Stoicon 2019-Athens: Interviews With the Organizers

Over the last few years, we have held the annual Stoicon conference in London, New York, and Toronto. This year, Stoicon is planned to take place in the city where the philosophy was born – Athens! That’s precisely where the founder, Zeno of Citium, had his fortunate shipwreck, read about Socrates in a bookseller’s stall, studied with Crates the Cynic (among others), and then went on to teach at the Stoa Poikile (the “painted porch”).

If you’re thinking about attending this historic Stoicon – coming up Saturday, October 5 – here’s the event information and the ticket link. There is also a Facebook event for Stoicon 2019. Keep in mind that there is also a Stoicon-X the next day in Athens as well (information here).

As editor of Stoicism Today, I compiled a list of email interview questions for Donald Robertson, Alkistis Agio, and Christopher Gill. Their responses below are intended to give our readers a much fuller conception of what this important annual conference involves, both in general, and specifically this year.

1. Why does Stoicon matter?  Why is it important to have a conference like this?

Donald: There’s no other event like this.  It’s the largest gathering of modern Stoics in the world and therefore has some of the subject’s leading authors and experts in attendance.  It’s a chance to really feel connected with other Stoics, to learn more about the subject, explore different perspectives, and also, in this case, to visit the birthplace of the philosophy.

Alkistis: In my view, Stoicon matters because it is important to bring our community together, to meet each other face to face on a regular basis.It’s not enough to read each other’s books and to comment under each other’s posts; meeting in person allows us to interact on a deeper human level.To feel the warmth and friendliness of each other, as in “phil-adelphia”, brotherly-sisterly love.We are a family and it is the most natural thing in the world to want to be close to one another on a regular basis.Stoicon is a celebration of our way of thinking and way of life, the values we share; Ethos, Arete, Agape…Also, the event may also attract attention of more people to Stoicism that can benefit them too.

Chris: It is a unique opportunity to meet people from all over the world interesting in applying Stoic ideas and insights in their life and to hear talks by experts of various kinds and take part in workshops on aspects of life and current concern that matter greatly.

2. What can people attending Stoicon expect?  What will they get out of participating in it?

Chris: To judge from previous Stoicon events – an atmosphere of great enthusiasm and engagement – talks on real life issues drawing on Stoic philosophical ideas but conveyed in a way that is accessible to all – and workshops, Q &A after talks ,and social time when you can share your views and concerns.

Donald: There are talks and workshops from experts on Stoicism.  We encourage speakers to adopt a practical focus and we try to have something for everyone by inviting speakers from different walks of life, from the military, academia, popular psychology, psychotherapy, teaching spirituality, etc.  There will also be lots of extra events this year because of the special location we’ve chosen.  The city of Athens has a lot to do and see for those interested in Greek philosophy, of course.

Alkistis: Expect to be inspired. Expect to remember this experience for the rest of your life, as one of the best decisions you ever made.

3. What are you particularly looking forward to about Stoicon 2019? Why that in particular?

Alkistis: I am looking forward to making new friends that may last a lifetime. I am looking forward to sharing my insider’s view of Athens and Greece. I am looking forward to sharing about my book, THE STOIC CEO. I am looking forward to learning about Stoicism from other points of view, from some of the most knowledgeable people in the world. I am looking forward to profound dialogues and discussions about things that matter to us.

Chris: Stoicon 2019 is unique in being held in Athens, home of the original Stoic philosophy and other great Greek philosophies, and also a beautiful and inspiring city with history all round you. Some  new speakers from around the world and new topics for workshops. Topics include Stoicism and community, environment, military life, psychotherapy, inner control and attending to yourself and other suggestive themes. 

Donald: I think it’s a great opportunity for people to absorb the atmosphere in Athens.  You can climb up the hill to the Acropolis, look down on the ruins of the agora, the city centre of ancient Athens, and compare that view to Marcus Aurelius’ description, for example, of the view from above.  You can visit the remains of the Theatre of Dionysius where Aristophanes’ satirical play The Clouds was performed and Socrates, seated among the audience, reputedly stood up so that everyone could see who they were laughing at.  You can visit the Areopagus where we’re told St. Paul addressed gathered Stoic and Epicurean philosophers and the Lyceum where Aristotle founded his school – however, the Sophists, Socrates, and later even the Stoic Chrysippus also reputedly taught there.  Some people might even want to travel a few hours outside Athens to the ruins of Delphi in the mountains, where according to legend the Pythia pronounced that no man was wiser than Socrates. 

4. What is distinctively new about Stoicon this year?

Alkistis: Stoics from all over the world will come to Greece. 
It’ s a milestone, a historical event. This is unprecedented, it’s moving when you think about it…Imagine walking the same streets, under the same sky, drinking Greek wine and philosophizing as Socrates did…The venue Cotsen Hall, with it’s beautiful gardens and surrounding neoclassical buildings like the Gennadios Libraryrich with history, is probably the most inspiring venue so far for Stoicon.Every Stoic should be there for this celebration!

Donald: The location is obviously much more steeped in history this year.  We’ve also therefore been able to add many extra events such as small tours and additional talks in the city of Athens.  

5. Travel to and from Stoicon often affords people a chance to practice Stoicism. How does Stoicism help people travel well?

