Interview With Margaret Graver

Professor Margaret Graver is the keynote speaker at this year’s Stoicon conference in Toronto .  We are all eagerly looking forward to her plenary address, titled “The Dispassionate Life”. Below is an interview about her longstanding interests in, and scholarship on, Stoicism.

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

I’m a professor at Dartmouth College, which gives me the privilege of teaching young adults how to read ancient texts accurately and attentively. Born in Louisiana, I now live year round in New Hampshire, where I love the mountains and the lakes in summer. Swimming with the loons, picking blueberries from your kayak. In winter I can at least say that I don’t mind shoveling snow.

As a scholar, I work in Hellenistic and Roman philosophy, with a particular interest in Stoic views on the nature and management of the emotions. I have three books out. Cicero on the Emotions: Tusculan Disputations 3 and 4  gives an annotated translation of a text by Cicero that is actually one of the best introductions to Stoicism that I know, particularly for anyone who has struggled with grief.

Stoicism and Emotion is a more comprehensive study that concentrates on the early period of Stoicism. In addition to the main emotion theory, it treats such related topics as freedom of the will and character development. Most recently, I have worked with A.A. Long on a complete translation of Seneca’s Letters on Ethics. The letters are a fascinating glimpse into Roman life as well as a wonderful topic-based exploration of Stoicism. I’ve loved working on an accurate translation that would have a contemporary feel. Now, as I write this, I’m at work on two other projects. One is a broad-based study of Seneca’s philosophy of values, the emotions, and literature, and the other is on Cicero’s relationship to Stoic ethics.

When and how did you first become interested in Stoicism?

It was really Seneca that drew me in. I had been studying classical literature at Brown, and one day picked up a volume of the Letters, wanting to get back into Latin prose after doing an awful lot of Greek poetry. What caught my attention was the structure of that book, how Seneca makes it feel natural and right to read one letter a day, so that the book becomes a life companion as well as an educator. The fuller understanding of the Stoic system came later for me. Of course I have been much enriched by conversations with other scholars. While I was still in graduate school it was especially Martha Nussbaum and Victor Caston, then over the years Brad Inwood, Chris Gill, Tad Brennan, and Tony Long have all taught me a great deal, and these are only a few of many. Students, too, both my own students and those from other schools, and adult learners – they are always showing me new perspectives, so that I feel like I am rediscovering the subject every day.

What are the most important aspects of Stoicism to you?  

The rule of reason. Yes, there are other things in human nature besides our ability to reason, and those are important too. But this is fundamental. We don’t like being deceived; we don’t wish to be mistaken. Epictetus: “Try to believe that it is night.” When the sun is shining in the window, you just can’t do it—you can’t make yourself accept views that contradict each other, just because you are fundamentally a rational creature. All of Stoicism comes down to this. Getting things right, discerning what is true from what only seems true, getting to a point where your actions and even your feelings are based on reality—this is just a better way for a human being to live.

The immediate extension of that is the Stoic way of thinking about values. The idea that things like playing fair, speaking the truth, facing up to challenges, being kind and gentle, really matter and matter in a completely different way from what you own, what people think of you, even how long you live—that is the very core of their ethics. And that much seems to me very straightforward and correct. What that actually looks like in any given situation is a lot harder, though.

In what ways do you think Stoicism still matters today?

The toughest problems facing us today have to do with the fragmentation of the media, the ever more staggering inequalities of wealth and privilege, and hatred and mistreatment based on ethnicity. To some extent, any system of ethics should be able to suggest some ways forward. But there are some key elements of Stoicism that speak directly to these issues.

  • First and foremost, intellectual independence. Stoicism is all about thinking for yourself, using your own mind and not just passively accepting the views other people want you to hold. In ancient Stoicism there was no party line, no orthodoxy. Everyone respected and studied the views of Zeno and Chrysippus, and there were some points that were held in common. But there was also a lot of divergence—each author is working out their own version of Stoicism that makes sense to them, because that is what they have to do.
  • Next, values based on character and not on externals. All of us are constantly bombarded with the message that what matters is what you have, how you look, what jobs and degrees you hold, what influence you can wield. And people are judged accordingly. The ancient Stoics resisted those sorts of messages—they saw them as the prime cause of unhappiness. They spoke of the “transmission of error,” or just “corruption,” that gets to us already when we’re very young and trying hard to do what people expect of us. Not that it’s wrong to get your degree, earn your living, care for your family—that’s exactly what we should be doing most of the time. But those things in themselves are not where happiness lies, and they’re certainly not what defines a person. Remember when character was something most people looked for in a political leader? We could go back there—and we could make the same demand of ourselves.
  • The other big one is what the Greeks called philanthropia, the attachment to the human. In Stoic thought all rational creatures are akin to one another by virtue of their rationality. That’s actually encoded in human nature: the way children bond to their caregivers, the naturalness of connecting to other people just because they’re near at hand. Of course our first and strongest ties are to our families and our immediate communities, and that is fine. But we can also learn to recognize a bond of shared humanity with those who are more distant, “draw the circles inward,” as Hierocles says. This business of othering, of in-grouping, of sending the refugees back where they came from—Stoicism is diametrically opposed to all of that.

