Stoicon Workshop: Negative Visualisation And The Possibility of a President Trump by Tim LeBon

Introduction

Negative Visualisation is “the single most valuable technique in the Stoics’ psychological tool kit” according to William Irvine, author of A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. Seneca, Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus all recommend and practised Negative Visualisation[1]. You too can practice it if you wish by routinely imagining adversities that may befall you and then rehearsing the ways in which Stoicism can help you respond to these events wisely and virtuously. These adversities can range from encountering irritating people at the baths (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 2) to, controversially, the death of your own child (Epictetus, Enchiridion, 3) and your own death (Seneca, On Earthquakes).

There are two significant advantages to this seemingly counterintuitive practice. Firstly you will be less shocked if and when bad things happen. As Seneca put it – “Whatever has long been anticipated comes as a lighter blow” (Letters 78)

Equally, you are more likely to respond wisely if have anticipated a problem – like an actor rehearsing their lines before a performance. Again Seneca puts it eloquently when he writes

“Everyone approaches a danger with more courage if he has prepared in advance how to confront it. Anyone can endure difficulties better if he has previously practised how to deal with them.” Seneca Letters III 225

In this article I will describe a workshop I gave at the New York Stoicon in October 2016, where we practised a Negative Visualisation of Donald Trump becoming the next President of the United States. Its interest lies partly in this political context and also in the format. To my knowledge this is the first recorded instance of performing Negative Visualisation in a group. I will describe a format for group Negative Visualisation, then summarise what happened at the New York workshop, and conclude with suggestions for future developments.

Stoic Remedies for Troubled Times

“2016 has been the worst year in my political life”, a friend commented – and that was before the US Presidential election. He was not alone. After the unexpected vote for Brexit in the UK referendum on Europe on June 23rd, 2016, many felt a gamut of difficult emotions including anxiety, sadness, embarrassment and anger. It was easy enough to see parallels between Brexit and Trump. In the UK and US alike, many people felt let down by mainstream politicians and threatened by immigration, globalisation and technological change. For these people, a return to the nationalism and nostalgia offered by Brexit and Trump was very appealing. For liberal cosmopolitans like my friend and I, it was extremely worrisome.

In early 2016 my Google search history included several occurrences of “Odds of both Brexit and Trump.” The chances were considered small by those whose job it was to know about such things – about one in twenty. I felt temporarily reassured. However seeking reassurance and hoping for the best are decidedly un-Stoic and unwise strategies. Sure enough, they did nothing to prepare me for the shock of Brexit. When I eventually turned to Stoic Remedies for Brexit instead, they helped. But what would enable us all to prepare for the possibility that Trump might become President?

A Case Study: Visualising Trump as President

Could Negative Visualisation help? The Stoicon conference in New York in October 2016, the month before the Presidential election, offered the chance to find out. The challenge was to adapt Negative Visualisation so it could be effective in a group setting likely to include some novice Stoics and conceivably some Trump supporters.. Here is the plan I created for a five step version of Negative Visualisation. I reproduce it in some detail below to enable readers to adapt it, should they so wish, to facilitate their own group negative visualisations on an adversity of their choice.

Step 1: Preliminaries: Clarify the adversity to be considered in this workshop and give people the chance to leave should they not wish to do a negative visualisation about this. Begin with a brief group negative visualisation practice on a relatively minor adversity, such as breaking your phone or tablet.

Step 2: Visualising disaster: With eyes closed, vividly imagine that the feared event is happening. You hear the TV presenter announce “Hillary has conceded”. You see the newspaper headline “Trump President!” alongside a picture of a triumphant Donald Trump. Notice the thoughts and feelings that pop into your mind as you imagine that this is really happening. At this stage, do not try to apply Stoic principles. Observe what you feel like doing. Spend two or three minutes on this. Then open your eyes and make some notes on your experience.

Step 3: Group discussion of a wise Stoic response: Facilitate a group discussion about how to handle the adversity Stoically. Reflect first on Stoic wisdom, and then in turn the other Stoic virtues including self-control, justice, courage and practical wisdom. Summarise and write down key features of the Stoic response on a board or screen for all participants to see.

Step 4 Finding a wise Stoic alternative to each participant’s initial thoughts:  With these Stoic principles in mind, ask people to spend a few minutes working on Stoic responses to their initial thoughts that they wrote down at step 2. After a few minutes ask for sample answers so that participants can learn from the more confident and experienced Stoics in the group. Finally ask participants to spend a few more minutes in pairs or on their own developing their appropriate Stoic alternatives to their initial step 2 reactions. Ask them to write down their wise Stoic responses.

Step 5 Facing the fear again this time rehearsing the Stoic Response:  Each participant is asked to read to themselves their initial thoughts and their Stoic response which they have just been working on. Then, with eyes closed, they should vividly remind themselves of the adversity, their original non-Stoic reaction and then they should rehearse their Stoic response. They should repeat this several times. As they rehearse the Stoic response participants should particularly attend to what they feel like doing and what emotions they experience. Finally participants are requested to open their eyes and come back into the room.

The session concludes with participant feedback.

The New York Negative Visualisation Experience

So what happened when we tried this in New York?

Step 1: Preliminaries: It turned out no-one in the room supported Trump, or at least no-one admitted they did. Some people weren’t so sure about Hillary, either, though. There were a number of anti-Trump Republicans.

The practice of imagining one’s phone or ipad had broken worked well, allowing us to recall as a group the Stoic virtues and how they would help us deal with such an adversity.

What I hadn’t planned was a series of problems with the equipment – the lead to the projector did not fit my computer and when an alternative computer was provided, it could not read my presentation on my memory stick! That I managed to stay comparatively calm I put down to my having practised negative visualisation on something like this happening!

Step 2 : Visualising disaster: Table 1 below shows some of the thoughts, feelings and impulses participants experienced during the first part of the visualisation.

Emotion          Thoughts Impulse to
 

 

 

Anxiety

 

“Frozen like a deer in headlights”

“Women, minorities & immigrants will be marginalised & oppressed”

“Other countries will have a very negative view of America.”

“It will make us vulnerable to our enemies.”

“The Stock Market will plummet, economic depression with follow”

“Supreme Court Justices will be appointed who will destroy our American values and democracy”

 

Get tranquilizers

 

 

Drink

 

Distract self

Anger “How can so many people not see the truth?” Argue with everyone

Go on a tirade

Depression

 

Despair

 

“Trump represents everything I disagree with”

Hide in Bed

Give up

Emigrate!

Table 1: Pre-Stoic Reactions to visualising Trump being elected President

Anxiety was the most common emotion, it manifesting viscerally as being “frozen like a deer in headlights”.   Participants imagined themselves handling their anxiety by using distraction, drink and medication. Anger, depression and despair were also present in the room as we imagined Trump winning, with people thinking they might go on a tirade if angry and hide in bed in despair. It appeared that we had plenty of material to work with …

Step 3: Group Discussion of a wise Stoic Response: What would be the wise Stoic response to Trump being elected? I have increasingly found it helpful to present Stoicism in a somewhat simplified form as a distinct form of virtue ethics with a set of associated practices. The most distinctly Stoic virtue, “Serenity Prayer Wisdom” is stated by Epictetus at the very beginning of the Enchridion

Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.

The cardinal virtues of wisdom, self-control, justice and courage sum up how we should think and what we should do in the domains of knowledge, desire, other people and fear respectively. For completeness, I include love of humanity as part of justice and persistence as part of courage.

Looking at how to respond to an adversity through the lens of each virtue provides a very practical framework to determine a wise Stoic reaction. Table 2 below summarises how this framework can help us think about a Stoic response to Trump becoming President.

Stoic Virtue Meaning Application
“Serenity Prayer” Wisdom Focus on what you can control and accept what you cannot control. Unless you can legally challenge it, you have to accept the result You can however change how you respond to it, and the challenge is to respond virtuously.
Self-control

 

Knowing how to act and feel well in situations arousing emotions such as desire, appetite, lust & blame Self-control may be needed to manage impulses associated with anger and despair, such as feeling like going on a tirade or staying in bed and giving up.,
Justice & Love of humanity

 

Knowing how to act and feel well in our relationships with other people, at individual, family or communal level, knowing how to act generously and with positive benevolence, with friendship and affection.

 

Most obviously justice and love of humanity entail thinking about those likely to be negatively impacted by Trump how you can help them.

At the same time justice impies considering how to be just to democracy itself and to those who felt so disenchanted that they voted for Trump

Courage & Persistence Knowing how to act and feel correctly in situations of danger, in facing things seen as fearful (above all, death and other ‘disasters’) or in the face of setbacks. Overcome the impulse to give-up – the values are still worth standing and fighting for, all the more so.

Reflect on this might be a time for putting pleasure to one side and campaigning for what is right.

Practical Wisdom

 

Given the situation I find myself in, what would the Stoic sage do? What virtues can help, and how can I best aim to achieve what matters?

 

What in practice do can I do? What I need to do? What resources and skills have I got that will be useful? What would I need to do? How could I do it?

Which virtues will I need to employ given my specific thoughts I had in step 2 of this Negative Visualisation?

Table 2: The Stoic Virtues, their meaning and application

A key point that emerges is that Stoicism is not a passive philosophy. Whilst an Epicurean response might be along the lines of “there is nothing I can do, so let’s work on how I can be tranquil”, justice and love of humanity entail that the Stoic engages with the world and its problems, practical wisdom gives us the wherewithal to think up good solutions and courage provides the means to overcome fears related to doing the right thing.

Step 4: Finding a Stoic reframe for your specific initial thoughts: We were now in a position for participants to review their original thoughts and reframe them, given what they had just learnt about Stoic virtue. Epictetus famously said that “It is not events that upset you but how you interpret them”. Would we find this to be the case here?

