenting to a deeply irrational judgement, i.e. that anything they think, say, do, or feel can in some way influence the outcome of a game.  Motivated by hope and fear, they avoid saying certain things – even demand that others don’t say them – or they wear or refrain from wearing some article of clothing.  I’ve even known a family where one member was not allowed to be in the room watching the game with the rest of them, because they had the belief that if he was permitted to join them, the Packers’ play would suffer.  All of this, from a Stoic perspective, represents a sort of low-grade insanity.

Going even further, there are fans who keep themselves “informed” – and get themselves quite worked up – about all sorts of other aspects of the game, their team, its prospects, and its management.  During the off-season, they read, watch, or listen to the plethora of media available about the players and their lives, plans for the coming season, speculations about drafts, trades, and free agency.  Some of them memorize statistics of various sorts.  Those who develop sufficiently strong opinions express them – often contentiously – to whoever will listen, at work and at home, in their social media, and if they really hit the jackpot,

Strictly speaking, from a Stoic perspective everything that happens concerning one’s sports team is really just a vast complex of “appearances” or “impressions” (both of these English terms translate the Greek phantasiai, which can also mean “imaginations”).  Consider what Epictetus says about the drama and epic poetry and performances of his own time.

The Iliad consists of nothing but such appearances and the use [khresis] of appearances. It seemed to Paris that he should carry off the wife of Menelaus. It seemed to Helen that she should follow him. If, then, it had seemed to Menelaus that it was an advantage to be robbed of such a wife, what could have happened? Not only the Iliad had been lost, but the Odyssey too.

And what tragedy has any other origin? The Atreus of Euripides, what is it? Appearance. The Oedipus of Sophocles? Appearance. The Phoenix? The Hippolytus? All appearance. Who then, think you, can escape this influence? What are they called who follow every appearance? Madmen. Yet do we, then, behave otherwise?

This line of reasoning quite arguably applies to football games themselves, along with the constant commentary on them by the sportscasters, and the talk and cheering (or boos, or angry expostulations) of the fans.  But this realization that all of this is just appearances applies equally to everything else concerned with NFL football (or any other sport for that matter), from commercials advertising jerseys and other game wear, to shows on sports talk radio, to “how ‘bout them Packers” small talk chitter-chatter.  Stoic philosophy doesn’t tell us to entirely dissociate ourselves from these complexes of appearances, of course, but it does urge us to use them rightly, as well as to understand them.  And adequate understanding and proper use would seemingly rule out much of what passes for football fandom.

There are a number of other key dimensions of Stoic doctrine that might seem to be incompatible with football fandom.  One that particularly stands out, in my view, is the committment to an attitude of cosmopolitanism.  Being a fan of a team arbitrarily associated with a geographical region, with all of its inherited rivalries and animosities with other teams and their fans, seems highly irrational.  Fan loyalties can last a lifetime, over multiple crosscountry moves, taking on an aspect that almost appears a sort of patriotism.  But, what is one proud of in this?  How well a team plays a game against other teams?  The record they rack up?  Whether they have a legacy of competing in the playoffs or winning the Super Bowl?  The colors associated with them?  The stadium they play in (generally financed by regional taxpayers)?  These don’t seem like the sorts of things a Stoic should really care about or value, do they?

Why Stoicism Makes For Better Fans

There are quite a few discussions bearing upon sports of various sorts, and particularly on those interested in those sports, in classic Stoic texts.  Some of these are quite perjorative.  Marcus Aurelius expresses gratitude towards his first teacher for leading him:

Not to support this side or that in chariot-racing, this fighter or that in the games (1.5)

Within his list of injunctions in the Enchiridion, Epictetus advises:

Talk, but rarely, if occasion calls you, but do not talk of ordinary things—of gladiators, or horse-races, or athletes. . . (33)

Seneca draws an illuminating contrast in his Letters:

For although the body needs many things in order to be strong, yet the mind grows from within, giving to itself nourishment and exercise. Yonder athletes must have copious food, copious drink, copious quantities of oil, and long training besides; but you can acquire virtue without equipment and without expense. All that goes to make you a good man lies within yourself. (Letter 80)

Clearly, engaging in sports and athletic training, let alone spending time focused on watching athletic contests, is something tangential to the good life, and development of good character, as the Stoics conceived of it.  Going too far – and that is easy to do in our contemporary society – in devoting one’s time and attention to professional sports draws one away from the Stoic path.

But perhaps there are multiple ways to be a fan of a football team, or more generally to take an interest in any sport, contest, or team.  After all, we do see Epictetus making analogy after analogy between Stoicism in its practice and both the training and the competition involved in the rough wrestling of his times.  It seems likely that he spent a considerable amount of time observing these athletes, and perhaps even enjoyed watching them.  With a model like that – and mind you, I’m not claiming that Epictetus was a “fan” – there is room for thinking that some sort of fandom would be fully compatible with Stoicism.

Epictetus uses a yet more promising metaphor in book 2 of the Discourses, in a discussion bearing upon the “use of” or “dealing with” (khresis) matters that are externals, indifferent, and outside our control.  He affirms the traditional Stoic doctrine that these sorts of things do not have value in themselves, but reminds us that our use of them – what we make of them, or how we deal with them – is something in our control, and can be good or bad.  Notice what he uses to illustrate this point:

This you may see to be the practice of those who play skillfully at ball. No one strives for the ball itself, as either a good or an evil; but how he may throw and catch it again. Here lies the address, here the art, the nimbleness, the skill; lest I fail to catch it, even when I open my breast for it, while another catches it whenever I throw it. But if we catch or throw it in fear and trembling, what kind of play will this be? How shall we keep ourselves steady, or how see the order of the game? One will say, throw; another, do not throw; a third, you have thrown once already. This is a mere quarrel, not a play. (2.5)

He goes on to tell us that the “ball” in this case can be all sorts of matters.  In the case of Socrates, he played ball skillfully at his trial, maintaining his character when faced with unjust charges and the threat of execution.  He knew that the outcome of that forensic sporting match was not up to him, but he played his part to the best of his ability.  The ball in that case, Epictetus tells us was:

Life, chains, exile, a draught of poison, separation from a wife, and leaving his children orphans.