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

Don’t know if I can do just one. Here are three.

Have you no hands? Wipe your own nose, then, and don’t blame God.

You just can’t beat Epictetus! Sit down and pray that your nose may not run? No, you have hands. The point is that we have to take responsibility for our own emotional well-being—and we are equipped to do that, if we make the effort.

Do you ask what progress I have made? I have begun to be a friend to myself.

I love the idea that moral progress involves becoming your own friend. Of course we still want to have other people to be our friends, that’s a given and is very important in Stoic thought. But it’s rare to find somebody who is such a true friend that they will tell you the things you really need to hear. Even if you’re lucky enough to have such a friend, it’s hard to spend enough time with that person. But you can learn to be that sort of friend to yourself, and then you will never be without a friend.

The other thing I really like about this quotation is that we even know about it. It’s by Hecaton of Rhodes, an important author in his time but we have hardly any of his work. We happen to have this bit because Seneca encountered it in his own reading, liked it, and quoted it in one of the Letters.

Real joy is a serious matter.

Seneca has many beautiful ways of speaking about the joy that comes with wisdom. In the 23rd letter, more than anywhere else, he brings out the fact that there are feelings that are more worth having than what our culture calls happiness or fun. Think of the change agent speaking the unpopular truth, the soldier laying her life on the line, the nurse who’s there for the dying patient. Do they sense the goodness that is there? I think they do. Are they smiling and having a good time? We don’t need that.

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

Get yourself a copy of the Letters on Ethics and read it a bit at a time. Not straight through necessarily—each letter takes up a different topic, so you can do very well working from the Table of Contents. Find the parts that really interest you, and let it spread from there. The beauty of Stoicism is that it’s quite systematic, so if you grasp some points and think hard about those, you begin to understand even some points you haven’t yet studied.

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

Just a tip of the hat to Chris Gill, who first put the bug in my ear to do something on the 3rd and 4th Tusculan Disputations of Cicero. That text taught me so much about the emotions in Stoicism and has inspired most of what I’ve done since.

The Stoic Job Search: Rejection and Opportunity by Andrew Overby

If you read the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius or another prominent Stoic, you can come away with a good idea of how to manage a job search if you replace every “person” or “people” in the text with “job” or “job application.”

According to the good emperor:

Say to yourself first thing in the morning: today I shall meet [job applications] who are meddling, ungrateful [and] unsocial.

As Epictetus wrote:

Remember that it is not [a job] who reviles you or strikes you, who insults you, but it is your opinion about these things as being insulting. When, then, a [job application] irritates you, you must know that is your own opinion which has irritated you.

Looking at potential next jobs, you’ll see some good and some worse, many that are irksome and disagreeable, and others that excite. Some opportunities will click right away, others won’t. If looking for work means exposure to a great deal of uncertainty and ambiguity, if it means exposing yourself to insult, letdown, rejection, and the vagaries of other people’s opinions, then where better to turn for insight and assurance than the Stoics?

We should recall that the Stoic philosophers had a masterful understanding of human psychology, the principles of which we can take and configure for our own era and our own sets of circumstances.

A Stoic sage might think the modern-day job search is an excellent proving ground for Stoic values, riddled as it is with emotion and our reactions to external events. Sages might even come to enjoy it, seeing it as a chance to test their mettle in the day-by-day flow of optimism, pessimism, rejection, anxiety, pride, hope, progress, and the search for tranquility that marks life on the job hunt.

A sage might love this, but most of us don’t.

And since we don’t, we need to analyze it. We need to figure out how best to endure it and emerge stronger for it. How do we see it in the best light possible? What should our tactics be in warding off frustration and annoyance, for focusing on the positive?

