THE STOIC Magazine, October 2020

STOIC cover image

THE STOIC is a 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).

The theme of this issue is ‘WALK THE STOIC PATH’. Contributors include many prominent modern Stoics: Sharon Lebell, Kai Whiting, Meredith Kunz, Piotr Stankiewicz, Flors Bernard, Erik Rankin, and Chuck Chakrapani. If you’d like to read the articles, or to subscribe, click here.

In this issue…

  • STOICON AND STOIC WEEK
  • CHUCK CHAKRAPANI. The art of being civil 
  • SHARON LEBELL. Rise to the work of a human being
  • JONAS SALZGEBER. Manage your expectations 
  • MEREDITH KUNZ. Think like a Stoic, change your brain 
  • ERIK RANKIN. Practice political civility
  • FLORA BERNARD. Reap the benefits of philosophy 
  • PIOTR STANKIEWICZ. Why Stoicism needs updating 
  • KAI WHITING. Is there a case for God?
  • Stoic every day: Daily quotes for the month 

And much more!

A Case for a Philosopher-King by Michael Patrick Mulroy

In a 2019 Gallup poll, forty-seven percent of Americans rated U.S. moral values as “poor” and 36 percent of Americans rated them as “only fair.” In the last three years, 77 percent of those polled believe our moral and ethical values are getting worse.

These beliefs extend across political and religious beliefs, and across economic and educational levels. As a country, we believe we are becoming less moral and less ethical. Even as we lost faith in ourselves, the world’s view and trust in the United States has also gone down by as much as fifty percent in some reports.

Morals and ethics are the core of any society. They constitute a nation’s culture. They affect how we behave as neighbors or as allies, in grammar school or law school, on Wall Street or Main Street, in peace or in war. Instant connectivity and complexity arguably make moral beliefs and ethical practices more relevant than they were in the pre-Internet era. They are our bulwarks against chaos, and perhaps even social dissolution. Honesty, integrity, empathy, selflessness, moral courage, and ethical practice hold us together as a nation. They are worth sustaining and defending.

American political leaders must help influence altruistic morality. They must both drive and demonstrate the highest ethical standards. They must do so not because they are better than that rest of us, but because for better or worse they are the official face of our country. They are empowered by the American people to make decisions on our behalf, not for their own benefit. Our leaders must set a positive example, but far too many do not. We need to teach our children, some of who will be the next generation of political leadership,  based on examples of those individuals who held the highest standards of morals and ethics.

From Socrates to BuddhaGandhi to Mandela, from Malala to Mother Teresa, Christina Noble to Nadia Murad, people on every continent and in every culture have set examples of altruistic moral belief and ethical behavior that we all should seek to emulate and who we should teach our children about.

My father was someone that I always looked to for guidance. I sought to emulate his beliefs and his actions. He was a former Jesuit Catholic priest turned professor and scientist. My father led by word and by deed. He taught me ethics and morality through the study of philosophy, especially that of Socrates. 

In early human cultures, supernational beliefs dominated. Two and half thousand years ago—and then within the matter of a few decades—three individuals changed that and made us responsible for our own destiny. They were Siddhatta Gotama (or the Buddha) in India, Kǒng Qiū (or Confucius) in China, and Socrates of Athens. Their ideas still shape our moral beliefs and our collective understanding of ethics. They encourage us to consider the best ways to build a just society, to live a good life, to pursue empathy and altruism. 

Socrates is best known as being one of the founders of Western philosophy. He was also a soldier that fought in the Peloponnesian War. Socrates’ bravery in battle was matched only by the courage of his ideas. He encouraged people to rationally question every part of their lives. His philosophy was considered subversive to those who had the power. To these fearful critics, Socrates was a one-man philosophical insurgency. They put him on trial and sentenced him to death in 399 BCE. He famously continued to teach his students as he sipped the poison that killed him.

Plato was one of his students. He was from the wealthy aristocracy, perhaps even descended from a King. Yet he followed the often disheveled and lowly Socrates, a man who placed almost no value in the material wealth that Plato’s family held dear. Plato refused familial pressure to take a position of power, eschewing personal benefit. He went on to create some of the most impactful philosophical works of mankind. One of those works was  The Republic, the book my father used most when teaching me. 

In The Republic, Plato uses allegories to describe ethical constructs. The Allegory of the Cave and (as I took from it) the requirement that those who are educated should teach others. The allegory of the Ring of Gyges and (as I took from it) the idea that even when no one can see you, you still have an obligation to do the right thing. He also describes the ideal society, Kallipolis, and the concept of the just and ethical leader or what he calls the “Philosopher-King“. 

