A Stoic Approach to Travel and Tourism by William O. Stephens

Each year, after the Stoicon conference, we ask the speakers and workshop leaders to provide transcripts or summaries of their presentations, so that our readership can enjoy some of the same opportunities for learning as the conference attendees.  We continue that series now with this piece by William O. Stephens, the transcript of his talk during the breakout sessions – G. Sadler, Editor

 

How does a Stoic approach travel and tourism?  To answer this question I will mine lessons from the ancient Stoics Seneca and Epictetus.  These remarks apply to how today’s Stoics can be calm, confident, and content when traveling and on holiday tours.

Seneca

Consider automobiles.  The automotive trade journal Ward’s Auto estimated that in 2010 the number of motor vehicles in use in the world surpassed 1.015 billion.  This figure includes passenger cars, light, medium, and heavy duty trucks and buses.  In July 2014 an industry analyst calculated the total to be 1.2 billion automobiles.  The number of passenger cars is projected to reach 2 billion by 2040.  How does a Stoic think about owning an automobile?  Seneca gives us a clue.  There were no motorized vehicles in the ancient world, of course.  Ancient Romans who could afford them sometimes used horse or mule-drawn carriages.  Seneca writes (Letter 87):

The carriage I ride in its just a country wagon.  The mules give no evidence of being alive except that they are walking; the drover has his boots off, and not because of the heat, either.  I have a hard time persuading myself to let anyone see me in such a vehicle.  It’s perverse, but I’m still ashamed of doing what is right, and whenever we run across some more glamorous equipage I blush in spite of myself.  That’s proof that the habits I approve and admire are not yet firmly established. He who blushes in a shabby carriage will boast of an expensive one.  It’s only a little progress that I have made so far.  I don’t yet dare to wear my frugality out in the open; I still care about the opinions of travelers….[1]

Seneca’s point about a vehicle is that frugality is a virtue to admire.  So, whether your vehicle is pulled by mules or is an automobile, and whether it is modest, worn down, rusted, or even a complete clunker, it doesn’t matter.  The purpose of any vehicle is transportation.  Those who boast about their fancier, pricier vehicles suffer from ignorance.  Their boasts rest on false judgments.  A Stoic feels no shame riding in a clunker because she tries to be frugal and doesn’t worry about the false judgments of fools.  Image is everything to fools.  Image is nothing to Stoics.

Seneca thinks that many people embark on trips to varied locales to shake off gloom and heaviness from their minds.  In American English the word vacation implies this motive.  To go on vacation or holiday is to suspend our work or study, to release ourselves from duty, business, or activity.  We vacate the usual burdens of our lives and seek temporary escape.  But Seneca believes that travel is useless for clearing a mind cluttered by burdens.  He writes: “You must change the mind, not the venue” (Letter 28. 1).  Travel does no good because the new countries you fly to, the cities you tour, and the sites you see, cannot relieve you of what weighed on your mind and drove you from home.  The mind must free itself from its burdens, and merely moving the body from place to place cannot do that.

For Seneca, frequent travel is a sign of disquiet.

“The mind cannot find strength in its leisure unless it stops looking around and wandering around.  To keep your mind within bounds, you must first stop your body from running away” (Letter 69. 1).

The mental burdens and gloom we experience result from the bad desires that become bad habits that harden into vices.  To dispel the heavy gloom, we must root out those vices.  This requires a protracted cure.

You should rest without interruption and forget your former life.  Let your eyes unlearn what they have seen; let your ears grow accustomed to more healthful words.  Every time you go out, your old desires are stirred anew, even before you reach your destination” (Letter 69. 2).

Travel to a new destination does not cure a sick, troubled mind.  The mind is cured when it leaves the baggage of its illness behind and, now unburdened, occupies a new, healthy place.  A Stoic’s real destination is a fit and healthy mind.

Seneca writes:

What has travel as such been able to do for anyone?  It doesn’t control pleasures, curb desires, check outbursts of temper, or mitigate love’s wild assaults: in a word, it removes no troubles from the mind.  It does not bestow judgment or shake off error; all it does is provide a change of scene to hold our attention for a moment as some new trinket might entertain a child. Apart from that, travel exacerbates the instability of a mind that is already unhealthy.  Indeed, the very movement of the carriage makes us more restless and irritable.  The result is that people who had been passionate to visit some spot are even more eager to leave it, just like birds that fly from one perch to another and are gone more swiftly than they arrived. Travel will acquaint you with other races, it will show you mountains of strange shape, unfamiliar plains, and valleys watered by inexhaustible streams.  It will enable you to observe the peculiarities of certain rivers— . . . yet it will not improve you, either in body or in mind. We need to spend our time on study and on the authorities of wisdom in order to learn what has already been investigated and to investigate what has not yet been discovered.  This is the way for the mind to be emancipated from its miserable enslavement and claimed for freedom.  But as long as you are ignorant of what to avoid and what to pursue, and remain ignorant of the just, the unjust, the honorable, and the dishonorable, you will not really be traveling but only wandering. Your rushing around will bring you no benefit, since you are traveling in company with your emotions, and your troubles follow along.  . . .  A sick person does not need a place; he needs medical treatment. If someone has a broken leg or dislocated a joint, he doesn’t get on a carriage or a ship; he calls a doctor to set the fracture or relocate the limb.  Do you get the point?  When the mind has been broken and sprained in so many places, do you think it can be restored by changing places?  Your trouble is too grave to be cured by moving around. Travel does not make one a doctor or an orator.  One does not learn a skill from one’s location.  Do you suppose that wisdom, the greatest of all skills, can be assembled on a journey?  Believe me, there is no journey that could deposit you beyond desires, beyond outbursts of temper, beyond your fears.  If that were so, the human race would have headed there in droves.  So long as you carry around the reasons for your troubles, wandering all over the world, those troubles will continue to harass and torment you. Are you puzzled that running away is not helping you?  What you are running from is with you.  You need to correct your flaws, unload your burdens, and keep your desires within a healthy limit.” (Letter 104)

So, Seneca believes that neither boredom nor discontentment are helped by trips because travel brings no self-improvement.  To find good reasons to travel we must turn to Epictetus.