He concludes that we should exhibit care and attention with respect to the play, but remain indifferent about the ball itself.

What if we turn the metaphor around, and make the ball a literal one, the proverbial pigskin?  What lesson does this then contain for the football fan?  It is possible to root for one’s team, to desire that they play well, even to delight in their play, without getting wrapped up in what the ultimate outcome of the game – not to mention what the record is for the season –  happens to be.

In any contest – barring a tie – one of the teams has to win and the other has to lose. That is the nature of the game and its rules.  And some teams will go on to compete for the championship one year, while others watch from the sidelines.  Again, that is simply the way things are.  If I choose to place my desire and aversion into how my team does, whether in the entire game, or even in a particular moment, I am setting myself up for being troubled, for feeling fear, anger, disappointment, inordinate desire, and other problematic emotions.

Adopting a Stoic perspective, in my own experience, not only makes being a fan much more enjoyable, but arguably allows one to be a better fan in a number of respects.  It induces a much more realistic perspective on the prospects for one’s team, its players, and the events that are going to happen – from injuries to bad calls, to missed tackles and dropped passes – on “any given Sunday”.  Not stressing out over the outcome of the game, or even whether this or that drive will be successful, frees one up to appreciate the play of the game better.  Even watching the Packers lose to a team that, on the day of the game, happens to be a better team (or at least to play well) can feel all right. After all the team that plays better deserves to win. And it is, in the end, just a game.

What is the role of a fan, Epictetus might ask one of his students?  Is it to get upset and curse the referees? To call for the firing of the coach, a player, the general manager?  To demand that one’s own team win all or most of the games, and go on to the playoffs every year?  Or is it rather to show up, tune in, and support the team?  To cheer on the team, and to rejoice when they play well, when they display skill and sportsmanship, when they strive to do difficult things on the field.  Is it to berate and hate the fans of other teams?  Or is it instead to share a common experience, an activity of watching, cheering, and enjoying the game with others, those wearing your colors and those wearing the other team’s?

The last point I will make is that, from a strictly Stoic perspective, it is not only possible to feel emotions while watching one’s team play.  Feeling positive emotions would be an integral part of Stoic fandom.  A desire, a joy, even a cautiousness that remain within the scope of reason – these are what the Stoics called the eupatheia, the “well-felt emotions” – these are what I myself experience these days when we turn on and watch the game.  That certainly feels better than the negative emotions I felt until fairly recently – and works better than the lower-case-s stoicism I learned in my youth – when continuing to partake in our Wisconsin tradition of being a Packers fan.

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 tutorial, coaching, and philosophical counseling services, and producing educational resources.  He has created over 100 videos on Stoic philosophy, regularly speaks and provides workshops on Stoicism, and is currently working on several book projects.

Buddhist and Stoic Wisdom by Antonia Macaro

The intriguing similarities between early Buddhism and Stoicism are not a well-kept secret. How to go about even beginning to map them is not so easy. A systematic approach to listing all the similarities and differences would probably take several PhDs. When I finally resolved to attempt the daunting task of comparing the two systems, after years of thinking about it, I decided the only way to do it was to adopt a broad brush approach. Here I will sum up some of my conclusions.

Life is Dukkha

The starting point for both Buddhism and Stoicism is the human condition and the suffering state of humanity. Most of us tend to believe we will be happy when we achieve certain worldly things – wealth, comfort and material goods, success and popularity, romantic relationships and so on. In practice it’s not that easy, as happiness has a persistent habit of eluding us. Almost as soon as we achieve these things, we start wanting something else. It’s been called the ‘hedonic treadmill’. Ultimately, of course, all of us will lose everything, and this is hard to accept.

It’s impossible to go through life without constantly failing to get or losing the things we want and being afflicted with those we don’t want. The Buddhist word for this is dukkha: suffering, or unsatisfactoriness. In the timeless words of the Buddha, ‘birth is dukkha, ageing is dukkha, illness is dukkha, death is dukkha; union with what is displeasing is dukkha; separation from what is pleasing is dukkha; not to get what one wants is dukkha’. While the Stoics didn’t have a similar word for this sorry state of affairs, their writings eloquently capture the impermanence and uncontrollability of worldly things.

There is an Alternative.  Both Buddhism and Stoicism speak to this unsatisfactory and pained state and see themselves as offering an alternative to it. Their most pressing message is that we are systematically deluded about what is genuinely valuable in life. Therefore they urge us above all to see through the delusion that worldly goods, impermanent and outside our control as they are, can make us happy ever after.

Ultimate Aims

If the pursuit of worldly goods is not the path to the good life, what is? In one sense Buddhism and Stoicism diverge substantially on this, as we would expect of traditions born in completely different cultural spheres. In Buddhism the highest ideal is that of nirvana, in Stoicism that of ‘living in accordance with nature’.

Nirvana is a complex ideal, which has several aspects: cognitive, experiential, ethical and existential. Through the experience of nirvana a person (usually a monastic) comes to ‘see things as they really are’. This has existential implications in that after nirvana the endless chain of rebirths, which is assumed in Buddhism, is said to cease. If, like me, you are sceptical about the concept of rebirth, you could focus on the ethical transformation that endures once the experience has ended.  For instance, the unwholesome states of greed, aversion and delusion are completely conquered and replaced by non-attachment, kindness and wisdom.