Plato’s ideal ruler would be a person who would be not just intelligent but an intellectual; a person who serves others and who lives a life of modesty, no matter how wealthy they might be. Historians have debated who if anyone has ever met the standard set by Plato. One person often referenced as a true philosopher-king is Marcus Aurelius.

Marcus Aurelius was the last of the Pax Romana or good emperors of Rome. These were emperors chosen by merit for their intellect and integrity. Aurelius was born into an aristocratic family in the Roman Empire in 121 CE. He could have had all the luxuries of the aristocracy. Instead, he chose the life of an ascetic, even sleeping on a straw mat instead of the ostentatious trappings of royalty. He could have followed any philosophy but he chose Stoicism, a philosophy that focused on being just to one another, and chose to focus on the teachings of Epictetus, a former slave.

Stoicism emerged in approximately 300 BCE when a ship sank off the port city of Piraeus in Greece. A man named Zeno was on that ship, along with all of his possessions. He swam ashore and walked into a bookstore where the bookseller was reading out loud from the dialogues of Socrates.

Zeno was fascinated and asked the bookseller where he could find a man like Socrates to learn from. The bookseller said nothing and simply pointed to a man walking by named Crates, a philosopher from the nearby city of Athens. Zeno followed him and eventually became his student. He studied under Crates and started the Stoic School in Athens.

Aurelius became the leader of the Roman Empire in 161 CE and served until 180 CE. He ruled perhaps as much as 20 percent of the world’s population, from England to Egypt and from the straits of Gibraltar to the Bosporus. This was an enormous area with a vast diversity of people and interests. During this time, Rome faced many challenges to include a pandemic, massive inequality in wealth, unending wars, and major internal civil unrest leading to sometimes violent uprisings.  

Adjusting for the era, Aurelius had more wealth than perhaps anyone ever has had or will have. He had access to all the prurient pleasures that anyone could ever want. He had nearly absolute power over his empire and the people that lived in it. He owned Rome. He could have had anything he wanted without question. Instead, he chose to live a life of modesty. Instead of pursuing personal benefit, Aurelius chose to become the best person he could be. He did so without the expectation that he would ever achieve his objective.

He wrote of his struggles in his personal journal, his Meditations. These were private thoughts about the Stoic philosophy, focusing on self-criticism for the purpose of self-improvement. Many of these books were written while Aurelius was on military campaigns preparing for battle.

Many people, me included, learned about Aurelius while serving in the military. The former Secretary of Defense and four-star Marine General James Mattis, known for having a personal collection of over 7,000 books,  famously carried a copy of Meditations throughout his deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq. [1] Meditations has likely been on every military reading list since being published, making the U.S. Department of Defense’s “Book of the Year” in 2017.

Aurelius epitomized the virtues of a soldier. He expected and demonstrated mental and physical toughness, integrity, and the courage needed to be a warrior and to lead warriors. When Rome was threatened by the tribes of the north, he led from the front to defend the empire. He became one of the best military leaders of any generation. He endured all the same hardships of his soldiers. Aurelius refused to take leave and return to the comfortable trappings of Rome. In doing so, he saved Rome.

But Aurelius was more than just a philosopher for the warrior class. He was a leader for everyone to emulate. He also firmly believed that educated people had a duty to educate others:

Humans have come into being for the sake of each other, so either teach them or learn to bear them.

Meditations 8:59

Americans should not ‘bear’ to have our next generation not educated on those who we believe are examples for others to emulate, be it Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, John McCain, or John Lewis, be it Harriet Tubman, Mary Walker, Rosa Parks or Jane Addams, or many more. 

When our schools eventually return to normal we need to fully integrate moral debate and courses on ethical practice into our curricula. And we need to do more than just teach subjects needed for a vocation. We need to teach from the ready and numerous examples of people who served altruistic purposes.

America needs to directly address its crisis of morality and ethics. After all, we are not Rome being ruled by an all-powerful Emperor, even if benevolent; we are a democracy led by leaders that we elected. Perhaps we will never have a true philosopher-king (or queen), but that doesn’t mean we should not try to make them. 

We also need to address the issues of those that are in government that do not have the ethics necessary to serve. We need to pass sweeping and strong laws and regulations on government ethics to enforce the checks and balances of our democracy, to ensure there is no undue enrichment of leadership, and to ensure that those in power are held accountable for their actions or lack thereof. This will be the first step to turning our perception of ourselves around and for our children to have faith in the government they will inherit and trust in their fellow citizens.