Donald: Seneca says that the wise man (or woman) sets off on every journey with the intention “I will travel to Athens”, or wherever, “if nothing prevents it”, employing the Stoic reserve clause.  Stoicism teaches us to reconcile determined action, in the service of wisdom and justice, with calm acceptance when things don’t turn out according to our plans or desires.

Chris: Two useful Stoics tips on travel: wishing ‘with reservation’ – e.g. ‘I want to arrive – if nothing prevents me’ or ‘I want to arrive on time – if nothing prevents me’ (this reservation can take off a lot of pressure) and playing your own specific role in life: remember you are the passenger not the driver or pilot – your role is to be a good passenger, calm and relaxed and helpful to others whatever the situation – it is not your job to pilot the plane, to run the catering, to drive the bus…

Alkistis: The obstacle is the way; S**t happens, and it’s a great opportunity to exercise ‘ataraxia’, to grow and learn through everything.To practice the wisdom of inner freedom.

6. Who is Stoicon for? Would it be of benefit  for someone who doesn’t know much about Stoicism?

Chris: Who would benefit from Stoicon? Anyone – for first-timers it is accessible and open and not ‘cliquey’ – but for those who are already involved in Stoic practice there is a chance to develop your ideas and share them with others.

Donald: Yes, we encourage all speakers to assume that many of the attendees will be new to the subject, although others may be experts themselves.  So ideally they’ll accommodate newbies but also say some things that will be of interest to those who are well-read in the literature of Stoicism.  We also try to begin with a quick introduction to help bring newcomers up to speed.  And the range of speakers from different backgrounds helps to ensure that even the most experienced students of the subject should find something new in the different perspectives represented.

Alkistis: Absolutely! I would recommend this event to anyone who is sincerely interested in learning about, ‘How To Be Free’, ‘How To Find Fulfillment’, ‘How To Live Well’.

7. What sorts of benefits are there for people to studying Stoic philosophy?

Alkistis: I can only speak for myself; Stoicism has helped me to overcome toxic habits like dramatizing, to be more honest with myself and others, and to experience freedom more often.Also, I like meeting people who share similar values.  

Chris: Stoicism offers a broad and deep framework for living – developed over 5 centuries in the ancient world and also reflected on by modern thinkers and writers. Not just a superficial quick-fix or how to – guide to life – but something that can offer a framework for addressing the big questions we all face – what is happiness, what is the purpose of life, how can I face my own death and that of those I love, why should I concern myself with other people or foreigners or the environment? Stoicism has long been valued for promoting resilience but also has great value in helping people to frame a positive, thoughtful and constructive attitude to living.

Donald: Studying Stoicism gives people a sense of direction and meaning in life, and a method for reflecting upon and examining events philosophically.  It also provides a surprisingly extensive armamentarium of psychological techniques which can contribute to building emotional resilience.

8. We’ve had Stoicon conferences now in London, Toronto, and New York. Now we’re meeting in Athens. What other locations do you think would be great for a future Stoicon?

Alkistis: I would love for it to happen in Rome too!

Donald: Rome would be an obvious choice.  I also think that an event on the West coast of the USA or Canada, perhaps in Vancouver, might be an option.  Another good location would be Vienna, in Austria, because it’s situated beside the huge archaeological park at Carnuntum, where Marcus Aurelius reputedly wrote (at east part of) The Meditations.  

9. We ask this every year: have we reached, or are we approaching “peak Stoicism”?

Donald: I don’t think so.  Stoic Week keeps growing bigger each year and that’s a good index.  Stoicism communities around the world, and online, continue to grow.  There are more and more books on Stoicism from new authors coming out all the time.  Facebook’s data show that over 1.5 million people say in their profiles that Marcus Aurelius is one of their favourite authors.  We’ve barely scraped the surface of the huge potential audience that exists for Stoic philosophy.

Chris: No – think how many people in the world would benefit from the kind of insights that Stoicism can offer – and how many people are very troubled by the way things are going and wanting to find a framework to deal with their own lives and  life around them.

Alkistis: No, of course not; Stoicism is flourishing, and changing lives everywhere. 

Press Release – Stoicon-X Toronto

We will be running a longer and fuller post about all of the Stoicon-X events happening worldwide this Fall two Saturdays from now. In the meantime, here is the press release for one of the Stoicon-X conferences, coming up on September 8, in Toronto, Canada.

STOICON-X TORONTO: A CONFERENCE ON PRACTICE

Stoicism is a highly practical ancient Greek philosophy. It is meant to be put into action and is not designed for those who prefer to stay on the armchair. Founded in Athens in the early 3rd century BC, it has captivated minds throughout history, and recently has experienced a revival. In 2013, Forbes magazine stated that modern Stoic thought “holds fascinating promise for business and government leaders tackling global problems.”

Thanks to the likes of Christopher Gill, Donald Robertson, and Jules Evans, the Modern Stoic movement has discovered itself. We have found the others

However, a question remains: How should Stoics practice? This answer has not been decidedly settled.  We are now in the process of discovering and developing ways to practice both individually and collectively. 

At this year’s Stoicon-X conference, the largest Stoic community in the world is hosting a conversation on practice. We have invited business leaders, psychologists, and philosophers to discuss how Stoics can practice philosophy as a way of life. This conference will play an important part in the development of shared practices for Stoicism. It could be the first step towards Modern Stoic thought becoming collectively embodied. 