That’s what I’ll consider below. Looking for a job is one of the most wrenching experiences in the modern workforce, one we’ll all increasingly deal with as transitions between companies and industries take place more rapidly than society’s ever been accustomed to before.

The Nature of Rejection and How to Beat It

Being in the job-searching process means facing disappointment. It can mean placing ourselves on a scale to be weighed, and sometimes be found wanting. It can mean we are placed in a position of vulnerability, giving someone else a large amount of control over us–our time and energy, our life.

It opens us to rejection. Yet the Stoics can help us stay calm and collected during the process. They remind us what lies at the root of our deep-seated fear of this particular brand of disappointment: egotism, or an overly generous sense of our own importance, as well as depending upon external approval in the first place. If instead we cultivate humility, we can more easily let go of the prideful ego that often causes us to experience rejection so painfully.

It’s hard to have tranquility on the job hunt, but that doesn’t make it less important to try. To remember how valuable tranquility is, we should remember stories like that of Musonius Rufus, the Stoic philosopher (and instructor of the more famous Epictetus) who was exiled from Rome to a barren and isolated island for years. He was banished by the emperor Nero from his home and his way of living, but he did not allow himself to feel disgraced or become a broken man. Ultimately, he returned home and resumed his former life, having endured and grown stronger.

The Stoics also remind us of the value of short memories and selective attention. What we pay attention to, we build up in the mind. If we remember that an emotion is something that we can cling to or move through, we can lessen the sting of negative sentiments like rejection. In living a satisfied life, it pays to forget. (Maybe it’s no accident that older people are generally more accepting of Stoicism.)

Rejection is temporary, if you allow it to be. Much as hedonic adaptation means we quickly get used to the finer things in life, the toughening up that comes with rejection means that future rejection will sting even less. The trick is to find balance: We can be somewhat fatalistic and dismissive enough of the past that we don’t overindulge in negativity while remaining able to hope for the future.

The longer your time horizon, the easier it is to stay hopeful.

Discomfort can be vivid in the present, but rarely is it strongly remembered. Emotions don’t age well. They exist mostly in the present tense. Since they can’t be canned for the winter or aged in a wine bottle, rest easier knowing that you’ll naturally never remember all the moments of discomfort and anxiety along the way.

On the topic of comfort, ask yourself this: If unemployed, underemployed, unengaged, or somehow out of step with your career plans or aspirations, what can you do to take comfort in the situation?

Whatever you disliked about your previous work, you don’t have to handle it anymore. Be glad about that. All those annoyances that felt so vivid no longer exist for you. How grateful are you for everything else you have, material and otherwise? Spend some time actually listing out many of these things, and you’ll literally change your perspective for the better.

And what if your job “can’t” be taken from you or lost? Thinking about job loss and job hunting has value even for people who own their own business or don’t imagine they will ever again have to bear the indignities and obstacles of the job search.

Apply the Stoic practice of negative visualization – what if your business abruptly went under next quarter because of a widespread economic meltdown and you were forced to seek employment in someone else’s company? What if your freelancing or consulting work dried up completely and you had no choice but to return to an office like the one you eagerly fled before?

Thinking like this will give you gratitude in the best case, and equanimity in the worst.

On the job hunt, all you have to do is keep taking steps. Eventually, you will land on something that fits. All you need in the meantime is the ability to endure.

Job Hunt as Opportunity

We typically see job loss or job uncertainty as being closer to catastrophe than celebration. This is mostly true, but what good can you see in it?

A blank canvas can be as much a blessing as it is a burden. Focus on the ways in which it’s a blessing, and this perspective will make a real difference.

You now have opportunities to reset or revamp your life. Recognize the opportunity to rebuild you’ve been presented with. Learn to see it as an opportunity to become unstuck and find new footing. Unless you truly live near the margins, consider that you won’t really become homeless or truly hungry, and that the dislocation you currently feel can be made to serve you.

There is great potential in this kind of disequilibrium moment for seeing the value in what you have, in seeing what you need. You have a chance to observe and keep strong, useful traditions, while training yourself in new ways where you fall short.

You can take a long look at your preferred indifferents, as suggested by Massimo Pigliucci in a recent blog post. You can stop for a well-rounded examination of the ethical choices surrounding what you’ve chosen to do thus far in life.

As you look for new work, things will cross your path: opportunities for personal development or even reinvention, new habits, new courses of action, new people or places, new projects, and certainly fresh beginnings. Moreover, there is abundant potential for practicing your virtues, meaning you will be both living them out and actually training to do better.

