We’re delighted to announce that all of the videos from Stoicon and Stoicon-x 2019 in Athens have now been edited and uploaded to our eLearning site, where you are welcome to watch them free of charge in exchange for joining our mailing list for future events.
This post by Pete Fagella is the first post in a new series that we will be running regularly here at Stoicism Today. There are a number of local Stoic groups and organizations, and we are going to create a space for the organizers and leaders to tell their stories, impart useful lessons, and get the word out about their meetings and activities – Greg Sadler, editor
My name is Pete Fagella and I am the facilitator and founder of the New England Stoics. Roughly two years ago this month I reached out to the Stoic Fellowship – the international organization that helps coordinate between local Stoic groups – to inquire if there were any groups in my area. There were none at that time, and the fellowship helped me start this one.
I sent the fellowship an email expressing interest in becoming part of a local group. I received a response from Greg Lopez who told me that although no group at that time existed, there were people who also wanted to be a part of one. Greg asked me if I would be willing to take the lead, I thought to myself “why not”.
Greg sent me a list of all of the people who had expressed an interest and introduced me to them via e-mail. He introduced me to an organizing tool called doodle and after many emails back and forth and through the use of doodle who had planned our first meeting. The fellowship was critical to help our baby group reach this important phase.
At that time, we were not using the Meetup platform, so we had to promote ourselves on our own web page which we have since replaced with an improved site and a mailing list. As people would come to our meetings, we added them onto the mailing list and used that to notify previous attendees of future meetings
The first meeting was like no other. There was no specific topic, nor any foundation as to how to proceed. We mostly just got to know each other and discussed what drew us to each other. This was an experiment about whether such a group was feasible. Several significant events happened during this meeting:
- we adopted our name, The New England Stoics
- we learned that people would come to meetings if we had them
- our leadership team was created.
We stayed an hour after closing, nobody realized the time and the staff at Panera Bread didn’t tell us. Immediately afterwards I informed Greg of our success and we started the process of being listed as part of the Stoic Fellowship.
Following meetings were about specific topics though we had no discernible pattern. We would discuss a variety of times such as death, the definition of good, happiness, whatever we would think of really. Mostly we were trying to understand stoicism ourselves at that time and by meeting in a group we were able to start to help each other understand. Admittedly, I still have a lot to learn.
However, after several attempts we begin to figure out what worked and what didn’t. We realized quickly that having a team of people involved in the planning process was much more beneficial than a single individual. I would have ultimate say in what we did but as a team we would discuss the events of the previous meeting and determine how to improve. The most difficult challenge was deciding where to meet, we tried many different places and times.
At first, we wanted to have a rotating meeting location in different towns so that people from all over the region would have better chances to attend the meetings. We were after all, at that time, the only group in the entirety of New England. This did not have the result we hoped for, regulars still came, but not many new people. For the regulars it was an inconvenience to go so far out of their ways for some of the locations. We decided to centralize our meetings and this seems to have had positive results.
Stoicon is an annual event in which Stoicism is discussed in great deal by experts in the field. The event attracts hundreds of people but unfortunately it is not accessible to many people. Consequently, the Stoic Fellowship and Modern Stoicism encourages the local groups to have a miniature version of this event called Stoicon-X. At first, I did not think that we had the numbers to have an event of this scale. We would often only have 3-4 people show up at our meetings. However, I was convinced by the other people in my team that we would try it anyway.
We created flyers to put around the region and posted the event on Eventbrite. We would hold the event in Worchester, Ma at the first Unitarian Church. Four of us would be involved in the event, each having their own individual speeches. We spent a lot of time on conference calls with each other hammering out the details.
In October of that year we hosted our first Stoicon-X event. Roughly 12 people showed up. Marc opened up the event with Stoicism 101 talking about the history and basic theory of Stoicism. John, who was a trained therapist discussed psychotherapy’s Debt to Stoicism & Intro to Philosophical Counseling. Tim had a speech entitled “The Intellectual Scalpel: Naming and Classification”. I hosted the event and discussed Stoicism and how it applies to social dynamics. Additionally, we performed a 10-minute play. John played the Stoic friend, Marc played the un-Stoic friend and I played a man who was seeking advice. We had refreshments and the entire thing lasted four hours.
Stoicon-X New England was a tremendous success. I realized that if we could have this much success on our small web site with minimal advertising then we could do wonders on Meetup. I could not afford to pay for Meetup, however, but another option existed. If you pay for Meetup you are allowed to have several slots for groups. The Stoic Fellowship helps groups that do not have Meetup to get in touch with other groups with free Meetup slots. I reached out to Greg Lopez again and he put me in touch with David Emory, facilitator of the Colorado Springs Stoa. David was extremely generous and we can thank our success primarily to him. We were able to create a Meetup slot under his account. If anybody is in the Colorado Springs area I highly recommend finding his group on Meetup.
With the Meetup page we were able to attract a much wider audience. We also had more confidence in our ability and knowledge of the material. We had individual meetings discussing each of the four stoic virtues, Wisdom, Courage, Temperance, and Justice. We talked about friendship, and reliance, and even death. We met new people and really began to grow.
The following Memorial Day we held a Stoic Camp in northern Maine. Tim attended the Wyoming Stoic camp and had mentioned it in the past. Marc had a cabin that he shared part time with other people. We married these two thoughts together and the idea for a New England Stoic camp was born.
We decided that Epictetus would be the focus of our event. The academic portion would define Stoicism and its history, would give a historical background on Epictetus himself, and would delve into the Discourses. We also had time for journaling. The camp however, was far from just academics; we had a lot of recreation as well.
