Ethical Development in Stoicism and Confucianism by Brittany Polat

How do we make progress as Stoics? After we accept the theoretical tenets of Stoic philosophy, how do we put them into practice, day in and day out? I think these are all pressing questions for anyone who identifies as a Stoic and truly wishes to live in accordance with nature. And yet, not only is it difficult to follow the Stoic path, sometimes it’s even difficult to know what that path is. We’ve lost both the ancient institutions of philosophy (in which the school’s philosophical way of life was transmitted directly from master to student) and most of the original literature, as well. I’m guessing not many of us have ever seen another person living a Stoic life—we are pretty much winging it as we go along. We do the best we can with what we have. But I keep wondering what the process of ethical development really looks like, both on a day-to-day basis and over a lifetime. 

That’s why I’ve been looking into Confucianism. Like Stoicism, Confucianism is an ancient wisdom tradition with a focus on virtue, ethical development, humanitarian care for others, attention to the present moment, and the ideal of the sage. Like Stoicism, many key Confucian ideas are based on a theory of human nature and have a practical or therapeutic intent. But unlike Stoicism, Confucianism has been a revered and living tradition in Asia for 2,500 years, where it still continues to influence millions (billions?) of lives today. A wealth of Confucian thought has been passed down over the generations, and it has responded to and been informed by competing philosophies such as Daoism and Buddhism. In some important ways, therefore, Confucianism stands in for something we modern Stoics can only dream of: an ancient system of virtue ethics that has flourished at the heart of a remarkably rich culture for thousands of years. 

I’m just beginning my study of Confucianism, but it’s not hard to see its similarities to Stoicism. I believe we can round out our understanding of Stoic ethical development by learning how Confucians see things. Just to be clear, I’m not claiming that any Confucian and Stoic concepts are identical, or that Confucius’ conception of virtue is necessarily related to Zeno’s or Epictetus’ understanding of virtue. The two philosophies are completely independent of one another, and there are significant differences between the two that we need to keep in mind. (For example, their conceptions of virtue have different historical bases and different emphases.) Nevertheless, I’ve found that as a modern person who is trying to reconstruct habits of virtue in my own life, learning about another virtue-centered tradition has helped me better understand the process of ethical development. Greek philosophy does not have a monopoly on virtue, so why shouldn’t we learn as much as we can from other traditions?

Obviously, in this brief essay I will not have space to do justice to the richness of Confucianism, or to really offer a proper comparison between Confucian and Stoic concepts. I will just barely scratch the surface by focusing on two areas that have enhanced my thinking on ethical development: the sprouts of virtue and the unity of knowledge and action.  

The Sprouts of Virtue

The first idea comes from Mengzi (391-308 B.C.E.), a philosopher who lived soon after Confucius (551-479 B.C.E.) and fleshed out several principles that Confucius had alluded to but not clearly explained. For one thing, Confucius taught virtue and wisdom but did not clarify his views on human nature: why doesn’t everyone become virtuous? Is human nature inherently good or inherently bad? Different philosophers in the Confucian tradition put forward various and opposing answers to these questions over the next two thousand years. 

Mengzi, who is often considered the second sage of Confucianism, believed that human nature is inherently good, and that everyone has the “sprouts of virtue” within them. People do not always realize their potential for virtue if the sprouts are not properly tended. Factors such as a bad environment could cause the sprouts of virtue to wither, but more often it is “pernicious doctrines” and “lack of individual effort” that cause people not to reach their full moral potential.

For this reason, Mengzi insisted that we engage in active reflection about our behavior and our ethical context. It is through this reflection that we learn to extend our innate capacity for virtue outward into our lives. Modern Confucian scholar Bryan Van Norden describes the process like this:

“All of us will have righteous or benevolent reactions to certain paradigmatic situations. We feel love for our parents, which is a manifestation of benevolence…However, there are other situations in which we do not have these reactions, even though they are in the same ‘category.’ For example, a person who would find it shameful to have an illicit affair might think nothing of lying to his ruler to achieve some political benefit. ‘Reflection’ is a process by which we identify the relevant similarities between those cases in which we already have the appropriate reactions and those cases in which we do not yet react appropriately. This guides our emotions so that we come to feel similarly about the cases.”

There is a famous story about how Mengzi guided the ethical development of a king by helping him to cultivate the sprouts of virtue in his nature. The king once took pity on an ox that was being led to slaughter because the animal was frightened and bellowing; the king ordered the ox to be spared. Mengzi used this opportunity to point out the king’s budding sense of benevolence, and how he could cultivate and extend this same sense of benevolence to his human subjects. In the same way, we can all reflect on those times we have acted virtuously, and our sense of joy and pride in our actions will spur us on to more virtuous action. As Mengzi said, “If one delights in them then they grow. If they grow then how can they be stopped?”

Anyone familiar with Stoic philosophy will notice the parallels between Mengzi’s sprouts of virtue and the seeds of virtue discussed by Stoics like Seneca and Musonius Rufus. Musonius, like Mengzi, also had a quite optimistic view of human nature; he tells us, “There is an inborn capacity in the human being’s soul for proper living and the seed of virtue exists in each one of us.” 

But what I really like about Mengzi’s thought is his idea of extending our nascent virtue to a wider and wider range of contexts. Rather than trying to conquer a part of ourselves that is in conflict with virtue, we simply concentrate on what is already virtuous within us and apply it more and more broadly. This approach also seems to complement the idea of outwardly expanding concentric circles that we find in Hierocles’ description of oikeiosis: we expand what is already within us. We do so (it seems to me) through a cyclical process of enjoying and taking pride in our past virtuous actions, reflecting on how we can apply those same positive behaviors to new contexts, and then taking pride in our new virtuous actions. 

I really like Mengzi’s progressive, reflective, and encouraging approach to ethical development. It’s one that I think can help beginners as they get started on the path to virtue and can help all of us as we try for a deeper application of virtue in our lives.

The Unity of Knowledge and Action

Another Confucian idea that has influenced my understanding of ethical development is Wang Yangming’s theory of the unity of knowledge and action. Wang Yangming (1472-1529 C.E.) lived considerably later than Mengzi and was part of a revival movement known as Neoconfucianism. In the two thousand years that separated Wang from Mengzi and Confucius, Confucianism in China had faced serious competition from Buddhism and Daoism. Neoconfucians, therefore, were influenced by and forced to respond to Buddhist and Daoist ideas. Instead of focusing on the slow cultivation of virtue, as Mengzi had, many Neoconfucians sought to reach an enlightened state by eliminating selfish desires from their minds. They emphasized constant vigilance over one’s mind as a way to root out selfish thoughts and recover our original, pristine mental condition. Here is Wang’s description of the vigilance required to purify our minds:

“This effort must be carried out continuously. Like eradicating robbers and thieves, one must resolve to wipe them out completely…One must resolve to pluck out and cast away the root of the sickness, so that it can never arise again. Only then may one begin to feel at ease. One must, at all times, be like a cat catching mice—with eyes intently watching and ears intently listening. As soon as a single [selfish] thought begins to stir, one must conquer it and cast it out. Act as if you were cutting a nail in two or slicing through iron. Do not indulge or accommodate it in any way. Do not harbor it, and do not allow it to escape.”

This approach is intriguingly similar to the Stoic conception of prosoche, particularly as taught by Epictetus. And like Epictetus, Wang Yangming was a very inspiring teacher and moral therapist; in fact, he explicitly compared his instruction to medicine, declaring that he cured each student’s specific spiritual malady. 

Where Wang has helped me move forward in my own ethical understanding, however, is through his proposal that “knowledge is the beginning of action and action the completion of knowledge.” He believed that knowledge and action are simply on different ends of a single continuum. But not just any kind of knowledge will work; it must be real knowledge. Real knowledge is distinct from ordinary knowledge because is based on personal experience and touches all levels of the mind, including cognition and emotions. People may fail to act appropriately if they have merely ordinary knowledge about a situation. In contrast, once someone has real knowledge, they will always act appropriately:

“Real knowledge embraces both proper cognitive and affective aspects. In cases requiring moral action, one not only knows what to do but finds oneself properly motivated to do so. In genuine cases of real knowledge, an agent simply spontaneously moves toward the proper end. Those who possess such knowledge cannot help but act in accordance with it; this is what separates them from most of us, who possess only ordinary knowledge.”

I think this offers a satisfactory explanation of why people often act against their better judgment, and it makes wonderful sense in light of Stoic moral theory–with some modifications. Given the Stoic conception of impressions and assent, we could say that our judgments hold the power Wang Yangming ascribes to real knowledge. Judgment is so powerful that our actions will automatically follow from our judgments. When we have an impression, either we assent to something or we don’t. If we assent—that is, if we really, actually believe this is what we should do—we will automatically do it. It’s not possible to truly assent to a proposition and then fail to act on that assent. If that happens, then we haven’t fully assented in the first place.

The unity of judgment and action helped me realize that if my thoughts and actions do not align with my espoused principles, there can only be one thing to blame: my judgments. If we get our judgments right, we will get everything else right, too. Once you understand this, you understand why we must take such great care with our judgments. Everything else falls into place when we have and apply real knowledge of what is good, bad, and indifferent.

I hope you’ll agree with me that the Confucius, Mengzi, and Wang Yangming offer some delicious food for thought for Stoics. In Confucianism we find a long, rich, living tradition of ethical cultivation that emphasizes internal attention, appropriate actions, caring for other people, living in the present moment, and finding contentment in everyday life. Obviously, I’ve barely scratched the surface here, and there are many other points of convergence between Confucian and Stoic theories, as well as some significant areas of divergence. Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting that studying Confucianism will tell us anything about how the ancient Stoics practiced their philosophy, but rather that it can inform our conception of a philosophical way of life moving forward into the 21st century. As we all make a sincere effort toward virtue, we should welcome guidance from the sages of another accomplished, ancient, and influential tradition.

Further Reading

For this essay I have leaned extensively on two excellent books, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in the Confucian tradition:

  • Bryan Van Norden, Introduction to Classical Chinese Philosophy (Indianapolis, Hackett Publishing, 2011).
  • Philip J. Ivanhoe, Confucian Moral Self Cultivation (Indianapolis, Hackett Publishing, 2000), 2nd ed.

Also check out Eric Scott’s short but insightful blog post comparing Stoic and Confucian ethics.

Brittany Polat is the author of the recent book Tranquility Parenting: A Guide to Staying Calm, Mindful, and Engaged. You can follow her blog at Apparent Stoic or on Twitter @brittanypolat.

The Stoic: September 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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  • JOHN SELLARS – Beyond ambition: Getting off the treadmill of desire
  • DONALD ROBERTSON– Canadian Stoicism 
  •  KAI WHITING – Beyond consumption: Becoming sustainable
  • MEREDITH A. KUNZ – Beyond ’busyness’: Embracing the present
  • FLORA BERNARD – Beyond dying: Living urgently
  • CHUCK CHAKRAPANI – Beyond the obvious: Seeing things differently. Examine impressions before accepting 
  • JONAS SALZGEBER– Beyond annoyances: Playing the game of equanimity
  • STOICISM IN PLAIN ENGLISH – Virtue is its own reward (Seneca ‘On the Happy Life’) 
  • STOIC NEWS AND EVENTS– News on Stoic events around the world; Stoic Fellowship around world; Stoic publications and more

Meta-Interview with Donald Robertson

Donald Robertson and I (and to be honest, the entire Modern Stoicism team!) seem to be perpetually busy people, but Donald has been still more actively engaged with the wider world, spreading the word about Stoicism, since the publication of his newest book, How To Think Like A Roman Emperor. He has given an impressive number of interviews in just the last few months.

