Updates About Stoic Week, Stoicon-X Events, and Stoicon

We’ve been getting a lot of inquiries about the upcoming Stoic Week, the Stoicon-X events, and the main Stoicon over the last month, and that’s a sign that it’s time for some updates and additional information about all of those Stoicism-themed happenings in September and October.

Stoic Week 2019

Every year, Stoic Week begins right after the main Stoicon conference. This year it starts on Monday, October 7 and runs through Sunday, October 13. Stoic Week offers participants the opportunity to “live like a Stoic” (the original title for the week the first year it was offered), by participating in a structured set of daily Stoic exercises and short readings from Stoic texts. These can be found in a downloadable handout, which we update each year, and make available here on the Modern Stoicism site shortly before Stoic Week begins.

Another key feature of Stoic Week is the free online course which we offer each year. The course contains useful resources for participants and discussion forums, in which participants from all over the world can discuss their experiences and insights as they work through the exercises and readings. We will open enrollment for the online class a few weeks before Stoic Week kicks off, and we will post the link to the course here once enrollment begins (you’ll also see posts in the Modern Stoicism social media as well).

Each year we have offered the online course has seen thousands of new students enroll in the Stoic Week course. Most people who take the course once repeat the course year after year. There are always some new materials from the previous year, but even better, working through the course (in my experience) offers a great opportunity for a weeklong Stoic “tuneup”.

All over the world, 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 will add it to the master list and the upcoming 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 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 more and more of them get added each year!

Here is the schedule for the eight Stoicon-X events this year:

  • Sunday, September 8 – Stoicon-X Toronto (organized by Peter Limberg)
  • Thursday, September 19 – Stoicon-X New York (organized by Massimo Pigliucci and Greg Lopez)
  • Sunday, September 22 – Stoicon-X New England (organized by Pete Fagella and Mac Deshaies)
  • Sunday, October 6 (directly following Stoicon) – Stoicon-X Athens (organized by Donald Robertson and Piotr Stankiewicz )
  • Saturday, October 12 (during Stoic Week) – Stoicon-X Moscow (organized by Stas Naranovich)
  • Saturday, October 12 (during Stoic Week) – Stoicon-X London (organized by John Sellars)
  • Saturday, October 12 (during Stoic Week) – Stoicon-X Milwaukee (organized by Andi Sciacca and Greg Sadler)
  • Saturday, October 26 – Stoicon-X San Francisco (organized by James Kostecka)

STOICON-X TORONTO

This event runs from 9 AM-? (they’re having “the Drunken Symposium as the last scheduled event), and features Chuck Chakrapani, John Vervaeke, Donald Robertson, and Massimo Pigliucci as speakers. Tickets range from CA$79.00 to CA$99.00. The event is being held at the Toronto Public Library. For more information and ticketing, click here.

STOICON-X NEW YORK

This event runs from 6 PM – 8:30 PM, and features talks by Donald Robertson, Willian Irvine, and Massimo Pigliucci. The event is hosted at the New York Society for Ethical Culture, and is free (with a $5 suggested donation). For more information or to RSVP, click here.

Stoicon-X New England

This event will be hosted in Newtown, Massachusetts, and runs from 12 PM to 6 PM, followed by a potluck dinner from 6 PM to 8 PM. It is scheduled to include presentations, music, games, lectures, games, social time, practical exercises, and short lightning talks. Snacks will be provided. Tickets are $15.00 for this event. Ticketing and information are now available via Eventbrite.

Stoicon-X Athens

This event will be hosted at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, and follows the main Stoicon conference held the day before it. It runs from 9 AM to 1:30 PM. Speakers for this event include Alkistis Agio, Kathryn Koromilas, Chrysoula Kostogiannis, Chuck Chakrapani, and Donald Robertson. Peter Stankiewicz will be organizing the short “lightning round” talks. Tickets for the event are  €42.89 (with fees) Ticketing and information are now available via Eventbrite.

STOICON-X MOSCOW

This event will be hosted at the Фаланстер (Falanster) bookstore bookstore in the center of Moscow. Tentative plans have Andrei Lebedev and Kirill Martynov as featured speakers. The meeting time at this point is TBD. We will provide more information in a mid-week post here in Stoicism today as it becomes available. For more information, you can contact the organizer.

STOICON-X LONDON

This event will be hosted at the Senate House, Bloomsbury, and runs from 10:30 AM to 5 PM. The event involves talks in the morning followed by smaller group workshops in the afternoon.  Tickets for the event cost £16.22 (with fees, and include refreshments and lunch.  Tickets and information are now available via Eventbrite.

STOICON-X MILWAUKEE

This event runs from 10 AM to 3 PM, and is hosted at the Central Milwaukee Library. Featured speakers include Kevin Vost, Dan Hayes, and Daniel Collette. It will also involve a set of 3-5 minute “lightning-round” talks and a workshop by Andi Sciacca and Greg Sadler. This is a free event, but due to the space (65 participants maximum), participants must have a ticket. Tickets and information are now available via Eventbrite.

STOICON-X SAN FRANCISCO

At this point, details for this event remain TBD, but they will be provided as they become available. It will be hosted at a local library in the San Francisco area. For more information, you can contact the organizer.

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.

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 are lined up for a day of talks and workshops:

  • 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 and more information on the main Stoicon conference can be found on the Eventbrite page.

Stoicism and The Art of Manliness

The highly popular Art of Manliness website has featured Stoicism several times. Our own Donald Robertson was recently interviewed by Brett McKay for the Art of Manliness podcast, which you can hear below.

Donald Robertson on The Art of Manliness

The Art of Manliness have also interviewed Ryan Holiday and William Irvine about Stoicism in the past, and their website includes several interesting articles on Stoicism.

Also from The Art of Manliness

Last Chance: Earlybird Discount Tickets for Stoicon 2019 Athens

Stoicon 2019 Athens

The earlybird discount offer for Stoicon 2019 in Athens is about to finish. So if you still haven’t booked this is your final chance to save money on the cost of the trip. See the event listing below for the full program and to book your tickets.

EventBrite: Stoicon 2019 Athens

Stoic Reflections From The Gym (part 2) by Greg Sadler

Several months back, I wrote a post derived partly from experiences as a middle-aged man going to the gym, and partly by reflections on Stoic philosophy and practice. Those reflections set out some of what Stoicism contributes to understanding the things that come up in the course of regular physical exercise. They also derive from my own application of – and mulling over – Stoicism as I’m in the course of my tri-weekly grind.

I had intended to write a set of follow-up pieces going further into this topic a bit sooner, but as many of you readers can relate, there are only so many hours to each day, and seemingly innumerable demands continuously eating up those blocks of time – usually more than they have been allotted. Not wanting to allow too many weeks and then months to slip by before authoring at least one sequel post, I set aside some time to add another three of those reflections here.

Making and Maintaining Time For Exercise

A commitment to exercise regularly is very easy to make. People do it all the time, especially as a New Years resolution, or after a doctor’s visit during which one’s physician stresses the need to lose weight, strengthen muscles, help one’s bones or joints, increase flexibility, or better one’s cardio-vascular system. Health clubs and gyms typically see a boom in membership in January, and many people who sign up use the facilities only a few times. Others don’t go at all. Some don’t cancel their memberships, but don’t use them either.

There are, of course, all sorts of alternatives to joining a gym. One can take a class, exercise on one’s own, or even get involved in pick-up games at community centers. There are meetups specifically for those who want to exercise in various ways, including just taking walks. Many workplaces have programs intended to get people moving and more active (in the American context, I write from, these are often tied to the health insurance offered by the company – the idea is that healthier employees result in lower insurance payouts). One can also just exercise on one’s own outside or in one’s own place – that was my preferred way, at earlier points in my life.