Emotion Pre-Stoic Thought Stoic Alternative Thought Resulting Stoic Emotion
Anxiety

“Frozen like a deer in headlights”

“Women, minorities & immigrants will be marginalised & oppressed”

“Other countries will have a very negative view of America.”

It will make us vulnerable to our enemies.”

“The Stock Market will plummet, economic depression with follow”

“Supreme Court Justices will be appointed who will destroy our American values and democracy”

“It may not be as bad as I imagine. I may be overestimating how much difference a President can make. I can make a difference – I can be a grassroots activist for causes I care about – I need courage & wisdom”

 

Feeling more tranquil

 

Anger “How can so many people not see the truth?” People have their reasons & concerns which I need to understand. I also need to work at helping more people understand my view More understanding

Feeling calm acceptance

Depression and Despair Trump represents everything I disagree with” I accept the fact that he is President, I will do what I can to mitigate the damage Strength that I can handle the situation”

Table 3: Finding Alternative Stoic Wise Rational and Virtuous Responses

Table 3 above shows that Stoicism can indeed lead to more constructive thinking and less turbulent emotions.

Instead of being so anxious like a deer frozen in headlights, the Stoic response, “It may not be as bad as I imagine. I may be overestimating how much difference a President can make. I can make a difference – I can be a grassroots activist for causes I care about – I need courage & wisdom”, led to participants feeling much more tranquil.

Anger was replaced by some empathy with those who voted for Trump and a determination to work harder at making one’s views understood.

Strength supplanted depression and despair, as soon as people applied Serenity Prayer wisdom and accepted that Trump was President and determined to do what they could to mitigate the damage.

Discussion

Many participants told me that they had been helped by this Negative Visualisation exercise. I repeated it later at the London Stoic event, with similarly positive results. This is hardly surprising, since we have the positive testimony of Seneca, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius and others. Moreover Negative Visualisation combines features of two evidence-based modern psychological techniques, exposure and mental contrasting.

Exposure is the “gold standard” for tackling anxiety. If you are frightened of dogs, for example, to overcome the fear you need to expose yourself to the dogs in a suitable manner[2]. A similar principle applies in some treatments for worry The first part of Negative Visualisation, where you think vividly about the feared object, clearly involves exposure and so should be expected to reduce the anxiety and the shock if and when the adversity occurs.

Mental Contrasting is a recent technique advocated by Oettingen as an alternative to positive thinking. Suppose you have an important interview next week. Whilst positive thinking might entail you imagining the interview going well, mental contrasting involves imagining likely difficulties and then mentally rehearsing what you need to do to overcome potential problems. Mental contrasting has been shown to help people achieve their goals, for example in weight loss and stopping smoking. Clearly the second part of negative visualisation resembles mental contrasting, so once again one would anticipate that negative visualisation would be beneficial. The key difference is that Negative Visualisation has a broader scope than mental contrasting, pertaining not just to goals and achievements but to adversities in general and living virtuously in spite of them.

There is good reason then to expect Negative Visualisation both to reduce anxiety, shock and worry and to develop character and virtue. The feedback from the New York and London workshops was certainly encouraging. However for this to constitute serious research further investigation is required. For example, each participant could be given a questionnaire before the workshop detailing their emotions and likely actions relating to a specified adversity. The same questionnaire could be completed at the end of the workshop by each participant.. If the adversity relates to a shared real life concern (such as Trump being elected) participants could then be contacted again and asked to fill in the questionnaire. The results compared to a control group who did not attend such a workshop. Future Stoic Weeks could provide an opportunity to engaging in research about the benefits of Negative Visualisation.

This experience of doing two Negative Visualisations in a group setting has also led me to conjecture that there may be significant advantages in doing negative visualisations as a group exercise. In the first place, each participant gets a sense that they are not alone, that their concern is shared by others. More importantly perhaps, the group, guided by the facilitator, can help participants learn wise Stoic responses to specific adversities. Table 3 (above) certainly helped me cope when Trump actually was elected President! So perhaps more Negative Visualisation workshops could be held, on a variety of human concerns, in person or potentially virtually through the internet.

One thing Negative Visualisation clearly could not do was stop Trump being elected President. But that, as Epictetus would remind us, is the point. We cannot control events, but we can control our response to them.

[1] although they do not give it that name

[2] To do exposure successfully it should be repeated, at an appropriate level and you should not leave the situation until the anxiety comes down.

Tim LeBon can be contacted via email on tim@timlebon.com. His website is http://www.timlebon.com

Interview: Walter Matweychuk

Walter Matweychuk will be one of the speakers at the Stoicon 2017 Stoicism Conference in Toronto, on October 14th.

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

I am a clinical psychologist who has the good fortune of having work I love. I conduct around thirty-five adult outpatient individual and couples psychotherapy sessions a week at the University of Pennsylvania and in my private practice in Center City Philadelphia. The problems of everyday living I help people with range from coping with emotional problems such as depression, anxiety, anger, and phobias to behavioral disorders like addictions, to resuming one’s life in the aftermath of rape, serious accidents, medical illness, and failing to obtain tenure.

I also train and supervise doctoral level externs in Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), the pioneering form of Cognitive Behavior Therapy, as well as teach a graduate course in Cognitive Behavior Therapy Theory and Applications at New York University in New York City. I maintain the website, REBTDoctor.com, which contains a great deal of freely accessible audio and video on Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy and do professional writing as well. I just completed, along with Dr. Windy Dryden, a book for professionals entitled Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy: A Newcomer’s Guide. In short I am a practicing psychologist who also trains and teaches psychologists, writes on and disseminates Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy.

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

I use Stoic ideas and Stoic quotations to teach people how to effectively manage their emotional and behavioral responses to both relatively small to immensely challenging adversities. I use Stoic ideas to potentiate my interventions as an REBT psychotherapist. Stoicism works hand in hand with Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy because Dr. Albert Ellis, the originator of this distinct form of cognitive behavior therapy, heavily borrowed from Stoicism to create Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy. Although I primarily recommend to my patients REBT self-help books for homework, I have also recommended Bill Irvine’s book A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy as a homework assignment to my patients.

Q: When and how did you first become interested in Stoicism?

I am continually striving to enhance my skills as a REBT psychotherapist and self-actualize as an individual. I want to have the happiest and most meaningful life possible with the only life I assume I will ever have to live. I also especially want to share Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy with the widest possible audience. Knowing Ellis borrowed heavily from Stoicism I assumed that by retracing the steps he took through reading the Stoics I might make further headway in accomplishing my previously stated personal goals. I am continually searching for ways to deepen my understanding of REBT and studying Stoicism seemed like a way of doing this.

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

The emphasis on identifying and focusing my effort on what is well within my domain of control and more or less being indifferent to those aspects of life and any given set of circumstances I cannot control. This single concept offers me incredible emotional leverage as I face personal adversity and as I teach and help my patients how to more effectively respond to their adversities. Secondly, when doing psychotherapy it is important to find language that resonates with patients in order to facilitate deep level emotional change. Although REBT has very powerful language associated with it, I judiciously sprinkle in Stoic quotes and ideas in order to keep the therapeutic dialogue fresh and interesting. Language and words in psychotherapy are like keys on a keychain. It is sometimes hard to know in advance which key will open a particular lock. By knowing and studying Stoicism I have some philosophical keys to try in my effort to open the emotional locks I am trying to pick, if you will.

Q: In what ways do you think Stoicism still matters today?

Despite our great scientific and technological advances since the time of Epictetus people continue to struggle to manage their emotions, find meaning and happiness, and have difficulty coping with losses, deaths, medical illnesses, defeats, failures, and injustices. In my view Stoicism and Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy are efficient, powerful, and self-liberating tools I want to share with my fellow citizens of the world. Life is hard enough without needlessly making it harder by trying to control that which is outside our domain of control, while overlooking what is well within our sphere of control.

Q: How has Stoicism affected the way you live your life?

Stoicism and Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy have immensely affected the way I live and the quality of life I enjoy. I no longer experience depression, anxiety, anger, envy and shame as I once did going way back to high school and even before that. When I do have a flash of one of these very self-defeating and unhealthy negative emotions I quickly swap them out for healthy negative emotions. I do this by examining my philosophy and any rigid and extreme attitudes operating at the moment so that I am better able to do what I can do, if anything, to favorably influence the situation I am facing. Let me explain.

In high school I began to see that my perceptions of reality impacted my painful emotions. As a college student at the University of Pennsylvania I worked closely with Dr. Aaron Beck who originated (about five years after Ellis had created Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy) the second and a somewhat different form of cognitive behavior therapy. Beck’s Cognitive Therapy emphasizes and focuses on the inferences we make about reality and showed me how to check these inferences for erroneous assumptions and distortions in order to make certain these inferences are accurate and consistent with the available empirical data. This helps one’s emotions quite nicely when in fact our inferences about a given situation are distorted.

For example, if I have a medical symptom and think, “I have cancer and will die in the near future”, slowing down and checking to see if this is an accurate inference by consulting a physician will help alleviate my panic. However, what if in fact my inference is unfortunately correct and I do in fact learn the empirical data suggests I have an aggressive form of cancer and will likely die in a year or at most two. This is where Beck’s Cognitive Therapy begins to have some difficulty and where Stoicism and Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy shine.

These two closely related philosophies will enable me to face this existential adversity and cope with it. By having deep conviction in the liberating overlapping philosophes of Stoicism and REBT I do not have to panic or despair. I can choose my emotional destiny and still can have some degree of happiness right up to the end of my life. Although helpful in less dire situations, Stoicism and REBT are the philosophies to turn to when your worst nightmare is your reality. Since learning REBT and Stoicism I no longer fear the worst case scenario in my life when I think of things that might go wrong. I also am better able to have some happiness when things go wrong despite their presence in my life. In essence now that I know REBT and Stoicism I change what I can change and move on when I cannot change anything and still find a way to have some pleasure in my life despite the presence of adversity.