Between 10-15 people showed up at the camp depending on the day. We were all asked to pack our own lunch, but we ate dinner as a group. I made pasta with homemade sauce one night, and we had BBQ another night. We hiked to several water falls and even had some of our lectures there, we even tested our Stoicism by playing the board game “Risk” which nearly ended several friendships. We also dedicated some quiet time for people to reflect and go on nature walks. Along with the cabin itself, the property had a yurt. We would listen to podcasts on Stoicism, but most importantly the yurt is where the New England Stoics adopted our event tradition. At the conclusion of our major events (not regular meetings) we set a timer for 60 seconds and when the timer goes off, we let out a mighty roar. It’s a lot of fun.
Almost immediately after the success of the camp we began to plan Stoicon-X 2019. This time we had three speakers, Zeph, Marc, and myself. This event actually took less planning then the first Stoicon-X. By this point we had already planned two major events so we had some experience. We learned from the camp the value of having dinner together. We learned from the first Stoicon-X and also the camp how time can escape us. Consequently, we decided that 2019 would last for 6 hours and was to be followed by a 2-hour pot luck dinner. We sold the tickets on Eventbrite and advertised on meetup as well as through Stoicism Today.
The next October we had our second Stoicon-X which had twice as much as the first in terms of attendance. I hosted the event and talked about why we practice philosophy, and I read from Cicero. Zeph discussed internals vs. externals, taking into account the challenges we face in modern society like mental illness that the ancient Stoics lacked a medical understanding about. He also addressed other road blocks to having true control of our own thoughts and impressions. Marc talked again about the history of Stoicism; he also did a speech on life philosophies. Additionally, Marc gave detailed recommendations on various online sources of information to learn more about Stoicism.
We had two break-out activities and an extended break time. The first break-out activity focused on knowing what is in your control, and what is not. We broke into 3 groups; in the groups we all discussed minor problems that we encountered, and using the information from Zeph’s speech on internals vs externals, we addressed the individual problems. We made sure to ask people to show us silly issues like being stuck in traffic and not divulge sensitive information.
The second break-out activity was a concentration on negative visualization. We again broke into 3 groups, but we rotated the people to create new groups. We wanted people to imagine mildly unpleasant things happening to them and discuss how to resolve them. We asked them to again not get too personal and to imagine events like a shoelace breaking. The ultimate point was to encourage people to appreciate things when we have them.
During the break, we had many books laid out with reviews placed inside the cover. We had a YouTube video of Donald Robertson at the Stoicon X Toronto. We had a station for gratitude letters, and we had snacks. The event went really well, and we handed out books as prizes, including Donald Robertson’s latest book How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, the Meditations, and several others. People had the options to just socialize or participate in some of the activities. At the end of the meeting we all went outside and let out a mighty roar.
The proceeds from the event went back into the group. We took no profit. We were able to fund a more integrated website www.nestoics.Org that includes a blog, and links to our Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, our mailing list, and of course a link to our Meetup page, which at this point has over 250 people.
The historic North End of Boston was the home of Paul Revere, and its still there. A few blocks away is the Old North Church. As the story goes, in the year 1775 the British had occupied Boston. Revolutionaries had expected armed conflict to begin soon and began to store weapons near the towns of Lexington and Concord. All of Boston was surrounded by colonial militia. A plan was set in place that from the Old North Church they would observe the British army. If the army began to march by land, one candle would be displayed in the church, and if by sea it would be two. The British marched by land and from the Old North Church one candle was observed by Paul Revere and he gallantly rode his horse to warn the colonials who had time to prepare. Thus, began the Revolutionary War. History tells us that this story was true to a degree but embellishes the role of Revere being the solo rider, in truth many people were involved.
We currently meet in this neighborhood, with its cobblestone streets, surrounded by all this history and so much more. Each month, one of our meetings is known as the “Philosopher’s Café”. This is a free-flowing conversation about whatever is on our minds. This is a great opportunity for those who are curious about Stoicism to learn the basics, while at the same time making new friends and creating possible mentorships.
Our vision is for people to be able to come in off the street and if they are in need of guidance, that we may be able to provide a possible option for them to explore. We are not at all interested in pushing our ideals on others, but if people are curious, we’d love to share. The dream of the Philosophers Café is to create more regulars who we can help grow into the virtuous people they want to be, we want to help people become happier and help the world to be a better place.
We recently started a new type of meeting. Traditionally we decide on a specific topic to discuss and just go with that, sometimes we will have topics relating to the previous meetings but not always. Having consulted with Greg Lopez while on conference call with several other Stoic group facilitators, I was introduced to a new idea called a practice group.
In addition to being a ranking member of the Stoic Fellowship, Greg is also the facilitator of the NYC Stoics. In his group he has developed essentially a class that is designed to help the aspiring Stoic Philosopher on how to essentially move from reading about Stoicism to living as a Stoic. There are 11 classes, meant to be one month apart. Each class contains readings and exercises. The entire program follows a sequential pattern such that each class is a pre-requisite to the next. Greg was generous enough to allow me to use this program. As of this publication we have had the first of the 11 classes and it was an amazing success.
As a general rule we will alternate every two weeks between the Philosopher’s Café and the practice group. We will not deviate from the practice group schedule, however we may on occasion substitute the Philosopher’s Café with special events such as Stoic Camp, Stoicon-X, or anything else we develop. Anything that will end with a mighty roar! We want to increase our presence to beyond the region, and endeavor to live up to the reputation the higher New England education has made for itself.
