Stoics and Epicureans on Facing Pain and Death Positively by Katharine O’Reilly and Chris Gill

Introduction 

This post is based on a joint workshop we offered at the Stoicon-X in London on October 13 2019, on ideas about facing pain and death offered by the ancient Stoics and their main contemporary rivals, the Epicureans. The core idea shared by both these theories is that, if you achieve wisdom, you will be well-placed to deal with things generally regarded as among the worst dimensions of human life – enduring extreme physical pain and facing the prospect of your own death. Katharine focused on a letter supposedly written by Epicurus shortly before his death and at a time of intense physical pain. Chris discussed the Stoic version of a  well-known ancient philosophical ideal, that of the wise person happy on the rack of torture. We give here the text of these talks, which were followed by a vigorous debate on these ideas and their value as a basis for life-guidance under modern conditions. 

Epicurus on Facing the Pain of Death Positively

In this post, I’ll introduce you to the Epicurean view on facing pain and death positively via a puzzle about the day of Epicurus’ own death.

First, to understand why there is a puzzle, you need to know a few things about Epicurean philosophy, founded by Epicurus. The first is that they are hedonists, which means that they took pleasure to be the ultimate good and pain the ultimate evil. Pain, whether physical pain or mental anguish, is certainly to be avoided. But it’s not to be ignored – they call pleasure and pain a ‘criterion’ – these feelings give us important information about ourselves and our bodies, so they’re taken very seriously. The second thing to know about the Epicureans is that they didn’t consider death to be an evil. They conceived of death as the end of sensation, and where you don’t feel, you can’t feel pain. You can’t feel pleasure either, but they’re not bothered about that, because you aren’t there to be aware of any deprivation.

With that as background, let me introduce you to this puzzle. It comes from this fascinating letter we have which was apparently written, from Epicurus to his friend Menoeceus, while Epicurus was on his deathbed. He died aged 71 from kidney stones, which, even with the resources of modern medicine, is a very painful affliction, and with only ancient pain relief this would be a slow and excruciating way to die. Here is what he says:

Here is the letter to Idomeneus which he [Epicurus] wrote on his deathbed: ‘I wrote this to you on that blessed day of my life which was also the last. Strangury and dysentery had set in, with all the extreme intensity of which they are capable. But the joy in my soul at the memory of our past discussions was enough to counterbalance all this.’’

Excerpt from Epicurus, ‘Letter to Menoeceus’ in Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of the Eminent Philosophers 10.22 [Usener 138], trans. Long & Sedley, 1987.

The reason this testimony is so puzzling is that it seems to put a contradiction in Epicurus’ mouth: he at once says that he is in extremely intense pain, and yet, at the same time, feels a joy of the soul, which, on his view, amounts to a pleasure. Since part of the Epicurean conception of pleasure is an absence of pain, the claim that he is living painlessly and therefore joyfully and yet, at the same time, experiencing the greatest physical pain of his life is extraordinary.

Now you might think that what Epicurus means to convey in the letter is that even though he’s in physical pain, he’s not suffering mentally, which is why he refers to a joy ‘in his soul’. This might be something like Haruki Murakami’s running mantra: pain is inevitable, suffering is optional (What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, 2009). But even a story about Epicurus being free of mental pain while in physical pain would not straightforwardly solve the puzzle, since our best evidence suggests that the painlessness which constitutes Epicurean pleasure requires freedom from both types of pain. It’s also not the case that well-trained Epicureans are immune to pain. The Epicurean sage is still subject to pain, as Diogenes Laertius’ report tells us:

… the wise man… will be more affected by feelings – for they would not hinder his progress towards wisdom… even if the wise man is tortured on the rack, he is happy… when he is tortured on the rack he will moan and groan… the wise man will feel pain…

Diogenes Laertius, ‘Report of Epicurus’ Ethical Views’ 10.117-119, trans. Inwood & Gerson, 1994

In the deathbed letter, Epicurus credits this joyful state to the memory of past discussions with his friend and fellow Epicurean. He says that these memories ‘counterbalance’ the physical pain. But there’s a big question about what this means, how it would work, and whether it would work.

There are two main ways scholars suggest it could work: the first is a kind of distraction model. This is where Epicurus is conceived of as using memories to distract himself from the pain, in the way we might when we’re in the dentist’s chair and start going through our ‘to do’ list, or thinking about our holiday, or doing any mental work we can to take our minds off the physical pain. There’s some evidence that Epicurus wasn’t immune to the idea of finding an analgesic solution which would help him ignore his pain. Another report from Diogenes Laertius tells us that he warded off pain, at the very end of his life, with a warm bath and a stiff drink:

He died of kidney stones, as Hermarchus too says in his letters, after an illness of fourteen days. At that point, as Hermippus also says, he got into a bronze bathtub filled with warm water, asked for unmixed wine, and tossed it back. He then bade his friends to remember his teachings and died thus.

Diogenes Laertius, Lives 10.15-16, trans. Inwood & Gerson, 1994

There’s an alternative reading of what happens on Epicurus’ deathbed that I want to suggest to you. This is that rather than distracting himself with these memories, Epicurus could instead be thought of as deeply engaging with memories of past pleasures which he has gratefully and consistently recollected throughout his life. As an Epicurean sage, there is evidence that Epicurus would have engaged in a therapeutic practice which involved training his memory to vividly recollect and almost re-live past pleasures.

Some fragments tell us that the sage is distinguished most by this ability, and that remembering pleasures is crucial to living a pleasant life (Plutarch, Non Posse 1089c; 1099d [Usener 436]). The idea of this deep engagement is that rather than merely distracting oneself from pain, one is engaging with past pleasure in such an intense way that it’s tantamount to re-living it. Indeed, since Epicurus cites the recollection of conversations with a fellow Epicurean philosopher, we might imagine that the content of their conversation would also have a calming effect. This might have included arguments against the fear of pain and death, such that there is some philosophical and therapeutic content to re-engage with. On this model, we are still aware of the present pain, but the re-living of past pleasure somehow tips the scales and counterbalances it such that, overall, it is joy that is experienced. 