Living virtuously requires consciously practicing doing so. In modern life, there are perhaps few moments as opportune as job hunting for looking closely at your virtues.

A job search brings alive the need to find tranquility in everyday life, seeming more vivid sometimes than times of ordinary employment. If you value tranquility or living with less fear, now is when it shows.

If you are interviewing for a job you’d really like, for example, do your best and then put it out of your mind as best you can (easy to say, hard to do). After there’s nothing else for you to do, leave it alone. Maybe pretend you’ve already been rejected so there can’t be any unpleasant surprises. Let go of excessive worry about things beyond your control. Job searching gives us some real skin in the game putting this core Stoic tenet into practice.

One reason so much anxiety exists regarding job loss or job switching is due to social status, or potentially losing it. A remedy for this might be to cut yourself off from things like social media, TV, or friends you know who devote considerable energy to analyzing social status. This can improve things. And if that feels harsh, consider that self-denial can be healthy for you anyway, as the Stoics say. If you’re inundated by messages that make you feel insecure, stop the flow of those messages.

As far as work itself is concerned, look to your obstacles for guidance. They frequently point the way. It may be new needed skills, formal education, relationships, professional references, awkward conversations, salary negotiations, rounds of interviews in person or online–whatever you dread doing, you will likely have to confront that very thing before you can move on. These obstacles hindering your way are telling you where where the trouble spots are and where you need to prepare.

Job searches give us a chance to practice living our values: We need to build our resilience, spend our attention carefully, and work to see ourselves in the context of a whole lifetime. There are few better guides than the Stoics for psychologically navigating times of job-related uncertainty or anxiety. They provide excellent cues for such occasions. We cannot avoid moments or even long stretches of discomfort, but we can endure them and emerge stronger.

Andrew Overby currently works in marketing and lives in Austin, Texas. His interest in Stoic thinking in recent years has been inspired by a deep desire to live better through squaring the technologies and material advantages of modern life with timeless, proven traditions.

Some Stoic Musings on Loneliness by Kevin Vost

For what purpose then, do I make a man my friend? In order to have someone for whom I may die, whom I may follow into exile, against whose death I may stake my own life, and pay the pledge, too. – Seneca, Epistle IX

 As I sat down this morning to craft this article on loneliness that I’d been thinking about for some weeks I saw my first task as highlighting the importance and prevalence of loneliness in our day and the fact that the Stoics have much to offer in helping alleviate it in ourselves and others. This task was made all the easier by a most timely coincidence when I opened my email and perused Nick Guggenbuehl’s article on this very website: The Stoic Fellowship – Supporting Stoic Communities. Indeed, he had even opened with a quotation from Seneca too – “There is no enjoying the possession of anything valuable unless one has someone to share it with.”

Clearly then I will not stand alone in arguing the importance of loneliness or the relevance of Stoicism in helping us to accept it or overcome it by connecting with others. The topic of loneliness had been on my mind when I was asked by one of my publishers last year to produce the book, The Catholic Guide to Loneliness. Taking “Catholic” in the specific sense of the Catholic Church, but also “catholic” in the most general sense of word meaning all-embracing or universal, I knew I would attempt to share some lessons from the Stoics in that forthcoming book.

Here, I’ll share some of the lessons I gleaned for that book and some that I sought out specifically for this audience from the likes of Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, and Hierocles, but first I’ll begin with a few facts and statistics about the growing problem of loneliness in our time.

In Whom Shall We Confide: The Loneliness “Epidemic”

As to the importance and the prevalence of loneliness, a group of psychological researchers has recently opined: “Current evidence indicates that heightened risk for mortality from a lack of social relationships is greater than that from obesity…In a recent report, researchers have predicted the loneliness will reach epidemic proportions by 2030 unless action is taken.”[1]

Though loneliness has been with us since before the time that Zeno and the first Stoics walked the earth in the 4th century BC, the phenomenon of loneliness first gained significant notice in the psychiatric and psychological literature in the late 1950s in the writings of psychoanalyst Frieda Fromm-Reichmann and the attention on loneliness in the Western world has snowballed in recent decades.

Political scientist Robert Putnam drew great attention and concern in the year 2000 with his Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, in which he detailed how the United States, the nation vaunted by the 19th century French observer Alexis de Tocqueville in his Democracy in America as a land overflowing with all forms of associations and close communities, had become increasingly isolated in the second half of the twentieth century as all kinds of formal and informal groups, clubs, associations, and even shared activities with families and friends had waned considerably. As for the reasons for this increasing isolation, Putnam included pressures of time and money, suburbanization, commuting, and sprawl, electronic entertainment (especially television), and generational change as among the key factors, with television viewing as the number one past-time playing an especially prominent role in weakening the bonds of interpersonal connection. He mused as well, in the year 2000, about the effects we might see from the growing internet.

