Seneca’s Smartphone: Stoic Principles for Managing Digital Distraction by Jack Reeves

I hope this isn’t a spoiler alert: Lucius Annaeus Seneca did not have a smartphone.

Marcus Aurelius didn’t wear an Apple Watch; Musonius didn’t take selfies; Epictetus, not  once, to my knowledge, fired off a gChat. Stoicism’s architects lived before any of these modern day ubiquities.

But what if they hadn’t?

Stoicism is, in many ways, a product of its time, but it’s also a universal and timeless philosophy that can be adapted to the challenges of today. No Stoic is better suited to this adaption than Seneca, whose work often mines the mundanities of everyday life (exercise, parties, going to bed) for insights on the construction of the virtuous soul.

No, Seneca never explicitly tells us to take fewer selfies. But with a little tweaking, Seneca’s wisdom can be used to forge a healthier relationship with our digital devices.

I speak from experience. Seneca helped me grapple with a digital distraction crisis of my own. His practical advice on dealing with distraction, over-information, and mob mentality, among other hazards made me rethink how I used my technology. It enabled me to negotiate a healthier, more purposeful relationship with my digital devices.

All it took was imagining Seneca’s smartphone.

What is digital distraction?

I gave a version of this talk at Stoicon X 2017 in Toronto. I started by asking a few questions:

  1. How many people here own a smartphone? (Every hand went up).
  2. How many people take their smartphones with them everywhere except the shower? (Every hand stayed up).
  3. How many of you take it in the shower, too? (Some laughter — but hands still stayed up!)

A roomful of people with smartphones isn’t out of the ordinary today, but it’s remarkable how quickly the technology has proliferated. Mere decades ago, few people owned a cell phone. Today, over 80% of Americans carry these palm-sized supercomputers, which deliver gobs of information, entertainment and stimulation 24/7.

Smartphone saturation is only one aspect of a broader information revolution that is transforming life as we know it. The internet, computers, smartphones, wearables, public WiFi, and a proliferation of new media, social networks, streaming services and the like have radically changed how humans engage with their world.

Walk into a coffee shop, public park, boardroom, airport, classroom, museum or subway car. Or just examine yourself. You’ll find a species fascinated by glass screens. We hunch over our computers and crane our necks down at our smartphones. We don’t even bother to put them away on the sidewalk or in the bathroom. Why bother?  There’s a whole universe of stimulation behind those screens — and it’s faster and more enticing than the reality around us.

To be clear, I’m in no position to judge. I own (and use) a smartphone, a tablet, and even an Apple Watch. (Yes — I’m one of those guys). But in recent years, I’ve managed to reshape my my relationship with digital devices to be ordered and purposeful, not mindless.

What changed? I found Stoicism — and then I consciously applied its lessons to my digital habits.

How Seneca helped me beat digital distraction

I used to be a hardcore digital junkie. I toggled continually between inboxes, social media channels and news sites, gorging myself on information, overloading my brain with stimulus. I spent each day in a frenzy of buzzes, chimes and notifications.

  • If something happened in the world, I knew about it first (and probably hit the comments section to make sure everyone knew how I felt).
  • If I had a thought, quip, or pleasant/unpleasant experience of any kind, I immediately fed it into social media for immediate validation.
  • If I had a spare moment, I filled it by reaching for my phone and hunting through texts, email, and social media, until some pleasant little morsel provided a hit of reward.

I lived in a state that I now realize was digital distraction. It was a “love of bustle,” as Seneca writes, that wasn’t industry—it was “the restlessness of a hunted mind.” (Epistulae morales ad Lucilium, Ltr 3 (trans. Richard Mott Gummere).

Digital distraction is everywhere, but the symptoms are easily recognizable. When we find ourselves staying up at night compulsively surfing social media, or peeking at our phones during quality time with loved ones, or getting overwhelmingly distraught over the latest news headline that popped up on our home screens—that’s digital distraction.

Seneca, while never dealing with digital distraction, tackled the challenge of leading a virtuous and productive life while dealing with temptations and adversaries both internally (ego, avarice, hatred) and externally (fate and the amoral universe).

With that in mind, I ran a thought experiment: what might Seneca think about the smartphone? (Ignore, for a moment, that he’s been dead for two millenia). After all, much of his work touches on the same issues that lie at the root of digital distraction.

Seneca devotes considerable ink to things like money, socializing, and food, which are both necessary to life, and yet equally capable of causing great amounts of suffering. I suspect he would view digital tools in a similar light. The line between use and distraction is not always clear. We must, therefore, employ philosophy to guide us.

Seneca is also interested in cultivating a well-ordered mind. He continually explores the relentless tug of distraction, egoism and vanity, among other influences—and he gives us plenty of advice on how to deal with them. If the smartphone offers powerful distraction and egoism, then Seneca’s wisdom will help us manage it.

Challenges & Adjustments

Below are four guiding principles, drawn from Seneca’s writings, that I have used to negotiate healthier relationship with my digital devices.

To help organize things, each principle has a challenge—how digital distraction can make things difficult. And then, I’ll suggest adjustments—tactics that I’ve used to troubleshoot the distraction.

