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Stoic Therapy for Anger by Tim LeBon (part 1)

Seneca’s On Anger contains powerful arguments about both why we should be less angry and how we can curtail anger. At the London Stoicon in 2018 I presented a workshop outlining a 6 step Stoic anger management programme based on Seneca’s On Anger. You can find a pdf of the entire presentation here. Seneca was not, of course a therapist, but,  as someone who has written a book about philosophical counselling and also practices as a CBT therapist and as a philosophical life coach, the obvious question was –  what would Stoic therapy for anger look like?  What parts of On Anger would need to be emphasised?  What objections and difficulties would be most likely need to be overcome for the therapy to succeed?  How can one learn the wisdom of On Anger?

 This article describes  how I imagine such a therapy unfolding. I hope it will be useful for those who wish to work on their own anger issues and also for budding therapists or coaches who wish are interested in this approach.  

The year is 2019. Lucas, a  Stoic philosophical life coach/philosophical counsellor is about to have his first session with Anthony, who has emailed him asking him for a set of sessions on Stoic anger management.

Meeting 1:  Why  Manage Anger?

“Lucas”  is a philosophical life coach who  is trained in contemporary therapy methods such as CBT and knows about Modern Stoicism as well as ancient Stoicism.  All the details about “Anthony”  are fictional, but like many people who come for anger management he is somewhat in denial and ambivalent about change.

Lucas: Good to meet you, Anthony.  I understand from your email that you would like to work on anger management.

Anthony:  Not me, my wife!

Lucas: Your wife has an anger management problem?

Anthony: No, she says I have.  She says she will leave me if I don’t change.

Lucas:  And what do you think?

Anthony:  I think she’s exaggerating. But I’m here now, so can you help me?

Lucas:   I hope so.  The Stoics, especially Seneca in his essay On Anger, offer a lot of pertinent advice.

Anthony: That’s good news.

Lucas:  But it will take work on your side too. I envisage it will take us about 6 weekly meetings.  I’d like you to set aside time for our work, including reading relevant Stoic books, especially Seneca’s On Anger

Anthony. I’m not much of  a reader. I’m a busy man, with a company to run and a family to feed …

Lucas: A family you might lose if you don’t do something about your anger.

Anthony: You have me there.  Look, I’m not going to pretend to you that  I’m likely to be read ancient texts . But I will agree to do something between session. I have a daily  train commute. Can we find a compromise?

Lucas: Very well. After each session I will email you  some written summaries of key Stoic ideas we have discussed for you to read and digest as well as other between-session assignments. I would like you to commit to  spending at least 10 minutes every  morning working on these.

Anthony:  It’s a deal, Prof.

Lucas:  Good. To clarify, Anthony, I see my role not so much as a professor who  lectures you about Stoicism  but more like  a sports coach who helps you to change. Does that make sense?

Anthony: Sure, fire away, Prof!

Lucas: Seneca believes that anger is one of the greatest ills of humanity. He goes so far as to say that anger is temporary madness.  When angry, you  lose self-control, forget affection and friendship  and become  deaf to reason and advice. Anger conquers the warmest love. People have killed those they have loved and who would love again were they not in the midst of rage. Worse still, we injure ourselves. Angry people are like  rocks which smash on what they fall. Managing anger should be a top priority for everyone.

Anthony: Wow! Is anger really all that bad?

Lucas: Seneca gives many examples of how anger ruins lives. Perhaps the most memorable is how anger led  one Vedius Pollio to order a slave  be thrown into a pool of man-eating lampreys just because  the unfortunate slave had dropped a valuable crystal cup.  He also recounts about how many powerful men like  the Emperor Caligula murdered anyone who irritated them.

Anthony: But do you really believe that anger is such a problem for normal people in the twenty-first century?

Lucas: Anger  can transform us all into mini-Caligulas, it is a temporary madness You can read about it happening every day. The other day I saw a a story  about an ordinary Joe who was at the English seaside eating his fish and chips lunch by the beach.

Anthony: Sounds nice.

Lucas:  A cheeky seagull had the gall to try to steal a chip! Do you know happened next?

Anthony: He  tried to shoo  the bird away?

Lucas: No,  Anthony, he became so angry he battered the gull to death against a wall. The man was prosecuted for animal cruelty.  Think about it. One minute you are eating your lunch, a  minute later you are in a violent rage leading to death and disgrace.  Temporary insanity, don’t you agree?

Anthony:  In that case, for sure. But surely anger can  be a good thing, in moderation.

Lucas: That’s what Aristotle thought too. But Seneca believes that both you and he are making a big mistake. Anthony,  close your eyes for a moment and brainstorm all the reasons you can think of in favour of  anger being a good thing. All the reasons why you don’t want to give up anger.

Anthony (after a few moments thought) Anger gains me respect.  I don’t want to be a doormat. Anger gives me the energy to get off my backside.  I  want to fight injustices. I want to change people for the better. Anger gives me power. People take notice of me when I’m angry. That’s it– my anger motivates me to act and it makes other people take notice!

Lucas: Thank you, Anthony, for giving such a full answer. As it happens, Seneca gives strong arguments against each of these points. Do you want to hear what he says?

Anthony: Of course.

Lucas: Justice is important but, in one of Seneca’s most memorable phrases,  the sword of justice is ill-placed in the hands of an angry person.  Anger is in a hurry and does not give people (or seagulls) a fair trial. The type of justice provided by anger is that  of a vigilante squad – hurried, biased and extreme. We need  reason, not anger, to give each side time to plead so that the truth can be discovered.

Anthony: But something needs to be done! Should this ordinary Joe just have  smiled and  let the bird eat all his lunch? Should the slave have been allowed to break everything until there were no cups left?

Lucas: But, if we are after justice, is anger the answer? When we are angry we want to punish people, not help them. Seneca and the Stoics would say that we need to cultivate the virtues – wisdom, justice, courage and self-control – and have these to hand  when faced with life’s challenges. 

Anthony: So what would a Stoic have done with the bird?