If we fail to shore up the moral and ethical bulwarks of our society we will have to live with the consequences. We will almost certainly watch our international reputation continue to wane. We will continue to lose our way and fracture at our many seams. A philosopher-king like Aurelius—American democratic leaders like Aurelius—can help us change course and save us from ourselves.

Dedicated to my father Michael Joseph Mulroy

Michael “Mick” Patrick Mulroy is the co-founder of Lobo Institute, a private firm consulting, advising, and teaching on current and future conflicts. Mulroy is a former United States Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East. He is a retired Central Intelligence Agency Paramilitary Operations Officer and United States Marine. In addition, he is a Senior Fellow for National Security and Defense Policy at the Middle East Institute, a member of the Board of Directors for Grassroots Reconciliation Group, and an ABC News National Security Analyst.


[1] Fiasco, Thomas E. Ricks, discussed in the Armed Forces Journal, August 1, 2006.

Podcast #13: Chris Gill, Social Responsibility, Environmentalism, and Cultural Change

In this episode, I talk with Chris Gill about social responsibility, environmentalism, and cultural change.

Chris has been a member of the Modern Stoicism team since its inception in 2012, and is Emeritus Professor of Ancient Thought at the University of Exeter.

Check out some of Chris’ other work at:
Book list: amazon.co.uk
Interview with The Daily Stoic: https://dailystoic.com/christopher-gill-interview/
Interview with The Stoic Fellowship: https://medium.com/stoicism/an-interview-with-christopher-gill-81940990456e

If you’d like to leave a comment for us about the podcast you’ve heard today, please do so down below!

Interview with STOICON 2020 Speakers – Donald Robertson

We continue our series of interviews with the speakers for the upcoming virtual STOICON, which will be taking place virtually this year on October 17. Here is the link where you can register and view the schedule of events. Our next interview is with Donald Robertson.

How would you introduce yourself and your work to our readers?

I’m a cognitive-behavioural therapist and I write books about philosophy and psychotherapy.  I’m hosting the Stoicon virtual conference this year.  I began studying Stoicism, and then writing articles about it and giving talks, etc., about 20-25 years ago.  I wrote a book about Stoicism and CBT in 2010 and then became involved with the Modern Stoicism organization in 2012 when Christopher Gill put together the first group of people responsible for running Stoic Week.  At the moment, I’m in the middle of writing a graphic novel about the life and philosophy of Marcus Aurelius.

How do you currently make use of Stoicism in your work?

I’ve used Stoicism for many years now as part of my coaching, CBT, and training work.  CBT was originally inspired by Stoicism and every therapist knows the famous quote from Epictetus: “It’s not things that upset us but our opinions about them.”  That encapsulates what came to be known as the cognitive theory of emotion.  So I draw on the parallels between Stoicism and CBT not only in therapy but also in (preventative) emotional resilience training.  Although, at the moment most of my time is spent writing books and articles on Stoicism, and giving talks, or rather, due to the pandemic, online webinars.

When and how did you first become interested in Stoicism?

After leaving college, I studied philosophy at Aberdeen university in Scotland, way back in 1992.  I studied Plato and Aristotle, history of Indian philosophy, and was particularly interested in the concept of ancient philosophy as a way of life.  However, Stoicism wasn’t part of the undergraduate curriculum.  So it was only after graduating, when I began my postgraduate studies in philosophy and psychotherapy at Sheffield University that I began reading Pierre Hadot’s excellent books on philosophy as a way of life and realized that the Stoics were pre-eminent in this tradition.  I quickly also realized that Stoicism encapsulated an ancient model of psychotherapy.  At the time, some academics were strongly opposed to this idea: that ancient philosophy entailed a form of psychotherapy.  However, to me that showed a profound ignorance of the historical evidence — and it’s anachronistic insofar as it stems from their tendency to view ancient philosophy as if it were comparable to modern academic philosophy, i.e., something more bookish rather than a whole way of life.  The medical (or therapeutic) metaphor for ancient philosophy was extremely common, particularly in the Socratic dialogues of Plato, and in Stoic writings.  Philosophy is repeatedly described as resembling a medicine for the mind and doctors as physicians of the soul.  Epictetus says the philosopher’s school is like a doctor’s clinic and Chrysippus, the third head of the Stoa, wrote a famous, but now lost, book On Therapeutics, which we know described Stoic “therapy of the passions”, or psychotherapy, in detail.  So it seemed obvious to me that Stoicism was relevant to my research, and clinical work, in the field of psychotherapy.

