The Stoic – May 2020

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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).

In this issue, you will find many thoughtful articles from modern Stoics on how to handle the current crisis as well as on other topics. Contributors include prominent modern Stoics such as: Greg Sadler, Donald Robertson, Sharon Lebell, Kai Whiting, Flora Berenard, Jonas Salzgeber, Meredith Kunz, and Chuck Chakrapani. If you’d like to check it out, or to subscribe, click here

CONTENTS OF THIS ISSUE (THE STOIC ART OF LIVING)

  • GREG SADLER  The art of balancing optimism with realism
  • SHARON LEBELL  The art of cherry-picking what is beneficial         
  • FLORA BERNARD  The art of being free                                     
  • KAI WHITING  The art of fending for ourselves  
  • JONAS SALZGEBER  The art of listening
  • DONALD ROBERTSON  The art of eating                            
  • MEREDITH A. KUNZ   The art of handling uncertainty   
  • CHUCK CHAKRAPANI   The art of dealing with our aversions   
  • SENECA The Art of being imperfect

Call for Student Papers on Stoicism

The student philosophy journal Filosofisk Supplement is accepting papers for their next issue, focused on “Stoicism” (#3/20). All papers must be somewhat related to Stoic philosophy. Here is their call for papers:

Filosofisk Supplement is a student-run journal associated with Department of Philosophy, Classics, History of Art and Ideas (IFIKK) at the University of Oslo (UiO). The journal is issued four times a year. Our aims are to serve as a medium for dissemination of philosophy and to contribute to philosophical discussion both at the university and beyond.

To these ends, we also organize seminars at a monthly basis, as well as other philosophically themed events, such as debates.

We accept papers from both current and former students of philosophy and other academic disciplines. We do not accept papers from PhD-candidates in philosophy or professional academic philosophers.

Abstracts and drafts can be sent to this email address. All papers will be
reviewed. Papers should be no longer than 20 pages, (about 400-500 words per page). Please use the Chicago B-reference style.

The deadline is July 15th, and all entries need to be ready in finished form no later than August 15th.

Important: Stoicon 2020 Toronto Rescheduled

Hello everyone,

Due to public health concerns over the global pandemic, Stoicon 2020 Toronto and Stoicon-x Toronto have been rescheduled to 2021. Instead a virtual online conference will now be taking place in 2020.

You can find links to the EventBrite ticket booking pages and Facebook event pages below. Some information is still pending or subject to change because, as you can probably imagine, there’s a re-organizing required due to the pandemic. We hope that you’ll support Modern Stoicism as we adapt to the changing situation. Please share the links on social media to help us spread the word. Thanks!

Stoicon 2020 Online will take place on 17th October 2020.

Stoicon 2021 will take place in Toronto on Saturday 23rd October.

Stoicon-x Toronto will take place on Sunday 24th October 2021.

Greta Thunberg and Epictetian Communitarian Action by Aldo Dinucci

Greta Thunberg first struck me as an interesting person because when she came on the international scene, she was a 16-year-old being verbally abused by powerful men. According to the education I was given, it is inconceivable to be rude to a child, or an old person, and for this reason I immediately sympathized with her. I then bought her little book published by Penguin. The title struck a chord with me: No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference.

Her book consists of speeches she has given in various places in favor of the environment. I noticed that several of Greta’s messages and her attitude are perfectly in line with Stoic thinking in general and Epictetus in particular. In this short article, I explore some of these aspects, starting with a brief exposition of Stoic and Epictetian principles, followed by some passages from Greta’s book that I think harmonize with what I will call “Epictetian communitarian action”.

Cicero, an eclectic who transmitted to us several reports about Stoic philosophy in Antiquity, informs us that, according to the Stoics, “no one wishes to spend his life in solitude, even with infinity and abundance of pleasures, it is easily understood that we are born for communion, for the congregation and for the natural community”[1] . He adds that the human community has its origin in the affection, created by nature, from parents towards their children.[2]

We must stress that, on the one hand, Stoicism acknowledges that human beings have egoistical impulses, but, on the other hand,  their innate tendency to live in community must be enhanced through the study and the practice of philosophy. Through this exercise, the Stoics think, the awareness about the urgency of acting unselfishly can be enhanced in the human beings. In fact, for the Stoics, since humans are naturally fit for social intercourse, association, and civility,[3] acting in a communitarian way is something that interests them and that selfishness is an illusion.

Epictetus talks about this social character of human beings from a different perspective, in order to explain why human beings, as social animals, can act at times rather selfishly. He puts forward the case that human beings are conceived from two different perspectives, that is to say a double kinship:

[…] Since these two things are mingled in the generation of man, body in common with the animals, and reason and intelligence in common with the gods, many incline to this kinship, which is miserable and mortal; and some few to that which is divine and happy. Since then it is of necessity that every man uses everything according to the opinion which he has about it, those, the few, who think that they are formed for fidelity and modesty […] no mean or ignoble thoughts about themselves […] Through this kinship with the flesh, some of us inclining to it become like wolves, faithless and treacherous and mischievous: some become like lions, savage and bestial and untamed; but the greater part of us become foxes, and other worse animals. For what else is a slanderer and a malignant man than a fox, or some other more wretched and meaner animal?

Epictetus, Discourses 1.3.3-5, 7-8 [4]

For Epictetus, being rational means being aware that you are a part of a greater whole, an individual who is both a local citizen and a world citizen of the Cosmos. He puts forward the case that the human being who leans toward her animal side, that is to say, who acts to fulfill only her personal impulses and desires, losing sight of the social impacts of her actions, loses her moral and rational dimension, because she fails to act ethically.

In other words, in failing to develop her rational and moral character, she is reduced to an irrational animal, who simply seeks the satisfaction of her primary impulses, selfish desires, and sensual appetites. Whilst there is nothing wrong with an animal who is limited in this way, when a human being acts in this way, she does herself a disservice, because she is restricting her personal development and social role.