I was remarking on this in some correspondence with him, and then thought – what if we did an interview specifically about that? Donald always has a wealth of interesting things to say to our readers. Maybe an interview about the recent interviews. . . a meta-interview, if you like. Given our schedules, we had to carry it out via email rather than voice or video recording, but I’m very pleased with the results, which follow below.

Before that, however, here’s a round-up of the interviews Donald has done lately:

Greg: Since publishing your book, How To Think Like a Roman Emperor, you’ve had more than the usual number of interviews.  How many would you say you’ve done?

Donald: Ha ha!  I’ve done at least fifteen, maybe closer to twenty something.  (One more now, of course!) I enjoy doing interviews and interviewing other people about Stoicism.  I’ve been lucky to be asked to do various things.  

Greg: What is the most interesting question you’ve fielded from those interviews?  If it’s hard to decide, pick a few!

Donald: Brett McKay, who hosts The Art of Manliness podcast, asked me about Stoic rhetoric and what it means, as I like to put it, to “speak wisely”, according to the Stoics.  That’s an aspect of the philosophy that’s often neglected, although I think it’s quite foundational in some ways, and important also from my perspective as a cognitive therapists.  The way we use language shapes our cognitions, which shape our desires and emotions. 

The Stoic literature is full of references to good and bad ways of using language.  Marcus Aurelius is constantly reminding himself what to say in the face of certain challenging situations in life.  That includes questions he asks himself, ways of describing events, and even how he prays.  The Stoics were famous for speaking concisely.  We say “laconically”, after Laconia, the region of Greece where Sparta is located.  Cicero actually says at one point that the Stoics talked like Spartans.  They clearly valued “plain speaking” (parrhesia) like the Cynics before them but they appear to have been more willing than the likes of Diogenes of Sinope to adapt their communication to the emotional needs of the listener.  Marcus, for instance, tells himself not to lecture others like a schoolmaster, or humiliate them in public, but to speak to them in a friendly and appropriate manner. 

I think that’s very relevant today, e.g., where people are talking about Stoicism on the Internet and try to use it as an excuse for being abusive or trolling others.  The ancient Stoics wouldn’t have considered that virtuous.  It seems to me that the Stoics believed that our speech should communicate truth and wisdom in a way that’s suitable to the needs of the audience and avoids being crude or causing offence unnecessarily.  

Greg: People often have misconceptions about Stoicism.  What would you say are the most prevalent ones?  Do you have any idea why they keep popping up?

Donald: The most common misconception about Stoicism is that it’s just about being mentally tough or unemotional.  That seems to me to be largely caused by people confusing the words “Stoicism” (capitalized) and “stoicism”.  The former denotes a school of Greek philosophy, the latter is just the modern-day concept of a “stiff upper lip” coping style or personality trait.  In some respects, perhaps, the Stoics were stoic but it’s really not the same thing.  If being “stoic” means just concealing or suppressing our painful emotions then that’s quite opposed to what Stoicism teaches.  It’s also important because “stoicism” has been the subject of a number of psychological research studies, which generally show it’s quite unhealthy, whereas Stoicism is the philosophical basis for modern cognitive therapy, and teaches much more nuanced and healthier ways of coping with our emotions.

Greg: What is the most bizarre or off-the-wall question you’ve been asked in your interviews?  How did you respond to it?

Donald: I get asked sometimes who the most Stoic US president was, which is a question I usually plead the fifth on because I’m not American.  (I’m Scottish but I live in Canada.)  To be honest, I don’t like to evaluate modern-day political figures in terms of Stoicism except in relation to specific examples of behaviour perhaps.  It’s easier to criticize politicians in terms of Stoic ethics than to use them as role models.  

Greg: Are there any Stoic practices or principles that you find helpful to apply when you’re doing an interview?  

Donald: If I remember rightly, the Dalai Lama once said that all you have to remember when doing public speaking (or interviews) is to do your best to try to communicate the truth honestly.  I think the Stoics would agree with that – speak plainly.  You’re definitely not going to please all the people all the time that way.  Nevertheless, it’s always the best way to approach things.  I think it’s also good to avoid strong value judgements or emotive language, or rather to be aware when you’re using this sort of language and to use it selectively and with mindfulness.  

Greg: Do you find that people often mix up upper-case-S Stoicism and lower-case-s stoicism when they’re interviewing?

Donald: Sometimes.  Not too often, though, because, to be honest, I often find that they’ve read some of my online articles or books beforehand and they’re starting to get the idea that Stoicism, the Greek philosophy, isn’t reducible to stoicism, just toughing it out and having a stiff upper-lip.  I did have one interview recently where the interviewer’s questions seemed more like a series of criticisms of Stoicism, which I had to answer, and perhaps some of those were based more on the more widespread notion of “stoicism” as emotional suppression rather the more nuanced approach to emotions found in ancient Stoic philosophy. 

Greg: Without naming names, have you ever turned down an interview because you were concerned about a particular site, podcast, etc.

Donald: No.  I’ve thought about doing that, though, and perhaps came close a couple of times.  Sometimes I don’t agree with the interviewer’s politics, to the extent that their views somewhat concern me, but I’ve always found it works out for the best if I talk to them anyway.  I’ve handled some quite awkward questions, although I did sidestep one about politics because I felt it would have caused too much of a diversion if I’d given an honest answer live on air to the presenter.

Greg: You’ve been studying, applying, and teaching Stoicism for years and years.  Is there anything new that you’ve learned or realized about Stoicism as you’ve been doing these interviews?

Donald: Yes.  It’s really confirmed, first of all, that there’s a huge potential audience out there for Stoicism among people who don’t know much about it or who only having a passing acquaintance with, say, The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.  People from all walks of life are drawn to Stoicism because they think it might offer a philosophy of life that could contribute to mental health and emotional resilience – and they’re right about that.  People often have some reservations about Stoicism but those tend to be tied up with the common misconceptions about the subject.  So when we address those, the philosophy becomes much more appealing. 

People seem very relieved to discover, for instance, that the Stoics weren’t actually telling us all to suppress our emotions and that they didn’t expect us to become doormats who stay at home, passively accepting fate, instead of pursuing active lives.  I also realized that the qualms many newcomers express about Stoicism today are probably much the same as the questions ancient Stoics had to tackle from their students.  

Greg: What question do you wish that the interviewers would have asked but didn’t? 

Donald: There are two:

Q: What are the best books to read to gain a deeper knowledge of Marcus’ life or The Meditations?

A: The short answer is that I’d recommend Hadot’s The Inner Citadel and there are several modern biographies of Marcus Aurelius but I’d recommend Anthony Birley’s over Frank McLynn’s, I think.  I also think that The Earl of Shaftesbury’s Philosophical Regimen is an incredibly valuable companion to The Meditations.  There are lots of other things I could recommend but that’s the short list.

Q: What’s the single most important psychological practice in ancient Stoicism

A:  That’s probably the one I’d describe as a form of “cognitive distancing”, which is basically encapsulated by the famous quote from Epictetus: “It’s not events that upset us but our opinions about events.”  Marcus frequently refers to this as the “separation” of our mind, or opinions, from external events, as if it were a kind of psychological purification – a cognitive katharsis.  I think that’s pretty foundational.  Someone who hasn’t grasped the significance of that hasn’t really grasped the ABCs of Stoicism but it’s arguably quite a subtle concept.  

Greg: Are there any interview questions that you’re tired of being asked and answering?

Donald: Not really.  “How did you first become interested in Stoicism?” is a good question, so I don’t mind answering it, although I’m asked it over and over again so I can feel myself starting to take a deep breath before launching into the same story.  I try to tell it in slightly different ways sometimes.  Questions about common misconceptions of Stoicism are common but they’re important so I don’t mind answering them.

Greg: Are there any places in particular that you’d like to do an interview, that you haven’t been asked to yet?  

Donald: I’m always happy to do interviews in print, in podcasts, on television or radio, etc.  There are lots of places I think it would be good for me, or someone else, to do one – mainly because it would reach a different audience. 

I’d like to see an interview in a publication aimed at nurses, for example.  More interviews for journals and other publications aimed at psychologists and therapists.  I’d like to see interviews reaching sports psychologists and coaches.  I’ve been doing some things for the military recently, and have a talk coming up for the US marines, so I’d like to see more interviews that reach out to that audience.  I also wrote an article recently with a former NYPD officer, about Stoicism and alcoholism – and I’d like to see more interviews and articles about Stoicism in publications that reach people recovering from addictions. 

Finally, there’s a lot of interest from the business community as well – I’ve written recently about Marcus Aurelius and the leadership qualities he admired in previous Roman emperors.  How to Think Like a Roman Emperor was reviewed in The Wall Street Journal and that was followed by some interest from people like Wharton business school.  I’d like to see more interviews and articles, though, for entrepreneurs and leaders in the business world. 

Here is a list of Donald’s recent interviews, listed by source. Click on the links to watch, listen, or read!

Modern Stoicism Expert Panel Posts – The Universe as One Living Creature

One of the perks for Patreon supporters of the Modern Stoicism organization are access to discussions by our panel of experts on Stoicism on selected topics. We’ve all been extraordinarily busy – as you can well imagine – so we haven’t quite managed yet to get them done on a monthly basis, but we plan to do so going forward.

This month, the passage suggested by one of our Patreon supporters is:

Constantly think of the universe as one living creature, embracing one being and soul; how all is absorbed into the one consciousness of this living creature; how it compasses all things with a single purpose, and how all things work together to cause all that comes to pass, and their wonderful web and texture.

Marcus Aurelius

Our panel members who weighed in this month on the topic are: Massimo Pigliucci, Christopher Gill, Greg Lopez, Chuck Chakrapani, and Tim Lebon, and their full discussion can be found here, on the Patreon site.

To give you an idea what the panel discussions comprise, here is Christopher Gill’s contribution to the discussion this month, responding to that passage from Marcus above:

The ancient Stoics saw the universe as a unified, organic entity (or animal), as Marcus describes, and one shaped by providential power. They also regarded all human beings as an integral part of the natural universe, though unusual among animals in having rationality (and being sociable in a rational way). They also believed human beings are capable of making independent, rational choices which contribute to the broader web of causes or ‘fate’.

We moderns may find it difficult to accept all these ideas, particularly the idea that the universe is a unified and providential whole. However, we have very good reasons to see ourselves as an integral part of nature’s broader pattern – we human beings have for too long seen ourselves as masters of the world and able to use it wholly for our own ends – and this has led to the environmental crisis we find ourselves in today.

We need to recover a sense of ourselves as part of nature as a whole and to live accordingly. Also we can recognise the force of the Stoic view that, as humans, we have special capacities (rationality, choice) while still forming part of the larger web of causes, and that we should do what we can to make our contribution to this larger web a positive one.

Stay tuned for next month’s discussion!

Updates About Stoic Week, Stoicon-X Events, and Stoicon

We’ve been getting a lot of inquiries about the upcoming Stoic Week, the Stoicon-X events, and the main Stoicon over the last month, and that’s a sign that it’s time for some updates and additional information about all of those Stoicism-themed happenings in September and October.

Stoic Week 2019

Every year, Stoic Week begins right after the main Stoicon conference. This year it starts on Monday, October 7 and runs through Sunday, October 13. Stoic Week offers participants the opportunity to “live like a Stoic” (the original title for the week the first year it was offered), by participating in a structured set of daily Stoic exercises and short readings from Stoic texts. These can be found in a downloadable handout, which we update each year, and make available here on the Modern Stoicism site shortly before Stoic Week begins.

Another key feature of Stoic Week is the free online course which we offer each year. The course contains useful resources for participants and discussion forums, in which participants from all over the world can discuss their experiences and insights as they work through the exercises and readings. We will open enrollment for the online class a few weeks before Stoic Week kicks off, and we will post the link to the course here once enrollment begins (you’ll also see posts in the Modern Stoicism social media as well).