It is easy to make a choice to exercise, and even to elevate it to the status of a “commitment”. Following through on that is considerably harder. Physical exercise – at least until one has reached a point where this is no longer the case – is difficult, painful, tiring. It demands that one make a choice, or better put, renew the choice one has made, over and over again. That is what a commitment that one sticks with really looks like – a whole sequence of similar choices, maintaining at the least the direction that one started out in, if not necessarily the initial speed or attitude.

Maintaining commitment to exercise affords and opportunity – and also demands, in whatever degree we have it – the virtue that Stoics identified as courage or bravery (fortitudo in Latin, andreia in Greek). There are multiple modes of courage – what the Stoics called “parts” of that virtue – and some are more centrally involved in sticking with physical exercise one has committed oneself to. Perseverance (tharraleotes), which Arius Didymus tells us the Stoics defined as “knowledge ready to persist in what has been correctly decided”, and Industriousness (philoponia), which is “knowledge able to accomplish what is proposed, without being prevented by the toil” (Epitome of Stoic Ethics 5b2) are particularly relevant.

In working through just one of the fourteen weight-machine exercises that comprise my circuit workout, there are ample opportunities to choose not to follow through each time I go to the gym. And correspondingly, in order to keep the commitment to exercising my body fully, choices have to be made over and over again. It’s easy at the start of the first set. Depending on how I’m feeling and how much weight I’m using, it might be a good bit tougher near the end of the first set of repetitions. By the third set, if I’m using the right amount of weight, and not taking overly-long breaks between sets, the repetitions have become much more demanding. Each one towards the end requires an effort to push through pain and fatigue.

Sometimes I find myself tempted to round the number down. I notice my thoughts suggesting that it would be fine for me to do ten reps instead of twelve on the last set. Nobody else would know, since I’m on my own – fortunately, as an overweight near-50 year old, I enjoy near invisibility at the gym – and I’m not accountable to anyone else. Those thoughts suggest that since I’ve already done two whole sets, it would be all right to back off a bit on the final set. They arise less often than when I first resumed lifting a year and a half ago, but I still have to decide to push through to the end. In one sense, that’s bad, but in another – as I’ll discuss below – it’s not.

Choices and commitments not only have to be made at the gym. Before that, one has to actually make the time for exercise, and that requires choices and commitments as well. Busyness, fatigue, and occasional illness are the main factors that renders those difficult for me. For others, it might be a sort of laziness. Or it could be disorganization and distraction. Some may experience reluctance stemming from worries about others judging them on the basis of their present bodies. All of these challenges can be analyzed from the perspective of Stoic philosophy, revealing that they involve varieties of desires and fears, as well as associated assumptions, judgements, and typically developed habits.

As packed as my work schedule is between teaching classes, meeting with clients, engaging in consulting work, shooting videos and creating other content, varied duties with the Modern Stoicism organization and the Stoic Fellowship, among other things, I would sometimes find myself moving my scheduled workout around on my Google calendar to later times or to the next day. As work tasks took longer than planned, and time ran out, I inevitably skipped workouts. With old pets who occasionally require considerable care, children who visit from time to time, and a wife I chose a life with, I also prioritized family time over workout time. Over the five weeks of my kids’ summer visitation, in order to maximize our time together, I cut back considerably on both work and on workouts.

From a Stoic perspective, what we do or don’t make time for, particularly in relation to other things, reflects what Epictetus would call the price we actually place upon those things, on what we take to be goods or values, evils or disvalues, and the relative rankings of those in relation to each other. These valuations or prioritizations have both cognitive and affective dimensions. They reflect what we do – and have done – with what he calls our rational faculty and our faculty of choice (prohairesis, also sometimes translated as “moral purpose”).

There’s a bit of good news and bad news involved in that. The bad news is that since what we choose and do – as with anyone else – flows naturally from the established structures of thought and volition, largely determined by established habits and assumptions, unless we choose to use those two faculties to examine and modify themselves, we will go on along those same lines. Skipping scheduled workouts will keep on happening, as other things assume higher priority when push comes to shove.

The good news, of course, is that we can willingly choose to rethink how we value and prioritize. We can take cognizance of and modify our habits. In the case of physical exercise, we can remind ourselves of its value and necessity. If we want to take care of the bodies we have been given – which is the rational and practically wise thing to do – then we do have to make time for regular exercise. And that means then that once we have made that time, we have to follow through and maintain that time by not allowing other matters to keep us from using it in the way and manner we decided.

Returning To An Abandoned Routine

Interesting and illuminating analogies can be drawn between physical conditioning, which has some value, and the training of the soul, which from a Stoic perspective possesses a much greater value. In order for any lasting changes to be made, a person must deliberately and repeatedly engage in exercises, choosing over and over again to build and develop new capacities. Those processes of self-improvement, of building what is good and strong in us, and rooting out what is bad and weak, work best when they are continuous, but that is rarely the way things work out.

When it comes to regular exercise not only might one end up breaking one’s scheduled pattern, failing to make or maintain the needed time, abandoning one’s routine for other matters valued more highly. Illness or fatigue can also create obstacles. In fact, those can present hindrances even more for working out than they do for daily reading and study of Stoic texts, or regularly engaging in Stoic exercises. It can be difficult to maintain mental focus when sick or overtired, which may make a session of reading or practical exercise less effective. But it can prove harmful to the body to exercise while ill or sleep-deprived.

One of the adages I inevitably tell my students when I teach Ethics classes or material, is that studying practical philosophy isn’t just supposed to provide us with the guidelines for making the right decisions every time. It is also there to help us, after we’ve made the wrong ones, to figure out just how much we’ve messed up, and what we can do to get ourselves back on track. Stoic ethics is no exception in this respect. When you read through the works we possess by Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius, you will find many passages dealing precisely with that general issue, often focused on particular lapses, mistakes, and deviations.

If getting one’s body back into shape – or perhaps for some, getting it into proper condition for the first time – is something that one decided to be valuable, and still thinks it to be valuable, but one hasn’t managed to stick with regular exercise, then as with any other matter where one notices a contradiction or conflict between the things one thinks, says, values, chooses, and does, then some self-examination is called for. Simply making excuses for why one neglected exercise, or pretending one didn’t have a lapse, or wishfully thinking to oneself that one is going to simply pick right back up and get right back into exercise – these aren’t responses that are likely to be effective.

But once a person acquires some understanding of why what they seem to have resolved to do doesn’t actually happen – when they are the person who gets to determine it – then using that insight, they can change what happens going forward. In my own case, realizing that despite the value I seemingly set upon bodily health – and my realization that regular exercise is a necessary means to that health – I wasn’t getting to the gym regularly enough prompted me to take a look at my habits, assumptions, emotions, and choices involving work.

I’m still practically speaking a workaholic, but by engaging in self-examination and thinking matters through, I was able to break the habit of allowing work obligations to displace scheduled workouts from my calendar, and thereby my day. I saw the larger pattern comprised of many small “just this time” incidents, and then was able to gradually establish a new pattern. Deliberately reminding myself of my realization and resolve that, if I want this body to serve me well past middle age (fate willing of course), I had to keep those workout appointments I’d made by hitting the gym – each occasion that I would have allowed work to spill over into my workout times – that allowed me to get back on track.

A nasty flu bug hit here in the Midwest earlier this year – one that took weeks for most people to get over – and that put my workouts on hold as well. Skipping workouts due to illness is different than not persevering in making time, because as noted above, it may indeed be prudent not to exercise while ill. But what is the same in both cases for physical exercise – and for Stoic practices more generally – is the need to get oneself back on track when we have temporarily put them on hold.

