Stoicism and Scottish Philosophy

Dugald Stewart (1753-1828) was professor of moral philosophy at Edinburgh University, and a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS).  He was part of the movement in academic philosophy known as Scottish Common Sense Realism. Stewart was also good friends with Scotland’s national bard, the poet Robert Burns. 

Much of intellectual life in eighteenth-century Scotland is marked by the phenomenon nowadays called the “Scottish Enlightenment” – a flourishing exchange of ideas in a quite remarkably tolerant public space… Scotland before the Enlightenment was not devoid of interest in classical antiquity, yet during the eighteenth century one can identify an increased interest in Greek and Latin authors – particularly in the Stoics and Cicero…

Christian Maurer, ‘Stoicism and the Scottish Enlightenment’ in the Routledge Handbook of the Stoic Tradition (2016) edited by John Sellars

Stewart was one of the Scottish Enlightenment philosophers most interested in ancient Stoicism and provides a very insightful summary of its doctrines in the following excerpt from his book The Philosophy of the Active and Moral Powers of Man (1829), Book 4, Chapter 4, Section 2.  I’ve made light editorial changes to the content, such as updating some anachronistic spellings and reformatting his extensive quotations from other authors, such as James Harris and fellow Scots Adam Smith and Adam Ferguson. Thanks to Colin Hay of The Scottish Stoics for help preparing the text. – Donald Robertson


Of Happiness. Systems of the Grecian Schools on the Subject.

In opposition to the Epicurean doctrines on the subject of happiness, the Stoics placed the supreme good in rectitude of conduct, without any regard to the event. They did not, however, as has been often supposed, recommend an indifference to external objects, or a life of inactivity and apathy. On the contrary, they taught that nature pointed out to us certain objects of choice and of rejection, and amongst these some to be more chosen and avoided than others; and that virtue consisted in choosing and rejecting objects according to their intrinsic value. They admitted that health was to be preferred to sickness, riches to poverty; the prosperity of our family, of our friends, of our country, to their adversity; and they allowed, nay, they recommended, the most strenuous exertions to accomplish these desirable ends. They only contended these objects should be pursued not as the constituents of our happiness, but because we believe it to be agreeable to nature that we should pursue them; and that, therefore, when we have done our utmost, we should regard the event as indifferent. 

That this is a fair representation of the Stoic doctrine has been fully proved by Mr. James Harris in the very learned and judicious notes on his Dialogue concerning Happiness; a performance which, although not entirely free from Mr. Harris’s peculiarities of thought and style, does him so much honour, both as a writer and a moralist, that we cannot help regretting, while we peruse it, that he should so often have wasted his ingenuity and learning upon scholastic subtleties, equally inapplicable to the pursuits of science, and to the business of life.  Harris observes:

The word παθος [pathos], which we usually render a passion, means, in the Stoic sense, a perturbation, and is always so translated by Cicero; and the epithet απαθης [apathes], when applied to the wise man, does not mean an exemption from passion, but an exemption from that perturbation which is founded on erroneous opinions. The testimony of Epictetus is express to this purpose. I am not, says he, to be apathetic like a statue, but I am withal to observe relations both the natural and adventitious; as the man of religion, as the son, as the brother, as the father, as the citizen. And immediately before he tells us, that a perturbation in no other way ever arises but either when a desire is frustrated, or an aversion falls into that which it should avoid. In which passage it is observable that he does not make either desire, or aversion, παθη [pathe], or perturbations, but only the cause of perturbations when erroneously conducted.

Harris, Dialogue Concerning Happiness

From a great variety of passages, which it is unnecessary for me to transcribe, Harris concludes that “the Stoics, in the character of their virtuous man, included rational desire, aversion, and exultation; included love and parental affection, friendship, and a general benevolence to all mankind; and considered it as a duty arising from our very nature not to neglect the welfare of public society, but to be ever ready, according to our rank, to act as either the magistrate or as the private citizen.” 

Nor did they exclude wealth from among the objects of choice. The Stoic Hecato, in his Treatise of Offices, quoted by Cicero, tells us,

That a wise man, while he abstains from doing anything contrary to the customs, laws, and institutions of his country, ought to attend to his own fortune. For we do not desire to be rich for ourselves only, but for our children, relations, and friends, and especially for the commonwealth, inasmuch as the riches of individuals are the wealth of a state.

Cicero, De Officiis, iii.15

“Nay,” says Cicero, “if the wise man could mend his condition by adding to the amplest possessions the poorest, meanest utensil, he would in no degree condemn it.” [De Finibus, iv.12]

From these quotations it sufficiently appears that the Stoic system, so far from withdrawing men from the duties of life, was eminently favourable to active virtue. Its peculiar and distinguishing tenet was, that our happiness did not depend on the attainment of the objects of our choice, but on the part that we acted; but this principle was inculcated not to damp our exertions, but to lead us to rest our happiness only on circumstances which we ourselves could command. Says Epictetus:

If I am going to sail, I choose the best ship and the best pilot, and I wait for the fairest weather, that my circumstances and duty will allow. Prudence and propriety, the principles which the gods have given me for the direction of my conduct, require this of me, but they require no more; and if, notwithstanding, a storm arises, which neither the strength of the vessel nor the skill of the pilot are likely to with stand, I give myself no trouble, about the consequences. All that I had to do is done already. The directors of my conduct never command me to be miserable, to be anxious, desponding, or afraid. Whether we are to be drowned or come to a harbour is the business of Jupiter, not mine. I leave it entirely to his determination, nor ever break my rest with considering which way he is likely to decide it but receive whatever comes with equal indifference and security.

Epictetus, Smith’s translation from Theory of Moral Sentiments

We may observe further, in favour of this noble system, that the scale of desirable objects which it exhibited was peculiarly calculated to encourage the social virtues. It represented indeed (in common with the theory of Epicurus) self-love as the great spring of human actions; but in the application of this erroneous principle to practice, its doctrines were favourable to the most enlarged, nay, to the most disinterested benevolence. It taught that the prosperity of two was preferable to that of one; that of a city to that of a family; and that of our country to all partial considerations. It was up on this very principle, added to a sublime sentiment of piety, that it founded its chief argument for an entire resignation to the dispensations of Providence. As all events are ordered by perfect wisdom and goodness, the Stoics concluded, that whatever happens is calculated to produce the greatest good possible to the universe in general. As it is agreeable to nature, therefore, that we should prefer the happiness of many to a few, and of all to that of many, they concluded that every event which happens is precisely that which we ourselves would have desired, if we had been acquainted with the whole scheme of the Divine administration.  

In what sense are some things said to be according to our nature, and others contrary to it? It is in that sense in which we consider ourselves as separated and detached from all other things. For thus it may be said to be the nature of the foot to be always clean. But if you consider it as a foot, and not as something detached from the rest of the body, it must behove it sometimes to trample in the dirt, and sometimes to tread upon thorns, and sometimes, too, to be cut off for the sake of the whole body; and if it refuses this, it is no longer a foot. Thus, too, ought we to conceive with respect to ourselves. What are you? A man. If you consider yourself as something separated and detached, it is agreeable to your nature to live to old age, to be rich, to be in health. But if you consider yourself as a man, and as a part of the whole, upon account of that whole it will behove you sometimes to be in sick ness, sometimes to be exposed to the inconveniency of a sea voyage, sometimes to be in want, and at last perhaps to die before your time. Why then do you complain? Don’t you know that by doing so, as the foot ceases to be a foot, so you cease to be a man.

Epictetus

And as Marcus Aurelius Antoninus writes:

Oh world, all things are suitable to me which are suitable to thee. Nothing is too early or too late for me which is seasonable for thee. All is fruit to me which thy seasons bring forth. From thee are all things; in thee are all things; for thee are all things. Shall any man say, O beloved city of Cecrops! and wilt not thou say, O beloved city of God! 

Smith’s translation from Theory of Moral Sentiments

In this tendency of the Stoic philosophy to encourage the active and social virtues, it was most remarkably distinguished from the system of Epicurus. The latter, indeed, seems (as it was first taught) to have been the reverse of that system of sensuality and of libertinism, to which the epithet Epicurean is commonly applied in modern times; but it was at best a system of selfishness and prudent indulgence, which placed happiness in a seclusion from care, and in an indifference to all the concerns of mankind. By the Stoics, on the contrary, virtue was supposed to consist in the affectionate performance of every good office towards their fellow creatures, and in full resignation to Providence for everything independent of their own choice. 

It is remarked by Dr. Adam Ferguson that:

Their different schemes of theology clearly pointed out their opposite plans of morality also. Both admitted the existence of God. But to one the Deity was a retired essence enjoying itself, and far removed from any work of creation and Providence. 

The other considered the Deity as the principle of existence and of order in the universe, from whom all intelligence proceeds, and to whom all intelligence will return; whose power is the irresistible energy of wisdom and of goodness, ever present and ever active; bestowing on man the faculty of reason and the freedom of choice, that he may learn, in acting for the general good, to imitate the Divine nature; and that, in respect of events independent of his will, he may acquiesce in the determination of Providence. 

In conformity with these principles one sect recommended seclusion from all the cares of family or state. The other recommended an active part in all the concerns of our fellow creatures, and the steady exertion of a mind benevolent, courageous, and temperate. Here the sects essentially differed, not in words, as has sometimes been alleged, but in the views which they entertained of a plan for the conduct of human life. The Epicurean was a deserter from the cause of his fellow creatures and might justly be reckoned a traitor to the community of nature, of mankind, and even of his country.