In 2006, the American Sociological Review created quite a stir when it released the results of a 20-year-study from the University of Chicago comparing surveys of two samples of approximately 1,500 adults each, the first taken in 1985 and the second in 2004.[2] This table provides is a summary of a few of the key findings regarding intimate relationships of close confidants, the lack of which can contribute to the loneliness of emotional isolation:

Modern Research Revealing an American Culture of Loneliness

National Opinion Survey Year 1985 2004
Average number of people one can confide in about important matters 3 2
Modal number of confidants[3] 3 0
People with no close confidants 10% 25%
People who mentioned a sibling as confidant 21% 14%
People who mentioned a parent as confidant 23% 21%
People who mentioned a child as confidant 18% 10%
People who mentioned a friends as confidant 73% 51%
People who mentioned a neighbor as confidant 19% 8%
People who mentioned a coworker as confidant 29% 12%
People who mentioned spouse as confidant 30% 38%
People who confide only in family members 57% 80%
People who confide only in their spouse 5% 9%

The researchers reported that “in spite of a large literature on declining civic engagement and neighbor involvement,” they expected that networks of close confidants would have remained stable. When the updated survey results came in the researchers stated quite bluntly: “We were clearly wrong.” So striking were these findings that shortly after, articles appeared in popular periodicals like USA Today, The New York Times, and The American Spectator, and many others, some headlining with the startling finding that one quarter of Americans have no one to confide in.

In 2010, the American Association of Retired People (AARP) published an extensive report entitled Loneliness Among Older Adults: A National Survey of Adults 45+.[4] About one-third (35%) of their over 3,000 respondents reported significant loneliness with no significant difference between men (37%) and women (34%). Perhaps not surprisingly the AARP’s study showed that the fewer confidants a person reported the more likely he or she was to be lonely.

Recent studies have estimated that up to 32% of adults experience loneliness and up to 7% describe intense feelings of loneliness. To get some sense of the magnitude of those percentages, with the current (2017) U.S. population of over 326 million people, around 142 million may be lonely and around 23 million may be lonely to an intense degree – truly a vast number of suffering souls.

In 2013 The Journal of Psychology devoted its volume 146, issues 1-2 entirely to articles on loneliness that was later produced in book form.[5] It made clear that loneliness is not merely an American problem either as extensive studies have research the growing phenomenon all throughout Europe and in Israel too. The dozens of researchers who contributed to the update in 2013 looked at loneliness from a great many angles from children and teens who are left home alone, to elderly Appalachians with health care issues, to elderly Israelis cared for by foreign caretakers who could not communicate with them in their own language.

Hardly two years after The Journal of Psychology’s special issues devoted to loneliness, Perspectives on Psychological Science ran a special section with a handful of studies on loneliness in its March 2015 edition. Topics ranged from the genetic factors involved in loneliness, the clinical importance of loneliness, loneliness’s impact on mortality, and ways to intervene to overcome loneliness.

Suffice it to say that the once relatively ignored subject of loneliness is clearly among the most important subjects of interest and concern to social scientists and medical practitioners in our time. Anyone at any age anywhere around the world can be subject to loneliness and the numbers are clearly climbing. Clearly every thoughtful, caring person, should ask him- or herself what can be done to stem this tide of loneliness. I would submit as well that he or she should also ask some Stoics! So let’s do just that.

Musonius Rufus: Following a Friend Into Exile

In our opening quotation, Seneca talks of following a friend into exile. His Stoic contemporary, Musonius Rufus, actually did it sometime between AD 60 and 62 when he joined his friend, the respected Stoic and outspoken senator Rubellius Plautus, who had been exiled to Asia Minor by a jealous Nero Caesar, who later sentenced the exiled senator to death. Not long after Musonius returned to Rome, Nero banished him. Many legends accrued surrounding this second Neronian exile. It was said that Nero exposed Musonius to cruelties in prison that would have killed a man without such Stoic fortitude. He was reportedly placed in hard labor, forced to help dig out the canal at the isthmus at Corinth in Greece. Though exiled, Musonius was clearly not alone as people came from far and wide to converse with the philosopher as he carried out his physical labors.