While distraction versus deep engagement may seem a subtle difference, I think it’s an important one in terms of explaining how memories could counterbalance such extreme pain. On the face of it, if I’m in excruciating pain, the mere memory of a pleasurable time won’t do me much good. It might even heighten my experience of pain by comparison, as when I experience hunger pains, and recall a wonderful meal from the day before. So we need to be clear about exactly what Epicurus describes in his letter, and how the Epicurean practice differs from what us non-sages might do while in pain, in order to gauge whether it is a story we should take seriously. I therefore opened the Q&A period in our workshop by asking the audience the following questions, which I invite you to consider, too:

  • What might it mean to be in extreme pain, yet for that pain to be ‘offset’ by a joy of the soul from remembered pleasures?
  • Is it plausible that the memory of past pleasures, if engaged with in a certain way, could be effective against present pain? 
  • Is the stance shown by Epicurus one that we can imagine adopting ourselves in such a situation?

The Stoic wise person happy on the rack of torture

The idea that the wise person (the ideal person), is happy even on the rack of torture is not a uniquely Stoic one (there are Platonic and Epicurean versions) but it is a well-known theme in Stoicism and one that can help to open up their thinking on facing pain and death. What is the idea based on? On the face of it, being happy while being tortured is just weird. I’ll look at three relevant features of Stoic thought: about happiness, ethical and emotional development, and social commitment. 

First happiness. The term  ‘happiness’ tends to be used in modern English to describe short-term moods (‘I’m feeling happy today’, symbolised by the smiley face). In fact, there is an emotional dimension in the Stoic idea of happiness, as I’ll explain shortly. But being happy (eudaimon in Greek) is, primarily, in Stoicism, to live the best possible human life, to live the life ‘according to nature’, as they often put it. What is that life? It’s sometimes defined by Stoics as fulfilling the best possible qualities of being human, that is, being rational and sociable (the distinctive features of the human animal).

Happiness is also based on achieving a completely unified and coherent character and understanding, and being able to take care of yourself and others of your kind (that is, other human beings) in the best possible way. Happiness also depends on developing the virtues, typically seen as the four cardinal virtues of wisdom, courage, self-control and justice, regarded as an interdependent set of virtues. The happy person is the one who has developed these qualities and made them fundamental to her character and understanding. So why is this kind of person happy even on the rack of torture? She is happy in this situation because she is happy in any situation, including extremely painful or life-threatening ones.

These are qualities – having the virtues, being unified, caring for oneself and others – that go to the core of someone’s identity or character, and they are not lost because the person experiences extreme pain and pressure or compulsion. They are also qualities (notably the virtue of courage) which enable someone to resist the effects of extreme pain and pressure. So it’s natural that the wise person (the ideal human being) retains these qualities even under torture.

So far, it may seem, from a modern standpoint, that the Stoics produce the desired result (showing the wise person is happy on the rack) by redefining what ‘happiness’ means, namely as being virtuous, psychologically unified and so on. So modern people may feel that the ‘mood’ or ‘emotion’ aspect of happiness has just been left out. Actually, that’s not the case. But the force of the Stoic view depends on the belief that ethical development, that is, becoming virtuous, changes the quality of your emotional life and responses. Specifically, it means that you stop experiencing what the Stoics regard as bad or misguided emotions (sometimes called passions) and start to experience what they call ‘good emotions’ (eupatheiai).

There are two main differences between these two kinds of emotions. The passions are based on what the Stoic see as false beliefs about what is good and bad, and about happiness and its basis. One such false belief is that what is really good in life is sensual pleasure, or wealth or celebrity, as opposed to happiness based on virtue. Secondly, bad emotions are typically intense, sometimes also internally conflicted or painful, and overwhelming in their effect; good emotions are calm, in line with the person’s judgements and reasoning, and do not generate internal conflict or overwhelm the person involved. Typical bad emotions are fear, anger, and hatred: typical good ones are joy, wish, and caution.

So the happy person (the ideal Stoic wise person) has a positive and a congenial emotional state (she feels happy in a modern sense) and does so under any circumstances, however extreme. The difference comes out in the likely reactions to torture of the two types of people – the wise and the defective or foolish person. The defective person is likely to experience intense and conflicted emotions in this situation, such as fear, anger, hatred, regret at having put herself in this situation, as well as being acutely aware of the physical pain. The wise person will also feel the pain (the Stoic wise person is not immune to physical pain).

But she will put the pain in perspective: pain is not the worst thing in the world, compared with becoming a corrupt and morally defective person. She will also bear in mind her reasons for being in this situation at all (I’ll come to this point shortly) and the importance of these reasons. So, altogether, she will experience a calm, coherent and positive emotional state – she will be at one with herself even in this situation, even though feeling this kind of pain is not something any normal human being would want to experience. In this respect, the wise person is also ‘happy’ on the rack in a modern sense.

There is a third dimension of this idea, in the Stoic version. It is worth asking the question: why is the wise person on the rack of torture at all? Typically, in these cases, people are being tortured for a reason: to force them to disclose information or as punishment for a past action. In the Stoic version of this idea, it is reasonable to suppose that the wise person is being tortured because of his commitment to a social, political or military role. Stoic ethics, in sharp contrast to Epicurean ethics, presents involvement in family and political life as a normal part of a full human life. So, implied in the Stoic version of this ideal is the thought that the wise person undergoes torture as a consequence of his social commitment (I’ll give a Stoic example shortly).

This gives an added level to the happiness of the wise person, even in these extreme circumstances. He is happy because his actions in this situation express commitment to a role or obligation that he sees as being crucially important in his life. This role provides a proper context in which to exercise the virtues, including the virtue of courage or what the Stoics call ‘magnanimity’ – that is, rising above current difficulties with the aim of performing a genuinely worthwhile act, which benefits other people or the community as a whole. Some of the other marks of happiness, such as psychological cohesion or unity, and freedom from misguided emotions or passions, are also naturally linked with his single-minded commitment to fulfilling one’s social role, and thus not disclosing information wanted by the torturer or accepting the torturer’s dominance. This social dimension helps to make sense of the Stoic ideal and to bring out the rationale for the idea that the wise person is happy even in this situation. 