Epictetus

Epictetus notes that religious festivals and athletic competitions attracted pilgrims and tourists in the antiquity.  Epictetus addresses a student who is desperate to see a magnificent gold and ivory statue of Zeus at Olympia fashioned by the famed artist Pheidias.

 . . . you regard it as a misfortune to die without seeing such sights. But when there is no need to travel at all, and where you are already, and Zeus is present in his works—will you not desire to contemplate these things and understand them?  Will you never perceive either who you are, or for what you have been born, or the purpose for which this vision has been given to you?[1] (Disc. 1.6)

From a Stoic’s perspective, the entire natural world is a spectacle worthy of study and admiration.  The earth, the sky, and all of nature’s wonders in between provide those who are circumspect with plenty to see and appreciate.  Epictetus urges the fellow who is dying to travel to eye glitzy statuary to recognize that he was not born and given vision for the purpose of being entertained at a remote location.  Even the most dazzling artifacts pale in comparison with natural wonders imbued with divine craftsmanship.  If the determined sightseer does travel all the way to Olympia, then she ought to appreciate the spectacle of the artwork and tolerate any discomforts of the tourist destination.  If the trip is judged to be worth the trouble, then the Stoic takes the hassles in stride, remaining calm without complaint.

A legitimate reason Epictetus gives for travel is to be an intelligent cosmic spectator.  A trip to see a famous work of art is not necessarily illicit, so long as it is undertaken with due caution and the right motive.  The right motive is to behold and appreciate a wondrous, enduring spectacle of the cosmos.  A wrong motive would be to want to gawk at a flashy, cunningly crafted statue on the false belief that such an artifact remotely approaches the beauty, grandeur, or wise governance of Nature.

What does a Stoic think about going on holiday to escape the grind of one’s workaday life?  Epictetus believes that a Stoic does not need a vacation.  A Stoic is content with where she is and whatever sights surround her.  A Stoic perceives in these sights orderliness and good management.  She understands that vision is to be used for the purpose of discerning this providential governance.  Contemplating the natural marvels within her ambit is entirely up to her.  A Stoic does not yearn to glimpse what lies beyond the horizon.  In contrast, a desire for “quiet and leisure, and travel” makes you abject and subservient to those who control your access to quiet, leisure, and travel (Disc. 4.4.1).

So, a Stoic doesn’t hanker to go sightseeing.  But neither does a Stoic resist traveling when it is required.  Epictetus cites with approval the willingness of Socrates to be sent on campaign and leave Athens (Disc. 4.4).  Socrates was too wise to set his heart on leisurely conversations with young men in Athens when military service called him away.  Socrates was content to follow the will of god.  A Stoic does not make herself anxious wondering what her final geographical destination will be.  Nor does she fret about how long it will take to arrive.  Instead, she rejoices in what each moment brings on each step of her journey.

When his student bemoans being far from his familiar friends and familiar places at home, Epictetus scolds him.  He tells him that he deserves to be homesick and cry because he foolishly judged that he would never need to leave home.  In so doing, the student has:

… become more wretched than ravens or crows, which, without groaning or longing for their former home, can fly where they will, build their nests in another place, and cross the seas” (Disc. 3.24.6)

The student objects that ravens and crows react that way because they lack reason.  Epictetus responds that the gods gave us reason not to make us live our lives weeping in misery (Disc. 3.24.7).  Rather, Epictetus insists that the power of reason enables human beings to be at least as happy as ravens and crows, who are never homesick and relocate without distress.  Notice that it is not wings that make such birds capable of traveling and establishing new homes without misery.  They can do so even lacking the degree of reason human beings possess.  It is their nature as animals that migrate freely and without anguish.[2]  Nature has similarly made human beings animals that locomote.  We are not made to remain rooted to one spot like plants (Disc. 3.24.8).

And, if any one of our friends should leave his home, should we sit and cry, and when he comes back, should we dance and clap our hands like children? Shall we never wean ourselves, and remember what we have heard from the philosophers . . .  that the world is one great city, and the substance out of which it is formed is single, and there must necessarily be a cycle of change, in which one thing gives way to another, and some things are destroyed and others come into being, and some things remain where they were and others are moved.