Principle 1: Don’t Waste Time

Challenge:

One of digital distraction’s chief symptoms is wasting time on things that don’t matter. We let inbound emails and texts, gossip, inflammatory news stories and the latest social media outrage pull us off course. We spend hours browsing through social feeds or playing brainless tap-tap games.

Our time is precious. Seneca advises us:

In guarding their fortune men are often closefisted, yet, when it comes to the matter of wasting time, in the case of the one thing in which it is right to be miserly, they show themselves most extravagant. De Brevitate Vitae, Ch. 3 (trans. Damian Stevenson)

We hand our time over to digital distraction because the distractions are enticing. Media companies use algorithms to find the most salacious headlines. Social media employs the same tactics as slot machines to keep us “pulling the lever” (swiping down our feeds) over and over, hunting for a payoff.

The result? We disregard Seneca’s advice; we sacrifice precious minutes and hours to a never-ending feed of nonsense designed to harvest our attention for ad revenue.

Adjustments:

  • Install a content filtering app on your digital devices. My personal favorite is Freedom. It lets you configure lists and allow access only at certain times.
  • When you need to do work, put your phone on silent and move it out of easy reach. Properly do the work you intend to do.
  • Purge your phone of the most distracting and time-wasting apps. I’ll play addicting games like Angry Birds for hours, so I just don’t allow them on my phone.

Principle 2: Don’t Drown in Information

The Challenge

The internet has dramatically increased the availability and volume of information, and accelerated the speed at which this information is delivered. Today it’s possible to wake up, grab your iPhone from your nightstand, and ingest more information in a few moments than our ancestors would have encountered in weeks. You don’t have to leave your bed to check your mail, read the news, or see what your friends got up to last night.

Our smartphones and wearables compound this condition by supplying a continual drip feed of alerts and notifications, buzzes and chimes. Breaking news headlines, texts from friends, work emails, IMs and more continually pepper our day with pinpricks of information.

Seneca warns us to avoid “discursiveness,” advising us instead to “linger among a limited number of master thinkers, and digest their works” if we want to enhance our personal wisdom. We should avoid restlessly jumping between information sources because:

everywhere means nowhere. When a person spends all his time in foreign travel, he ends by having many acquaintances, but no friends. And the same thing must hold true of men who seek intimate acquaintance with no single author, but visit them all in a hasty and hurried manner. Epistulae morales ad Lucilium, Ltr II (trans. Richard Mott Gummere).

Bear in mind that Seneca writes in a time when over-information meant reading too many books. The internet and smartphones have opened new frontiers in our ability to overindulge.

The Adjustment

  • Disable all notifications but the most important ones. On my phone, I only get texts and phone calls. Everything else (e.g. emails) is checked on my schedule. I have my computer in “Do Not Disturb” mode.
  • Favor “slow-release” media like books and print newspapers over their hyper-addicting digital alternatives.
  • Enforce phone-free times (the first hour of the day and final hour of the day, at minimum).

Principle 3: Don’t Engage With Crap

Challenge

The internet is full of crap. Mass media has never been a friend to reason, but for many years, human beings were at least running the zoo. Information, whether distributed in books and newspapers, over the radio or on cable TV, was editorially curated. A real person decided what to put out into the world. And it was (relatively) hard to get the word out there — one generally needed considerable resources to get published or to get something on television.

The internet flattened barriers to entry, making it easy for anyone and everyone to produce media capable of reaching millions of people in mere seconds. To manage this huge quantity of information, networks switched from editorial curation to algorithmic curation: non-human lines of code that cycled headlines and links based on clicks and views.

What effect did this have on the media? You’ve seen it:

  • The rise of click-hungry tabloids and content farms like Drudge Report and Huffington Post, which provide emotional roller coasters while purporting to provide “news.”
  • A host of independent blogs, digital “influencers,” and anonymous crowds—creating an outrage culture addicted to mob mentality and cyberbullying.
  • An overwhelming tend towards negativity, resentment, bitterness, complaining and gossip—after all, this is what gets the clicks!
  • Proliferation of clickbait headlines, each one competing to be the most sensational, scandalous or emotionally resonant.
  • Rampant circulation of misleading “fake news” (on BOTH sides of the political spectrum, mind).

Is it any wonder that higher social media usage correlates with a higher likelihood of depression in young adults?

Seneca recognized the alluring, but harmful, nature of crowd psychology. He warns:

To consort with the crowd is harmful; there is no person who does not make some vice attractive to us, or stamp it upon us, or taint us unconsciously therewith.

What are we to do? Choose our company carefully. In the same letter, Seneca advises:

Associate with those who will make a better man of you. Welcome those whom you yourself can improve. Epistulae morales ad Lucilium, Ltr VII (trans. Richard Mott Gummere).

We must be particularly mindful, in our climate of ready outrage, to avoid that which makes us angry. Seneca tells us that the wise, peace-seeking man will:

shun the company of all those he knows are likely to provoke his anger… [and] choose men who are honest, easygoing, and have self-control. De Ira (trans. Leighton D. Reyonlds).

Adjustments

  • Stop reading cheap, hastily-assembled clickbait crap. Don’t reward it with your attention or emotional investment. Reward high-quality media sources that report the facts.
  • When consuming digital media, ask: “Does this make me a better person?” If you find it stroking your ego, or bringing out the nasty little child inside of you, get out of there!