This idea is further supported by Epictetus’ assertion that acting only to fulfill her own appetites and desires makes the human being disloyal, treacherous, and therefore antisocial, unlike the human being who bends to her rational and moral side, and in doing so becomes trustworthy and dignified and therefore sociable.

While human beings make use of their rational and moral characteristics, they harmonize their egoistical impulses with reason and thus better integrate with the rest of society and the world around them, as Epictetus stresses in his Discourses:

If the things are true which are said by the philosophers about the kinship between God and man, what else remains for men to do than what Socrates did? Never in reply to the question, to what country you belong, say that you are an Athenian or a Corinthian, but that you are a citizen of the world. For why do you say that you are an Athenian, and why do you not say that you belong to the small nook only into which your poor body was cast at birth? […] He then who has observed with intelligence the administration of the world, and has learned that the greatest and supreme and the most comprehensive community is that which is composed of humans and God, and that from God have descended the seeds not only to my father and grandfather, but to all beings which are generated on the earth and are produced, and particularly to rational beings—for these only are by their nature formed to have communion with God, being by means of reason conjoined with him—why should not such a man call himself a citizen of the world, why not a son of God, and why should he be afraid of anything which happens among men?

Epictetus, Discourses 1.9.5

Thus, by leaning towards and valuing rationality, and thereby becoming knowledgeable of the science underlying the Earth of which she is a part, a human being can achieve a communal view of reality, thus finding her place in the Cosmos and seeking in her thoughts and actions what is best for the community in which she lives. Accordingly, for Epictetus, the appropriate action is neither selfless nor selfish, but instead in aiming for the good of the individual and the community as a whole:

This is not a perverse self-regard, for the animal is constituted so as to do all things for itself. For even the sun does all things for itself; nay, even Zeus himself. But when he chooses to be the Giver of rain and the Giver of fruits, and the Father of Gods and humans, you see that he cannot obtain these functions and these names, if he is not useful to man; and, universally, he has made the nature of the rational animal such that it cannot obtain any one of its own proper interests, if it does not contribute something to the common interest.

Discourses 1.19.11-15

It follows that to act anti-socially is to act against human nature because it sabotages an individual’s potential to reach eudaimonia, a Greek term that can be roughly translated to “experience a life worth living”. In Discourses 2.10, and in line with what I have just said, Epictetus notes that she who recognizes herself as an important part of the cosmos treats nothing as a private matter, that is, as something separate from those in her community, but acts “as the hand or foot would do, if they had reason and understood the constitution of nature, for they would never put themselves in motion nor desire anything otherwise than with reference to the whole.”[5]

Thus, we begin to establish that the principles that govern communitarian actions (which aim for the good of the individual and the community) equally support ecological actions (which aim for the good of the individual and the environment, and consequently, once again, the good of the community).

In this sense, a good (virtuous) education should teach individuals that they are an important part of their community. It should emphasize the value of foreseeing the effects of one’s actions in the wider community, to avoid antisocial conduct and to build community. As Epictetus states:

As the proposition it is either day or it is night is of great importance for the disjunctive argument, but for the conjunctive is of no value, so in a banquet to select the larger share is of great value for the body, but for the maintenance of the social feeling is worth nothing. When then you are eating with another, remember to look not only to the value for the body of the things set before you, but also to the value of the behaviour towards the host which ought to be observed.

Epictetus, Enchiridion 36

Similarly, Greta Thunberg expresses an awareness of human nature and the need to acknowledge that rational self-interest aligns with communal interests. She argues that the good of society should not be dictated by what is perceived as “good” by powerful individuals. Greta clearly distinguishes between selfish and antisocial action, which focuses on wealth accumulation, and community focused action, which aims at preserving our world as a suitable place for all living beings.

In her discourse entitled ‘A Strange World’, she notes that we live in a world

where celebrities, film and pop stars who have stood up against all injustices will not stand up for our environment and for climate justice because that would inflict on their right to fly around the world visiting their favorite restaurants, beaches and yoga retreats.[6]

In another discourse, entitled ‘Our House is on Fire’ she follows the same line of thought, reflecting on how the materialistic desires of the privileged few threatens humanity and the world as a whole:

We are about to sacrifice our civilization for the opportunity of a very small number of people to continue to make enormous amounts of money. We are about to sacrifice the biosphere so that rich people in countries like mine can live in luxury. But it is the sufferings of the many which pay for the luxuries of the few.”[7]

For this reason, Greta urges all people to act for the whole, all of humanity and the planet on which we live – “For the sake of your children, for the sake of your grandchildren. For the sake of life and this beautiful living planet”[8], since our future is up to us.[9]

For Epictetus and for Greta, antisocial agents always act out of ignorance, because they do not fully realize how their actions ultimately worsens the society in which they live to the detriment of their own lives. For instance, the act of using a car instead of using public transport because it makes your life easier, ultimately does nothing to prevent the destruction of Earth and its climate. Greta realizes that the adults she addresses do not seem to be fully aware of this: “Since the climate crisis is a crisis that never once has been treated as a crisis, people are simply not aware of the full consequences from our everyday life”.[10]

For this reason, Greta decided to start a school strike, standing before the Swedish parliament to protest:

When school started in August this year I decided that this was enough. I sat myself down on the ground outside the Swedish parliament. I school-striked for the climate.[11]

From then on she began to experience something common to many who seek to do the right thing: the hatred and misunderstanding of many. She was insulted and slandered by those who felt threatened by her message as she spoke truth to power. And Greta, in line with what Epictetus taught, responded to her aggressors with courage and serenity, staying focused on the urgency of climate breakdown in and the communal effort it will take to save the planet.