I’ll end by discussing some possible ancient and modern examples of the Stoic ideal. The Roman general Regulus is taken by Cicero, in On Duties 3, as an example of this kind of ideal. Regulus voluntarily went back to Carthage to likely torture and death for two reasons. He had acted in line with his public duty in not arranging an exchange of prisoners (several young Carthaginian prisoners in return for himself), which he saw as disadvantageous to Rome. And he returned because he had sworn an oath to his enemies that, if he did not arrange this exchange of prisoners, he would go back to Carthage. The depictions by Cicero, and Horace (quoted at the end), bring out many of the key features of this ideal: Regulus’ act is presented as an expression of ‘magnanimity’ or courage; his single-minded commitment enables him to be free of emotions running counter to this ethical choice. He is thus ‘happy’, in a number of senses, on the rack of torture or in preparing to face torture.

It is worth thinking about other possible examples of this ideal: for instance, the modern example of Admiral James Stockdale who drew on the principles of the Stoic Epictetus (especially his distinction between what is and is not ‘up to us’) to maintain his sense of integrity and resistance during repeated torture when a prisoner in the Vietnam war. There are also other possible Stoic-style modern examples, including Nelson Mandela in his long imprisonment in South Africa under the apartheid system, and the Indian political activist Gandhi, who endured voluntary starvation and other physical privations in his long and eventually successful opposition to British rule in India.

I think what these examples bring out is that the Stoic ideal, while initially seeming rather extreme and unrealistic, captures recognisable features of courageous response to extreme physical pain and hardship  and ones that are by no means confined to these examples of well-known male public heroism. We moderns too, I think, can make sense of the ideal of the wise person happy on the rack and can aspire to live this ideal out in our lives, if need be.

Regulus passages:

Entering the senate, he revealed his instructions … he claimed that it was not beneficial to restore the captives; they were young men and leaders while he was worn out by old age. His authority prevailed, and the captives were kept there. He himself returned to Carthage, held back neither by love for his country nor for his family and friends. Moreover, he knew well that he was going to a very cruel enemy and most sophisticated torture.

Cicero, On Duties, 1.100: Trans. Griffin and Atkins, 1991

It is said that he kept himself apart from the kisses of his faithful wife and small children as if he was no longer a citizen and sternly lowered his manly face to the ground. Then he swayed the senate, who were in doubt about what to do, offering his unparalleled advice [to send him back to Carthage], and in the midst of his sorrowing friends he hurried away, an exile of distinction. Even so he knew what the barbarian torturer was getting ready for him.

Horace, Odes 3.5.41-50. My trans

Relevant reading on Epicurus:

  • A. A. Long and D. N. Sedley, The Hellenistic Philosophers (Cambridge, 1987), sections 21 (pleasure), 24 (death), and 15 (sensation, imagination, memory)
  • L. P. Gerson and B. Inwood, The Epicurus Reader: Selected Writings and Testimonia (Indianapolis, 1994).
  • J. Warren, Facing death: Epicurus and his critics (Oxford, 2004).
  • J. Annas, The Morality of Happiness. Oxford, 1993), ch. 16.
  • V. Tsouna, (2009) ‘Epicurean therapeutic strategies’, pp. 249-65 in The Cambridge Companion to Epicureanism. Ed. J. Warren (Cambridge, 2009). 

Relevant reading on the Stoic ideal: 

  • A. A. Long and D. N. Sedley, The Hellenistic Philosophers (Cambridge, 1987), sections 63 (the end and happiness), 65 (emotions), and 57 (on ethical development).
  • J. Sellars, Stoicism (Berkeley 2006), ch. 5.
  • Cicero, Tusculan Disputations Book 5 (on ancient ideas about how to gain peace of mind, including Stoic and Epicurean ideas).
  • R. Sorabji, Gandhi and the Stoics (Oxford, 2012)
  • J. Stockdale, Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot (Stanford, 1995). 
  • C. Gill, The Structured Self in Hellenistic and Roman Thought (Oxford, 2006), ch. 2.

Katharine O’Reilly is lecturer in ancient philosophy at King’s College, London.

Chris Gill is emeritus professor of ancient thought at the University of Exeter.

Marcus to Malpractice to Montaigne by Mary Braun

A car crosses the midline and kills one of my patients. Perhaps it is the elderly diabetic who I’ve been telling for years to move to assisted living. I’m so sure she’s going to fall and break a hip, living at home alone at 95. I was wrong. I should have warned her against going grocery shopping. It might be the forty year old woman with the weight loss and stomach pain that we never could pin down. She was worried she would die a slow, painful death of pancreatic cancer, which is notoriously difficult to find until it’s quite large. Neither of us need worry. It seems she barely saw her actual death coming. Perhaps it was the mid-twenty year old who finally accepted treatment for his anxiety, the one who now had his first girlfriend, his first job, and would never see further firsts. He was so worried about side effects of the medication that he spent years in his parent’s basement, watching youtube. The med did not affect the other driver’s ability to stay awake. 

Thus, the lesson of memento mori (that one may be plucked from the living without warning at any moment) is daily presented to the primary care doctor. Patients come in with symptoms that I think will kill them that turn out to be minor ailments and no symptoms at all that turn out to be the first warning of their terminal diagnosis. 

Stoicism is rife with reminders of the shortness of life. Epictetus encourages us to remember how transient are those we love (From now on, whenever you take delight in anything, call to mind the opposite impression; what harm is there is saying beneath your breath as you’re kissing your child, ‘Tomorrow you’ll die’?” Discourses, 3.24, 88). Would my elderly diabetic have had a different phone conversation with her grandson on Friday afternoon if she knew she was going to die Saturday morning?

Marcus encouraged us to meditate frequently on our death (And thou wilt give thyself relief, if thou doest every act of thy life as if it were the last Meditations 2.5). Marcus was encouraging himself to think about his death as a way to focus himself on what is important. If she realized that it would be be the last time she sat at her writing desk, my forty year old with belly pain may have been a little more focussed than if she thought she had an endless stream of mornings stretched out in front of her.