What’s the most important aspect of Stoicism to you?  

Stoic virtue ethics.  That’s the cornerstone of ancient Stoic philosophy.  It’s also the basis of Stoic psychotherapy.  The Stoics have the advantage of being able to go somewhere that modern psychotherapy dares not tread: into the realm of moral values.  However, it also seemed intuitively obvious to me that if irrational and unhealthy ways of thinking underlie most of our emotional problems that these beliefs, in turn, are rooted in toxic values.  For instance, placing too much rigid importance on what other people think of you obviously plays a role in social anxiety disorder, and some forms of depression. Those are the sort of toxic and incoherent values the Stoics sought to question, through their use of philosophy and the Socratic Method.  The Stoics believed that “virtue (or moral wisdom) is the only true good” — someone (the Sage) who firmly grasps that, on the basis of rational argument, and lives consistently in accord with those radical values is, I think, going to be profoundly emotionally resilient as a consequence.  

In what ways do you think Stoicism still matters today?

Resilience is the Holy Grail of mental health research.  By “resilience”, psychologists today mean the ability to endure stressful life events, such as bereavement, divorce, job loss, sickness — or a pandemic! – without suffering lasting psychological damage as a result.  Resilience literally means the ability to “bounce back” from misfortunes, or setbacks, and perhaps even grow stronger as a result.  Cognitive-behavioural therapy, like all psychotherapy, as the name implies, is “remedial” – it treats emotional damage that’s already happened.  Resilience training is “preventative” (prophylactic).  As everyone already knows: prevention is better than cure.  Stoicism offers a way of expanding CBT into a framework of psychological skills, and a broader philosophy of life, that’s preventative of long-term emotional distress or psychopathology.  Stoicism, in short, offers us this Holy Grail of a method of training in in lasting, or even lifelong, emotional resilience.

How has Stoicism affected the way you live your life?

My full-time job for several years now has basically involved talking and writing about Stoicism.  Stoicism has also helped me work with clients, and train groups, in a broader range of philosophical concepts and psychological methods for achieving resilience.  It’s also helped me profoundly.  I’m a much happier and more resilient person today, I think, than I ever was in the past, and that’s certainly due to my love of Stoic philosophy.

What’s one of your favourite Stoic quotations and why?

Ha! I like the passage in book 1 of The Meditations where Marcus explicitly states that his Stoic mentor Junius Rusticus introduced him to the need for undergoing philosophical psychotherapy or, as he calls it, “therapeia”.  (At least, that’s helped me make the case for everything I mentioned above.)  My favourite quote really is Marcus’ description of the Stoic ideal, as exemplified by another tutor, Sextus of Chaeronea, as being “free from passion and yet full of love (philostorgia)”, by which he means free from irrational/unhealthy passions and full of rational/healthy ones. 

What advice would you give someone who wanted to learn more about Stoicism?

Read the ancient sources, starting with Plato’s Apology, and including Xenophon’s Memorabilia and other Socratic dialogues, and Cicero, as well as the famous three Stoics: Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius.  Follow Modern Stoicism on social media, read the Stoicism Today blog, attend the virtual conference, and participate in Stoic Week.

Do you have anything else that you wanted to mention while we have the chance?

Yes, I think that we need Stoicism now, in particular, because the Sophists have taken over the world.  By that I mean politicians, the news media, and social media, are dominated by political propaganda and sensationalism, designed to create fear, provoke anger, and cloud people’s judgement.  We live in the Information Age.  The Sophists have evolved from men talking to groups of students in the agora, or the Athenian gymnasia, and saying whatever evoked the biggest round of applause.  They’ve been superseded by sophisticated algorithms that reward content that gets the most likes, or provokes the most comments.  We have a moral duty to ourselves, and to society in general, to arm ourselves with philosophical reasoning and challenge misinformation, and sophistical rhetoric, that harms the interests our loved ones, our nations, and the common welfare of mankind.  I think the key to this is the Stoic philosophy of anger.  We need to learn to wise up and see through the many ways we’re being manipulated today, especially the ways in which we’re baited by the media into responding to their propaganda with anger and hatred, e.g., by scapegoating particular groups of people.  Socrates and the Stoics took the philosophy of revenge very seriously because they clearly understood its toxicity.  The Stoics excel at what I call “counter-rhetoric”, learning to step out of the vicious cycle of emotive rhetoric by gaining “cognitive distance”, i.e., separating value judgements from objective facts.  That’s the essence of Stoic wisdom

Podcast #12: Anya Leonard, Classical Wisdom, and what the classics can teach us as Stoics!