To all the politicians that ridicule us on social media, and have named and shamed me so that people tell me that I’m retarded, a bitch and a terrorist, and many other things. To all of you who choose to look the other way every day because you seem more frightened of the changes that can prevent catastrophic climate change than the catastrophic climate change itself. Your silence is almost worst of all. The future of all the coming generations rests on your shoulders.[12]

Greta is well aware that sometimes unpopularity is a price to pay when someone decides to act in a communitarian way. In this sense she mirrors Epictetus’ teaching:

When you have decided that a thing ought to be done and are doing it, never avoid being seen doing it, though the many shall form an unfavourable opinion about it. For if it is not right to do it, avoid doing the thing; but if it is right, why are you afraid of those who shall find fault wrongly?

Epictetus, Enchiridion 35

We have seen that Greta’s actions in many instances align with Stoic and Epictetian wisdom. Even without claiming to be a Stoic, she is a living example of what can done if someone follows ideas like these and achieves an awareness of the need of act in a communitarian way. I think that her example encourages those who aim at following Epictetus to engage with Epictetus’ teachings and to use them to save the planet.


[1] Cicero, On Ends, 3.65.

[2] Cicero, On Ends, 3.19.62.

[3] Cicero, On Ends, 3.19.64.

[4] Cf. Epictetus, Discourses 2.10.13 ss.

[5] Epictetus, Discourses 2.10.4-5 (George Long’s translation).

[6] Greta Thunberg, No one is too small to make a difference, p. 41.

[7] Greta Thunberg, No one is too small to make a difference, p. 20-21.

[8] Greta Thunberg, No one is too small to make a difference, p. 24.

[9] Greta Thunberg, No one is too small to make a difference, p. 27: “But Homo sapiens have not yet failed. Yes, we are failing, but there is still time to turn everything around. We can still fix this. We still have everything in our own hands.”

[10] Greta Thunberg, No one is too small to make a difference, p. 30.

[11] Greta Thunberg, No one is too small to make a difference, p. 18.

[12] Greta Thunberg, No one is too small to make a difference, p. 10.

Aldo Dinucci is Professor of Ancient Philosophy at the Federal University of Sergipe in Brazil, the Editor in Chief of Προμηθεύς, and has published, among other books, translations from Greek to Portuguese of the Manual of Epictetus and Epictetus Discourses, Book 1 .

Stoicism and the Coronavirus Pandemic by Kit Hildyard

‘To be, or not to be, that,’ states the eponymous protagonist in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, ‘is the question.’ By the end of Shakespeare’s celebrated tale of vengeance and insanity, it had become, for many of the play’s characters – including Hamlet himself – a case of ‘not to be.’ Hamlet’s slide into depression and paranoia is prefaced by the loss of his father, King Hamlet, and ends with his own death at the hands of the courtier Laertes.

Roman Emperor (and Stoic philosopher) Marcus Aurelius preferred a more detached and merciful approach to rulership than the fictional Prince Hamlet, vowing never to execute a senator, and ruling alongside his adoptive brother Lucius Verus – this marked the first point in Roman history during which the Empire had been ruled by multiple emperors, a trend that subsequently became increasingly common.

Marcus died of plague in AD 180 while on a campaign in what is now Austria. He died, according to psychotherapist and writer Donald Robertson in How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius (St Martin’s Press, 2019), ‘wheezing … just a feeble old man.’ Robertson adds that as Marcus slipped into death, he caught a glimpse of his own reflection on the polished surface of a statuette of the goddess Fortuna, focusing on the reflected image of himself as a means to contemplate and come to terms with his own mortality; after all, as Robertson puts it, ‘King and pauper alike, the same fate ultimately awaits everyone…’

The coronavirus pandemic – like other outbreaks of disease throughout history – emerged unexpectedly, and its socio-political and economic consequences are uncertain. In such times, faced with an invisible but sometimes fatal enemy (Covid-19), maintaining a stiff upper lip might seem – alongside adhering to measures such as government-mandated lockdowns – the most sensible path to take. Stoicism, however, denotes an entire school of philosophy, a system of values going beyond mere passivity in the face of external hardships.

It is true that Stoic literature such as Marcus’ Meditations offers advice such as ‘Be like the cliff against which the waves continually break; but it stands firm and tames the fury of the water around it.’ However, Stoicism is about more than staying calm during a crisis. Stoicism as practiced by adherents such as Marcus encompasses a love of truth, respect for values such as justice, fairness, and reason, and living life in accordance with Nature.

We often seek to order and control our surroundings, including the natural world; perhaps, instead, we should heed Marcus’ advice: ‘You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realise this, and you will find strength.’ The survival instinct is hardwired into humans, and it would seem both perplexing – and morally objectionable – to take no action in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. Armed with a modern understanding of science and the ability to create – albeit not for some time yet – a vaccine, governments do need to implement temporary measures to reduce the death toll from coronavirus; the action that most governments worldwide have taken has been to tell most of their citizens to do as little as possible – to stay at home and venture out only for essential reasons such as to buy food or to take limited amounts of exercise.

One can only assume that Marcus, were he in the shoes of Boris Johnson, would implement measures similar to those put in place by the Prime Minister – such as social distancing and a nationwide lockdown. Just as Marcus demonstrated clemency towards Roman senators – a reflection of his desire to be viewed as a merciful and just emperor (a ‘philosopher-king’) – it seems likely that he would take steps to preserve the health of his citizens in the face of a public health crisis if governing modern-day Britain.

At the same time, Marcus recognised that, as he put it in Meditations, ‘All is ephemeral’ – we cannot raise ourselves above Nature or aspire towards immortality. If the author Yuval Noah Harari was right in his Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (Harvill Secker, 2016) to claim that, in the twentieth century, humanity essentially overcame war, plague and famine, and that, in the twenty-first century, we will probably attain bliss, immortality, and divinity, the coronavirus pandemic has successfully demonstrated that we are not quite there yet.