The Stoic ‘living in accordance with nature’ instead refers to conforming to the providential rational principle that orders the world. This means coming to see that virtue is the only good and vice the only evil, and acting accordingly – always remembering that we have complete control over our faculty of choice but no control over external goods. All the worldly things that dazzle and lure us are in fact indifferent, so we should not overvalue them or spend too much effort pursuing them, certainly not if this clashes in any way with virtue. The litmus test for this is the presence of emotions – a sure sign that we are valuing things incorrectly.

Then there is the issue of self or soul. Buddhism is said to deny the ‘self’. In reality the Buddha never denied there was such a thing as a functioning self, it’s just that this breaks down into components, much like a chariot is made up of pole, axle, wheels and so on. We’d be wrong to conclude there is no such a thing as a chariot, we only need to realise it has no lasting essence. What the Buddha denied was more like what we might mean by ‘soul’. The Stoics did posit a soul, but this wasn’t incorporeal, and it’s not clear to what extent it endured after death.

Overall, the two traditions have quite different visions of the good life, although it is worth noting that both require a complete reassessment and challenge of our default priorities, leanings and desires. But while the ultimate promise of Buddhism and Stoicism may differ, if we leave metaphysics behind and concentrate on how to live, the two traditions converge again.

Ethical Action

Beyond the metaphysics, what matters in both traditions is endeavouring to be a good person, cultivating the dispositions and intentions to act well. This is what produces real happiness, as opposed to the bogus ordinary version that depends on the impermanent and unreliable things of the world happening to go our way. The joy that arises from virtue ‘never ceases or turns into its opposite’, says Seneca. Pleasure and joy spring from thinking good thoughts, speaking good words and doing good deeds, says the Buddha.

Arguably, in both Buddhism and Stoicism the highest ideal is that of equanimity. This is not valued just because it might ‘feel nice’, but because it is a lived expression of having adopted the right principles. (Incidentally, this makes claims that the traditions offer prototypes of contemporary psychotherapy problematic.) In Stoicism, this means having come to value things appropriately, and understood that external things are neither good nor bad. In Buddhism, it is about truly understanding that all phenomena are dukkha, impermanent and lacking a stable core.

In practice, in both traditions equanimity means being steady and even-minded in the face of the ups and downs of worldly fortune. This is achieved by turning away from and drastically reducing our desires for the shifting and unsatisfactory things of the world that most people value and pursue without questioning. In Buddhism these are referred to as the eight worldly conditions: gain and loss, fame and disrepute, praise and blame, pleasure and pain. The Stoics would agree.

Equanimity on its own risks sliding into indifference, and in both Buddhism and Stoicism it is balanced with compassion. In neither tradition is compassion seen as any kind of ‘feeling with’ another person; instead it is more to do with understanding someone’s predicament and being motivated to help. While acknowledging the importance of compassion, both traditions recognise it is a slightly tricky virtue, as we have to be aware of the danger of taking it too far and being pulled into unwholesome mental states, or into adopting a mistaken worldview. Just like equanimity needs compassion, compassion needs equanimity. It seems to me that the two sit in a slightly uneasy embrace, though, potentially pulling us in different directions.

Daily Practice

How do we transform ourselves from the benighted creatures who run after the wrong things and suffer to wise beings who see things for what they are, value them accordingly, and are able to maintain equanimity in the face of worldly upheavals? Even though in both Buddhism and Stoicism intellectual understanding is crucial, equally crucially it must be complemented by some kind of discipline that helps to put theory into practice.

The practices of the two traditions have a different emphasis. In Buddhism there are two main kinds of meditation, to some extent complementary: one based on concentration and aiming at tranquillity, the other based on the realisation of impermanence and aiming at insight.

The Stoics didn’t, as far as we know, have that kind of meditation practice, and their training was primarily based on reasoning. But meditation is a vague word, which has come to be identified with the Buddhist kind but could just as well refer to the Stoic exercises of memorising texts, looking ahead to the day to come and back to the day just gone, visualisations, preparing for the worst and so on.

A practice common to both traditions is the contemplation of death, which aims to bring home the impermanence and unpredictability of all things, including ourselves. These meditations range from those that don’t spare the gory details to gentler reminders of mortality: ‘There’s no way to know the point where death lies waiting for you’, says Seneca, ‘so you must wait for death at every point.’ The Buddha, for his part, advises similar daily recollections: ‘I am of the nature to grow old; I cannot avoid ageing. I am of the nature to become ill; I cannot avoid illness. I am of the nature to die; I cannot avoid death.’

The main aim of daily practice is to become increasingly mindful of the automatic leanings towards pleasure and away from pain that normally rule us. By building up our awareness we can begin to create some space between impulse and behaviour, and so increase the scope for an ethical and wholesome response to life events.

In conclusion, away from the metaphysics there is a lot of commonality between Buddhism and Stoicism. Do we really need the metaphysics anyway? I personally don’t think so but it is ultimately an individual choice. In any case I believe we should take care in adopting ideals of equanimity. Yes, most of us could definitely do with more equanimity. We do tend to be pushed around by questionable feelings based on mistaken values, as both Buddhism and Stoicism tell us. We should question our value system and aim to live an ethical life. We’d do well to adopt some version of a daily discipline to help us along. But the ideal of complete equanimity runs the risk of alienating us from aspects of our humanity that are indeed impermanent and outside our control, but can also be precious and make life worth living


Antonia Macaro is an existential psychotherapist with a long-standing interest in both Buddhism and Stoicism. She is the author of Reason, Virtue and Psychotherapy. Her most recent book, More than Happiness: Buddhist and Stoic Wisdom for a Sceptical Age, is published by Icon.

A Stoic Perspective on News by Leah Goldrick

News is pretty much ubiquitous in this digital age. We are barraged with information constantly through many sources – our smart phones, social media, TV, websites, papers, and magazines.