Talks include: 

“HOW TO BE A STOIC WHEN YOU DON’T KNOW HOW” by Chuck Chakrapani. Editor of THE STOIC magazine. Author of “Unshakable Freedom: Ancient Stoic Secrets Applied to Modern Life”

“THE VIEW FROM ABOVE: A TRANSFORMATION OF PERSPECTIVAL AND PARTICIPATORY KNOWING” by John Vervaeke. Lecturer at the University of Toronto. Author of “Zombies in Western Culture: A Twenty-First Century Crisis”

“HOW TO PRACTICE LIKE A ROMAN EMPEROR” by Donald Robertson. Cognitive Psychotherapist. Author of “How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius”

“HOW TO THRIVE IN A WORLD OUT OF YOUR CONTROL, ONE PRACTICAL EXERCISE AT A TIME” by Massimo Pigliucci, Professor of Philosophy at CUNY-City College. Author of “How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life”

For more information about Stoicon-X go to www.thestoa.ca. If you have any questions and/or would like to help out email Peter Limberg at peterlimberg @ gmail dot com. 

Stoicism in Tech: Coping with Criticism by Adam Piercey

Marcus Aurelius faced much criticism throughout his life, both as a man and as Emperor of Rome. For example, the Historia Augusta says:

Some maintain — and held it a fault — that he was insincere and not as guileless as he seemed, indeed not as guileless as either [Antoninus] Pius or [Lucius] Verus had been. Others accused him of encouraging the arrogance of the court by keeping his friends from general social intercourse and from banquets.

In Meditations 10.36 he even says that he expects to have many people standing by his deathbed who will be glad when he’s gone because their values conflict so deeply with his own. Indeed, in 175 AD he had to put down a civil war instigated by the usurper Avidius Cassius, supported by a small faction of senators critical of Marcus’ rule.

However, Marcus welcomed criticism.

If anyone can give me good reason to think that I am going astray in my thoughts or my actions, I will gladly change my ways. For I seek the truth, which has never caused harm to anyone; no, the person who is harmed is one who persists in his self-deception and ignorance.

Meditations, 6.21

We know that Marcus was not an autocrat but frequently sought guidance from his generals, teachers, and senators. In accord with his Stoic principles, he encouraged honesty and “plain speaking” (parrhesia) at court. Decisions about his life and his rule therefore led to discussion, dialogue, and often criticism.

The world of technology and its development has many similar challenges. Design, development, prototyping and testing all take a great deal of time and effort, and throughout these you will come to key interaction points like the peer review: a time where the goal is to show your work, invite feedback and discuss your solution. Peer reviews offer an opportunity to learn from your coworkers about the efficacy of your approach. In software development, this takes the shape of code reviews. Your code is put on display and your peers are invited to review everything from structure to syntax, as well as the actual content of your code. This can be a harrowing time for any developer, whether you are a junior or even a principal architect. Whenever there are reviews there is feedback – which can lead to conflict.

Accustom yourself not to be disregarding of what someone else has to say: as far as possible enter into the mind of the speaker.

Meditations, 6.53

Software code is very personal and, just like writing prose, can show many traits of the developer writing it. Preferences towards structure, syntax, commenting styles and favorite symbology show as patterns for how someone develops their code. A person’s time and effort are also important to remember: this is work that someone has taken the time to think about, design, develop, write and now put up for review. Personal feelings towards ownership, correctness of their solution and ego can begin to cause friction in the code review process for many developers. Simple comments from peers like “there is a spelling error here”, or questions like “why did you choose this approach” can be difficult to hear – especially in any volume. So, how do we use Stoicism to handle these situations better as developers

Interpreting Feedback

When a man has done you any wrong, immediately consider on the basis of what opinion about good or evil he did wrong.

Meditations, 7.26

One of Marcus Aurelius’ most important strategies, described in The Meditations, derives from the key Socratic-Stoic concept: “Nobody does wrong willingly.” This speaks to the fact that your peers must be doing what they think is right and speaking from a place of good intentions when providing commentary on your code. Ultimately, the power of interpretation is important to identify here – you have that power. It is entirely up to you whether you interpret these comments as positive or negative, coming from a place of ill-will or good intentions, and you can start your decision-making process from this strategic point.

As Marcus says, you should: “immediately consider on the basis of what opinion about good or evil he did wrong.” If you choose to view the feedback as constructive and positive, then you can learn and proceed. The Stoics believed that we should welcome criticism in this spirit, and that our role is to make the best use of criticism. If you begin any feedback experience with the mindset that it comes from a place of good intentions, there is a significant opportunity to learn and grow.

Questions About Your Work

That if they are doing the right thing here then there is no need for us to be annoyed. If not the right thing then it is clearly involuntary and through ignorance.

Meditations, 11.18

Questions are a vital part of the development process, and can lead to some profound discoveries in terms of solutions, efficiencies and innovation. When someone begins to ask questions about code you have put up for review, it can be common to experience trepidation. Ego gets involved during this process easily, because people want to show that they are competent, and that they are of value to their peers, management and organization. Questions are a vital part of the development process though and can lead to some profound discoveries in terms of solutions, efficiencies and innovation. So, how do we approach these questions to ensure a positive collaboration and experience during this process?