The Stoic enlisted himself as a willing instrument in the hand of God for the good of his fellow creatures. For himself, the cares and attentions which this object required were his pleasures, and the continued exertion of a beneficent affection, his welfare and his prosperity.

Ferguson, Principles of Moral and Political Science

Such was the philosophy of the Stoics; — “a philosophy,” says Mr. Smith, “which affords the noblest lessons of magnanimity, is the best school of heroes and patriots; and to the greater part of whose precepts there can be no other objection but this honourable one, that they teach us to aim at a perfection altogether beyond the reach of human nature.” 

I cannot however help remarking, that this is by no means an objection to their system; for it is the business of the moralist to exhibit a standard far above the reach of our possible attainments. If he did otherwise, he must recommend errors and imperfections. Speaking of eloquence and the fine arts – and the observation holds equally with respect to every other pursuit – Quintilian says:

It has sometimes happened that great things have been accomplished by him who was striving at what was above his power.

Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria, ii.12

To the same purpose it is well said by Seneca:

It is the mark of a generous spirit to aim at what is lofty; to attempt what is arduous; and ever to keep in view what it is impossible for the most splendid talents to accomplish.

Seneca, De Vita Beata, c.20

The Stoics themselves were sensible of the weakness inseparable from humanity. Cicero, speaking the language of a Stoic, says:

Neither indeed, when the two Decii or the two Scipios are mentioned as brave men, nor when Aristides or Fabricius are denominated just, is an example of fortitude in the former, or of justice in the latter, proposed as exactly conformable to the precepts of wisdom. For none of them were wise in that sense in which we apply the epithet to the wise man. Nor were Cato and Laelius such, although they were honoured with the appellation. No, not even the seven wise men of Greece who have been so widely celebrated, although, from the habitual discharge of middle duties, (ex mediorum officiorum frequentid) all of them bore a certain similitude to the ideal character.

 Cicero, De Officiis, L.iii, c.4

Seneca also mentions it as a general confession of the greatest philosophers, that the doctrine they taught was not “quemadmodum ipsi viverent, sed quemadmodum vivendum est.” [“even as they themselves were living, but as I have to live”] [De Vita Beata, c.18] 

I know that I shall not be Milo, and yet I neglect not my body; nor Croesus, and yet I neglect not my estate; nor in general do we desist from the proper care of anything through despair of arriving at what is supreme.

Epictetus, Discourses, L.i, c.2

In the writings indeed of some of the Stoics, we meet with some absurd and violent paradoxes about the perfect felicity of the wise man on the one hand, and the equality of misery among all those who fall short of this ideal character on the other.

As all the actions of the wise man were perfect, so all those of the man who had not arrived at this supreme wisdom were faulty and equally faulty. As one truth could not be more true, nor one falsehood more false than another, so an honourable action could not be more honourable, nor a shameful one more shameful than another. As in shooting at a mark, the man who had missed it by an inch had equally missed it with him who had done so by an hundred yards, so the man who, in what appears to us the most insignificant action, had acted improperly, and without a sufficient reason, was equally faulty with him who had done so in what appears to us the most important; the man who has killed a cock (for example) improperly, and without a sufficient reason, with him who had murdered his father. 

Mr Smith continues,

It is not, however, by any means probable that these paradoxes formed a part of the original principles of Stoicism, as taught by Zeno and Cleanthes. It is much more probable that they were added to it by their disciple, Chrysippus, whose genius seems to have been more fitted for systematizing the doctrines of his preceptors, and adorning them with the imposing appendages of artificial definitions and divisions, than for imbibing the sublime spirit which they breathed. Such a man may very easily be supposed to have understood too literally some animated and exaggerated expressions of his masters in describing the happiness of the man of perfect virtue, and the unhappiness of whoever fell short of that character.

That these paradoxes were not adopted by the most rational admirers of the Stoic philosophy we have complete evidence; for we find them treating expressly of those imperfect virtues which are attained by inferior proficients in wisdom, and which they did not dignify with the name of rectitudes, but distinguished by the epithets of properfit, and decent

Such virtues are called by Cicero officia, and by Seneca convenientia. They are treated of by Cicero in his Offices and are said to have been the subject of a book (now lost) by Marcus Brutus. 

This apology, however, it must be confessed, will not extend to all the errors of the Stoic school. In particular, it will not extend to the notions it included on the subject of suicide.  But for these errors, if it is impossible to apologize, we may at least account in some measure, by the peculiar circumstances of the times when this philosophy arose, and which infected with the same spirit, though perhaps not in an equal degree, the peaceable and indolent followers of Epicurus. Says Mr. Smith:

During the age in which flourished the founders of all the principal sects of ancient philosophy — during the Peloponnesian war, and for many ages after its conclusion — all the different republics of Greece were at home almost always distracted by the most furious factions, and abroad involved in the most sanguinary wars, in which each sought not merely superiority or dominion, but either completely to extirpate all its enemies, or, what was not less cruel, to reduce them into the vilest of all states — that of domestic slavery. The smallness of the greater part of those states, too, rendered it to each of them no very improbable event, that it might itself fall into that very calamity which it had so frequently inflicted or attempted to inflict on its neighbours.

In this disorderly state of things the most perfect innocence, joined to the highest rank and the greatest services to the public, could give no security to any man, that even at home and among his fellow citizens, he was not, at some time or other, from the prevalence of some hostile and furious faction, to be condemned to the most cruel and ignominious punishment. If he was taken prisoner of war, or if the city of which he was a member was conquered, he was exposed, if possible, to still greater injuries.

As an American savage, therefore, prepares his death song, and considers how he should act when he has fallen into the hands of his enemies, and is by them put to death in the most lingering tortures, and amidst the insults and derisions of all the spectators, so a Grecian patriot or hero could not avoid frequently employing his thoughts in considering what he ought both to suffer and to do in banishment, in captivity, when reduced to slavery, when put to the torture, when brought to the scaffold. It was the business of their philosophers to prepare the death song which the Grecian patriots and heroes might make use of on the proper occasions; and of all the different sects it must, I think, be acknowledged, that the Stoics had prepared by far the most animated and spirited song.

Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments

After all, it is impossible to deny that there is some foundation for a censure which Lord Bacon has some where passed on this celebrated sect. “Certainly,” says he, “the Stoics bestowed too much cost on death, and by their preparations made it more fearful.” At least, I suspect this may be the tendency of some passages in their writings, in such a state of society as that in which we live; but in perusing them we ought always to remember the circumstances of those men to whom they were addressed, and which are so eloquently described in the observations just quoted from Mr. Smith. The practical reflection which Francis Bacon adds to this censure is invaluable and is strictly conformable to the spirit of the Stoic system, although he seems to state it by way of contrast to their principles. He says,

It is as natural to die as to be born; and to a little infant perhaps the one is as painful as the other. He that dies in an earnest pursuit is like one that is wounded in hot blood, who for a time scarce feels the hurt; and therefore, a mind fixed and bent upon somewhat that is good doth best avert the dolors of death

Bacon, Essays

Upon the whole, notwithstanding the imperfections of this system, and the paradoxes which disgrace it in some accounts of it that have descended to our times, it cannot be disputed, that its leading doctrines are agreeable to the purest principles of morality and religion. Indeed, they all terminate in one maxim: That we should not make the attainment of things external an ultimate object but place the business of life in doing our duty and leave the care of our happiness to him who made us. Nor does the whole merit of these doctrines consist in their purity. It is doing them no more than justice to say, that they were more completely systematic in all their parts, and more ingeniously, as well as eloquently, supported, than anything else that remains of ancient philosophy. 

I must not conclude these observations on the Stoic system, without taking notice of the practical effects it produced on the characters of many of its professors. It was the precepts of this school which rendered the supreme power in the hands of Marcus Aurelius a blessing to the human race; and which secured the private happiness and elevated the minds of Helvidius and Thrasea under a tyranny by which their country was oppressed. Nor must it be forgotten, that in the last struggles of Roman liberty, while the school of Epicurus produced Caesar, that of Zeno produced Cato and Brutus. The one sacrificed mankind to himself; the others sacrificed themselves to mankind. 

Hi mores, hsec duri immota Catonis 
Secta fuit, servare modum, finemque tenere, 
Naturamque sequi, patriaeque impendere vitam; 
Nec sibi, sed toti genitum se credere mundo. 

[This was the character and this the unswerving creed
of austere Cato: to observe moderation, to hold to the goal,
to follow nature, to devote his life to his country,
to believe that he was born not for himself but for all the world.]

Lucan, Pharsalia, Lib. ii. 1. 380

The sentiment of President Montesquieu on this subject is well known.

Never, were any principles more worthy of human nature, and more proper to form the good citizen, than those of the Stoics; and if I could for a moment cease to recollect that I am a Christian, I should not be able to hinder myself from ranking the destruction of the sect of Zeno among the misfortunes that have befallen the human race.

A Stoic for All Seasons Series: Seneca Falls by Kevin Vost

“[Philosophy] tells all other occupations: ‘It’s not my intention to accept whatever time is left over from you; you shall have instead, what I reject.’” -Seneca’s Letters to Lucilius, # 53

Lest this subtitle prove deceptive, note well this essay has nothing to do with a Native American nation or a city in New York, and even less with waters cascading over cliffs.  Rather, it represents an invitation to spend your falls, or at least part of this one, in the company of the prolific Stoic philosopher,  Lucius Anneaus Seneca (c. 4 BC – 65 AD).