This is where advice from classical Stoic philosophers can be helpful in providing perspective. Without making excuses for ourselves, we can realize that in our failure to follow through and keep commitments to ourselves to exercise, we are no different than any other person who has made a similar mistake. We can forgive ourselves the lapses without forgetting the need to change what within is led to those lapses. As classic Stoic philosophers point out, instead of getting upset with someone for a moral failing, it is more productive to show a person where they went wrong and then leave it up to them what they decide to do with that information. In the case of ourselves, we are that very person, and feeling guilty or angry with ourselves is less likely to get us back into the gym than allowing ourselves to make a new start.

After an absence from the gym, one really does need to make a new start. You can’t really make up for the workouts you missed by assigning yet more exercise to your body. That past time is gone, and that potential exercise that you might have done exists nowhere but in your imagination. All you do have is the present set of real moments and the indeterminate future stretching out in front of you. This is where the Stoic theme of “dealing with appearances” (phantasiai) assumes its importance. That imagination of where you had hoped to be, if you had stuck with the workouts that you missed – that’s an appearance, and one that you can examine and reject, when you encounter it. The sensations of your body as you resume your exercise, whether you feel strong or weak, doing well with an exercise or struggling with it, the pain and fatigue – all of those are appearances as well. The measures of the weights, the repetitions and sets, the time spent doing cardio or in a class – those quantities are all appearances.

We draw a host of judgements from those appearances, often with emotional correlates, all of which we can examine and even rework from a Stoic perspective. When I have gone back for a workout after missing more than a week, I have learned to prime myself to find out in the interaction between my body and the weights machines, what my current capacities really are and to carry out my workout in accordance with those. I do the same with the cardio machines (treadmill, elliptical, rowing, etc.). Invariably, I discover I have lost some ground, which makes good sense, since that’s the way bodies work. If you don’t exercise muscles, they get weaker. If you don’t do cardio of some sort, your endurance lessens. Trying to do the workout that you think you ought to be able to do, ignoring the time spent not exercising – or even trying to compensate for it – is making a bad or unreasonable use of all of those appearances.

A better use is to start up again where you find yourself. So you have to do less weight on all or most of the exercises in a weights circuit. Is that something bad for you – or something bad about you? Not at all. When I’ve been too invested in those numbers, and feeling bad about not being able to lift as much as before, I’ve found it useful to remember one of Epictetus’ short analyses of mistaken inferences.

“I am richer than you are, therefore I am superior to you”; or “I am more eloquent than you are, therefore I am superior to you”. The following conclusions are better: “I am richer than you are, therefore my property is superior to yours”; or “I am more eloquent than you are, therefore my elocution is superior to yours”. But you are neither property nor elocution

Enchiridion, ch. 44

The context would suggest that this reminder applies to cases where we are likely to mistakenly assume our own superiority over other people, or where we need to deal with other people’s assertion of superiority over ourselves or yet others. But it can equally apply to our own assessment of ourselves. If a month earlier, I could easily lift ten pounds more weight on a pulldown machine, and now find myself struggling to get through my three sets with the reduced weight, that doesn’t mean that I have become less of a person. It does mean that I can’t exercise with as much weight. How much weight one can use and the moral status of oneself as a person are two totally different things. If I do want to be able to lift more weight, then I need to exercise. If I want to become a better person, well there are Stoic exercises and insights for that as well!

Some Final Thoughts Keeping The Body In Perspective

Applying Epictetus’ passage along those lines, distinguishing one’s physical capacity from one’s moral condition and development, might then raise a question about the body and exercise from a Stoic perspective that I discussed in the previous post in this series. Strictly speaking, the body and its attributes – like health, strength, or endurance – is an indifferent. We are no more our bodies, their appearances, or their capacity for exercise than we are our wealth or our ability to speak well, right? Epictetus goes so far at one point to say that what a person really consists in, is prohairesis. So why place such a focus on bodily exercise as something important from a Stoic perspective?

I’ll devote additional discussion to this entirely legitimate question in a later post in this series. For now, to bring this to a close, I’ll just point out two things worth mulling over.

One of them is the frequency of Stoics drawing analogies between physical exercise, condition, and even the use of the body, on the one hand, and the understanding, development, and use of what is more at the core of who we are. This is what the Stoics called the ruling faculty (to hegemonikon, which, arguably, turns out to be the same as the rational faculty and the faculty of choice, at least in Epictetus). Bodies don’t start out automatically in good condition, and require the right kinds of exercise in order to improve in health, strength and other attributes. And this goes even more for our souls, which require considerably more attentiveness and work in order for us to more fully realize the potentials of our rational nature.

One of those analogies that I find particularly helpful, as I try to stick with incorporating and continuing bodily exercise comes from Epictetus:

How long will you wait to think yourself worthy of the best things?. . . You have received the philosophical principles which you ought to accept, and you have accepted them. You are no longer a child, but a full-grown adult. If you are now neglectful and easy-going, and always making one delay after another. . . . then without realizing it you will make no progress . . . . Make up your mind, therefore, before it is too late, that the fitting thing for you to do is to live as a mature person who is making progress. . . .[R]emember that now is the contest, and here before you are the Olympic games, and that it is impossible to delay any longer, and that it depends on a single day and a single action, whether progress is to be lost or to be saved.

Enchiridion, ch. 51

We can apply this advice that emphasizes the importance of each choice at each present moment just as readily to physical exercise as we can to applying Stoic philosophy and practices. Each repetition we force our body’s muscles to carry out (particularly the difficult ones at the end!), each minute one keeps pumping away -sweat-soaked and fatigued – on the elliptical is that single action. And whatever bodily exercise one does not only can be, but calls to be incorporated in a broader Stoic perspective.

One of Seneca’s discussions casts light on this. In a letter presenting Stoic arguments about the equality of virtue (an interesting topic, which I’ll examine more fully in another post), he looks at a contrast some would make between the matters in which virtue is exercised:

“What then,” you say; “is there no difference between joy and unyielding endurance of pain?” None at all, as regards the virtues themselves; very great, however, in the circumstances in which either of these two virtues is displayed. In the one case, there is a natural relaxation and loosening of the soul; in the other there is an unnatural pain. Hence these circumstances, between which a great distinction can be drawn, belong to the category of indifferent things, but the virtue shown in each case is equal.  Virtue is not changed by the matter with which it deals; if the matter is hard and stubborn, it does not make the virtue worse; if pleasant and joyous, it does not make it better. Therefore, virtue necessarily remains equal.

Letter 66

To be sure, the examples he discusses in that letter (and the one following) are more extreme than just making through one’s workout at the gym – include bravely enduring torture, showing fortitude in illness, or dealing with exile – but the same logic applies to exercise. It offers us the opportunity to develop and deploy the virtues in engaging with goods that “manifest only in adversity”. Seneca even clarifies this matter in relation to the Stoic conception of what is “in accordance with nature”.

The two kinds of goods which are of a higher order are different; the primary are according to nature, – such as deriving joy from the dutiful behaviour of one’s children and from the well-being of one’s country. The secondary are contrary to nature, – such as fortitude in resisting torture or in enduring thirst when illness makes the vitals feverish. “What then,” you say; “can anything that is contrary to nature be a good?” Of course not; but that in which this good takes its rise is sometimes contrary to nature. For being wounded, wasting away over a fire, being afflicted with bad health, – such things are contrary to nature; but it is in accordance with nature for a man to preserve an indomitable soul amid such distresses. To explain my thought briefly, the material with which a good is concerned is sometimes contrary to nature, but a good itself never is contrary, since no good is without reason, and reason is in accordance with nature.

Letter 66

I’ll leave off here with a brief interpretative suggestion. In one sense, physical exercise of the sort that one typically does at a gym – deliberately pushing oneself to limits of strength, endurance, flexibility, or other bodily qualities – are indeed unnatural. The pain or fatigue one endures is hopefully not anywhere near as intense as being tortured on a rack, of course, and the circumstances are very different, since one chooses to work out. In another sense, physical exercise is something in accordance with nature, not only because it enables us to develop our bodily capacities and to maintain our bodies in a state of health, but also because when conducted well, the “use” or “dealing with” the indifferents that our bodies are can provide a locus for exercising the virtues.