Stoics believe that we all inhabit a single cosmopolis (universal city).  Changes within this one cosmopolis include day and night, the four seasons, coming to be, passing away, and movement.  On this view, travel is never worrisome.  Wherever one ventures, one remains at home within the world.  The Stoic traveler cannot be alienated from the cosmic city that embraces all locales.  The Stoic ‘citizen of the universe’ can never become lost.[3]  Cosmopolitanism also explains why exile is no evil for the Stoic.  Banishment from a particular locale in no way unsettles her residency in the cosmos.[4]

Not only does the idea of the cosmopolis provide geographical comfort to the Stoic traveler, it also provides solidarity among its residents.  Whenever we travel with fellow travelers, we are with our fellow citizens of the world.  Stoics can remember absent friends while judging that the travels that separate them from us is inevitable, not regrettable.  A Stoic can take cheer with whatever company she has.  She is equally content with no human company at all.[5]  Strangers encountered along a journey should not be feared as threats but welcomed as friends.  Stoic traveling therefore precludes xenophobia, racism, and cultural provincialism.

Friends are often a reason to travel.  Epictetus thinks there are circumstances when it is necessary to risk one’s life for one’s friend, and circumstances when one ought to die for one’s friend (Disc. 2.7.1–3).  He cites the example of Maximus sailing all the way to Cassiope during the winter with this son, in order to see him on his way (Disc. 3.7.3).[6]  If a father ought to accompany his son on a risky voyage, then it stands to reason that a similar occasion would call for someone to travel with her friend.  So, just as one’s friendships with others can warrant travel, so too can one’s familial responsibilities.

Epictetus says that a Stoic must be ready to perform whatever task she is assigned.  This includes travel, since it is not possible for everyone to stay in the same place, nor is it better (Disc. 3.24.31).

Everyone’s life is a kind of campaign, and a long and complicated one.  You must observe the character of a soldier and perform each act at the bidding of the general” (Disc. 3.24.34; cf. Ench. 17).

Therefore, if her employer sends a Stoic on a business trip, she should do as she is asked.

How does travel relate to our purpose, according to Epictetus?  Our roles determine our purposes.  He says:

What is the usual practice, then?  People behave like a traveler, who, returning to his own country, comes across a good inn on the road, and because the inn pleases him, remains there. Have you forgotten your intention, man?  You were not traveling to this place, but only through it.  ‘But this is a fine inn.’  And how many other fine inns are there, and how many pleasant meadows?  But only to be passed through on the way. Your business is the other thing; to return to your country, to relieve the anxieties of your family, to perform the duties of a citizen, to marry, to have children, and to hold public office. For you have not, I think, come into the world to pick out the most charming places, but to live and act in the place where you were born, and of which you have been appointed a citizen. (Disc. 2.23.36–39)

Epictetus’ students traveled far from their homes to his school in a small town in northwest Greece.  So, I think Epictetus would say that it is perfectly fine to travel to London to attend Stoicon and learn about Stoicism, so long as we return home and carry out our responsibilities to our family, friends, co-workers, and fellow citizens.

A Stoic must remember, Epictetus teaches, that the material possessions we come to own can be taken away from us.  They don’t belong to us forever.  Moreover, our spouses and children are mortal, and so they do not belong to us permanently either.  As long as other people and possessions are with us, we must daily remind ourselves that they are only on loan to us.  Therefore, we ought to take care of them as travelers treat an inn (Ench. 11; cf. Disc. 4.1.107 and Ench. 7).  The people we love are mortals and a Stoic is convinced that we should love them on these terms.

What if a storm threatens our trip?  Epictetus was convinced that reason could dispel false beliefs, foolish judgments, and groundless fears.  Reason equips the Stoic traveler with peace of mind amidst the storm of uncertainties of life.  Flight delays, flight cancellations, turbulence, and the rudeness of other passengers are all beyond the control of the airline passenger, and so need not disturb a Stoic traveler.  Treating airline personnel and fellow-passengers with courtesy, on the other hand, is up to a Stoic and so is her responsibility.  The maintenance of one’s automobile and driving it safely are up to the motorist.  The weather, road conditions, traffic, and the road rage of other motorists are not.  The latter challenge one’s equanimity, but the motorist is responsible only for the former.  One need not believe in Zeus, cosmic reason, or divine providence to find such considerations reasonable.  One need only believe that reason is nature’s gift to us.

Would doubt about divine providence block the judgment that it is perfectly fine that one’s boat is sinking or that one’s lorry has broken down?  I think today’s Stoic traveler who suspends belief in divine providence would not judge it good per se that her boat is sinking or that her lorry has broken down.  But she can feel confidence in her ability to cope with such challenging and easily foreseeable events.  Today’s Stoic traveler would not judge these events to be demoralizing mishaps, but occasions requiring resourcefulness and level-headed problem-solving.  To judge herself to be victimized by such travel mishaps is a mistake.  Such urgent situations are times to swim vigorously toward floating debris, or to make for shore while assisting others if possible.  They are not times for decrying her terrible luck.  They are times to roll up her sleeves and apply her automotive know-how, seek roadside assistance, or get walking.  They are not times to kick the bus or yell at the lorry driver.  A Stoic is convinced that she is never victimized by the bumps along the road she travels.  While she may never reach her real destination, namely, is to become fully virtuous and wise, a Stoic relentlessly propels herself forward, straining to approach that goal as closely as she can.

[1] Translations, sometimes modified, are from C. Gill (ed.). The Discourses of Epictetus, tr. rev. by Robin Hard.  London: J.M. Dent, 1995.

[2] Montiglio, 212 thinks that in 3.24.6 Epictetus represents migratory birds as the ideal of freedom, since they can choose to fly (wander) wherever they want but we have no such freedom.  This misunderstands Epictetus’ conception of real freedom, which is the internal mental disposition of desiring only what is in one’s power always to achieve, not the physical ability to move about in space unhindered.