Each year we have offered the online course has seen thousands of new students enroll in the Stoic Week course. Most people who take the course once repeat the course year after year. There are always some new materials from the previous year, but even better, working through the course (in my experience) offers a great opportunity for a weeklong Stoic “tuneup”.

All over the world, groups, organizations, and institutions plan and put on a number of Stoic Week events. We do our best to publicize all of them as Stoic Week approaches, so if you know of one, or plan to organize and host one, make sure to get that information to us, and we will add it to the master list and the upcoming posts. If you’re not sure whether there is a Stoic group or organization in your area, you might check the International Stoic Fellowship to see if there’s a local Stoa near you.

Stoicon-X Events

Stoicon-X events are sort of like TED-X events – smaller local events organized to bring engagement, conversation, and discussion of Stoicism to a number of other communities around the world. They have been held so far on five continents, and more and more of them get added each year!

Here is the schedule for the eight Stoicon-X events this year:

  • Sunday, September 8 – Stoicon-X Toronto (organized by Peter Limberg)
  • Thursday, September 19 – Stoicon-X New York (organized by Massimo Pigliucci and Greg Lopez)
  • Sunday, September 22 – Stoicon-X New England (organized by Pete Fagella and Mac Deshaies)
  • Sunday, October 6 (directly following Stoicon) – Stoicon-X Athens (organized by Donald Robertson and Piotr Stankiewicz )
  • Saturday, October 12 (during Stoic Week) – Stoicon-X Moscow (organized by Stas Naranovich)
  • Saturday, October 12 (during Stoic Week) – Stoicon-X London (organized by John Sellars)
  • Saturday, October 12 (during Stoic Week) – Stoicon-X Milwaukee (organized by Andi Sciacca and Greg Sadler)
  • Saturday, October 26 – Stoicon-X San Francisco (organized by James Kostecka)


This event runs from 9 AM-? (they’re having “the Drunken Symposium as the last scheduled event), and features Chuck Chakrapani, John Vervaeke, Donald Robertson, and Massimo Pigliucci as speakers. Tickets range from CA$79.00 to CA$99.00. The event is being held at the Toronto Public Library. For more information and ticketing, click here.


This event runs from 6 PM – 8:30 PM, and features talks by Donald Robertson, Willian Irvine, and Massimo Pigliucci. The event is hosted at the New York Society for Ethical Culture, and is free (with a $5 suggested donation). For more information or to RSVP, click here.

Stoicon-X New England

This event will be hosted in Newtown, Massachusetts, and runs from 12 PM to 6 PM, followed by a potluck dinner from 6 PM to 8 PM. It is scheduled to include presentations, music, games, lectures, games, social time, practical exercises, and short lightning talks. Snacks will be provided. Tickets are $15.00 for this event. Ticketing and information are now available via Eventbrite.

Stoicon-X Athens

This event will be hosted at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, and follows the main Stoicon conference held the day before it. It runs from 9 AM to 1:30 PM. Speakers for this event include Alkistis Agio, Kathryn Koromilas, Chrysoula Kostogiannis, Chuck Chakrapani, and Donald Robertson. Peter Stankiewicz will be organizing the short “lightning round” talks. Tickets for the event are  €42.89 (with fees) Ticketing and information are now available via Eventbrite.


This event will be hosted at the Фаланстер (Falanster) bookstore bookstore in the center of Moscow. Tentative plans have Andrei Lebedev and Kirill Martynov as featured speakers. The meeting time at this point is TBD. We will provide more information in a mid-week post here in Stoicism today as it becomes available. For more information, you can contact the organizer.


This event will be hosted at the Senate House, Bloomsbury, and runs from 10:30 AM to 5 PM. The event involves talks in the morning followed by smaller group workshops in the afternoon.  Tickets for the event cost £16.22 (with fees, and include refreshments and lunch.  Tickets and information are now available via Eventbrite.


This event runs from 10 AM to 3 PM, and is hosted at the Central Milwaukee Library. Featured speakers include Kevin Vost, Dan Hayes, and Daniel Collette. It will also involve a set of 3-5 minute “lightning-round” talks and a workshop by Andi Sciacca and Greg Sadler. This is a free event, but due to the space (65 participants maximum), participants must have a ticket. Tickets and information are now available via Eventbrite.


At this point, details for this event remain TBD, but they will be provided as they become available. It will be hosted at a local library in the San Francisco area. For more information, you can contact the organizer.

Stoicon 2019 Athens

The annual Stoicon conference is one of the main events organized by Modern Stoicism. Attendance in recent years has been between 300-400 (depending on the venue), and it provides an excellent opportunity not only to hear excellent talks by experts on Stoicism, but also to participate in workshops, and to get to meet, greet, and converse with others interested in Stoicism.

The theme of this year’s conference is “Stoicism Comes Home“, and it will be taking place in Cotsen Hall, at the American School of Archeology at Athens. The conference date is Saturday 5th October 2019.

The following speakers are lined up for a day of talks and workshops:

  • Donald Robertson (host), author of Stoicism and the Art of Happiness and How to Think Like a Roman Emperor
  • Alkistis Agio (host), author of The Stoic CEO
  • Jonas Salzgeber, author of The Little Book of Stoicism
  • Thomas Jarrett LTC, creator of Warrior Resilience Training
  • John Sellars, Lecturer in Philosophy at Royal Holloway, University of London, author of Stoicism and The Art of Living
  • Matt Sharpe, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Deakin University
  • Massimo Pigliucci, K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York, author of How to be a Stoic and A Handbook for New Stoics
  • Christina Kourfali, author of Live like the Stoics
  • Peter Limberg, organizer of Stoicism Toronto
  • Christopher Gill, Professor Emeritus of Ancient Thought at the University of Exeter, author of The Structured Self in Hellenistic and Roman Thought and Naturalistic Psychology in Galen and Stoicism
  • Gabriele Galluzzo, Lecturer in Ancient Philosophy at the University of Exeter
  • David Fideler, author of Restoring the Soul of the World and The Pythagorean Sourcebook (ed.)
  • Piotr Stankievicz, Lecturer at the University of Warsaw, author of Does Happiness Write Blank Pages? On Stoicism and Artistic Creativity
  • Katerina Ierodiakonou, Katerina Ierodiakonou (Greece), Professor at the University of Athens and at the University of Geneva, editor of Dialectic after Plato and Aristotle and Topics in Stoic Philosophy, etc

Tickets and more information on the main Stoicon conference can be found on the Eventbrite page.

Stoic Reflections From The Gym (part 2) by Greg Sadler

Several months back, I wrote a post derived partly from experiences as a middle-aged man going to the gym, and partly by reflections on Stoic philosophy and practice. Those reflections set out some of what Stoicism contributes to understanding the things that come up in the course of regular physical exercise. They also derive from my own application of – and mulling over – Stoicism as I’m in the course of my tri-weekly grind.

I had intended to write a set of follow-up pieces going further into this topic a bit sooner, but as many of you readers can relate, there are only so many hours to each day, and seemingly innumerable demands continuously eating up those blocks of time – usually more than they have been allotted. Not wanting to allow too many weeks and then months to slip by before authoring at least one sequel post, I set aside some time to add another three of those reflections here.

Making and Maintaining Time For Exercise

A commitment to exercise regularly is very easy to make. People do it all the time, especially as a New Years resolution, or after a doctor’s visit during which one’s physician stresses the need to lose weight, strengthen muscles, help one’s bones or joints, increase flexibility, or better one’s cardio-vascular system. Health clubs and gyms typically see a boom in membership in January, and many people who sign up use the facilities only a few times. Others don’t go at all. Some don’t cancel their memberships, but don’t use them either.

There are, of course, all sorts of alternatives to joining a gym. One can take a class, exercise on one’s own, or even get involved in pick-up games at community centers. There are meetups specifically for those who want to exercise in various ways, including just taking walks. Many workplaces have programs intended to get people moving and more active (in the American context, I write from, these are often tied to the health insurance offered by the company – the idea is that healthier employees result in lower insurance payouts). One can also just exercise on one’s own outside or in one’s own place – that was my preferred way, at earlier points in my life.

It is easy to make a choice to exercise, and even to elevate it to the status of a “commitment”. Following through on that is considerably harder. Physical exercise – at least until one has reached a point where this is no longer the case – is difficult, painful, tiring. It demands that one make a choice, or better put, renew the choice one has made, over and over again. That is what a commitment that one sticks with really looks like – a whole sequence of similar choices, maintaining at the least the direction that one started out in, if not necessarily the initial speed or attitude.

Maintaining commitment to exercise affords and opportunity – and also demands, in whatever degree we have it – the virtue that Stoics identified as courage or bravery (fortitudo in Latin, andreia in Greek). There are multiple modes of courage – what the Stoics called “parts” of that virtue – and some are more centrally involved in sticking with physical exercise one has committed oneself to. Perseverance (tharraleotes), which Arius Didymus tells us the Stoics defined as “knowledge ready to persist in what has been correctly decided”, and Industriousness (philoponia), which is “knowledge able to accomplish what is proposed, without being prevented by the toil” (Epitome of Stoic Ethics 5b2) are particularly relevant.

In working through just one of the fourteen weight-machine exercises that comprise my circuit workout, there are ample opportunities to choose not to follow through each time I go to the gym. And correspondingly, in order to keep the commitment to exercising my body fully, choices have to be made over and over again. It’s easy at the start of the first set. Depending on how I’m feeling and how much weight I’m using, it might be a good bit tougher near the end of the first set of repetitions. By the third set, if I’m using the right amount of weight, and not taking overly-long breaks between sets, the repetitions have become much more demanding. Each one towards the end requires an effort to push through pain and fatigue.

Sometimes I find myself tempted to round the number down. I notice my thoughts suggesting that it would be fine for me to do ten reps instead of twelve on the last set. Nobody else would know, since I’m on my own – fortunately, as an overweight near-50 year old, I enjoy near invisibility at the gym – and I’m not accountable to anyone else. Those thoughts suggest that since I’ve already done two whole sets, it would be all right to back off a bit on the final set. They arise less often than when I first resumed lifting a year and a half ago, but I still have to decide to push through to the end. In one sense, that’s bad, but in another – as I’ll discuss below – it’s not.

Choices and commitments not only have to be made at the gym. Before that, one has to actually make the time for exercise, and that requires choices and commitments as well. Busyness, fatigue, and occasional illness are the main factors that renders those difficult for me. For others, it might be a sort of laziness. Or it could be disorganization and distraction. Some may experience reluctance stemming from worries about others judging them on the basis of their present bodies. All of these challenges can be analyzed from the perspective of Stoic philosophy, revealing that they involve varieties of desires and fears, as well as associated assumptions, judgements, and typically developed habits.

As packed as my work schedule is between teaching classes, meeting with clients, engaging in consulting work, shooting videos and creating other content, varied duties with the Modern Stoicism organization and the Stoic Fellowship, among other things, I would sometimes find myself moving my scheduled workout around on my Google calendar to later times or to the next day. As work tasks took longer than planned, and time ran out, I inevitably skipped workouts. With old pets who occasionally require considerable care, children who visit from time to time, and a wife I chose a life with, I also prioritized family time over workout time. Over the five weeks of my kids’ summer visitation, in order to maximize our time together, I cut back considerably on both work and on workouts.

From a Stoic perspective, what we do or don’t make time for, particularly in relation to other things, reflects what Epictetus would call the price we actually place upon those things, on what we take to be goods or values, evils or disvalues, and the relative rankings of those in relation to each other. These valuations or prioritizations have both cognitive and affective dimensions. They reflect what we do – and have done – with what he calls our rational faculty and our faculty of choice (prohairesis, also sometimes translated as “moral purpose”).