Lucas: That’s quite a big question. I was planning us talking more about how to develop the virtues in a later conversation. Maybe he could have shown kindness, and thrown  a few chips for the bird before he used his wisdom to move elsewhere. He could certainly have benefitted from learning self-control ….

Anthony: And Vidius Pollo could have sent his slave on a  “how not to be so  clumsy course”? This Stoicism is beginning to sound a bit too idealistic. In the real world, people get angry and you just have to accept that.

Lucas: What would your wife say about that attitude?

Anthony: She wouldn’t agree.

Lucas: So business as usual isn’t an option for you. I  heard what you just said, though, Anthony, about Stoicism being too idealistic. The Stoics would  argue that in fact it is  the angry person who is being too idealistic.

Anthony: Really?

Lucas: Indeed. We get angry because we have too idealistic notions  about how the world operates. We over-optimistically think that people won’t break things and that animals won’t try to eat our lunch. If we had a more realistic view of how the world works, in particular about what we can and what we cannot control, then we would be much less prone to anger.

Anthony: But anger gives me energy, it motivates me, it makes me courageous.  Anger gives me the courage to do things I wouldn’t usually do, like standing up more for  myself and for what is right.

 Lucas:  Just like people need a drink so they can do courageous things like go to parties or ask someone out?

Anthony: Exactly.

Lucas: But have you known people who after a drink or two  do things that aren’t really wise at all, things they later regret?

Antony: Of course.

Lucas:  And isn’t the same thing true of anger. What you  need  to motivate you is  actual courage, not anger or alcohol. As Seneca says, anger does not come to assist courage, but to take its place. Put yourself in the hands of anger and you are on a precipice, a step away from catastrophe.

Anthony:  So  how do Stoics think  I gain true courage? I know!  “We will address that later ….”

Lucas: We will indeed. I sense your frustration, so let me give you a l sneak preview. Modern Stoics build into their routine a period of early morning and late evening meditation. In the morning they envisage difficulties and how they can respond virtuously to them – rehearsing wise living. In the evening they review how they have done that day in terms of acting virtuously.  In between times, they would be aware of what virtues were called for in a particular situation, perhaps by ask themselves “how would the ideal Stoic person approach this situation”?

Anthony: That sounds like a fair bit of work.

Lucas:  Think about how much time people spend working out or practising golf. Is how to be an excellent human being any less important?

Anthony: I f you are right about anger being bad, and if Stoic methods work, then it’s going to be worth the time.  But I’m not convinced yet about anger being all bad. If I give up anger, people might no longer respect me. When I walk in a room, I notice people look up with respect.

Lucas: Are you sure it’s respect?

Anthony: What do you mean?

Lucas: Everyone looked up when Caligula entered a room. But  was that respect or was it fear?

Anthony: In Caligula’s case, fear.

Lucas:  I’m sure you are right.  You fear people because they might punish you. You respect people when you admire them.  So could it be that  people fear you rather than respect you?

Anthony: I’d like to think they admire me. But is it such a bad thing if people fear you a little bit too?

Lucas: Not if you don’t mind being a mini-Caligula.

Anthony: OK, it’s respect I want, not fear.

Lucas:   And does anger really lead to respect?

Anthony: Why shouldn’t it?

Lucas: Well,  how do you feel someone is angry with you? When a driver has road rage at you?

Anthony: I think they are  being a dickhead.

Lucas:  So  you don’t respect people for being angry with you. Why should other people respect you for being angry?

Anthony:  Hmmm

There follows a period of silence …

Lucas: Anthony, you are looking very thoughtful. What’s running through your mind?

Anthony:  I’m still thinking about whether I’m a  mini-Caligula. I don’t like that idea at all.

Lucas:  No, I can see that. How can we find out whether you are like that at all?

Anthony (smiling): I don’t know, unless you follow me around all week.

Lucas: Well, it was your wife who said you needed to come here. How about asking her?

Anthony: Could do, I suppose.

Lucas:  I can understand your reluctance. No-one wants to hear uncomfortable truths. But I wonder whether we might be wasting our time here unless we hear her side of things. Can you ask her to write down for us why she insisted on you coming here and tell us both what you are like when you get angry?

Anthony: Is that really necessary?

Lucas: If I was your golf coach, would we get very far  without seeing how you actually played?

Anthony: No, you would have to see the true horror of my putting …. OK I will ask her.

Lucas: We have 5 more minutes today. Any more doubts about giving up anger?

Anthony: You are very good with words, Prof. I I will need some time to reflect on whether these arguments apply in the real world.

Lucas: Of course.  Here’s my summary for you to reflect on. I can email it to you if you like.

Anthony: Sure, that would help.

Lucas:   Here is a summary sheet for you to read on the train.

Anthony: Thanks, Prof, it’s been interesting,  I will look forward to seeing you again next week.

Meeting 2: The Three Stages of Anger

Lucas: Greetings, Anthony, good to see you.  How have you got on with your assignments?

Anthony: Well, Prof, as the football commentators say, it was a game of two halves.

Lucas: Meaning?

Anthony: Well over the first few days I did as you asked, and read over your email crib sheet about anger being a great ill, the sword of justice being unsafe in the hands of an angry person etc.

Lucas: What did you make of it?

Anthony: It all makes sense…

Lucas: But …

Anthony: But I still wasn’t convinced that anger in moderation isn’t a possibility Sure, don’t give me a sword – or a gun! – when I’m in a rage – but what if I’m just a bit angry?  Before yesterday, I was  planning to ask you how I could cultivate anger in moderation.

Lucas: What happened yesterday?

Anthony (sighing): Well, I wasn’t looking forward to asking my wife for feedback, so I left it to the last minute. When I did ask her, I got a bit of a shock.

Lucas:  What did she say?

Anthony (gets out letter)

Dear Anthony

I am so glad that you asked me  about why I insisted you sought help for your anger problem. I’m a bit surprised you haven’t asked before. That’s part of the problem. That you don’t think you have a problem. And nobody tells you about the extent of the problem because they are all so frightened of you. Even I wasn’t brave enough to confront you before Father’s Day.