[3] For a discussion of what “getting lost” means in the relationship between wandering and knowledge for Odysseus and Dio Chrysostom, see Montiglio, 202 and ch. 3.

[4] See Disc. 2.6.20–25.  The same holds for prison.

[5] See Disc. 3.13.1–6 where Epictetus defines desolation (e0rhmi/a) as the condition of being bereft of help and vulnerable to injury rather than the condition of being alone.  Stoics must train themselves to become capable of being self-sufficient, as Zeus is at the ekpurōsis.

[6] As noted above (Skeel 93; Casson 149–150), sea voyages in winter were especially dangerous.

[1] All translations of Seneca’s Letters on Ethics are from A.A. Long and Margaret Graver, Univ. of Chicago Press (2015).

 

William O. Stephens is Professor of Philosophy and Classical Studies at Creighton University. He is also President of the Beta Chapter of Nebraska Phi Beta Kappa Society. He is the author of Marcus Aurelius: A Guide for the PerplexedStoic Ethics: Epictetus and Happiness as Freedom, and The Person: Readings in Human Nature, and the translator of Adolf Bonhöffer’s  The Ethics of the Stoic Epictetus. He has published many articles on such topics as Star Wars and Stoicism, the film Gladiator (2000) and Stoicism, Stoic views of love, death, animals, sportsmanship, travel, and ecology, and on philosophical vegetarianism.

Sunday 25th: Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT) 2018

Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT) 2018 is now enrolling and due to start on Sunday 25th November, when enrollment will close.  Every year we get people contacting us to say they missed the enrollment window so please don’t miss out!

SMRT is a FREE four-week course provided by Modern Stoicism, a nonprofit organization run by a multidisciplinary team of volunteers.  It’s an intensive skills training approach to Stoicism.  Visit the website for more information.

Click the button below to enroll now or to learn more…

So far 2,544 people have registered in advance so we’re aiming to reach three thousand by Sunday.  We’ve been running SMRT since 2014 and it keeps on growing into a bigger event each year.  Last year we had about 1,800 participants so we’ve already gone way beyond that number this time round.

Set a reminder for the introductory live webinar:

 

Coffee Is Just Hot Bean Juice: Radical Objectivity and Stoicism by Dominic Vaiana

2,000 years ago, the most powerful man in the world took his seat at a prestigious banquet, only to remind himself that his glass of vintage wine was just old, fermented grapes, that his roasted pork was nothing but a garnished dead pig, and that his robe was simply the hair of a sheep soaked in shellfish blood.

This man was Marcus Aurelius, the first-century Roman emperor who, despite having autonomous power over what was arguably the most dominant empire in history, never allowed his authority and luxuries to corrupt his perceptions. How easy would it have been for such a figure to become preoccupied, much like today’s power-hungry egomaniacs are, with fantastic stories to exaggerate the importance of his wine, his meal, and his clothes?

And yet he resisted.

But cultivating this sober, pragmatic worldview was no easy task for Marcus. Indeed, it was the byproduct of relentless mental discipline, much of which is captured in his Meditations. Among the strategies he implemented to tame his ego was, for lack of an official term, radical objectivity: using contempt to put luxuries in their proper place, seeing “valuable” assets as simple, material objects and evaluating them accordingly.

When we have meat before us and other food, we must say to ourselves: ‘This is the dead body of a fish, and this is the dead body of a bird or of a pig, and again, this Falernian [wine] is only a little grape juice, and this purple robe some sheep’s wool died with the blood of a shellfish’…This is how we should act throughout life: where there are things that seem worthy of great estimation, we ought to lay them bare and look at their worthlessness and strip them of all the words by which they are exalted. For the outward show [of things] is a wonderful perverter of reason, and when we are certain the things we are dealing with are worth the trouble, that is when it cheats us most’ (Meditations, 6.13).

Translation: take life at face value so you can focus on what’s important.

This art of radical objectivity eventually became a fundamental aspect of Stoicism, the school of philosophy which Marcus Aurelius inadvertently became a figurehead of after his death. And while he certainly didn’t invent radical objectivity per se, he did popularize it. His emphasis on mental clarity and self-restraint in a superficial world is woven into a number of Stoic discourses throughout history. The teachings of Epictetus, the Greek slave-turned-philosopher who lived during the same era, ran parallel to Marcus’ meditations:

Don’t let the force of an impression when it first hits you knock you off your feet. Just say to it: ‘Hold on a moment; let me see who you are and what you represent. Let me put you to the test.’

What a liberating thought: to know that we’re in charge of deciding whether we let glamor and excessive emotion conflict with our reasoned choice. It would seem self-evident to remind ourselves of this when, say, shopping for a car or trembling with excitement at the feet of a celebrity. How much tension could we relieve ourselves of by taking our desires off the pedestal we’ve blindly placed them on?

And yet we allow our perceptions to dictate our well-being.

Say what you will about philosophy, but now more than ever we need a mental framework that can subdue our baseless desires and bring us back down to Earth. Marcus Aurelius and the other first-century Stoics were undoubtedly among the most disciplined and pragmatic thinkers in recorded history, but it would be foolish to suggest that it was more difficult for them, along with those they taught, to resist the allure of consumerism than it is for us in 2018. Sure, there was fine wine and expensive clothing 2,000 years ago. But today, each of us must wake up and confront a multibillion-dollar marketing and advertising industry whose sole objective is to reverse any progress we make towards clarifying our perceptions.