In my youth, I associated the fall season with a renewed interest and focus on cultivating both mind and body. As a student, it was time to get back to the classrooms, and as a weightlifter, it was time to move from the lighter, faster-paced slimming exercises of summer to the heavy duty growth-spurring barbell heaving of autumn.  While still in my college student days, I discovered in Seneca a thinker who inspired me greatly for building both body and mind. I’ve written about the body part in a previous post, Show Me Your Shoulders: The Stoic Workout. Here, I’ll zoom in on the mind.

I am also using fall metaphorically to refer to the middle season of life as we prepare for our twilight years. Fifteen years ago, at age 43, a line from Seneca’s essay On the Shortness of Life had a profound impact on me: “Nihil minus est hominis occupati quam vivere.” (“There is nothing the busy man is less busied with than living.”) It convinced me to scale back from a heavy schedule or full-time employment and part-time college teaching.  Within a year of taking additional time for the leisurely study of philosophy I’d write the first of twenty books.

Moving back in time and place to ancient Rome, due to the cruel jealously of Nero, whom Seneca had advised in his first years as emperor, Seneca never made it past the late fall or perhaps early winter of his own life, being ordered to commit suicide before the age of 70.  Still, he wrote poignantly about the advancing years of life in his Letters to Lucilius, as a delightful excerpt will soon show.

The remainder of this article will consist of slightly adapted material from my chapters on Seneca in The Porch and the Cross.  I will start with some of our sliver-tongued Stoic stylist’s musings on the autumn of his own life, and then flesh things out with my summaries of several excerpts from his Letters of Lucilius on the value and beauty of a life guided by philosophy.  All direct quotations come from the Loeb Classical Library edition of Seneca’s Epistles.

 So, I invite you to set Vivaldi’s Autumn playing quietly in the background and spend a bit of this chilly fall with Seneca’s ever warm wisdom.

Seneca on the Autumn of Life

In Letter 12, Seneca tells his friend Lucilius the signs he sees of his own advancing age. He visits his old country estate and finds the old house in a state of dilapidation. This is the house that grew under his own hands, and yet stones of his age are crumbling to pieces! He scolds the caretaker for the state of a row of trees that are gnarled and shriveled and bear no leaves. He tells them they need to have the ground under them loosened and they need to be watered. The caretaker tells him he has done all that, but to not avail, because the trees are simply old. (Seneca lets us in on his secret that he himself had planted those trees!) He then asks the caretaker about the identity of a rickety old slave who comes into view, a man who looks like he’s knocking at death’s door.

The old man himself replies to Seneca: “Don’t you know me, sir? I am Felicio; you used to bring me little images. My father was Philositus the steward, and I am your pet slave.” Seneca says the man is crazy, or has become a boy again, since his teeth are falling out (but he knows that the slave tells the truth!)  

Seneca muses that the old country homestead of his youth revealed to him his age wherever he turned, but he is not despondent. Rather, he urges us to love and to cherish our advancing years. 

Fruits are most welcome when almost over; youth is most charming at its close; the last drink delights the toper, – the glass which souses him and puts the finishing touch on his drunkenness. Each pleasure reserves to the end the greatest delights which it contains. Life is most delightful when it is on the downward slope, but has not yet reached the decline…How comforting it is to have tired out one’s appetites, and to have done with them!

Let’s move on now to see what lessons this second “lame old man” (referencing Epictetus’s self-description) can teach us to make the most of our own years, whether we are still on the upward slope, or have started to slide down the other side!

Letter 16:  How Philosophy Builds the Soul

Here we find a brief paean to philosophy as a guide to life and happiness. Seneca assures Lucilius that no one can lead a happy life without philosophy and even those just beginning in the pursuit of wisdom will find life much more bearable. He advises his friend to continue daily reflection and reminds him that keeping noble resolutions is more important than making them.  By daily perseverance, his studies will soon become an entrenched habit.

Philosophy is not something for which one should seek attention or amusement.  Philosophy is not a matter of words, but of facts. It moulds and constructs the soul; it orders one’s life, guides one’s actions, shows us what we should do and also what we shouldn’t. Philosophy sits at the helm and guides our course through life. Some might ask how philosophy is of any use if Fate exists, if God rules the universe, or if all things are a matter of Chance. Seneca answers that philosophy still prevails. “She will encourage us to obey God cheerfully, but Fortune defiantly; she will teach us to follow God and endure Chance.” Therefore, Seneca exhorts his friend not to allow his spiritual impulse for wisdom to grow weak or cold, but to establish it solidly so that what is now an impulse will become a firm habit of mind.

He ends again with an exhortation to drop all desire for externals and luxuries. Natural desires are limited, but those that spring from false impressions never satisfy and have no limits at all.

Letter 20:  Philosophy not Spoken, but Lived

Philosophy seeks not to make speeches and entertain crowds with high-sounding word play. Philosophy teaches us how to act, not how to talk about acting. It teaches every man that his deeds must match his words and that his inner life and outer life must always be in harmony. Philosophers, in other words, must walk their talk and practice what they preach. This is no easy task and is achieved only through rigorous self-examination.

Observe yourself, says, Seneca. Is your manner of clothing and housing consistent with your philosophy? Are you generous toward yourself and stingy with your family? Do you eat frugal meals, but build a massive, ostentatious house? You should regulate yourself by one and the same norm in all your affairs. You should not be like those who control themselves at home, but then strut about in public. “What is wisdom? Always desiring the same things, and always refusing the same things.”  It goes without saying that what you wish should be right, because if it was not right, it could not always satisfy.

Seneca also recommends a practical exercise to Lucilius to train him in desiring only what is right and in accordance with nature. He says it is not necessary for the philosopher to renounce all his possessions, but it is a good thing to practice voluntary poverty and simplicity at times for a few days, preparing oneself and rehearsing as it were, should true poverty befall one. Indeed, he says it can be a pleasant experience that provides a sense of freedom from the care for unneeded things. This can rouse the soul from its sleep and remind it that nature’s true needs are very few. Seneca ends with a picturesque and humorous description of the way that we all get our start in the world: “No man is born rich. Every man, when he first sees light, is commanded to be content with milk and rags. Such is our beginning, and yet kingdoms are all too small for us! Farewell.”

Letter 23:  The Joys of the Philosophic Life

Seneca assures Lucilius he is not going to write to him about the weather or other trivial matters people write about when they don’t know what to say. No, he will write about the foundation, or rather the pinnacle, of a sound mind, which is not to find joy in useless things or to make our happiness dependent upon externals outside our control.  Indeed, he will exhort his dear friend to set as his goal to learn how to experience the true joy that comes when one frees one’s self from both the hope of external goods and from the fear of things like poverty or death.  “The very soul must be happy and confident, lifted above every circumstance.” This is the promise of philosophy and it is fulfilled when one rejoices only in what comes from the best within oneself.

And what is truly best? Real good “comes from a good conscience, from honourable purposes, from right actions, from contempt of the gifts of chance, from an even and calm way of living which treads but one path.”  It is only a few who control themselves and their actions by a guiding purpose while the rest are swept along aimlessly by the river of life, some through sluggish waters, and others in violent currents.

Seneca concludes with two related sayings of Epicurus that address the same theme addressed in Letter 13, that of the foolishness of always getting ready to begin to live life. Seneca says a man cannot be prepared to face death if he is just starting to live. We must strive rather to live as though we have already lived long enough by always living in harmony with our guiding purpose.

Letter 31:  Goals Worth the Sweat

Seneca tells Lucilius that he recognizes him now! He sees that he is progressing in philosophy, striving for what is best and trampling under his feet the petty things of which the crowd approves. There is only one good, he reminds him, that cause and support of a happy life is to trust in oneself. This requires that one recognize that busyness, work, and toil are not true goods in and of themselves when they do not serve a noble purpose. One makes oneself happy through one’s own efforts when one’s efforts are blended with virtue. Whatever is blended with virtue is good and whatever is joined to vice is evil. Good is the knowledge of things and evil is the lack of such knowledge.  When a good, noble goal has been identified, a good man will not fear the sweat involved in attaining it, even if it entails an arduous struggle uphill. The knowledge of good and evil in things human and divine will also lead to an even temperament and to a consistent, harmonious life. 

And how is such a goal attained? Nature has provided you with all the necessary tools to rise to the level of God. Your money won’t do that, since God has no property. Your fancy clothes won’t do it either, for God has no wardrobe, nor will your fame and recognition, for no one truly knows God, and many do not honor him. Beauty and strength are useless here as well. They cannot hold up in old age. What we must seek is not things outside our control, governed by Fortune or Chance, but rather we must seek the goods of the human soul. “What else could you call such a soul than a god dwelling as a guest in the human body?”  Such a soul may dwell in a stately Roman knight, but just as well in a slave. Indeed, one may arise from the very slums and shape oneself into kinship with God. This likeness of God cannot be cast in gold or silver, but is molded within our souls.

Letter 39:  On Cultivating Greatness of Soul (& the Dangers of Failing to Do So)

The most noble element within the human soul is its capacity to be roused to seek out honorable things. No man of great talents is pleased with things mean and petty. The vision of great things calls to him and inspires him. Our souls are like flames, always flickering in motion, and the more ardently a soul burns, the greater is its activity. Happy is the man whose soul burns for better things! This man will disregard the things of chance, will control the level of his prosperity, will diminish adversity, and despise the petty things that others admire. The great soul will scorn things commonly seen as great, and will prefer the ordinary when the ordinary is truly useful and the great is truly excessive.