Principle 4: Use technology purposefully

Challenge

Digital distraction persists because technology is woven into the fabric of our lives.

You might try to look at your phone less, but you get important emails for work. Or, you go for a hike and take your phone for safety — and wind up looking at Facebook when you should be enjoying the view.

Remember, smartphones are powerful stimulants for the reward center. Dopamine, the brain’s feel-good molecule, is released when we encounter (or anticipate encountering) novel data, social information, and emotionally stimulation. All smartphones do is make this reward center activation seamless, which is why we sit in front of them, pecking away like lab rats.

Seneca would advise us not to seek a never-ending source of rewarding pleasure on our phones, but to be satisfied with what we have in the moment. “Nature’s wants are slight,” he writes, “the demands of opinion are boundless.”

When you are travelling on a road, there must be an end; but when astray, your wanderings are limitless. Recall your steps, therefore, from idle things, and when you would know whether that which you seek is based upon a natural or upon a misleading desire, consider whether it can stop at any definite point. Epistulae morales ad Lucilium, Ltr XVI (trans. Richard Mott Gummere).

If you’ve lost an hour (or three) to the rabbit hole of social media and online news, Seneca’s description of “limitless” wandering resonates.

Don’t wander. Be clear and purposeful about your intentions when using technology. Digital devices are tools to be used productively, not sources of infinite (but ultimately unsatisfying) pleasure.

Adjustments

  • Try this experiment on yourself: For a day, when you feel the need to take out your phone, make a mental note of why. No judgements—just self-study.
    • “I’m taking out my phone to check my work email.”
    • “I’m taking out my phone to see if my Instagram post got any likes.”
    • “I’m taking out my phone because I’m bored.”
  • When you catch yourself in a digital rabbit hole — simply stop. Put the phone down, and take a breath. Acknowledge the impulse to keep surfing, but don’t obey it.
  • Consider moving all of your apps off of your homescreen. This is my phone’s default setup. When I activate it, I’m looking at a blank screen with no information. It’s a reminder to pause and set my intention before using my phone.

Concluding Thoughts

If technology is so often the source of bad things, why do we continue to use it? Wouldn’t it be easier to toss our phones into a lake and move to the woods? Of course not. And this is why a Stoic framework for establishing healthy digital habits works beautifully.

Stoicism advocates being more effective in the world, not withdrawing from it. It takes more discipline, Seneca tells us, to mingle with the mob and preserve our virtue than to avoid the crowd entirely. Similarly, I believe it’s possible to construct a purposeful and virtuous life with technology as an aid, and not an obstacle.

But doing this takes work. The human brain did not evolve for a world in which hyper-palatable, hyper-stimulating distractions stalk us from our desktops, our pockets, our wrists. Leading the kind of life we desire necessitates taking a principled approach to our tools.

In this piece, I’ve given you a few helpful principles — but the true results, as always, come from what you do with them. Vale.

 

Jack Reeves is a strategy consultant and writer based out of New York City.  He writes at jackreeves.io

Stoicon 2018 – About the Conference, and Tickets Now Available! (by John Sellars)

This year Stoicon returns to London. It’ll take place on Saturday 29th September in the University of London’s Senate House, in Bloomsbury, the same location as last year’s Stoicon-x in London and just a few yards from where we held our very first public event back in 2013.

There’s short film about that first event (and we’ll make a similar film about this year’s event too).

When we organized that first event we didn’t anticipate repeating it. We had a small amount of research funding that covered the costs, and most of the speakers were either us – the Modern Stoicism team – or people whom we already knew and were relatively local. We had no idea how many, if any, people would turn up. Thankfully people did come and, as importantly, seemed to appreciate it. It was Jules Evans, I think, who encouraged us to do it again, who suggested that people would be willing to pay a registration fee to cover costs, and who later came up with the name ‘Stoicon’. So it was Jules who took the lead for the next two events, both at Queen Mary University of London, in 2014 and 2015.

We were all keen to invite new speakers along, conscious that an audience might soon get bored seeing just the same faces each year. In 2015 we were delighted to have Emily Wilson, William Irvine, and Massimo Pigliucci join us, all of whom came over from the USA. After three years in London, we wondered if it might be good to find a new location, in order to reach a different audience, and so didn’t hesitate to take up Massimo’s offer to host the event in New York, which we did in 2016. This gave Stoicon a completely new audience and a fresh line-up of speakers, including Julia Annas and Ryan Holiday.

Last year, 2017, the event took place in Toronto, organized by Donald Robertson, who has put so much into Stoic Week and our related activities since the beginning. A number of smaller Stoicon-x events also ran in a variety of locations, organized autonomously.

So, after two years in North America, this year Stoicon returns to London. The format remains more or less the same as in previous years, with a mix of plenary talks and parallel workshop sessions.

We are delighted that our keynote speaker will be Professor A.A. Long, without doubt the leading authority on Stoicism in the English-speaking world, who has been publishing on the topic for over fifty years. Some of you may be familiar with his book on Epictetus, published in 2002, and he has a new book on Epictetus coming out this summer (details here).