There’s a bit of good news and bad news involved in that. The bad news is that since what we choose and do – as with anyone else – flows naturally from the established structures of thought and volition, largely determined by established habits and assumptions, unless we choose to use those two faculties to examine and modify themselves, we will go on along those same lines. Skipping scheduled workouts will keep on happening, as other things assume higher priority when push comes to shove.

The good news, of course, is that we can willingly choose to rethink how we value and prioritize. We can take cognizance of and modify our habits. In the case of physical exercise, we can remind ourselves of its value and necessity. If we want to take care of the bodies we have been given – which is the rational and practically wise thing to do – then we do have to make time for regular exercise. And that means then that once we have made that time, we have to follow through and maintain that time by not allowing other matters to keep us from using it in the way and manner we decided.

Returning To An Abandoned Routine

Interesting and illuminating analogies can be drawn between physical conditioning, which has some value, and the training of the soul, which from a Stoic perspective possesses a much greater value. In order for any lasting changes to be made, a person must deliberately and repeatedly engage in exercises, choosing over and over again to build and develop new capacities. Those processes of self-improvement, of building what is good and strong in us, and rooting out what is bad and weak, work best when they are continuous, but that is rarely the way things work out.

When it comes to regular exercise not only might one end up breaking one’s scheduled pattern, failing to make or maintain the needed time, abandoning one’s routine for other matters valued more highly. Illness or fatigue can also create obstacles. In fact, those can present hindrances even more for working out than they do for daily reading and study of Stoic texts, or regularly engaging in Stoic exercises. It can be difficult to maintain mental focus when sick or overtired, which may make a session of reading or practical exercise less effective. But it can prove harmful to the body to exercise while ill or sleep-deprived.

One of the adages I inevitably tell my students when I teach Ethics classes or material, is that studying practical philosophy isn’t just supposed to provide us with the guidelines for making the right decisions every time. It is also there to help us, after we’ve made the wrong ones, to figure out just how much we’ve messed up, and what we can do to get ourselves back on track. Stoic ethics is no exception in this respect. When you read through the works we possess by Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius, you will find many passages dealing precisely with that general issue, often focused on particular lapses, mistakes, and deviations.

If getting one’s body back into shape – or perhaps for some, getting it into proper condition for the first time – is something that one decided to be valuable, and still thinks it to be valuable, but one hasn’t managed to stick with regular exercise, then as with any other matter where one notices a contradiction or conflict between the things one thinks, says, values, chooses, and does, then some self-examination is called for. Simply making excuses for why one neglected exercise, or pretending one didn’t have a lapse, or wishfully thinking to oneself that one is going to simply pick right back up and get right back into exercise – these aren’t responses that are likely to be effective.

But once a person acquires some understanding of why what they seem to have resolved to do doesn’t actually happen – when they are the person who gets to determine it – then using that insight, they can change what happens going forward. In my own case, realizing that despite the value I seemingly set upon bodily health – and my realization that regular exercise is a necessary means to that health – I wasn’t getting to the gym regularly enough prompted me to take a look at my habits, assumptions, emotions, and choices involving work.

I’m still practically speaking a workaholic, but by engaging in self-examination and thinking matters through, I was able to break the habit of allowing work obligations to displace scheduled workouts from my calendar, and thereby my day. I saw the larger pattern comprised of many small “just this time” incidents, and then was able to gradually establish a new pattern. Deliberately reminding myself of my realization and resolve that, if I want this body to serve me well past middle age (fate willing of course), I had to keep those workout appointments I’d made by hitting the gym – each occasion that I would have allowed work to spill over into my workout times – that allowed me to get back on track.

A nasty flu bug hit here in the Midwest earlier this year – one that took weeks for most people to get over – and that put my workouts on hold as well. Skipping workouts due to illness is different than not persevering in making time, because as noted above, it may indeed be prudent not to exercise while ill. But what is the same in both cases for physical exercise – and for Stoic practices more generally – is the need to get oneself back on track when we have temporarily put them on hold.

This is where advice from classical Stoic philosophers can be helpful in providing perspective. Without making excuses for ourselves, we can realize that in our failure to follow through and keep commitments to ourselves to exercise, we are no different than any other person who has made a similar mistake. We can forgive ourselves the lapses without forgetting the need to change what within is led to those lapses. As classic Stoic philosophers point out, instead of getting upset with someone for a moral failing, it is more productive to show a person where they went wrong and then leave it up to them what they decide to do with that information. In the case of ourselves, we are that very person, and feeling guilty or angry with ourselves is less likely to get us back into the gym than allowing ourselves to make a new start.

After an absence from the gym, one really does need to make a new start. You can’t really make up for the workouts you missed by assigning yet more exercise to your body. That past time is gone, and that potential exercise that you might have done exists nowhere but in your imagination. All you do have is the present set of real moments and the indeterminate future stretching out in front of you. This is where the Stoic theme of “dealing with appearances” (phantasiai) assumes its importance. That imagination of where you had hoped to be, if you had stuck with the workouts that you missed – that’s an appearance, and one that you can examine and reject, when you encounter it. The sensations of your body as you resume your exercise, whether you feel strong or weak, doing well with an exercise or struggling with it, the pain and fatigue – all of those are appearances as well. The measures of the weights, the repetitions and sets, the time spent doing cardio or in a class – those quantities are all appearances.

We draw a host of judgements from those appearances, often with emotional correlates, all of which we can examine and even rework from a Stoic perspective. When I have gone back for a workout after missing more than a week, I have learned to prime myself to find out in the interaction between my body and the weights machines, what my current capacities really are and to carry out my workout in accordance with those. I do the same with the cardio machines (treadmill, elliptical, rowing, etc.). Invariably, I discover I have lost some ground, which makes good sense, since that’s the way bodies work. If you don’t exercise muscles, they get weaker. If you don’t do cardio of some sort, your endurance lessens. Trying to do the workout that you think you ought to be able to do, ignoring the time spent not exercising – or even trying to compensate for it – is making a bad or unreasonable use of all of those appearances.

A better use is to start up again where you find yourself. So you have to do less weight on all or most of the exercises in a weights circuit. Is that something bad for you – or something bad about you? Not at all. When I’ve been too invested in those numbers, and feeling bad about not being able to lift as much as before, I’ve found it useful to remember one of Epictetus’ short analyses of mistaken inferences.

“I am richer than you are, therefore I am superior to you”; or “I am more eloquent than you are, therefore I am superior to you”. The following conclusions are better: “I am richer than you are, therefore my property is superior to yours”; or “I am more eloquent than you are, therefore my elocution is superior to yours”. But you are neither property nor elocution

Enchiridion, ch. 44

The context would suggest that this reminder applies to cases where we are likely to mistakenly assume our own superiority over other people, or where we need to deal with other people’s assertion of superiority over ourselves or yet others. But it can equally apply to our own assessment of ourselves. If a month earlier, I could easily lift ten pounds more weight on a pulldown machine, and now find myself struggling to get through my three sets with the reduced weight, that doesn’t mean that I have become less of a person. It does mean that I can’t exercise with as much weight. How much weight one can use and the moral status of oneself as a person are two totally different things. If I do want to be able to lift more weight, then I need to exercise. If I want to become a better person, well there are Stoic exercises and insights for that as well!

Some Final Thoughts Keeping The Body In Perspective

Applying Epictetus’ passage along those lines, distinguishing one’s physical capacity from one’s moral condition and development, might then raise a question about the body and exercise from a Stoic perspective that I discussed in the previous post in this series. Strictly speaking, the body and its attributes – like health, strength, or endurance – is an indifferent. We are no more our bodies, their appearances, or their capacity for exercise than we are our wealth or our ability to speak well, right? Epictetus goes so far at one point to say that what a person really consists in, is prohairesis. So why place such a focus on bodily exercise as something important from a Stoic perspective?

I’ll devote additional discussion to this entirely legitimate question in a later post in this series. For now, to bring this to a close, I’ll just point out two things worth mulling over.

One of them is the frequency of Stoics drawing analogies between physical exercise, condition, and even the use of the body, on the one hand, and the understanding, development, and use of what is more at the core of who we are. This is what the Stoics called the ruling faculty (to hegemonikon, which, arguably, turns out to be the same as the rational faculty and the faculty of choice, at least in Epictetus). Bodies don’t start out automatically in good condition, and require the right kinds of exercise in order to improve in health, strength and other attributes. And this goes even more for our souls, which require considerably more attentiveness and work in order for us to more fully realize the potentials of our rational nature.

One of those analogies that I find particularly helpful, as I try to stick with incorporating and continuing bodily exercise comes from Epictetus:

How long will you wait to think yourself worthy of the best things?. . . You have received the philosophical principles which you ought to accept, and you have accepted them. You are no longer a child, but a full-grown adult. If you are now neglectful and easy-going, and always making one delay after another. . . . then without realizing it you will make no progress . . . . Make up your mind, therefore, before it is too late, that the fitting thing for you to do is to live as a mature person who is making progress. . . .[R]emember that now is the contest, and here before you are the Olympic games, and that it is impossible to delay any longer, and that it depends on a single day and a single action, whether progress is to be lost or to be saved.

Enchiridion, ch. 51

We can apply this advice that emphasizes the importance of each choice at each present moment just as readily to physical exercise as we can to applying Stoic philosophy and practices. Each repetition we force our body’s muscles to carry out (particularly the difficult ones at the end!), each minute one keeps pumping away -sweat-soaked and fatigued – on the elliptical is that single action. And whatever bodily exercise one does not only can be, but calls to be incorporated in a broader Stoic perspective.

One of Seneca’s discussions casts light on this. In a letter presenting Stoic arguments about the equality of virtue (an interesting topic, which I’ll examine more fully in another post), he looks at a contrast some would make between the matters in which virtue is exercised:

“What then,” you say; “is there no difference between joy and unyielding endurance of pain?” None at all, as regards the virtues themselves; very great, however, in the circumstances in which either of these two virtues is displayed. In the one case, there is a natural relaxation and loosening of the soul; in the other there is an unnatural pain. Hence these circumstances, between which a great distinction can be drawn, belong to the category of indifferent things, but the virtue shown in each case is equal.  Virtue is not changed by the matter with which it deals; if the matter is hard and stubborn, it does not make the virtue worse; if pleasant and joyous, it does not make it better. Therefore, virtue necessarily remains equal.

Letter 66

To be sure, the examples he discusses in that letter (and the one following) are more extreme than just making through one’s workout at the gym – include bravely enduring torture, showing fortitude in illness, or dealing with exile – but the same logic applies to exercise. It offers us the opportunity to develop and deploy the virtues in engaging with goods that “manifest only in adversity”. Seneca even clarifies this matter in relation to the Stoic conception of what is “in accordance with nature”.

The two kinds of goods which are of a higher order are different; the primary are according to nature, – such as deriving joy from the dutiful behaviour of one’s children and from the well-being of one’s country. The secondary are contrary to nature, – such as fortitude in resisting torture or in enduring thirst when illness makes the vitals feverish. “What then,” you say; “can anything that is contrary to nature be a good?” Of course not; but that in which this good takes its rise is sometimes contrary to nature. For being wounded, wasting away over a fire, being afflicted with bad health, – such things are contrary to nature; but it is in accordance with nature for a man to preserve an indomitable soul amid such distresses. To explain my thought briefly, the material with which a good is concerned is sometimes contrary to nature, but a good itself never is contrary, since no good is without reason, and reason is in accordance with nature.