Like a branch that is broken by too heavy a load of fruit is the soul that is ruined by unlimited prosperity and pleasure. Men who yield to excess lusts always suffer in the end. They become unable to live without their vicious pleasures, so that what was once excessive and superfluous is now indispensable to them. They come to love their own vices. They attain the peak of unhappiness when they are not only drawn to, but are pleased and contented by shameful things. At this point they become beyond cure, for their vices have become habitual.

Letter 53:  Philosophical Invincibility

Here Seneca provides another paean to philosophy, and an exhortation to pursue it above all else. Seneca starts his letter with a rather drawn out account of a recent bout of seasickness he experienced on a journey. It had become so bad that when he persuaded the captain to come close to the shore he jumped out into the cold waters in his wooly clothing and crawled over rocks onto the shores. He quips he has concluded that Ulysses himself (Odysseus of Homer’s Odyssey) kept getting stranded on islands not because of Neptune’s (Poseidon’s) ill will, but because of his own seasickness!

The moral of this little story was to show that while physical ailments have a tendency to make themselves known to us with unmistakable force and gusto, when it comes to ailments of the soul, the worse shape one’s soul is in, the less one is aware of it. He compares it to sleep. A person sleeping lightly may experience dreams and even realize that he is asleep and dreaming, while a person in heavy slumber has descended too deep for dreams or for consciousness of the self. A person who does not admit his spiritual failings is still plunged deeply in them. A person can only remember his dreams when he wakes up, as recognizing one’s faults is a sign of health. And what can wake a person up? Philosophy.

Only philosophy can rouse us from the slumbers that blind us to our faults. Seneca implores Lucilius to devote himself entirely to “her.” A sick person will devote his entire time to recovery before he carries out his normal business affairs. So too should we give precedence to the pursuit of wisdom and focus more on curing our souls than on any other business. Philosophy is a demanding mistress. She doesn’t want our odd moments, but demands our attention full-time. Philosophy “tells all other occupations: ‘It’s not my intention to accept whatever time is left over from you; you shall have instead, what I reject.’”

 Seneca bids to give all of one’s time to philosophy, to sit by her side and court her, giving her one’s own mind, and thus advancing oneself beyond other men, “not far behind the gods themselves.”  Indeed, Seneca declares that in a sense a wise man surpasses even a god, since a god is fearless by nature, while a wise man has earned his own fearlessness, achieving despite his human weakness, the serenity of a god.

Seneca ends this letter as follows:

 Philosophy’s power to blunt all the blows of circumstances is beyond belief. Never a single missile lodges in her; she has strong, impenetrable defenses; some blows she breaks the force of, parrying them with the slack of her gown as if they were trivial, others she flings off and hurls back at the sender.

I suggest we heed his wise words and use this fall to strive our way towards such philosophical invincibility to steel ourselves for this season of winter and for the winters of our own lives, if we should live so long.

Kevin Vost is the author of twenty books on psychology, philosophy, theology, and physical fitness, has taught psychology and gerontology at Aquinas College in Nashville, Tennessee and the University of Illinois at Springfield.

The Unaspiring Stoic by Alison McCone

“It’s like weaving: the weaver does not make the wool, he makes the best use of the wool he’s been given.”  Epictetus

A few years ago, during Stoic Week I was presented with a wonderful gift. The invitation to contribute to the Stoicism Today blog by writing about my experiences of Stoic philosophy. Under my veil of ignorance and cloak of innocence I had wandered into a world of classical beauty and academic prowess. The editor of the blog at that time, Patrick Ussher (a founder member of the Stoicism Today project) published my article despite its lack of university style composition and referencing standards. I hoped it would reach the people outside academia who found refuge in Stoicism as therapy for wellbeing.

My words were attached to a great institution of learning, the University of Exeter, where Stoicism Today (now known as Modern Stoicism) was born. I have since had the opportunity of visiting this beautiful birthplace, navigating the campus down paths and up hills whilst vainly attempting to reach the summit of Cardiac Hill without panting! The Stoicism Today blog was special and some of us were avid followers and contributors, spurring each other on to grow into Stoic skins so we could become more resilient. Some readers were enduring chronic suffering of varying degrees, but it was all equal in relevance to the bearers. Pain as we all know too well is impossible to measure. The gratitude I felt then towards the Stoicism Today/Modern Stoicism collective was also immeasurable. My meanderings and reflections seemed to strike a chord with others in the universe as we danced and wrestled with life’s challenges. Not only was my battered self-esteem replenished, my dwindling faith in human nature was gradually restored.

To say I was smitten by Stoicism is an understatement. I named my car “Marcus” and Epictetus’s Enchiridion was tucked in the door pocket leaving no room for a map. My studies in Viktor Frankl’s Logotherapy blended perfectly with Stoicism like a match made in heaven. Despite being brought up with religion in the air, the supply in later years was not great enough to sustain my complete belief in a supreme being.

I risk being tried for anti-Franklian ideation, but I firmly believe Logotherapy is more accessible and comprehendible to those who have faith in a higher power. Like on the 12-step programme rolled out to those suffering from addiction it is sometimes the case that God doesn’t show up centre stage when you most need him. Modern Stoicism opens its doors to theists and non-theists, unlike in ancient times when it seems glaringly obvious that the Stoics believed in a God or Gods. I have always leaned towards thinking that God, or something akin to goodness or love, is everywhere – both within us and in the universe around us like a force. This fits well with the Stoic view that we are all one and connected with nature.

This attachment to the natural world around is complemented by the most important thing in life for a Stoic – to be a person of virtue irrespective of the situation you may find yourself in. Was I good enough?, I wondered. We’ve all done things we are ashamed of. Could I balance the scales so that goodness outweighed badness and hence equalled virtuous? Soul-searching doesn’t come near to describing how much introspection and self-monitoring I engaged in. At times those unfortunates around me who had to endure my relentless crusade thought I had completely lost the plot. I had to dig deep as an aspiring Stoic, clearing beds that had become overgrown with weeds of self-doubt and uninvited shame. Getting to know thyself instead of safely remaining with the selves one has created on the journey to fifty-something requires a great deal of one of Stoicism’s virtues, courage.

Thankfully I had help from Viktor Frankl who believed all humans are drawn towards finding meaning in life. He had identified this characteristic in humans long before he had to draw on every ounce of courage to endure the horror of his incarceration in concentration camps. His wisdom (another Stoic virtue) was not only evidence based, as a result of treating patients with suicidal tendencies, it was empirical due to his experiences in those camps of deprivation where many people became dehumanized.

The journey continued with the help of Donald Robertson’s Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training Course. By searching within myself to find Stoic goodness in the form of virtue I was able to believe in me. Logotherapy helped to re-establish my innate need for meaning and I renewed my faith in people. As a sensitive and easily hurt person I had spent far too long building fortified walls of self-protection and had become locked in a prison of my own construction. I had to take action, just like the Stoics recommend and Massimo Pigliucci provided much guidance in How To Be A Stoic.

Thank goodness Stoicism is a philosophy that can be applied. Good can come from just sitting around philosophizing over a glass or two of wine in Greece but Stoicism comes into its own when practised. Pick up that Stoic fork and stop worrying about what you’re not doing! Moreover, pay no heed to what you think others should be doing! That is their business and I should be minding my own. For the first time in years instead of doing it my way I had to surrender control. What a shock to the system that was! Mrs. Fixit had to go on a long holiday. Viktor Frankl’s voice was telling me “use the defiant nature of the human spirit”!

Instead of cracking up, I cracked open. I had never before realized how much freedom one can gain from taking a stand against oneself. I hadn’t been born again, but my perspective had changed. I could view things differently. Philosophy of any sort is a great tool if put to proper use. Logic can help the psyche to become more rational as it reasons its way in and out of life’s conundrums. Stoic philosophy has helped me to understand and accept my emotions. I got it all wrong at first. Ignorance caused me to falsely believe that Stoics shouldn’t feel emotions deeply.

I thought I should fight them off like Marcus Aurelius fought off adversity in battle. I believed I could armour myself in preparation for any blow of fate. But no, it is better to go with the movement, feel the sway as you enter choppily affected waters, until you feel calm enough to be your most reasonable self. When you are grounded you can make decisions and intentions to move forward. Temperance, one of the other Stoic virtues, springs to mind and can be interpreted as self-regulation in this instance. Wisdom will come to you more easily when you are on an even keel.

Justice, the fourth of the Stoic virtues, is probably the one I struggled with most of all. We don’t live in a just world and there is far too much unnecessary suffering and hurt all around. In the early days I sometimes thought why can’t everyone be logical and rational by adopting the Stoic approach to life? As so humorously highlighted by Tim LeBon at Stoicon 2018, Basil Fawlty beating up his broken-down car with a branch is the antithesis of Stoic behaviour. Why doesn’t he ask Seneca for help to manage his anger? The Basils of this world may benefit from some intervention, but they are free agents capable of making their own choices.

Stoicism is not for everyone. A true Stoic would not attempt to badger or coerce. They would keep their own house in order and want only the very best life for their fellow citizens in the universe. Perhaps the ancient Stoics were a bit imperious, condescending and esoteric. Move over and make way for the modern Stoics who are informed, empathic and ethical beings.