In letter 101, Seneca encourages Lucilius to focus on his death as a way to focus on what’s important and reduce his anxiety (Let us prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. One who daily puts the finishing touches to his life is never in want of time. And yet, from this want arise fear and a craving for the future which eats away the mind.) My poor, young anxious man may have enjoyed his life more if he had recognized its potential brevity.

The exercise of reminding myself how close at hand death is works well for me when I consider my personal life, but the result from a professional point of view is opposing. I find Stoicism helps to a point, and then reach to another of the Hellenistic philosophies, Pyrrhonism, for help with the rest.

Personally, when I imagine myself near to death, I am able to see what I really value. Providing high quality, individualized care to complicated, medically fragile people is such a thing. It’s important work, it is a job that suits my particular skills and there is a need for it now. I practice in a way that I am proud of. I treat my patients with dignity, encourage autonomy, independence, and help them make decisions that support their particular values, goals and preferences. I help patients get what they consider good outcomes. When I think about nearing death, the way I have taken care of my patients is one of the things I take comfort in personally.  For my personal goals, I would not change the way I practice if I knew I was near death.

Primary care offers opportunities for courage: I am often forced to tell people things they really don’t want to hear; equanimity: I can remain calm when these patients become angry; wisdom: I can respond wisely to these patients even when it would be easier to respond to their demands. I feel I’m up to the task most days and when I’m not, considering that this may be the last opportunity I have to interact with this particular patient, due to the fleeting nature of both of our lives (or possibly due to their insurance changing) does help me find wisdom I might otherwise not be able to. The memento mori practice helps.

When I consider my practice habits from a professional point of view, however, and recall that I am dying soon, I am tempted to practice differently. In particular, if I knew that I was going to die after a short retirement or, worse yet, in the saddle, I might concentrate on making what seemed to me to be  defensible decisions, rather than decisions that seem best for the particular patient in front of me.

They teach us in med school that the most common time for a doctor to be sued is in the three years after their death. The lawsuit doesn’t matter to the dead doctor, of course, because they’re dead, but it can massively inconvenience their families if their estate gets tied up in court.

They tell us that people who might have been on the fence about suing me while I was alive will sue me after I die. They might think my care was less than ideal, but like me so they didn’t want to hurt my feelings by suing me. Once I’m dead, however, I won’t have any feelings to hurt and they can feel free to sue me. 

Dead doctors are relatively easy marks because not only are we unable to defend ourselves from the grave, but the usual impediments to settling a case are removed. Being dead, I will not care about my reputation. Perhaps there are relevant details that died with me: my medical reasoning or delicate, personal revelations from the patient. I can’t be summoned to present this information. My kind personality will not help me here; the judge will never meet me. They will not be able to see how devoted I was to my patients or get a sense of how hard I tried to do what was best for them.

The lawyer will recommend that my estate settle especially if it’s not a large amount.

When I think about dying soon from this perspective, it makes me feel scattered and causes me to second guess every decision. I worry that each decision is not defensible and will lead to huge inconvenience for my family. 

If I get too far into second guessing, it hampers my ability to make good decisions in the present. Remembering that any of my patients (or even worse, their heirs after they die) may sue me at any moment for any reason distracts me from the important work at hand. The decision that is most defensible is not always the decision that is best for the patient and if I am maximizing my care for being defensible, I am not maximizing my care for my patients’ best interest. Practicing medicine in any way that is not in my patients’ best interest pricks my conscience. Am I acting wisely if I am prioritizing the minimization of my legal exposure down the road? My equanimity is seriously disturbed at this point. Consideration of the proximity of my death has encouraged less, not more, virtuous action, simply as a practical matter. 

Then I return to the personal view. When I consider the fact that I am dying and perhaps sooner than I might think, I want to feel like I’m using my time well. Why am I wasting my precious time being a doctor who practices like there is something more important than individualized, patient centered, exquisitely tailored care? I am distressed. Perhaps I had better retire now. How do I ever make any medical decisions? My worry can get out of control pretty quickly here and I can find myself concentrating on the effect of our medical decisions on me rather than their effects on the patient. Now, I have become the very opposite of the kind of doctor I want to be. 

Once again, Epictetus has some help to offer me: “some things are in our control and some things, not.” The next sentence points out that my actions are under my control. So far, so good. The next: other people’s actions are not under my control. Whether my patient chooses to sue my estate is not under my control. I can act in ways to decrease the chances of it, but if I fail at what I can control in an attempt to control something I cannot control, why exactly would I even be a doctor. 

There are things I can do now to minimize my risk of a future lawsuit, but after I am dead, I cannot control anything. Control of other people after I’m dead is what I’m trying to do. I cannot control other people while I am alive. I doubt I’ll be more effective when I’m dead! Research says that by providing my patients with careful care and making sure they feel heard, I can minimize my risk of lawsuits in the future. This might be considered as the “partially out of my control” arm of the trichotomy of control that Bill Irvine proposes. However, the decisions a patient’s family members might make after my patient’s death are completely out of my control. There is nothing I can do to develop a relationship with someone I have not met. 

To recap, at this point, I am concerned about an outcome that is only partially, if at all, under my control. The ways I can control my behavior to minimize the chances of this outcome are clear. Some of them are acceptable, or even laudable, such as working to develop a good relationship with my patients. Some of them are objectionable, such as ordering test I don’t really think the patient needs in order to protect myself from a potential lawsuit. I can consider how I will feel about my honor and professional judgment if I practice in this way and that helps restrain my actions, but sometimes it is not enough. I may still feel some temptation to practice unwisely.

I think about my death and its consequences for my daughter who is currently a college freshman. I imagine a lawsuit. If my estate were tied up in court, would she have to sit out until it was sorted out? What a disaster for her! This thought leads me away from practicing in the best interest of my patient again. 

Another Hellenistic philosophy, Pyrrhonism, can come to my assistance here. Pyrrhonism asks me to consider what I really know. Do I really know it’s a bad thing for my daughter to have to wait a year or two out of college while my estate gets settled? Do I really know it would be a bad thing for her to have to support herself for a couple of years without the benefit of a college degree or my financial help? Judging the goodness or badness of things that have not come to pass seems quite foolish. 