Geographically the New England Stoics is the largest group between the giants in New York (run by Massimo Pigliucci and Greg Lopez) and in Toronto (run by Donald Robertson). We want to be the bridge that brings New York and Toronto together. We can serve as either a stopover point for those traveling in between or as an easier option for people who live just out of reach for either. We are still relatively small, but we plan to be here for a long time, and we hope to bring others along for the ride.
In February, 2020 we will be marking our two-year anniversary. As of this publication we have 276 people signed up for our meetup with more joining at a steady rate. The meetings have gone from an average of 3-4 people to now between 10-15 people. We meet every two weeks and the vast majority of our events are free (unless they end with a mighty roar).
This group would not have been able to reach the status of where we are today without the help and generosity of so many people. I want to thank Greg Lopez who helped bring us all together and played a critical part in the development of this group. I want to thank Tim Howe for helping me in those very early days to head up our IT. It was with his help that we were able to attract those first members. He was also critical in the planning of Stoicon X 2018 and the stoic camp. I want to thank Marc Dashaies for sticking with us for nearly the entire adventure. Marc was who first suggested we have Stoicon-X 2018, he helped plan it he has also been a part of every other event and every other meeting we have had since. I want to thank John Monfredo who helped plan, and gave a wonderful speech at Stoicon X 2018. I want to thank David Emory of the Colorado Springs Stoa for giving us his free meetup slot. Without his help we would not have the membership that we do, nor would we have met the wonderful people we now know. Meetup introduced Zeph Chang to the group, and I want to thank him for all his effort in helping to plan everything that has happened after the Stoic Camp. Zeph is the man who revamped our online presence, he created the new web site and helped to integrate our entire online presence into a single platform. It was also Zeph who allowed us to use his house for Stoicon X 2019. He has been a good friend and a critical member of the leadership team. I want to thank Donald Robertson and Greg Sadler for the wisdom given to me as advice, and for their help in promoting our group and our events. Finally, I want to thank all of your for taking the time to read this article, I hope you enjoyed it.
I am not only the facilitator of the New England Stoics but I am also the regional support volunteer for the North East United States which includes all of New England and New York. Our mascot is the bald eagle and currently has four groups:
- Stoa Nova – New York, NY, USA
- The New England Stoics – Boston, MA, USA
- NYC Stoics – New York, NY, USA
- Vermont Stoics – Burlington, VT, USA
If you are interested in joining any of these groups please click on the links. If you would like more information or are interested in starting your own group in the North East Region feel free to join our discussion group on Facebook entitled “Stoicism Boston and New England”. Please now take 60 seconds to reflect in silence and follow it by a mighty roar!
Pete Fagella has been studying Stoic philosophy for the past 10 years. He currently runs the New England Stoics philosophy group out of Boston but lives in New Hampshire. He is currently studying Latin and for fun spends time with his children.
One main activity of the Modern Stoicism organization is carrying out research on the impact of adopting Stoic practices, perspectives, and principles on those who do so. Every year we run the Stoic Week online class, and we also gather valuable data through the surveys before and after participants engage in the class. Tim LeBon is our lead quantitative researcher, and he does invaluable service in compiling and interpreting the data collected, producing a set of Stoic Week Reports. This is the second report for 2019, which you can download a copy of (with all of the appendices) by clicking here.
A strong positive relationship between Stoicism and well-being has been well documented in previous Stoic Week reports. This article analyses the findings from analysing questionnaires from the start of Stoic week 2019, and will report on whether this relationship has been maintained. In 2019 we obtained additional information about the relationship between Stoicism and anger, as measured by the Anger Disorder Scale (ADS-S). A second innovation this year was the introduction of another iteration of the Stoic Attitudes and Behaviours Scale (SABS v5.0). This report will indicate which of the 60 items of the new SABS scale are the most and least associated with life satisfaction, flourishing, positive and negative emotions and with anger – in other words, which items appear to be the most active ingredients of Stoicism in these respects. The other reports in this series will discuss the effect of taking part in Stoic Week (part 3) and summarise participant feedback and suggest future directions of research (part 4). Details about the scales used are given in the Appendices of this report.
What Were My Scores Like Compared to the Average?
If you took part in Stoic Week, you will have been given average scores at the start of the week for other participants at the start of a previous Stoic Week for some of the measures. But we didn’t have the scores for Stoic Week 2019 then (obviously!), and we didn’t have comparative scores for the Anger Scale or for the new SABS scale. So, here you are. How do you compare with the average score?
- Life Satisfaction (SWL) 23
- Emotions (SPANE) 5
- Flourish 43
- Anger (ADS-S) 34
- Stoicism (SABS 5.0) 300
The New SABS Scale
Stoic Week 2019 saw the introduction of SABS 5.0, a 60-item questionnaire described in Appendix A. This scale builds on the work done with the invaluable work Ray DiGiuseppe and others to eliminate items with inferior psychometric properties. We are also working towards validating the SABS 5.0 and providing sub-scales (for example “Stoic Worldview” and “Values awareness and Stoic mindfulness”. As the work on subscales is still provisional, it will be reported at a later date.
Stoicism and Anger
Theoretically, we would expect Stoic attitude to help with anger management. We would anticipate that Stoics would not just act in a less angry way, they would also get angry less often than non-Stoics because non-Stoics often get angry at things beyond their control.