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

There are so many great Stoic quotations, so this is a very challenging question for me to answer. It used to be Seneca’s “Bring the mind to bear upon your problems” but it no longer is my favorite. I will select another by Seneca which is “Anger, if not restrained, is frequently more hurtful to us than the injury that provokes it.” I have selected this one simply because so much self-inflicted and other-inflicted damage and pain results from this unhealthy negative emotion whether one is angry at another person, himself, or in response to the situation in which he finds himself. This emotion is so seductive and yet so destructive that mastering the ability to not yield to anger at the tempting moment is an essential life skill if a person wants to be his best. Whether you hold anger in or let it out, anger significantly diminishes your creativity and problem-solving ability and can, paradoxically, undermine the persistence you bring to bear to solve the problem you face. I have also seen how anger corrodes or can suddenly end relationships, and the resulting pain that ensues from a moment of anger can be enormous and lifelong. I often silently say to myself as a way of preventing getting angry “Anger defeats me. Do not yield to it.”

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

My guess is that if you are interested in Stoicism you are also interested in applying this liberating philosophy to your life. With that in mind I have two recommendations. I would read books on both Stoicism and REBT because there can be a synergy created by doing this. I would start with Bill Irvine’s book titled A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy as it is so very accessible. Then I would go onto Epictetus’s Discourses. To me he is the hub of Stoicism. I would attend Stoicon on a regular basis to see and hear how Stoicism can be applied in different ways and meet fellow Stoics. I would regularly read Massimo Pigliucci’s website How to Be a Stoic as he seems to be quite the Stoic scholar.

I would also study the many self-help books written by Albert Ellis and Windy Dryden on Rational-Emotive Behavior Therapy. I sometimes think of REBT as the Cliff Notes of Stoicism or as a distilled, highly concentrated form of Stoicism. You will see how REBT efficiently teaches you how to implement the wisdom of Stoicism. You might even go and study the freely available audio and video found on my website REBTDoctor.com to facilitate your understanding of REBT. Finally, I would read a Stoic Quote every morning and write it on an index card. Carry it with you and try to find opportunity to apply that insight to any adversities you encounter during the day. Ryan Holiday’s book The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living would be a good source of useful Stoic quotations along with daily commentary Holiday makes on the meaning and implementation of each quotation. Most importantly attempt to use Stoicism (and REBT) to learn Stoicism! As Epictetus said “Learning that does not lead to action is useless.”

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

Life is hard for all of us. Stoicism and REBT can help you more effectively respond to life’s adversities and to self-actualize. These philosophies can help you either quickly terminate or entirely side-step needless suffering. Learn these powerful philosophies and then be a good model of them to others. When they display curiosity about how you maintain such equanimity in the face of adversity then introduce them to both Stoicism and REBT. Let them know your secret!

Stoicism Saved Me by Roger Johnston

Stoicism saved me in a way. My last deployment to Iraq was particularly trying. I was medivacced out with just three weeks left of the deployment. I recall as the helicopter crew chief told me we had crossed the Kuwait border and that I was safe, I was relieved that I survived a war zone, but was under no illusion that I was “safe.” I’m a son of a Vietnam vet. The war did not end for him when he got home, in many ways it had only just begun for me. Relief quickly faded to resolve as I was determined not to suffer the same fate as my father: being angry at the world.

During recovery, back in the States, I could tell that my deployment had changed me. Infuriated would be a good word for how I felt 10 years ago during as I began to mend. Google militant atheist and my picture would show up and I would look pissed in it. I felt betrayed by my country, coopted to fight for profit and gain. I had seen so much suffering. The anger was poisoning everything, and what made the poison spread even further was that I was angry because I was angry. I had turned into my father.

It is difficult to describe what war does to a person, which is probably why many combat vets are reluctant to share their experiences. I have found that Plato was astute in his observations of the human condition and his allegory of the cave describes the experience of war fairly accurately. Seeing war is like being brought to the entrance of the cave, you are exposed to what life really is and upon return to the back of the cave you see the shadows for what they are—

Illusions. Those still chained within who have not experienced seeing the sun or color will struggle to understand, perhaps even call you mad for telling them they are living a life of illusion. I find it an extraordinary insight, and the parallels for returning combat veterans are uncanny. It is one of the best explanations for non combat veterans to understand the struggles of combat veterans, it also helps combat veterans understand they are not “broken” but are just processing what it is like to see the sun, so to speak.

I do not recall where I read it, but someone had suggested that if you were to bring an ancient philosopher to the present they would not be far off the mark addressing the struggles of modern humans. I came to a similar conclusion: perhaps their wisdom could help with my rage. I was determined to take this anger on headfirst. I was not going to be doomed to another 40-plus years of anger and I knew avoidance behaviors like drinking or isolation were not going to help me master emotional regulation. I certainly recognized that I was essentially a puppet and the master of my strings was my emotions.

I revisited the philosophers of Greece and Rome; I figured they had experienced war often and perhaps had some insight on how to address this experience of being brought to the mouth of the cave. As fate would have it, my therapist was bringing up Stoic thinkers during my therapy. So I began to learn the Stoics’ philosophy in depth and apply any insight I discovered. I was first introduced to Stoic thought in high school and again in college in the early 90’s and recalled that Marcus Aurelius wrote a book called Meditations. I started there.

It does not take long when you begin to read a Stoic philosopher to realize that Stoicism is a philosophy of action. Marcus Aurelius is no different. Meditations was a compilation of his thoughts written in a journal. Many of his thoughts are calls to action, to improve, to remember, and above all live a life of virtue. So in the spirit of Marcus Aurelius, I will explain how I implemented Stoicism and took action to gain some sort of mastery over my emotions and quell the fire of anger.

I believe that one should start Stoic practice with non-emotionally charged circumstances, something you do daily. This could include shopping or interactions with strangers, but I think one of the best places to begin is driving. I’m not the only one to suggest this is a starting point for Stoic practice; other notable Stoic practitioners have made similar recommendations. For me, I started Stoic application to driving about nine years ago and I’ll share step by step how I did it and include insightful quotes from Marcus Aurelius to encourage taking considerate action.

For me this quote by Marcus Aurelius in Meditations was the starting point of my Stoic practice, “You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” So how does this apply to driving? Well, the answer is relatively straightforward; you have no control over other drivers, the street conditions, and traffic signals/signs; you only have control over your own driving. Period. When I first got home, I was very outside focused when driving. I would full on rage at other drivers, “what is that idiot doing?” and other profanity-laced variations. My daughters use to laugh at me and call me the Road Raged Dad. So, the first application for me began by asking a simple question: “Do you have control over what other drivers are doing?” The answer is always no. “Then why are you getting angry over something you can not control?”

At first, my responses to that question were some variation of the other driver was intentionally trying to make me mad. “That SOB knew I was coming and got over anyway,” for example. Which invariably leads to another question: “Are people intentionally trying to make you upset driving?” Of course they are not, most of them are driving for their own self-interest, trying to get to where they are going, caught up in their own world of concerns. Marcus Aurelius had a remedy for this false sense of injury and rationalized anger comes from a misapplied sense of justice, “Reject your sense of injury and the injury itself disappears.”

When I began my Stoic driving practice, I would constantly try and work from the premise that I only have control over how I drive and would focus on that. If someone were to cut me off, I would tell myself, “I can’t control him, only me, give him the space.” If I felt a sense of injury and reacted, I would say to myself, “No one can make you mad but you, own your reactions.” Again, only something I can control. So the first step was focusing on what I can control my driving and my reactions.

So for about six months I really focused on those two aspects of control, my driving and reactions. I was testing Marcus Aurelius’ advice, “You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” Over that time, I realized that there was a whole lot of things I can’t control and very little I could. So I visualized a very large circle representing all the things I can’t control and a small circle of the things I can. I narrowed my question whenever something came up while driving to “Are you focused on the large circle or taking action in the small?” If I answered yes to the first one, then I immediately shifted to the small circle. It has worked like a charm for me ever since. My angry reactions started getting less frequent and less intense and I contend Marcus Aurelius’ statement passes the test with flying colors.

After focusing on what I could control and let go of what I cannot, I continued my study of Meditations and came across this journal entry: “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.” The part about estimations really stood out to me. It dawned on me after I read it that asking questions after the fact was all good and well, but If I master estimations then my need to navigate tricky reactions would be cut down dramatically. The light bulb came on and the hypothesis formed–a right objective view is key to equanimity.

To paraphrase Marcus Aurelius, at every instant circumstances and environment bombard us with information that gives rise to impressions or value judgments. According to the Stoics, we have to be very careful to give objective estimations or we may apply these reactionary value judgments to circumstances that require none. In essence, we become slaves to our emotions when we overly indulge in labeling events as “good or bad”, when in fact they may not be. So let’s apply this idea to driving. Imagine you encountered an erratic driver, flashing his lights, cutting people off, who ran a stop sign and was traveling well over the speed limit. Stop and think how you would react to a person driving in this manner. Now for many combat vets, including me, this instantly warrants the one-finger salute and a whole tirade of swearing and rage. Did you immediately create a value judgment as you imaged the situation?

Lets put Marcus Aurelius to the test again with an event in my own life. I had been practicing focusing on the small circle of control for about a year when I was on my way to see a Batman movie marathon. I was excited because the new third film was included. My son called while we were on the way to the show and informed us that he had been shot in the eye by a paintball. He was in shock, didn’t know what to do and called us instead of the 911 line. I was closer to him than any medical personnel so I rushed over to his location. I applied what I learned in combat life saver classes in the military, knew that time was paramount to save his eye.

Here is where the discipline of estimations comes into play, if you had seen me driving like maniac and somehow got the information that I was driving my son to the emergency room would your perception radically change? When I contemplated that day, I realized that I was applying reactionary value judgments on other drivers daily without knowing a damn thing that was going on with them. How do I know the reason why they are cutting me off? Or on the phone while driving? Or speeding? Could they be taking their son to the hospital? Rushing to get to the bathroom before they have an accident?