Musonius was later banished to the desolate rock island of Gyara, so dismal that one of Nero’s predecessors, the often cruel-hearted Tiberius Caesar, twice intervened to have people banished to a less hostile place. It was said that the island had no fresh water; yet the resourceful Musonius discovered a fresh-water spring. (Perhaps his experience with the Corinthian canal had made him as an accomplished digger as he was a philosopher!) And even in Gyara his philosophy flourished, as students from all over the Roman Empire sought him out there for his company and counsel, and turned the desolate rock into a mini-Athens or –Rome.

Musonius was able to return to Rome after Nero’s death in AD 68, but in the mid 70s was exiled to Syria by Emperor Vespasian. During that period of exile Musonius formed a friendship with a military tribune who wrote that he loved and admired Musonius when he had acquired great fame of his own as the historian Pliny the Younger.

It is perhaps not surprising that of the remaining fragments of Musonius’ Lectures, the lengthiest is lecture 9 on “Why Exile Is Not Evil.” He asks his hearers whether exile deprives us of water, earth, air, the sun and other planets, or even of human company? Did not Socrates say that the universe is the common fatherland of all men? No one place is the cause of our happiness or unhappiness. As Euripides said,

As all the heavens are open to the eagle’s flight,

So all the earth is for a noble man his fatherland.[6]

Industrious people in exile can find what they need to meet their basic needs and to flourish; and as for the things that matter the most, there is nothing about exile that prevents a person from exercising courage, justice, self-control, wisdom, or any of the virtues that bring honor and benefit to him and those around him. We see many examples of this: for instance, in the exiles of Homer’s Odysseus and of Diogenes of Sinope. Musonius himself reminds his hearers that though an exile himself, no one ever heard him moaning or groaning! Indeed, he repeatedly said such things to himself to make the most good of his exiles.

Now I’ll wager that few readers have experienced loneliness as a result of banishment or exile, but Musonius’ lessons can apply to those of us who might find ourselves separated from friends and family due to relocation to a new neighborhood, city, or even nation, perhaps in pursuit of advanced education or a new job. Musonius informs us that the things that matter the most to a Stoic in living a life of virtue can be practiced anywhere. The world might not flock to us to hear our philosophical musings like they did to Musonius Rufus, but by making the most of our relocation and continuing to practice Stoic virtues we might find that pleasing new networks of social connections and even new close friendships have formed.

Epictetus: The Lame Old Man on the Solace of Solitude

In the first century AD, it seemed that many Caesars believed they rendered philosophers their due by kicking them out of town. Musonius’ greatest student, Epictetus, was no stranger to exile either, when sometime between AD 89 and 95 Domitian exiled all philosophers not only from Rome, but from the entire Italian peninsula. Thereafter, Epictetus established his new base in Nicopolis on the western coast of Greece and was soon accompanied by plenty of students and curious visitors from throughout the empire.

As for lessons from Epictetus relevant to loneliness, I’ll start with his very basic Stoic observation that “What upsets people is not things themselves but their judgments about the things.”[7] Modern psychological researchers define loneliness as some manner of “perceived social isolation” that entails a discrepancy between the relationships one desires and the relationships one has. So then, the experience of loneliness itself is a form of a judgment regarding a deficiency, rather than merely a set of external circumstances. As Epictetus makes clear, (and as Dr. Gregory Sadler makes even clearer for a modern audience[8]), “a man is not forlorn merely because he is alone, any more than a man in the midst of a crowd is necessarily not forlorn.”[9]

Now, an important point Dr. Sadler builds upon is Epictetus’ observation that one need not necessarily be forlorn and distressed even if one actually is alone. Drawing from the thought of Zeus, King of the gods, alone but content at the time one of the periodic “world-conflagrations” when all the other gods and the rest of the world have gone up in smoke for a time, Epictetus explains that the key to finding solace in solitude is to have trained oneself in virtue so that one is at peace with oneself and comfortable in one’s own company. (Sounds a bit like Musonius Rufus working away on his virtues in the midst of his exiles.)

Further, modern research shows that some people mired in significant loneliness acquire maladaptive social cognitions, such as tendencies toward to selectively remember negative social interactions, fear of rejection, and paranoia that can hamper their abilities to form new connections. Indeed, this is why modern cognitive-behavioral therapy (grown from Stoic soils), has been found to be the most effective treatment for loneliness. In a modern meta-analysis of dozens of studies examining interventions for loneliness in the forms of increasing opportunities for social contacts, increasing social support, increasing social skills, or addressing maladaptive social cognitions through cognitive-behavioral therapy, the researchers concluded that “among these four types, interventions designed to address maladaptive social cognition were associated with the largest effect size (mean effect size = -.598).”[10]

I would propose that when one has focused only on things within one’s own control, as Epictetus advises, one will be in a much better position to reach out to others to make new connections without fearing another person’s potential rejection, that being something beyond one’s own control.