Covid-19 has far greater mortality rates than seasonal flu. Faced not only with the reality of the closure of pubs, restaurants, and cafes, but also with the prospect of death, Marcus’ calm, detached grace in the face of death itself (as I mentioned above, Marcus died due to a plague outbreak) offers much solace in extremely testing times. In Meditations, Marcus wrote of going ‘to your rest with a good grace, as an olive falls in its season, with a blessing for the earth.’

While this might seem like a demanding prescription, Stoicism, it seems to me, could offer succour to families who are anxious or suffering during the current pandemic – Marcus’ writings put our passing woes into an almost cosmic perspective, reminding us that our presence on earth is fleeting. He achieves this using straightforward, soft, and beautiful prose, replete with metaphors – this is practical philosophy at its best, and its ability to offer reassurance in the face of great obstacles (which, invariably, will pass) and great suffering (which shall also pass) is timeless.

These same ideas relating to the ephemerality of all things and the constant state of flux in which we find ourselves can offer reassurance not only in the face of the universally shared certainty of eventually dying but also in light of the widespread boredom, anxiety, and isolation that have taken root during the pandemic. ‘When you arise in the morning, think of what a privilege it is to be alive, to think, to enjoy, to love,’ Marcus implores us – irrespective of curfews and stay-at-home orders, we can continue to revel in such simple pleasures.  

In times when pasta and loo roll are in short supply (a symptom of anxiety-induced ‘panic buying’), and public figures condemn stockpiling as being ‘shameful,’ we might also be cognisant of the classical exhortation ‘Everything in moderation.’ As Robertson notes, referring to the thought of Socrates in How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, ‘Hunger is the best relish … whereas if we overeat we spoil our appetites.’ It has perhaps never been easier – and more useful – to adopt a Stoic outlook than in these times of state-enforced moderation.

Combatting isolation has been of concern to various UK administrations, now more than ever. In my part of Waltham Forest in East London, community groups have sprung up to combat this problem, delivering food packages to the neediest and most vulnerable, those too frail or too at-risk of complications should they contract the virus for it to remain prudent for them to undertake their shopping themselves. For those truly alone during this time, the adoption of an outlook informed by Stoicism could be a panacea to the most uncomfortable feelings of boredom and extreme solitude brought about by state-imposed self-isolation, even if it might not – realistically – cause those quite understandable feelings to vanish entirely.

As the pandemic grinds on, countries across the world will gradually reach, and later move past, the peak periods of infection and mortality (this process itself amply captures the transience inherent in all things that Stoics such as Marcus stress in their writings). The lockdowns, curfews, and even social distancing measures will gradually be lifted. But what will the world look like, from a Stoic perspective, once the crisis has receded? Will the crisis lead to an efflorescence or a contraction of Stoic values? Will the world grow in reason and wisdom, or become a more unreasoned and divided place?

Following the First World War (incidentally, the ‘Spanish flu’ pandemic of 1918 – 20 caused many more fatalities than the War itself), the League of Nations was established, part of an unsuccessful effort to prevent another global conflict. The League stressed self-determination for sovereign states in addition to internationalist cooperation. Similarly, the current pandemic requires a blend of solutions implemented at both national and international levels.

Guided by scientific evidence, it is down to sovereign states to decide upon whether it is necessary to implement lockdowns, and for how long. However, the pandemic is truly global in nature; as such, worldwide cooperation is needed in order to ensure that new cycles of infection do not take place, to roll out (eventually) a vaccine and, until such time as a vaccine is developed, to share medical expertise and, where possible, equipment, and the results of scientific research internationally. The United Nations (the League’s successor) has had considerably greater success in achieving its objectives than its predecessor.

In the case of the current pandemic, we simply must prevent further global conflagrations. The costs of a breakdown in communication between the national and the international, the local and the global would be too great – indeed, such failure would lead to further cycles of infection, and excessive, preventable economic damage. History teaches us that our global clout to combat the virus must be greater than the clout that the League was able to apply to avert the Second World War.

Stoicism, as I mentioned earlier, is about more than maintaining a stiff upper lip; rather, it encapsulates a wide set of values. In How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, Robertson distinguishes between ‘stoicism’ (a vernacular term essentially referring to developing toughness in response to adversity) and the rich tradition of Stoicism itself. The universality of Stoicism offers us abiding wisdom, and implores us to live virtuously in accordance with reason and Nature. It seems reasonable to suggest that Stoicism offers humanity solutions for combatting the virus collectively, on the level of public policy.

The Stoic exhortation to deploy reason offers, if followed, hope that we might reach a wise and sensible solution to handling Covid-19, one which draws upon scientific evidence, and which balances national initiatives with internationalist, universalist cooperation. This approach would not utilise geopolitical one-upmanship reminiscence of the Cold War era but a combination of national and international approaches. It would recognise that, while death is inevitable, it should not be embraced; Stoicism teaches us to live in accordance with Nature, but this does not diminish its emphasis upon justice, fairness, and compassion. Delivering such abstract virtues presumably involves (from a public policy perspective) catalysing robust public health campaigns in the short-term and working to build more virtuous societies in the post-pandemic era.

It seems too soon to discern whether, once the pandemic has subsided, the world will have become a fairer, more compassionate, and more just place. References by some politicians to the ‘Wuhan virus’ have not been conducive towards fostering worldwide cooperation. Jingoism has also been apparent in some quarters, an unhelpful antidote to a global public health crisis.

More mundanely, around twenty people (ranging from the young to the elderly) gathered in Coventry for a barbecue party, in contravention of regulations prohibiting more than two people from different households from assembling together – undoubtedly a less extravagant affair than the hedonistic bashes thrown by Lucius Verus, the barbecue party nevertheless attracted the attention of the police, who decided to tip over the barbecue. Subsequently sharing an image of the tipped-over barbecue on social media, the police seemed to be implicitly criticising the less-than-Stoical attitude of the event-goers – while others were duly observing the new restrictions, and enduring their more straitened circumstances with composure, the barbecue-goers preferred immoderation and the satisfaction of their short-term desires to either maintaining a stiff upper lip in the face of adversity or pursuing virtue.