Letter 66

I’ll leave off here with a brief interpretative suggestion. In one sense, physical exercise of the sort that one typically does at a gym – deliberately pushing oneself to limits of strength, endurance, flexibility, or other bodily qualities – are indeed unnatural. The pain or fatigue one endures is hopefully not anywhere near as intense as being tortured on a rack, of course, and the circumstances are very different, since one chooses to work out. In another sense, physical exercise is something in accordance with nature, not only because it enables us to develop our bodily capacities and to maintain our bodies in a state of health, but also because when conducted well, the “use” or “dealing with” the indifferents that our bodies are can provide a locus for exercising the virtues.

Gregory Sadler is the Editor of the Stoicism Today blog.  He is also the president and founder of ReasonIO, a company established to put philosophy into practice, providing tutorial, coaching, and philosophical counseling services, and producing educational resources.  He teaches at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design. He has created over 100 videos on Stoic philosophy, regularly speaks and provides workshops on Stoicism, and is currently working on several book projects.

Stoicism and the Irish by Frank Ó’hÁinle

As a quick introduction, my name is Frank Ó’hÁinle and I am a twenty-one-year-old Irish law student. Throughout the course of this piece I would just like to share my own personal experience of Stoicism with you all, as well as examining the application of this ancient Greek philosophy to the Irish generally in terms of their predisposition towards melancholy and despondency.

In particular the opening paragraphs will focus upon the indomitable Irish spirit in terms of their outlook towards the uncontrollable circumstances that were imposed upon them throughout history, with the latter paragraphs focusing on the melancholic aspect of the Irish psyche particularly a predisposition towards focusing on the negative experiences which happen to us all. Hopefully you enjoy my piece and it sparks an interest in the application of Stoic philosophy to your own lives.

I “discovered” Stoicism at the age of nineteen following my first year of my undergraduate degree. The Summer after first year is what I would consider up until this point to be the nadir of my fortunes, for a multitude of reasons. Several things had not gone my way and despite considering myself to be quite a tough individual, I had reached a point where I was feeling down and out. I struggled to come to grips with this despondency and subsequently was unable to push through this relative low point in my life. I do not find a need to discuss the individual concerns as you could substitute them for any other multitude of factors and still find Stoicism applicable. A primary practice of Stoicism is to avoid overly focusing on the circumstances one finds themselves in if they are outside of their control, as such an in-depth discussion of these prior issues of mine may well prove to be counterproductive.

As per Marcus Aurelius writing in the Meditations:

If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.

An avid fan of history, with Ancient Rome being a particular area of interest for me, I returned to the last good emperor Marcus Aurelius and was shocked to find that he had produced an absolute masterpiece in the quiet moments of his life. In between running the known world, Marcus had found the time to express in harrowing heart wrenching detail his own struggles and how he had found the strength within himself not only to persevere, but also to make the world he had found himself in a better place in the process.

Delving into this work I found answers to questions I had never dared to ask and a way in which I could rebuild myself into the man I had once thought I was but had now discovered that I could not have been further from becoming. Taking this full Summer to rebuild and reorient myself with who I wanted to be, and casting away all that, had held me back in the past. This was by no means easy but taking each day as it came I found myself becoming a Stoic, I was now able to accept the locus of control along with the concepts of Amor Fati and Memento Mori, these concepts at this point have been written about at length by far more skilled authors than myself, so I will not fill out my piece with unnecessary descriptions of them.

As well as Roman history, I am also a devout follower of the wonderful trials and tribulations that make up my own heritage as an Irish man. Having read of Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, Cato and many other Stoics in the past I began to draw comparisons between these great men of antiquity and their teachings, with those of a more Gaelic origin. Taking for example the general unwillingness of the Irish to ever break and accept the culture of the English, despite seven centuries of subjugation, I could witness the Stoic’s unwillingness to allow external factors beyond their control to overly affect them.

An Górta mór or “the Famine” as it is referred to in most textbooks, involved the death of one million Irish people by means of starvation, malnourishment, cold and illness, while one million more of them were forced to emigrate in order to survive. In a span of some four years, one quarter of the population was now gone from the island never to return.

During this time of suffering and loss, the British authorities set up soup kitchens where, if an Irishman renounced their Catholic faith (along with much of their identity) and took on the Protestant faith (with the equivalent English identity), then they would be fed. Yet the Irish identity persisted regardless, as many refused instead accepting their circumstances in the way of Amor Fati.

Rather than looking for an easy escape from their struggles which would necessitate an immense compromise of their ideals and very conception of who they are, the Gaels instead persisted embracing what had come their way and ensuring their very cultural identity would survive. This is most reflected in the writings of Epictetus who himself would have to learn to embrace the life of a slave and the trials and tribulations that came with it throughout his life, “He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.”

Yet it is in the fate of Joseph Plunkett that I see the greatest of Irish Stoics. Suffering with tuberculosis, Joseph was effectively given a terminal diagnosis. Yet unknown to his physician who had given this diagnosis, Plunkett was a part of a revolutionary bid – to win Ireland’s independence or to give their lives in the attempt. With the Rising set to occur on Easter of the year 1916, Joseph Plunkett left his sickbed along with the love of his life and their unborn child, knowing full well he would not return.

During the events of Easter week Plunkett contributed in his own way, despite his illness making an active combat role impossible he aided in the organisation and planning of the Rising, right up until his illness left him forced to spend the dying days of the revolution bedridden. His very presence and fortitude in ensuring he did what was required of him, inspired the men to continue to resist despite the overwhelming odds facing them. With the fires mounting in Dublin the decision to surrender was taken and at the mercy of the British authorities it was decided to make an example of the leaders of this insurrection, among them Joseph Plunkett.

Following on from this, the leaders of the Rising were executed daily each meeting their fate unwilling to bend to what they viewed as tyranny. Saddest among these deaths were those of James Connolly and the aforementioned Plunkett. Connolly, a socialist born in Scotland to Irish parents and a former British soldier, saw what the scourge of Empire was forcing upon the Irish people and sought to sever the link between the two countries regardless of what the personal cost may be.  Mortally injured during the Rising having taken on the primary command of the Irish armed forces, Connolly would have died without intervention in the coming days, yet he was executed by firing squad while tied to a chair.

Plunkett’s demise has however, since been immortalised in the poignancy of the song Grace. Before it came time to face down the firing squad, Joseph Mary Plunkett was allowed to marry the love of his life Grace Gifford in order to legitimize their unborn child. With a Stoic calm in the mould of Seneca meeting his demise in front of the Roman centurion sent to ensure his death, Plunkett bade his newlywed wife farewell mere moments before he did the same to his life.

Like the Stoics, Plunkett attached no great significance to his death. He had lived his life as well as he could and contributed to something greater than himself as his memory and that of his compatriots would allow the spark of Irish freedom to ignite and six years later attain its ultimate goal, a free and independent state. Plunkett and Connolly, like many Irish rebels before them, understood that living well was the key determining factor to dying well. As is reflected in the words of Seneca the Younger, “Life is like a play: it’s not the length, but the excellence of the acting that matters.”

So far, my article has focused upon one aspect of the Irish psyche, that of its courage and ability to endure, yet its other hemisphere betrays these Stoic values to a degree. To quote G.K. Chesterton in his description of the Irish, “The great Gaels of Ireland are the men that God made mad, For all their wars are merry, and all their songs are sad.”

Another core aspect of the Irish people generally, which has been noticed not only by those visiting our shores but by the more introspective among us, is that we tend towards feelings of melancholy and despondency. Such an aspect of our nationwide consciousness draws a stark contrast to the above element of endurance and also much of what it means to be a Stoic. This is further evidenced by the works of some of our greatest writers and poets, with the likes of William Butler Yeats devoting much time to elaboration upon the topic. This leaves the Gaels in a rather odd position of naturally displaying the key determining factor of the ancient philosophy, while on the other hand displaying the emotional element which it is designed to overcome.

I have noticed this even in myself, despite my time studying and learning from the Stoics while also applying their teachings, I find unexpected and severe feelings of sadness overcoming me at the strangest of times. In response I tend towards sad music and short moments of introversion, despite my overtly extroverted personality. I have noticed this behaviour in friends and family members also.

One need only turn on a broadcast of the news for the day and despite there being twenty-six positive headlines, one of my family or friends will focus upon the one negative part of the broadcast. As further evidence of this, a recent study in Ireland has revealed that in parts of the country, radio listeners spike when lists of the deceased are read out over the air. Of course, it must be noted that this is a generalisation, and not all of us maintain this inner sadness and inability to avoid focusing upon the negative aspects of our lives, yet as of the present it remains a pervading element of our society. One which has shown a degree of prevalence in the cultural expressions of the Irish people, whether it be through means of music or that of our artists and storytellers, much of it speaks to that darker element of our way of thinking.

To return to the G.K. Chesterton quote, it would seem that when focused upon a goal and in the middle of that battle, the ordinary Irish person throughout our history has been able to maintain a Stoic resilience and ability not only to endure but to thrive despite everything which has attempted to break them. Yet when devoid of this purpose, we tend towards this form of melancholy which seems singularly unique to the Gaels. In a modern world, however, such overarching goals have now been replaced by a culture of individuality. As such, this willingness to endure and fight for what it is we held to be right has been overcome by the more negative half of our national identity. I found myself falling into this trap, aged nineteen, and was fortunate enough that my love of the past led me towards a mentor of Aurelius’ ilk, yet not all of us are as fortunate despite Stoicism’s resurgence.

Having done much research into the topic of the Irish psyche and history, I would highlight it as a case study of an area in which the benefits of Stoicism can be seen by all. In my own life I have been able to remove an obsession upon controlling my life and its ultimate course, whether I will be wealthy or married with children in the coming years is beyond my control along with an innumerable myriad of other possibilities. My happiness is no longer contingent upon such uncontrollable external factors, but rather upon who it is I decide to be day by day and the impact I have on those around me.

In accepting this I have found strength where once there was doubt and uncertainty, while I came to find my way of living a better life through Stoicism at a relatively young age, I would like all of you to note that it is never too late to change your outlook on life and in doing so to become the best version of yourself possible. It will be an uphill battle every step of the way, yet as was evidenced above in embracing our better selves we not only improve our own lives but also those of the ones around us whether wittingly or not.

My own story provides an example of this as I still have to consciously work on myself day by day in order to avoid returning to the pitfalls which hampered me pre-Stoicism. Whether it is my nightly ritual of finding three things which I can be thankful for throughout my day and three things which although they were initially perceived as negative experiences in that same day can be looked at as blessings in disguise, if I allow my perception of them to be altered.

There are countless other small exercises which I practice throughout my regular day and I would hope to write a further article describing in greater detail how I practice Stoicism on a daily basis in order to aim for personal mastery. Yet as my friends and family will attest, I have become a better more capable friend, son, nephew etc., whose impact upon those around has been a positive one for having embraced the life of a Stoic and all that such a way of being pertains to.

While we can’t all be revolutionary heroes who usher in a new era for an entire people, we can contribute in ways which help to improve a universal whole the consequences of which through the invariable ripple effect can never truly be calculated. Embrace what is good in who you are and work to improve that which holds you back, whether it be a melancholy ingrained in you from a young age or some other unhealthy behaviour or habit which has thus far held you back. In particular, Epictetus elaborates best upon such an outlook on life, “First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do.” As a result, you never know you may end up changing the world in the process and leaving it a better place for you having come through this way.

Frank Ó’hÁinle is a final year law and history student, currently studying in the University of Limerick. He is an aspiring author, who attempts to achieve some degree of balance between the practice of Stoicism in his every day life, writing, work as a bartender and at some stage perhaps his actual undergraduate degree. You can contact him here

Imperfection and the Stoic by John Kluempers

The researcher and author Brené Brown does not call herself a Stoic or describe herself as being stoic. Nevertheless, when I read her book, I find parallels on how she relates to her work on courage, shame, and imperfection in leading a good life, and how the stoic seeks eudaimonia, or a good life.