Montaigne summarized this line of reasoning as a maxim: “What do I know?” In other words, perhaps a lawsuit and inability to pay her college tuition would be difficult for my daughter, but perhaps she would find a scholarship or perhaps she would do something else with the time that would provide her with a better life course. I can’t know ahead of time. I am considering acting today in a way that is against my professional vow of fiduciary beneficence in order to minimize the impact of an outcome that might or might not ever come to pass, which is out of my control and might not even be a bad thing. This seems foolish. 

Stoicism has helped me be a better doctor, but has uncovered, and only partially abated, other areas of anxiety. Pyrrhonism has helped out here. My patients, if they only knew, would thank the ancients for their contribution to their doctor’s equanimity.

Mary Braun, MD is a primary care physician in rural New Hampshire specializing in internal medicine and palliative care. In childhood, Mary began practicing an intuitive form of Stoicism to cope with being orphaned. She discovered Stoic philosophy in middle age. She applies ideas from Stoicism not only for her own life but also to help her patients.

The Stoic – November 2019

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

The theme of this issue is ‘Stoic Questions Answered’. Contributors include many prominent modern Stoics: Donald Robertson, Sharon Lebell, Kai Whiting, Meredith Kunz, Flora Bernard, Jonas Salzgeber and Chuck Chakrapani. If you’d like to check it out, or to subscribe, you can click here.

NOVEMBER 2019 ISSUE CONTENTS

  • CHUCK CHAKRAPANI. Stoicism as a Way of Life
  • MEREDITH KUNZ. What Should You Seek? Courage To Face The World
  • JONAS SALZGEBER. What’s Your Job? Being a Good Person
  • KAI WHITING. What Should Be Your Concern? It’s Not All About Yourself.
  • SHARON LEBELL. What Steers Your Life? The Unseen Metaphors
  • DONALD ROBERTSON. How Should You Deal With Your Thoughts? Distance Yourself
  • FLORA BERNARD. What Is Success? Doing What Is Under Your Control

The Human Comedy: Lucian of Samosata, the View from Above, and Stoicism as a Way of Life by Matthew Sharpe

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

When some years ago I told a close friend that I was interested in Stoicism, she responded with ancient concerns: that Stoicism is about having a “stiff upper lip”.  It has no sense either of the beauty or the comedy of life, turning its followers into emotionless human statues.  In this paper, I’d like to offer a response to my friend, and to the old charge that Stoicism is humorless, so practicing it as a way of life will make you joyless and dour.

 Things aren’t quite that simple.  The great Stoic Epictetus tells us expressly that we are not to become statues, but men and women with private and civic relationships and responsibilities.  And if you are anything like me, you will have found yourself laughing out loud, LOL, again and again as you read his Discourses and dealing out, deadpan, difficult ‘truth bombs’, as my students say.  Seneca in On Tranquility of Mind likewise stresses that “it is more fitting for a man to laugh at life than to lament over it”.

 So what is the role of humor, at least humor of some types, in Stoicism as a way of life?  And, given that trying to become a Stoic really is a serious affair, what could be the ‘serious’ function of humor within a Stoic life?

In order to throw light on these questions, I want to explore the old link between Stoicism and its more ‘fractious’ cousin, ancient Cynicism.  From Zeno to Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus, Stoics always honored “the way of the dog” (for that is roughly what Cynicism means) as a “shorter”, in some senses more difficult way to virtue, and the two schools remained closely aligned, especially in ethics.  Yet, starting from Diogenes of Sinope, the most famous Cynic, who used to beg before statues to practice patience, masturbate in public without shame, or walk around Athens’ streets with a lamp in broad daylight looking for an honest man, one of the most patent features of Cynical philosophical practice is its openly comical dimension.

 So what I want to do today is look firstly at the work of a Cynic who may not be known to all of you, Lucian of Samosata, a contemporary of Marcus Aurelius, to help us understand how humor could be invaluable in being a Stoic.  In Lucian’s comedies, we will see (1), many spiritual exercises used by the Stoics, led by the “view from above”, are given hilarious satirical presentations.  The comedy in Lucian’s staging of this spiritual exercise in particular, I will then show (2), helps us catch sight of the comic dimension in Stoicism, and the need for a sense of humor in the Stoic life.

1. Lucian and the view from above

Lucian of Samosata (c. 120-180 CE) was trained first as a sculptor, next as a public speaker, before coming here to Athens around 165 CE, receiving a philosophical education, and beginning to write the works for which he remains famous. 

There is overwhelming evidence, including a sympathetic dialogue The Cynic, to support the idea that Lucian was philosophically a Cynic.  Like Diogenes and the Cynic Menippus whom Lucian makes his hero in several comedies, Lucian clearly took his public role to have been to fractiously ‘call out’ the idiotic pretentions of all of the pretenders of his time: from would-be oracles and magi, to orators, tyrants, climbers, and self-professing philosophers.  The Cynics were like ancient ‘situationists’ or ‘life hackers’, as we say in the internet age.  In this capacity, Lucian indeed did not hold back from attacking Stoicism itself in several key texts: notably his Symposium, in which philosophers of all schools are depicted brawling over the most petty things; and in his Lives for Sale, wherein the god Hermes shamelessly auctions off Chrysippus, Plato and other philosophers as commodities to the highest bidders.

Yet it is important to recognise from the start, if we are going to understand Lucian, why he satirises the Stoics and other philosophers of his day.  Because it is very relevant to our gathering here today.  Lucian’s charge is that Stoicism by the end of the 2nd century CE had become unrelated to life.  It had morphed into a kind of “scholastic” pursuit, preoccupied with recondite logical paradoxes like “the Reaper, the Owner—… the Electra and the Masked Man” or the fearsome “Indemonstrable syllogism” (Selected, 326, 328).  Yet, put simply, Lucian wonders how mastery of such subjects relates to wisdom or living the good life.  It is just as if he had already read his Pierre Hadot, or knew about Modern Stoicism.  As Lucian depicts Zeus lamenting in his Icaromenippus:

These ‘philosophers’ have divided themselves into bands, each dwelling in a separate word-maze of its own construction … Then they take to themselves the holy name of Virtue, and with uplifted brows and flowing beards exhibit [only a] deceitful semblance [of wisdom] that hides immoral lives.[1] 

This may sound familiar.