Do you remember Father’s Day? You should, it was only a month ago. How the children were so excited, that they helped to make breakfast. How Robbie insisted on helping make your toast, then taking the tray to your bedside for your breakfast in bed, even though he is only 6. Do you remember what happened next?

I did talk to you about it that evening, and what you said was  was “Robbie was clumsy like he always is and spilt coffee over my new laptop causing untold damage”. Shall I tell you your 6 year old son’s version of events?

What happened was that, on the day that Robbie was showing so much love for you, you roared and raged at him like an angry lion shouting and calling him name like  “Clumsy” “An idiot and saying “How could you be so stupid”. Do you know what he did? He went to his bedroom, sobbing – and he actually peed himself! He hasn’t done that for years. Is that the father you want to be?  Terrifying and humiliating your children? Well its not the father I want for my children. That night that I decided something needed to be done. Its one thing to hear you shout at waiters or your work subordinates, another to do it to your child. You’d crossed a red line .

So that’s why I demanded that you seek a remedy for your anger problem. I hope that you get a remedy, because if this happens again, I will make sure it does not happen a third time.

Your ever-loving wife”

Lucas: Strong words.

Anthony: Yes, but at least she is being honest. Better than her packing her bags without giving me a chance. Maybe I do turn into a mini-Caligula after all!  So today I’m thinking that I do have a problem. I do need to change. But how?

Lucas (after a moment’s reflection): You know what, Anthony, I think that Seneca’s theory about the 3 stages of anger can help  us with both your questions. It will help us understand further why the goal of moderate anger is a treacherous one, and it will also will give us a framework to start working on managing your anger. Do you want to hear about it?

Anthony: Definitely.

Lucas: Seneca believes that there are three stages of anger. In the first instance, something triggers your initial reactions.  To go back to the ordinary Joe angry seagull-killer, the seagull swooping down triggered an initial reaction of surprise and an impulse to attack the gull.

Anthony: Sounds like the fight or flight reaction.

Lucas: Exactly. But this is just the beginnings of anger –  what Seneca calls the first movements towards anger. It’s not anger proper. Animals go directly to aggressive  fight behaviour (Seneca’s third stage), but we humans have a unique capacity, the ability to reason. That operates in  stage 2 of anger. That’s when  we can choose how to respond. When we are in stage 1, Seneca likens us to  someone on the edge of a cliff.

Anthony: Doesn’t sound good.

Lucas:  Indeed not. If we intensify anger by thinking irrational angry thoughts, we will  fall off the precipice and there is little or no chance of us returning to safe ground.

Anthony:  So Seneca would say that  Caligula, Vedius Pollo and the seagull-killer all got to this third stage of anger.  What happens then?

Lucas:  The red mist has descended, we see things totally in a different light. We use reason to plan wicked actions and justify them. We still reason, but in the service of anger.

Anthony: How exactly can understanding these 3 stages help us control anger?

Lucas: Would you agree that there are some things we can control and some things we can’t control.

Anthony: I guess so.

Lucas: And which category of things is it wise to focus on, what we can control, or what we can’t control?

Anthony: We need to focus only on what we can control.

Lucas: Yet when we are angry we often try to control things over which  we have little control. In fact there’s only a short time-window in the whole anger melodrama where we have much control.

Anthony: Really?

Lucas: Well that’s go through it.  Do we have control over the trigger, the prequel to the 3 stages. For example, the bird swooping down or the slave breaking the cup. Do we have control over that?

Anthony: Not once it’s happened.

Lucas: Exactly, we have no control over the past.  As we said at our first meeting,  there are a lot of things outside of our control and many people are too optimistic in this respect. Stoics believe that the roots of anger lie in  unrealistic expectations that the world behaves as we would like it to. So we need in general to lower our expectations about the world, we need to accept that a lot of events are outside our control.

Anthony: OK.

Lucas:  What about the first stage of anger, the Fight or Flight response, how much control do we have over that?

Anthony: Not much, because it’s like a reflex, right?

Lucas: Absolutely. Modern neuroscience backs up Seneca. The first movements towards anger correspond approximately to the automatic, non-conscious workings of the amygdala We have very little, if any, direct control over it.  What about stage 3 of anger, when the red mist has descended and we have fallen off the cliff edge?

Anthony: Not much control there either.

Lucas: You are right. What about stage 2?

Anthony: Remind me – that’s when the Fight or Flight reaction has kicked in but before we get to stage 3, full-on anger?

Lucas: Yes. Seneca asserts that there exists a  brief time-window when we can and should exert control through our ability to reason well. We have a choice of whether to resist or intensify anger. Does that make sense?

Anthony: Sounds like that might be quite tricky if we are already starting to get angry …

Lucas: Yes, so we need to develop what modern Stoics call Stoic Mindfulness so we are acutely aware of the dangerous territory we are in at that moment. So if you want to beat anger, where do you need to focus your efforts?

Anthony: It must be at stage 2!

Lucas: Yes, stage 2 is where you need to be like a sentry, on guard looking out for angry thoughts and challenging them. It will also help if  at all times  – we could call this stage 0 -you cultivate a general attitude of lowering your expectations about how the world fits in with your wishes.  Any questions?

Anthony: But is it really just my angry thoughts that make me angry? Aren’t some things bound to make anyone angry?

Lucas: Suppose our ordinary Joe had said to himself “That seagull must be hungry, let’s share my lunch with him”, how do you think he would have felt then?

Anthony: Much happier!

Lucas:  Exactly. How you think affects how you feel. As  another leading Stoic, Epictetus, put it “It is not events that affect us but our interpretations of events”.  

Anthony: It seems like we have covered a lot. Can you give me a crib sheet again  for me to look at on my commute

Lucas. Sure.

Again I would like you to agree to read this summary for 10 minutes every morning and memorise it. Any questions?

Anthony: I don’t think you’ve answered my  question about anger in moderation yet.