This story should drive home the point that misplaced value judgments skew our estimations. If you objectively look at a situation and have no real evidence of why people are doing what they are doing, then your emotional reactions are completely on you because you are the one placing the value judgments. When you begin to understand the power of estimations you realize you are better off demanding evidence, exercise more useful course of action and display emotional flexibility by realizing your views of the world may not be accurate. Those chained to the back of the cave are fairly certain about the shadows I suspect and that is where the real slavery begins.

So to simplify the second skill of applying objective estimations, I took a twofold approach. First I would visualize my trip ahead of time, running through my head any possible scenarios that may occur and applying objective estimations. For example, exiting the freeway I objectively visualize what traffic may do and thus be less prone to place reactionary value judgments when an incident does happen. The second half is, should a reactionary value judgment occur in real time then I would simply ask myself “Where is the evidence that your estimation is accurate?” or “Is your estimation useful to the point of taking right action?”

Combined with constantly being aware of which circle of control I was working in objective estimation took my Stoic practice to the next level. I’ve been testing Marcus Aurelius for about 10 years now and I have yet to prove him wrong. When I get angry, I know I’m focused on the large circle of what I can’t control and/or have placed a reactionary value judgment on circumstances that required objective estimations. I’ve found Marcus Aurelius right when he said reject your sense of injury and the injury disappears. Rejection is easy when objectivity is applied I’ve found.

In my journey, I never told my family about what I was doing nor asked them how I was progressing. I just did it and I can’t emphasize enough that Stoicism requires action, not talk or over-intellectualizing. It took years for them to see real progress. They remembered the antics of a cliché angry combat vet and those memories are hard to forget. One day – I never will forget – my daughters told me, “Dad you aren’t angry anymore.” That was after six years of taking action. I can report that it takes a lot to make me upset and lose equanimity today. I moved on from just applying these principles to non-emotionally charged events to o emotionally charged events like relationships. I think there is wisdom in applying skills in a daily, deliberate way as to work your way up to more difficult situations.

A decade of concerted practice has paid off. I get unsolicited feedback of “you are the calmest person I’ve ever met” often. To return to Plato’s cave allegory, I have learned to embrace what I have seen at the mouth of the cave, that if you call the shadows on the back of the cave anything other than shadows then your estimations need work. I realize those that have only seen shadows fall into the value judgment trap and are focused on the big circle of what they can’t control. Most of all I realize that combat was like being dragged to the mouth of the cave, but I’m not broken for experiencing it, just the opposite.

Like Vietnam combat veteran and POW James Stockdale has stated, I tested Stoicism and it passed with flying colors. As such I believe my life has been unleashed because of applying stoic concepts. But a word of caution as you practice Stoicism, I find that many in our society struggle when they encounter a well-practiced Stoic. It took my family years to adjust to my indifference about many things, my objective evaluations and calming of emotional reactions. It was worth the struggle and applied action. I wouldn’t trade my life for anything and my life has become unleashed. I’m currently trying to bring even more Stoicism in my practice to help vets. I talk about it all day long. In a real sense, Stoicism saved me and taught me how to address Plato’s concerns about the cave. I hope you find my applications useful and fate permitting, you apply them and test them for yourself.

 

Roger Johnston is a Clinical Social Worker who works with combat veterans and retired from the U.S. Army having experienced combat himself. Roger is currently in the crossing the return threshold stage of the hero’s journey and hoping to mentor others on their own hero’s journey.  Far from being a master of two worlds or a sage, Roger hopes to impart what little hard-earned wisdom he has learned in practicing stoicism for a decade.

Interview: Chuck Chakrapani

Dr. Chakrapani will be one of the speakers at the Stoicon 2017 Stoicism Conference in Toronto, on October 14th.

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

I am a psychologist by training, and a data scientist by profession. I don’t approach Stoicism as a scholar, expert or philosopher, but as a student. A student sitting in the back row of Epictetus’ lectures, trying to figure what he is saying and (if it made sense), how to apply it to my own life. My view of Stoicism is that it contains some profound insights which, if applied to our everyday life, can change it for the better. And in short order.

My work (besides to my day job) currently centers on making the Stoic writings accessible to anyone interested in them. My book Unshakable Freedom shows how Stoicism can be applied to your life, no matter who you are or what you do. The Good Life Handbook is a slightly rearranged plain English version of Enchiridion. The current blog series Discourses in Plain English re-expresses Epictetus’ Discourses in modern English. For the past year or so, I have been devoting 20 to 30 hours a week to reading and writing about Stoicism.

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

This is a simple question. The way you do anything is the way you do everything. If I clearly see that “it is useless to worry about things over which I have no control” it applies equally to whether I get into a traffic jam or whether my presentation is received poorly by my colleagues. It is as useless to worry about a promotion that you did not get as it is to worry about a steak you already overcooked. Once you internalize some profound passages of Stoicism such as Marcus Aurelius’

Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness – all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil. But for my part I have long perceived the nature of good…” (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations II.1)

it often short circuits your frustration when you find someone annoying, unjust, or unfair. From my perspective, the principles apply equally to your work and to the other parts of your life.

Q: When and how did you first become interested in Stoicism?

I have been involved in Stoic thought practically all my life. When I was still a nerdy high school kid, I picked up a book by Marcus Aurelius To Himself, also called Meditations. Marcus Aurelius seems to have a special appeal to people who, like him, governed countries – America’s Bill Clinton, Prussia’s Frederick the Great, China’s Wen Jiabao – to name a few. The version I read was also a translation by a governor of a country – C. Rajagopalachari, the last Governor General of India. To me, Meditations was just an emperor’s thoughts which I found interesting. Several years later, I picked up a copy of Enchiridion. I still didn’t know much about Stoicism and didn’t connect it to Marcus. Later still, I came across Discourses, and for the first time, realized that they all refer to the same philosophical system, Stoicism. Subsequently, I tried to understand it as system of philosophic thought.

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

The opening sentence of the Enchiridion.

Some things are in our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, our reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not our own doing.” (Epictetus, Enchiridion I.1. Robin Hard’s translation.)

To me, this is the sword of wisdom that cuts through so much of our cluttered and confused thinking. For years I struggled with Niebuhr’s serenity prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change things I can, And wisdom to know the difference.

I don’t know about others, but for me, “wisdom to know the difference,” wasn’t easy to come by. Epictetus defined it to me.

Add to this the Marcus Aurelius quote I referred to earlier, and now we know the words and behavior of others don’t bind us either. All that is left for us is to enjoy the festival of life.

These two passages contain more practical wisdom than one hundred self-help books. Don’t worry about things you have no control over and don’t be reactive to what others say or do. That’s it. If you fully internalize the meaning of these two passages, I believe your life will change dramatically for the better.

Q: In what ways do you think Stoicism still matters today?

Stoicism is timeless. When I read Epictetus, for example, I cannot help but wonder, “How is it that the same philosophy appealed to the least and the most powerful men living at about the same time? How is it that the thoughts of a slave, who lived two thousand years ago far removed in every respect from the world we live in today, resonate with me, are relevant to me, and make my days better?” We are psychologically the same. The form changes but the matter remains.

So, it is not question of whether Stoicism matters today. I don’t believe there ever was a time when it did not matter. There were only times when people thought it did not matter.

Q: How has Stoicism affected the way you live your life?

Sometimes I describe myself as a “Stoic minimalist.” I don’t practice Stoicism as such but use a few principles of Stoicism that have the potential to change one’s life. I already mentioned two. There are two more.

Don’t grow peevish about trivialities: Vinegar is bad, it’s sharp; the honey is bad, it upsets my constitution; I didn’t like the vegetables.” (Epictetus, Discourses, IV.4.25. Robert Dobbin’s translation)

The final one comes from these two quotes:

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

You will be able to view each and every day as a festival.
(Epictetus, Discourses I.1.32 & IV.4.46. Robin Hard’s translation)

As a Stoic minimalist, I just try to remember these four thoughts when I face any friction.

  1. Is this under my control or am I simply spinning my wheels?
  2. Am I reacting to someone without exercising my choice to act the way I want?
  3. Am I getting peevish about trivialities?
  4. Am I enjoying the festival of life that’s right in front of me?

Sure enough, things get better. I don’t always remember, and I don’t always succeed. But I remember enough and succeed enough that I can say that my life is far better because of that.

I am content to employ a few basic principles which, when practiced consistently enough, elevates the quality of my life and makes my life run smoothly. Maybe not all the time, but something like 90% of the time. And that is good enough for me.

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

I am glad you asked, because Stoic philosophers, especially Epictetus, are so eloquent, there can’t be just one. My favorite is this by Epictetus:

I have this purpose: To complete you, to free you from restraint, compulsion, hindrance, to make you free, prosperous and happy…and you are here to practice these things.” (Discourses II.19.29).

This is a breathtaking promise. It is audacious, uncompromising, unconditional, and unequivocal. Why is this my favorite? Not just because it is bold, but because Epictetus stood by it and never went back on that promise as long as he lived.

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

My advice would of course be biased. It would depend on why someone wants to learn about Stoicism. If they want to increase their general knowledge, I would perhaps refer them to someone like Massimo Pigliucci or Greg Sadler or Donald Robertson, who are far better qualified than I. But if advice-seekers want to better their lives, I would advise them to read something simple like the Enchiridion and reflect on the passages that particularly appeal to them. Apply them to their lives and internalize the principle. They don’t have to rush immediately to read Discourses, Meditations or Epistulae Morales There is time enough for that. A few profundities make one’s life far better than tons of trivialities.