However, virtuous acts and policies have been observable throughout the pandemic, ranging from the zeal with which hundreds of thousands of people signed up to volunteer to help the overburdened NHS to new measures brought in to house homeless people. The pandemic has evidently unleashed both virtuous and unvirtuous responses – Stoicism would not advocate the irrational overreaction of ‘panic buying’ but, in its emphasis on compassion and fairness, it would applaud initiatives such as extending government support to those worst hit by the virus.

The world was changing rapidly prior to the advent of Covid-19. Some trends, such as the growth of ‘Big Tech,’ and the continuing development of artificial intelligence (AI), are likely to continue apace. One area in which China has taken the lead has been in implementing biometric surveillance measures to combat the virus – this, in tandem with the application of lockdowns, enables governments and public health authorities to track new infections more effectively. If a Stoic leader would wish to improve public health during a pandemic, what might be problematic with so-called ‘under the skin’ surveillance measures such as these, and how ought those forced to comply with them respond? Stoicism promotes the pursuit of virtue, whereas, troublingly, biometric surveillance could grow into authoritarianism.

In The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (Profile Books, 2019), Shoshana Zuboff laments the growth of so-called ‘surveillance capitalism,’ under which a seductive mixture of advertising, ‘behavioural futures markets,’ and facial recognition cameras insidiously predict, and later control our every move. Extending such ideas to the medical sphere, what starts as monitoring body temperatures, blood pressure, and heart rates could lead – if deployed nefariously – to mass data harvesting by both corporations and governments, allowing them to know more about the everyday person than at any previous point in history. As Shylock asks in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, ‘If you tickle us do we not laugh?’ Biometrical surveillance could provide individually tailored answers to this supposedly rhetorical question. This would seem to constitute a distinctly unvirtuous scenario, an unreasonable incursion into the realm of human freedoms.

Biometrical surveillance might improve health outcomes to some extent, but at a cost to human liberty beyond that necessary effectively to take on and overcome the pandemic. Influenced by the collectivist traditions of Confucianism, and the statism of Communism, China’s citizens appear to have accepted biometrical surveillance without much complaint. If biometrical surveillance is deployed more widely – as part of a coordinated global response to tackling Covid-19 – perhaps it should be meekly accepted? Even if Stoicism might permit us to accept such measures, self-sacrifice should not come at the expense of eschewing the pursuit of virtue. In this instance, it seems that the potential for biometrical surveillance to develop into a ‘slippery slope’ towards excessive surveillance by both governments and corporations could outweigh the health benefits that it might confer.

In his Meditations, Marcus writes that ‘It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.’ As state-imposed lockdowns resulting from the fear of Covid-19 affect billions of people worldwide, many of us are freshly considering how best to live. Most of those infected by the virus suffer only mild symptoms, or no symptoms at all. While the virus has already caused a tragically large number of deaths worldwide, it is not, strictly speaking, rational for most people to fear (at least on a personal level) its potential deadliness. Although the coronavirus pandemic has led some to feel more bored, anxious, and inert, it also heralds a chance for humanity to rediscover the value of Stoicism.

As a practical school of philosophy, Stoicism offers individuals valuable insights into how to approach with forbearance crises such as our current public health emergency. It can aid both individuals and governments wishing to pursue a more virtuous path. Ultimately, whatever the longer-term impact of the coronavirus pandemic on Stoicism and vice versa, we can rest assured that Marcus’ Meditations has insight into how best we might deal with the new world that emerges: ‘Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.’ Stoicism, then, offers wisdom and advice that seem particularly useful in the current climate. We would do well to make use of it.

Kit Hildyard has degrees in history and Modern South Asian Studies from Trinity College, Cambridge, and a Graduate Diploma in Law from City Law School. He has worked in both South Asian art and law, and is co-founder and Partner of legal services business Hildyard & Clifford LLP. In addition to Stoicism, he enjoys travel, spending time in the countryside, and music. He lives in East London.

Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT) 2020

We’re delighted to announce that Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT) 2020 is now enrolling and will begin on Sunday 10th May. It’s completely free of charge and everyone is welcome to take part.

SMRT is a four-week elearning course developed by Donald Robertson for Modern Stoicism. It’s an intensive practical skills training, focusing on psychological techniques central to Stoic philosophy. Donald and Tim LeBon will be this year’s course facilitators.

SMRT was originally developed in 2014 and normally runs once each year. (Although last year we didn’t have time, unfortunately.) We gather research data from participants using established outcome measures, which have consistently shown psychological benefits from the training, and a recent study suggested that those were maintained over the longer-term. We believe that SMRT really is capable therefore of helping you to build lasting emotional resilience, through the use of basic Stoic concepts and practices.

This isn’t a beginners guide to Stoicism. If you’re looking for a general introduction to the subject try Stoic Week. SMRT is an intensive training, focusing on a handful of specific cognitive skills, which form the basis of other Stoic practices.

The course is four weeks long and requires a commitment of approximately 20-30 minutes per day. Thousands of participants around the world have completed SMRT over the past few years.

NB: You must be in good mental health to participate in this course. If you have a current psychiatric diagnosis or a history of psychiatric problems you should not participate and Modern Stoicism do not take responsibility or accept liability for your use of the course materials. Please see the course terms of use for more information.

My Stoic Journey by Gerry Castellino

 I came to the stark realization – I’m insignificant. I may not matter to this world, this world may not matter to me as well, I thought, just passing through in my long cosmic journey. I wanted to feel different, make this life count, make every day count, love more, all who I care for, and those who care for me. How can I make a difference, what tools do I need, what thinking mindset do I need to cultivate, how do I make this earthly sojourn matter, but most importantly “Who or what do I need to matter to the most?”