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 teaches at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design. He has created over 100 videos on Stoic philosophy, regularly speaks and provides workshops on Stoicism, and is currently working on several book projects.

Stoicism and the Irish by Frank Ó’hÁinle

As a quick introduction, my name is Frank Ó’hÁinle and I am a twenty-one-year-old Irish law student. Throughout the course of this piece I would just like to share my own personal experience of Stoicism with you all, as well as examining the application of this ancient Greek philosophy to the Irish generally in terms of their predisposition towards melancholy and despondency.

In particular the opening paragraphs will focus upon the indomitable Irish spirit in terms of their outlook towards the uncontrollable circumstances that were imposed upon them throughout history, with the latter paragraphs focusing on the melancholic aspect of the Irish psyche particularly a predisposition towards focusing on the negative experiences which happen to us all. Hopefully you enjoy my piece and it sparks an interest in the application of Stoic philosophy to your own lives.

I “discovered” Stoicism at the age of nineteen following my first year of my undergraduate degree. The Summer after first year is what I would consider up until this point to be the nadir of my fortunes, for a multitude of reasons. Several things had not gone my way and despite considering myself to be quite a tough individual, I had reached a point where I was feeling down and out. I struggled to come to grips with this despondency and subsequently was unable to push through this relative low point in my life. I do not find a need to discuss the individual concerns as you could substitute them for any other multitude of factors and still find Stoicism applicable. A primary practice of Stoicism is to avoid overly focusing on the circumstances one finds themselves in if they are outside of their control, as such an in-depth discussion of these prior issues of mine may well prove to be counterproductive.

As per Marcus Aurelius writing in the Meditations:

If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.

An avid fan of history, with Ancient Rome being a particular area of interest for me, I returned to the last good emperor Marcus Aurelius and was shocked to find that he had produced an absolute masterpiece in the quiet moments of his life. In between running the known world, Marcus had found the time to express in harrowing heart wrenching detail his own struggles and how he had found the strength within himself not only to persevere, but also to make the world he had found himself in a better place in the process.

Delving into this work I found answers to questions I had never dared to ask and a way in which I could rebuild myself into the man I had once thought I was but had now discovered that I could not have been further from becoming. Taking this full Summer to rebuild and reorient myself with who I wanted to be, and casting away all that, had held me back in the past. This was by no means easy but taking each day as it came I found myself becoming a Stoic, I was now able to accept the locus of control along with the concepts of Amor Fati and Memento Mori, these concepts at this point have been written about at length by far more skilled authors than myself, so I will not fill out my piece with unnecessary descriptions of them.

As well as Roman history, I am also a devout follower of the wonderful trials and tribulations that make up my own heritage as an Irish man. Having read of Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, Cato and many other Stoics in the past I began to draw comparisons between these great men of antiquity and their teachings, with those of a more Gaelic origin. Taking for example the general unwillingness of the Irish to ever break and accept the culture of the English, despite seven centuries of subjugation, I could witness the Stoic’s unwillingness to allow external factors beyond their control to overly affect them.

An Górta mór or “the Famine” as it is referred to in most textbooks, involved the death of one million Irish people by means of starvation, malnourishment, cold and illness, while one million more of them were forced to emigrate in order to survive. In a span of some four years, one quarter of the population was now gone from the island never to return.

During this time of suffering and loss, the British authorities set up soup kitchens where, if an Irishman renounced their Catholic faith (along with much of their identity) and took on the Protestant faith (with the equivalent English identity), then they would be fed. Yet the Irish identity persisted regardless, as many refused instead accepting their circumstances in the way of Amor Fati.

Rather than looking for an easy escape from their struggles which would necessitate an immense compromise of their ideals and very conception of who they are, the Gaels instead persisted embracing what had come their way and ensuring their very cultural identity would survive. This is most reflected in the writings of Epictetus who himself would have to learn to embrace the life of a slave and the trials and tribulations that came with it throughout his life, “He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.”

Yet it is in the fate of Joseph Plunkett that I see the greatest of Irish Stoics. Suffering with tuberculosis, Joseph was effectively given a terminal diagnosis. Yet unknown to his physician who had given this diagnosis, Plunkett was a part of a revolutionary bid – to win Ireland’s independence or to give their lives in the attempt. With the Rising set to occur on Easter of the year 1916, Joseph Plunkett left his sickbed along with the love of his life and their unborn child, knowing full well he would not return.

During the events of Easter week Plunkett contributed in his own way, despite his illness making an active combat role impossible he aided in the organisation and planning of the Rising, right up until his illness left him forced to spend the dying days of the revolution bedridden. His very presence and fortitude in ensuring he did what was required of him, inspired the men to continue to resist despite the overwhelming odds facing them. With the fires mounting in Dublin the decision to surrender was taken and at the mercy of the British authorities it was decided to make an example of the leaders of this insurrection, among them Joseph Plunkett.

Following on from this, the leaders of the Rising were executed daily each meeting their fate unwilling to bend to what they viewed as tyranny. Saddest among these deaths were those of James Connolly and the aforementioned Plunkett. Connolly, a socialist born in Scotland to Irish parents and a former British soldier, saw what the scourge of Empire was forcing upon the Irish people and sought to sever the link between the two countries regardless of what the personal cost may be.  Mortally injured during the Rising having taken on the primary command of the Irish armed forces, Connolly would have died without intervention in the coming days, yet he was executed by firing squad while tied to a chair.

Plunkett’s demise has however, since been immortalised in the poignancy of the song Grace. Before it came time to face down the firing squad, Joseph Mary Plunkett was allowed to marry the love of his life Grace Gifford in order to legitimize their unborn child. With a Stoic calm in the mould of Seneca meeting his demise in front of the Roman centurion sent to ensure his death, Plunkett bade his newlywed wife farewell mere moments before he did the same to his life.

Like the Stoics, Plunkett attached no great significance to his death. He had lived his life as well as he could and contributed to something greater than himself as his memory and that of his compatriots would allow the spark of Irish freedom to ignite and six years later attain its ultimate goal, a free and independent state. Plunkett and Connolly, like many Irish rebels before them, understood that living well was the key determining factor to dying well. As is reflected in the words of Seneca the Younger, “Life is like a play: it’s not the length, but the excellence of the acting that matters.”

So far, my article has focused upon one aspect of the Irish psyche, that of its courage and ability to endure, yet its other hemisphere betrays these Stoic values to a degree. To quote G.K. Chesterton in his description of the Irish, “The great Gaels of Ireland are the men that God made mad, For all their wars are merry, and all their songs are sad.”

Another core aspect of the Irish people generally, which has been noticed not only by those visiting our shores but by the more introspective among us, is that we tend towards feelings of melancholy and despondency. Such an aspect of our nationwide consciousness draws a stark contrast to the above element of endurance and also much of what it means to be a Stoic. This is further evidenced by the works of some of our greatest writers and poets, with the likes of William Butler Yeats devoting much time to elaboration upon the topic. This leaves the Gaels in a rather odd position of naturally displaying the key determining factor of the ancient philosophy, while on the other hand displaying the emotional element which it is designed to overcome.

I have noticed this even in myself, despite my time studying and learning from the Stoics while also applying their teachings, I find unexpected and severe feelings of sadness overcoming me at the strangest of times. In response I tend towards sad music and short moments of introversion, despite my overtly extroverted personality. I have noticed this behaviour in friends and family members also.