Stoic Week is a wonderful opportunity to begin or rekindle a relationship with this effective approach to living a good life. I shall relish the chance to renew my friendship. I gave up aspiring to be a Stoic and instead take a more measured and gentle approach. Too much self-monitoring and consistent character improvement can be overwhelming for anxious and obsessive beings to control and manage. However, I continually employ Stoic exercises to help me navigate through life and I shall never break the connection I have with this rich philosophy. I am a free spirit who thankfully found my way home after losing my way. My freedom to be in this world is my meaning. To wake up every day and have the ability to love. What more can one wish for? Now, time to get back to my latest read…… ‘Stoicism’ by John Sellars.

“Philosophy tells us that when we mingle the human and the divine in law and justice, we are destined by nature to gain perfection and be regulated and blessed by the same law and justice as the divine. Because our behaviour will be formed by correct doctrine, we will live happily. We will also bring our life to a happy end, like the people who gracefully play a role in a well-written drama.” – Musonius Rufus

“To dance is to live.” – Snoopy

Alison McCone is currently a student, planning to graduate next May with a BA in Philosophy and Psychological Studies, and hoping to go on to a Masters in Philosophy. She is currently writing a Logotherapy thesis devoted to her husband and two sons, family, and friends. She uses resources from Logotheraphy to help others whenever she is needed.

The Stoic – October 2019

THE STOIC is a free monthly online publication of The Stoic Gym. The Modern Stoicism organization is partnering with the Stoic Gym (and if you look at the teams for both, you’ll see a good bit of overlap in membership).

If you’d like to check it out, or to subscribe, you can click here.

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The October issue of THE STOIC magazine is a special Stoicon issue and has an informative pictorial on the origin and development of modern Stoicism.

OCTOBER 2019 ISSUE CONTENTS

  • THE STOIC ATLAS. Exeter to Athens: Great moments in modern Stoicism: A pictorial
  • SHARON LEBELL. Everyday effort: Walking the walk
  • JONAS SALZGEBER. Everyday equanimity: Playing the game
  • LIZ GLOYN. Living with mortality
  • DONALD ROBERTSON. Everyday living: Going beyond a child’s curiosity
  • MEREDITH KUNZ. Everyday decisions: Seeking the truth
  • KAI WHITING. Everyday lessons: American football fans and the dichotomy of control
  • ELIZABETH AZIDE. Everyday acceptance: Key to thriving
  • FLORA BERNARD. Everyday changes: Nothing happens right away
  • CHUCK CHAKRAPANI. Why outcomes are always dichotomous

The View from Above: A Transformation of Perspectival and Participatory Knowing by John Vervaeke

Each year, the Modern Stoicism organization organizes the main Stoicon conference, and helps to promote local Stoicon-X events. Over the last several years, we have developed a tradition here at Stoicism Today of publishing as many of the talks and workshops from Stoicon and Stoicon-Xs as blog posts, in order to allow our readership who were unable to attend these conferences the benefit of those speakers’ expertise. We’re happy to start off this year’s sequence of posts with an excellent talk from Stoicon-X Toronto, provided by Professor John Vervaeke, which follows below – Greg Sadler, editor, Stoicism Today

I want to talk to you about a particular exercise. I’ll briefly describe it, and I’ll be doing a lot of the theory and some of the cognitive science. What I’m particularly interested in is how this exercise contributes to rationality, but I’m going to have to try to broaden your notion of what rationality is as that is part of the project. The view from above is the imaginative exercise where you imagine rising above the Earth and seeing it from extended elevations. You can also extend it in time and into a broader historical scope. Imagine that you have been alive for a thousand years as opposed to (for me) 56. One of the things you can immediately think about is that this action, this spiritual exercise of imaginatively rising above the Earth in this way and getting a view from above, is opening up that space between impression and response.

Here’s what I want to do. I want to reverse engineer the exercise with you. That’s what I do as a cognitive scientist. I try to figure out cognition by reverse engineering it. What does that mean? Find a problem that your cognition needs to solve and then try to engineer what a solution would look like and then figure out if your cognition is approximating that solution. That’s what it is to reverse engineer. That’s how we’re going about making the terrifying artificial intelligence that is soon going to make all of us completely irrelevant. A bit of a joke.

So what I want to do is set the problem with you. As I’m setting the problem, I’m going to try to introduce the ideas to you that in order to broaden the notion of rationality, we need to broaden the kinds of knowing we’re going to talk about. We’re very familiar with propositional knowing but I want to talk about procedural and especially perspectival and participatory knowing. You don’t know what that means right now, and that’s why I’m here. I want to talk about a kind of rationality that Agnes Callard calls proleptic rationality and how it’s actually instantiated in the view from above as a practice. Then I want to talk to you about the cognitive science of the view from above.

What’s cognitive science saying about this practice? It’s actually telling us a lot about what it’s doing to our cognition and our consciousness. Then I want to confront a problem because the view from above can look an awful lot like “the view from nowhere” that Thomas Nagel famously talked about. The thing about the “view from nowhere” is it provokes cosmic absurdity and a sense of meaninglessness which is going to take away any joy in life away from you. So how do we make sure the view from above doesn’t become the “view from nowhere”? I’m going to try and propose a solution to that making use of some ideas from Spinoza and some current philosophy.

Stoicism is trying to bring about a radical transformation. You are trying to get into perhaps a new mode of being (that’s how Erich Fromm thought about it when he talked about the “having mode” and the “being mode”), as you’re trying to get into a new way of life. That’s the way Pierre Hadot famously talked about Stoicism. It’s not just about changing your beliefs, this is a much more comprehensive transformation that is being pointed to because we’re trying to change who we are, the lives we are living and the kind of arena in which we are performing our actions. This is what’s known as qualitative development. That is a term taken from psychology, from the founder of Developmental Psychology, because we’re talking about development here.

We’re talking about changing ourselves, transforming ourselves.Piaget distinguished between two kinds of change. Quantitative changes are when I just get more, I acquire more knowledge and more information. But there’s qualitative change. Qualitative change is not changing how much you know, it’s changing what you’re capable of knowing. Those are two different things. Let me give you an example. You have a five-year-old child and that child is just a sponge (I’ve raised two sons and like I know what this is like). That’s quantitative development because although they can take in tons of information, they will fall prey to a bunch of errors repeatedly. They lack a certain confidence. So, you can do this with them (although it must be horrible growing up with a dad as a cognitive scientist, right?) You can count out five candies space them like this:

O  O  O  O  O

The four-year-old can count and they know that 6 is more than 5 and 5 is more than 4. You then count out and place 5 more candies like this:

O      O      O      O      O

You ask them which row of candies they would like? They all reliably pick the bottom row. Now how many of you would fall prey to that? Because I’ve got some investments for you! You don’t fall prey for that, but they all systematically do, because they are over fixated on one feature. It is super salient as they are fixated on the space taken up by the candies. They don’t pay attention to another variable which is how much of that space is candy space, which presumably you do.

So, they have to go through a qualitative development. They have to acquire a new ability, an ability to manage multiple variables in concert with each other. That’s a change not just in what you know, it’s a change in your competence. It’s a change in what you’re capable of knowing what problems you’re capable of solving.

So Stoicism, I recommend to you, is pushing for such a change in competence. Now an interesting thing about exactly that model of qualitative change is it is the center of an important article written in 1999 by McKee and Barber. McKee and Barber did something very important. They canvassed all the philosophical theories of wisdom then they canvassed all the emerging psychological theories of wisdom. McKee and Barber canvased both of these and they made a convergence argument: what is the central feature that all of these different theories presuppose at the core of wisdom? What it is, is seeing through illusion.

Now, I and Leo Ferraro in 2013 argued that’s a little bit elliptical because real and illusory are comparative terms. You only know something’s illusory in comparison to something that’s more real. So, we broadened it to be seeing through illusion and into reality. Now that’s really important because what they’re talking about here is a comprehensive kind of insight.

What do I mean by comprehensive? Let’s go back to the example of the child. The child isn’t only making a conservation area with error for counting candies. They’ll make a whole family of related errors. That’s what it is to be in a particular stage. So you’ve all had an insight experience. You realize “aha!, I’ve misframed the problem” and you have that “aha!” experience. Notice what the child has to do though. The child can’t just have a single “aha!” here in this problem. The child has to figure out that there’s a whole family of related problems and have a systematic comprehensive insight. That’s why you don’t fall prey to any of these illusions anymore. You’ve had a very systematic comprehensive insight. That’s what it is to see through illusion and into reality, to have a fundamental change so that you gain a competence so that you can now see through a whole family of problems. Your way of seeing doesn’t get distorted.

You might say those are little kids and I’m an adult. Well, first of all, let me remind you of one of Hadot’s formulations of wisdom. In fact, it was shared by all the great schools of antiquity including Stoicism.  “As the child is to the adult, the adult is to the sage”.  Just like you have gone through qualitative development so that you don’t fall prey to the illusions of a child, you as an adult need to go through huge qualitative development to become like a sage and not fall prey to the kinds of systemic Illusions we fall prey to. What are examples of these? Well, this is something I study. I study illusion under the idea of self-deception. Self-deception is the fact that the very machinery that makes us adaptive for solving problems in the world is the same machinery that makes us self-deceptive. Why? Well, you can’t pay attention to all the information available to you. You can’t consider all the options when you’re considering a course of action. You cannot calculate all the probabilities. Even our most powerful computers can’t do that. So what do you have to do? You have to bias your attention to what is salient and relevant to you. In fact, that’s what makes you intelligent. I’ve argued and published that that’s the core ability that makes you intelligent, your ability to zero in on relevant information.