  Thus, these and other questions started swirling in my head the starting around 2012. I was on a furious quest to understand this and a myriad of other loops, puzzles, conundrums, enigmas going through my mind. As I looked up into the skies, I realized this earth, we call home is smaller than a speck of sand, in the cosmic realm, of questionable significance, and so was I.

My quest led me to many great spiritual masters, scientists, philosophers of the past, that did their best to explain their theories of living, life and living well meant. I was not satisfied, I needed to create a “Eudemonia”, of me, by me and for me. I didn’t know what I was looking for, or in what shape, or form this magic would manifest itself, but I was determined to find my meaning, my truths. As searchers, our first portal for clarity, these days, is to the App store on our devices. There must be an App for this stuff, I remember thinking. 

  The summer of 2016 led me to a chance encounter with the Meditations at my local city library. I had heard of the word “Stoic”, never heard of Marcus Aurelius. I read it in a couple of days. The silence I heard inside me was deafening, I got turned upside-down and inside-out. I did not understand what had just hit me. I still don’t understand the why. All my loops, fears, anxieties simply melted away. Through the curtains of space and time I felt Marcus Aurelius’ hand on my shoulder saying “We’ve got this!”. My journey for purpose and meaning came to an abrupt halt. I had found something significant. I now needed to unpack this thing! these ideas and learn how to apply it.

 But Who Do I Need it to Matter To?”

 I now had the answer to this question. I needed to matter to myself, first, and now with Stoic Philosophy I had the tools and the mechanism to achieve this. I realized this imperfect world was pulling me in all different directions, I was everywhere, in my mind, and hence, also nowhere. With the lens of Stoicism now on me, I realized this world of hyper social connectedness was causing me angst, making me distracted, losing focus in living a true and meaningful life. The beauty of Stoic Philosophy was that it met me where I was, how I was, and told me “you’re OK, we’ve got this!”.  I didn’t need to walk on a bed of hot coals to realize any magical transformation, it was all in me.

Along the time I encountered Stoicism, I discovered mindfulness, through a book by Christophe Andre, Looking at Mindfulness. While Stoic Philosophy made me discover myself within, mindfulness or awareness performed the Vulcan mind meld with me and the world without. I became cognizant of an energy system that propelled me with ease, throughout the day. Einstein predicted time would slow down when traveling at high speeds through interstellar space. I would often experience this phenomenon as I practiced Stoicism and mindfulness techniques raking leaves in my backyard.

  Life is the gift of the immortal Gods, living well is the gift of Philosophy

Seneca

 With Stoicism and Mindfulness in my toolkit, I launched the Fremont, CA chapter of the Stoic Fellowship. James Kostecka, a founding member of the Stoic Fellowship joined me, and together we have been leading our local Stoa. From meeting weekend mornings at a local coffee shop, we migrated to a beautiful outdoors park setting, at Lake Elizabeth, in Fremont CA.

Our meetups would start with wisdom sharing for about 30 minutes where members would bring to the mornings discussion whatever mattered to them, from wisdom sharing to our personal struggles, we all contributed to the group and the common good.

Our mornings would continue further with a stoic walk around the 2-mile perimeter of the lake. We’d continue our discussions, take in the delicate morning scenery, with birds, sun, and wind all wanting to sneak in, on our wisdom wisps. We would end with a reading from Ryan Holiday’s Daily Stoic.

I didn’t have the luxury of moving to a cave and living out my life there. I was stuck where I was (or so I thought), but with Stoic Philosophy, I gave up on the idea of a hermit like existence. Awake, aware and free! My search for purpose and meaning was happening daily, in real-time, each day a new adventure in virtue, wisdom, temperance and courage. I was making the best of where I was, with what I was and what I had. With Stoicism and Mindfulness, this was a Winnie Pooh like adventure.

 Place the mask over your mouth and nose, like this. Pull the strap to tighten it. If you are traveling with children, make sure that your own mask is on first before helping your children.

Aircraft Safety Announcement

 Stoicism put me first. Only then can I fix this world. Learning to take care of “me” is key. this is the first step that must happen in an awareness makeover that Stoicism demands of us. Anything less, is selling ourselves short. We live the aircraft safety announcement, daily, with the wretch that life throws at us, and the nonsense, we get sucked into.  I realize that I need to be together, daily. With a family that depends on me for stability, advice, comfort, kind words, love, wisdom and virtue, I have to have it together, every day, no exception. Stoicism puts me first, only then could I be of service to the community around me.

Purpose and Meaning

The ancient Stoics got the business of life very well. Stoic thinking availed them of the simple pleasures of the day, warts and all. They gave the best from where they were, with what they had, at that moment. We often imagine the outcome before we’ve even started the race, and lose ourselves to the illusion of that mirage. Living fully to this day, this moment, this conversation, this task, is what matters more. Learning this very simple concept, has had lasting impact. Our imperfect world teaches us just the opposite, we’re constantly being pedaled to, social bombardment, instant gratification, magic pills, we’ve lost what it means to live fully and completely, learning to incorporate the obstacles in our way. We’re lost in our own mirage.  

 Stoicism, like bowling alley guardrails, are our mental guardrails, it keeps us moving along the straight and narrow, whilst maintaining composure, calm, balance, coherence and a sense of purpose. This built in protection is priceless. Always up, always on guard, our inner sentinel that never sleeps. Like a vaccine, we’ve been inoculated, it is in us forever. It’s my inner activist too, parading, shouting, screaming, waving banners – when I’ve regressed. I’ve learned to pay attention. 

Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world.
Today I am wise, so I am changing myself
What you seek is seeking you
As you start to walk on the way, the way appears

Rumi

My Stoic journey had started a while ago. I just didn’t know it. Meditations gave me so many precious gifts, the most important was courage to trust the Stoic path I was on. Courage to realize all that I had was just me, my thoughts, my truth, my light to shine. My light to shine was not for others, it was for myself. I also needed my own set of truth to fall back on, but first I had to know what my truths were.