Lucas:  Fair point. Are we  agreed that the first movements make us strongly disposed towards anger – just like a snowball falling down a mountain will gather speed so the first movements are likely to make us angry?

Anthony: Yes

Lucas: So anger by its very nature will gain momentum unless we do something to stop it.

Anthony: Are you saying that unless we put a brake on anger, it inevitably grows into immoderate anger

Lucas: Precisely. How we think affects how we feel. We will think tell ourselves things that intensifies our anger by unless we resist it. Furthermore, the Stoics have a much better option than moderate anger, namely virtue. It is through virtuous action not anger that we can truly and reliably gain respect, change people and right injustices.

Anthony: OK.

Lucas: However, Seneca does make one allowance. He says that although we shouldn’t get angry, as it’s far too risky, some people do indeed seem  only to take notice when they think someone is angry with them.

Anthony: So I wasn’t completely wrong after all!

Lucas: Seneca says that in such instances its OK to pretend to be angry. But that’s very different from getting angry in moderation.

Anthony: Well, pretending to be angry is  an interesting idea but perhaps not one that will do me much good in front of my wife at the moment!

Lucas: I am sure you are right there. I have one more piece of home practice I would like you to do. To build on the work we have started today on the 3 stages and to make it much more real and concrete for us, please can you reconstruct what happened on Father’s Day for us in this format:

Event/Trigger:

  • Stage 1 – first movements towards anger (including fight or flight response and first thoughts)
  • Stage 2 – My  further thoughts and whether they resisted or intensified  anger
  • Stage 3 – What happened as a result

Anthony: Yes, that makes sense.  Email me your crib sheet as well so I can read it on the train. See you next week!

Tim LeBon is the author of Wise Therapy and Achieve Your Potential with Positive Psychology. He is a philosophical life coach with a private practice in London and also an accredited CBT psychotherapist working in the NHS. He is a founder member of the Modern Stoicism team.

Stoicon, Stoic Week, and Stoicon-Xs 2019

Many people have been asking for details about Stoicon 2019, Stoic Week, and the smaller, local Stoicon-X events that will be taking place later on in the Fall. These sorts of matters, of course, take quite a bit of time and work to sort out – not least since Modern Stoicism is an organization staffed entirely by volunteers – so we appreciate your patience in awaiting the details. We’re happy to have quite a few details to announce at this time about all three matters. Further details will be forthcoming in the months ahead!

Stoicon 2019 Athens

The annual Stoicon conference is one of the main events organized by Modern Stoicism. Attendance in recent years has been between 300-400 (depending on the venue), and it provides an excellent opportunity not only to hear excellent talks by experts on Stoicism, but also to participate in workshops, and to get to meet, greet, and converse with others interested in Stoicism. If you’d like to see some of the talks and workshops from previous years, check out the playlists in the Modern Stoicism YouTube channel.

The theme of this year’s conference is “Stoicism Comes Home“, and it will be taking place in Cotsen Hall, at the American School of Archeology at Athens. The conference date is Saturday 5th October 2019.

The following speakers have provisionally confirmed that they will be presenting. These details may be subject to change.

  • Donald Robertson (host), author of Stoicism and the Art of Happiness and How to Think Like a Roman Emperor
  • Alkistis Agio (host), author of The Stoic CEO
  • Jonas Salzgeber, author of The Little Book of Stoicism
  • Thomas Jarrett LTC, creator of Warrior Resilience Training
  • John Sellars, Lecturer in Philosophy at Royal Holloway, University of London, author of Stoicism and The Art of Living
  • Matt Sharpe, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Deakin University
  • Massimo Pigliucci, K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York, author of How to be a Stoic and A Handbook for New Stoics
  • Christina Kourfali, author of Live like the Stoics
  • Peter Limberg, organizer of Stoicism Toronto
  • Christopher Gill, Professor Emeritus of Ancient Thought at the University of Exeter, author of The Structured Self in Hellenistic and Roman Thought and Naturalistic Psychology in Galen and Stoicism
  • Gabriele Galluzzo, Lecturer in Ancient Philosophy at the University of Exeter
  • David Fideler, author of Restoring the Soul of the World and The Pythagorean Sourcebook (ed.)
  • Piotr Stankievicz, Lecturer at the University of Warsaw, author of Does Happiness Write Blank Pages? On Stoicism and Artistic Creativity
  • Katerina Ierodiakonou, Katerina Ierodiakonou (Greece), Professor at the University of Athens and at the University of Geneva, editor of Dialectic after Plato and Aristotle and Topics in Stoic Philosophy, etc

Tickets will go on sale for Stoicon 2019 in Athens very soon! For now, you should follow our event page on Facebook for updates

Stoic Week 2019

Every year, generally following Stoicon, we also host an international event of much wider scope – Stoic Week – which thousands of people participate in worldwide (more and more each year). We provide an online course, with a workbook, exercises, and all sorts of other resources designed to help participants “live like a Stoic” for a week. It is also a great way to meet and interact with other people who have an interest in Stoicism, both locally and in the larger Stoic community.

This year, Stoic Week is planned to run October 7-13. As always, much closer to the date, we will have a newly revised version of the Stoic Week Handbook available for participants, and a variety of other useful resources (I might even- as I have in previous years – shoot a new sequence of videos for the upcoming Stoic Week)

During and around Stoic Week every year, groups, organizations, and institutions plan and put on a number of Stoic Week events. We do our best to publicize all of them as Stoic Week approaches, so if you know of one, or plan to organize and host one, make sure to get that information to us, and we’ll put it into the master list and the posts. If you’re not sure whether there is a Stoic group or organization in your area, you might check the International Stoic Fellowship to see if there’s a local Stoa near you!

Stoicon-X 2019 Events

Stoicon-X events are sort of like TED-X events – smaller local events organized to bring engagement, conversation, and discussion of Stoicism to a number of other communities around the world. They have been held so far on five continents, and there are more and more of them each year!