If you don’t know Brené Brown, I suggest you watch her TED talk (here) on vulnerability, which still belongs to one of the most viewed talks on the conference platform. On her own website, Brown calls herself a research professor of the University of Houston, where she holds the Huffington-Brené Brown Endowed Chair and has spent the past two decades studying courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy. One of her early books is The Gifts of Imperfection.

In it, she takes the reader through a journey on how we can get past the negative feelings that appear when we compare ourselves to others—and possibly worse, comparing ourselves to the expectations of society. On the journey, Brown leaves 10 so-called guideposts. Each one of the guideposts is a gremlin that prevents each one of us from living what she calls Wholeheartedly (her capital ‘W’). Stoics would use the term eudaimonically. I find that each one of the 10 guideposts has a bit of Stoic philosophy. Here are the guideposts:

  1. Letting Go of What People Think: Authenticity
  2. Letting Go of Perfectionism: Self-compassion
  3. Letting Go of Numbing and Powerlessness: Resilient Spirit
  4. Letting Go of Scarcity and Fear of the Dark: Gratitude and Joy
  5. Letting Go of the Need of Certainty: Intuition and Trusting Faith
  6. Letting Go of Comparison: Creativity
  7. Letting Go of Exhaustion as a Status Symbol and Productivity as Self-worth
  8. Letting Go of Anxiety as a Lifestyle: Cultivating Calm and Stillness
  9. Letting Go of Self-doubt and “Supposed To”: Meaningful Work
  10. Letting Go of Cool and “Always in Control”: Laughter, Song, and Dance

I will now take you guidepost by guidepost to find stoic thoughts and philosophy that are buried in the meaningful writing of Brené Brown. By no means am I trying to one-up her work. Our modern lives are more hectic, stressful, and anxiety-provoking than ever (doesn’t every generation say that?) and everyone is seeking new ways to manage and even rule over the stress and strain. I look to make the connection between what she has so magnificently discovered and described for more than a decade and how stoics (and even non-stoics) could use it to lead better, healthier, and more joyful lives. Or eudaimonic lives in the parlance of stoicism.

Guidepost 1: Cultivating Authenticity: Letting Go of What People Think.

Brené Brown’s first guidepost demands from us to be truer to ourselves. Not to hold back from opening up to those who are closest to us: spouses, siblings, parents, children, good friends. When we reveal ourselves at the right moments, we will find joy and satisfaction.

She uses the term authenticity and describes it as a quality that we are either born with or not, but as something that we must practice, “a conscious choice of how we want to live” (p. 49). Brown continues that we are authentic on some days and not on others. Importantly, we act authentic in front of some people and less so in front of others. Based on her research, she came up with the following definition:

Authenticity is the daily practice of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we are.” In more detail, she sketches being authentic as being courageous enough to be imperfect, recognizing that all struggle with the vulnerability of being authentic (and hence, imperfect), and connecting with others best when we believe that we are enough

p. 50

When we are being our true selves, those who know us might be confused, she writes. Questions like, “What if I think I’m enough, but others don’t?” or “What if I let my imperfect self be seen and known, and nobody likes what they see?” Brown stresses that this act of authenticity is audacious—and might meet with rejection by people close to us. In order to lead a Wholehearted life, we meet with resistance. People will find it strange, unusual, even scary and will want us to return to the way we were before. Do we want this?

The price of giving too much value to those opinions, and after all, that is what they are, can make us experience the following: anxiety, depression, eating disorders, addiction, rage, blame, resentment, and inexplicable grief (p. 51). We have no control over what others think about us and how they would like us to be. We should be on our guard. Otherwise, we will go back to being miserable. This desire to be accepted by others is very much a part of human nature. But is it what we really want?

These questions and concerns about being authentic very much coincide with the Stoic school of philosophy. Giving people control over how we should be and act leads primarily to unhappiness. With this first guidepost as a starting point, I would like to show what Stoicism can do for you. For those not already familiar with Stoicism, I will over the course of this article introduce important pillars of thought from the school.

In Stoicism, there are a few primary maxims that we learn early. One is the dichotomy of control. The Stoic teacher Epictetus (or Arrian, one of his students who recorded Epictetus’ lectures) felt this to be a pillar of Stoicism that both his Discourses and Enchridion open with it. “Some things are within our power, while others are not.” Connecting this to Brown’s first guidepost, she recognizes something that any modern Stoic learns early: We do not have control over what others think of us.

The philosopher and Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius states it slightly differently in his Meditations:

If you suffer distress because of some external cause, it is not the thing itself that troubles you, but your judgment about it, and it is within your power to cancel that judgment at any moment

Meditations 8.47

2. Cultivating Self-Compassion: Letting Go of Perfectionism.

The prokopton, or practicing Stoic, is necessarily imperfect. The sage is a model to live up to. For the Stoics, Socrates fits the bill of being a sage. Quite possibly the Sage. He was a man who lived virtuously. The virtuous person perfectly incorporates the cardinal virtues of wisdom, courage, moderation, and justice. For Socrates and the Stoics these virtues came first and foremost in leading a good life because when practiced in the best way possible, we will fulfil all four. Socrates (and historical figures like Buddha and Jesus Christ and I’m sure others from religions I’m less familiar with) did just this. With his persistent questioning, he wanted to lead others to recognize their imperfections—and according to Plato’s testimony, Socrates even would discover his own shortcomings.

Why should we find our deficits?

Brown writes that “[p]erfectionism is, at its core, about trying to earn approval and acceptance” (p. 56). But at what cost does it come if we seek the praise and liking of those around us—and even of those we don’t know? When “What will they think?” drives our actions and behaviors. The Stoics warn exactly against this and the dichotomy of control exists to remind us of this. If we act in virtuous ways, then the thoughts, opinions, and judgments of others are unimportant because in virtue, we are doing that which is only good.

The difficult part is that we will constantly face situations where we make difficult decisions, often at the spur of the moment. Perfection is not possible, only a guidepost, using Brown’s terminology, that can lead us to make the best possible decision. A Stoic sage will be able to practice all four virtues listed above. All at the same time. We honestly can’t do that but we seek to practice all four as often as possible and in as many cases as possible so that our lives are eudaimonic.

3. Cultivating a Resilient Spirit: Letting Go of Numbing and Powerlessness.

One objection people frequently throw at Stoicism is being exactly that: stoic. A cold-hearted, emotionless machine. You might notice the small difference here. The first time it’s capitalized and the second time not. Stoicism does not demand or even desire people to suppress their emotions, the so-called stiff upper lip. This is being stoic with a small ‘s’. Emotions are a part of the human experience. There are good emotions with happiness and joy at the forefront. There are also bad emotions, such as anger, sadness, fear, anxiety, etc. It is interesting that the list of perceived bad emotions is much greater.

It has been shown that humans magnify bad things and events while we tend to underplay the celebratory ones. After all, for much of human existence on Earth, dangers such as predators, illness, drought, etc. have far outweighed the parties, like killing a large animal to secure the existence of family. Even in ancient Greece and Rome, the possibility of a sudden death was by no means minimal even if the Romans did much to lower mortality rates in the regions they conquered and ruled, as seen here.

We react to negative and stressful situations in many ways, but they are almost all learned behaviors. Brown brings up the point that we fall into all kinds of addictive behavior when confronted with challenging emotions. There are the usual suspects: alcohol and drugs. But there are many more: shopping, eating, smoking, gambling, gossiping, working, just to name a few. Addictive behavior stems from stress and unease about something. It temporarily numbs the dark, as Brown puts it. It is only temporary, however.

The Stoic virtue of temperance, or moderation, reminds us to avoid excess. Not only should we avoid excessive pleasure, we should also temper the negative emotions and keep in mind that the effects of what we are judging to be bad will not last long. This is a core principle of Stoicism in dealing with difficult situations. Cognitive distancing, which is common in cognitive behavioral therapy, is one such way. Both Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius espoused it by saying: “It is not events that upset us but our judgments about events” (Enchiridion, 5). We should keep this in mind so that when confronted with painful, stressful or other challenging situations, we don’t revert to automatic mechanisms and habits that do nothing to ease the discomfort and more likely exacerbate it.

4. Cultivating Gratitude and Joy: Letting Go of Scarcity and Fear of the Dark.

Brené Brown brings a very important lesson to the table at this guidepost. In order to be joyful, we must be thankful FIRST. In her interviews with people who were joyful, she discovered three powerful patterns, as she described them (pp. 77-8):

  • People who described themselves as leading joyful lives, without exception, actively practiced gratitude. And they attributed their joyfulness to their gratitude practices.
  • The persons described both joy and gratitude as spiritual practices. These practices inextricably were linked to the belief of human interconnectedness and a power greater than us.
  • People were quick to point out the differences between happiness and joy. Happiness was attributable to circumstances [outside of their control] and joy was a spiritual way of engaging with the world that’s connected to practicing gratitude.

The Stoics recognized this in similar ways. Epictetus portrayed it with his broken jug anecdote.

With regard to everything that is a source of delight to you, or is useful to you, or of which you are fond, remember to keep telling yourself what kind of thing it is, starting with the most insignificant. If you’re fond of a jug, say, ‘This is a jug that I’m fond of,’ and then, if it gets broken, you won’t be upset. If you kiss your child or your wife, say to yourself that it is a human being that you’re kissing; and then, if one of them should die, you won’t be upset.

Handbook, 3

When I read this the first time, I thought to myself: How can I equate losing a jug with me losing my child or wife? There is a grave discrepancy between the two! If my child were to die today, I believe I would first be in shock. I might become very angry or grieve terribly long. I might drown that sorrow with alcohol as a way to numb the pain or anger.

The reason why we may resort to numbing is that we don’t recognize many things we should be grateful for. When Epictetus speaks of us losing a jug, it can be relatively easy to say, I can handle that. When in the next sentence, he adds that we should react with similar equanimity should our child or wife die before we see them again, that bit is harder to swallow. What point does Epictetus want to make when he juxtaposes earthenware to close family?

What he wants to do is indicate that we should practice more gratitude. We should celebrate every moment that we have with our family, friends, and even, as perverse as it might sound, the possessions we own. To the Stoic, these are all indifferents, and in this case, preferred indifferents. Yes, we can (and should) enjoy them. We can take pleasure in them. But their existence in our lives does not lie directly in our power. Epictetus reminds us that the ephemeral nature of existence is just that, a part of nature.

Even more importantly, we should remind ourselves that in leading a good life, it is up to us to remember to appreciate those preferred indifferents—and give thanks for them on a regular basis. This is what the subjects in Brown’s interviews do consistently. The reward is leading, in her terms, a more joyful life. A mistake many people make, she adds, is waiting for joy to come before expressing gratitude.

The Stoics followed a similar line of thinking. Show gratitude for what you have at the end of each day. Many therapies request patients to take the time, usually at the end of the day, to journal. Epictetus also asks us to review all things we did during the day and grade it mentally. The grading can be as simple as thumbs up or thumbs down (or somewhere in between) or you can give grades or ratings. Did you help a friend out? Pat yourself on the back. Were you quick tempered with a colleague? Remind yourself next time to pause before reacting.

The ancient Roman Stoics kept this in mind with the practice of premeditation malorum, or visualizing the bad. This works in two ways. By foreseeing the bad, we actually decrease our fear of it. Cognitive behavior therapy works on this precept. “What’s the worst that can happen to me when I give a presentation? Might I embarrass myself? And what if I do? People forget about it fairly quickly.”

The other side of the premeditation malorum coin is that we appreciate more what we have and all the bad things that don’t happen to us.