Unless we are very careful, news consumption can easily cause us to lose equanimity. Negative thoughts trigger a stress response by the body’s limbic system. According to a study published in The British Journal Of Psychology [1], people who consume negative news stories tend to feel more anxiety, and to sensationalize unrelated events in their own lives afterwards.

What is the proper Stoic position regarding consumption of news, especially negative news? Should we choose to avoid the news altogether knowing that current events are not in our control? What’s a Stoic to do?

News and the Discipline of Assent

We can either master our response to news, or allow our response to take control of us via our emotions. The process by which this happens is largely unconscious, but needs to be made explicitly conscious for a prokopton (one making progress). What usually happens is something like this; we hear an inflammatory story about Donald Trump, or our political party (if we have one), or a humanitarian disaster, and we just react. We become upset, angry, sad, or maybe even all three at once.

If we get upset or angry over the news, we have essentially assented to an irrational (contrary to our nature as social animals) judgement. It takes intellect to actually break down information piece by piece, what is commonly called critical thinking. Critical thinking isn’t easy to do when we are emotional, because emotionalism overrides proper intellectual process.

The Stoics called such proper intellectual process the discipline of assent, which involves making accurate decisions about the external world. The discipline of assent involves protecting ourselves from incorrect and hasty judgments which lead to irrational emotions. If we form incorrect judgements about a situation, it can lead to anger, worry, and so on which damage our equanimity.

The unconscious process of reacting emotionally to news stories actually represents a failure of this discipline. A prokopton (a person devoted to making progress) should always stop and ask whether assent to a news story should actually be given in the first place, rather than unconsciously reacting. Consciously engaging with news using the discipline of assent can stop the process of becoming irrational in its tracks.

Our judgements about something form our emotions. We perceive an external thing or event, known as an impression. The impression combines with an unconscious value judgment to form a proposition in our mind. “Event Y is reported to be happening, which is bad.” If we agree to the proposition that we form in our mind, the Stoics called this assent. When we assent to something, we experience confirmation in the form of an emotion. We can also choose to not give assent, or to withhold judgement.

In the Discourses, Epictetus notes:

Impressions come to us in four ways. Things are, and appear so to us; or they are not, and do not appear to be; or they are, and do not appear to be; or they are not, and yet appear to be. Thus it is the task of the educated man to form a right judgment in all these cases; whatever the difficulty that afflicts us, we must bring forward the appropriate aid against it.[2]

A prokopton’s response to news impressions should be to stop, think, and question our involuntary value judgements. Rather than assenting to what is being presented, we might ask ourselves if a story is particularly partisan or biased. We might go to the source to see if the facts are accurately reported. We might wonder if the seeming negativity or emotionalism of the story isn’t being played up to increase ratings or to sell ads. Often we might find the wisest thing to do is to withhold assent in response to the unverifiable.

News is About Things Beyond Our Control

News essentially causes us to focus on outside events which are beyond our control. We chat with coworkers about the latest disturbing headlines, or grouse about politicians that we don’t like, as though we actually have some control over what is going on. But we don’t. Not unless we somehow are in a position to influence the situation directly through our actions, and even then, the outcome of situation is not within our control.

In the Enchiridion, Epictetus explains his famous dichotomy of control. All things in life essentially fall into two distinct categories, those things which are up to us and those that are not up to us:

Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing. [3]

Clearly news falls into the not up to us category. All external events do not depend on us, and therefore have no moral value. However most of us regularly behave as though things outside of our control, like events in the news, are somehow up to us. If we perceive events in the news as within our power, we may start to worry about them unnecessarily. According to Epictetus, it’s irrational and pointless to do so:

“If you regard that…which is not your own as being your own, you’ll have cause to lament, you’ll have a troubled mind, and you’ll find fault with both gods and human beings…” [4]

The Stoics believed that we should show courage in the face of actual danger, but that does not include worry about exaggerated or removed threats that we hear about in mass media. The solution, according to Epictetus, is to not worry about anything that is beyond our control:

“There is only one way to happiness, and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.” [5]

Prosoche and News Consumption

 Because the process of reacting emotionally to news is so unconscious, it takes a lot of discipline in order to overcome this habit. Knowing that news is beyond our control, and and using the discipline of assent are the first and second steps in a Stoic response to news. Exercising prosoche is the third. Prosoche is essentially discretion and attention to our affairs, ensuring that we continue to make progress.

News consumption can be a double-edged, even for a Stoic. On one hand, assuming that we avoid rushing to judgment, becoming angry, worried, or imagining that we somehow have any control over the situation, news can be helpful for identifying areas in the larger community where our help might be needed. News can also be a valuable training tool for learning how to maintain equanimity in the face of potentially upsetting events. We as prokoptons should not worry about the things that most people do as a result of their consumption of news media. According to Musonius Rufus:

“How could we acquire courage if we had merely learned that the things which seem dreadful to the average person are not to be feared, but had no experience in showing courage in the face of such things?” [6]

On the other hand, we probably all have plenty of opportunities each day to practice Stoic principles without having to force ourselves to stay equanimous in the face of a never-ending news cycle. There are some challenges that we can’t escape, but we don’t have to subject our self to every potentially upsetting report.

Using prosoche, we may decide to strictly limit news consumption; the rational for this decision is a matter of doing what is necessary for us to maintain eudaimonia. We only have a limited amount of time and energy; we need to ask whether it is best spent consuming news. Seneca warns:

It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing.[7]

Strictly limiting news consumption is a perfectly acceptable decision. It’s up to us to find a balance for ourselves. Marcus Auelius recommends that we look inside ourselves for the source of our strength and meaning in life:

“The universe is change; our life is what our thoughts make it. You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” [8]

In the end, news consumption is a personal choice involving prosoche on the part of the individual Stoic. If we choose to consume a lot of news, we have to remain hyper rational and vigilant – don’t slip back into annoyance, worry, unconscious consent and senseless time wasting digesting the latest headlines.