One need only turn on a broadcast of the news for the day and despite there being twenty-six positive headlines, one of my family or friends will focus upon the one negative part of the broadcast. As further evidence of this, a recent study in Ireland has revealed that in parts of the country, radio listeners spike when lists of the deceased are read out over the air. Of course, it must be noted that this is a generalisation, and not all of us maintain this inner sadness and inability to avoid focusing upon the negative aspects of our lives, yet as of the present it remains a pervading element of our society. One which has shown a degree of prevalence in the cultural expressions of the Irish people, whether it be through means of music or that of our artists and storytellers, much of it speaks to that darker element of our way of thinking.

To return to the G.K. Chesterton quote, it would seem that when focused upon a goal and in the middle of that battle, the ordinary Irish person throughout our history has been able to maintain a Stoic resilience and ability not only to endure but to thrive despite everything which has attempted to break them. Yet when devoid of this purpose, we tend towards this form of melancholy which seems singularly unique to the Gaels. In a modern world, however, such overarching goals have now been replaced by a culture of individuality. As such, this willingness to endure and fight for what it is we held to be right has been overcome by the more negative half of our national identity. I found myself falling into this trap, aged nineteen, and was fortunate enough that my love of the past led me towards a mentor of Aurelius’ ilk, yet not all of us are as fortunate despite Stoicism’s resurgence.

Having done much research into the topic of the Irish psyche and history, I would highlight it as a case study of an area in which the benefits of Stoicism can be seen by all. In my own life I have been able to remove an obsession upon controlling my life and its ultimate course, whether I will be wealthy or married with children in the coming years is beyond my control along with an innumerable myriad of other possibilities. My happiness is no longer contingent upon such uncontrollable external factors, but rather upon who it is I decide to be day by day and the impact I have on those around me.

In accepting this I have found strength where once there was doubt and uncertainty, while I came to find my way of living a better life through Stoicism at a relatively young age, I would like all of you to note that it is never too late to change your outlook on life and in doing so to become the best version of yourself possible. It will be an uphill battle every step of the way, yet as was evidenced above in embracing our better selves we not only improve our own lives but also those of the ones around us whether wittingly or not.

My own story provides an example of this as I still have to consciously work on myself day by day in order to avoid returning to the pitfalls which hampered me pre-Stoicism. Whether it is my nightly ritual of finding three things which I can be thankful for throughout my day and three things which although they were initially perceived as negative experiences in that same day can be looked at as blessings in disguise, if I allow my perception of them to be altered.

There are countless other small exercises which I practice throughout my regular day and I would hope to write a further article describing in greater detail how I practice Stoicism on a daily basis in order to aim for personal mastery. Yet as my friends and family will attest, I have become a better more capable friend, son, nephew etc., whose impact upon those around has been a positive one for having embraced the life of a Stoic and all that such a way of being pertains to.

While we can’t all be revolutionary heroes who usher in a new era for an entire people, we can contribute in ways which help to improve a universal whole the consequences of which through the invariable ripple effect can never truly be calculated. Embrace what is good in who you are and work to improve that which holds you back, whether it be a melancholy ingrained in you from a young age or some other unhealthy behaviour or habit which has thus far held you back. In particular, Epictetus elaborates best upon such an outlook on life, “First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do.” As a result, you never know you may end up changing the world in the process and leaving it a better place for you having come through this way.

Frank Ó’hÁinle is a final year law and history student, currently studying in the University of Limerick. He is an aspiring author, who attempts to achieve some degree of balance between the practice of Stoicism in his every day life, writing, work as a bartender and at some stage perhaps his actual undergraduate degree. You can contact him here

🔥 Get your Earlybird Tickets for Stoicon 2019 in Athens

Just a quick reminder that earlybird discount tickets for Stoicon 2019 in Athens are only on sale for a short while longer, until the end of this month. ​So don’t miss out on the discount if you want to attend!

Tickets can be booked via the EventBrite listing below which also includes full details of the event and the program of speakers:

EventBrite: Stoicon 2019 in Athens

Looking forward to seeing you there!

Stoicon 2019 Athens

Would you like to speak at Stoicon-x Athens?

Do you have some interesting ideas about Stoicism? Do you like talking? We’re looking for people who want to give short talks at Stoicon-x Athens. Stoicon-x is the mini-conference that runs on Sunday, following Saturday’s main Stoicon conference. It’s usually attended by about a hundred people.

Zeus

Lightning Talks

  • Stoicon-x takes place on Sunday 6th October in Cotsen Hall, the American School of Classical Studies in Athens.
  • Anyone can put their name forward, although we only have ten slots available.
  • Speakers will be given five minutes each to deliver a presentation on Stoicism, without slides.
  • All speakers will be offered free tickets for both Stoicon and Stoicon-x in return for volunteering to give a presentation.
  • You’ll have to cover your own expenses, including flight and accommodation.

For more details on Stoicon-x Athens see the event listing on EventBrite. Contact Piotr Stankiewicz for more information on lightning talks or to put your name on the list.

Imperfection and the Stoic by John Kluempers

The researcher and author Brené Brown does not call herself a Stoic or describe herself as being stoic. Nevertheless, when I read her book, I find parallels on how she relates to her work on courage, shame, and imperfection in leading a good life, and how the stoic seeks eudaimonia, or a good life.

If you don’t know Brené Brown, I suggest you watch her TED talk (here) on vulnerability, which still belongs to one of the most viewed talks on the conference platform. On her own website, Brown calls herself a research professor of the University of Houston, where she holds the Huffington-Brené Brown Endowed Chair and has spent the past two decades studying courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy. One of her early books is The Gifts of Imperfection.

In it, she takes the reader through a journey on how we can get past the negative feelings that appear when we compare ourselves to others—and possibly worse, comparing ourselves to the expectations of society. On the journey, Brown leaves 10 so-called guideposts. Each one of the guideposts is a gremlin that prevents each one of us from living what she calls Wholeheartedly (her capital ‘W’). Stoics would use the term eudaimonically. I find that each one of the 10 guideposts has a bit of Stoic philosophy. Here are the guideposts:

  1. Letting Go of What People Think: Authenticity
  2. Letting Go of Perfectionism: Self-compassion
  3. Letting Go of Numbing and Powerlessness: Resilient Spirit
  4. Letting Go of Scarcity and Fear of the Dark: Gratitude and Joy
  5. Letting Go of the Need of Certainty: Intuition and Trusting Faith
  6. Letting Go of Comparison: Creativity
  7. Letting Go of Exhaustion as a Status Symbol and Productivity as Self-worth
  8. Letting Go of Anxiety as a Lifestyle: Cultivating Calm and Stillness
  9. Letting Go of Self-doubt and “Supposed To”: Meaningful Work
  10. Letting Go of Cool and “Always in Control”: Laughter, Song, and Dance

I will now take you guidepost by guidepost to find stoic thoughts and philosophy that are buried in the meaningful writing of Brené Brown. By no means am I trying to one-up her work. Our modern lives are more hectic, stressful, and anxiety-provoking than ever (doesn’t every generation say that?) and everyone is seeking new ways to manage and even rule over the stress and strain. I look to make the connection between what she has so magnificently discovered and described for more than a decade and how stoics (and even non-stoics) could use it to lead better, healthier, and more joyful lives. Or eudaimonic lives in the parlance of stoicism.

Guidepost 1: Cultivating Authenticity: Letting Go of What People Think.

Brené Brown’s first guidepost demands from us to be truer to ourselves. Not to hold back from opening up to those who are closest to us: spouses, siblings, parents, children, good friends. When we reveal ourselves at the right moments, we will find joy and satisfaction.