Marcus Aurelius believed that we become less upset when we remember that everyone is flawed, ourselves included. Seeing people as capable of insight but imperfect and fallible allows us to accept criticism from them in a more balanced way, neither taking it too much to heart nor dismissing it out of hand. This lets us open the floor to commentary from others with the mindset that: “If they didn’t understand what I meant with my code, it must be because they didn’t know my intention.” Here we can see an application where if someone’s view is incorrect: “…then it is clearly involuntary and through ignorance.”

Both approaches have clear links to the Stoic virtue of Justice and kinship with all of humanity, and in order to take this one step further you can begin to say to yourself: “In either situation, I am going to take the time to talk to my peer and discuss solutions.” With this approach, we can hope to turn this situation into a positive one, which not only removes our own ego but also introduces a key aspect of the development process into the environment: collaboration.

Code reviews are just one of the many kinds of peer reviews that persons working in the tech development, engineering and design world must face in their careers. It can be difficult for any developer to have to face the judgement of their peers, team and management, and with development being so intrinsically personal there is no doubt that these experiences have every opportunity to become negative ones. When we take a step back from the situation and begin to understand the intent, and the possibilities of the peer review process, there is a definite opportunity for these circumstances to become positive and productive parts of the development process.

Now, what happens when you are reviewing someone else’s code? How should you approach that?

Giving Your Own Feedback

Reviewing someone else’s code can be fraught with its own challenges though: inadvertent rudeness, dismissive behavior, domineering or even destructive attitudes are all possibilities when it comes to environments where you are asked to provide feedback to a person. How can we approach this process differently in order to prevent these situations?

You have no assurance that they are doing wrong at all, for the motives of man’s actions are not always what they seem. There is generally much to learn before any judgement can be pronounced with certainty on another’s doings.

Meditations, 11.18

As a reviewer of code, one of the first things you are going to check for is the efficacy of someone’s solution; Does it work? Does it solve the problem? These questions generally lead to the next question: “How would I have solved this problem?”. This discussion is not saying that this is an incorrect investigation style, however when one approaches the code review process from this angle, many times the next logical step is to say: “Why did they do it this way?” or even: “I don’t agree with this approach”.

Before leaping to any conclusions, remember that there can be many different approaches to developing code which still provide valid solutions. and it is best to avoid situations where you downplay the efficacy of a solution simply because it is different. Why is the approach different? What efficiencies or improvements might there be in an approach like this? These are both great questions to ask and highlight the fact that you have no assurances that there Is any wrongdoing here at all – quite the contrary, this could be a rather innovative solution! Before you pass any judgement, take the time to learn about why the person went in this direction, whether this is a valid solution, and whether there is truly anything wrong here.

…but your advice must not be ironic or critical. It should be affectionate, with no hurt feelings, not a lecture or a demonstration to impress others, but the way you would talk to someone by himself irrespective of company.

Meditations, 11.18

What happens if you do find a legitimate issue in someone’s code? How do you approach the situation in a constructive manner? One of the key practices for any developer to follow is understanding that everyone on the team is purposefully trying to do the right thing. If you then approach your feedback to that person with the mindset of “I am here to help, and I want to help you”, your points are going to be received better. Tone is always going to be important, and you should focus on a positive tone, but you should also focus on structuring your feedback in a way that provides the person being reviewed with an understanding of good intentions. You are not attempting to belittle, berate or undermine this person’s work, you are trying to help. This quote from Marcus also highlights something which many developers struggle with when providing code review feedback – the demonstration of one’s own knowledge.

High-tech, high-pressure environments inevitably lead to some form of competition between co-workers; people want to show that they are of value to both their team and the organization, and this can lead to a negative atmosphere within a feedback process. It is easy to flex one’s technical knowledge during this code review process, especially if you are a veteran developer and are an expert in the development of a project. What needs to be at the forefront here, is that the priority for any developer is good product, not simply the thought of being correct. Proving that you are right and acting in a way that is detrimental to the review process is ultimately self-defeating, removing the mindset of a development team away from good product, and towards just being right.

That’s why the Stoics described their ideal as cosmopolitanism, or being “citizens of the universe” – a phrase attributed to both Socrates and Diogenes the Cynic. Stoic ethics involves cultivating a this natural affection toward other people in accord with virtues like justice, fairness and kindness.

Donald Robertson, How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, pg.41

Peer reviews are a never-ending process whenever we are working in engineering, development, design or research. As much as there is difficulty when having one’s own work reviewed, there is even more added difficulty when you are the one doing the reviewing. Feedback that you might give has the potential to support or discourage someone’s development style, and ensuring that you are on the positive end of that spectrum is not always going to be easy. Focusing on the mindset that someone is first trying to do the right thing, that you need to make sure that you understand their approach before making a judgement, and that your advice should be of a helpful tone is a great start towards that goal.

Adam Piercey is an Engineering Technologist living in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. He is currently in senior management in the world of biometric security, and has previously worked in the green energy and medical device industries. Adam has been implementing Stoic practice into his career for the last 5 years, and is a member of a small Stoic community calling themselves The Stoic Avengers, in Toronto.