Here’s the problem: that very ability to zero in on relevant information that makes you so adaptive also biases your attention in a maladaptive way. Here’s an example. You can’t check all the evidence, so you tend to check the evidence that’s relevant to you. Relevant to you tends to be serving your interests. So, you know what you tend to look for? Evidence that only confirms your beliefs or what you want to be true. This is called the confirmation bias and what our society has wonderfully done is taken this confirmation bias and put it on methamphetamine in the form of social media.

So, you have many of these kinds of biases, so do I am not free from this. We’re constantly mis-framing our experience and that mis-framing is self-serving in a powerful way. Now I want to use this to introduce to you something that we therefore need to pay attention to. If rationality is going to be fundamentally about affording this transformation, it’s going to require systematic abilities to overcome self-deception. But that means we need to pay attention to how we’re framing and how things are self-serving and relevant to us.

Now this means we get into two aspects of our knowing that we don’t typically pay very much attention to which I study a lot as a cognitive scientist and cognitive psychologist. So you’re all aware of propositional knowing. Propositional knowing is to know that something is the case and it’s about asserting a proposition. A cat is a mammal – that’s a proposition, and what I get from propositional knowing is beliefs. Our culture is just addicted to beliefs. We think of truth as some correspondence between the semantic content of the proposition and the world.

But your knowing that something is the case is dependent on knowing how to do things, knowing how to select what’s relevant, knowing how to pay attention, knowing how to ignore what’s irrelevant, knowing how to apply this rule how not to apply that. What does it mean to be kind? It means one thing with my younger son Spencer, another thing with my wonderful partner Sara, another thing with my students, another thing with a stranger. If I treat them all the same that’s a disaster. All of your propositions depend on your procedural knowing you’re knowing how to do things. Knowing how is not in beliefs but in skills.

If you’re going to cultivate a skill you need to have what you have right here, right now. You need to have a situational awareness, what’s going on here and now. This is your perspectival knowing, knowing what it’s like to be here right now. It’s to have a salience landscape. I’m standing out for you. You left big toe was not very salient to you, until I said that. That which is salient and standing out and what you’re focusing on is relevant and what you’re ignoring is irrelevant. That’s all happening in a highly textured, dynamic fashion right now. This perspectival knowing really matters because we’re having to study it when people are going into virtual reality because it only feels real when things are present to them, when that perspectival landscaping is working properly. It really matters, for example, when you’re doing work like remote scientific work on Mars with rovers. So, this perspectival knowing is ultimately is dependent on your participatory knowing. All the time, and Stoicism really gets at the heart of this, you are doing this in a coordinated fashion. You’re assuming an identity and assigning identities. I am the lecturer you are the audience. There’s an agent-arena relationship that is constantly going on in the basement, the foundations of your cognition. This process of co-identification, that’s your participatory knowing. Who am I? Who are you? What is that? All of these questions are co-defining. For example, this glass is graspable to me but the fact that is graspable is not a property of it. It’s not graspable by a snail. It’s not a feature just of my hand, it’s how my hand and the glass co-identify and fit together that makes me aware of it in a situational awareness, and then I can cultivate skills of how to use it. Once I can use it, then I can make propositions about it.

We tend to stick at the level of our propositions, and exercises like the view from above are designed to drive you down into these deeper levels of knowing. The perspectival and the participatory knowing, where the guts of your identity and the texture of your world is being shaped and made on a moment-to-moment basis. You’re doing it right now.

So, we’re trying to bring about a fundamental transformation at that level. What’s the problem then? Well, here’s the problem: transformation doesn’t make any sense, at least initially and philosophically. So here I’m going to draw a convergence argument from three really important thinkers: L.A. Paul and her book entitled “Transformative Experience” from 2014, Jerry Fodor, a founding figure of cognitive science from 1980 and his work on fixation of belief and conceptual analysis and Agnes Callard and her book entitled “Aspiration: the Agency of Becoming” from 2018.

L.A. Paul starts with a thought experiment to get you aware of the issue, designed to be outlandish so it will trigger your intuitions appropriately. Your friends come to you and they give you incontrovertible evidence that they can reliably, without fail, turn you into a vampire. Should you do it? How would you decide? Here’s the problem. I don’t know what the perspective of a vampire is until I become one. I don’t know what it’s going to be like to have the salience landscape of a vampire.

I don’t know what kind of self I’m going to be, because once I become a vampire, my preferences and my values will all change. So I am completely ignorant prospectively and participatory. The only way I can get that perspectival and participatory knowing is if I go through the change, but it’s an irreversible change. What do I do? Well, I don’t do it. Here’s the problem. The ignorance is symmetrical. If I don’t do it, I don’t know what I’m missing. I have all kinds of propositions about vampires, but I’ve just shown you propositional knowledge isn’t the same thing as perspectival and participatory knowledge. I don’t know what it’s going to be like to be a vampire. But if I do do it, I don’t know what I’m going to lose. So what do I do? So, you say that’s ridiculous, I don’t care about being a vampire. Well, L.A. Paul is a philosopher, so she says you face these decisions all the time. Here’s one: have a child. I’ve been through it. You don’t know what you’re losing until you get there, but you don’t know what you’re missing if you never have a child.

Here’s another one: fall in love with this person. You’re going to be a different person, living in a different world with different perspectival and different participatory knowing. Should you do it? You don’t know what you’re missing, and you don’t know what you’re going to lose. The key point that L.A. Paul makes is that you can’t infer your way through this because you don’t know the probabilities and you don’t have a stable set of values. Our standard model of how we make decisions is to weigh the probabilities and assign the values, but it doesn’t apply because we don’t know the probabilities because we’re deeply ignorant and we know that the values are not stable across the transformation. So, you can’t infer your way through it. You can’t use propositional inference to navigate your way through this. Now that tells us something because the word rationality has been invoked a lot but has been reduced to propositional argumentation. That’s a fundamental mistake because if that’s all rationality is, it doesn’t touch perspectival and participatory knowing and it doesn’t help you go through transformation.

Jerry Fodor gives a similar argument. He thought that all of cognition is computation, just inferentially manipulating propositions and altering beliefs, that that’s all it is to think. Then he famously said if we take Piaget at his word people are going through a change in competence. What does that mean? Well, that means a change from a weaker logic to a stronger logic. That’s what it is. If I’m changing my competence in all I am is computational, I have to be making a stronger logic from a weaker logic. But you know what you can’t do? You can’t infer a stronger logic from a weaker logic. I can’t do that because I have to step outside my axioms and my functions and introduce new axioms and functions. So he came to this bizarre conclusion. He said therefore Piaget’s wrong, there’s no such thing as development and it’s all innate from the beginning. Everything a child is capable of doing they have there from the beginning, which seems ridiculous. But you can turn it around, it’s a modus tollens. The way of getting out of that ridiculousness is to say that’s because most of your cognition, contrary to what we believe, is not computational in nature. I say this because we have machines that can do exactly what Fodor said we couldn’t do. They are neural networks that use dynamical systems and use self-organization to get you through this change.

So, how can you be rational – how can you aspire to rationality – if rationality can’t make use of reasoning? That takes me to a final note by Agnes Callard. In her book she talks about this process where you genuinely undertake the goal of acquiring a value. Notice how a value combines your skill, what you would find salient and a change in your identity, procedural perspectival and propositional knowing. She gives the example of somebody who does not currently like classical music, but they want to like classical music. Now what can motivate them? Not a love of classical music because you know what they don’t have right now? A love of classical music. So,  what do they do? Well, they take a music appreciation class and they go through these exercises that are designed to transform them. Notice what this word appreciation brings with it. It brings with it the notion almost of a sensibility transformation, transforming your salience landscape, what you find salient what you find relevant. But also transforming your identity, who and what you are. Appreciation also carries with it a change in your understanding.

The difference between understanding and knowing is that to know is to be able to assert a proposition with evidence. Understanding is to grasp its significance or relevance.

Now why is all this important to Callard? Well, she says, notice what we have to say here. People are going through these processes of gaining an appreciation and transforming themselves and they can’t infer their way through it for all the reasons I’ve already articulated. So what do they do? Well they are doing all these practices and they’re sort of playing with their salience landscape and playing with their identity. Now if we say because that’s not an argumentative process it’s not rational, we’re in deep trouble. Because one of the things I’m doing as a Stoic is aspiring to be more rational. If the process of aspiration is itself not a rational process because it’s not an argumentative process, then I can’t justify cultivating rationality to you. If the process of aspiration is not a rational process because it’s not argumentation, then you know what’s not rational? The aspiration to become rational is not rational. I can’t ever justify or persuade you to become rational and that’s the disaster for rationality. So we have to include this aspirational process in our model of rationality. Callard calls this proleptic rationality.

Now that is a lot of nice abstract hand-waving but how do you do it? How do you go through aspiration? How do you engage in proleptic rationality? Well, there’s a couple things you should note. We need to be triggering a capacity for systematic insight. Is there a cognitive style that we have experimental evidence for which will bring about systemic insight? Not just at the propositional level but how my salience landscape is taking shape and how my sense of self is being transformed. Yes, there is such a cognitive style. It’s mindfulness practice. That’s why I  do research on it. You’re worried here, now. He’s sneaking in Buddhism.  I can feel it.