Other speakers include Professor Catharine Edwards, a leading expert on Seneca who has a number of television documentaries on Roman history to her name, and Antonia Macaro, who participated in our first event in 2013 and this year has published a book on Stoicism and Buddhism under the title More than Happiness (info here).

The other speakers and workshop leaders are a mix of academics, psychotherapists, and Stoic practitioners (see the full listing here). Other things currently being planned include bookstalls, an exhibition in association with Senate House Library, and an art installation. All this is, of course, subject to the vicissitudes of fate.

Tickets for the event are now available via Eventbrite. The registration fee covers the cost of tea/coffee and lunch during the day. In order to keep costs down we have secured generous funding from Royal Holloway, University of London, and the British Society for the History of Philosophy. The event is hosted by the Institute of Classical Studies and the Institute of Philosophy, both based in Senate House, who are providing the venue and logistical support. It simply wouldn’t be happening without them.

If you wish you could come along but can’t, we plan to film the plenary talks and to make a short film about the event, like to the two films above. If you wish there was an event like this closer to where you live, then why not consider organizing your own Stoicon-x event?

In the future we’d like to alternate Stoicon between North America and Europe. So we hope that for 2019 it will return to somewhere in North America, and in 2020 somewhere in Europe (not necessarily London).

A Stoic Approach to Problems from Nick Saban by Alec Bowling

I am not a fan of the Alabama Crimson Tide football team. I don’t have houndstooth pajamas. I don’t bow my head, fold my hands, and say “roll tide” before every meal. In fact, as a college football fan, it sort of annoys me that Alabama has been such a juggernaut these past several years, battering teams left and right and generally making the sport more predictable.

Not that they should be faulted for that. That’s a big part of the reason I’m intrigued by their coach, Nick Saban. I won’t be smiling as Saban leads Alabama to win three out of the next five national championships, but in the words of the fictional anchorman, Wes Mantooth: “goddamn it do I
respect you.”

In the fall of 2017, Alabama beat Texas A&M by only 8 points, a margin that was a misstep from the weekly lashings they had been doling out on their SEC foes. Saban’s team had a number of players native to Texas, who were returning to their home state for the first time since the destruction of Hurricane Harvey. When a reporter asked if this may have impacted their focus, Saban had the following to say:

It’s kind of like my dad used to tell me when I used to go to work at the station, my girlfriend broke up with me so I was treating the customers bad.

He said – ‘What’s wrong with you today?’

I said ‘My girlfriend broke up with me.’

He said ‘Well, you’ve got one problem, but if you keep treating the customers bad you’re going to have two more. I’m going to fire you and then I’m going to whip your ass for getting fired.”

In the wake of a hurricane, some might look at this sentiment as uncaring or mean. But often, as many of us have experienced, the difficult thing to say is the right thing to say. I don’t know the answer to whether this was the right thing to say at the right time, but I do know that there was, and is, great wisdom in this line of thinking.

The crux of what Saban is saying is that using unfortunate events that happen to us as an excuse to neglect other areas of our life is entirely counterproductive and a very effective form of self-sabotage. The practical application of this wisdom struck me this morning. I had had a terrible time getting to sleep the night before, so I was up and running on maybe 3 hours of sleep.

I was pissed off and the last thing I wanted to do was work hard. I don’t have the energy, I thought. How can I be expected to do good work on such little sleep, I thought. Then it hit me – I have one problem right now: a lack of sleep. But, if I let that be an excuse for not working hard at today’s work, I’m going to be facing many more problems.

A project falls behind on its deadline. That’s two problems now. A detail gets missed on a document to a client, and I look bad in front of my boss. Now I’ve got thee problems. You get the idea.

As I was thinking through this, all these gears lined up in my brain and I began to realize that this line of thinking echoes Stoicism in many ways.
One place I see this reflected is in Meditations: Book 6, Chapter 2. Marcus Aurelius says the following:

Just that you do the right thing. The rest doesn’t matter.
Cold or warm.
Tired or well-rested.
Despised or honored.
Dying… or busy with other assignments.

For so many of us (myself certainly included), our work ethic is conditional. Our moral duty is conditional. We have no problem doing the right thing as long as it doesn’t inconvenience us in any way. But that is not a sustainable way to live, as life rarely caters to our whims.

Nick Saban is a model of success in many avenues. How to coach. How to run an organization. The right things to value. The right way to live. His six national championship wins attest to that, in addition to him being nearly universally lauded as the greatest college football coach of all
time. Marcus Aurelius ruled over almost the entirety of Europe and North Africa and is widely considered one of the greatest Roman emperors.

Now, a core tenet of stoicism is the defeat of your emotions with reason. And from these two disparate sources, almost two millennia apart, we see the same common thread: put your emotions to death. What Saban provides here is the knife with which to kill them.

Let’s look at a scenario. Say you didn’t get the promotion you were hoping for. You are immediately struck many negative emotions, including resentment, frustration, and entitlement. Now, you don’t want to work as hard. Your internal monologue tells you things like, “Oh, it’s not like I’m going to get noticed anyway,” or, “I’m gonna take it easy today. I’m too angry, I can’t get work done like this.” For various reasons, you are tempted to neglect your duties.