In this episode, I talk to Anya Leonard about reading the classics, and what Stoics can learn from them.

Anya is a founder and director of Classical Wisdom – a site dedicated to bringing ancient wisdom to modern minds.

Check out Classical Wisdom at:
Website: https://classicalwisdom.com/
Twitter: @classicalwisdom
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ClassicalWisdomWeekly/

And check out Classical Wisdom Speaks, the official podcast of ClassicalWisdom.com!
Podcast: https://classicalwisdom.com/podcast-classical-wisdom-speaks/

Classical wisdom will also be hosting their first online symposium, October 24-25 – check out ClassicalWisdom.com for more details!

Leave a comment for us below about the podcast you’ve heard today!

Interview with STOICON 2020 Speakers – William Irvine

About William B. Irvine

We continue our series of interviews with the speakers for the upcoming virtual STOICON 2020, with a mid-week post (we’ve got a lot of speakers, so we’ll be publishing these on Saturdays and Wednesdays for a bit!), this one with another author that will be familiar to many, William Irvine.

How would you introduce yourself and your work to our readers?

I see myself primarily as a teacher. Some of my teaching activities take place in a college classroom, teaching philosophy at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, USA. The rest of my teaching is in the form of an outreach effort. As a philosophy professor, I have the freedom to explore subjects that interest me and then report my findings to a larger, non-academic audience. This outreach teaching takes place in the books I write.

How do you currently make use of Stoicism in your work?

As a writer, I encounter lots of setbacks. The computer I write on might get
cantankerous, and the articles and chapters I am writing might not “jell” properly. Subsequently, there are the setbacks that arise in trying to get a work published. Practicing Stoicism has provided me with a wonderful tool for dealing with these setbacks, and for keeping my cool as I do.

When and how did you first become interested in Stoicism?

I first encountered Stoicism in college. The encounter took place in a logic class, when the Stoics were identified as the “discoverers” of the inference rule modus ponens: Given that P and “If P, then Q” are true, Q follows. I encountered and became interested in the Stoic philosophy of life, in the early 2000s, while writing my book, On Desire: Why We Want What We Want (Oxford University Press, 2006).

What’s the most important aspect of Stoicism to you?

Stoic psychological insights are, for me, the philosophy’s most important aspect. They were the preeminent psychologists of their day. Furthermore, it is only in the last half century that modern psychologists have rediscovered many of their insights.

In what ways do you think Stoicism still matters today?

Because human psychology has not changed in the last two millennia, Stoic psychological techniques remain as effective as they were in the ancient world.

How has Stoicism affected the way you live your life?

Thanks to my practice of Stoicism, I have become much more appreciative of the world in which I live, and much more aware of and open to the many small delights it has to offer.

What’s one of your favourite Stoic quotations and why?

“Do what you can, with what you’ve got, where you are.” Although none of the ancient Stoics actually said this, they could and should have. It is great advice, no matter what predicament you find yourself in. If I were going to get a tattoo, this is what it would say. (The quote can be found in Theodore Roosevelt’s autobiography. He attributes the quote to Squire Bill Widener of Widener’s Valley, Virginia. Widener, a shadowy figure, was likely a born Stoic.)

What advice would you give someone who wanted to learn more about Stoicism?

You are living during the Great Stoic Renaissance—lucky you!—meaning that there are lots of books that can get you started, including my Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy (Oxford University Press, 2008).

Do you have anything else that you wanted to mention while we have the chance?

Nope

Do you want to speak at Stoicon?

Stoicon, the international Modern Stoicism conference, is now in its eighth year. This time, due to the pandemic, Stoicon will be a completely virtual conference, taking place online. Full details are available on the EventBrite listing.

If you are interested in speaking at the event, you may want to try your hand at doing one of our five-minute lightning talks. Peter Limberg of Toronto Stoics is this year’s host for the Lightning Talk session, during which twelve speakers will have the opportunity to talk for five minutes each.

Format

You can talk about any subject, as long as it’s clearly relevant to Stoicism. You must, though, adhere to a strict five-minute time limit. Because of the rapid nature of these mini-talks you will be stopped when it’s time for the next speaker to take their turn. You must also have a suitable Internet connection and be able to use Zoom. You must also have a suitable microphone. We recommend using a headset microphone. Please note that there a limited number of spaces for lightning talk speakers and speakers will be chosen based on their proposal and other qualities, and the discretion of the organizer.