We’ll have more about the Stoicon-X events closer to September and October when most of them are projected to take place. At this moment, we know about five being planned – so if you’re organizing one that’s not on the list below, get in touch and we’ll get it into the list!

We’ll have more about the Stoicon-X events closer to September and October when most of them are projected to take place. At this moment, we know about five being planned – so if you’re organizing one that’s not on the list below, get in touch and we’ll get it into the list!

Toronto, Canada – September 8, Toronto Reference Library, organized by Peter Limberg – more information to come

New York City, USA – September 19th, at the New York Society for Ethical Culture, organized by Massimo Pigliucci – information here

Athens, Greece – October 6, Cotsen Hall of the American School of Classical Studies, organized by Donald Robertson – information here

Madrid, Spain – Date and Location: TBA, organized by Kellys Rodriguez – more information to come

Milwaukee, USA – Date and Location: TBA, organized by Greg Sadler and Andi Sciacca – more information to come

So, mark your calendars for Stoicon and Stoic Week, and start thinking about any local events you might want to organize or host. We’ll have a lot more information coming your way as we get closer to the dates!

Stoicons Past – Impressions and Experiences from Those Who Went

Last week, I issued a call for people to contribute short pieces about their impressions of, and experiences from, earlier Stoicon conferences. These events have been held yearly in three main places – London, New York City, and Toronto – with Athens, Greece being added this year.

As the organizers for Stoicon 2019 in Athens get all the details sorted out and ticketing set up, I thought it might be interesting for our readership to hear from people who attended previous Stoicons. If there’s sufficient interest, we’ll put together a similar post of impressions and experiences of those who attended the smaller Stoicon-X events over the last few years as well!

(You can follow the Stoicon 2019 in Athens Facebook page.)

Piotr Stankiewicz – attended Stoicon 2016 in New York and Stoicon 2017 in Toronto – presented at Stoicon 2018 in London

Stoicon is absolutely great – I recommend it with all of my Stoic mind and all of my nonstoic heart. I attended Stoicons 2016, 2017 and 2018 and I harbor every intention to keep coming. Why? There is a plethora of reasons, but if you ask me to name one I will probably say something along the lines of: because of how people and ideas interact.

What does it even mean? Stoicism today is a global endeavor (our ancient predecessors would definitely approve, given their cosmopolitanism) so at the Stoicon you meet people from all over the globe. Sounds obvious but it’s still remarkable. The opportunity to meet in person people whose book you read, or folks you talked to online – is an opportunity you don’t want to miss.

Even in the contemporary, digital and connected world, where everything seems to be just a few clicks away, it’s still important to meet and talk face to face. Some would even say that particularly in the present world we should take care to meet in real life. More and more of our communication relies on devices, thus an actual meeting of another human becomes something to be cherished.

And not just people: ideas too. Stoicism has never been a monolithic church – diverse interpretations has always been in place. Diverse: i.e. contradictory sometimes, conflicting often. And this is something to learn first hand during Stoicon. Textbook stuff, hard facts, Marcus Aurelius’ biography – you can get to know all of that online. But Stoicon is the best to witness first hand that Stoicism is not just pale wisdom but a living and flourishing project. The discussion is going on. And it keeps attracting people. I’m hooked. Are you?

Lori Huica – attended Stoicon 2018 in London

I had been anticipating Stoicon 2018 in London for months, digesting as many classic Stoic fragments as I could, yet not fully knowing what the modern applications would be. After the initial feeling of awe at the magnitude of the event, I entered the large lecture hall where the agenda was introduced, chatted to some fellow attendees, listened to the introduction in utter elation, and thus began a year-long journey of internalising Stoic principles.

In spite of my attempts to do some thorough research before the event, the day proved to be full of entirely new learning opportunities, and every seminar and lecture I attended provided me with different concepts to grasp and apply. Two particularly memorable parts were a seminar on partenered relationships and a lecture on the link between Stoicism and sustainability. The former made me re-conceptualise the way I saw relationships, both philosophically and practically, whilst the latter was a refreshing take on environment-related issues and how philosophy might tackle these.

There were opportunities to network, as well as meet experts in the field, but for me what truly made Stoicon 2018 life-changing was the passion that all the people that had gathered at the Senate House that Saturday had for this way of living, this way of thinking. From newbies to veterans, every person in the room emanated fascination for the subject; it was this that translated into an urge to know more about what Stoicism entails, and so I did. I decided to join Stoic Week, to formally learn about Roman Stoicism as part of my degree and to really embody what it means to be a modern Stoic. Not only was it a life-changing event for me, but the daily lives of many are now impacted as I continue to embrace the philosophy and share it in whatever ways I can.

Randall Daut – attended Stoicon 2018 in London

Having been learning a bit about stoicism for 2-3 years, my wife and I decided to include Stoicon 2018 in a planned vacation to London. We both feel it was a worthy addition. Anthony Long’s reflections on the history of the resurgence of interest in stoicism were interesting as was his big picture of the important ideas in the philosophy. I liked learning about the results of stoic week as well. One notable finding was that “zest” or “great enthusiasm and energy” increased more than other variables during the week.

I enjoyed all the presentations, but I had special interest in Antonia Macaro’s comments on Stoicism and Buddhism, and I was intrigued by a presentation on sustainability and Stoic ethics. Unfortunately, I had to choose which of the breakout sessions to attend, but the choices were not overwhelming, and recordings are available. As a retired clinical psychologist, I enjoyed the recording of our local philosopher, Greg Sadler. The conference was well organized. I hope to attend another.

Travis Hume – attended Stoicon 2016 in New York and Stoicon 2017 in Toronto

I attended Stoicon 2017 in Toronto – my second visit to a Stoicon. I fondly remember it as a meaningful opportunity to meet with others interested in Stoicism, in addition to contemporary writers and philosophers on the subject. With each passing year, the event becomes more dynamic and engaging, with greater numbers and varieties of workshops and events; there is something suitable for anyone of any familiarity with Stoic philosophy.