Meditations forced me to pause, reflect, detach from worldly based thinking, to one based on courage, virtue, wisdom and temperance. I now recognized my false, ego based thinking. My inner light was slowly but surely pointing out. The greatest gift of Meditations is to us. It’s very personal. This deep, permanent transformation is ours to savor and enjoy. What we discover about ourselves is intangible, unspeakable, but we know it is there.

Stoicism: Of You, By You, For You

The Stoics focused on doing right – moral good, regardless of how insignificant it seemed to others. To them small wins were big celebrations. They deliberately focused on moral good, virtue and wisdom, as that is the secret to a life well lived! They girded themselves against obstacles, brushed them aside mostly. The toxicity they encountered in their daily lives didn’t bother them, they simply learned to ignore it.

Strive for mental balance – daily. Do you notice what/who yanks your mental chain every day, what verbal toxic pollution is being dumped into you on a daily basis? Is it cable news, talk radio, right-wing, left-wing, extremist websites, conspiracy theorists, radical ideology, political commentary, political personalities that have many years of training in knowing how to yank us one way or the other, and keep us coming back for more. Stay away from this toxicity, strive for mental balance – always! It’s more important than you think. 

 What is not good for the beehive, cannot be good for the bees

Marcus Aurelius

The gift of Stoic thinking is to ourselves and the communities where we live. We are only as strong the community we live in. We are the community and the community is us. Unperturbed, we stand, while we attempting to re-configure this imperfect world, it desperately needs to be-realigned around the Stoic virtues of, wisdom, courage, justice and temperance. Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations was Stoicism’s clarion call for me. It met me where I was, on my terms, and reclaimed myself for me.  Loosely coupled, highly aligned, we’re all part of this adventure. Stoic Philosophy has exceeded my expectations. I’m hoping so for you too!

Through Stoicism we have power to reclaim ourselves. Keeping the noise out, while maintaining harmony within. We learn to accept the things we have no control over, and therein lies the magic that has the power to radically and calmly bring peace and serenity.  We accept instead of expect, we begin to let go and let God. Infinity lies before and after us. Our time here on earth is insignificant. But we can make the most of our stay here through a practice of mindfulness and awareness on this present moment.

The past is gone, the future doesn’t exist, all we have is the now, the possibilities are limitless, if only we take a moment to enjoy her beauty. When we focus on the here and now, we can bring the world to run on our clock, instead of being pushed and pulled by her whims.

Gerry Castellino is the facilitator of the Fremont (CA)  Stoa. Gerry has reclaimed himself with Stoic virtues and now lives the good life !

A Stoic Mom’s Stand Against “Intensive Parenting” by Meredith A. Kunz

Why does modern parenthood—the sum of the norms, requirements, and expectations of being a parent today—seem designed to make mothers and fathers feel inadequate, no matter how much we do? And how can we, as parents, maintain a sense of balance and perspective inspired by Stoic ideas?

I’ve asked myself this as a mother of two children in school, who feels constantly inundated with ads and advice touting new programs, activities, sports, lessons, tutoring, camps, coaching, private schools, and test prep. Many of these promise to give kids a leg up in getting into the best possible colleges, and ultimately getting good jobs and becoming “successful” young adults. And I always wonder: Am I doing enough for my kids?

I hear versions of this question from a lot of other parents. And the same angst. I am writing about this topic now during the college admissions season, as I hear tales of woe from fellow parents of high schoolers struggling through the grueling application and acceptance process with their students.

The pressure on parents has its origins in the murky business of raising a young adult in today’s highly competitive world. There’s no clear or objective measure for why one student is accepted to a college, one receives a scholarship, one gets an internship, one earns a job offer, while others don’t. Because no one really understands or can logically explain how unpredictable college admissions and job hiring systems work, the tremendous pressure cooker on families continues to grow. (Not to mention the very deep worries about paying for college and grad studies, a terrible burden all around.) So we keep trying to do more to position our children for positive outcomes.

As a Stoic, my insight is this: Parenting older kids as they navigate middle and high school often feels like an overwhelming exercise in trying to control what is outside our power to change or even logically understand. It’s a situation that has the potential to drive any of us—parents AND kids—crazy, if we don’t apply Stoic principles. Let’s explore why, and a few Stoic-based ideas that could help.

Got Those Intensive Parenting Blues

Recent studies have demonstrated the extreme pressure parents are under to do more for their children, to spend increasing amounts of money and time to prepare them compete. In sociological terms, what’s happening now has been labelled “intensive parenting.” I call it intensive stress. The New York Times reported on “intensive parenting” this way:

Parenthood in the United States has become much more demanding than it used to be.

Over just a couple of generations, parents have greatly increased the amount of time, attention and money they put into raising children. Mothers who juggle jobs outside the home spend just as much time tending their children as stay-at-home mothers did in the 1970s.

And the article went on to describe the hands-on “help” and care mothers (and fathers) are providing:

The time parents spend in the presence of their children has not changed much, but parents today spend more of it doing hands-on child care. Time spent on activities like reading to children; doing crafts; taking them to lessons; attending recitals and games; and helping with homework has increased the most. Today, mothers spend nearly five hours a week on that, compared with 1 hour 45 minutes hours in 1975 — and they worry it’s not enough.

This is not completely new. When I was growing up, my mom owned the book The Hurried Child by David Elkind (first published in 1981), and I read it, too. Elkind argues that young children are being pressured to do many structured activities and classes and make early achievements that cause them to grow up too soon. They are unable to pursue the meandering exploration that’s inherent in young kids. Young children need more time to play, not more math drills and music lessons.

The book was the first of its kind to emphasize this point. Unfortunately, it did nothing to stem the tide of hurried—and stressed—children, which has risen further and further in recent years as evidenced by data gathered by researchers.