Contact

Contact Modern Stoicism for more information or to volunteer to take part and we’ll forward your request to Peter Limberg, the host for this part of the event.

Interview with STOICON 2020 Speakers – Massimo Pigliucci

We continue our series of interviews with the speakers for the upcoming virtual STOICON, which will be taking place virtually this year on October 17. Here is the link where you can register and view the schedule of events. Our next interview is with Massimo Pigliucci.

How would you introduce yourself and your work to our readers?

I am a biologist and philosopher, teaching at the City College of New York. I was born in Monrovia, Liberia, grew up in Rome, Italy, and moved to the United States three decades ago. I live in Brooklyn, New York, with my wife Jennifer, also a Stoic practitioner. In fact, we met at Stoic Camp-New York two years ago!

How do you currently make use of Stoicism in your work?

My work consists chiefly of writing, teaching, and public speaking. All of these are activities were I most certainly do not control the outcomes. It is not up to me whether my agent or publisher will like my next book, and even less so whether the book will do well or not once it is published. It is not up to me whether my students will respond well to my efforts and learn what I’d like them to learn. And the reaction of the audience at a public talk is also most certainly not up to me.

What is up to me? My own considerate judgments, endorsed values, and decisions to act or not to act. So in all the above cases I apply Epictetus’ dichotomy of control and make a concerted effort to internalize my goals, shifting my focus from outcomes to intentions and efforts. So long as I am satisfied with my work, I need to be prepared to accept whatever result with equanimity.

When and how did you first become interested in Stoicism?

I can tell you the exact date: September 5th, 2014! I had been going through a bit of mid-life crisis, some personal issues (divorce, my father’s death), as well as a transition to a new job and a move to a new city. While not unusual, that sort of things, especially when combined, can take a toll.

So I was looking for a new framework to replace my secular humanism, which I had adopted since I was a teenager and had left the Catholic Church, but which just didn’t seem to offer me any practical guidance on how to navigate what life was throwing at me. After briefly considering Buddhism, it occurred to me that the answer would likely lie in virtue ethics. So I began to study Aristotle, and then Epicurus. Neither of whom clicked, for different reasons (Aristotle is too aristocratic, Epicurus counsels against socio-political involvement).

Then, on that day back in 2014, I saw on my Twitter feed Modern Stoicism’s call to celebrate Stoic Week. And I thought, what the hell is Stoic Week, and why would anyone celebrate the Stoics? But I remembered that Stoicism too was a type of virtue ethics, and that I did enjoy reading Marcus Aurelius in college, and translating Seneca from Latin in high school. So I signed up. And here we are.

What’s the most important aspect of Stoicism to you?  

The fact that it is a coherent and eminently practical philosophy of life. Internal coherence appeals to my analytical side, as both a scientist and a philosopher. And practicality is what I came here for.

Of course, Stoicism itself began as a syncretic philosophy, a hodgepodge of teachings that Zeno of Citium picked up from the several philosophers whose schools he had attended in late 4th century BCE Athens. Then Chrysippus, the third head of the Stoa, came in and cleaned up things a bit, delivering much of what today we know as the Stoic system. Even so, Stoics disagreed among themselves on certain matters, and their ideas evolved throughout antiquity. They still evolve today. But always with a keen eye toward coherence and practicality.

In what ways do you think Stoicism still matters today?

It is one of a highly viable philosophies of life on offer, like Buddhism, or Christianity (I consider religions to be a type of life philosophies). I am tempted to say that Stoicism is particularly tailored for our times, characterized as they are by major political upheavals and threats to human welfare on a global scale. But in reality Stoicism has always been useful to people, because it has been the case throughout history that many things are not under our control, and setbacks — even at a very personal level — have been a stable feature of human existence. So the teachings of Stoicism have always been relevant, and will remain so.

How has Stoicism affected the way you live your life?

It has changed it dramatically, from the onset. After weeks from beginning my practice my own friends and relatives noticed in me a more calm demeanor and a different perspective on things. And those effects have only been amplified by years of daily practice.

It has also drastically changed my work, actually. While I still write about philosophy of science, more and more of my academic and public output is about Stoicism, which I would never have guessed just a few years ago. And unlike my previous writings, which were fun and hopefully interesting, but not really practical, what I write and say about Stoicism positively touches many people’s lives. It is a great feeling, and one that has provided additional meaning to my life.