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

I sometimes wonder if people make it more complicated than it need be to reap the benefits of Stoic thought. Isn’t it simple enough just to follow what makes sense to us, test it to see if it works? If it does, why does anything else matter? Why check if there is a god or not? Or even if you are virtuous or not? Maybe I am missing something. I don’t know.

Chuck Chakrapani is the founder of The Stoic Gym and the author of Unshakable Freedom, A Fortunate Storm, and The Good Life Handbook

Forgotten Realms? Stoic Philosophy’s Potential For Modern Secular Humanism by Sascha Rother

Studying philosophy should be of great value for all Secular Humanists. It represents a cultural endeavor to examine the human condition seeking answers to existential questions, answers that are not necessarily atheistic, but in many cases non-theistic or at least agnostic in their outlook. Moreover, philosophies, in particular those of Graeco-roman antiquity, offer elaborate world-views, showing people how to lead the “good and happy life”, which makes them especially attractive for adherents of a more practical Humanism.

It is therefore not surprising that, with the growing number of non-religious people, and people looking for ethical values outside (their) religion, there has been another renaissance of books written on that topic, further accompanied by talks, discussion groups in social media, as well as international activities (e.g. Stoicon). Although one can find offerings of this kind on almost every major ancient philosophical school (especially books on living), two schools nowadays particularly stand out: Stoicism and Epicureanism.

Being a Secular Humanist myself, I came across Stoicism about three years ago, and reading the works of the three great Roman Stoics, Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, as well as partaking in Stoic Week, I became attached to that philosophical tradition. Since then, I have been trying to communicate the ideas of Stoicism within the Humanist community, but found only a few, interested in this matter. Those with whom I could discuss it in more detail seemed rather skeptical, or even opposed to Stoicism; instead, they quite fervently sided with Epicurus. Looking at material of various Humanist organizations, and books by various authors, I soon realized that this was not by all means a national peculiarity: Stoic philosophy seems to have relatively little place within the Secular Humanist community. In contrast, Epicurean thought seems to thrive, and citations of his philosophical works regularly appear in all kinds of Humanist publications.

In his “Very Short Introduction” to Humanism the philosopher Stephen Law even considers Epicurus to be virtually the greatest among the predecessors of modern (i.e. secular) Humanism, since he adopted Democritus´s atomic model, and because of his criticism of religion and its belief in gods. Interestingly, however, although he does mention Seneca and Cicero, he does not say anything about Seneca´s close affiliation to Stoicism, nor does he say anything about the influence of Stoic thought (at least in part) on Cicero´s philosophical and political works. Given the fact that communities of Secular Humanists are predominantly atheistic in their outlook – in fact many advocate the natural sciences as the best way to understand the human existence, and there is a strain of Humanists who propose what they call Evolutionary Humanism – could it then be that there is some bias in their reception of classic ancient philosophies?

To clarify things, it is not my aim to refute Epicureanism, nor do I want to persuade Secular Humanists not to read his works or those of related authors; as Seneca used to say, “there are a lot of good ideas” to be gained from it, so “one should not trouble themselves where they come from”. Rather, I want to encourage Humanists of all sorts to study Stoic philosophy, as still today it is one major root of our understanding what humanism is about. To do this, I will address the area of physics (without theology), theology, and ethics, putting Epicurean and Stoic perspective side by side, and see if there are misconceptions on both sides.

As I already mentioned, philosophers, such as Stephen Law, but also others (like German philosopher, author, and speaker of the secularist Giordano-Bruno-Foundation, Michael Schmidt-Salomon), argue that Epicurus is the primary source for modern Humanism due to his advocating the atomistic word-view of Democritus. Schmidt-Salomon goes even further attributing him almost first-hand authorship of evolutionary theory. Now, two questions may be asked here: firstly, whether from a scientific point of view these perspectives will entirely stand up to scrutiny; and secondly, whether Epicurus was indeed the only philosopher who could be regarded as an advocate of these ideas.

As to the first point, there is no doubt that the sources, which both Law and Schmidt-Salomon refer to, could be understood in a way that, from hindsight, allows for a modern scientific interpretation. In the letter to Herodotus phrases like “changes (i.e. in the matter) are achieved through rearrangement, adhesion, or dissolution of atoms” sound as if Epicurus is anticipating what we know as modern chemistry; however, other assumptions of Epicurus concerning the origin of atoms, their indestructability, as well as their proposed movements are likely to dampen such expectations.

This is still more the case if we look at Schmidt-Salomon´s claim that Epicurus in fact anticipated Darwin´s evolutionary theory. Again, although parts of De Rerum Natura, in which Lucretius refers to Epicurus natural philosophy and cosmology, can be read accordingly (“Survival of the stronger and more useful animals”), it lacks essential elements of Darwin´s theory, namely the common ancestry of all organisms. Quite to contrary, its vision of extinct (if we can attribute this term to him) animals shows a rather crude and, to a certain degree, almost mythological idea of what the selection process and genealogy of animals (and other organisms) might be like. This, however, is not surprising, as it took Darwin a five-years voyage, and more than 20 years of additional research, until he dared to publish what became to be the most important theory in modern biology.

To do Epicurus some more justice, we must add that Stoicism in this regard does not do any better. Even if we interpret the Stoic concept of the Heraclitian flow of the elements in an ecological fashion (i,e, the interdependency of organisms and matter exchange in ecological systems), something that John Sellars terms the Gaia hypothesis, we are certainly better off without it. Looking further into other areas of both, Epicurean and Stoic natural philosophy and cosmology (e.g. the nature of earth quakes), we perceive similar, but from a modern perspective crude ideas about how nature works. Finally, we have to acknowledge that over-extending the boundaries of philosophical arguments as deductive tools for natural phenomena will likely lead us astray.

So, if ancient theories (Epicurean and Stoic) about nature have only limited value for a proto-scientific, humanist world-view, can anything other be drawn from it? Again, in De Rerum Natura, and Epicurus’ letter to Herodotus, the reader is advised to study nature as a means to realize the rationality of nature and “thus to soothe the soul”. For the Stoics, nature as they perceived it held no miraculous components, as everything was governed by a rational principle, the Logos. So, if there was no need to worry about natural events, could there be any other value to studying nature? It seems that Seneca got it right, when in his treatise “On Earthquakes”(book 6 of his Naturales Quaestiones) he expressed the following:

[…] It is a worthy enterprise to investigate the causes behind these occurrences. What, you ask, will justify this effort? The reward will be to know Nature, and no prize is greater than this. The subject has numerous features which will prove useful, but the perusal of this material contains nothing more beautiful in itself than that by means of its own splendor it engages the minds of men and is cultivated, not for the sake of profit, but for the wonder it excites. […]

“Isn´t it wonderful?” Nothing other than this exclamation by the physicist Carl Sagan (Pale Blue Dot), who is often invoked by Secular Humanists of all sorts to emphasize the beauty and awe-inspiring nature of a world-view based on natural science, could have echoed more this statement by Seneca, which also alludes to the Stoic notion of humans being integrated parts of a greater whole.

If Epicureanism cannot rival Stoicism with regard to natural philosophy, maybe it will do so when we look at their theology? Wasn’t Epicurus an atheist per excellence, whereas Stoics were committed to a belief in a god/God? To be precise, Epicurus never denied the existence of gods. He actually had quite an exact idea what they were like (i.e. made of). And the Stoics?

Considering myself a 9.9 atheist on a 1-10 scale, I have to admit that it took me a while to get over this talking about God/god, especially when I started reading Epictetus; but also the question about a providential universe, as discussed from Seneca on to Marcus Aurelius might be potentially off-putting to strict non-believers. However, one must take into account that by “god/God” the Stoics did not understand a personal (monotheistic) Deity that intervenes into the affairs of human beings. Rather, the more or less equal use of the terms “god,” “logos,” cosmos,” “nature” suggests that everything, including the human condition, could be understood in a rational, yet overarching way.

The transcendent aspects of this might be attractive to some, whereas to others they are not. But do we necessarily have to buy it all? As we have already seen in the case of natural philosophy, we should be careful about any uncritical reception. Nevertheless, one might argue, Epicureanism and Stoicism were meant to be taken as a whole, not cherry-picked for individual doctrines. I whole-heartedly disagree, and as I will now argue in the last part, we even have to do this for the sake of the most important part of Stoic philosophy, its ethics.

Both, Epicureanism and Stoicism were ethics-driven philosophies, meaning that physics (including theology), logic (i.e. cognition, thinking and language) were subordinated to the fundamental question as to how one should live the best life possible. For the Epicureans, pleasure and absence of pain were the ultimate goals in life. Everything else was to be seen in dependence of this principle, including virtue.

We must praise that which is noble, the virtues, and things of this kind, if they create in us the feeling of pleasure. If they fail to please us, we should not bother about them.

I encourage people to strive for endless pleasures, not for futile virtues, the fruit of which one can only hope to earn being full of restlessness.

Although Epicurus and adherents of his philosophy repeatedly tried to emphasize that by pleasure they primarily sought mental, not bodily pleasures (see: Letter to Menoeceus), we know from Cicero (in On Ends) that the ambiguous use of the word “pleasure” (Greek: hedoné) continuously raised problems, and apparently certain sayings by Epicurus also revealed this ambiguity to the term:

The beginning and root of all good lies in the belly; even wisdom and everything derived from it, is related to this pleasure.

Now, the Stoics would be the last to deny physical needs, and they readily acknowledged not only food, but also health as something that is naturally preferred by humans. However, it is also indifferent in relation to leading a good life – meaning for the Stoics a life, in which a person matures to the state, where they feel a strong inclination to care for the need of other human beings as much as for their own. The concentric circles of Hierocles give a good example of this attitude.

Or, as Marcus Aurelius put it:  “Human beings have come into the world for the sake of one another.”  This did not mean they were naïve concerning the potential malice which humans would often inflict upon each other, as he continued: either instruct them, then, or put up with them.”