Well, pay attention to the science. We have a lot of good work that all of these principles are efficacious. They are basically put in place by cognitive behavioral therapy, which is probably the most evidence-based effective therapy that we have right now. But its effectiveness is actually declining because we have gotten focused on propositional techniques and the alteration of belief and we’ve lost a lot of the intuitive skill that the originators of CBT had. We’ve lost the contact with the perspectival in the participatory knowing transformation. So what’s the evidence showing? You know what works better than CBT on its own? Giving people CBT and training them in mindfulness. That’s what the evidence is clearly indicating.

So, notice what mindfulness is. It’s not an inference practice, it’s an attentional practice. In fact, you shut off inference. What you’re doing is using attention to alter your salience landscape and alter your sense of self in a profound and engaged manner. So we need that right away. What else? Let’s go back to L.A. Paul’s example. When people want to have a kid, what do they do? I noticed people doing this sort of bizarre thing, they get a dog. They get a dog and they’ll have family pictures of them and the dog. Or, for example, I’m thinking about getting into a romantic relationship with this person, I’ll go on a trip with them. What’s going on there? What’s going on is this really interesting thing and it’s actually the key to development because this is how children primarily go through those changes we were talking about. This is enacted play. In fact, it’s serious play like when we use the word play when we’re talking about playing music. You might say “well adults don’t do that” but you better not say that. For example, in the Norwegian countries that are really facing the bite of kind of a secularism which is successful in many ways and I’m not dissing that but there’s  a bit of a backlash to that success, one of the things that is growing right now is this “Meaning Crisis”, which I discuss in my series.

They have live action role playing, like Dungeons and Dragons, but they are acted out in live-action. They have a thing called Jeepform. So in Jeepform instead of a dungeon master in tolling dice, you’re acting out a scene and the dungeon master’s like a director and the director will set up the scene, cut the scene and get you to switch roles and suddenly give you something and say “This is a gun. What are you gonna do with it?”. Here’s what you’re after when you do this. You’re after the phenomena bleed. What’s happening in the act in the play bleeds over to a real problem in your real life. We are considering going through a huge transformation and you’re trying to play with a new participatory identity. What’s it like to have that perspective? What it’s like to be that person? But I’m not fully committed yet. You engage in an active serious play.

So now I can give you what I think the view from above is doing. We need something that’s attentional that’s altering our sense of salience our sense of self getting into the perspectival and the participatory knowing. It’s going to manipulate perspective and our sense of self. That’s what the view from above is doing. It is going to alter what we consider significant or relevant. That’s what the view from above is doing. It’s a form of serious enacted play. It’s rational even though it doesn’t involve inference, proposition or argumentation.

So, what do we know from cognitive science? There’s a whole theory called construal level theory. So instead of thinking of your problem right here, right now, imagine that your problem is 10 years in the future. That’s a re-construal. It’s imagination. What do we know about construal level theories? As we get people to move to a higher level of construal – as we get them to move to a view from above – it makes challenging tasks seem easier. All of which is supported by experimental evidence. It also generates notice this self-insight, people get insight into their sense of who and what they are. That co-identification process becomes more apparent to them. They become aware of the identity they are assuming and the identities they’re assigning.

They gain self-control because as you change what is salient to you and your sense of self, your ability to alter your behavior significantly improves. If you try to change your behavior and you’re not doing things that give you skills and identities for altering your salience and your sense of self, your ability to change a behavior fails. That’s why 95% of people fail on diets. They have all the right propositions, but they don’t do anything to alter their competence for salience landscaping or their sense of self. That’s why they fail.

You become more capable of being authentic. You’re less easily pushed around by social influences precisely because you’ve lifted yourself out of that usually unchallenged arena of behavior. It makes you more creative, it generates systematic insight. As I said, there’s also research from what’s called the “overview effect”. I’m doing work on this right now. The “overview effect” is when astronauts go up into space and they look back at the Earth and they experience awe and wonder and they say it’s the most life-transforming thing that ever happened to them. Gallagher et.al. have actually set up set up a mixed reality, sort of part of its real and part of it is virtual reality and we can generate the overview effect in people and study this and experimentally generate awe and wonder. in 2016, Yadin et. al. did a nice overview.

What does awe do? Awe forces you to open up. Wonder and awe are different from curiosity. Notice how you want curiosity alleviated, but you would like to perpetuate awe. Because curiosity is about quantitative development, getting more information. Wonder is about qualitative information. It’s about opening up and putting your world in yourself into question. That’s what awe does. It makes you more humble, it changes your sense of self and your sense of perspective. The view from above has all of these measurable effects. Notice three different lines of research and they’re all converging on the efficacy of this spiritual exercise.

So I get to work with my friend and colleague Igor Grossman and he’s been doing a bunch of work. Of importance to our discussion is his work with Kross in 2011. It’s called the “Solomon effect”. Here’s what you do. You ask an individual so describe a horrible problem that they are facing. Then you ask them to re-describe their problem from a third person perspective, of them from above. What reliably happens is people get systematic insight into their problem and they become more capable of “wise reasoning” as referred to by Igor. The view from above allows them to restructure what they find salient and relevant. They alter their identity because they’re doing it from a third person perspective. They get a powerful systematic insight and then their reasoning becomes efficacious. The reasoning comes after the transformation.

Finally, and this goes with the awe and wonder, there’s the work of Frederiksen and the broaden and build model. These kinds of, what are called epistemic emotions, like awe and wonder broaden your attention, they transform your salience landscaping, and they build your skills. That’s why we have these emotions. That’s what they’re there for.

So, four lines of evidence as to why the view from above would be efficacious and, therefore, how it is efficacious and how it addresses the problem of how to go through transformation when we can’t reason our way through it. It is a spiritual exercise, it’s different from discourse. That’s why Epictetus said that philosophy is not just about the discourse. That’s not Stoicism.

But here’s the problem. Thomas Nagel in two places, first in an article in 1971 called “The Absurd” and then later in a book called “The View From Nowhere” brought up this problem. I can do the view from above and I go above the Earth and then maybe the solar system and the Galaxy. Then I can move to a perspective that is isometric with the entire universe and that’s the view from nowhere. You know what people experience when they get to the view from nowhere? They don’t say “Wow! This is great”, they say “It’s all meaninglessness. It’s absurd”. This is called “cosmic absurdity”. Let’s get into what everyday absurdity is so that we can understand cosmic absurdity.

So, Nagel gives us a wonderful example. Notice when he wrote was 1971 and 1980 – the dark time before Star Trek cell phones. When your phone was in a place and you left it there and you had to return to your phone at different times. Here’s the example. Tom has been working himself up all day to call Susan. So he calls Susan and he hears the phone be picked up and he says “ Susan, don’t say anything! I just got to tell you I love you! I love you! I really care about you”. Then he hears “BEEP! Susan is not here right now. Please leave a message”.  He sort of laughs but there is also a sense of pathos. I noticed first of all is there’s humor there, and what’s humor? Humor is about a clash of perspective that gets resolved with play. So, absurdity is when we have a clash of perspectives that we can’t resolve with play.

What’s happening with Tom? Tom has this one perspective, this one salience landscape and this particular agency. He is Susan’s future lover and this identity is taking shape and the salience landscape is there. Then this other perspective, a third person in personal perspective, slams into his perspective, the perspective of the machine. Those two perspectives don’t jive, there’s perspectival clash. When you go to the view from nowhere and then you compare it to your life right here right now you experience the greatest perspectival clash you’ll ever experienced. That’s cosmic absurdity.

Notice something that Nagel points out. Many of the arguments people use for absurdity are technically invalid arguments. You don’t reason your way into absurdity. I can’t do all of it. I’ll just give you one example of an argument. People say well what I do won’t matter 10,000 years from now, it’s all meaningless. Nagel points out. Well, be logical – that’s a symmetrical thing. If what you do doesn’t matter to people 10,000 years from now, then what’s equally true is what they think 10,000 years from now shouldn’t matter to you now. It’s equally symmetrical. It’s not a valid argument, but you don’t then say “Oh okay now I feel better!”. The point is the arguments do not generate the absurdity. They are after the fact expressions of it. What’s generating the absurdity is a perspectival clash. How do we deal with the perspective of clash? Because if we know how to deal with the perspectival clash we know what to do to keep the view from above from becoming the view from nowhere.

Read the following text as quickly as possible:

This is a classic experiment. This is part of the cognitive scientist dog and pony show. So,  first of all notice what you did you read? Notice you interpreted the ambiguous letter first as an H in the and then as an A in cat. So now I’m going to reason this through for you. In order to read the words, I must first read the letters, but in order to disambiguate the letters, I must read the words. Therefore, reading is impossible. What you just did was an illusion. Because you don’t reason your way through this. You make use of a dynamical self-organizing system. You are simultaneously reading from the features, the letters to the word and reading from the word down to the features. You’re doing it in parallel in a dynamically self-organizing fashion. That’s actually how your attention works. Notice that your attention is simultaneously fusing your sense of self and your sense of object together. That’s what your attention is doing right now. When I grasp a cup, I’m attending to the graspability of this cup. My identity and the cup’s identity are being fused together. That’s what your attention is doing right now. Your attention is a dynamically self-organizing process.