What’s one of your favorite Stoic quotations and why?

One of the very first things I’ve read from Epictetus:

I have to die. If it is now, well then I die now; if later, then now I will take my lunch, since the hour for lunch has arrived – and dying I will tend to later.

Discourses I, 1.32

I thought: wow, this is both funny and eminently practical. Who is this guy? And why have I never heard of him, despite getting a PhD in philosophy and taking courses in ancient thought?? I was hooked immediately, and why I have my own disagreements with Epictetus, which I detail in my new book, A Field Guide to a Happy Life: 53 Brief Lessons for Living (Basic Books, 2020), we have been inseparable ever since.

What advice would you give someone who wanted to learn more about Stoicism?

Four things. First, join a local Stoa or an online forum, where you can get guidance from more advanced practitioners.

Second, don’t just read the ancient sources, but also don’t limit yourself to the new offerings. Examine and study both. Stoicism has a long intellectual tradition, so it pays to see what Seneca, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius and the others were writing. But by the same token, it is a living philosophy for the 21st century, so it is good to get acquainted with the writings of modern Stoics, including Larry Becker, Don Robertson, John Sellars, Bill Irvine, and others.

Third, practice, practice, practice. As Epictetus says: “If you didn’t learn these things in order to demonstrate them in practice, what did you learn them for?” (Discourses I, 29.35)

Lastly, don’t fall for the sort of corruption of Stoicism that I refer to as $toicism and Bro’icism. They are at odds with the actual philosophy, and they will not lead you to a eudaimonic life.

Do you have anything else that you wanted to mention while we have the chance?

There is much more to be said, but I guess I’ll see you at Stoicon!

Podcast #11: Contest winners, announcements, and a short break!

This week is just a short episode to announce the contest winners, and announce a few other pieces of news before we take a mid-season break.

Our contest winners for last week’s episode 10 are:
– Lizette
– Shaun
– Nicole

I want to thank everyone who wrote us a comment on the blog post for Episode 10! It was very much appreciated, and it’s really wonderful to know that our podcast is adding value to those of you listening!

See you again, on September 18th!

Interview with STOICON 2020 Speakers – John Sellars

This is the first of a set of interviews with the experts lined up to be speakers at this year’s online STOICON, which will be taking place virtually this year on October 17. Here is the link where you can register and view the schedule of events. Our first interview is with our first speaker, John Sellars. To those who have been following research and contemporary literature about Stoicism, or the modern Stoic movement, John practically needs no introduction. But we’re going to give him one anyways – or rather, allow him to introduce himself!

How would you introduce yourself and your work to our readers?

I’m an academic based in the UK. I currently teach philosophy at Royal Holloway, part of the University of London. I first became interested in Stoicism as a philosophy student in the 1990s. I wrote my PhD on Stoicism, finishing it in 2001. Since then I’ve written a number of books on Stoicism. Among these I’ll mention Lessons in Stoicism, a very short primer for people completely new to the subject, that came out last year (and about to come out in paperback, and about to be published in the US as The Pocket Stoic). This year I also finished a book on Marcus Aurelius that came out in July. I’m one of the founder members of the Modern Stoicism group and I organized our first public event in London in 2013, as well as Stoicon 2018, also in London.

How do you currently make use of Stoicism in your work?

In all sorts of ways! I teach Stoicism: I’ll be doing so this year as part of a course on Hellenistic philosophy at Royal Holloway. I continue to write on ancient Stoicism: at the moment I’m completing a couple of pieces on Epictetus, for an edited book and a conference. I’m also editing books on Marcus Aurelius and on Musonius Rufus at the moment. I’ve also always been interested in the ‘afterlife’ of Stoicism – the ways in which it has influenced others since antiquity – and I’m currently working on discussions of Stoic approaches to the emotions in the fourteenth century.

When and how did you first become interested in Stoicism?

I think my first encounter was probably reading Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations in the early 1990s while a philosophy student. It wasn’t part of a course, just a book I stumbled across. Although it was obviously very different from the more technical philosophy that I was studying in my degree, I had a sense that there was something more substantial standing behind Marcus’s notebook reflections, and I became curious to find out what that was. The book on Marcus I finished this year is – finally! – my attempt to set out what I see as going on just below the surface of the Meditations

At the same time I was reading Marcus as a student, I was studying the philosophy of Spinoza and really connected with his ideas – that we are small parts of a unified Nature, that we ought to be guided by reason rather than emotions – and then came across articles connecting him with Stoicism. The same happened with other philosophers I found congenial. Before long Stoicism seemed like the common thread or original source of a wide range of things that I found interesting. That’s one of the reasons I’ve worked on the later influence of Stoicism, because my way into it was in large part via traces of Stoicism in the subsequent history of philosophy.