I decided to go to Stoicon as part of a personal calling to learn all I could from the philosophy and others actively studying it. Each of the conversations I had at the event were meaningful, providing insight into each person’s practice and experience. The pacing and depth of each workshop and seminar was well-managed, making for constructive, fulfilling days. I easily recommend to anyone with the means to go to do so.

Mark Trumble – attended Stoicon 2017 in Toronto

Ever since I was a young boy I had wondered what the good was, and how to live it. At an early age I sought what the wisest men had said about it, so that I could have a better idea on how to live my life. This lead to the study of philosophy, both formally and informally, and this also lead to watching innumerable philosophy videos. If you watch videos on philosophy on youtube you cannot but help to run into Greg Sadler. After watching innumerable hours and taking some courses from him I decided to attend the Stoicon conference. I certainly wanted to meet him, as well as anyone else who was both knowledgeable academically, or who practically lived a good life. The lectures were useful in confirming what I knew, expanding and expounding what I I didn’t, and gave me direction in what to research and question further. While I was not turned instantaneously into a sage, it certainly made my path seem a little less solitary, and began to open new vistas of what a good life could look like.

Chuck Chakrapani – attended Stoicon 2016 in New York and Stoicon 2017 in Toronto – presented at Stoicon 2018 in London

Attending the Stoicon conference is an interesting experience. You get to meet like-minded people who live close to you and those who live thousands of miles away from you. Yet get to meet people who have been practicing Stoicism for fifty years and those who have been dabbling with Stoicism for five months. You get to meet the committed, and you get to meet the curious.

And then you have fascinating talks by scholars and practitioners. You have parallel sessions in which you can explore the topic that interests you more. And if you cannot get enough of it in one day, it is followed by Stoicon X the following day.

I have been attending Stoicon for the past three years and, for me, it is one of the most anticipated, ‘preferred indifferent’ events of the year!

We will be posting more information about Stoicon 2019 as it becomes available, so stay tuned. And if you can’t make the main Stoicon, keep an eye out for the smaller Stoicon-X events in different places all over the world (we’ll publicize information about those as well, as it becomes available).

The Stoic Heart – Stoicism and Partnered Relationships

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 myself, discussing the workshop that Andi Sciacca and I were scheduled to provide at Stoicon 2018.

My wife and partner, Andi Sciacca, and I were invited again to provide a workshop for participants at last year’s Stoicon in London. I had given workshops at the two preceding Stoicons – one on Stoicism and managing anger in 2016, and another on using Stoicism to deal with difficult people at work in 2017. That last workshop had originally been intended to have Andi and I as co-presenters, but health issues ruled out flying to Toronto for Andi, and my teaching schedule that term ruled out taking a leisurely drive up north.

Andi’s absence was unfortunate not just for me (and for her, of course – she missed the conference, and London) but also for the workshop attendees. We had designed the workshop together, drawing upon our experience and expertise in the subjects we were covering – and in some of those, putting Andi in the room more than doubles what I bring to the proverbial table. As a married couple who live, work, and study alongside each other, when we do any sort of event or presentation, there’s an interactive chemistry involved in everything we do. If you’ve seen me speak previously, and got something out of that or enjoyed it, imagine me paired up with an even more dynamic partner, and you can imagine what we anticipated that workshop to be like.

We gave co-presenting another shot in 2018, and decided to focus our workshop this time on something that we have drawn upon quite a lot in our own lives – what Stoic philosophy and practices can contribute to understanding and improving (or maybe even, if things are bad enough, saving) one’s personal relationships. About a month before Stoicon 2018, it became clear that Andi would not be able to join me in London, this time both for medical reasons and because one of us had to stay to care for an aged and well-loved family pet who was quite literally on his last legs (and for that reason, we actually gave thought and discussion to whether it might be best for me to cancel as well).

I flew out to London and gave our workshop, reading a brief note from Andi at the beginning, running along these lines:

I am glad that you are able to present the workshops and represent us both, given that I was unable to fly with you and be there myself.  You can also say that I am finding the lessons learned from studying Stoicism to be very useful in our marriage, in my ability to grow our business and develop my professional life, in my management of chronic illnesses, and in my ability to navigate daily life.

Since I recorded fairly decent video footage from the workshop – which you can watch in full by clicking here – and since the workshop is far too long to provide a transcript of, I thought that it might be interesting to provide a short summary of the workshop that I did provide, and then to include some discussion of what Andi and I had originally intended that workshop to include (as well as some additional insights on her part)

The Structure of The Workshop

Given that we were to give the workshop twice, in one-hour breakout session blocks, we set it up to start with delving into the desires, ideas, assumptions about partnered relationships – marriages, romantic relationships, dating, and the like – by spurring some short discussion between us and the audience.

Then the plan was for me to discuss two topics

  • Classic Stoic Perspectives on Partnered Relationships
  • The Expanded Scope of Modern Partnered Relationships

After that, the bulk of the workshop was devoted to Stoic Practices and Perspectives and their application to partnered relationships.

  • #1 – Dealing With Appearances
  • #2 – Applying The Dichotomy of Control
  • #3 – Determining Roles and Duties
  • #4 – Understanding Emotions
  • #5 – Virtues and Vices

We then reserved a bit of time for Q&A and Discussion. Since both of our “lecture” styles are highly dialogical, taking questions and responding to comments throughout – and occasionally riffing off into digressions or jokes before coming back on point – we anticipated that we might not have as much time for the final official “Q&A” at the end, but that we could stick around between the two sessions and after the second session for individual discussions.

This is the sort of workshop that we can – and sometimes – do in shorter (30-45 minutes) and longer (2-3 hour) formats. When it’s shorter, I spend less time on the classic Stoic perspectives and strategies to thoughtfully adapt them to our contemporary culture. And we might do just two or three of the Stoic practices and perspectives applications. Longer presentations include more of those applications, more in-depth examination of Stoic discussions of partnered relationships, and also additional elements of the workshop that Andi brings in.