  2. Epictetus, Discourses, Bk. I, Ch. 27
  3. Epictetus, Enchiridion 1
  4. ibid.
  5. Epictetus, Golden Sayings and Fragments.
  6. Musonius Rufus, Lectures and Fragments, 16
  7. Seneca. On the Shortness of Life
  8. Marcus Aurelius, Mediations.

Leah Goldrick became a practicing Stoic as a result of her ongoing inquiry into the Western wisdom traditions. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Philosophy and a Masters in Library and Information Science from Rutgers University. She used to be an archivist for the Presbyterian Church, and is now a part-time children’s librarian and blogger. She lives in the United States with her husband and infant son.  Her website is Common Sense Ethics.

Win a Free Signed Copy of Sharon Lebell’s The Art of Living

Sharon Lebell, The Art of LivingSharon Lebell, who spoke at this year’s Stoicon conference in Toronto, has kindly donated fifteen signed copies of her much loved book on the Stoicism of Epictetus, The Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness and Effectiveness.  We’re holding a free prize draw, which ends soon.  So please register below if you want to take part.

Enter Free Prize Draw

Full details via the link above.  Thanks for your support!


A Stoic Values Clarification Dialogue and Workshop by Christopher Gill and Tim LeBon

Rather than give you an account of what took place in Toronto – though we will both offer our reflections on it at the end of this article-  we thought it would be more true to the spirit of the Toronto Stoic Values Clarification workshop to make this more interactive. You can, however, hear the original workshop at

“What’s most important for you in life?”

That’s quite a big question, so it might help to spend a few moments on each of these Values Clarification Exercises.

1. Consider different areas of life such as family, career, recreation, spirituality and relationships.

What are the most important areas for you, and what is important in these areas?

For example, someone might answer:  family- “being a good parent” and  career – “being successful”

2. What would you like said at your 80th party about how you have lived?

3. If you had 6 months to live, how would you want to spend that time? What would you do more of? What would you stop doing?

Now reflect further on your answers and see if you are in a good position to answer the big question, in one sentence if you can:

The most important things in life for me are:


We wonder what sort of answer you have given? Have you talked about feeling happy, being successful, and having good relationships – fairly conventional answers. Or have you decided that it is important to develop wisdom, self-control, justice and courage – more Stoic answers?

Either way, we’d like you to consider this dialogue between a Stoic sage (played by Chris in our workshop) and “everyman”, played by Tim.  As you read it, think about how much you are persuaded by Chris’s arguments, and what further questions you would want to ask.

Chris (the Stoic): So, Tim, what do you think are the most important factors in leading a good life?

Tim:  (representing someone with a conventional view of the good life): Well, for me, I would say being happy and not getting too stressed out.

Chris: The Stoics would agree with you about this – happiness is for them too the good life and if we become happy we will also be less stressed or emotionally disturbed. But – more surprisingly perhaps – they think that happiness depends entirely on being virtuous. It does not depend on having other things normally seen as good, such as health, or wealth, or even the wellbeing of those we love. Stoics regard those things as having real value; they are things it is natural for us to want to have. But having them does not make you happy (in their sense) nor will it by itself bring peace of mind. For this reason they call these things ‘preferable indifferents’. They are genuinely preferable to have but they make no difference as far as happiness is concerned.

Tim: Hmm, I’ll have to think about that. … OK so let me give you an example of a recent occasion of what I mean by happiness.  I was having a nice meal with old friends, we ate well, had a glass or two of wine and talked philosophy.  I would have expected you philosophers to approve – but are you saying that evenings like that are just “preferable indifferents”? I’m not convinced.

Chris: Actually there is nothing ‘just’ about ‘preferable indifferents’ – they have real value and they can be part of a happy life. But the Stoics’ point is that being happy does not depend on experiences like this. You might be happy and not have this kind of experience and you might have this kind of experience and not be happy overall. Whereas happiness does depend on having and using the virtues – and without the virtues you will not be happy. This is because they see virtue as a skill or expertise in living or a knowledge of how to live properly. If you have this expertise, you will make proper use of all such experiences and of all ‘indifferents’ (preferable or not) but if you don’t have it you will not be able to use any of them properly. You will ‘foul up’ and make a mess of your life – including what seem to be the nice bits, like your evening with the friends.

Tim: OK, that’s interesting. So you are saying that evenings like that are indeed part of the good life but that I will not reliably have evenings like this unless I have the right skills – the virtues as Stoics would say. Is that right?

Chris: That’s right. Without the right skills (the virtues) you will mess up your nice evenings – also you will not be able to deal with difficult and demanding days at work. The Stoics see virtue as the knowledge of how to use all things and all situations well. That’s why the Stoics think virtue is the only thing that is really good, and why other things often regarded as good (like your nice evening) are preferred indifferents.

Tim:– OK can you spell that out a bit more? I’m not sure I had to be that virtuous to enjoy that night  – other than making sure I didn’t drink too much or say the wrong thing …

Chris: But actually saying the right things and not drinking too much are ways of expressing the virtues. They express two of the four generic or cardinal virtues – namely moderation or self-control which covers knowing how to act and feel well in situations arousing desire and justice, which covers dealing with other people properly. The other two cardinal virtues are wisdom, forming correct judgements, and courage, facing danger in the right spirit. The Stoics see these virtues as a matched set, covering the four main areas of human experience (there are many subdivisions of these virtues). They also see them as interdependent so that you cannot have one virtue without having them all. So on that evening if you lived well you expressed moderation and justice, but also good judgement and maybe courage as well (in the background). By the way, the Stoics have lots of images of the ideal ‘wise person’, and these include images of him or her at a symposium – doing just the sort of things you did – but doing them well not badly.