What’s the most important aspect of Stoicism to you?

I think it is probably the directness with which the Roman Stoics write and the way in which they can still speak to us today, despite how many things have changed since the time they were writing. Jules Evans, who was a key contributor to Modern Stoicism at the beginning and indeed coined the title ‘Stoicon’, once said that the reason why people should read the Roman Stoics rather than modern self-help or psychotherapy books is that they are not merely sources of interesting ideas but also great works of literature. They are also so varied. Seneca’s carefully crafted essays, Epictetus’s punchy direct dialogues, and Marcus’s thoughtful reflections are all quite different in tone but each stands on its own terms as an inspiring read. It’s that literary ability to connect that makes their work so powerful.

In terms of ideas, I think the one thing that has always connected with me most is the thought – especially strong in Marcus Aurelius – that we are ultimately tiny insignificant specks within the vastness of time and space. We are but parts of Nature and will be swept along with its changes whether we like it or not. That strikes me and both true and a healthy antidote to the self-absorption and egotism that is often so prevalent in contemporary culture.

In what ways do you think Stoicism still matters today?

It matters today because people can still benefit from it today, and they do. Part of the idea behind Stoic Week was to see if people can still benefit from Stoic ideas, and the evidence that we have gathered suggests that they do. Indeed, over the years we’ve been running Modern Stoicism I’ve encountered numerous people who have reported that Stoic ideas have literally changed their lives (for the better!).

That’s what it’s really all about. If people just said ‘Hmm, that’s interesting’ and then just continued on as before, there’s no reason why Stoicism would be any more interesting than any other long-dead school of thought in the history of philosophy. But instead for some people it has the power to transform how they see themselves and their place in the world. Of course, not everyone will connect with it, but for those who do, the impact can be considerable.

How has Stoicism affected the way you live your life?

I suspect it probably has in various subtle ways; I’ve been reading this stuff for quite a long time now! But – and I may have mentioned this in previous interviews – there’s always a question over how much it has actually changed my attitudes and how much it resonates with attitudes I already had. On some issues I was probably ‘a Stoic without realizing it’, a phrase I’ve heard many people use. I suppose what it has done the most is make connections between different views I already had and showed how they could all be connected into a single coherent world view, as well giving arguments for why those views make sense to hold.

What’s one of your favorite Stoic quotations and why?

It’s so hard to pick just one. There are dozens in Marcus’s Meditations alone. There are so many striking turns of phrase in Seneca too. But here’s one I re-read just the other day that may or may not have something to say to current politics in multiple countries: “If you take on a role that is beyond your capacity, you both disgrace yourself in it and leave undone a role that you could have fulfilled” (Epictetus, Handbook 37). But putting politics to one side, at a personal level this offers some important advice. We each need to work out what our own capacities are, what we are good at and most suited for, and make our choices with this self-knowledge in mind. We are often presented with a ‘one size fits all’ model of success, and some people might feel pressured to try to conform to that generic image of what being successful is supposed to look like. But here Epictetus (and he’s following similar advice from earlier Stoics such as Panaetius, reported by Cicero) is saying that would be a mistake. First, we need to work out who we are before we can decide what we ought to be doing and what a successful, happy life might look like for us as individuals.

What advice would you give someone who wanted to learn more about Stoicism?

Do Stoic Week! It is designed as an introduction to some of the practices mentioned by the Roman Stoics and hopefully it is way in to learning more about the underlying philosophy too. It also helps us with our research into the effectiveness of these practices. The popular literature on Stoicism is ever expanding and there are plenty of modern guides out there. But the works of the Roman Stoics, as a noted earlier, are all highly readable and engaging on their own right, and they speak to people directly nowadays just as well as they no doubt did when they were first written.

Do you have anything else that you wanted to mention while we have the chance?

Modern Stoicism is run by a group of volunteers who for the most part are not paid, doing this in their spare time on top of other commitments. We’ve been doing this for some eight years now, simply out of the conviction that the ancient Stoics have something to say that might benefit people, and we think people ought to hear about it, in case it can help them. We have always made all of our courses and materials free and open to all. We have no regular funding but what we do is not without costs, so if you’d like to support us in our work, please do consider donating to Modern Stoicism.