5. Cultivating Intuition and Trusting Faith: Letting Go of the Need for Certainty.

The endless amount of information at our disposal in modern times can be seductive. There is practically an answer to every problem, dilemma, crisis under the sun. At least we believe that most of the time. Google and co. will provide us with the best possible response or solution. For some things this is certainly true: a math equation, a trivia question, a history question, etc.

Yet search engines and the Internet can’t answer with any certainty questions about our future, at least not yet. Which job should we accept? Which car should we buy? Which school is best for our children? We pore over the data. We analyze it. We use due diligence. Only to feel even more uncertain. Lots of research (here and here for a small sample) has shown that our gut feelings, hunches, or a sixth sense often lead to good decisions. Science has only in the last two decades or so started examining intuition more closely. And understanding it.

Brené Brown points out that intuitions are an amalgam of mental processes. It is not just a random choice. The brain observes something, scans its files, and matches the observation with existing memories, knowledge, and experiences. Once it puts together a series of matches, we get a ‘gut feeling’ about what we’ve observed and how to proceed—without a long deliberation process. Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahnemann’s distinction between Slow and Fast Thinking is similar.

Stoicism asks its practitioners also to use due diligence. Reason makes humans stand out from all other creatures on Earth. We should use our brains, our cognitive abilities, to analyze and make the best possible decisions under the circumstances. The Roman orator Cicero, who was sympathetic to Stoic ideas and philosophy, illustrated the uncertainty that surrounds the outcomes of decisions once they have been made to that of an archer. She chooses a certain target; she lifts the bow and takes aim; she pulls back the string; she releases the arrow. Once the arrow is flying, however, it is no longer in her control where it strikes. A gust of wind may blow it off target. The target (an animal, for example) may move out of the way. Cicero rightly concluded, “the actual hitting of the mark [is] to be chosen but not to be desired.” “Not desired,” you ask? Yes, because the archer has done all in her power to hit the target but must be ready to accept if the arrow does not hit the mark.

Prepare well, do your homework—then just do it! to quote a sporting apparel company. At some point we have no control and must be ready to accept what fate has in store.

6. Cultivating Creativity: Letting Go of Comparison.

Brené Brown notes that when we excessively make comparisons—not only to others but also to ourselves, we automatically find ourselves in a situation of insufficiency. We never have enough. We are never good enough.

The Stoics were on to this too. In general, we only see and experience impressions of how others are doing. We see others with better cars, nicer homes, more loving spouses. Yet we don’t know by any means if they are actually better off than we are. Money, reputation, and love are to the Stoics indifferents that can have good and bad qualities. The only chief good that a human can possess is virtue. Socrates drove this point home and the Stoics, too.

Virtue is, as Massimo Pigliucci summarizes in his book How to be a Stoic, the only thing that is valuable under all circumstances. Everything else is an indifferent and can be either good and bad, or in the parlance of Stoicism, preferred or dispreferred. It is fine to accrue wealth, but if in accruing it, a multibillionaire slashes thousands of jobs, then she is hardly acting virtuously. Money is a vice in that case. The same is true for love. If we act “lovingly” to gain acceptance, for example, you are using love as a means to an end. The outcome of such behavior is also uncertain. The person whose acceptance you try to win may spurn your attempts anyway, or he withholds the love that he may have returned because he sees through the veiled attempt.

The Stoic says we shouldn’t compare ourselves to others. Our impressions may mislead or misinform us. Therefore, practice the four virtues: practical wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation on yourself—and only on yourself.

7. Cultivating Play and Rest: Letting Go of Exhaustion as a Status Symbol and Productivity as Self-worth.

 In modern times, productivity is the measuring stick par excellence. At the workplace; on the athletics field or in the gym; at school. We are being measured against standards that demand we always work. In creating those standards, we often had little input, if any at all. They are imposed on us and we impose them on each following generation.

In guidepost 2, we learned that taking time out is necessary. Even more necessary is taking time out to play and rest. Many mammal species play as part of upbringing. We see puppies, lion and bear cubs, dolphin calves, and monkey and ape species playing as part of childhood—and sometimes beyond. Playing is learning to do adult things (hunt, for example) and be social in a family or clan.

For millions and millions of people, working for the sake of work is a status symbol. We must be busy, or at least look like we are busy. Otherwise someone could overtake us. We respond to the price of believing that someone might get to the finish line (which one we should ask) first by working more and sacrificing most often sufficient sleep. Many studies reveal the deep value and necessity of getting enough sleep. In his New York Times bestseller Why We Sleep, Matthew Walker shows in great detail the benefits of a good slumber.

But not only sleep is critical. In this guidepost, Brené Brown refers to studies that show the importance of play. In his book Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul (here is his TED talk on it) Dr. Stuart Brown (no relation to Brené) explains how play actually shapes our brain and helps us become more social creatures.

The Stoics see play also as part of the human experience. The second head of the Stoa, Cleanthes, was a pugilist. Up to young adulthood, Marcus Aurelius, participated in all kinds of sporting activities while being raised. It is necessary to do this, otherwise we may hit a wall sooner or later. Our health may deteriorate, or our social life may suffer. Or both.

8. Cultivating Calm and Stillness: Letting Go of Anxiety as a Lifestyle.

Anxiety is a curse. Disquietude impacts our mental and physical health. The definition of anxiety in simple terms is to worry about the outcome of an upcoming event. We want something, be it a prize, recognition, or compliments. Yet these are outside of our control, as Epictetus reminds us:

When I see someone in a state of anxiety, I say, ‘What is it that he wants?’ For unless he wanted something that was not within his power, how could he still be anxious? That is why a lyre-player feels no anxiety when singing on his own, but becomes anxious when he enters the theatre, even if he has a fine voice and plays his instrument well. For he wants not only to sing well, but also to win the approval of his audience, and that is something beyond his control.

Discourses 2.13

The dichotomy of control shines its light yet again. We will always want to perform well, but the reactions of the audience are beyond our control. We prepare for the situation. We practice. We stay calm—think of the archer! Emotionally-charged situations are inevitable. Reduce anxiety by remaining calm, breathing, and remembering the reactions of the others is beyond your control.

9. Cultivating Meaningful Work: Letting Go of Self-Doubt and “Supposed to”.

A Stoic life requires a few simple things from the prokopton. Live virtuously, for virtue is the highest good—and all else is indifferent. In addition, we should follow Nature. We should do all we can to lead a life that will make the world a better place. Lastly, yes, you guessed it, we should remember the dichotomy of control.

In this guidepost, Brené Brown points out something that haunts most anyone who has self-perception (and that means about anybody beyond the age of 7 or 8): expectations. It begins in the family where parents, siblings, and relatives believe we should act a certain way and do certain things. “Boys play sports,” and “Girls should look pretty,” are typical examples heard in families in many homes. Some of those expectations have changed in families in the last few decades, but family members aren’t the only ones with expectations. Society and culture also drive this (and many similar ones) message home. At times very overtly, but usually those whispers are spoken in more subtle tones.

Eventually, these external expectations become internalized. We tell ourselves stories of what is appropriate, what is possible, what is taboo. Such stories prevent us from pursuing the life that would have true meaning for ourselves: starting a job or career we always wanted to do, pursue a hobby, volunteer. Brené Brown discovered a few things that happen when we pursue meaningful work. The work or activity may face scrutiny. The opinions of others, even insults, lie outside of our control. The decision to pursue an alternative job may not be greeted with enthusiastic support, but the price of not doing so will be disquietude and dissatisfaction. Brown recommends acknowledging those so-called “gremlins” to remove the mystique and power of the fear they create. The Stoics would concur fully with this approach because it will help reduce or eliminate the self-doubts and the “supposed to’s” coming from within and without. When this happens, we will lead more flourishing lives.

10. Cultivating Laughter, Song, and Dance: Letting Go of Being Cool and “Always in Control”.

The Stoics understand that humans naturally seek pleasure. This is fine and good because it is an indifferent, preferably a preferred one. As long as it doesn’t get in the way of virtue. This means that we enjoy fun, games, sports, and arts in healthy doses. Indeed, Seneca promotes such behavior for more reserved personalities.

Games will be beneficial; for pleasure in moderation relaxes the mind and gives in balance. The more damp and drier natures, also the cold [i.e., detached, aloof, equivocal personalities] are in no danger from anger, but they must beware the more sluggish faults—fear, moroseness, discouragement, and suspicion. And so, such natures have need of encouragement and indulgence and the summons to cheerfulness

Seneca, On Anger, 2.20.4

Brown refers to something that is innately human. Laughter, song, and dance have one common thread. “[They] create emotional and spiritual connection; they remind us of the one thing that truly matters when we are searching for comfort, celebration, inspiration, or healing: We are not alone” (Brown, Gifts of Imperfection, p. 118).

We are not alone. We naturally seek social connections. We can pursue positive collective behaviors (which by its nature means not following mob rule mentality, e.g., what is prevalent on the Internet), Brown writes that, “[w]e want to be able to control what other people think about us so that we can feel good enough” (Gifts of Imperfection, p. 121). What is described as teenage behavior often continues into adult years. Particularly when our own children are present. They find it embarrassing when we dance at a party or sing karaoke. As much as we love our children, we shouldn’t let that stop us from dancing or singing.

This is even more reason to do it. In the eyes of highly self-conscious teenagers, we should use this as an opportunity to talk about it afterwards, use it as a teaching moment. When we show our vulnerability that leaves the impression on impressionable younger people that it is acceptable to laugh, dance, and sing.

Seneca finds the right words about whether we should be concerned that we embarrass or shame ourselves: Who is not aware that nothing thought to be good or bad looks the same to the sage as it does to everyone else? He pays no mind to what others consider shameful or wretched; he does not walk with the crowd; just as the planets make their way against the wheel of heaven, he proceeds contrary to the opinion of the world. (On the Constancy of the Wise Man, 14.3-4).

The Stoics and Stoicism tell us to ‘follow nature’ for doing so means we act virtuously. Since we are all for the most part not sages that automatically know how to act in every situation, it’s wise to also to look at what might be holding us back. This is why the work of Brené Brown has great value to me. We imperfect human beings will remain so and by tackling how our imperfections are hindering us from leading more fulfilling lives, that takes us one closer to being sages.

John Kluempers works with PhD candidates and college students in Germany. He helps them prepare for their careers when they attend conferences, i.e., hones their presentation skills and gives them advice on networking in academic contexts. Together with a small group of Stoics in western Germany, he’d like to find more Germans who would find the advantages of stoic eudaimonia.

Stoicon-X Events this Fall

The big Stoicon conference is taking place this year in Athens on Saturday, October 5, and it promises to be an excellent opportunity to attend talks and workshops by a number of authors, speakers, and practitioners in the Modern Stoic movement, and to connect up with other people equally interested in Stoic philosophy and practice.

Stoic Week starts the following Monday, October 7 and runs to the following Sunday, October 12. As has been the case every year prior, there will be a number of local Stoic Week events all over the world – and we’ll be listing them here in Stoicism Today (so if you’ve got one planned, make sure you contact me and provide the information)

Those are all great opportunities for learning more about Stoicism and participating in the worldwide modern Stoic community. But there is another kind of conference that you might be interested in as well – STOICON-X conferences. Along lines similar to the big TED and the smaller TED-X events, Stoicon-X conferences offer an opportunity for local Stoic groups to organize events similar to Stoicon itself, but on smaller scale, all over the world.

At this point, it looks like there are seven Stoicon-X events being planned, some of which have more planning, preparation, and scheduling done than others. There will be more information forthcoming in the next two months as we lead up to Stoicon, Stoic Week, and the Stoicon-X events, but here is what we have so far.