There are men and women who devote their lives to manufacturing gadgets that are more addictive than cigarettes and brands that are more loveable than our own family and friends. And they are good at it. We need these things, we are told. They are part of our identity. Any marketing veteran knows that the less a product or service serves some utilitarian function, the more it implies about identity. But in a time when most of us have our primal, utilitarian needs met (food, water, shelter) charlatans and hacks have free reign to create identities for us.

Who would’ve thought the solution was written in a notebook 2,000 years ago?

Philosophy, particularly Stoicism, isn’t about asking vague questions that make life complicated. Philosophy is about setting our feet on the right path, one that leads to a good life characterized by clarity, not biased perceptions.

How often do we exaggerate the importance of our possessions or that which we wish to possess? How often do we put a veneer of sophistication over life’s trivialities? We tell ourselves stories about the most frivolous purchases in an attempt to enrich our lives. Ironically though, all these stories do is set us up for disappointment when we can’t get them (or when they’re taken away.) Picture the girl frantically checking her phone, equating Instagram likes with fulfillment. Or the grown man inwardly melting down when nobody notices his new BMW.

What would Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, or Seneca say about these scenarios? Surely, they would point out the emptiness that results from getting so worked up over what isn’t under our control. Perhaps they would encourage channeling that energy towards a more tangible purpose.

Most philosophical and theological traditions agree that desire, though it is the root of suffering, will always be an inherent part of the human condition. But the last thing we should do is chastise ourselves for it, or worse, pretend we don’t desire anything. As the Jesuit priest Anthony de Mello noted, the more we renounce something, the more power it has over us. Going minimalist for a month or throwing out our possessions is like putting a Band-Aid over a gunshot wound – it won’t fix the root of the problem. Instead, we should follow the example of Marcus Aurelius and lay our desires bare, ponder their worthlessness, and “strip them of all the words by which they are exalted.” It is by understanding our desires, and the emptiness of them, that we lose interest.

The question remains, then, what does being Stoically objective mean in a contemporary sense? We don’t have a creed, doctrine, or rulebook to answer that question, (nor do we need one) but it doesn’t hurt to have some inspiration. That being said, here are some applications of the Stoic art of radical objectivity with a 21st-century twist:

Single batch, artisan, or gourmet coffee is hot bean juice.

Social media apps are for-profit dopamine factories.

A Mercedes-Benz is an assortment of steel, plastic, and glass.

A Rolex is a miniature clock made out of rocks and metal.

Balenciaga shoes are pieces of leather stitched to rubber.

Celebrities are flesh-and-blood mortals with just as many, if not more, problems than we have.

The next time you feel inferior for not “living the good life,” see how transformative this exercise can be. Often by default, we hand over so much control to our biased judgements, even to the point of going into debt or sacrificing our wellbeing and sanity for the sake of them.

Take Apple watches for example: there are millions of people who own them, and millions more who want them. And why not? After all, Apple describes it as “the ultimate device for a healthy life.” But once you strip away the story and the fancy packaging, what more is it than a 1.5-square-inch piece of stainless steel strapped to your wrist that turns you into a puppet, jerking your head with each vibrating notification?

It’s only by managing our impulses that all of these things, watches, clothes, cars, lose their power over us. Not to mention, this can save us a lot of money.

This is not to reduce life to some sterile existence devoid of meaning. On the contrary, radical objectivity adds meaning to life: once we peel the glamour away from our material desires, the clouds begin to clear – what’s left are the priceless aspects of life, ones that can’t be reduced to physical attributes: companionship, wisdom, purpose, fulfillment.

To see things for what they truly are, without their ornamentation or status, is not only difficult but unpopular. Even if you don’t go as far as to relive Thoreau’s Walden, it’s not uncommon to draw strange looks when you abstain from luxuries that you can easily afford. And when that itch to blow money inevitably manifests itself, remember this observation from Seneca, who tutored the self-destructive Roman emperor Nero:

Slavery resides under marble and gold.

Outward show is often an indication of inward conflict. As Marcus Aurelius again reminds us, when we become certain that our accomplishments and possessions are more important than they truly are, it’s then that we are under their spell.

Dominic Vaiana is a writer and media strategist based in St. Louis, Missouri.

Enroll now for Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT) 2018

We’re pleased to announce that Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT) will be running this year starting on Sunday 25th November.   This is a free course, open to everyone.

The course lasts four weeks and enrollment has just opened but will close shortly.  So don’t miss out if you’re hoping to take part.

About SMRT

SMRT is a four-week intensive training course in core Stoic psychological skills.  It requires about twenty minutes of commitment daily for 28 days.  We therefore advise people not to enroll unless they’re sure they can commit the time and effort to complete the program.

SMRT was designed in 2014 by cognitive therapist, Donald Robertson.  Over 500 people took part in the initial program, and thousands more have completed SMRT since then.  It runs once or twice per year.

We collected data and analysed it, which showed fairly impressive improvements in established psychological measures of mood and quality of life.  Recent follow-up data show these improvements were maintained at three months.

SMRT was deliberately designed not as a general introduction to Stoicism but as focused skills training, modelled on the type of protocols used in clinical trials on CBT.  Stoic Week, our seven-day course provides more of a general introduction to Stoicism, if that’s what you want.  SMRT is for people who really want to focus on developing basic Stoic psychological skills through daily practice, over a sufficient period of time to show significant changes.