Tim:  So according to the Stoics someone who has these four cardinal virtues will also have more of these “preferable indifferents” like health, wealth and friends than someone who doesn’t?

Chris6: Well no, or not necessarily. The expertise is not skill in getting as many of the preferable indifferents as possible and getting them for yourself- even though these preferable indifferents have real value, which the virtuous person needs to recognise. The skill of virtue lies in correct selection between indifferents – which may mean choosing to have fewer preferred indifferents or giving more to other people than yourself. In fact, the Stoics think that the virtuous person is someone who can be happy without any specific type of indifferent – or indeed any indifferents – if circumstances require. So we have the powerful image of ‘the wise person happy on the rack of torture’ (being happy while being tortured) – as well as the image of the wise person being an adroit and agreeable participant in a symposium which I mentioned earlier. The point is that happiness does not depend on having the preferred indifferents but on the right use of them or right selection of them by the exercise of virtue.

Tim: So what would you say about the existence of people we could all think of who seem to be happy in a conventional sense – they have wealth, lots of pleasure  – but don’t seem to exercise much virtue?

Chris: But if their happiness depends on those things (wealth, pleasure) it is unreliable – what if they lose them and have no personal strength (no virtues, in other words) to deal with this loss? Whereas developing the virtues is under our control and so Stoic happiness is not fragile.

Tim: OK, I can agree that without the virtues happiness is more fragile. But what about the opposite? People who do exercise virtue well but suffer great misfortune?  Why should I want to be virtuous and on the rack rather than having a nice evening out with my friend?

Chris: Nobody chooses to be on the rack of torture (though you might choose to act with integrity rather than cowardice and so end up on the rack).  People don’t usually choose to be refugees or starving or politically oppressed – but most of the population of the world find themselves in this situation and even those of us in affluent, democratic, countries experience bereavement, illness, and other forms of loss. The hard question is: can we achieve happiness under these circumstances and what does it depend on? And the Stoic answer is it depends (solely) on whether you do or do not have virtue.

Tim: OK, so in what sense is a Stoic happy when they are rack? Presumably they are not feeling tingles of pleasure instead of pain?

Chris: No, of course they feel pain like everyone else. The difference is they do not regard the pain as being bad (of course they would rather not have the pain, it is a ‘dispreferred indifferent’) – whereas they regard the cowardice that would have enabled them to escape the torture as genuinely bad.

For the Stoics what count as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ things depends on their ideal of what makes a life worthwhile as a whole, what they would regard as a properly human or ‘natural’ life, and this determines their attitude and response on any one occasion. So the wise person on the rack can set the pain aside because she is aware of acting according to her best principles, her beliefs about what makes a life worthwhile. If she can live up to her ideals, this will bring her happiness, not just looking for localised good times here and there.

Tim:  So living virtuously often goes hand in hand with what we conventionally count as happiness, and even if it doesn’t the Stoic will be happy in a sense because they are leading a good life?

Chris: Yes – exactly – one of the Stoic definitions of happiness is ‘a life according to virtue’. This doesn’t  mean that Stoics try to be virtuously only instrumentally, to try to gain happiness. They aim to be virtuous for its own sake; and leading a life according to virtue is also a happy one – the two ideas are inseparable.

Also, the Stoics do not think that virtue is something forced on people by social pressure or conditioning. The virtues are the fullest expression of our nature as human beings. So they also call happiness ‘the life according to nature’ (meaning, partly at least, human nature). They also think that living a virtuous life brings with it enjoyment – real enjoyment or what the Stoics call ‘good emotions’ including joy. So in this respect the Stoic view of happiness is not so far from the modern one though it is different in other ways. However, Stoics do not aim to be virtuous just for the sake of getting these ‘good emotions’ or achieving peace of mind; these things are consequences of being virtuous, and follow when virtue is chosen for its own sake.

Tim: Can I just check that I understand this? Suppose my friend upsets me. A few days later they need my help. The Stoic would say I should help the friend, not because on balance it will bring me more pleasure in the future, but because that’s what friendship requires, and that’s the sort of person I would want to be?

Chris:  “Yes Tim, I think you’ve got it! To go back to your original definition of the good life, yes of course enjoy a night out with friends, but the Stoic would say there’s more to being a good human being than that!  Actually there’s a lot more I could add about Stoic values –  such as wisdom meaning trying to change only those things under your control and a cosmopolitanism belief in a brother and sisterhood of man.  But I do think we’ve made a start today Tim in helping you think about values in a more Stoic way. What do you think?

Tim:  You’ve certainly given me a lot food for thought. According to you, I might need to make a paradigm shift from aiming for happiness in the conventional sense to aiming to be virtuous. In doing so I am actually quite likely to be happy in the conventional sense, but that’s not the point. The point is I will be living as a human being should. So maybe I ought to devote more energy earning about Stoicism and how to develop the virtues and less on how to enjoy myself.  But what does everyone else think?


Are you convinced by Chris’s arguments? Do you think there are any difficult questions Tim could have asked that he didn’t? What comments or questions have you got about this dialogue? Please use the comments section below to ask us whatever you like relating to the dialogue.

It might help for you to reread the dialogue and then to have a look at this Outline of the Dialogue which summarises the main arguments.

Tim: Tim states a conventional view of the good life -“being happy and not getting too stressed out”

Chris: Chris introduces the Stoic view that  although the conventional goods are of value they are not really good, they are ‘preferred indifferents’. Virtue is of a different magnitude of value and “trumps” conventional goods.

Chris : The Stoic view on happiness  and virtue is elaborated. Virtues are skills in living properly. Virtues are necessary and sufficient for happiness.