Spinoza talks about this in his Ethics. When you read the Ethics, you have to do the ethics, not just read it propositionally or argumentatively. He’s trying to actually give you a spiritual exercise that will transform and bring you into a state He calls blessedness. He talks about a state you can arrive at called “scientia intuitiva”. What it is like is this, and when you study the Ethics you can have this experience – I’ve had it. You keep trying to hold the whole argument in your mind and you have to practice and practice and it’s like stretching, like learning a martial art, but you eventually get to this place where this happens. You see the whole argument at once and you see how it goes into each premise and how each premise fits into the whole argument very much like how the letters go into the words and the words feedback down into the letters at the same time. The whole argument is from under the eye of eternity. It’s a God’s eye point of view. The individual premises are individual thoughts you have. So your individual perspective and the cosmic perspective become completely interpenetrating in a self-organizing manner.

The problem with cosmic absurdity is all we do is juxtapose the two perspectives against each other. But you can go through a transformative self-organizing form of play in which they become interpenetrating with each other, scientia intuitiva. I would argue that’s exactly the goal that’s sought after in duality and Buddhism in which the cosmic perspective and the individual perspective are completely interpenetrating. Because if they’re interpenetrating like this, you don’t suffer absurdity. Then you might say “Oh but absurdity is about the arguments!” but it’s not about the arguments is it? I don’t need an argumentative response to absurdity because the arguments are driving it. This is what I need. So we can practice the view from above but we can move towards scientia intuitiva and thereby always preserve the efficacy of the view from above and never fall into the cosmic absurdity of the view from nowhere.

Thank you very much for your time and attention.

John Vervaeke is an Assistant Professor in Cognitive Psychology and Cognitive Science at the University of Toronto. His research is designed to bridge between science and spirituality in order to understand the experience of meaningfulness and  the cultivation of wisdom so as to afford awakening from the meaning crisis. 

Stoicism Groups in Your Country

News: We have now created a Facebook group for admins of other Facebook groups, to help you get started and grow your community.

Over the past few years, more Facebook discussion groups have sprung up for Stoicism. The largest group, which I run, currently has about 55k members, and is just called Stoicism (Stoic Philosophy). There are also groups for Stoic Parents, Stoicism and the military, and even Stoic Dating.

However, in this post, I’d like to provide a list of those groups associated with particular geographical regions: countries or cities. The image on this page shows the countries from which most visitors to the Modern Stoicism website come, in rank order, with the USA, UK, Canada, and Australia consistently at the top, followed by Australia, Germany, and the Netherlands, in that order.

I recommend that anyone who wants to encourage a Stoicism community in their home town or city should consider using Facebook in this way. (If you’re not a fan of Facebook there are, of course, other options but the fact is that currently it seems to be the option that actually works best.) See my recent article about How to Bring Stoicism to Your City. Also consider making the Modern Stoicism page an admin of your regional group, as this allows us to promote your group through Facebook more easily by listing it on our page.

The format I recommend for a group name is “Stoicism [country/city]”. If it’s in a language other than English, I’d repeat the same name in English after it in parentheses like “Stoïcisme Nederland en België (Stoicism Netherlands and Belgium)”. (Word of advice to admins: Some of the groups below are currently not easy to find by searching!)

List of Regional Facebook Groups

Please comment below with any other suggestions for groups that could be added to this list…

Britain and Ireland

Rest of Europe

North America

South America

Australasia

Asia

Africa

(To be continued…)

Stoicon Is On! And Stoic Week Starts Monday!

As this post airs, the big STOICON conference is underway in the home town of Stoicism – Athens Greece! If you’re there, you’re probably not reading this at present, since it is a packed day. And if you’re not there, and want to know what you’re missing, here’s the schedule.

We have a now-several-years-old tradition of publishing transcripts and summaries of many of the presentations from Stoicon itself – and from the smaller Stoicon-X events worldwide – here in Stoicism Today. We’ll be continuing that after this Stoicon, starting with a post from one of the Stoicon-X Toronto presentations! There are also video recordings from the events as well to look forward to.

So if you couldn’t make it to Stoicon itself this time around (and I’m myself in that boat, given my own teaching and client schedule!), you’ll still be able to have a solid idea not only of what went on, but what the speakers and workshop providers talked about!

Stoic Week Starts Monday!

International Stoic Week starts the Monday after the main Stoicon. This offers participants – whether joining in for the very first time, or rejoining us for a “Stoic tune-up” (as I like to call it) – to deliberately “live like a Stoic” over the course of a week.

As has been the case every year since its inception, we have a robust online course for Stoic Week, featuring the Stoic Week Handbook, which contains readings, exercises, and all sorts of helpful information. Here’s where you can enroll, if you haven’t already joined us. It’s totally free to enroll, and a great opportunity to learn a lot and interact with other people as interested in Stoicism as you are!

(As a side-note, this semester, I’m teaching a class titled “Philosophy, Mindfulness, and Life” for my students at Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design. The class focuses on philosophies as ways of life, experimenting with actual philosophical practices, and reflecting upon what the actual effects of “doing philosophy” are. There are about 20 students enrolled in the 15-week class, and this coming week, we’re going through the Stoic Week course together.)

Stoicon-X and Stoic Week Events

One of the other really cool features of Stoic Week – and really of the modern Stoic movement in general – is that there are always a lot of in-person events all over the world. Some of these are bigger, Stoicon-X events. There are also groups, organizations, and institutions who work through the Stoic Week class together as a community.

Each year, we try to provide a definitive listing of these events here in Stoicism Today as a resource for members of the Stoic community worldwide.

If you’re holding an event, or working through Stoic Week together, and you don’t see yours listed, send me your information ASAP, and we’ll get it into the lists below. So, with no further ado, here they are:

Stoicon-X Events

Stoicon-Xs in Toronto, New York, and New England have already taken place, but there are another eight Stoicon-X events coming up this month, all over the world.

Stoicon-X Athens – Sunday, October 6, 9 AM – 1:30 PM – Cotsen Hall, American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 9 Anapiron Polemou, 106 76 Athens – features talks by Alkistis Agio, Kathryn Koromilas, Chrysoula Kostogiannis, Chuck Chakrapani, Donald Robertson and short lightning talks by participants – more information and ticketing available here.

Stoicon-X Moscow – Saturday, October 12, 8 PM – 10 PM – Bookstore Falanster, Malyy Gnezdnikovskiy Pereulok, 12, Moscow, Russia, 125009 – features talks by Kirill Martynov, Stanislav Naranovich, Polina Gadzhikurbanova – more information on the event available here.

Stoicon-X London – Saturday, October 12, 10 AM – 5 PM – Senate House, University of London, Malet Street, London, WC1E 7HU – Christopher Gill, Katharine O’Reilly, Tim LeBon, Mark Preston, John Sellars, Alexander MacLellan, Tom Hill, Justin Stead – more information and ticketing available here.

Stoicon-X Milwaukee – Saturday, October 12, 10 AM – 3 PM – Community Room, Milwaukee Public Library Central Branch, 814 West Wisconsin Avenue, Milwaukee, WI 53233 – features talks and workshops by Kevin Vost, Dan Hayes, Daniel Collette, Andi Sciacca, and Greg Sadler, and short lightning talks by participants – more information and ticketing available here.

Stoicon-X Sussex – Wednesday, October 16, 1 PM – 3 PM – Sussex University Meeting House, Falmer, Brighton BN1 9RH – features talks by John Sellars, Mark Preston, and Tosin Adebosi – more information and ticketing available here

Stoicon-X Perth – Sunday, October 20, 1 PM – 5:30 PM – Wellstrong Collective, 185 Eight Ave · Inglewood – talks on a variety of topics, organized by Ashley McCole – more information available here

Stoicon-X Bay Area – Saturday, October 26, 1 PM – 3 PM -Union City Library, 34007 Alvarado-Niles Rd, Union City, CA, 94587 – Stop by and meet members of the Bay Area Stoic Community. Learn about the local activities and opportunities for practice, community service and fellowship – more information and signup here.

Stoicon-X Brisbane – Sunday, October 27, 10 AM – 4 PM – Mitchelton Library, Mitchelton QLD 4053, Australia – features talks by Shannon Murray, Sharline Mohan, Andrew Dunn, Ashley McCole, Simon J.E. Drew, and Greg Sadler (by video) – more information and signup here

Additional Events During Stoic Week

Orlando Stoics – Monday, October 7, 7 PM – Panera Bread, 3138 S Orange Ave · Orlando, FL – discussion of Epictetus’ Enchiridionmore information available here

Tampa Stoics – Friday, October 11, 7 PM – Panera Bread USF, 11860 Bruce B Downs Blvd, Tampa, FL – discussion of Marcus Aurelius – more information available here

Los Angeles Stoics – Saturday, October 12, 10 AM – Bicycle Coffee Co, 358 E 2nd St. Los Angeles, CA, 90012 -discussion of Stoic Week – more information available here

New Acropolis Chicago – Saturday, October 12, 7 PM – New Acropolis Chicago, 4548 N. Dover, Chicago, IL 60640 – Greek style dinner and discussion (RSVP) – more information and ticketing here

New Acropolis Chicago – Saturday, October 13, 11 AM – Stoicism and the Coddling of the American Mind – more information and ticketing here

Minnesota Stoics -Sunday, October 13, 1 PM – Merriam Park Library, 1831 Marshall Ave · Saint Paul, MN – Stoicism, Death, and Dying discussion – more information here

Philadelphia Stoics – Sunday, October 13, 4 PM – Philadelphia Ethical Society, 1906 Rittenhouse Square · Philadelphia, PA – Discussion of A Handbook for New Stoics – more information here

Groups and Institutions Working Through Stoic Week Together

Los Angeles Stoicsmore information here

Praetoria Stoicsmore information here

If we learn any additional information, we will update this post.