We also find this attitude in another famous passage of his Meditations (II, 1):

Say to yourself at the start of the day, I shall meet with meddling, ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, and unsociable people. But I […] then can never be harmed by these people, nor become angry with one that is akin (i.e. of the same mind and origin) to me, nor can I hate him, for we have come into being to work together. […] To work against one another is therefore contrary to nature.

With this Marcus refers to the human nature particularly, but also to the greater nature, of which humans are a part. This is in stark contrast to Epicurus, one of whose fragments might be understood as a direct reply to the Stoic position:

Don´t let yourselves be fooled, you people, not be seduced, nor deceived! Believe me, there is no natural community for those endowed with Reason. Whoever says so, is cheating on you!

It is not surprising that from an Epicurean perspective the best life was conducted outside society, surrounded only by a lose array of like-minded friends; certainly, no philosophy probably had individualism spelled out larger than Epicureanism, and it is not surprising that the “pursuit of happiness” built into the American constitution by Jefferson bears these traits. It might also explain why many Secular Humanists, through their sense of non-religiousness, feel especially attracted to this kind of world-view. However, there is a bit of aloofness and self-indulgence to it, which in a way counteracts the claim of (modern) Humanism to strive for a better society.

But, looking at the US, and though-out world history, we also repeatedly find a strong emphasis on duty and public engagement (see e.g. T. Roosevelt, Citizenship in a Republic), and we encounter individuals like Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, or Martin Luther King, who through their commitments did neither seek pleasure, nor try to avoid pain. Instead, and regardless of any cost, they decided to do what they felt was right.

…but if we imagine, I say, that they (i.e. the gods) take no counsel about our affairs, it is still possible for me to take counsel about myself, and it is for me to consider where my own benefit lies. And the benefit of every being lies in what accords with its own constitution and nature. Now my nature is that of a rational and sociable being. As Antoninus, my city and fatherland is Rome; as a human being, it is the universe. So, what benefits these, is the sole good to me.” (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations VI, 44)

As Marcus Aurelius rightly recognized, the Stoic tenet of virtue as the basis of a good human life stands firm with or without a divine stamp of approval (see also: W. Ferraiolo, 2015). His saying also reflects the notion that the fabric into which our individual existence is woven is not only affected by our relationships at a communal level, but that as human beings we also contribute to the well-being of all humans, as well as our planet.

Given the many global challenges we are facing today, there is great need for public engagement, and a renewed cosmopolitan outlook. In this regard, Stoicism has a lot to offer that modern Humanists might want to get to know and then incorporate.

 

Sascha Rother is a natural scientist by training and got his PhD in Biochemistry. Living with his family in the city of Hannover, located in northern Germany, he is currently working as a teacher at an integrated secondary school. In his free-time he volunteers for the German Humanist Association (HVD) of Lower Saxony, where he currently holds the office of the local chairman.

Tickets Now Available for STOICON 2017

Ticketing is now set up for the Stoicon 2017 conference, which will be held this year Saturday, 14 October in Toronto at the Holiday Inn Toronto-Yorkdale.  You can view the conference schedule, order tickets, or find more information by clicking here.  The central theme for Stoicon 2017 (and for Stoic Week) is Stoicism at Work.

Earlybird discount tickets are available for online purchase.  There are also discounted tickets available for students in full-time education and for those aged 65 or older.  There is also a discounted rate available for rooms at the Holiday Inn Toronto-Yorkdale.

If you are interested in Stoic philosophy, whatever your background or occupation, this conference is meant for you. Our aim is to make Stoic philosophy accessible to everyone by highlighting its practical relevance to the everyday challenges people face in different aspects of modern life.

The keynote speaker is Margaret Graver, Professor of Classical Studies at Dartmouth College, author of the groundbreaking study Stoicism and Emotion.

Stoicon also features plenary addresses by Donald Robertson, Massimo Pigliucci, Chuck Chakrapani, Ronald Pies, Walter Matweychuk, and Jules Evans.

The breakout sessions will include longer (45 minute) talks by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman, and 90 minute workshops by Christopher Gill & Tim LeBon, Col. Thomas Jarrett, Greg Sadler & Andi Sciacca, and Donald Robertson.

STOICON In Toronto – October 2017

Earlier this week, we announced some of the information for this year’s Stoicon conference, coming up this Fall – Saturday, October 14 2017. After several years of being held in London, last year’s conference took place in in New York City (and with over 330 attendees, was so far as we know the largest gathering of people interested in Stoic philosophy in history).  This year, Stoicon will be held in another major metropolis – Toronto – and we are expecting it to be just as engaging a conference as the previous ones!

The theme selected this year – for both Stoicon and Stoic Week – is “Stoicism at Work”, a topic quite timely in our present era.  The conference will take place at the Holiday Inn, Yorkdale in Toronto.

Tickets can be booked online via EventBrite.

We will be posting more details about hotel rates and tickets for Stoicon in the coming months, here in Stoicism Today.  Keep an eye out for details forthcoming about events on the Sunday following the conference as well!

The full schedule – Fate permitting! – for the conference is available.  The morning will be devoted to a set of plenary talks by expert Stoic writers, researchers, and practitioners (and of course, informal conversations over coffee during the breaks).  After a break for lunch, we then resume and break out into a set of smaller sessions.  These provide either longer (45-minute) talks or intensive 90 minute workshops, focused on the key themes of the conference.  Then, after a short break, we reconvene for a talk by the renowned scholar, Margaret Graver, and then carry on the conversations at the reception.

Schedule

8 – 9am Registration and coffee

Plenary Sessions

  • 9am Introduction: What is Stoicism?
    Donald Robertson, author of Teach Yourself Stoicism
  • 9.30am How to be a Stoic: Conversations with Epictetus
    Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, author of How to be a Stoic
  • 10am The Stoic Minimalist: Practicing Stoicism, Avoiding Controversies
    Dr. Chuck Chakrapani, author of Unshakable Freedom: Ancient Stoic Secrets Applied to Modern Life

10.30am Morning break (30 min.)

  • 11am Stoicism, Buddhism, and Judaism
    Dr. Ronald Pies, author of Everything has Two Handles
  • 11.30am Living the Best Possible Life: Epictetus’ Rx for Clarity, Ease, and Serenity.
    Sharon Lebell, author of The Art of Living
  • 12pm Stoicism and Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT)
    Dr. Walter Matweychuk, author of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy: A Newcomer’s Guide
  • 12.30pm Phobias, Terrorism, and Stoic Fearlessness
    Prof. William O. Stephens, author of Marcus Aurelius: A Guide for the Perplexed

1 – 2.30pm Lunch break: 

2.30 – 4pm Parallel Talks & Workshops

  • Stoicism and Values Clarification (Workshop)
    Prof. Christopher Gill, author of The Structured Self in Hellenistic and Roman Thought
    Tim LeBon, author of Wise Therapy
  • Stoicism and Creativity (Talk)
    Ryan Holiday, author of The Obstacle is the Way
  • Stoic Perspectives on Leisure, Work, Duty, Discipline, and Vocation (Talk)
    Stephen Hanselman, author of The Daily Stoic
  • Stoicism and Military Resilience (Workshop)
    Col. Thomas Jarrett, developer of Warrior Resilience Training
  • Dealing with Difficult People At Work – Stoic Strategies (Workshop)
    Dr. Greg Sadler, editor of Stoicism Today, co-founder of ReasonIO
    Andi Sciacca, COO of Big Mind Institute, co-founder of ReasonIO
  • Introduction to Stoic Psychological Skills (Workshop)
    Donald Robertson, author of The Philosophy of CBT: Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy

4 – 4.30pm Afternoon break

4.30 – 5.15pm Keynote: Stoicism & Emotion
Prof. Margaret Graver, author of Stoicism and Emotion

5.15 – 5.30pm Closing

5.30 – 7pm Reception
For more information, please subscribe to this blog, follow us on Twitter, or on Facebook.  As noted above, additional information about the conference will be announced in the coming months.

Save The Date – STOICON 2017 In Toronto!

This October, the annual STOICON conference is moving to another metropolis – Toronto, Canada!  You’ll want to mark the date on your calendar – Saturday, 14th October 2017.  We’ll be publishing more details, including the full schedule for the conference, later on this week.

The main theme this year will be “Stoicism at Work.”  The conference opens with a brief introduction to Stoic philosophy followed by a series of talks by leading authors in the field of modern Stoicism.  In the afternoon, you will be able to choose between attending different parallel sessions, including an introductory workshop for newcomers to applied Stoicism.  The day concludes with the keynote presentation on Stoicism and Emotion by one of the leading experts in this area, Margaret Graver, Professor of Classical Studies at Dartmouth College.

Stoicon is an annual international conference on applying Stoic philosophy to modern life, organized by Modern Stoicism, and 2017 marks its fourth year.  Our annual Stoic Week online course will also begin the following Monday, running from 16th – 22nd October.  If you’re interested in Stoic philosophy, whatever your background or occupation, this conference is meant for you.  Our aim is to make Stoic philosophy accessible to everyone by highlighting its practical relevance to the everyday challenges people face in different aspects of modern life.

The speakers for this year’s Stoicon include: Margaret Graver, Donald Robertson, Massimo Pigliucci, Col. Thomas Jarrett, Ronald Pies, Walter Matweychuk, Jules Evans, Christopher Gill, Tim LeBon, Ryan Holiday, Stephen Hanselman, Chuck Chakrapani, and Greg Sadler.

For more information see the Stoicon 2017 page.