Previous Stoic Week research results have indeed suggested a strong inverse relationship between Stoicism and anger. However, this has relied on the single anger item question in the SPANE questionnaire. Since anger management is potentially an important benefit of practising Stoicism, the relationship between Stoicism and anger warranted further investigation. Consequently, this year we asked participants to fill in a validated anger questionnaire, the 18-item ADS-S (see Appendix B) to understand the relationship between Stoicism and anger when anger is measured in a more robust manner and which also separates out the degree to which people feel anger, the degree to which they feel vengeful, and the extent to which they act angrily. Table 1 below gives the results.
|Anger overall (ADS-S)||Anger-In (ADS-S subscale 1)||Anger Vengeance (ADS-S subscale 2)||Anger Reactivity (ADS-S subscale S)||Anger single item (SPANE)|
Table 1: Correlation and Stoicism and Anger at the start of Stoic Week 2019 (1725 participants)
The more sophisticated measure of anger provided by the ADS-S than the single scale item in the SPANE gives a significantly stronger relationship between Stoicism and a lack of anger (.44 compared to .32). The ADS-S divides anger into 3 subscales. Subscale 1, the anger-in scale, represents the degree to which people are likely to feel anger and repress, or not express their anger. Stoics are particularly less likely to do this (.45 correlation), putting a lie to the notion that Stoics repress feelings (the “stiff upper lip”). Stoics are also likely to be less vengeful (subscale 2) and less reactive with their anger (subscale 3). It will be interesting to see how the scales and subscales change when people try to practice Stoicism in Stoic Week. We would predict a reduction in anger and in particular, a large reduction in subscale 1 (anger-in).
Stoicism and Well-Being
We can tell how Stoic someone is by their score on the SABS 5.0. By measuring their well-being at the same time, we can determine the extent to which Stoicism is associated with well-being.
|Flourishing||Emotions (SPANE)||Life Satisfaction (SWL)|
|STOIC ATTITUDES AND BEHAVIOURS||
2018: 0.54 2017: 0.47
|2019: 0.59 2018: 0.45 2017: 0.43||2019: 0.50 2018: 0.39 2017: 0.36|
Table 2 Overall association of Stoic Attitudes and Behaviours with various scales (2019 Stoic Week compared to 2018 and 2017 Stoic Weeks)
As table 2 shows, Stoicism is associated to a very high degree of Flourishing and a balance of positive over emotions and (to a slightly lesser degree) satisfaction with life. Over the years as we have worked to improve the SABs, the correlation coefficients are somewhat higher using the new SABS 5.0.
Stoicism and Emotions
We can also see which emotions are most associated with Stoicism. The trends found in previous years continue to be supported. Stoicism is not just associated with not feeling bad, it is also strongly associated with feeling contented and positive.
Once again, as we have continued to revise and improve the SAB the correlation coefficients with the various measures emotions have increased.
Table 3: Correlation of SABS 5.0 scores and emotions as measured in SPANE
Degree of Stoicism and Well-being
The above findings lend considerable support to the view that Stoicism is associated with higher degrees of well-being and less anger. But how much difference does it make? We attempted to tease this out by looking at the differences in well-being for those who are the most and least Stoic. This is shown in table 4 below.
|Ranking on the SABS 5.0||Life Satisfaction||Emotions||Anger||Flourishing||Stoicism|
Table 4: Difference in life satisfaction, the balance of emotions, anger, flourishing according to the degree of Stoicism (Start of Stoic Week 2019, n=1725)
Those who are the most Stoic (top 10%) are much higher in well-being and lower in anger than the those in the top 10%. One possible way to read table 4 is to say that the biggest gains are to be made with those people who are least Stoic. If someone moved from the bottom half to just average levels of Stoicism, one would anticipate quite significant gains in well-being – assuming that causation goes in the direction of being Stoic to well-being, which may not be completely founded.
Stoicism’s Most Active Ingredients
Which Stoic attitudes and beliefs are most associated with life satisfaction, flourishing, positive emotions and the absence of anger? By finding the correlation between SABS 5.0 items and each measure, it is possible to answer these questions. Tables 5 -8 below provide the answers for each scale. Note that since these associations are correlations, we cannot be sure of the direction of causation, so these findings require a certain amount of qualification.
|#||SABS Item||Life Satisfaction Correlation|
|19||I spend quite a lot of time dwelling on what has gone wrong in the past.*||0.46|
|33||I spend quite a lot of time worrying about the future.*||0.42|
|26||When I have a problem, I am good at taking constructive action in a timely manner.||0.41|
|41||If things don’t go well for me, I can’t lead a good life.*||0.35|
|38||When a negative thought enters my mind, I remind myself that it is just an interpretation of the situation.||0.35|
|48||Even when I can’t do anything more about a problem, I still worry about it a lot.*||0.35|
Table 5: Most active Stoic ingredients of Life Satisfaction
If you wanted to look at one element of Stoicism indicative of satisfaction with life, it would be someone not dwelling on the past
|#||SABS Item||Flourishing correlation|
|26||When I have a problem, I am good at taking constructive action in a timely manner.||0.54|
|12||I usually do the right thing.||0.46|
|19||I spend quite a lot of time dwelling on what has gone wrong in the past.*||0.45|
|22||When making an important decision I ask myself “What really matters here?”||0.44|
|33||I spend quite a lot of time worrying about the future.*||0.43|
|14||I am committed to helping humanity in general.||0.43|
|38||When a negative thought enters my mind, I remind myself that it is just an interpretation of the situation.||0.43|
Table 6: Most active SABS ingredients in terms of Flourishing
The single element of Stoicism indicative of flourishing is taking constructive action in a timely manner,
The absence of worrying is most associated with having a positive balance of emotions.