So this post is a bit of a departure from the series that we usually run after each Stoicon. I’m writing not only about the workshop that I did give, but also about the workshop that I didn’t give, but Andi and I would have liked – and had intended – to provide.

What Andi Would Have Added To The Workshop

One of the aspects of the workshop that I was particularly looking forward to, but which became unfeasible in Andi’s absence was the role-playing and modeling that we had intended to incorporate into each of the Stoic practices and perspectives parts of the workshop (which would have meant reducing the number of those application parts to four). In longer versions of the workshop, we have the participants themselves engage in some structured roleplaying.

Another warm-up exercise Andi had wanted to weave into our Stoicon workshop (and which we’ve done elsewhere) involved asking the audience about common relationship pitfalls they had encountered or experienced. This would then lead in to talking about ways in which Stoicism can help us rethink the common traps and tropes that lead us right into those relationship problems. Stoic philosophy and practice not only help us understand and work on problematic dynamics in our personal relationships, Stoicism also helps us to identify and recognize these when they occur and arise.

There were several other aspects of Stoicism that Andi tends to focus upon and highlight consistently. One of these is the emphasis that Epictetus places not only upon playing one’s own part – taking on one’s roles and associated duties – but also in understanding that others have their different, often complementary parts to play. A key aspect to good – or at least improving – relationships is allowing others to take on their own roles, without attempting to control that.

Another key idea that Andi and I have discussed quite a lot together, and which takes shape in another Stoic Practices and Perspectives portion of the workshop (we were debating substituting this one for one that made it into the Stoicon 2018 format) is reminding oneself of the transiency of the life one gets to share with one’s partner. This theme comes across most starkly in Epictetus’ Enchiridion 3, a passage in which he tells us that when we kiss our spouse, we should remind ourselves that they will one day die. This point, developed also by Marcus Aurelius and Seneca, doesn’t have to be viewed as a sign of morbidity or coldness, but rather as a suggestion that we value the time we get with our partners, and the imperfect persons they (and we) remain, during that time. We’re not entitled to infinite time, even if we mistakenly assume we’re going to have it, and if we realize that the partner we expect to have years or decades with could be taken back from us at any moment, we might look at them in a different and better light.

Another insight that we often close with – and we’re still teasing this one out – is that, if a partnered relationship is going to incorporate Stoic notions of justice, friendship, oikeiosis, and human rationality as social nature, one of the things that is called for is learning how to share space respectfully. Space not only in terms of physical space, but also the space of the relationship itself. This space includes dimensions such as conversation, chores and responsibilities, decision-making, joys and sorrows, short and long-term planning, and how time spent, just to name a few. It is all too easy for couples to divvy out the domains of “yours” and “mine”, when what is needed is a sense of “ours”.

As I sat down to write this piece, I thought I’d ask Andi as well what else – beyond the note she gave me to read to the Stoicon workshop participants – she might have wanted to say to them. In the short conversation that ensued, she stressed two main points. Both were personal, but also realization I expect many readers of Stoic philosophy can relate to, and parts of these connect up to what we did discuss in the workshop as I provided it.

The first was that lessons learned from Stoicism provided her with extra tools that positively augmented the value of other modalities of self-reflection. Stoicism coupled with elements from cognitive and dialectical therapeutic approaches help one deal with long term issues that impact one’s ability to have and maintain fulfilling relationships

The second was that Stoicism provides a very useful framework for examining, understanding, and managing one’s expectations. This is critical in every domain of life, but particularly so in that intense one of partnered relationships. Stoicism provides strategies to manage everyday stressors that put at risk one’s ability to listen effectively, be empathetic, and consider the needs of others (especially one’s partner).

As a last point, opportunities afforded to discuss, reflect, and engage Stoicism do benefit us as partners, not only because we are able to participate more fully in relationships through our shared interests and the work we do, but also because they create space for conversations important potentially for the entire web of all of our relationships.

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

Andi Sciacca is relatively new to Stoic practice and is pleased to be part of the Modern Stoicism movement.  She is an ABD doctoral candidate with European Graduate School’s program in Philosophy, Art, and Critical Thought.  She has served as the director of curriculum and program design for The Food Business School and the founding director of The Culinary Institute of America’s Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning.  Andi also taught for The City University of New York, The State University of New York, Marist College, and the Bard College Prison Initiative.  She now owns an educational consulting company in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Valuable Stoic Insights About Love

The Modern Stoicism organization engages in considerable work to promote understanding and application of Stoic practices and philosophy worldwide. In addition to the blog you’re reading, Stoicism Today, we host International Stoic Week (including the free course and handbook), organize the annual Stoicon, support Stoicon-Xs, carry out and report on research on Stoicism, and a number of other things.

Initiatives of this sort inevitably require some expenses and outlay, so the Modern Stoicism team (who are all volunteers) has started engaging in some fundraising and crowdfunding to support the ongoing work we do. This includes a relatively new Patreon page, on which we have started hosting exclusive content for monthly supporters.

Starting last month, we are publishing a monthly set of answers from a panel of Stoicism experts on a given question. This month the question is: What can Stoicism teach us about love? Answers were provided by Christopher Gill, Chuck Chakrapani, Piotr Stankiewicz, Massimo Pigliucci, and myself.

Here’s Christopher Gill’s response to that first question:

“I focus on a specific kind of love regarded as especially important by the Stoics; this is parental love or more broadly love for one’s family (in Greek, philostorgia). The Stoics see this as being a basic instinct in-built in all human beings (and indeed all animals), just like the instinct to preserve yourself and maintain life. (These are prime examples of the core human, and animal, motives to take care of oneself and others of one’s kind.)

In human beings, if we develop fully, this basic instinct is extended and diversified into more complex forms of social involvement and concern, including recognizing all human beings as part of a broader family, fellowship or state, in that we all share the central human capacities for rationality and sociability. But this does not mean that Stoics stop loving their children, their partners or their close friends; they see these relationships as an integral part of a wider set of connections they have reaching across humanity and indeed nature as a whole, of which human beings form a part. 