Resistance Is Futile: Stoic Counsel About “Externals” by William Ferraiolo

Axiom of Futility. Agents are required not to make direct attempts to do (or be) something that is logically, theoretically, or practically impossible.” [Becker, p. 42]

“To be happy, we must not be too concerned with others.”― Albert Camus, The Fall

Emotional and psychological attachment to futile endeavors assures frustration, anxiety, and discontent. Insisting that the external world must conform to one’s stubbornly held desires and pre-conceived expectations, virtually guarantees dissatisfaction. Such insistence is futile. I contend that unhealthy attachments of this nature are an astoundingly common, but readily eradicable, source of needless distress. Marvin Kohl mentions the Stoic attitude regarding futile endeavors:

Perhaps no school of philosophy in the ancient world placed greater emphasis on the importance of understanding and accepting the limits of human power than did the Stoics. For the Stoics maintain that in addition to knowing what is worth doing, wisdom, in some very fundamental way, consists in knowing what is and is not in our power, and not attempting to do what we cannot do. [2001, p. 75]

In particular, I contend that all psychological dependence upon such Stoic “externals” as the behaviors and cognitive states of persons other than oneself, are subsumable under the Becker epigraph (above) indicating the Stoic Axiom of Futility. In other words, we invite needless suffering when we tether our contentment to conditions, such as the beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors of others, that lie beyond our sphere of direct, practical control. Any attempt to govern another agent’s beliefs, desires, or behavior constitutes a futile effort to control phenomena that are, in the language of Epictetus’ Enchiridion, “not up to us”. There is a sense in which this is a trivial and obvious observation—we cannot control other people, their thoughts, etc. Nearly everyone understands this, and few would openly dispute any such assertion. Nonetheless, the pervasive and seemingly incorrigible insistence upon attempting to do so, and the tendency to become distressed at the failure of such attempts, warrants careful analysis and cries out for therapeutic counsel.

The effort to formulate and offer helpful counsel is not futile. Composing and communicating advice is, for all practical purposes, within my control (provided that brain and body do not fail me). Insisting upon the efficacy or acceptance of such counsel is, however, a quixotic and futile bit of stubbornness—destined to result in psychological and emotional distress. I can write this article defending and explaining a little valuable Stoic counsel as best I am able (and that effort is largely, if not entirely, “up to me”), but I am a fool if I allow my emotional well-being to depend upon the article being accepted at an academic conference, selected for publication, or upon anyone reading it, taking it seriously, or adhering to the counsel offered herein. The wise attitude regarding the acceptance of proffered counsel is rational detachment, and recognition that such matters are simply not within the counselor’s control. That is the Stoic’s advice—take it or leave it.

Futility and Discontent

Surely, some will contend, limiting our endeavors and concerns in this fashion is bound to stultify development and inhibit the kinds of hopes and dreams that have driven innovation, technological achievement, and nearly every form of advancement from which humanity has enjoyed benefit. We must dare, even in the face of futility, to risk failure. Only through such daring is real progress realized. Let us dare great deeds and, if we fail to achieve them, glory nonetheless in our valiant struggle and derive both pride and hope from “dreaming the impossible dream”. Don Quixote may be a tragic hero, but he is a hero nonetheless, precisely because he “tilted at windmills” and enlarged his spirit thereby. The inspiration is worth braving defeat and humiliation.

Our culture is, for good reason, saturated with expressions of admiration for those who dare, those who dream, those who persevere in the face of seemingly impossible obstacles and brutally bruising travails. We Americans, after all, “Remember the Alamo!” The birth of the United States as a nation is inextricably dependent upon braving terrifying odds and summoning the courage to combat an ostensibly insurmountable challenge, an invincible adversary. Consider the stirrings conjured by a mention of Valley Forge. Who among us does not root for the underdog, and “hope against hope” when faced with a lost cause? Patron saints do not, after all, generally live lives of luxury, or die peaceful, gentle deaths. Does Stoicism counsel cowardice, acquiescence, and quietism? If so, then its counsel is ignoble at best, and is apt to diminish those who embrace it. Again, Kohl nicely articulates this ancient complaint:

Some thinkers may immediately object to this line of thinking and say that to be failure-proof one must have an unconquerable faith in being able to do anything one wants to do. Others may urge us to believe that invincible determination of purpose should be psychologically so fixed that we persevere until “either victory or death.” Still others, operating under the pretence of wisdom, may urge us to combine a false with a true statement. Here we are told that “you can have anything you want, but you can’t have it all.” These extreme libertarians of choice reject the precept that one ought not try to do things that known to be impossible or, and more important, that very few things are, in fact, impossible. Like Nicholas Rescher, they are also inclined to believe as a general life stance that optimal results are attainable only by trying for too much. [2001, p. 78]

So goes a fairly standard objection against “lowering one’s aim” in order that one may avoid disappointment. First of all, it is practically impossible that any endeavor may be known to be futile. We have all heard “stranger things have happened,” or “nothing is impossible,” offered as encouragement and exhortation. Secondly, even a truly futile endeavor may have an ennobling quality not otherwise attainable—an ennobling power that countervails against the detriments of failure. We admire those who endure, those who strive, and those glorious “fools” willing to “fight the unbeatable foe”. Such sentiments may be poetic—but poetry often makes for lousy philosophy, and impractical counsel.

This objection is misguided on two fronts. As Kohl reminds us, the Stoics long ago argued that:

The point…is that to aim at what cannot be done is not only to invite failure but to waste precious time and energy that could have been effective elsewhere. To aim at the futile with indefeasible resolution and the profound conviction that one must persevere to “either victory or death” is to invite the latter and is, therefore, even more seriously normatively flawed. [2001, p. 78]

Every moment spent in pursuit of the impossible, the futile, is a moment lost to the effort to attain plausible (or, at the very least, possible) results. Our time and our energy are limited. It is irrational and self-defeating to sacrifice a potential benefit to the futile attempt to gain the unattainable boon. This is the classic “sucker’s bet”. Furthermore, successful ventures are not, inherently, less ennobling than are quixotic quests. The Alamo would still be worth remembering had Santa Ana’s legions faltered and turned back—perhaps even more so! Surely, failure is not a necessary condition for optimizing consequences over the long term, nor is it necessary for sublime experience. Were it so, we would be well served to aim for failure. This would, arguably, generate a paradox involving succeeding in the attainment of failure—or aiming to succeed at an endeavor that precludes the possibility of success. If such an effort is not, flat out, incoherent, it at least tends in the general direction of discomfiting cognitive dissonance. Is George Washington less worthy of our respect than is King Leonidas? Both are heroic and admirable—but Washington won. Would not Leonidas have preferred victory at Thermopylae?

Cannot Implies Ought Not

If Immanuel Kant is correct that “ought implies can,” then it follows that cannot implies ought not. This is a fairly straightforward application of modus tollens to the sphere of practical reasoning. It is impractical, and arguably incoherent to attempt what cannot be done. That is, one ought not attempt the impossible. In any such attempt, the agent wastes time, effort, and resources on a doomed endeavor. Those resources could have, otherwise, been devoted to some project with at least a hope of success. How much needless suffering has resulted from failure to desist in hopeless endeavors? Moreover, how much avoidable suffering might have been forestalled by a rational reallocation of the resources wasted in futile pursuits? No exact quantification is possible (any attempt to produce one would be futile), but we may safely conclude that “a lot” would serve as a modest and conservative answer. In A New Stoicism, Lawrence Becker articulates the practical and logical problems with futile pursuits:

The point cannot be more straightforward: We reject the soundness of any normative proposition constructed from an agent’s endeavor to do (directly) what she believes to be impossible. We do this because such endeavors are incoherent, in the sense that their propositional representation always tacitly involves an inconsistent pair of propositions: one about impossibility, to the effect that there are no available means to achieve a given end; the other about a contrary possibility, to the effect that there is a course of conduct that might be a way to achieve the same end…But the system of normative logic constitutes a formal representation of practical reasoning, and practical reasoning aims to resolve such conflict and incoherence. [1998, p. 45]

Practical reasoning cannot countenance the ultimate impracticality of applied principles culminating in incoherence. One cannot, as the adage goes, “serve two masters” (one, at least, ought not to attempt to do so), and one certainly cannot abide by mutually inconsistent action-guiding propositions or maxims of conduct. The impossible, is for practical purposes, forbidden to the rational agent.

A Practical Test

The Stoics enjoin us to discontinue any and all concern with, and emotional or psychological attachment to, circumstances or endeavors that are known to be futile, or for which we have reasonably conclusive evidence of futility. This is wise counsel—all too frequently flouted or ignored. Sometimes, there really is no hope. It behooves us to identify such cases and respond with properly rational detachment. What, however, might constitute compelling evidence that any endeavor is, in fact, futile? There are, of course, some fairly obvious cases of physically, nomologically, or logically impossible achievements.

These are, however, not genuine options of the type William James held up as live possibilities. No one sincerely contemplates leaping the Grand Canyon at its widest point, without deploying some form of artificial propulsion. No one thinks, “I will broad jump that distance!” It is clearly impossible for any human to do so. Furthermore, any such attempt, far from being admirable or ennobling, is simply a suicidal exercise in foolishness. This is not an interesting case for practical counsel. No one needs pronouncements from a Stoic sage to dissuade obvious lunacy!

The interesting test case involves the endeavor that is not obviously impossible, but that may appear to defy reason. What test can distinguish the improbably from the unattainable? How, in actual practice, can one tell the difference? As is often the case with Stoic counsel, the answer is shockingly (and deceptively) simple: Will it to be so. What one’s will does not, at the moment in question, produce is, ipso facto, beyond the power of one’s will—at that moment.