She uses the term authenticity and describes it as a quality that we are either born with or not, but as something that we must practice, “a conscious choice of how we want to live” (p. 49). Brown continues that we are authentic on some days and not on others. Importantly, we act authentic in front of some people and less so in front of others. Based on her research, she came up with the following definition:

Authenticity is the daily practice of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we are.” In more detail, she sketches being authentic as being courageous enough to be imperfect, recognizing that all struggle with the vulnerability of being authentic (and hence, imperfect), and connecting with others best when we believe that we are enough

p. 50

When we are being our true selves, those who know us might be confused, she writes. Questions like, “What if I think I’m enough, but others don’t?” or “What if I let my imperfect self be seen and known, and nobody likes what they see?” Brown stresses that this act of authenticity is audacious—and might meet with rejection by people close to us. In order to lead a Wholehearted life, we meet with resistance. People will find it strange, unusual, even scary and will want us to return to the way we were before. Do we want this?

The price of giving too much value to those opinions, and after all, that is what they are, can make us experience the following: anxiety, depression, eating disorders, addiction, rage, blame, resentment, and inexplicable grief (p. 51). We have no control over what others think about us and how they would like us to be. We should be on our guard. Otherwise, we will go back to being miserable. This desire to be accepted by others is very much a part of human nature. But is it what we really want?

These questions and concerns about being authentic very much coincide with the Stoic school of philosophy. Giving people control over how we should be and act leads primarily to unhappiness. With this first guidepost as a starting point, I would like to show what Stoicism can do for you. For those not already familiar with Stoicism, I will over the course of this article introduce important pillars of thought from the school.

In Stoicism, there are a few primary maxims that we learn early. One is the dichotomy of control. The Stoic teacher Epictetus (or Arrian, one of his students who recorded Epictetus’ lectures) felt this to be a pillar of Stoicism that both his Discourses and Enchridion open with it. “Some things are within our power, while others are not.” Connecting this to Brown’s first guidepost, she recognizes something that any modern Stoic learns early: We do not have control over what others think of us.

The philosopher and Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius states it slightly differently in his Meditations:

If you suffer distress because of some external cause, it is not the thing itself that troubles you, but your judgment about it, and it is within your power to cancel that judgment at any moment

Meditations 8.47

2. Cultivating Self-Compassion: Letting Go of Perfectionism.

The prokopton, or practicing Stoic, is necessarily imperfect. The sage is a model to live up to. For the Stoics, Socrates fits the bill of being a sage. Quite possibly the Sage. He was a man who lived virtuously. The virtuous person perfectly incorporates the cardinal virtues of wisdom, courage, moderation, and justice. For Socrates and the Stoics these virtues came first and foremost in leading a good life because when practiced in the best way possible, we will fulfil all four. Socrates (and historical figures like Buddha and Jesus Christ and I’m sure others from religions I’m less familiar with) did just this. With his persistent questioning, he wanted to lead others to recognize their imperfections—and according to Plato’s testimony, Socrates even would discover his own shortcomings.

Why should we find our deficits?

Brown writes that “[p]erfectionism is, at its core, about trying to earn approval and acceptance” (p. 56). But at what cost does it come if we seek the praise and liking of those around us—and even of those we don’t know? When “What will they think?” drives our actions and behaviors. The Stoics warn exactly against this and the dichotomy of control exists to remind us of this. If we act in virtuous ways, then the thoughts, opinions, and judgments of others are unimportant because in virtue, we are doing that which is only good.

The difficult part is that we will constantly face situations where we make difficult decisions, often at the spur of the moment. Perfection is not possible, only a guidepost, using Brown’s terminology, that can lead us to make the best possible decision. A Stoic sage will be able to practice all four virtues listed above. All at the same time. We honestly can’t do that but we seek to practice all four as often as possible and in as many cases as possible so that our lives are eudaimonic.

3. Cultivating a Resilient Spirit: Letting Go of Numbing and Powerlessness.

One objection people frequently throw at Stoicism is being exactly that: stoic. A cold-hearted, emotionless machine. You might notice the small difference here. The first time it’s capitalized and the second time not. Stoicism does not demand or even desire people to suppress their emotions, the so-called stiff upper lip. This is being stoic with a small ‘s’. Emotions are a part of the human experience. There are good emotions with happiness and joy at the forefront. There are also bad emotions, such as anger, sadness, fear, anxiety, etc. It is interesting that the list of perceived bad emotions is much greater.

It has been shown that humans magnify bad things and events while we tend to underplay the celebratory ones. After all, for much of human existence on Earth, dangers such as predators, illness, drought, etc. have far outweighed the parties, like killing a large animal to secure the existence of family. Even in ancient Greece and Rome, the possibility of a sudden death was by no means minimal even if the Romans did much to lower mortality rates in the regions they conquered and ruled, as seen here.

We react to negative and stressful situations in many ways, but they are almost all learned behaviors. Brown brings up the point that we fall into all kinds of addictive behavior when confronted with challenging emotions. There are the usual suspects: alcohol and drugs. But there are many more: shopping, eating, smoking, gambling, gossiping, working, just to name a few. Addictive behavior stems from stress and unease about something. It temporarily numbs the dark, as Brown puts it. It is only temporary, however.

The Stoic virtue of temperance, or moderation, reminds us to avoid excess. Not only should we avoid excessive pleasure, we should also temper the negative emotions and keep in mind that the effects of what we are judging to be bad will not last long. This is a core principle of Stoicism in dealing with difficult situations. Cognitive distancing, which is common in cognitive behavioral therapy, is one such way. Both Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius espoused it by saying: “It is not events that upset us but our judgments about events” (Enchiridion, 5). We should keep this in mind so that when confronted with painful, stressful or other challenging situations, we don’t revert to automatic mechanisms and habits that do nothing to ease the discomfort and more likely exacerbate it.

4. Cultivating Gratitude and Joy: Letting Go of Scarcity and Fear of the Dark.

Brené Brown brings a very important lesson to the table at this guidepost. In order to be joyful, we must be thankful FIRST. In her interviews with people who were joyful, she discovered three powerful patterns, as she described them (pp. 77-8):

  • People who described themselves as leading joyful lives, without exception, actively practiced gratitude. And they attributed their joyfulness to their gratitude practices.
  • The persons described both joy and gratitude as spiritual practices. These practices inextricably were linked to the belief of human interconnectedness and a power greater than us.
  • People were quick to point out the differences between happiness and joy. Happiness was attributable to circumstances [outside of their control] and joy was a spiritual way of engaging with the world that’s connected to practicing gratitude.

The Stoics recognized this in similar ways. Epictetus portrayed it with his broken jug anecdote.

With regard to everything that is a source of delight to you, or is useful to you, or of which you are fond, remember to keep telling yourself what kind of thing it is, starting with the most insignificant. If you’re fond of a jug, say, ‘This is a jug that I’m fond of,’ and then, if it gets broken, you won’t be upset. If you kiss your child or your wife, say to yourself that it is a human being that you’re kissing; and then, if one of them should die, you won’t be upset.

Handbook, 3

When I read this the first time, I thought to myself: How can I equate losing a jug with me losing my child or wife? There is a grave discrepancy between the two! If my child were to die today, I believe I would first be in shock. I might become very angry or grieve terribly long. I might drown that sorrow with alcohol as a way to numb the pain or anger.

The reason why we may resort to numbing is that we don’t recognize many things we should be grateful for. When Epictetus speaks of us losing a jug, it can be relatively easy to say, I can handle that. When in the next sentence, he adds that we should react with similar equanimity should our child or wife die before we see them again, that bit is harder to swallow. What point does Epictetus want to make when he juxtaposes earthenware to close family?

What he wants to do is indicate that we should practice more gratitude. We should celebrate every moment that we have with our family, friends, and even, as perverse as it might sound, the possessions we own. To the Stoic, these are all indifferents, and in this case, preferred indifferents. Yes, we can (and should) enjoy them. We can take pleasure in them. But their existence in our lives does not lie directly in our power. Epictetus reminds us that the ephemeral nature of existence is just that, a part of nature.