I’ll draw just one other concept from Epictetus in relation to loneliness. One of the most common and powerful events that can lead to significant loneliness is the loss of a spouse or other dearly loved family member and friend. Epictetus gave interesting and worthwhile, if not easy, advice in this regard:

With everything that entertains you, is useful, or of which you are fond, remember to say to yourself, beginning with the very least of things, “What is its nature?” If you are fond of a jug, say, “I am fond of a jug: for when it is broken you will not be disturbed. If you kiss your own child or wife, say to yourself that you are kissing a human being; for when it dies you will not be disturbed.[11]

Further:

Never say about anything, ‘I have lost it,’ but instead, ‘I have given it back.’ did your child die? It was given back. Did your wife die? She was given back. . . . as long as he (God, the Giver), gives it, take care of it as something that is not your own, just as travelers treat an inn.”[12]

Bereavement is a normal, natural human phenomenon, but a proper consideration of the nature of things, including our loved ones’ and our own mortality, can keep it from disturbing and paralyzing us as we continue to strive to continue to live lives of virtues and to reach out to others.

Seneca: The Self-Sufficient Still Desire Companions

In his letter 9 (from which our opening quotation was pulled), Seneca considers how a man who is self-sufficient would still desire to have friendships by summarizing three key points:

  1. He posits, like a good Stoic, that a self-sufficient person does not need friendships, but still desires Indeed, he supplies the very graphic example of the loss of a limb or even of one’s eyes through war or some accident. Surely a wise man would prefer to have all his parts, but will still seek maximum happiness with the parts of him that remain. When such a man loses a friend, he bears it with composure.
  2. He agrees with the positions put forward by Aristotle and Cicero, and contrary to Socrates suggestion in Plato’s Lysis, that friendships are not born of need, but rather, of a superabundance of virtue. Here, he explicitly contradicts a saying of Epicurus to the effect that we seek friends to stay by us when we are ill and to help us when we are in need. Seneca proclaims, rather, that we seek friends in order to have someone to sit by when sick and to help when in need. 
  3. Virtue concerns only that which is within our control, and not the happenstance of fortune. Therefore, the man who builds friendships based on virtue, rather than the desire for gain, is immune to the changes and chance happenstance of fortune, and in that sense he remains self-sufficient.

Seneca has been referred to as a “silver tongued” orator and he is known for the bon mots that enrich in his writings. One such phrase appears in letter 9 when Seneca advises Lucilius to replace lost friends with new ones. He offers a phrase that the Stoic philosopher Hecato of Rhodes (c100 BC), declared to be as potent as any witch’s love potion: “If you would be loved, love.” Clearly then, Seneca advises a remedy for forlornness is to reach out and share one’s virtue with others.

The Loneliness-Thwarting Labors of Hierocles

The writings of the 2nd century AD Stoic Hierocles are known to us mainly through a brief fragment of his Elements of Ethics and other fragments in the 5th century compiler Stobaeus’ Florilegium. He writes most engagingly on relationships, including those of between parents and children, and perhaps the most famous element of his thought bears quite directly on modern conceptions of loneliness. In the aforementioned meta-anaylsis of Cacioppo et al., they describe three dimensions of loneliness based on three dimensions of social connection: intimate connectedness, relational connectedness, and collective connectedness.

Intimate connectedness refers to the “up close and personal,” relational connectedness to “wider circle of friends,” and collective connectedness to larger groups such as a professional organization or a parish. They have depicted these three dimensions of loneliness spatial as circles around a person of increasing size: one’s personal space bearing on intimate loneliness consisting of perhaps up to five people, one’s relational space bearing on relational loneliness of perhaps 15-50 people, and one’s collective space, varying by person perhaps within the range of 150-1500 people. One can feel different kinds of loneliness depending on which spaces are perceived to lack desired relationships.

Now, here is where Hierocles comes in. In the preserved fragments describing How We Ought to Conduct Ourselves to Our Kindred, Hierocles describes a series of concentric circles, the first and smallest circumscribing one’s self; the next larger one, one’s parents, siblings, spouse, and children; the next grandparents, aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews; the next remaining relatives, and on to ever widening circles encompassing one’s city, its environs, on to one’s province, one’s nation, and lastly, to all of the world.