It is in this light that we need to understand the recourse within Lucian’s comical dialogues to spiritual exercises shared by the Stoics, like the view from above—he too is interested in the truly philosophical life.  As you will know, this exercise of the view from above involves imaginatively reviewing one’s life, and one’s concerns, as if from far above—from whence they appear quite differently, and as much less all-consuming, than we usually take them to be.  As Hadot discerned in Philosophy as a Way of Life, this exercise forms the central premise in not one but two of Lucian’s satires: first, the Icaromenippus, in which the Cynic Menippus constructs wings for himself like Icarus, and flies to the moon to discover the truth, after becoming completely disillusioned by the squabblings of competing philosophers; and second, Charon, or the Overseers, in which the god of the underworld, Charon, piles entire mountains on top of each other to look down upon the lives that human beings experience on earth, whose losses they so lament when they come down to Hades.

What reveals itself to Menippus in Icaromenippus is exactly the kind of disordered mélange that Marcus Aurelius’ use of the view from above reveals, for instance in Meditations IX, 30 and XII, 24: “adulteries, murders, treasons, robberies, perjuries, suspicions, and monstrous betrayals … Not to mention the multitude of burglars, litigants, usurers …; oh, it was a fine show!”  Seen from the moon, Greece itself measures about four inches.  The largest landholdings of the richest proprietors are no bigger than an Epicurean atom: hardly worth angsting, killing and dying for in great numbers.  As for human cities, as Seneca and Marcus Aurelius will echo in their versions of the view from above exercise:

you must often have seen a community of ants, some of them a seething mass, some going abroad, others coming back to town … At any rate, what men and cities suggested to me was just so many anthills …

In Charon, when the God of the underworld perches besides Hermes atop the twin peaks of Parnassus over Delphi, a different sequence of human follies unfolds itself beneath them.  Charon, unlike the world-weary Menippus, is wholly new to human affairs.  His naive astonishment, as he looks at our affairs for the first time, highlights how strange­—Stoics say ‘indifferent’many of the pursuits and values people ordinarily take for granted are—especially when viewed from the perspective of human mortality, in which trade Charon works.

First, the two gods make out the Olympic wrestling hero Milon at the height of his fame, blithely unaware how soon death will arrive, and “pin him to the mat without his even realising he was knocked off his feet.”  Next they eavesdrop on the ancient sage Solon’s famous exchange with the proud monarch Croesus’ pride in his legendary riches (so, after fame, money).  This exchange also affords Charon his first glimpse of gold, about which he has heard so much lamenting from the dead in Hades. But he just can’t see what all the fuss is about:

Ch. Oh, so that is gold, that glittering yellow stuff, with just a tinge of red in it. I have often heard of gold, but never saw it before …

Her. Ah, you do not know what it has to answer for; the wars and plots and robberies, the perjuries and murders; for this, men will endure slavery and imprisonment; for this they traffic and sail the seas.

Ch. For this stuff? … What fools men must be, to be enamoured of an object of this sallow complexion; and of such a weight!

Next, Hermes is able to reveal the futures of human beings puffed up with pride at their worldly power (so, after fame and riches, power) and see just how transient and fragile their careers are.  He has recently been chatting with Clotho, the Fate who weaves the invisible fabric of human destinies.  The great King Cyrus, hero of Xenophon, is as blithely unaware as Milon that Tomyris, a Russian girl, will soon murder him; just as the great happiness of Polycrates, ruler of Samos, will very soon end with his bloody death, effected by a lowly servant.  And so on.  “It’s so ridiculously funny,” Charon interjects: “Yet, at this very moment, who would dare to look them in the face?  Such an air of contempt they have for everyone else.”

Finally, the two gods’ preternatural vision reveals very fine, intertwined threads of fate attached to each persons’ heads: all equally fragile, and all able to be severed by death at any time.  “This is terribly funny, Hermes”, Charon repeats.  “You couldn’t possible describe how funny it is and do it all justice,” replies Hermes.  Especially when you consider—as he now directs Charon—just “how well supplied” death is “with messengers and agents” to do his work: “chills, fever, consumption, pneumonia, swords, bandits, hemlock juries, despots …” 

The result of the entire spectacle is that Charon feels moved to shout down to we mortals, like some heavenly Epictetus:

‘Fools,’ I might say, ‘why so much in earnest? Rest from your toils. You will not live for ever.  Nothing of the pomp of this world will endure; nor can any man take anything hence when he dies.  He will go naked out of the world, and his house and his lands and his gold will be another’s, and ever another’s.’[2]

2. Comedy, the view from the Acropolis, and Stoicism

There is a great difference in tone and perspective between a raucous Cynic like Lucian and the serenity of Marcus Aurelius or Seneca.  The latter, we can feel, are close to attaining access to that “inner citadel” or akropolis Marcus describes in Meditations VIII, 48, as a high retreat into which the sage can retreat at a moment’s notice (see IV, 3).  The Cynics can seem, as it were, to be still roughing their way up the side of this acropolis, throwing down bolts of irritated invective at their fellows below, urging them to ‘wake up!’[3] 

Yet the view from above has deeply similar functions for both Cynics and Stoics.  The exercise serves to vividly remind us[4] that ‘externals’ like gold, riches, beauty, fame, and power are truly ‘indifferent’: unnecessary for, and unable to bring us lasting flourishing or serenity, since they properly don’t belong to us, but to Nature.  What Lucian’s stagings of this philosophical exercise in Icaromenippus and Charon make especially clear, however, is that there is something deeply comic about this view from above exercise—or rather, about what this exercise reveals about ordinary human affairs.  We can miss this dimension in Seneca’s or Marcus’ texts.  So, where is it?