Some Logical Reasonings about Schizophrenia by João Leite Ribeiro

To open this article on Schizophrenia nothing is better than Epictetus’s saying: “It is not things that trouble you, but your opinions on them”(Enchiridion 5). Perhaps this article will lead you, the reader, to have a more favorable opinion about people with Schizophrenia, and this will yield some peace to your heart.

I was diagnosed with Schizophrenia when I was nineteen. I am now forty eight. I never really profited from medicines (although I see they do help many people) , but I improved by way of studying philosophy, especially the Stoics and the Indian Shankara. I now do many voluntary activities to help other diagnosed people. In this article I will discuss some observations I made, both from myself and from my peers. As this is a Stoic blog, I will focus more on  Stoic ideas, leaving Shankara aside.

This article is aimed to be of interest to those unfamiliar with Schizophrenia, and useful for those who are familiar. There is nothing definitive here, just speculation.

Anthropologist Jane Goodall when asked if she preferred Chimpanzees or Humans, answered she preferred some Chimpanzees and some Humans. Me too. I prefer some people with Schizophrenia and some “normal” people. This article is about those people with Schizophrenia I prefer. As Seneca said: “ In the choice of our friends, we should choose  the least maculated (the best ones).” ( Of Tranquility of the Soul, VII.7)

Most therapists assume there is something immature in a person with Schizophrenia. For them, the best to do is to provide us some reflection about ourselves or about the world that will make us “deal with our feelings” in a superior way. However, there is a mistake here. Because this way of seeing the problem is usually (though not always) vertical, not horizontal, i.e. the therapist is placed superior to the patient.

That vertical positioning is not true. That is (I think) the reason I am successful in my work, and that is what I will try to show in this article. Here I include a quotation from Marcus Aurelius: “Have in mind that all rational beings are related, and to care for everybody is of human nature” (3.4). I think from this quote we can infer everybody should be treated with equal respect.

So, let´s be Stoic. The obvious question is: What is a superior person?. This is a question some people may judge politically incorrect, but one that is necessary for this inquiry.

The first answer for the readers of this article is “a virtuous person”.

But that is a little vague, especially for whom doesn´t know Stoicism. I will start with another premise, with which I think most people would agree: a peaceful person is a superior one.

The reader says: Are you saying people with Schizophrenia (I avoid using the term “schizophrenic” because that reduces the person to this definition i.e. I believe we are more than our diagnostic) are peaceful? Yes, I am. At least those I prefer. I am a facilitator, that is, I direct peer support groups of people with Schizophrenia. I don´t know how useful I really am, but I remember Seneca: “What is demanded from a man is that he be useful to the most people possible” (On Leisure, 3 )

In one of my groups a girl declared: “I am going to give birth to the devil.” There was a respectful silence, and an opportunity for her to explain that was because she had a divine mission to bring peace to the world, and giving birth to the devil she would make him give up his hate, and by way of that make the world more peaceful. Nobody opposed her opinion. Here I quote Marcus Aurelius: “Reason is common to us all” (4.4.)

Everything in this event was peaceful. And one should notice here my behavior: I adopted a logical position. I did not allow myself to rush into telling her not to fantasize (although it seemed she was delusional). I gave her the opportunity to explain why she thought that way. And I, and everybody, respected her view, as her viewpoint. And all that was logical, and peaceful. Once, discussing with some followers of Pyrrho, I suggested his viewpoint of having  no opinions was a peaceful one, and they agreed. If you are not eager to uphold your opinion, you become more open to others. Or, if you wish, you should be the superman or the child of Nietzsche (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, part 1, discourse 1).

Another day one of the patients started to hug me, and hold  my hand. I did not oppose. I noticed some people were finding that a bit “gay”, but we did not mind. He now repeats that behavior every time we meet. Even in the street. In fact, he may have set a pattern, I think those of my groups have more physical contact than the average. What is that, if not peace?

My friends have difficulties in sustaining romantic relationships. It is really difficult if you depend on your parents or other relatives, if you don’t drive, if you sometimes get anxious and most importantly, if it is difficult for you to walk around.

Nevertheless sometimes two people in those groups start a relationship. And, it should be noticed, they often agree not to engage sexually. So, it is just about the love between two people. What is that, if not peace?

Yes, says the reader, but this is a Stoic blog, we want to hear about self control. And there you are in trouble! We all know all the emphasis of the Stoics in discipline. Perhaps we could remember Epictetus: “When by reasoning you judge you should do something, do it” (Enchiridion 35)

But I answer to the reader : not at all ! Because you should not judge the sailor before you know the storm! We are all crossing the ocean, but for some there´s a friendly wind, while for others there is a tempest.

Many therapists ignore this, but it is a centrally important fact : my peers have often been abused. They suffered bullying. They experienced trauma. Their own parents were disappointed and aggressive with them. They are more sensible and perhaps more vulnerable (some people are, and that´s not their fault), and there is a feature of many people to abuse others who are more vulnerable. It is not the majority but that happens. Some people don´t let escape any opportunity of abusing others. And that is tragic, as then the abused generalize from that, and start thinking they will be abused forever. I believe Marcus Aurelius is wise when he says: “Remember we live only the present” (3.10). My peers forget this. Their past rules their present.

It is upon knowing that that you should think. And perceive these people may actually be good sailors, given the storms they face.

OK, says the reader. What are you suggesting, that we elect our next president a schizophrenic?