This may seem a presumptuous determinism and, indeed, it may be. Luckily, practical purposes do not require us to settle recondite metaphysical disputes. Can I control, simply by exertion of my will, another person’s beliefs, behavior, attitudes, etc.? Those who would answer in the affirmative, thereby acquire the burden of proof. One may of course, speak, debate, threaten, and so on. All of these endeavors depend upon the cooperation of one’s interlocutor(s). As Epictetus reminds his students, such matters are simply not “up to us”:

There are things which are within our power, and there are things which are beyond our power. Within our power are opinion, aim, desire, aversion, and, in one word, whatever affairs are our own. Beyond our power are body, property, reputation, office, and, in one word, whatever are not properly our own affairs. [Enchiridion, I]

It is not mere coincidence that Arrian places this first on the Enchiridion’s list of admonitions to would-be Stoics. This is the sine qua non of Epictetan counsel’s efficacy. Know what is “yours” to control. Bend all of your cognitive efforts on the improvement and perfection of your “internals” (i.e. opinion, aim, desire, aversion, etc.). Know what is not yours to control. Embrace it, accept it, and do not allow yourself to be troubled by anything that is not “yours”. Stoic “externals” (i.e. body, property, reputation, office, etc.) are not “up to you,” and it is foolish to allow yourself to be concerned about them. Every moment of discontent caused by emotional attachment to the attitudes and behaviors of other persons, is a moment that might have been spent improving oneself.

We waste our lives insofar as we strive for the unattainable. Life is too short for constructing cloud castles. Our time is too valuable to be frittered away upon childish fantasy. Stoicism is largely about accepting the external world as it is, and resisting the urge to pine for a world that has not been, is not, and cannot be. The world will have its way. The Stoic is untroubled by the unfolding of events over which he has no direct control. The good Stoic is busy with self-governance and self-rectification. That is more than enough to occupy any rational agent. Don Quixote tilted at windmills. Epictetus strove after wisdom, virtue, and self-control. Choose the more admirable endeavor. Get to work.

Works Cited

Becker, Lawrence C. (1998). A New Stoicism. Princeton University Press.

Camus, Albert (1958). The Fall. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Epictetus. Discourses and Enchiridion. Thomas W. Higginson (trans.). New York: Walter J. Black, Inc. (1944)

Harris, Sam. (2010). The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. New York: Free Press (a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.)

Kohl, Marvin. (2001). “Wisdom and the Axiom of Futility,” The Philosophical Forum, 32: 73–93.

Rescher, Nicholas. (1987). Ethical Idealism: An Inquiry into the Nature and Function of Ideals. Berkeley: University of California Press.

 

William Ferraiolo received a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Oklahoma in 1997. Since that time, he has been teaching philosophy at San Joaquin Delta College in Stockton, California. He is the author of Meditations on Self-Discipline and Failure: Stoic Exercise for Mental Discipline.

Stoicism and Surgery by Robert S. Colter

As a professor of philosophy, and of ancient philosophy in particular, I have been studying Stoicism at some level for over 20 years. It is one thing to study it as a dry academic subject, and an entirely different thing to apply it to one’s own life, especially in the systematic way that Stoicism invites us to. I want to share a recent experience that, for me at least, was an example of how Stoicism can fit into one’s life, even in quite difficult circumstances.

I began writing this reflection from a hospital bed in Hamilton NZ. I just had my catheter removed (oh what freedom!), and was still awaiting the passing of wind (the lovely New Zealand euphemism for farting), the next great milestone to be achieved! What better time to reflect on Stoicism and its role in my week?

My week began with great excitement as I embarked upon a long-planned journey from my home in the US to NZ in order to, among other things, deliver a talk on Stoicism to a number of philosophers at a conference, as well as to do some sightseeing and other tourist activities. The journey is of course a long one, and I was a bit anxious about it, primarily about whether I would be able to sleep on the long flight over the Pacific. I did sleep a bit, although not as much as I hoped, and arrived in NZ in good spirits, looking forward to delivering my talk.

I was staying with a friend and colleague of long standing, and arriving at his home proceeded with my unpacking. We then had a nice lunch, went to the local campus where we worked on some projects for a few hours. Next we took a walk along the local river and park, enjoying the sights, and talking about the different varieties of flora and fauna to be found in NZ vs the US. All very pleasant (at least in a way appropriate for preferred indifferents) and exactly what I had been hoping for as the beginning of my visit. But there was a storm on the horizon that I could not yet see. I would soon have the opportunity to reflect on Zeno’s quip, after learning that he had lost everything in a shipwreck, “Fortune bids me to become a less encumbered philosopher.”

I had started to feel some discomfort in my abdomen sometime during our walk, and it was slowly increasing. I mentioned it to my companion, and we decided it must be the after effects of the long trip, and would soon pass, at least after a trip or two to the toilet. Seemed quite reasonable. So I proceeded to the event I had planned for the evening, but before the event was over, I found myself being attended to as I lay on the cold concrete, sweating and in pain. The fine people at that event delivered me to my friend’s home, where I made a number of futile attempts to use the toilet.

Soon the pain increased many fold, and I began vomiting, and the ambulance was called, and the Emergency Department, and pain, and … Those who may be medically inclined might recognize a likely culprit – an obstructed bowel (and please no witty comments about philosophy professors being full of shit).

I don’t remember too many details of those hours, but the ones I do recall are vivid. I recall, being bent over double by pain, saying to myself “you are but an impression, and not at all the thing you appear to be” and “you are nothing to me.” Shockingly, I felt a shift in both my attitude and perception of the pain, albeit minor (it still hurt pretty severely!) and temporary (lasted for a few seconds). Later, with a bit more clarity, I was able to recall Epictetus words more fully, from the Enchiridion:

From the start, then, work on saying to each harsh appearance, “You are an appearance, and not at all the thing that has the appearance.” Then examine it and assess it by these yardsticks that you have, and first and foremost by whether it concerns the things that are up to us or the things that are not up to us. And if it is about one of the things that is not up to us, be ready to say, “You are nothing in relation to me.”

It took a while, but I was finally seen by the doctor, who proceeded to send me upstairs to the ward I still occupied several days later. There were a couple of days of attempts at non-surgical intervention, but in the end surgery was required. I was still hooked up to machines and my guts hurt. My family remained in the US, and I missed them (less stoically that I ought to have). I am all the way across the world from my home, and while perhaps no longer in deadly medical peril, still there is much discomfort, and many plans, including my return, remain up in the air.

Once again, I find some comfort in a number of stoic reflections: Cleanthes’s Hymn to Zeus keeps popping up:

Lead me, Zeus, and you too, Destiny,
Wherever I am assigned by you;
I’ll follow and not hesitate,
But even if I do not wish to,
Because I’m bad, I’ll follow anyway.

It is clear that I did not want to go through this medical emergency. My plans were wiped out. I did not give my talk, and I was unable to see all the sights I had anticipated. But none of that was up to me. The universe was in charge, and I am just a part of nature, and if this is what nature wills, the so be it. I can either choose to go along, or be dragged kicking and screaming.

Many times I faced more pain, even after surgery. And there was the loneliness, although I had daily visits from my friend and the nursing staff was wonderful. I found the following from Marcus helpful:

Everything that happens either happens in such a way that you are fitted by nature to bear it or in such a way that you are not. If, then, it comes about in such a way that you are fitted by nature to bear it, make no complaint, but bear it as your nature enables you to do; but if it comes about in such a way that you are not fitted by nature to bear it, again you should make no complaint, for it will soon be the end of you. Remember, however, that you are fitted by nature to bear everything that you can render bearable and endurable through the exercise of your judgement, by suggesting the idea to yourself that your interest or your duty demands it.

I will find the means to endure, or not. Many before me, and many still to come, have faced and will face trials such as mine, and even more severe. Thinking of these passage certainly decreased my anxieties and loneliness. I am no stoic sage, but these reflections give me at times some small comfort against the vicissitudes of life. But it is comfort that was not available to me before, and I am grateful for that.

I had found that I could endure. But then something even more unexpected occurred. A couple of days after surgery, I was conversing with my wife via Skype, and she noted, “You seem happy!” I was struck by this, since I hadn’t noticed it, and besides, what did I really have to be happy about, even if I had come to a point where I was no longer miserable?

I took a look around me. Perhaps like most of us, I often operate under the illusion that I have control of a great number of things in my life. I was raised in the mythology of the “self-made man” and the notion of “pulling oneself up by the bootstraps.” My situation here, however, was different. I had been forcibly stripped of the idea that my zone of control extended much beyond my hospital bed. As Epictetus points out, not even my body is truly under my control, and that was certainly true in my case. I was attached to a number of tubes and hoses, so that I couldn’t even get out of bed without assistance. Even when I could get out to bed, I could barely manage to walk the 100 feet of hallway outside my room. And, of course, I was unable to even fart, despite my best efforts.

So, I was reduced to doing my best to make choices a virtuously as possible, even if I didn’t think of it that way. I decided to treat everyone on the hospital staff with kindness and respect. When I attempted to move around the ward, I tried to do so with courage, knowing that it would be painful and difficult. I decided to wean myself from the pain medications as soon as I could, so that my cognitive faculties might not be so muddled. But, I did not totally forswear the medications, since being in too much pain might also make it more difficult for me to make virtuous choices. My zone of control had been reduced to such choices, or at least I had been compelled to recognize that those were its limits all along! The following passage from Epictetus seemed to capture my situation rather well:

Remember that you are an actor in a play, which is as the playwright wants it to be; short if he wants it short, long if he wants it long. If he wants you to play a beggar, play even this part skillfully, or a cripple, or a public official, or a private citizen. What is yours is to play the assigned part well. But to choose it belongs to someone else.

So, I could focus on what was mine, to play the part of the convalescent well. It was not my choice, but it was not mine to choose in the first place. And the result seemed to be that I was happy, as my wife seemed to note, or at least I was undisturbed and content with my lot, which may not be so far from happy.

As I finish writing this, some weeks after the incident, I can report that surgery was successful, and I am recovering nicely. I am thankful for the ways in which Stoicism, and especially these passages, have helped me through a difficult trial. I am now a bit more confident of my ability to remain in agreement with nature the next time something difficult occurs. And, perhaps I can even be content!

Robert Colter is Associate Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Wyoming. His research is in ancient philosophy and the philosophy of education. He is also the founder and director of the Wyoming Stoic Camp.