  • Sunday, September 8 – Stoicon-X Toronto (organized by Peter Limberg)
  • Thursday, September 19 – Stoicon-X New York (organized by Massimo Pigliucci and Greg Lopez)
  • Saturday, October 12 (during Stoic Week) – Stoicon-X Moscow (organized by Stas Naranovich)
  • Saturday, October 12 (during Stoic Week) – Stoicon-X London (organized by John Sellars)
  • Saturday, October 12 (during Stoic Week) – Stoicon-X Milwaukee (organized by Andi Sciacca and Greg Sadler)
  • Saturday, October 26 – Stoicon-X San Francisco (organized by James Kostecka)
  • TBD – Stoicon-X Madrid (organized by Kellys Andreína Rodríguez)


Stoicon-X Toronto

This event runs from 9 AM-? (they’re having “the Drunken Symposium as the last schedule event), and features Chuck Chakrapani, John Vervaeke, Donald Robertson, and Massimo Pigliucci as speakers. Tickets range from CA$79.00 to CA$99.00. The event is being held at the Toronto Public Library. For more information and ticketing, click here.

Stoicon-X New York

This event runs from 6 PM – 8:30 PM, and features talks by Donald Robertson, Willian Irvine, and Massimo Pigliucci. The event is hosted at the New York Society for Ethical Culture, and is free. For more information or to RSVP, click here.

Stoicon-X Moscow

This event will be hosted at the Falanster bookstore in the center of Moscow. Tentative plans have Andrei Lebedev and Kirill Martynov as featured speakers. The meeting time at this point is TBD. We will provide more information in a mid-week post here in Stoicism today as it becomes available. For more information, you can contact the organizer.

Stoicon-X London

This event will be hosted at the Senate House, Bloomsbury. The details are still TBD, and will be forthcoming here in Stoicism Today, once they are available. For more information, you can contact the organizer. UPDATE: Tickets now available via Eventbrite.

Stoicon-X Milwaukee

This event runs from 10 AM to 3 PM, and at present features Kevin Vost, Dan Hayes, Andi Sciacca, and Greg Sadler. It will also involve a set of 3-5 minute “lightning-round” talks. It is hosted at the Central Milwaukee Library, and is a free event. More information will be forthcoming in the near future, and will be provided in a mid-week post. For more information, you can email me.

Stoicon-X San Francisco

At this point, most of the details for this event are TBD, but they will be provided as they become available. It will be hosted at a local library. For more information, you can contact the organizer.

Stoicon-X Madrid

Likewise, details for this event are TBD at this time, but will also be provided here in Stoicism Today as they become available. For more information, you can contact the organizer.

So if you’re interested in any of these local events, mark the date on your calendar, and get ready to get your Stoic-on!


Stoicon 2019-Athens: Interviews With the Organizers

Over the last few years, we have held the annual Stoicon conference in London, New York, and Toronto. This year, Stoicon is planned to take place in the city where the philosophy was born – Athens! That’s precisely where the founder, Zeno of Citium, had his fortunate shipwreck, read about Socrates in a bookseller’s stall, studied with Crates the Cynic (among others), and then went on to teach at the Stoa Poikile (the “painted porch”).

If you’re thinking about attending this historic Stoicon – coming up Saturday, October 5 – here’s the event information and the ticket link. There is also a Facebook event for Stoicon 2019. Keep in mind that there is also a Stoicon-X the next day in Athens as well (information here).

As editor of Stoicism Today, I compiled a list of email interview questions for Donald Robertson, Alkistis Agio, and Christopher Gill. Their responses below are intended to give our readers a much fuller conception of what this important annual conference involves, both in general, and specifically this year.

1. Why does Stoicon matter?  Why is it important to have a conference like this?

Donald: There’s no other event like this.  It’s the largest gathering of modern Stoics in the world and therefore has some of the subject’s leading authors and experts in attendance.  It’s a chance to really feel connected with other Stoics, to learn more about the subject, explore different perspectives, and also, in this case, to visit the birthplace of the philosophy.

Alkistis: In my view, Stoicon matters because it is important to bring our community together, to meet each other face to face on a regular basis.It’s not enough to read each other’s books and to comment under each other’s posts; meeting in person allows us to interact on a deeper human level.To feel the warmth and friendliness of each other, as in “phil-adelphia”, brotherly-sisterly love.We are a family and it is the most natural thing in the world to want to be close to one another on a regular basis.Stoicon is a celebration of our way of thinking and way of life, the values we share; Ethos, Arete, Agape…Also, the event may also attract attention of more people to Stoicism that can benefit them too.

Chris: It is a unique opportunity to meet people from all over the world interesting in applying Stoic ideas and insights in their life and to hear talks by experts of various kinds and take part in workshops on aspects of life and current concern that matter greatly.

2. What can people attending Stoicon expect?  What will they get out of participating in it?

Chris: To judge from previous Stoicon events – an atmosphere of great enthusiasm and engagement – talks on real life issues drawing on Stoic philosophical ideas but conveyed in a way that is accessible to all – and workshops, Q &A after talks ,and social time when you can share your views and concerns.

Donald: There are talks and workshops from experts on Stoicism.  We encourage speakers to adopt a practical focus and we try to have something for everyone by inviting speakers from different walks of life, from the military, academia, popular psychology, psychotherapy, teaching spirituality, etc.  There will also be lots of extra events this year because of the special location we’ve chosen.  The city of Athens has a lot to do and see for those interested in Greek philosophy, of course.

Alkistis: Expect to be inspired. Expect to remember this experience for the rest of your life, as one of the best decisions you ever made.

3. What are you particularly looking forward to about Stoicon 2019? Why that in particular?

Alkistis: I am looking forward to making new friends that may last a lifetime. I am looking forward to sharing my insider’s view of Athens and Greece. I am looking forward to sharing about my book, THE STOIC CEO. I am looking forward to learning about Stoicism from other points of view, from some of the most knowledgeable people in the world. I am looking forward to profound dialogues and discussions about things that matter to us.

Chris: Stoicon 2019 is unique in being held in Athens, home of the original Stoic philosophy and other great Greek philosophies, and also a beautiful and inspiring city with history all round you. Some  new speakers from around the world and new topics for workshops. Topics include Stoicism and community, environment, military life, psychotherapy, inner control and attending to yourself and other suggestive themes. 

Donald: I think it’s a great opportunity for people to absorb the atmosphere in Athens.  You can climb up the hill to the Acropolis, look down on the ruins of the agora, the city centre of ancient Athens, and compare that view to Marcus Aurelius’ description, for example, of the view from above.  You can visit the remains of the Theatre of Dionysius where Aristophanes’ satirical play The Clouds was performed and Socrates, seated among the audience, reputedly stood up so that everyone could see who they were laughing at.  You can visit the Areopagus where we’re told St. Paul addressed gathered Stoic and Epicurean philosophers and the Lyceum where Aristotle founded his school – however, the Sophists, Socrates, and later even the Stoic Chrysippus also reputedly taught there.  Some people might even want to travel a few hours outside Athens to the ruins of Delphi in the mountains, where according to legend the Pythia pronounced that no man was wiser than Socrates. 

4. What is distinctively new about Stoicon this year?

Alkistis: Stoics from all over the world will come to Greece. 
It’ s a milestone, a historical event. This is unprecedented, it’s moving when you think about it…Imagine walking the same streets, under the same sky, drinking Greek wine and philosophizing as Socrates did…The venue Cotsen Hall, with it’s beautiful gardens and surrounding neoclassical buildings like the Gennadios Libraryrich with history, is probably the most inspiring venue so far for Stoicon.Every Stoic should be there for this celebration!

Donald: The location is obviously much more steeped in history this year.  We’ve also therefore been able to add many extra events such as small tours and additional talks in the city of Athens.  

5. Travel to and from Stoicon often affords people a chance to practice Stoicism. How does Stoicism help people travel well?

Donald: Seneca says that the wise man (or woman) sets off on every journey with the intention “I will travel to Athens”, or wherever, “if nothing prevents it”, employing the Stoic reserve clause.  Stoicism teaches us to reconcile determined action, in the service of wisdom and justice, with calm acceptance when things don’t turn out according to our plans or desires.

Chris: Two useful Stoics tips on travel: wishing ‘with reservation’ – e.g. ‘I want to arrive – if nothing prevents me’ or ‘I want to arrive on time – if nothing prevents me’ (this reservation can take off a lot of pressure) and playing your own specific role in life: remember you are the passenger not the driver or pilot – your role is to be a good passenger, calm and relaxed and helpful to others whatever the situation – it is not your job to pilot the plane, to run the catering, to drive the bus…

Alkistis: The obstacle is the way; S**t happens, and it’s a great opportunity to exercise ‘ataraxia’, to grow and learn through everything.To practice the wisdom of inner freedom.

6. Who is Stoicon for? Would it be of benefit  for someone who doesn’t know much about Stoicism?

Chris: Who would benefit from Stoicon? Anyone – for first-timers it is accessible and open and not ‘cliquey’ – but for those who are already involved in Stoic practice there is a chance to develop your ideas and share them with others.

Donald: Yes, we encourage all speakers to assume that many of the attendees will be new to the subject, although others may be experts themselves.  So ideally they’ll accommodate newbies but also say some things that will be of interest to those who are well-read in the literature of Stoicism.  We also try to begin with a quick introduction to help bring newcomers up to speed.  And the range of speakers from different backgrounds helps to ensure that even the most experienced students of the subject should find something new in the different perspectives represented.

Alkistis: Absolutely! I would recommend this event to anyone who is sincerely interested in learning about, ‘How To Be Free’, ‘How To Find Fulfillment’, ‘How To Live Well’.

7. What sorts of benefits are there for people to studying Stoic philosophy?

Alkistis: I can only speak for myself; Stoicism has helped me to overcome toxic habits like dramatizing, to be more honest with myself and others, and to experience freedom more often.Also, I like meeting people who share similar values.  

Chris: Stoicism offers a broad and deep framework for living – developed over 5 centuries in the ancient world and also reflected on by modern thinkers and writers. Not just a superficial quick-fix or how to – guide to life – but something that can offer a framework for addressing the big questions we all face – what is happiness, what is the purpose of life, how can I face my own death and that of those I love, why should I concern myself with other people or foreigners or the environment? Stoicism has long been valued for promoting resilience but also has great value in helping people to frame a positive, thoughtful and constructive attitude to living.

Donald: Studying Stoicism gives people a sense of direction and meaning in life, and a method for reflecting upon and examining events philosophically.  It also provides a surprisingly extensive armamentarium of psychological techniques which can contribute to building emotional resilience.

8. We’ve had Stoicon conferences now in London, Toronto, and New York. Now we’re meeting in Athens. What other locations do you think would be great for a future Stoicon?

Alkistis: I would love for it to happen in Rome too!

Donald: Rome would be an obvious choice.  I also think that an event on the West coast of the USA or Canada, perhaps in Vancouver, might be an option.  Another good location would be Vienna, in Austria, because it’s situated beside the huge archaeological park at Carnuntum, where Marcus Aurelius reputedly wrote (at east part of) The Meditations.  

9. We ask this every year: have we reached, or are we approaching “peak Stoicism”?

Donald: I don’t think so.  Stoic Week keeps growing bigger each year and that’s a good index.  Stoicism communities around the world, and online, continue to grow.  There are more and more books on Stoicism from new authors coming out all the time.  Facebook’s data show that over 1.5 million people say in their profiles that Marcus Aurelius is one of their favourite authors.  We’ve barely scraped the surface of the huge potential audience that exists for Stoic philosophy.

Chris: No – think how many people in the world would benefit from the kind of insights that Stoicism can offer – and how many people are very troubled by the way things are going and wanting to find a framework to deal with their own lives and  life around them.

Alkistis: No, of course not; Stoicism is flourishing, and changing lives everywhere.