|33||I spend quite a lot of time worrying about the future.*||0.56|
|19||I spend quite a lot of time dwelling on what has gone wrong in the past.*||0.56|
|48||Even when I can’t do anything more about a problem I still worry about it a lot.*||0.52|
|38||When a negative thought enters my mind, I remind myself that it is just an interpretation of the situation.||0.43|
|41||If things don’t go well for me, I can’t lead a good life.*||0.42|
Table 7: Most active SABS ingredients in terms of emotions
|19||I spend quite a lot of time dwelling on what has gone wrong in the past.*||-0.46|
|33||I spend quite a lot of time worrying about the future.*||-0.42|
|48||Even when I can’t do anything more about a problem, I still worry about it a lot.*||-0.41|
|41||If things don’t go well for me, I can’t lead a good life.*||-0.34|
|26||When I have a problem, I am good at taking constructive action in a timely manner.||-0.33|
|15||I treat everyone fairly.||-0.32|
Table 8: Most active SABS ingredients in terms of emotions
Dwelling on the past is most associated with anger.
These findings are particularly significant as they indicate the association of degrees of Stoicism with other qualities such as life satisfaction and anger. A key finding is that Stoicism is not associated with repressing anger and so it puts a lie to the “stiff upper lip” notion. It also gives participants comparative scores for SABS 5.0 and the anger scale, which were not available at the time they took part in Stoic Week
They are taken from a large sample (1765 participants) of varying demographics and allegiance to Stoicism. They are however, a self-selecting sample and more likely to be allied to Stoicism than the general public. Moreover, since they are correlational they do not indicate the direction of causation. The next report in the series will provide information about how these measures change after participants have taken part in Stoic Week.
Tim LeBon is the author of Wise Therapy and Achieve Your Potential with Positive Psychology. He is a philosophical life coach with a private practice in London and also an accredited CBT psychotherapist working in the NHS. He is a founder member of the Modern Stoicism team.
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 continue this year’s sequence of posts with one by Stoicon 2019 co-organizer Alkistis Agio, which follows below
Socrates…It seems that every story about Greek philosophy starts with him. He taught that:
No man can lead others, who cannot lead himself.
Think about it, it’s true: How can you lead others, if you can’t lead yourself ? How do you expect others to follow you if you haven’t decided where you want to go?
So where do you begin? The answer has always been one – Self-Leadership. Self-Leadership means having:
- A developed sense of who you are, where you’re going, and what you are willing to do to get there, as well as…
- The ability to influence yourself and others, in order to achieve your goals.
Self-Leadership is probably the most important skill you can ever develop as a person and as a professional and it mainly involves our emotional intelligence.
The importance of self-leadership, has been taught since the beginning of history, when the ancient Greek sages recited The Odyssey, the story of a sailor setting out on a journey. The sailor, Odysseus, yearns to reach his homeland. His goal is clear, but he has no control over the elements. The winds and the sea are not in his power. He has only his attitude and his skills with the sails, adapting them to the changing conditions, keeping his course, remaining calm when a storm hits and leading his team with virtue and ethos. This story represents the inner battle that is to be won, since the external battle is not fully in our control.
“The first and greatest victory is to conquer yourself; to be conquered by yourself is of all things most shameful and vile.” – Plato
In a moment, I will reveal to you the most powerful method in the world for self-leadership, based on ancient Greek philosophy. But first, I would like to share some of my journey with you. I promise, I will be mercifully brief.
As I look back on my childhood, I can clearly see that I was introduced to Greek philosophy by my father. From a young age, instead of fairy tales like Cinderella, my father would read us bedtime stories from Aesop’s Fables, the Iliad and the Odyssey.
Fast-forward to when I am about 22 years old. I am working at an international British bank in Athens. On the outside, I seem to ‘have it all’; an executive position with a good salary, luxury travels and friends in ‘high places’. On the inside, I feel frustrated and anxious about my career path. Why? Because I’ve chosen banking mainly to please my father, the CEO of a major bank in Greece. Whenever I express my deep interest in psychology and philosophy, he taps me on the shoulder and says, “My dear daughter it’s fine to read psychology and philosophy books but life is very harsh and you should keep your safe, practical job no matter what….”
Ignoring my inner truth, I stay on, feeling trapped like a hamster on a treadmill; I am unmotivated and it begins to show in a series of humiliating mistakes arising from my negligence.
All these mistakes reach a climax one day; I’m called in to do an important presentation in front of the board of directors, for which I’m not prepared. My performance is so bad, I am so ashamed, that at the end of that day, I face my deepest fears and hand in my resignation.
Did things get better after that? Of course not. They got much worse. I had a dramatic argument with my father, who expressed his anger, disappointment and conviction that I was making a grave mistake in letting go of a promising career. He ousted me from his house, saying what amounted to“Tan I Epi Tas” (the ancient Spartan motto, ‘Return as a victor or upon your shield’). Looking back at that moment though, I believe that it was the best lesson my father could have taught me. He cut me loose and I had to stand on my own and look at my life in harsh, unforgiving terms. I was deeply shaken, but determined to go my own way. Without a plan, I left Greece with my meager savings and backpacked through Asia Minor and Europe.
Soon, my money ran out and I had to find work in various low-income jobs like waitressing, temping, yoga, etc. I even tried creating my own businesses, but these ventures left me in debt. I lived with constant fear & anxiety about money & my future. I had no purpose and no direction. It got so bad that finally, I couldn’t take it any more – I decided to return home, to Greece, with my head down, face my father and ask for help and forgiveness.
Then, as I was on my way to get my return plane-ticket, I met a woman on the bus, who was working at a top leadership-training company teaching communication skills. By a freak of luck, she was leaving her position and looking for a replacement. I told her my story and she hired me on-the-spot!