 I thank you for the question. Let´s be logical once again. Who makes beautiful chairs? A good carpenter, correct? Who plays football well? Brazilian players, who play in the difficult fields of the streets since their childhood, correct? And who is able to be a good president? An honest person who knows how things work, correct?

And then, the proper question is: what do people with Schizophrenia know how to do? As a facilitator I tell you. They make you exercise your logic, your patience, your sense of justice, even your courage. People with schizophrenia might make you more virtuous. Is there a better talent than that?

Marcus Aurelius spoke about turning obstacles into fuel. People with schizophrenia are an obstacle of a special quality, they provide more fuel than other obstacles.

But then I can hear the angry father: What the hell are you suggesting? That Schizophrenia is good? That I should not give medicine to my son?

No. Schizophrenia brings a lot of bad feelings. To the person and to everybody who coexist with the person.And yes. Statistics are undeniable. Those who take medicine have less surges and less suicide attempts. But let’s think this though together, and figure out the best we can do.

Some observations are possible. My peers are afraid. They all are. They are highly insecure, and they feel deeply misunderstood. All of them (I have never seen one who did not agree with this) report a deep sense of loneliness.

I was once an employee in a psychiatric clinic. I was paid just to talk to the patients, to have what I called “a philosophical conversation”. One day, as I arrived, a nurse approached me and speaking low, as if afraid someone could hear, told me to be careful, because one guy there was very aggressive, and he might attack me physically. I thought, well, I have a challenge here and I will face it.

He was making strange gestures with his arms and hands, something I could not at first understand. But then I realized he was conducting a music that was playing, like a maestro. I did not know what to do, but I started to mimic him. He apparently thought I appreciated the music the same as him, and laughed. That started an understanding. He lowered the music, so that we could start talking. And a bit later, he turned off the music. As we talked, I asked if there was someone he trusted. He said no, only me. I was sad and happy at the same time.

But we can infer something from this experience. At first, he was completely alone, just making his gestures, with no hope of being understood. Then, it seems, a hope appeared in his heart. And finally he seemed to feel I understood him.  As Marcus Aurelius puts it: “Judge things as they really are, not as a hasty man judges them.” (4.11)

That experience is not an exception. I felt similar in my life. Nobody had the least idea what was going on inside me. So, it seems to me, it is useful to make the person feel he is being understood. It is a first step he can acquire confidence. But he will never feel understood if he perceives you judge yourself superior. So, here we have a delicate situation. We need to show both respect and comprehension.

I think a good way to do that, is focusing in on logic. Trying to understand what the person is saying, and just that, with no wish to show anything, that you have some knowledge or experience he doesn’t have. And, very important, the person should not think you are talking to him in order to acquire prestige, that is, that you want to show everybody you understand him. Here a lot of quotations would fit, I believe all Stoic thinkers stressed the importance of logic. Perhaps I could quote Marcus Aurelius: “Do you have an ability of being rational? If so, why don’t you use it?” (4.13)

Other people may have other approaches. I don’t want to rule those out, but I think logic is a good start. Someone may argue logic is cold, and the greatest need is to be warm. That is true. But I believe, as I said, logic is a start. You begin the relationship trying to understand what the person has to say, and agreeing, whatever he says. And then, as the talk goes, you can reach an emotive understanding.

I am not saying it is easy, or that there is a precise answer. However, I work in a hospital. Anyone can see that those who participate in my groups, (or some other person´s group) are better. It is also because those who search for these groups are already in a better condition, but I keep the argument, because the reason they are better before coming to the groups, is the same they improve with the groups. That is, they feel understood.

To provide that, my feelings are it is better to forget any preconceived ideas. In other words, to be logical. And logic here is also to acknowledge you never understand all of the person. We may today reach an agreement, but tomorrow this same person may surprise you. So, I think we can help my peers by way of making them feel understood. They may grow more confident, they may improve their communicative  skills, and ultimately make friends, and be able to walk around. Logic pervades all this process.

And something interesting happens, that sometimes the participants in the group learn from the facilitator a more logical attitude. And this improves their lives.

Logic for me is perhaps the subtraction of the Ego. What hinders us from being logical? Our wishes and desires? Logic is opposed to a big Ego. It helps you to be more detached, and therefore more free. As Epictetus said: “You won´t wish to be a general, a priest or a consul, you will wish to be free. And the only way to be free is to despise what we are not in charge”(Enchiridion 19) (here we know that logic is perhaps what is most up to us).

My peers are not inferior. They should be treated as equals, and we should not judge that all of Schizophrenia is bad. It brings undoubtedly much suffering, but also some qualities to the sufferer.

And, to that angry father, I do not oppose the use of medicines. But something should be said. The drugs available in the market, they don’t teach you anything. Nobody learns from the experience of consuming Haldol or Clozapine. It is true that we observe when the person stops taking the medicine, all symptoms come back. They do not disappear with the use of these drugs as some people argue they do, they only diminish, and they all resurge when we stop taking the medicine. So, what have we profited from those drugs? While a more logical attitude the patients may learn from the example of the facilitator, is more likely to last, and to really make us better people, more confident, more open. “Happy is the person who is led by reason”  (Seneca, On The Happy Life, 6).