The Risks of Going Against the Tide

Nowadays, letting kids just explore and find things they care about on their own seems much harder for parents to allow. First, there’s the risk that our kids might not explore so much as get sucked into a whirlwind of tech-driven addiction to video games, YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, etc. And second, we, as parents, risk being perceived as “bad” moms and dads if we can’t or don’t want to participate in this rat-race of activities, classes, sports, tutoring, prep, and more.

What’s surprising is that we’re not being called out on this by other adults—it’s by our own children! Here is an example: “My friend has been doing this sport since she was 3, was on two competitive teams last year, and she’s amazing. I can’t start now. I am so far behind, I’ll never catch up. Why didn’t you make me do this sooner?” Why indeed? Because I wanted our children to explore a range of activities and become well-rounded human beings capable of choosing what they like to do.

I’m not the only one getting these comments. A work colleague mentioned that now that his son is a junior in high school, the teen wishes his mom and dad were “Tiger Parents”—the kind who require that their children perform at the highest possible level in numerous academics, activities, arts, and sports starting in preschool, and who exert pressure and funds to guide their kids to earning national awards.

Bucking this trend, especially in school environments filled with ambitious and often well-heeled kids and parents, feels impossible at times. My husband and I tell our children that their own gifts, talents, character, and interests will propel them through their schooling and whatever comes after. Their intrinsic motivation, hard work, ethics, emotional intelligence, and creativity are, in our view, the secret sauce to having a positive future. They need to make their own choices about what to invest time and energy in. Sure, others will win awards or competitions. Does that matter?

But the culture bends towards “success,” and kids imbibe that early on. The way this is harming kids was brought home to me when I did a presentation on stress to a middle school class recently as a volunteer. When asked about their personal stressors in an anonymous exercise, several of the 11- and 12-year-olds said that they are not getting enough sleep—either they had trouble falling asleep, or they didn’t have enough time to sleep due to their busyness. It was shocking to me that even before they are teens, kids are worried about lack of sleep. Others are stressed by their efforts to get perfect grades and get top scores in tests. Others by competitions in sports or music.

If the system for educating our young people for work could become more rational, logical, and comprehensible, we could change the incentives that drive parents to push their kids so hard, and that encourage stress in our kids. In doing so, we could perhaps reduce the rising levels of anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues in teens and young adults. We could possibly even have an impact on the alarming rate of teen suicides, which has gone up 56 percent for American teens in the period 2007 – 2017, and is now the second leading cause of death for American young people. We could also begin to address the huge inequalities plaguing our educational system and economy.

But our crazy patchwork of college acceptances, scholarships, internships, and opportunities is likely to remain this way far into the future, with competition for slots only increasing as more students from around the world seek a good education and job.

Stoic Lessons for Teens and Their Parents

So until things change, I’ll be constantly reminding myself of my Stoic principles as I raise my teens. And I remind my kids too.

The top two principles to keep in mind: developing the faculty of choice, and remembering how the dichotomy of control divides the world into things we can and cannot control.

It’s up to my children to choose their level of effort at school in their academics and their extracurricular activities (within limits of affordability, location, need for sleep, etc.). But many things are outside their control. The students around them, their teachers, their school culture, college admissions boards, and hiring committees are and will remain outside of their power.

As parents, we should stop pretending the we can, or should, control other people, whether that’s our children or college admissions officers. Kids are not computers or robots.

Ultimately our children have to be allowed to be themselves. Students ought be able to exercise freedom and choice, even if it leads to missteps along the way. Yes, we can guide and help and encourage, and try to teach. But our children are people. They must learn for themselves how to use their reason, and what a good life looks like. This is the core of the Stoic message, and it applies to older children as well as adults

Maintaining a healthy perspective and questioning how external achievement is connected to real personal worth—the kind consisting of good moral intentions and ethical decisions—is of great importance. Stoicism emphasizes that prestigious jobs or accolades from powerful people are not valuable. They are not the key to a good, or a happy, life. And we must recall that we, as parents, are not responsible for our kids’ success—it is not a badge of honor for mom and dad. 

In the end, being a “successful” person will entail autonomy. My hope is that children who learn independently how to make choices and commitments, and who apply their efforts to growing their knowledge and achieving in their own way, will live well in adulthood. Their true goals will be to follow the Stoic virtues: to work towards justice for all people; to exercise self-control; to achieve wisdom, in ways large and small; and to be brave enough to be themselves, rejecting the anxieties powered by a highly competitive world.

Meredith A. Kunz writes The Stoic Mom, a blog that focuses on how Stoic philosophy and mindful approaches can change a parent’s—or anyone’s—life. She is working on a longer project about women and Stoicism.  You can follow her on Twitter @thestoicwoman.

The STOIC – April 2020 (vol. 2, issue 4)

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 some overlap in membership).

In this issue, you will find many thoughtful articles from modern Stoics on how to handle the current crisis as well as on other topics. Contributors include prominent modern Stoics such as: Donald Robertson, Sharon Lebell, Kai Whiting, Jonas Salzgeber, Ron Pies, Greg Sadler, and Chuck Chakrapani. If you’d like to check it out, or to subscribe, click here

[The cover image/also on the following page]

THE STOIC magazine, April 2020 issue contents                      

  • GREG SADLER. A time to practice Stoic virtues                     
  • SHARON LEBELL . A time to start doing small “sensible human things”                                    
  • FLORA BERNARD. A time to examine the way we spend our lives                            
  • KAI WHITING. A time to turn crisis into an opportunity
  • JONAS SALZGEBER. A time to evaluate the nature of what we have              
  • DONALD ROBERTSON. Wisdom vs. Glory 
  • RON PIES. The Stoic approach to ingratitude.  
  • CHUCK CHAKRAPANI. Being Stoic at times like these                             

PLUS:

  • Be free of desires
  • Natural desires and desires of opinion