But of course there is the other part of your mind telling you to press on. To do the right thing. To work hard in spite of the recognition. Problem is, we are often dealt such strong blows that it’s incredibly hard to conquer them through mere moral obligation. Sometimes, our selfishness is almost overwhelming. In these instances, this teaching from Saban is helpful.

Don’t do the right thing because you should. Don’t do the right thing because someone is telling you to. Don’t do the right thing to make someone else happy. Do the right thing, because if you don’t, you are just going to have more shit to deal with.

It’s certainly not something to put on a bumper sticker, but desperate times call for desperate measures. It’s a last line of defense against our selfishness. It in fact turns our selfishness to our advantage.

A bit more optimistically, Marcus also says the following:

At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: “I have to go to work — as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for — the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?

But it’s nicer in here …

So you were born to feel ‘nice’? Instead of doing things and experiencing them? Don’t you see the plants, the birds, the ants and spiders and bees going about their individual tasks, putting the world in order, as best they can? And you’re not willing to do your job as a human being? Why aren’t you running to do what your nature demands?

With this logic, we can substitute basically any word for ‘nice.’ You might say: helping that person would be hard. So you were born to only experience “easy” things?

You might say: my current situation is comfortable. So you were born only to be comfortable? That’s your purpose in life? This wisdom is effective because it helps to strip our situation of unhelpful emotion. It turns our
self-interest to an advantage, rather than our notion of what we ‘should’ do, which can often times frustrate us further. Our situation becomes unemotional, amoral, and practical. The correct next steps become clear immediately.

In my own predicament, being exhausted from a lack of sleep, this wisdom didn’t magically inject me with four additional hours of sleep, but it gave me something perhaps just as valuable – clarity and focus.

The next time you are faced with a problem, ask yourself: how many problems do I want to have?

Your car transmission dies and you’re angry. Do you want to create more problems by letting your frustration out on the mechanic who had nothing to do with it?

Your husband took too long getting ready and now you’re late for dinner with friends. Do you want to create more problems by speeding and potentially getting a ticket?

The people behind you are talking loudly during the movie. Do you want to add problems by not enjoying the film or getting into a needless confrontation?

You forgot about a test tomorrow and now only have 5 hours to study. Do you want to only have 4 hours to study because you spent an hour beating yourself up over forgetting?

Frequently, we use bad things that happen to us, problems, to be a license to neglect other areas of our life. Doing so feeds our pride, our idea that our lives are Greek tragedies, which in its own twisted way is gratifying (perhaps because it makes our failure extraordinary in our minds, and thus, it makes us extraordinary in some warped way). But in doing so, we only serve to create more problems, more pain, and more distance between ourselves and the people we want to be. To overcome this we must remember that we are just people and that problems are an everyday occurrence for every person who’s ever existed – even the important ones.

And to all of this, Saban might ask: how many problems do you want to have? When faced with the seed of a problem, we are the gardeners. We control whether that problem grows into a Redwood tree of more problems, or withers in the soil. When faced with a problem, ask yourself: do I want more problems? If the answer is no, proceed accordingly.

 

Alec Bowling is a marketing executive in New York City, a career field in which a stoic mindset is a must have.

Should a Modern Stoic be Vegetarian? by Massimo Pigliucci

Vegetarianism is a big deal, ethically speaking. It was put on the map in terms of public philosophy by utilitarian Peter Singer, with his landmark Animal Liberation, published back in 1975. In truth, utilitarians have been very clear on the subject from the beginning. The founder of the approach, Jeremy Bentham, famously said that when it comes to the treatment of animals “the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?” (in: Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, 1789).

What about Stoicism? A recent article by Jeremy Corter in Stoicism Today summarizes the situation as far as the ancient texts are concerned. I will not repeat Jeremy’s points here, since he does a superb job of it. After parsing several quotes from Zeno, Chrysippus, Seneca, Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, he concludes (correctly, in my view): “Stoicism and vegetarianism are two separate philosophies. Stoic teachings never denounced eating animals and, in fact, often stated that animals were there for us to use. Musonius and Seneca are the only two Stoics we know of that were vegetarians, but neither cite any Stoic arguments for being so. Seneca cites Pythagoras and it would be safe to think that Musonius would have been aware of the same reasons.”

So why am I not ending the post here? Because of this, one of my favorite quotes from Seneca:

Will I not walk in the footsteps of my predecessors? I will indeed use the ancient road — but if I find another route that is more direct and has fewer ups and downs, I will stake out that one. Those who advanced these doctrines before us are not our masters but our guides. The truth lies open to all; it has not yet been taken over. Much is left also for those yet to come. (Letters to Lucilius, XXXIII.11)

I think vegetarianism is, in fact, one of those cases where the ancient road is not the best one, and we need to revise it. Full disclosure here: I am not a complete vegetarian, though I heavily lean that way. My eating habits can best be described as vegetarianism with the addition of occasional wild caught fish thrown into the mix (paying attention to whether the species in question is being overfished). I have never considered veganism seriously, even though the ethical argument there is at least as strong as the one for vegetarianism (though it’s not easy to be a healthy vegan, an issue I don’t want to get into here because it would distract from the main point). You could accuse me of hypocrisy, and I will respond that I’m trying to do my best, and that at any rate I’m doing more than a lot of other people. Never claimed to be a sage, never will.