João Leite Ribeiro was diagnosed with schizophrenia when he was 19.He is now 48, and has had a very surprising story of recovery. He now facilitates peer supports groups and gives lectures. He is mainly a self taught  person, but he completed the course of the School of Essential Studies on Stoicism. He is also the author of the book Memórias de um Estoico (The memoirs of a Stoic) which unfortunately has not been translated into English.

         

Is It Possible To Escape Time? by Jean-Baptiste Roncari

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Is it possible to escape time? This subject appeared in the philosophy examination of the 2019 literary French baccalaureate. In this post, I would like to propose a Stoic answer based on Seneca, who studied the question of time in his treatise On the Shortness of Life (De Brevitate Vitae). This post is not an answer key to the question, but a freely inspired exercise that seeks to articulate the stoic philosopher’s reflection on the issue raised.

Introduction

In Stoicism, time is described as incorporeal. It is not possible to act upon it, neither can it be affected by the interaction of another body. It escapes the causality of the world, just like gravity, the void, or the sayables. So, it seems impossible to influence it. The march of the stars as well as the aging of our bodies do not depend on any particular will.

However, beyond scientifically defined time, the time that makes each second equal to the next, there is a subjectively lived time: 8 hours of sleep do not have the same subjective duration as 8 hours of wakefulness; 3 minutes in a dream may only represent 3 seconds in reality; 1 hour of boredom is not worth 1 hour of leisure, etc. Some control seems possible over this second type of time.

In the context of practical philosophy, the subject must be problematized in relation to its existential implications. We can, with Seneca, distinguish different times: the time of life and the time of non-life. Seneca does not use these terms but talks about the lifestyle of the occupied (occupati) and the lifestyle of leisured people (otiosi). The former are alienated and allow themselves rather than living, while the latter are fully in control of their existence. Many human beings exist without living, that is to say, they alienate themselves in occupations unnecessary – if not harmful – to their natural happiness. They do not escape time, but rather it is time that escapes them. On the other hand, otiosi, those who lead a philosophical life, have a use of time that allows a certain existential detachment.

Given these considerations, we can therefore ask ourselves if appropriating time allows us to free ourselves from it. It will first be necessary to clarify the proper use of time and then to understand whether or not this makes it possible to free oneself from it. Throughout the development process, it is the angle of practical philosophy, the one that supports concrete action, that will be maintained.

I. Of Good Use of time

Time is one of the things that does not depend on oneself, like gravity, body health, reputation, wealth, weather, place of birth, etc. And yet, Seneca affirms that “the life we are given isn’t short, but we make it so” (I. 4). To what extent would it then be possible to influence the duration of our personal experience?

1. Time is a value too often overlooked

First, we must distinguish between time, which follows its course independently of our will, and the use of time, which is specific to each individual. On this point, Seneca notes that most human beings misuse time: we spend it on activities useless to our happiness. We lose it in useless or even harmful company. We spend it as if it were infinite. The Stoic author is surprised that we are stingier with our money and material goods than with our time. He says:

Men are thrifty in guarding their private property, but as soon as it comes to wasting time, they are most extravagant with the one commodity for which it’s respectable to be greedy

III.1

To use our time well, it is therefore necessary to be aware of its value. Every lost second is a lost second. It is not equivalent to money, which can come back, or other forms of material goods. For these reasons, Seneca criticizes those who wish to wait until retirement age to engage in truly human activities (meditation, contemplation, studies…), and those who suddenly and tragically become aware that they have not lived when they are on the death bed.

2. To exist is not the same as to live

Seneca then distinguishes existence and life. To live is to follow our human nature. To exist is to ignore this human nature. For the philosopher, all those who alienate themselves in a particular activity, the occupied, waste their lives:

They are too busily preoccupied with efforts to live better ; they plan out their lives at the expense of life itself. They form their purposes with the distant future in mind. Yet the greatest waste of life lies in postponement : it robs us of each day in turn, and snatches away the present by promising the future.

IX.1

The occupied or foolish are slaves of time, worried for example that their pleasures will one day end, that their bodies will age, that their fortune will disappear… Seneca does not run out of illustrations: drunks, lazy people, avaricious people, debauched people, but also unsuccessful courtiers, idle people, those who lose too much time in bodily care, those who live only following a passion, those who engage in a work of erudition that does not help one know how to live, and so on. They miss their lives without even knowing it.

3. What does living mean?

To live precisely, we must be aware of our human nature.  We are beings endowed with reason and, for the Stoics, it is the path of reason that leads us to happiness. Once again, we do not choose to exist but we choose the way we exist, the way we spend our time. A bad way of existing, one that alienates us, that develops in us vices or an ignorance of our own human condition, will considerably reduce the quality of our existence and, at the same time, the duration of our lived experience. On the other hand, a good way of existing, one that develops virtues in us – excellence of character, a mind structured by reason – and an awareness of our role in Nature, will allow us to live fully, even beyond our singular existence:

Of all people, they alone who give their time to philosophy are at leisure, they alone really live.

XIV.1

It is in philosophy that we begin to live and that the duration of our experience is then measurable. Otherwise, we remain in bare existence without value.

In short, quality of life is more important than life span. An old man may have lived less than a young man. This is because subjectively, the philosopher or wise person, even a young one, will necessarily be satisfied with the length of his existence.