It was a breakthrough for me. I loved my job, & people told me that I was very good at it. Not only that – the founder, Dale Carnegie, was an ardent admirer of Greek philosophy. In his famous world-wide bestseller “How To Win Friends & Influence People”, he devotes a whole chapter to Socrates, openly admitting that he borrowed his ideas from the Master of Greek philosophy:
“The ideas I stand for are not mine. I borrowed them from Socrates….” – Dale Carnegie
I had finally found my rightful place in life. A place where I could be happy & thrive. Now, why did I just share all of this story with you? Because it’s a great example of what you should never do. I was lucky. Making such dramatic changes in your life without having a clue as to where you are headed and what you want, and without any proper tools to help you along the way, is foolish, ineffective and can even be down right dangerous. It’s like getting in your car without a destination or a GPS and then just driving off… A cliff, usually.
What if I told you though, that there is a type of GPS that can help get you to a place of thriving, happiness and freedom? A GPS inspired by the works of Socrates and Aristotle. As mentioned above, through my work in leadership training, that I was introduced to the works of the ancient Greek philosophers.
They were eye-opening. One in particular stood out to me – Aristotle’s timeless manual on the Art of Persuasion: “The Rhetoric”. In it, Aristotle explains that there are three basic ‘traits’ an orator, a leader, anyone like you and me, must develop in order to influence and persuade others
- Ethos, which addresses the truth, credibility and integrity of the speaker.
- Pathos, which addresses their emotional intelligence and use of imagination.
- Logos, which addresses the logic, reason and common sense of their arguments.
Over two millennia after he wrote it, Aristotle’s system is still the cornerstone of modern leadership skills training;His system on influence, is taught in MBA programs at top universities like Harvard, Stanford, Columbia, Yale and INSEAD. It is through Aristotle that the world’s top CEOs are initiated into the priceless ‘Art of Influence and Persuasion’.
For over twenty years now I have been teaching seminars about these principles of Aristotle to professionals all over the world, to help them to improve their influence and persuasion skills. And during these seminars, it began to dawn on me that these three great principles of Aristotle, go far beyond “How to Make Friends and Influence people…”, as Dale Carnegie would put it.
To me, there is a deeper – more essential dimension to be discovered through these three principles; like a treasure hidden in plain sight. What’s the treasure? Ethos, Pathos, Logos can serve as a golden ‘compass’ or G.P.S. for navigating through life’s perpetual challenges with stoic calm and certainty. By applying them, we can attain Self-Leadership, and take charge of ourself and our life.
This realization of the inner GPS gave me a solid foundation on which to build my life and practice. And more importantly, this was the “Shield” that I returned home with, to my father, who I had missed so much after my ten year ‘odyssey’.
The ALKISTIS Method as explained in my book THE STOIC CEO is the first-ever method of self-leadership development that effectively integrates the modern scientific, evidence-based techniques of neuro-coaching with the ageless wisdom of ancient Greek philosophy. (Especially Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and the Stoic school.)
Applied in practice, The ALKISTIS Method® leads to calm, confident, self-leadership, for both personal happiness and professional excellence, which the ancient Greeks called “Aristeia”.
I sincerely hope that you too will be inspired to become the outstanding person you are, on your journey to your Ithaca*. (*Island-Kingdom in Homer’s, The Odyssey)
Alkistis Agio is a speaker, author, leadership trainer and coach with over 20 years experience in working with professionals to transform fear, frustration, anger and anxiety into calm, confident self-leadership.
Today marks sixty years since Albert Camus’s death in a car crash, aged 46. New information sourced from KGB archives suggests that the Algerian-French author, philosopher, dramatist and activist was assassinated on Soviet orders. If we know why the Nobel-Prize winning author of The Outsider, The Myth of Sisyphus, The Plague and The Rebel died, however, Camus’s own philosophy of life is less widely appreciated.
Due to the phenomenal success of The Outsider and The Myth of Sisyphus, published under the German occupation of Paris (1940-44), Camus was quickly touted an “existentialist” or “prophet of the absurd”. Yet Camus always rejected both labels. He would repeat that his formative philosophical and literary influences were the Greek poets and philosophers, hearkening back to his formative years in Algeria studying under Jean Grenier. Camus would also point to the decisive importance for him of his own experiences growing up poor but surrounded by sunlight; and as a young footballer whose youthful idylls were cut short when he was diagnosed with Tuberculosis at 17, and told by his physician that he may have only one week to live.
One needn’t be a Stoic to appreciate what a profound effect this latter experience had on Camus. The young man himself turned at this moment of crisis to Stoicism, reading Epictetus in the hospital as he convalesced.[i] Years later, confronting one of the many adversities that defined his life, he would cite Marcus Aurelius as a source of strength in his Notebooks:
‘Wherever it is possible to live, it is possible to live well.’ ‘What prevents a work being completed becomes the work itself.’ ‘What bars our way makes us travel along it.’
It is too much to say that Camus was a Stoic. Perhaps a neo- or para- Stoic is closer to the mark.[ii] It is anyway little known that Camus was one of the small number of 20th century philosophers of note to have been directly influenced by the ancient Graeco-Roman philosophy. At the same time, many of Camus’ own independently-developed ideas read as uncannily familiar and sympathetic to students of the Porch.
It is this little-remarked philosophical affinity that I want to explore here.
The Absurd and the Benign Indifference of Nature
Since Camus is so widely known for the idea of the absurd, we begin with this idea. People suppose Camus’s idea of the absurd to be an expression of chic Parisian despair at the godless meaninglessness of human life. Hence, they see his philosophy as wholly inconsistent with any ancient or premodern view of the world.