Dear Stoic… by Malachi Maguire

Dear Stoic,

Further to our conversation on Tuesday, I would like to add: that a man’s mind is not a see-saw, upon which there are the two occupants of reason and emotion, those two which are giving it its rise and fall. No. These two aspects of a man’s mind are not opposites straining to pull him in different directions, rather, they are both aiding him towards his purpose, so long, and only so long, as they take their council from his conscience. Now I know you’ll tell me different:

– Reason is the only council to which a man may listen, if, and certainly only if, that man also wants to be happy.

– Oh, I’ll counter, and what makes you think a man wants to be happy.

– Because the contrary, my dear Maguire, is misery.

– Is it though.

– It is, though.

– Might not a man want to be good rather than happy, they don’t necessarily go together you know.

And there it is, dear Stoic, the singular oversight of all stoical wisdom, it’s that it cannot conceive of any other purpose for man except that of massaging his feelings, rubbing them all the right way, so that he may not even fear death, certainly, you’ll say, if reason is allowed to oil its hands. Which would be grand if our purpose was only that of ameliorating mental states and not to attempt a change in the world’s arrangement. Evil, my dear Stoic, is the impact that the foot leaves as a print in the sand. So, it would be some philosophy indeed that concerned itself with the appearance of these prints and not, at all, with the feet that caused them, yet that is exactly what your philosophy is, my dear Stoic. You see, the good is a different purpose altogether. It seeks the cessation of suffering. Now, my dear Stoic, it’s tempting to confuse misery and suffering, suffice to say that misery is the mental state of distress, fear and anguish. On the other hand, suffering is the corporeal contact point of cruelty, oppression, or, in a word, evil. Therefore, if happiness seeks a cessation to misery, it does so only in so far as this mental state is individually ameliorated, be it through the lens of reason, which gives us less to momentarily fear, or, indeed just as ‘stoical’, I’ll say with a wink, through intoxication, to give the hedonist a look in, which gives us nothing to fear at all for as long as we remain intoxicated. Yet nothing has substantively changed in the arrangement of the world, evil reigns, oppression’s rod beats, and the body registers its scars. However, my dear Stoic, if one sees ones purpose as bringing about the good, rather than happiness, well then one is tasked with making concrete changes in how the world is arranged. So you see, my dear Stoic, any man who is convinced that his purpose is to seek happiness, over the good, will be a man who affirms the constancy of this suffering, the constancy of evil, and the constancy of its cruelties. No amount of rational meditation on how he might best ameliorate his miseries is going to do a God damn thing about how he is adversely effected by this now ever present evil, and he is giving no other obligation by your philosophy, dear Stoic, but that of affirming the constancy of that effectuation. What do you have to say for yourself my dear Stoic? Here’s what you will say:

– It’s a virtue philosophy, I make no theological argument… in fact, I have to say, you sound like one of those Christians who banned philosophy, Stoicism particularly, and burned down its library of learning…you’re an apologist for antiphilosophical sentiment.

– Listen, I’ll counter, the truth is we believe in different purposes: you happiness, me the good, and those purposes, dear Stoic, have an impact on the existence of evil, but if all you have is the accusation of an atrocity against papyrus, well then, dear Stoic, you haven’t got much of a defence against the counter accusation that your philosophy promotes a willingness to be evil’s accomplice, to be complicit in its constancy through an acquiescence born of a neglect of man’s true moral obligation, which, in the end, amounts to a disservice to him and a betrayal of all those who will continue to suffer merely because you prefer to perfume the bowl rather than getting rid of what causes the stink.

– That’s quite harsh.

– Do you think so?

– Well yes, you’ll say, not least because I do not accept that man has any other purpose but happiness, and that the good you put forward here is nothing but an illusion, one imagined in opposition to the ineluctable inevitability of our cruel tendencies, and therefore not something which can ever be achieved, and in that case, entertained as a source of false hope, it leads us to the neglect of a happiness we might possibly secure, to errantly chase an imagined good which, for all intents and purposes, is as insubstantial as last night’s dreams.

– My dear Stoic, I’ll counter, human life obtains its purpose through the practice of its use, why it’s exactly like a tree: a tree hasn’t been given any purpose for us by nature, no, it has none but that which is given to it by the practice of its uses: today an aesthetic object in my garden, tomorrow a log to be carved as my chair, or at another time tinder to light the fire that keeps me warm, for anyone to suggest that the tree has but one purpose for us, and that it is given to us by the tree, well then I‘ll have to say, such lunacy has a whole profession dedicated to its treatment, or if too advance – to its incarceration, and you, my dear Stoic, are such a lunatic for suggesting that all human life has the purpose of happiness, and that it’s given to us by life itself.

Listen, my dear Stoic, human life is a teleological either/or, and based on the practical implications of either purpose presented here before us – one or other will be judged to be superior by implication of its practical results. To dismiss one or other on the basis of the erroneous assumption that there is but one purpose to human life, and it is happiness, is to deny us the freedom to choose for ourselves what we might regard to be best for our lives, and in so doing you deny us a chance at pursuing good in the world, and therefore the possibility of diminishing some of its evil, for although it is true that the pursuit of the good hasn’t yet brought about the complete cessation of evil’s suffering, and therefore its vanquishment, it is also true that the pursuit of the good has diminished evil in many respects, for if it had not done so then we would still be living in a world that practiced the enslavement of our fellow man, the Apartheid of society by race, and the use of children for labour….