Two discourses of Epictetus are especially worth reading for this topic. 1.11 is a dialogue with a father who is so anxious about his daughter’s illness that he cannot bear to stay at home and feels he must stay away – and claims this is a ‘natural’ reaction to her illness. Epictetus argues, by contrast, that the ‘natural’ thing for a loving father to do in this situation is to stay at home and help to look after the child. The discourse explores the difference between love as a kind of irrational ‘passion’ and as an emotion or motive shaped by reason and virtue.

3.24 is a longer and more complex discourse, which includes advice about the best way to express love of one’s family (philostorgia). One – rather tough – piece of advice is that we should express our love in a way that recognizes that, in the nature of things, our relationships to our loved ones can be broken by death, one’s own or the other person’s (3.24.84-8, and in abbreviated form, Handbook 3). These passages are sometimes taken out of context as suggesting that Stoics should remain detached from loving relationships. However, taken in context, the meaning is quite different.

Stoics should live in a way that is shaped by loving concern for other people; but they need to do so in a mature, humane way that acknowledges central facts of existence such as temporary absence from those we love and indeed death.”

You can see all of the experts’ responses to this question, and those coming up every month going forward, by becoming a Patreon supporter at the “Seneca the Younger” Level. It’s a great cause – so consider making a contribution!

Call For Contributions – Impressions and Insights from Readers about Stoicons Past

As we gear up for Stoicon 2019, Stoic Week 2019, and all the Stoicon-X and other events that will be taking place later in the Fall, I thought it might be good to solicit and compile contributions from some of the many people who have attended any of the Stoicons we have held in past years, in London, Toronto, and New York. That way, those attendees could provide their impressions, insights, and other reflections to those who haven’t yet attended, but might be thinking about going to Stoicon 2019 in Athens.

If you are interested in sharing your views about your Stoicon experience here in Stoicism Today, I’m looking for short pieces ranging from 150-400 words. The piece is planned to run on Saturday, April 13, and the final deadline for consideration will be Thursday, April 11. You can email your contributions to me directly.

If you’re wondering what you might write about, here’s some useful prompts for jogging your memories and getting your creative juices flowing:

  • What were you looking forward to the most about Stoicon? Did the event measure up to your hopes or expectations?
  • What were the most valuable insights, ideas, or experiences that you took back home with you after Stoicon ended?
  • What was the most surprising thing about Stoicon for you?
  • Why did you decide to go to Stoicon? Was it worth it for you?
  • Was there anyone you were particularly keen on meeting or hearing speak? How was that for you?

Make sure to mention which Stoicon it was you went to.

I look forward to seeing what you, our readers, have to say. If we get sufficient turnout, and there’s enough interest in this topic, we’ll follow up the reader-contributed “Stoicon experience” post with one about Stoicon-X events as well!

How to Think Like a Roman Emperor by Donald Robertson

This is an excerpt from How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius by Donald Robertson, which is published today.


A few years ago, when my daughter Poppy was four, she began asking me to tell her stories. I didn’t know any children’s stories, so I told her what came to mind: stories about Greek myths, heroes, and philosophers. One of her favorites is about the Athenian general Xenophon. Late one night, as a young man, he was walking through an alleyway between two buildings near the Athenian marketplace. Suddenly a mysterious stranger, hidden in the shadows, blocked his path with a wooden staff. A voice inquired from the darkness, “Do you know where someone should go if he wants to buy goods?” Xenophon replied that they were right beside the agora and the finest marketplace in the world. There you could buy any goods your heart desired: jewelry, food, clothing, etc. The stranger paused for a moment before asking another question: “Where, then, should one go in order to learn how to become a good person?” Xenophon was dumbstruck. He had no idea how to answer. The mysterious figure then lowered his staff, stepped out of the shadows, and introduced himself as Socrates. Socrates said that they should both try to discover how someone could become a good person, because that’s surely more important than knowing where to buy all sorts of other goods. So Xenophon went with him and became one of his closest friends and followers.

I told Poppy that most people believe there are lots of good things—nice food, clothes, houses, money, etc.—and lots of bad things in life, but Socrates said perhaps they’re all wrong. He wondered if there was perhaps only one good thing, and if it was inside of us rather than outside. Maybe it was something like wisdom or bravery. Poppy thought for a minute, then, to my surprise, she shook her head, saying, “That’s not true, Daddy!” which made me smile. Then she said something else: “Tell me that story again,” because she wanted to continue to think about it. She asked me how Socrates became so wise, and I told her the secret of his wisdom: he asked lots of questions about the most important things in life, and then he listened very carefully to the answers. So I kept telling stories, and she kept asking lots of questions. As I came to realize, these little anecdotes about Socrates did much more than just teach her things. They encouraged her to think for herself about what it means to live wisely.

One day, Poppy asked me to write down the stories I was telling her, so I did. I made them longer and more detailed, then I read them back to her. I started sharing some of them online, via my blog. Telling her these stories and discussing them together made me realize that this was, in many ways, a better approach to teaching philosophy as a way of life. It allowed us to consider the example set by famous philosophers and whether or not they provide good role models. I began to think that a book that taught Stoic principles through real stories about its ancient practitioners might prove helpful not just to my little girl but to other people as well.

Next, I asked myself who was the best candidate I could use as a Stoic role model, about whom I could tell stories that would bring the philosophy to life and put flesh on its bones. The obvious answer was Marcus Aurelius. We know very little about the lives of most ancient philosophers, but Marcus was a Roman emperor, so far more evidence survives about his life and character. One of the few surviving Stoic texts consists of his personal notes to himself about his contemplative practices, known today as The Meditations. Marcus begins The Meditations with a chapter written in a completely different style from the rest of the book: a catalogue of the virtues, the traits he most admired in his family and teachers. He lists about sixteen people in all. It seems he also believed that the best way to begin studying Stoic philosophy is to look at living examples of the virtues. I think it makes sense to view Marcus’s life as an example of Stoicism in the same way that he viewed the lives of his own Stoic teachers.