Even more importantly, we should remind ourselves that in leading a good life, it is up to us to remember to appreciate those preferred indifferents—and give thanks for them on a regular basis. This is what the subjects in Brown’s interviews do consistently. The reward is leading, in her terms, a more joyful life. A mistake many people make, she adds, is waiting for joy to come before expressing gratitude.

The Stoics followed a similar line of thinking. Show gratitude for what you have at the end of each day. Many therapies request patients to take the time, usually at the end of the day, to journal. Epictetus also asks us to review all things we did during the day and grade it mentally. The grading can be as simple as thumbs up or thumbs down (or somewhere in between) or you can give grades or ratings. Did you help a friend out? Pat yourself on the back. Were you quick tempered with a colleague? Remind yourself next time to pause before reacting.

The ancient Roman Stoics kept this in mind with the practice of premeditation malorum, or visualizing the bad. This works in two ways. By foreseeing the bad, we actually decrease our fear of it. Cognitive behavior therapy works on this precept. “What’s the worst that can happen to me when I give a presentation? Might I embarrass myself? And what if I do? People forget about it fairly quickly.”

The other side of the premeditation malorum coin is that we appreciate more what we have and all the bad things that don’t happen to us.

5. Cultivating Intuition and Trusting Faith: Letting Go of the Need for Certainty.

The endless amount of information at our disposal in modern times can be seductive. There is practically an answer to every problem, dilemma, crisis under the sun. At least we believe that most of the time. Google and co. will provide us with the best possible response or solution. For some things this is certainly true: a math equation, a trivia question, a history question, etc.

Yet search engines and the Internet can’t answer with any certainty questions about our future, at least not yet. Which job should we accept? Which car should we buy? Which school is best for our children? We pore over the data. We analyze it. We use due diligence. Only to feel even more uncertain. Lots of research (here and here for a small sample) has shown that our gut feelings, hunches, or a sixth sense often lead to good decisions. Science has only in the last two decades or so started examining intuition more closely. And understanding it.

Brené Brown points out that intuitions are an amalgam of mental processes. It is not just a random choice. The brain observes something, scans its files, and matches the observation with existing memories, knowledge, and experiences. Once it puts together a series of matches, we get a ‘gut feeling’ about what we’ve observed and how to proceed—without a long deliberation process. Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahnemann’s distinction between Slow and Fast Thinking is similar.

Stoicism asks its practitioners also to use due diligence. Reason makes humans stand out from all other creatures on Earth. We should use our brains, our cognitive abilities, to analyze and make the best possible decisions under the circumstances. The Roman orator Cicero, who was sympathetic to Stoic ideas and philosophy, illustrated the uncertainty that surrounds the outcomes of decisions once they have been made to that of an archer. She chooses a certain target; she lifts the bow and takes aim; she pulls back the string; she releases the arrow. Once the arrow is flying, however, it is no longer in her control where it strikes. A gust of wind may blow it off target. The target (an animal, for example) may move out of the way. Cicero rightly concluded, “the actual hitting of the mark [is] to be chosen but not to be desired.” “Not desired,” you ask? Yes, because the archer has done all in her power to hit the target but must be ready to accept if the arrow does not hit the mark.

Prepare well, do your homework—then just do it! to quote a sporting apparel company. At some point we have no control and must be ready to accept what fate has in store.

6. Cultivating Creativity: Letting Go of Comparison.

Brené Brown notes that when we excessively make comparisons—not only to others but also to ourselves, we automatically find ourselves in a situation of insufficiency. We never have enough. We are never good enough.

The Stoics were on to this too. In general, we only see and experience impressions of how others are doing. We see others with better cars, nicer homes, more loving spouses. Yet we don’t know by any means if they are actually better off than we are. Money, reputation, and love are to the Stoics indifferents that can have good and bad qualities. The only chief good that a human can possess is virtue. Socrates drove this point home and the Stoics, too.

Virtue is, as Massimo Pigliucci summarizes in his book How to be a Stoic, the only thing that is valuable under all circumstances. Everything else is an indifferent and can be either good and bad, or in the parlance of Stoicism, preferred or dispreferred. It is fine to accrue wealth, but if in accruing it, a multibillionaire slashes thousands of jobs, then she is hardly acting virtuously. Money is a vice in that case. The same is true for love. If we act “lovingly” to gain acceptance, for example, you are using love as a means to an end. The outcome of such behavior is also uncertain. The person whose acceptance you try to win may spurn your attempts anyway, or he withholds the love that he may have returned because he sees through the veiled attempt.

The Stoic says we shouldn’t compare ourselves to others. Our impressions may mislead or misinform us. Therefore, practice the four virtues: practical wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation on yourself—and only on yourself.

7. Cultivating Play and Rest: Letting Go of Exhaustion as a Status Symbol and Productivity as Self-worth.

 In modern times, productivity is the measuring stick par excellence. At the workplace; on the athletics field or in the gym; at school. We are being measured against standards that demand we always work. In creating those standards, we often had little input, if any at all. They are imposed on us and we impose them on each following generation.

In guidepost 2, we learned that taking time out is necessary. Even more necessary is taking time out to play and rest. Many mammal species play as part of upbringing. We see puppies, lion and bear cubs, dolphin calves, and monkey and ape species playing as part of childhood—and sometimes beyond. Playing is learning to do adult things (hunt, for example) and be social in a family or clan.

For millions and millions of people, working for the sake of work is a status symbol. We must be busy, or at least look like we are busy. Otherwise someone could overtake us. We respond to the price of believing that someone might get to the finish line (which one we should ask) first by working more and sacrificing most often sufficient sleep. Many studies reveal the deep value and necessity of getting enough sleep. In his New York Times bestseller Why We Sleep, Matthew Walker shows in great detail the benefits of a good slumber.

But not only sleep is critical. In this guidepost, Brené Brown refers to studies that show the importance of play. In his book Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul (here is his TED talk on it) Dr. Stuart Brown (no relation to Brené) explains how play actually shapes our brain and helps us become more social creatures.

The Stoics see play also as part of the human experience. The second head of the Stoa, Cleanthes, was a pugilist. Up to young adulthood, Marcus Aurelius, participated in all kinds of sporting activities while being raised. It is necessary to do this, otherwise we may hit a wall sooner or later. Our health may deteriorate, or our social life may suffer. Or both.

8. Cultivating Calm and Stillness: Letting Go of Anxiety as a Lifestyle.

Anxiety is a curse. Disquietude impacts our mental and physical health. The definition of anxiety in simple terms is to worry about the outcome of an upcoming event. We want something, be it a prize, recognition, or compliments. Yet these are outside of our control, as Epictetus reminds us:

When I see someone in a state of anxiety, I say, ‘What is it that he wants?’ For unless he wanted something that was not within his power, how could he still be anxious? That is why a lyre-player feels no anxiety when singing on his own, but becomes anxious when he enters the theatre, even if he has a fine voice and plays his instrument well. For he wants not only to sing well, but also to win the approval of his audience, and that is something beyond his control.

Discourses 2.13

The dichotomy of control shines its light yet again. We will always want to perform well, but the reactions of the audience are beyond our control. We prepare for the situation. We practice. We stay calm—think of the archer! Emotionally-charged situations are inevitable. Reduce anxiety by remaining calm, breathing, and remembering the reactions of the others is beyond your control.

9. Cultivating Meaningful Work: Letting Go of Self-Doubt and “Supposed to”.

A Stoic life requires a few simple things from the prokopton. Live virtuously, for virtue is the highest good—and all else is indifferent. In addition, we should follow Nature. We should do all we can to lead a life that will make the world a better place. Lastly, yes, you guessed it, we should remember the dichotomy of control.