– Well, Epictetus was a freed slave and a stoic, you’ll rudely interject, as though it added anything relevant at all.

– But, I’ll counter, he did not prescribe a project of universal emancipation, now did he? No, he did not, I’ll answer for you to save time. And that’s my point, that we do not still live in a world as inequitable, cruel, or unjust as that in which each of your fellow stoics lived, in both ancient Greece and Rome, is solely due to the pursuit of the good over happiness. In fact, and you’ll be furious at me for saying this, but: your philosophy deserved to be burned to the ground, and if only in those ashes it would remain, but it’s not so, no, it makes a comeback. I dare say the rise in your philosophy’s popularity today is due, in no small part, to the rise also of that navel gazing, feel good, masturbatory of all philosophies – the self-help culture, which seeks\ happiness above the good, and happiness for them is nothing more than the amelioration of those anxieties which are associated with affirming the constancy of evil, in the despair of ever doing anything about it, and the bad conscience associated in being complicit in this constancy, all the while they are rubbing their overpriced balms into, one or other, of their bodily orifices so as to cleanse, whatever invisible nonsense they’ve called, their chakras.

So there you are, dear Stoic, I await your actual reply and if it is returned to me in the severity in which I imagine it will, well then, at least I can enjoy the levity of that ironic oxymoron: an un-stoical stoic.

Sincerely yours, Malachi Maguire.

 

Malachi Maguire was born in Ireland in 1936, (he’s now 82 and, presently, still amongst the living) and worked as a journalist for a local newspaper, the Clane Gazette, for 38 years, until his retirement in 2004. He now writes occasional pieces as a ‘retirement hobby’, rather than for professional reward.

Archive: Stoic Week 2018 Handbook

The 2018 edition of the Stoic Week Handbook has now been archived.

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Stoic Week Handbooks

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Stoicism and Sustainability by Kai Whiting and Leonidas Konstantakos

 

Each year, after the Stoicon conference, we ask the speakers and workshop leaders to provide transcripts or summaries of their presentations, so that our readership can enjoy some of the same opportunities for learning as the conference attendees.  We continue that series now with this piece by Kai
Whiting and Leonidas Konstantakos, summarizing their plenary presentation at the conference – G. Sadler, Editor

It may seem that trying to incorporate the modern concept of sustainability into Stoic philosophy is like trying to force the proverbial round peg into a square hole. This hunch is backed-up by the various people who, following our Stoicon presentation in London, said that they were “astonished by the glaring connection between the two”. These kinds of comments satisfy us greatly, because they represent a clear demonstration of the applicability of modern Stoicism to 21st century problems, beyond those of a personal nature. What’s more, they give weight to the idea that the Stoic virtues of courage, justice, self-control and wisdom are fundamental to planetary wellbeing, no philosophical gymnastics required. Crucially, the public’s reaction at Stoicon reaffirmed our belief that sustainable development is intrinsically linked to humanity’s individual and collective progress towards virtuous thoughts and actions.

For those who did not attend in person, allow us to explain…

Sustainable Development and its Opposite

Contrary to popular belief, the terms “sustainability” and “sustainable development” are not synonyms of “environmentally-friendly”. Nor are they limited to a set of actions that one might consider as environmentally-conscious or “green”. Rather, the terms encompass the following definition:

Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs – Brundtland Commission (1987).

It is important to note that “future generations” do not necessary begin life in whatever village or hospital envisioned in 2050. Rather, they represent those babies born right now whilst you are reading this very sentence. These children along with their slightly older, and younger, cohorts represent the future – the next generation – who will inevitably have to tidy-up the mess and mistakes that we are currently making, and which we will take undoubtedly take limited responsibility for.  This is why locating the safe space between the three pillars (or spheres) of sustainable development: the environment, society and economy, is paramount to overcoming the most complex challenges of the 21st century.

In our presentation, we used the image associated with this article to didactically show the unmistakable connection between Stoicism and sustainability. Here, you can see that a white business man is eating more than his fair share of the Earth and tossing aside, without a second thought or a second glance, the crumbs that would otherwise fall from his table. Whilst this image depicts and contrasts the stereotypical fat white Western evil banker with the impoverished sub-Saharan African make no mistake – this is not a rich Global North vs poor Global South problem. Rather it is one of greed (as the opposite of self-control), cowardice, injustice and ignorance. In short, the cartoon portrays a world which propagates the Stoic vices.

Such a world is an unsustainable miserable existence for the many, who in supporting (or in turning a blind eye to) the few “more equal than others”, have not sought justice. Neither have they had the courage to punish greed. Further, the wisdom of knowing what to do, why to do it and how to do it has not been obtained. Thus, greed, injustice, cowardice and ignorance are the polar opposites of sustainable development.

An Anti-Stoic Approach

In order for humanity, non-human beings and the Earth to occupy the safe space defined by the term “sustainability” we must cherish the idea of a world where progress towards virtue is both encouraged and rewarded. More importantly we must take steps to ensure that it is so.  Yet, in a political climate where the likes of Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro are deemed charismatic leaders for their most un-Stoic of sentiments and approaches, appealing to common sense, and much less virtue, seems out of step. For some, it may even appear to be hopelessly naïve or futile. But who ever said being Stoic was easy? It certainly wasn’t Seneca.