Almost all philosophical theories of comedy have noted the role that the disjunction between two perspectives plays in the human sense of humor or the comic.    What we do when we practice the view from above is exactly cultivate a different, second perspective on what we usually take for granted.  This missed promotion, that person’s betrayal, the pettiness and mendacity of colleagues, whatever, can fill our minds, shock, preoccupy, or depress us.  When we adopt the second philosophical perspective in the view from above, though, we remember that such things are not exceptional, novel, unpredictable, and hence potentially traumatic.  They are laughably common, as old as humanity, so that no matter how capacious your historical perspective may be, as Marcus reminds himself:

You will see all these things: people marrying, bringing up children, sick, dying, warring, feasting, trafficking, cultivating the ground, flattering, obstinately arrogant, suspecting, plotting, wishing for some to die, grumbling about the present, loving, heaping up treasure, desiring consulship, kingly power (Meds. IV, 32; cf. VIII, 31; XI, 27; X1, 1).

Same ‘stuff’, different day.  Different actors, same scripts.

The comic side of this comes from the contrast between things as they truly are and the perspective of the agents themselves.  Since our particular experiences are ‘first for us’, each of us treats the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” as if they were unprecedented, and we the most important player on the world’s stage.   As Hermes observes in Lucian’s Charon, what is so laughable about this is the “ignorance (agnoia) and deceit (apatê)”, including forms of self-deceit, that this usually involves.  Because of our usual failure to step back and see things steadily and whole, we:

look forward to having what they have forever, and so when death’s agents come calling to clap them in irons of fever or consumption and lead them away, they get angry at being hauled off because they never expected to be torn from the world. 

Likewise, as Epictetus will mock, we imagine that the famous, powerful or rich are truly important and happy, that our loved ones, unlike jugs—or even our household jugs—will last forever.  Then stuff happens.  So it goes. 

In a deeply interesting sequence in Charon, Lucian’s gods discern from above a “swarm” of spectral forms hovering around the little humans.  These are the pathê (passions): “hopes, fears, follies, pleasures, greeds, hates, grudges, and such like.”  It is above all our pathê, led by our hopes and fears, and each predicated on the “ignorant” overvaluation of externals, that render us unable to see things as they are, the Cynics agree with their Stoic comrades. 

Perhaps the most famously comic Stoic example of the disjunction between the physical realities of human life, and the enchanting aspects our passionate imaginingsadorn them with comes at Meditations VI, 13.  It is a matter of Marcus’ famous ‘disrobing’ of fine dining, as well as the sexual act:

How important it is to represent to oneself, when it comes to fancy dishes and other such foods: ‘This is the corpse of a fish, this other thing the corpse of a bird or a pig.’  … When it comes to sexual intercourse, we must say, ‘This is the rubbing together of abdomens, accompanied by the spasmodic ejaculation of a sticky liquid.’

‘What a come down!’, someone might exclaim in this age of celebrity chefs-come-orators: ‘who is this killjoy?’  And as for this description of erotic love: ‘way to kill the mood, man!?’  It is as if Marcus, for a minute, had channelled (across the seas of time) John Cleese’s teacher in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, boring his students silly by staging in grotesque details the unerotic mechanics of his own marital bed.

When Lucian in one dialogue defends his introduction of comedy into the elevated genre of the philosophical dialogue, his argument is that philosophers who imagine themselves as elevated sages wrestling with the highest mysteries often “cannot see the things that lie before [their own] feet.”  To enable philosophy and philosophers to again learn to see what is right before their eyes, Lucian explains—this is why he made Comedy the “yokefellow” of philosophy—in doing so also making his own dialogues attractive to many readers “who until then would as soon have thought of picking up a hedgehog as of venturing into the thorny presence of [philosophical] Dialogue.”

Following Lucian, I put it to you, the vital place, or places, for comedy in pursuing Stoicism as a way of life comes from how a sense of irony and humor helps us not to lose sight of what is right before our feet, even as we strive to become sages or sage-like.  The mundane, hard work of trying to make progress, especially when this daily grind is compared to the lofty flights of philosophical theory, could itself well be viewed as intrinsically comic.  It is after all surely a funny thing to do to get up every morning and remind yourself that you will be meeting angry, bitter, envious, jealous, plotting, scheming, dishonest, petty … people.  Likewise, reviewing your day, every evening, and confronting all of your own shortcomings will appear to many non-philosophers as a species of torture, or the patently bizarre. 

In any case, we can certainly imagine a comic poet having fun with these, and almost any Stoic spiritual exercises, like Lucian has fun with the view from above, and from the perspective of mortality.  But a sense of humour is also intrinsic to, and needed within, the practices themselves, or so I think Lucian helps us also to see.  To take on philosophy as a work of ascesis, personal spiritual training, can after all only really work if one remains lucidly self-aware about how wide the gap is between the philosophical ideal, that of being an apathic sage, and the realities of one’s own present conduct and make-up.  Of course, one can always be discouraged, lament, and get hung up on one’s failures to achieve the goal, when one is reminded of this gap: a kind of philosopher’s tragedy, with weeping and the covering of faces.  But here is where humour can intercede.  By giving way to despair, we are after all forgetting the deeply funny Stoic saying that a sage is as rare as a phoenix in Egypt, let alone in the modern ‘burbs.  For there never has been a phoenix in Egypt (spoiler alert), whereas imperfect people are everywhere, as the view from above vividly reminds us.

To make progress, says Marcus, is to be able to fortify one’s inner acropolis, the hegemonikon, against everything beyond one’s control.  But this includes one’s slips and failings.  These belong to the past, and must be at once owned up to, and worked through. 

The ability to see oneself as an imperfect student doing their best, not a hopelessly failed sage, and so to laugh at one’s own shortcomings, is surely essential if one is not to lose one’s faith in the entire project.  Such humbling laughter, as if looking down on oneself from above like a Menippus, Charon, or Marcus Aurelius, is also necessary if one is ever to forgive oneself and others for their vices and imperfections: something which is absolutely vital if we are to move onwards and upwards. 