Tim – Chris – Tim:  Further discussion of the idea that the virtue consists in skill in living and in the right use of our experiences and that this is what our happiness depends on. Tim wonders whether virtues are really relevant to his example of an evening out with friends

Chris introduces the 4 “cardinal virtues” each with their own domain  – wisdom (making judgements), courage (danger), self-control  (desire) and justice (other people). Stoics believe the virtues are interdependent – you need all of them to act properly in line with any of them.

Chris corrects  a possible misunderstanding.  The role of virtue is not to get as much of the conventional goods (indifferents) as possible. The virtues are good for their own sake

Tim introduces a possible problem for the Stoic – a happy but unvirtuous person. Chris counters that the happiness of such a person is fragile.

Tim suggests another  potential problem.  You can be virtuous but suffer great misfortune. Chris replies that although a Stoic would prefer not to be tortured, there are more important things for them than how they feel – namely living up to their ideals & being virtuous.

Tim , who seems to understand the Stoic view better now, gives an example that seems to support the Stoic view, namely how we generally regard  friendship.

Chris  is happy that the Stoic position is now better understood and points out that there is of course more to Stoicism than these ideas, though these are a useful start.

Tim though not committing himself fully to the Stoic view agrees he has been given a lot of food for thought.  He understands that Stoicism requires a big shift in the way we think about happiness and the good life, and if he is to follow Stoicism he still has a lot to learn.


Before going on to the next section, it’s important to spend a few moments reflecting on how much you agree with the Stoic arguments.

Now it’s time to reconsider your original answer to the question, “what’s important in your life?”

Think about how each of the Stoic virtues could be important for you, bearing in mind the answer you gave about what is important in life.

Do this for each in turn for each virtue:

Wisdom (right judgement)  – (for example: if your original answer was “being a good parent”, wisdom is important because without right judgement, I am unlikely to be a good parent)

Courage (facing danger)

Justice (dealing well with other people)

Self-Control (dealing well with desires)

Reflecting on the argument in the dialogue, how much you think living accordingly to the virtues is  important for its own sake, not just instrumentally to help you get conventional goods? Do you agree that being wise, self-controlled, courageous and just is more important than feeling good and being successful?


Having considered Stoicism, I now believe that  the most important things in life for me are:

How much have you been influenced by the Values Clarification exercises and the Dialogue? What can you do to live your life closer to your vision of what is important in life?

We hope that this proves to be a fruitful exercise. We also invite you to use the comments section below to give us your feedback on the whole exercise.


Here are our reflections on the workshop in Toronto: We were both very happy with the way the workshop went, especially the very lively Q & A after we re-enacted the dialogue.

The questions asked included:

  1. Did Seneca show virtue in killing himself?
  2. Are love and compassion included in virtue? Are the Stoic virtues the same as modern ‘moral qualities’ or different?
  3. Why should I be virtuous rather than not virtuous?
  4. Can people be harmed as a result of having virtues?
  5. How should we define the virtues?
  6. Is virtue compatible with the pragmatic demands of practical and professional life?
  7. How are the virtues interconnected? Are they really interdependent, as the Stoics think?
  8. Suppose virtue is not really the same as happiness, will we be better people if we believe (falsely) this is the case?
  9. What is the connection between being a virtuous person and having emotions?
  10. Would this approach work if you were working with less willing pupils than “Tim” (including children)?

We tried to answer some of these questions in the dialogue, especially as regards what we think the virtues are and the close linkage between virtue and happiness.  Again, you might like to provide your own answers to these questions in the comments section below.

We wonder if this format might be developed and used in future Stoicons and even perhaps on-line. The best questions – and their answers – could be woven into a longer dialogue, which could be a useful resource for those who wish to learn more about Stoicism.

Perhaps in any future sessions we could ask people to provide written feedback to help us assess how useful they found the session, and whether their ideas had been changed at all. Ultimately, however, the point of the exercise was not to convert people to Stoicism, but rather to help them reflect on whether Stoic ideas can fit with their worldview.

Time did not allow us to tackle the final stage of the Values Clarification exercise, namely making plans to put the values in action. This question did come up in conversation with participants afterwards, and of course the answer, if the values are Stoic, is to read Stoic writings, to download the Stoic Week Handbook and do the exercises. (Tim adds): As a positive psychologist I also take a great interest in current empirical work taking place on how to develop the virtues.  I believe a synthesis of Stoic philosophy and empirical psychology could be very helpful.

An audio recording of the original Toronto Values Clarification Workshop can be found at

Please help us to continue the dialogue in the comments section below.

Chris Gill is Emeritus Professor of Ancient Thought at the University of Exeter. He has written extensively on ancient philosophy. His books which focus on Stoicism include The Structured Self in Hellenistic and Roman Thought and Naturalistic Psychology in Galen & Stoicism

Tim LeBon is the author of Wise Therapy and Achieve Your Potential With Positive Psychology.  He can be contacted via email at  His website is

Resources From Stoicon 2017 Now Available!

As has been the case each succeeding year, we had some excellent talks and workshop sessions at Stoicon 2017 and the Stoicon-X that followed the next day.

It was hosted in Toronto, and had over 400 attendees – it’s still growing in numbers each time – but the worldwide Modern Stoic community is far vaster than that, so until now, those who weren’t able to go to the actual events have largely had to be content – for the time being – to peer in through the media of one video (my workshop presentation) and a few summaries and transcripts (those by Massimo Pigliucci and William Stephens).

We are very happy to announce that we have now assembled videos, handouts, slides, and other resources from Stoicon 2017 into one place.

Here’s where you can find all of that material!

You’ll also find some bonus material, from the Toronto Stoicon-X – videos of some of the “Lightning Round” talks that participants gave there.  We hadn’t originally planned on videorecording those, but decided to right on the spot – and I shot them with my low-tech flipcam – so they’re a bit less polished.  But the talks are very engaging, and I’m sure you’ll enjoy them as much as we did at the event!