Each individual’s Stoic journey is a tough one and progress towards eudaimonia (happiness, wellbeing) is a lifelong affair. It is as much about persistence and grit, as it is about having enough vision and desire to acknowledge the value in (sometimes) forsaking momentary pleasure for virtue. And, given just how hard it is for one person to make progress, we are under no illusion as to the near impossibility it is for enough people to coincide in ideas and values to make the difference.  But make the difference we must, because Trump and his tweets aren’t going to save us.  For how can nationalism ever hope to combat the global threat of sea level rise caused by climate change? How can a stream of social media updates help us put a stop to dubious computer algorithms, excessive material consumption, fake news and political apathy?

These are the challenges that we are facing today. They are borderless. They are real. They are complex. And, politicians peddling sexist, racist or nationalistic nonsense are not only out of touch with reality but dangerously ill-equipped to lead us into the 21st century – to the detriment of us all.

The Stoic Solution

So why do we think Stoicism can provide (some of) the answers? Because, as New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Arydern said, in her address to the United Nations, #MeToo must become #WeToo. And, by definition Stoicism, with its cosmopolitan ideal, is the embodiment of #WeToo. The latter will take vision and proactive steps, but we do believe that the Stoic community can provide solutions for everyday life according to Nature and to the facts. However before we can do this, we must recognise that Stoicism is more than a personal philosophy. After all, the personal is political. The ancient Stoics knew this and lived it.

We modern Stoics must return to our roots instead of hiding behind a superficial understanding of “it is beyond my control” or “one should learn to deal with insults”.  We have an obligation to participate in initiatives that break down social barriers.  We should stand beside women and non-white men trapped by a glass ceiling at work and elsewhere. We must make every effort to see things from their perspective, rather than deny the ceiling’s very existence when we are, in fact, standing on it. This is especially the case if we happen to be a straight white middle-class male with all the privileges that entails, through no fault of our own.  In Stoicism, the acknowledgement of fortune’s favour coupled with the need to use it for the betterment of humankind is nothing new. Indeed, Marcus Aurelius, Cato the Younger, Seneca and Musonius Rufus, as members of the ancient elite, all recognised that a position (role), comes with duties, whether they liked it or not.

If we are academics, we must return the philosophy to the Stoa, the marketplace for the exchange of ideas and not an ivory tower built on paywalls. Incidentally, this is why, where possible, Leonidas and I place our Stoic articles in open access. We use precious faculty resources or pay out of our own pockets so you, the reader, do not have to.

Finally, we must all encourage the development of good ideas and back them, regardless of who is stating them. Together, regardless of academic discipline or non-academic walk of life, we must all explore what Stoicism has to offer on a societal/global level, as sustainability is, by definition, about justice, self-control and wisdom, along with having the courage to take difficult decisions.

Stoicism Cannot Go it Alone

Whilst it may have sounded a bit like heresy at the Stoicon conference, we stand by our assertion that Stoic philosophy cannot answer all the questions that might be asked in the 21st century. It cannot even derive all the questions that need to be asked. In fact, in our presentation, we joked that in the word “philosophy” there was no such thing as “T.E.A.M” but that there was definitely an “I”. We said this because it reflects the perverse disincentives that exist in the academic field of philosophy, which serve to discredit teamwork to the point that partnering up can be a major obstacle for those young researchers trying to obtain the job security and prestige that comes from having track tenure.

This has to change. It is absurd to think that one brain can outsmart or out-think the multidisciplinary team required to tackle climate change, the threat of nuclear warfare or the technological disruption that comes with automation, artificial intelligence and mass unemployment. We are in right in thinking that we do need ethics but we also need to get a handle on the facts. That means that philosophers, engineers and international policy analysts, for example, must each recognise that they are only one piece of a puzzle and that they will need to come together to solve it.

So What Does All This Mean?

One of the great thinkers of our times, Yuval Noah Harari says in his new book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century:

If we want to survive and flourish, humankind has little choice but to complement local loyalties with substantial obligations towards a global community. A person can and should be loyal simultaneously to her family, her neighbourhood, her profession and her nation – why not add humankind and planet Earth to that list?

Having proposed adding the “Earth” to the circles of concerns in the academic paper that paved the way for the Stoicon presentation, previous to the publication of Harari’s third book, we are pleased that others are also independently reaching the same conclusions.

In a practical sense, we put forward the idea that if we Stoics agree that Earth should be included in the circles of concern then we cannot philosophically justify intensive farming because of its effect on soil and water quality, biodiversity and carbon emissions. Likewise, we must take steps to curtail the buying and throwing away of single use plastic cups and cheap fashion – there is no “away”.  Furthermore, and perhaps more critically, for those of us who wish to live according to Stoic principles, we cannot continue to support farming practices or diet choices that prevent a livestock’s capacity to live according to their Nature, because they are caged, stapled to the floor, tied-up or separated from their mother – which effectively rules out most of our meat and dairy suppliers.

In the presentation, as we will end here, we left the audience with a simple answer to a question that typically gets bounded about in the various Stoic Facebook groups:

Is it Stoic to… be unsustainable?

No, dear Stoics, it is not!

Kai Whiting is a university lecturer and researcher based at the University of Lisbon, Portugal. His specialist subjects are sustainable resource use and Stoicism. He Tweets over at @KaiWhiting and can be reached over at StoicKai.com

Leonidas Konstantakos is a college lecturer and researcher based at the Florida International University. His specialist subjects are Stoicism and International Relations.