As Corter himself recognizes near the end of his essay, this is of course a variation of the somewhat annoying generic question: “is X Stoic?” He is somewhat dismissive of the question itself, which – to be sure – is often abused on social media. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a sensible question. Jeremy says “the Stoics don’t ‘approve’ of anything besides virtue … In short, it’s all indifferent.” Well, not exactly.

To begin with, virtue means nothing in a vacuum. Virtue is a propensity to engage in certain behaviors because that’s the right thing to do (as oppose to a vice, which is a propensity to engage in the wrong sort of behavior). One cannot be courageous, or just, or temperate, or prudent (phronesis) in the abstract. Virtue is considered by the Stoics the chief good because it can never, by definition, be used for ill. But it needs to be used for something nonetheless!

For what? Well, for handling the indifferents, which as we know come in two categories: preferred and dispreferred. This means that it is a bit too reductive and glib to say that the Stoics approve only of virtue because the rest is indifferent. The Stoics, for instance, opposed tyranny, and several of them lost their lives fighting it. Clearly, that means they disapproved of it! Seneca even approved of something as apparently neutral as rest and relaxation, as he makes clear in On Tranquillity of Mind, XVII.

So “is vegetarianism Stoic?” is a real question, and we need to find the answer not in the specifics of what the ancient said (since they are our guides, not our masters), but in the resources offered by the Stoic philosophical system as a whole. This approach is not unusual, being the same sort of exercise that modern Buddhists, say, or Christians, or Jews, engage in whenever looking at their own tradition for guidance concerning modern issues.

Indeed, the likely answer (in the affirmative) to the question of whether vegetarianism is Stoic is hinted at by Jeremy himself, near the end of his essay. He writes:

The Stoics felt that animals were there for human use, including for the use of food. This isn’t to say that the Stoics would have been in favor of factory farming or animal abuse. The Stoics thought that animals had souls, not like a human’s, but a soul nonetheless. Maybe I’m overthinking this part, but I’m suspecting that if they truly thought this, a Stoic would lean towards, if not protecting animals, at the very least not abusing and exploiting them.

Corter is not overthinking at all. He just should have pursued that line of thinking a bit further. We know a lot more nowadays about animal suffering than the Stoics did two millennia ago. Moreover, we have developed truly horrific standardized practices for the treatment of animals in quantities that the Stoics could not have imagined.

Just to give you an idea, these are the USDA statistics of slaughtered animals for the year 2008, obviously limited to the USA only:

Cattle: 35,507,500
Pigs: 116,558,900
Chickens: 9,075,261,000
Layer hens: 69,683,000
Turkeys: 271,245,000

I strongly suggest these numbers ought to disturb you, especially if you know anything about how all of this is actually done. And that’s without bringing into consideration additional factors that the ancient Stoics were not concerned with, like labor practices (generally speaking, horrible) and environmental impact (not at all good, to put it very mildly).

Given all this, I strongly suggest that modern Stoics should lean heavily toward vegetarianism, or at the very least endorse only humane practices of raising and killing animals, as it is done in a number of small, independently owned farms. The problem is that that model simply does not scale up to feeding billions of human beings, which means that, for practical purposes, Stoics should indeed be vegetarian.

But what about the idea – which the ancient Stoics surely did have – that animals and plants are here to satisfy human needs? That idea stemmed from the Stoic concept of a providential universe, understood as a living organism itself, endowed with the Logos, the capacity for rationality.

The problem is that modern science very clearly tells us that that’s not the kind of universe we exist in. Plants and other animals are the product of billions of years of evolution, just like ourselves, and so in no rational way can they be said to be here “for” us. Seneca, above, said that the truth lies open to all; it has not yet been taken over, as much is left for those yet to come. Well, two thousand years later we are still searching for a lot of truths, but we have found out a few more than in Seneca’s time. It is our ethical duty, therefore, to update our practices accordingly. Remember that one of the pillars of Stoic philosophy is precisely that the “physics” (i.e., all of natural science) should inform our ethics, so better knowledge of biology in particular should redirect the way we think about what is right and what is wrong when it comes to eating habits.

Jeremy argues that vegetarianism is an indifferent, and that “like any indifferent, it doesn’t make you a good or bad person.” I think that’s not the right way to look at it. Our diet is more properly referred to as the indifferent, but deciding what we eat and why is very much a reflection of our character, and therefore a function of how we exercise the virtues. As Epictetus put it in a different context:

What decides whether a sum of money is good? The money is not going to tell you; it must be the faculty that makes use of such impressions – reason. (Discourses I, 1.5)

Substitute “diet” for “money” and you can answer in the same way: reason. And reason – given contemporary scientific knowledge – very much tells us that we, as Stoics, ought to be vegetarians. Therefore, I’m going to redouble my personal efforts to follow this path and further reduce my intake of other foodstuff. I hope you will join me, to reduce both suffering in the world and our carbon footprint as a species. And Seneca adds, you’ll also feel better and think more clearly.