To live, in the philosophical sense proposed by Seneca, is therefore to appropriate the time of one’s existence to make it a duration of no importance in relation to our serenity. To what extent, however, do philosophy, and by extension wisdom, free us from the singular time of our existence?

II. Does using your time well allow you to free yourself from it? 

What matters, then, is the evolution of the soul rather than that of the body. Practical philosophy develops an art of living.  Does the evolution of the soul allow us to go beyond the temporal framework of our existence? Would wisdom – the purpose of practical philosophy – be a point of immortality that would elevate us beyond our mere presence in the world?

1. Spiritual exercises to appropriate time

In his treatise, Seneca indirectly mentions two spiritual exercises: self-attention and self-examination. The first helps to be aware of your actions and the movement of your soul. When anger comes, for example, it allows us to pause the internal dynamics that lead to passion, and to evaluate, with reason, whether or not it is wise to let this dynamic come to an end.

The second exercise helps to evaluate past thoughts and actions to see if I have done the right thing, done the wrong thing or missed the opportunity to do better. In relation to the subject, the self-examination allows me to have an insight into the quality of my existence, a quality optimized by self-attention: 

Look back and recall when you were ever sure of your purpose; how few days turned out as you’d intended; when you were ever at your own disposal; when your face showed its own expression; when your mind was free from disturbance; what accomplishment you can claim in such a long life; how many have plundered your existence without your being aware of what you were losing ; how much time has been lost to groundless anguish, foolish pleasure, greedy desire, the charms of society; how little is left to you from your own store of time. You’ll come to realize that you’re dying before your time.

III.3

An existence without self-examination and without self-attention is a life that will necessarily be brief. If spiritual exercises are important, it is because they bring us closer to wisdom. In Stoicism, wisdom, once acquired, remains anchored in ourselves until our death. With it, life is long enough. The happiness it brings is infinite, outside of any temporal preoccupation. A wise man would be happy for 10,000 years if he could live that long.  He would also be for 10 hours if he only had 10 hours left to live. It is therefore a first response to our question : the appropriation of our time of existence by philosophy allows us to free ourselves from certain temporal concerns by delivering an atemporal happiness. We do not free ourselves from time but we structure our mind on an archetype that detaches itself from it.

2. Joining the noosphere of wisdom

Seneca, however, speaks of immortality in a slightly more sibylline sense:

if we want to transcend the narrow limitations of human weakness by our expansiveness of mind, there is a great span of time for us to range over.

XIV.2

What the author seems to mean here is that our mind can agree, through philosophy and its purpose, wisdom, on infinite and eternal ideas that we have in common with the best of men:

We can debate with Socrates, entertain doubt with Carneades, be at peace with Epicurus, overcome human nature with the Stoics, and go beyond it with the Cynics

XIV.2

The Russian mineralogist and chemist Vladimir Vernadsky might talk here about joining in thought a kind of noosphere of the wisdom. It is another form of appropriation of time beyond our temporary existence. Seneca even believes that the company of these great men leads to eternity and can change our mortal state into immortality. The hypothesis of an esoteric meaning where it is the transcendence of the self through philosophy that leads to mystical immortality is not to be excluded. But more prosaically, wisdom necessarily leads to a changed perception of time.

3. The relationship to time in the wise man

The author does not really elaborate on this, but, in the wise man’s case, “the combining of all times into one makes his life long” (XV.5). Where the occupied and other foolish fall into a fatal triptych: “forget the past, disregard the present and fear for the future” (XVI.1), the wise recollects the time spent by memory, uses the present time and anticipates the future. The past is in memory for the self-examination and to remain aware of the path taken to wisdom; the future is seized in advance in the sense that the soul of the wise is prepared for all events of destiny; the present is the time of self-attention.

This is the exact opposite of the use of time by the occupied. In the life of the wise man,

none of it is made over to another, none scattered in this direction or that; none of it is entrusted to fortune, none wasted through neglect; none is lost through being given away freely, none is superfluous; the whole of life yields a return, so to speak. And so, however short, it is amply sufficient; and for that reason, whenever his last day comes, the sage will not hesitate to go to his death with a sure step.

XI.2

In concrete terms, the wise person appropriates all time, past, present and future to merge them into one, the present, in his mind. By doing so, he frees himself from the worries of the past and the future into which so often the unwise fall.

Conclusion

Time is a precious value and the use we make of it determines the quality of our existence. An alienated life, of pleasures, or idleness goes against our rational and reasonable state of being. This existence will necessarily be brief because it lacks density. The mind will remain unsatisfied and will fear death. It is leisure life, in the most philosophical sense of the word, that transforms our time of existence into a lived experience. Thus, the appropriation of time through philosophical discipline makes it possible to change the plan.

This life, the life of the wise man in the highest point, has necessarily a satisfying duration. The wise man does not escape time, his body ages, but he transcends it in thoughts through a wisely structured soul. He lives beyond temporal preoccupations, in the present time, and joins the atemporal universe of the greatest minds. To appropriate time thus makes it possible to free oneself from it only insofar as the appropriation is philosophical and that the liberation is that of the soul.

Jean-Baptiste Roncari has a masters in political sociology from the Institute of Political Studies of Strasbourg. He is active in the French-speaking Stoic association Stoa Gallica, and he shares his experience with Stoicism on the blog Un Regard Stoïcien (Facebook page here) and through his Instagram account @unregardstoicien.