For Camus, though, the idea of the absurd involves the confrontation between our limited understanding and desire for unity and control, with a world which resists total human comprehension, in which innocents suffer, and in which death is an inevitable reality. The natural world seems not to have been created wholly to serve human goals, Camus contends. But this does not speak against a recognition of its larger worth and order.
On the contrary, Camus sees our sense of natural beauty as one of the ways in which people experience the absurd. Faced with a breathtaking landscape, Camus argues, the “inhuman” dimension of nature reveals itself to our contemplative regard. It is a matter of what his character Meursault calls nature’s “benign indifference,” facing imminent execution in The Outsider and gazing up at the stars. When we are moved by natural beauty, Camus writes, “the world evades us because it becomes itself again.” We now see it shorn of the “illusory meanings” with which our all-too-human preoccupations have clothed it; not as meaningless, but as operating according to its own logics (or Logos), greater and other than our petty concerns.[iii]
The very word “indifference”, so central to Camus’s thought, sounds very familiar to a Stoic audience. Stoics know that to hold that external things are “indifferent” in terms of their ability to “make us happy” (or “unhappy”) in no way licenses any kind of solipsistic or misanthropic withdrawal from engagement with the world. When one understands the larger order of nature, Marcus Aurelius claims, on the contrary, one can see beauty in the smallest things, like the broken crusts of baking bread or the gaping jaws of a wild beast. As Camus concurs, we are awakened to such beauty precisely when we cease to refer everything back to our own egos, but view them with a certain disinterestedness. “It is legitimate to glory in the diversity and quantity of experience,” Camus maintained, “only if one is completely disinterested in the object of one’s desires.”
Poverty, Sunshine, and Tuberculosis
As we mentioned above, Camus would always maintain that the bases of his philosophy lay more in his own specific experiences than in his formal education.[iv] Camus’ father died in the trenches in 1914, when Albert was only one. He was raised by his largely silent but devoted mother and his grandmother, in the sweltering heat of the poorest quartiers of French Algiers. Albert was the first of his family to go to high school, let alone university.
In truly Stoic fashion, however, Camus credited his childhood poverty with shaping his conceptions of happiness, life, and philosophy. Growing up poor, Camus claimed, enabled him to look down upon the riches that others envy and struggle for, as if these were the real bases of a good life. It made him see, as Epictetus would concur, that such goods are at most preferable to have or attain, and that their very absence can be a source of inner wealth.
“For me,” Camus echoes the old Stoic paradoxes, “the greatest luxury has coincided with a certain bareness”. When it is inner strength or virtue that is at issue, “the under-worker at the Post office can be the equivalent of the conqueror”, in his eyes. “What could a man want that is better than poverty?,” Camus asks his readers, quite seriously: “I do not say misery, any more than I mean the work without hope of the modern proletarian. But I do not see that one could desire more than poverty with an active leisure.”
The other experience which shaped the “royal privilege” (as Camus calls it) of this neo-Stoic disinterestedness towards external things is his lived experience of the imminence of death, because of the tuberculosis that continually dogged him throughout his short life. In a remarkable fragment from his Notebooks, Camus writes of a memento mori few of us, preferably, will have to entertain:
The sensation of death which from now on is so familiar to me … to have a foreboding of death simply at the sight of a pocket handkerchief filled with blood is to be effortlessly plunged back into time in the most breathtaking manner: it is the terror of becoming [italics added].
Once we understand Camus’ sense that he could quite literallydie at almost any moment, we comprehend the urgency of his repeated stress upon the importance of memento mori throughout his work, most famously in the idea of “absurd freedom” in The Myth of Sisyphus. “There is only one liberty: in coming to terms with death,” Camus reflects in his Notebooks, evoking Seneca’s famous maxim: “the person who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave.”
But isn’t it a paradox for Camus to think that coming to terms with this inevitability is key to feeling truly free?, someone may ask. If it is, it is again a very Stoic kind of paradox. For Camus agrees with the Stoics that the “liberty” here is an inner affair. It comes from being free from worry about what after all cannot be controlled, our mortality, instead focusing on what we can alter or affect. As Camus enjoins himself in his Notebooks, always with his tuberculosis in mind: “The degradation involved in all forms of suffering. One must not give into emptiness. Try to conquer and ‘fulfil’ time. Time—don’t waste it.” Or again: “Don’t forget: illness and the decay it brings. There is not a minute to lose—which is perhaps the opposite of ‘we must hurry’.”
Self-Writing, Forgetfulness, and Paying Attention
Perhaps the most remarkable contrast between Camus’ neo-Stoicism and the academic, theoretical philosophy predominant in his (and our) times, lies in how Camus, like the Stoics, conceived of philosophy as an ongoing exercise in learning how better to live, and to die. The most remarkable source of testimony we have to Camus’ philosophical practice and self-conception is his extant Notebooks.[v]
The work of philosophy, for Camus as for the Stoics, involves trying constantly to have at hand (procheiron) one’s key ideas, faced with the challenges of existence. “The primary faculty of man is forgetfulness,” Camus laments. The force of habit and our immersion in a thousand distractions lulls the eye of our minds to sleep. The wonder of beauty, the fugacity of time, the unique value and dignity of others—all of these realities are easily “crowded out” by the demands and vexations of everyday life: “… as everything finally becomes a matter of habit, we can be certain that [even] great thoughts and great actions … become insignificant …” However, as a Camusian note from 1950 remarks, “with a strong memory, you can create a precocious experience.”[vi] What is at stake in this philosophical cultivation of memory is a kind of ascetism, albeit one pursued in the name of self-fulfilment, not monastic self-denial:
One single, unchanging subject for meditation. Reject everything else. Work continuously, at a definite time, with no falling off, etc. (Moral training and asceticism too). A single moment of weakness and everything collapses, both practice and theory.