For it is true, as the great Voltaire scholar Charles Kors once observed, that one never quite looks at things the same way, once one has seen them as comic.  This is surely the insight that lies behind Seneca’s bon mot that no one who can laugh at themselves can be truly laughable.  By contrast, those who cannot laugh at themselves—and at the mundane undersides of all our loftier pretentions—are frequently laughable, when they are not dangerous.  We should beware of philosophers, politicians, even Presidents—why not?—who only know how to laugh at everyone else, for (to parody a biblical saying) ‘they should merit our mirth’.

So, to close at the start: pursuing Stoicism is amongst the most serious thing you can do, if the ancient sense of philosophy as a way of life is at issue.  But we should not confuse being serious with taking ourselves too seriously, lest we become censorious (and a bore) to others and closed to the possibility of real transformation ourselves.  As Seneca reflects in On Tranquillity of Mind:

We must take a higher view of all things, and bear with them more easily: it better becomes a man to scoff at life than to lament over it. Add to this that he who laughs at the human race deserves better of it than he who mourns for it, for the former leaves it some good hopes of improvement, while the latter stupidly weeps over what he has given up all hopes of mending.


[1]  Indeed, he will mock even the famous Stoic paradoxes concerning the Sage as the “only one in the world who’s wise, good, just, brave, the only king, rich man …”: “then he’s the only cook.  And, damn it all, the only tanner, carpenter, and so on,” responds Chrysippus’ bemused prospective buyer (Selected, 325).  In any case, a good man to have around the place.

[2] Human lives, he concludes, are like the bubbles that rise up to the surface in springs, some growing quite large, others disappearing immediately, all dissipating before too long: “for everyone the bubble of life must burst.”

[3] Lucian’s Fisherman will thus end with pseudo-philosophers, hauled up to the Athenian Acropolis on fishing lines hooked with gold, being comically cast down the great rock’s side by the true philosophers as the unworthy pretenders who they are. 

[4] Whose representatives Lucian positions as fighting side by side in the comedic eris or mythomachy between the philosophers in his Symposium.  They are fighting the Peripatetics and Epicureans, with the Platonic philosopher in the middle.

Matt Sharpe teaches philosophy at Deakin University, Australia.  He is presently completing a book on the history of the idea of philosophy as a way of life, and is cotranslator of Pierre Hadot’s Selected Essays: Philosophy as Practice (Bloomsbury, 2020-in press).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seneca on the Autumn of Life

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

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

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

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

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

Letter 16:  How Philosophy Builds the Soul

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

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

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

Letter 20:  Philosophy not Spoken, but Lived

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

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

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

Letter 23:  The Joys of the Philosophic Life

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

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

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

Letter 31:  Goals Worth the Sweat

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

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

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

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

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

Letter 53:  Philosophical Invincibility

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

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

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

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

Seneca ends this letter as follows:

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

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

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

The Unaspiring Stoic by Alison McCone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“To dance is to live.” – Snoopy

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

The Stoic – October 2019

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

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

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

OCTOBER 2019 ISSUE CONTENTS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

O  O  O  O  O

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

O      O      O      O      O

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the following text as quickly as possible:

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

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

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

Thank you very much for your time and attention.

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

Stoicon Is On! And Stoic Week Starts Monday!

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

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

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

Stoic Week Starts Monday!

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

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

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

Stoicon-X and Stoic Week Events

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

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

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

Stoicon-X Events

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Additional Events During Stoic Week

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Groups and Institutions Working Through Stoic Week Together

Los Angeles Stoicsmore information here

Praetoria Stoicsmore information here

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

Stoic Week 2019 Coming Up! The Course and Call for Events

Right after the big Stoicon conference – taking place in Athens this year – International Stoic Week will run from Monday, October 7 to Sunday, October 13. We hope you can join us and thousands of other people around the world by participating in the week, the free online course, and perhaps even local Stoic Week events this year!

Here is the press release for Stoic Week.

Enroll in the Stoic Week Course!

As many readers of Stoicism Today know – and many others will be pleasantly surprised to learn – every year, the Modern Stoicism organization provides a FREE online Stoic Week course. Thousands of people around the world take the opportunity to “live like a Stoic” (the original title of Stoic Week, when it was first organized)!

Here is the link to enroll in Stoic Week 2019. You will likely want to enroll before the class starts so you can start exploring the site.

The online course includes the Stoic Week Handbook (revised again this year – we’re always making some improvements and tweaks), which gives a great overview of Stoic philosophy and practice, and for each day of the week provides daily exercises, passages to read and think about, and some helpful insights written by the Modern Stoicism team. You’ll also find other cool features within the class, including guided Stoic meditation mp3s (featuring Donald Robertson).

You can go through the course entirely on your own, but Stoicism teaches us that our human nature is a social one, and one of the great aspects of Stoic Week is the opportunity to interact with, compare notes with, and get to know other people interested in Stoic philosophy.

While the Stoic Week class is very much designed to be useful for complete beginners, it also provides a great opportunity for those who have been studying and practicing Stoicism for some time. On a personal note, this will be my sixth year of participating in the class. I look at it as a great chance to do a “Stoic tune-up”!

Call For Stoic Week Events

Stoic Week gets even better yet! Not only is there the online Stoic Week course itself. All around the world, Stoic Week also gets celebrated with special local in-person events. Some of these are smaller versions of the big Stoicon – what we call “Stoicon-X” events.

This year, those are being hosted in a variety of major cities and regions worldwide – London, Toronto, New York, Brisbane, Moscow, San Francisco, New England, and Milwaukee (a few of these have already taken place). Three of these Stoicon-X events – the London, Moscow, and Milwaukee events – are scheduled to take place during Stoic Week itself.

Every year, dozens of local Stoic groups and fellowships, academic institutions, and other organizations plan and hold their own Stoic Week events. We put them all into a list and publicize them here in Stoicism Today, in order to promote as much engagement as possible with Stoicism during Stoic Week. So, this is the place to check, if you’re looking for local Stoic Week events!

If you have a Stoic Week event planned – of any sort, no matter how big or small – make sure to write me (the editor of Stoicism Today) with the information sooner than later (ideally, as soon as possible). Once we have it, we’ll get your information added to our listing of worldwide Stoic Week events. We’ll be putting out the first listing next week!