In this guidepost, Brené Brown points out something that haunts most anyone who has self-perception (and that means about anybody beyond the age of 7 or 8): expectations. It begins in the family where parents, siblings, and relatives believe we should act a certain way and do certain things. “Boys play sports,” and “Girls should look pretty,” are typical examples heard in families in many homes. Some of those expectations have changed in families in the last few decades, but family members aren’t the only ones with expectations. Society and culture also drive this (and many similar ones) message home. At times very overtly, but usually those whispers are spoken in more subtle tones.

Eventually, these external expectations become internalized. We tell ourselves stories of what is appropriate, what is possible, what is taboo. Such stories prevent us from pursuing the life that would have true meaning for ourselves: starting a job or career we always wanted to do, pursue a hobby, volunteer. Brené Brown discovered a few things that happen when we pursue meaningful work. The work or activity may face scrutiny. The opinions of others, even insults, lie outside of our control. The decision to pursue an alternative job may not be greeted with enthusiastic support, but the price of not doing so will be disquietude and dissatisfaction. Brown recommends acknowledging those so-called “gremlins” to remove the mystique and power of the fear they create. The Stoics would concur fully with this approach because it will help reduce or eliminate the self-doubts and the “supposed to’s” coming from within and without. When this happens, we will lead more flourishing lives.

10. Cultivating Laughter, Song, and Dance: Letting Go of Being Cool and “Always in Control”.

The Stoics understand that humans naturally seek pleasure. This is fine and good because it is an indifferent, preferably a preferred one. As long as it doesn’t get in the way of virtue. This means that we enjoy fun, games, sports, and arts in healthy doses. Indeed, Seneca promotes such behavior for more reserved personalities.

Games will be beneficial; for pleasure in moderation relaxes the mind and gives in balance. The more damp and drier natures, also the cold [i.e., detached, aloof, equivocal personalities] are in no danger from anger, but they must beware the more sluggish faults—fear, moroseness, discouragement, and suspicion. And so, such natures have need of encouragement and indulgence and the summons to cheerfulness

Seneca, On Anger, 2.20.4

Brown refers to something that is innately human. Laughter, song, and dance have one common thread. “[They] create emotional and spiritual connection; they remind us of the one thing that truly matters when we are searching for comfort, celebration, inspiration, or healing: We are not alone” (Brown, Gifts of Imperfection, p. 118).

We are not alone. We naturally seek social connections. We can pursue positive collective behaviors (which by its nature means not following mob rule mentality, e.g., what is prevalent on the Internet), Brown writes that, “[w]e want to be able to control what other people think about us so that we can feel good enough” (Gifts of Imperfection, p. 121). What is described as teenage behavior often continues into adult years. Particularly when our own children are present. They find it embarrassing when we dance at a party or sing karaoke. As much as we love our children, we shouldn’t let that stop us from dancing or singing.

This is even more reason to do it. In the eyes of highly self-conscious teenagers, we should use this as an opportunity to talk about it afterwards, use it as a teaching moment. When we show our vulnerability that leaves the impression on impressionable younger people that it is acceptable to laugh, dance, and sing.

Seneca finds the right words about whether we should be concerned that we embarrass or shame ourselves: Who is not aware that nothing thought to be good or bad looks the same to the sage as it does to everyone else? He pays no mind to what others consider shameful or wretched; he does not walk with the crowd; just as the planets make their way against the wheel of heaven, he proceeds contrary to the opinion of the world. (On the Constancy of the Wise Man, 14.3-4).

The Stoics and Stoicism tell us to ‘follow nature’ for doing so means we act virtuously. Since we are all for the most part not sages that automatically know how to act in every situation, it’s wise to also to look at what might be holding us back. This is why the work of Brené Brown has great value to me. We imperfect human beings will remain so and by tackling how our imperfections are hindering us from leading more fulfilling lives, that takes us one closer to being sages.

John Kluempers works with PhD candidates and college students in Germany. He helps them prepare for their careers when they attend conferences, i.e., hones their presentation skills and gives them advice on networking in academic contexts. Together with a small group of Stoics in western Germany, he’d like to find more Germans who would find the advantages of stoic eudaimonia.

Stoicon-X Events this Fall

The big Stoicon conference is taking place this year in Athens on Saturday, October 5, and it promises to be an excellent opportunity to attend talks and workshops by a number of authors, speakers, and practitioners in the Modern Stoic movement, and to connect up with other people equally interested in Stoic philosophy and practice.

Stoic Week starts the following Monday, October 7 and runs to the following Sunday, October 12. As has been the case every year prior, there will be a number of local Stoic Week events all over the world – and we’ll be listing them here in Stoicism Today (so if you’ve got one planned, make sure you contact me and provide the information)

Those are all great opportunities for learning more about Stoicism and participating in the worldwide modern Stoic community. But there is another kind of conference that you might be interested in as well – STOICON-X conferences. Along lines similar to the big TED and the smaller TED-X events, Stoicon-X conferences offer an opportunity for local Stoic groups to organize events similar to Stoicon itself, but on smaller scale, all over the world.

At this point, it looks like there are seven Stoicon-X events being planned, some of which have more planning, preparation, and scheduling done than others. There will be more information forthcoming in the next two months as we lead up to Stoicon, Stoic Week, and the Stoicon-X events, but here is what we have so far.

  • Sunday, September 8 – Stoicon-X Toronto (organized by Peter Limberg)
  • Thursday, September 19 – Stoicon-X New York (organized by Massimo Pigliucci and Greg Lopez)
  • Saturday, October 12 (during Stoic Week) – Stoicon-X Moscow (organized by Stas Naranovich)
  • Saturday, October 12 (during Stoic Week) – Stoicon-X London (organized by John Sellars)
  • Saturday, October 12 (during Stoic Week) – Stoicon-X Milwaukee (organized by Andi Sciacca and Greg Sadler)
  • Saturday, October 26 – Stoicon-X San Francisco (organized by James Kostecka)
  • TBD – Stoicon-X Madrid (organized by Kellys Andreína Rodríguez)

 

Stoicon-X Toronto

This event runs from 9 AM-? (they’re having “the Drunken Symposium as the last schedule event), and features Chuck Chakrapani, John Vervaeke, Donald Robertson, and Massimo Pigliucci as speakers. Tickets range from CA$79.00 to CA$99.00. The event is being held at the Toronto Public Library. For more information and ticketing, click here.

Stoicon-X New York

This event runs from 6 PM – 8:30 PM, and features talks by Donald Robertson, Willian Irvine, and Massimo Pigliucci. The event is hosted at the New York Society for Ethical Culture, and is free. For more information or to RSVP, click here.

Stoicon-X Moscow

This event will be hosted at the Falanster bookstore in the center of Moscow. Tentative plans have Andrei Lebedev and Kirill Martynov as featured speakers. The meeting time at this point is TBD. We will provide more information in a mid-week post here in Stoicism today as it becomes available. For more information, you can contact the organizer.

Stoicon-X London

This event will be hosted at the Senate House, Bloomsbury. The details are still TBD, and will be forthcoming here in Stoicism Today, once they are available. For more information, you can contact the organizer. UPDATE: Tickets now available via Eventbrite.

Stoicon-X Milwaukee

This event runs from 10 AM to 3 PM, and at present features Kevin Vost, Dan Hayes, Andi Sciacca, and Greg Sadler. It will also involve a set of 3-5 minute “lightning-round” talks. It is hosted at the Central Milwaukee Library, and is a free event. More information will be forthcoming in the near future, and will be provided in a mid-week post. For more information, you can email me.

Stoicon-X San Francisco

At this point, most of the details for this event are TBD, but they will be provided as they become available. It will be hosted at a local library. For more information, you can contact the organizer.

Stoicon-X Madrid

Likewise, details for this event are TBD at this time, but will also be provided here in Stoicism Today as they become available. For more information, you can contact the organizer.

So if you’re interested in any of these local events, mark the date on your calendar, and get ready to get your Stoic-on!