Camus calls the ideal mode of mindful awareness such an asceticism can create “lucidity” (lucidité) or “clear-sightedness” (clairvoyance). And again, the way Camus describes its features sound familiar to modern practitioners of Stoicism.
Firstly, there is a cultivated attention to the present moment: “a continued presence of self with self . . . not happiness, but awareness”, as Camus says: “the present and the succession of presents before a constantly conscious soul . . .” Happiness itself, Camus remarks, is “a long patience.”
Secondly, there is a sense of life as a gift, one meriting that gratitude writ so large in book I of Marcus’s Meditations, wherein the philosopher-emperor patiently recalls and thanks each person who benefited him in his formative years. So too, Camus will come to value above all a simple solidarity with others as amongst life’s greatest goods, given the realities of suffering, death, political polarisation and hatred: “now I have learned to expect less of [people] than they can give—a silent companionship. And their emotions, their friendship and noble gestures keep their full miraculous value in my eyes: wholly the fruit of grace.”
It is with such thoughts in view that we see why at the time of Camus’ death, he was working on a cycle of works led by The First Man exploring the different dimensions of love.
The 60th anniversary of Camus’ death falls at the beginning of another year, 2020, destined to be marked by division and acrimony. The solidarity between peoples which Camus dreamed of, a secular “kingdom of man” or cosmopolis, seems every bit as idealistic now as it did when he envisaged it in the 1940s. Different political actors have, and will continue, to claim Camus as one of their own, from conservatives to liberals and socialists: eloquent tribute to the power of his post-war political thinking and example. Other voices blame Camus for his failure to secure a civilian truce in the Algerian conflict, and his continuing inability to accept the need for the complete end of French Algeria, with resettlement of the pied noirs in continental France.
What we have aimed at here is to show how Camus, as well as a political thinker and actor, was also a philosopher in the ancient mould who conceived and tried to live an examined life profoundly close to, and influenced by, the model of the ancient Stoics: one characterised by inner discipline, attention to the present moment, openness to natural beauty, indifference towards externals, awareness of the limitations of human understanding and the inevitability of death, and a profound sense of sympathetic solidarity with others. This side of our political divisions, as Stoics or just as human beings, different readers can still find wisdom in Camus’s philosophy of life, as well as his thought and example, sixty years after his premature passing.
So, let me close in Camus’s own words, exhorting himself Stoically in his Notebooks in what became his final years, in words which can equally be read as exhortations to us all:
Remain close to the reality of beings and things. Return as often as possible to personal happiness … Recover energy—as the central force. Recognise the need for enemies. Love that they exist … Recover the greatest strength, not to dominate but to give.
[i] For a list of Camus’ references to the Stoics, see “Annex” in François Bousquet, Méditerranéen , Camus L ‘Ancien (Paris: Éditions Naaman, 1977), 112–113; on Camus’ reading of Epictetus in hospital, see the same text, page 35.
[ii] In what follows, we will opt for “neo-Stoic”, given the use of this term to describe earlier modern thinkers like Justus Lipsius who adapted Stoic principles whilst trying to reconcile them with other, independently-developed convictions and positions.
[iii] Readers unfamiliar with his work are referred particularly “Nuptials at Tipasa” (in Lyrical and Critical Essays, trans. P. Thody (New York: Vintage, 1970), as he describes visiting Roman ruins in Algeria with a lover and bathing in the Mediterranean. This piece, and Camus’ lyrical essays more widely, contain some of Camus’ most beautiful prose. Tellingly, in his 1936 thesis on Christian Metaphysics and Neoplatonism, it is again Marcus Aurelius who Camus cites to encapsulate the Greek attitude to existence with which he always identifies his own thought:
“Hellenism implies that man can be self-sufficient and that he has within himself the means to explain the universe and destiny … The line of their hills, or the run of a young man on a beach, provided them with the whole secret of the world. Their gospel said: our Kingdom is of this world. Think of Marcus Aurelius’s: ‘Everything is fitting for me, O Cosmos, which fits your purpose’.”
[iv] Camus’ lasting inability to “fit in” with the Parisian intellectual elites after 1941 looks back to his origins as a pied noir Algerian-Frenchman from the colonies. Sartre would raise this background against him in their spectacular public falling out after Camus’ 1951 anti-Stalinist work The Rebel.
[v] Commentators have wondered what to do with these fragmentary and aphoristic reflections, because so much of them is given over not to theoretical or literary developments, but to Camus’ own philosophical practice of trying to actualise, in life, his philosophical principles, just as Marcus Aurelius had done in his Meditations.
[vi] Camus responds in the imperative, echoing Marcus Aurelius’s many injunctions to himself in his Meditations to “remember!”: “Cultivate one’s memory, immediately.”
Matt Sharpe teaches philosophy at Deakin University, Australia. He is presently completing a book on the history of the idea of philosophy as a way of life, and is cotranslator of Pierre Hadot’s Selected Essays: Philosophy as Practice (Bloomsbury, 2020-in press).
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). The theme of this month’s issue is Stoic Skills.
Contributors include many prominent modern Stoics: Donald Robertson, Sharon Lebell, Kai Whiting, Meredith Kunz, Flora Bernard, Jonas Salzgeber and Chuck Chakrapani. If you’d like to check it out, or to subscribe, you can click here.