_____

P.S.: very likely, there will be people who will read the above and argue the facts. I have neither time nor inclination to debate the science, so I will not respond. I have looked long and hard, as a biologist, into the various issues surrounding vegetarianism, and I have concluded to my own satisfaction that a vegetarian diet is: (i) better in terms of the ethics of animal suffering (though not as good as a vegan one); (ii) better for the environment; (iii) not supportive of horrible labor practices that are commonly engaged in by large agricultural corporations; and (iv) better for your health. If you are not convinced, that’s your prerogative, and clearly outside my control.

 

Massimo Pigliucci has a PhD in evolutionary biology from the University of Connecticut and one in philosophy from the University of Tennessee. He teaches philosophy at the City College of New York, and his latest book is How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life. He blogs at How To Be A Stoic.

Philosophy as the Act of Choosing by Brittany Polat

As I’ve been practicing Stoic philosophy, I’ve come to realize that Stoicism isn’t really about virtue – it’s more about using good judgment to seek virtue. I’m not the first person to see things that way. “Do you want to know what philosophy promises the human race?” Seneca says to Lucilius. “Good judgment.”[i]

Virtue doesn’t exist in isolation, in some kind of pure form (sorry, Plato), although of course the concept of virtue can still be a useful one for us. In the world of humanity, virtue resides in virtuous actions, thoughts, and motives. When I think about my own actions, for example, I can’t separate my own virtue (or lack thereof) from the way I think and act. Could I be virtuous if I act viciously? Or could I actually be vicious if I act and think virtuously? I don’t see how that is possible. In a very real sense, as Epictetus says, we are our choices:

For you yourself are neither flesh nor hair, but choice, and if you render that beautiful, then you yourself will be beautiful.[ii]

These are strong words. We are not merely the sum of our choices, or the product of our choices; we are our faculty of choice.

After pondering this somewhat bizarre line of thinking, and trying to put it into practice, I’ve realized that Epictetus is right. (Of course he’s right–has he ever been wrong about human nature?) And this leads us to an even stranger meta-conceptual truth about Stoic philosophy: philosophy is the act of choosing to do philosophy. By making the choice to use your reasoning ability to seek out the best, most virtuous behavior, you are doing philosophy. Why? Because you are trying to bring your thoughts, actions, and motivations in line with your beliefs about what is true and good.

Let’s think about it this way. Say you are confronted with an irritating situation, like someone cutting you off in traffic. Most people don’t realize it, but we have a choice about what to think and feel in this situation. The non-philosopher will probably take the conventional route of feeling angry. The Stoic philosopher, who knows that this is merely a dispreferred indifferent and not a cause for anger, has a choice. He can choose the conventional option and become angry, or he can choose the Stoic option and not feel irritated at all.

What does he decide? Hopefully he will choose the Stoic option – and in making that choice, he is doing philosophy. He is bringing his thoughts in line with what he believes to be true. He is using his reasoning ability to become more virtuous. That is philosophy in action.

Epictetus speaks in the highest possible terms about our faculty of choice –prohairesis. Not only does discussion of the “sphere of choice” pervade his basic philosophical precepts, but he uses superlatives mainly for speaking of the gods and choice. Here is but a small sampling of his dictums related to choice (I have added italics for emphasis):

The gods have placed in our power only the best faculty of all, the one that rules over all the others, that which enables us to make right use of our impressions; but everything else they haven’t placed within our power.[iii]

The essence of the good is a certain disposition of our choice, and that of the bad likewise. What are externals, then? Materials for our choice, which attains its own good or ill through the way in which it deals with them.[iv]

Consider who you are. First of all, a human being, that is to say, one who has no faculty more authoritative than choice, but subordinates everything else to that, keeping choice itself free from enslavement and subjection.[v]

Where does the good lie? ‘In choice.’ Where does the bad lie? ‘In choice.’ And that which is neither good nor bad? ‘In things that lie outside the sphere of choice.’[vi]

What is it that makes use of everything else? Choice. What is it that takes charge of everything else? Choice. What is it that destroys the whole person, sometimes through hunger, sometimes through a noose, sometimes by hurling him over a cliff? Choice. Can it be, then, that there is anything more powerful among human beings than this?[vii]

But if you ask me, ‘What is the most excellent of all things,’ what am I to say? The faculty of expression? I cannot, but must rather say the faculty of choice, when it becomes right choice. For it is choice that makes use of the faculty of expression, and of all the other faculties, both great and small. If it be rightly directed, a person becomes good; if it be badly directed, he becomes bad. It is through choice that we encounter good fortune or misfortune, and that we reproach one another or are pleased with one another. It is this, in a word, that brings about unhappiness when neglected, and happiness when properly tended.[viii]

In this line of thinking, philosophy is not the pursuit of virtue, but first and foremost the act of choosing to pursue virtue. That decision must come before everything else. We must choose to leave behind convention and unexamined impressions. We must actively decide to engage our reasoning ability to make the wisest possible choice in whatever circumstances we might find ourselves.

If you read the Discourses with this in mind, you notice that this is what Epictetus recommends. All of his advice to his students centers around the act of choosing to do philosophy. His more specific recommendations – for example, making proper use of impressions, remaining vigilant, or practicing the disciplines of desire, impulse, and assent – are specific ways of exercising the capacity for choice. These are ways of breaking down the problem of choice, of dealing with the problem of choice, and of knowing what we should choose. Choice is a very tricky problem, and it must be carefully examined. We must have the discourse to talk about it, and we need many psychological tools to help us use our capacity for choice wisely.