The Power of Negative Thinking by Peter Lyons

I distrust the cult of the power of positive thinking. There is something about it that invites passivity. Don’t be negative. Always agree with the situation and just look on the bright side. Be compliant and don’t make a fuss. We can all be winners if we just work harder and keep a positive attitude. The is the simplistic mantra of the modern market ideology that has come to dominate our reality in recent decades.

Putting aside what it actually means to be a “winner” in this age of casino capitalism, the cult of passive positivity denies reality. It has a saccharine unpalatable flavour that invites disillusionment and an unquestioning submission to authority. Those in authority know best so just look on the bright side and get on with it. What’s wrong with a healthy dose of realistic negativity?

I equate the power of positive thinking with the new age mantra of “mindfulness”. They are used to sell “self help” books that for some reason cram the shelves at airport bookshops. I have always wondered why such literature predominates in these venues. Maybe travel invites a contemplative mindset. Maybe the thought of tonnes of metal, people and luggage staying airborne requires positivity for those who really think about it.

Yet there is much more going on here. These mantras of positivity and mindfulness are not just simplistic slogans designed to sell self help books at airports. They are not just for calming the nerves of jittery travellers. They are stepped in philosophical traditions that predate the emergence of Christianity.

The cult of positive thinking is actually a sad inversion of a tradition promoted by the classical philosophy of stoicism. Stoicism has a bad rap these days likely due to the fact that early Christianity borrowed a number of its traditions then prohibited its teachings. It then largely disappeared as a practical approach to healthy living. Being a stoic became associated with denying emotions and feelings. It became a descriptor for the emotionally crippled.

Stoicism is actually a much more subtle and relevant and beautiful approach to life than this caricature portrays. It is a practical philosophy used as a pathway through life by many early Romans, including slaves and Emperors. Marcus Aurelius, arguably one of the greatest Roman emperors, was a disciple of Stoicism.

It could be argued that Stoicism is more relevant in this age than in the past few millennium. The grip of faith based religion has weakened considerably in many developed countries in the past few centuries. The Reformation and general acceptance of Darwin’s teachings on evolution corroded the Church’s authority in the West. Yet people still seek a set of beliefs and values to guide them through life. They want to know the best way to live their short tenure on this earth. Those who find it impossible to embrace a doctrine based on faith and revealed truths seek answers elsewhere. The study and practice of Stoicism can provide answers. It can help answer the age old question of “what is a good life?” The answers it provides are based on reason rather than faith. The recipe is there for those who want it.

The irony is that an adherence to stoic ideas does not preclude religious faith. Stoicism does not preach exclusivity. Stoicism does not actually preach at all. People find it, it doesn’t actively seek them. It is not a cult or a sect or a proselytizing religion. It is a way of approaching life in a rational , calm, humanistic manner that anyone can take or leave. It’s their choice, as it should be. Trying to impose stoic beliefs on others contradicts the core Stoic belief of recognizing what you can and can’t control. You can’t control the beliefs of others. But you can influence them.

The current mantra of positive thinking is largely a product of modern capitalist mythology. We can all be winners in life if we simply set our minds to it. The definition of a winner in our modern version of capitalism is ill defined. One version is currently living in the White House.

The cult of unquestioning positivity is a puerile denial of human reality. It was championed by authors such as Horatio Alger in 19th century America and later, Dale Carnegie. Alger wrote quasi inspirational novels about young orphans from impoverished backgrounds who reached positions of great wealth and power through sheer grit and determination. It was wonderful stirring stuff designed to inspire the masses. Alger was eventually discredited for an unhealthy interest in young people. But his legacy lives on in attacks on government assistance to the needy. We are all meant to be self reliant. Just be positive and work harder. This is a sad denial of much of the positive collective action of the 20th century particularly in areas such as education and healthcare.

I like the ancient stoic inversion of the power of positive thinking. They taught the power of negative visualisation. To overcome the nasty, short and brutal nature of ancient life they taught the need to appreciate that things can always be worse. That life and most things in it are transitory. That we are all irrelevant in the general scheme of things. So don’t sweat the small stuff, just appreciate the miracle of your own existence and make the most of it. It is a precious gift so make sure to live as good a life as possible. Things seldom turn out as bad as we think.

An unfortunate human mental affliction is the fear that others are living a better life. That somehow we have been cursed and others blessed by fortune. They are better looking, richer, healthier so have better relationships, marriages and careers. That there is someone out there living the perfect life. We inflict this belief on each other through the daily facades we maintain. It is quite a laughable belief when you break it down.  It denies the reality of nature and human existence. Stoicism provides a far better lens on reality. To read the writings of a Roman Emperor such as Marcus Aurelius is a precious insight. It reveals he suffered many of the same fears, frustrations and failings as many of us. Just a good man in a different age in a different job who sometimes wondered why he should get out of bed in the morning.

As for the recent popularity of “mindfulness,” it is neither recent nor original. The Stoic philosophy was teaching this concept over two thousand years ago. Mindfulness simply means appreciating the moment, being in the moment and reacting appropriately. Not overreacting at poor service in a restaurant or a perceived slight on social media, being appropriate in your actions in the here and now. Not succumbing to negative emotions such as anger or jealousy or envy.

Just recognising and controlling your own emotional responses to external factors. Recognising that you cannot always control what happens to you but you do have control over how you respond to situations. The essence of stoicism is recognising what you can and can’t control. What you can control is your reasoning, actions and reactions. This is crucial to living a good life.

Sadly in our modern age dominated by the need for constant connection and instant gratification we have lost sight of ancient traditions such as mindfulness and the power of negative visualisation. The ancient thinkers can teach us a lot.

Peter Lyons teaches Economics at Saint Peters College in Epsom, New Zealand. He has written several Economics texts and numerous articles for mainstream media.