For example, when we are confronted by a disturbing impression, what should we do? Throw it away. But first we must make the choice to do philosophy at all. As always, we have a choice: we could do what most people do, and let the impression get the better of us. That choice does not qualify as philosophy, because we have not applied our reason to seek out virtue. But if we make the decision to apply reason and examine our impression, we have made the decision to do philosophy. It’s entirely possible that we do not have appropriate knowledge and wisdom to act in a sage-like manner. But simply by making the decision to apply our reasoning in the service of virtue, we have done philosophy.

If it seems strange to us to think about philosophy as basically a capacity for rational choice, that’s because we’re not used to seeing it in that way. For a very long time in the West, it is religion that has been used as a guide for proper thought and action, not so much philosophy. But why shouldn’t philosophy (rather than religiosity, intuition, or moral convention) guide our every thought and action? We have revived Stoicism for modern times. Maybe we need to revive the centrality of choice, too.

Putting Philosophy To Use

It’s possible that I’m reading too much into Epictetus’ words, and this isn’t really what he was talking about. I have no way of knowing what he meant to say in those famous lectures. Maybe I’m way off the mark. Ultimately, though, I don’t think it matters. What interests me, and probably most modern Stoics, is applying ancient wisdom to live better lives today. And I believe that focusing on philosophy as choice can help us a great deal. I have already felt a profound difference in my own Stoic practice as a result of this new perspective.

When you picture your Stoic practice as a series of moment-by-moment choices, your philosophy becomes urgent, vital, almost alive. Philosophy isn’t something that you just practice sometimes, like you might practice tennis or piano. Philosophy is something that you practice every minute of your life. This is because every moment requires a decision from you. What do I do in this moment, in this situation – practice philosophy or not? Do I make the effort to bring my thoughts and actions in line with my principles, or do I let it slide? Seeing philosophy as a choice forces you to confront your principles daily and hourly. There is nowhere to hide.

And not only does philosophy become necessary – inescapable – but it also becomes more possible. It’s not some grand venture that you might get around to when you’re better prepared. It’s a simple choice you have to make right now. Do you practice philosophy, or do you not? If you do not consciously choose in this moment to practice philosophy, then by default you are not practicing philosophy. It’s a binary choice. There is no in-between.

Epictetus, and also Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, provide us with a great deal of helpful advice about how to make the right choice. This is why we read their works today. The doctrines, the psychological techniques, the external body of work that we call Stoic philosophy, is essential to help us on the path to wisdom. We need the theory in order to know what virtue is, and how we should apply it in specific situations. Epictetus is quite clear that theory is necessary to support action. At one point he says that the task of philosophy is in establishing standards, so that we may know how to judge things properly.[ix] But what is the task of the philosopher?

My principal task in life is this: to distinguish between things, and establish a division between them and say, ‘External things are not within my power; choice is within my power.’[x]

We must make the choice to choose.

At first, this way of seeing philosophy might seem exhausting in its insistence for action. How could anyone ever hope to reach this standard? To be virtuous, you would have to bring every choice you ever make in line with virtue. Yes, exactly. That’s why only the perfectly virtuous person is wise, and the rest of us are drowning below the surface. Only the sage knows how to align every choice with wisdom. Only the sage knows how to direct every thought toward what is noble and true–to always say yes to philosophy, even unto the moment of death.

And yet, this is what it would mean to be truly free: to maintain your capacity for choice up until the very end. “For my part,” Epictetus says, “I’d wish that death may overtake me when I’m attending to nothing other than my power of choice, to ensure that it may be unperturbed, unhindered, unconstrained, and free.”[xi] Epictetus may not have considered himself a sage, but he continues to inspire and show us the path to virtue.

On a practical note, I think that the rest of us can still make progress in our capacity for choice by viewing every moment as an opportunity for philosophy. I was delighted to learn that the root word of prohairesis is something like “grabbing.”[xii] What better metaphor do we need than reaching out and grabbing philosophy?

When you are confronted with a choice – do I see this as distressing or not? Do I respond the Stoic way or the non-Stoic way? – you can always reach out and seize the philosophical response. I’ve started keeping this choice before my eyes at all times as I go about my daily business. I find that when it put things in terms of a binary choice, the decision is much easier. I don’t have to do anything complicated or grand. All I have to do is choose philosophy.

[i] Seneca, Selected Letters, 48.7.

[ii] Epictetus, Discourses, 3.1, 40.

[iii] 1.1, 7

[iv] 1.29, 1-2

[v] 2.10, 1

[vi] 2.16, 1

[vii] 2.23, 17-18

[viii] 2.23, 27-29

[ix] 2.11, 24

[x] 2.5, 4

[xi] 3.5, 7

[xii] Greg Sadler, “What Does Epictetus mean by Prohairesis?”, PocketStoic. Available at https://medium.com/pocketstoic/what-does-epictetus-mean-by-prohairesis-cd23fed321d

 

Brittany Polat practices Stoicism daily with her three young children and describes her experiences at apparentstoic.com. Her book on Stoic parenting, Tranquility Parenting: Timeless Truths for Becoming a Calm, Happy, and Engaged Parent, is scheduled to appear in 2018.