Regarding these circles of kinship, he encourages us to become aware of them and of all of their interconnections, striving to conduct ourselves benevolently and lovingly to all within all of the circles, indeed, striving to draw them all in closer to our innermost circle. Apparently, Hierocles would be all for the establishment of Stoic fellowships as a remedy to loneliness, and how wonderful it might be if such smaller circles could expand into ever larger ones.

Marcus Aurelius: Notes to Self on Connecting with Others

Who could be less lonely than the leader of the world’s most extensive empire? Well, there is the old saying that “it’s lonely at the top,” and Marcus Aurelius was definitely at the top in the years he drafted his Meditations from about 170-180 AD. Here was a man on the frozen banks of German rivers surrounded by legions of officers and troops and by hordes of non-Roman “barbarians” on the river’s other side so eager to join them, who would retreat to his tent at night and write notes to himself in the form of exercises to help him live a Stoic life of virtue and not become “Caesarified,” though he indeed bore the titles of Augustus and Caesar. Marcus is sometimes portrayed as a somber, if not melancholic figure, and though certainly introspective by nature, he encouraged himself to stay connected with his fellow man. Indeed, his sense of connectedness and gratitude toward others is made so clear in the first book of his Meditations that it is essentially a litany of praise and thanks to the people who helped form his character. There are many lessons in the Meditations that might help minimize the distress of the lonely, but I’ll zoom in on only one.

Marcus Aurelius gave noble advice we can use to brace ourselves for all manners of responses we may receive from others if we try to reach out to them. He advised that every morning on arising, we should remind ourselves that we are going to encounter, “the busybody, the thankless, the overbearing, the treacherous, the envious, the unneighborly,”[13] which surely rings as true in our day as it did in the second century. Aurelius elaborated that some people act this way because they do not truly understand good and evil, (because of their own “maladaptive social cognition”) we might say, and that we should not be debased or discouraged by their actions. Further, if our own social thinking is on the mark, we will recall that they share the same humanity with us, and we must still value them as kinsmen, placed in the world for cooperation, and not for resentment or avoidance. Such thinking can reduce our tendencies toward anger towards others and hypersensitivity to how others might react unfairly to our kindly overtures intended to establish or nourish connections. If we can anticipate in advance that our friendly gestures might not be reciprocated as we hope, and accept it, we can better muster the courage to reach out anyway.

If I might formulate this in the form of a suggested exercise: Say to yourself at the start of each day, some modification of the wise counsel of the Stoic emperor, perhaps something like the following:

Today I will encounter some lonely person, the bereaved perhaps, the newcomer to this city or to this school or place of work, the person who feels left out even within his or her own family, and this person may ignore me, not look me in the eye, not return my greeting, or treat me with suspicion, but I will remember that such people are my brothers and sisters and God has called us to be there for one another.  Therefore, I will still make some effort to connect with them even in the smallest of ways to lighten the burden of their loneliness.

These are but a few of my own musings on some possible Stoic approaches to loneliness, either one’s own or the loneliness of our loved ones and other fellow inhabitants of earth. I wonder what other suggestions to endure or to conquer loneliness readers might cull from the cornucopia of Stoic writings?

[1] Juliann Holt-Lundstad, Timothy B. Smith, Mark Baker, Tyler Harris, & David Stephenson, Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality: A Meta-Analytic Review, Perspectives on Psychological Sciences, 2015, Vol. 10(2), 236. (In this statistical review of 70 prior studies with a cumulative total of 3,407, 134 mostly middle-aged and elderly adult participants, self-reported significant loneliness increased risk of death by 26%, which was not a statistically significant difference from the increased risk of death from social isolation (29%) or living alone (32%) at follow up an average of seven years later.)

[2] Miller McPherson, Lynn-Smith Lovin, Matthew E. Brashears, Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks over Two Decades, American Sociological Review, 2006, Vol. 71 (June 353-375).

[3] Of a range of 0 to 6 or more close confidants, the modal number is the number of confidants reported by the greatest number of respondents. In other words, by 2004 more people reported they had no close confidants than those who reported either 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6+ confidants, while 3 confidants was the most common response two decades before.

[4] Interested readers can find it online at https://assets.aarp.org/rgcenter/general/loneliness_2010.pdf.

[5] Ami Rokach, ed. Loneliness Updated: Recent Research on Loneliness and how it Affects our Lives, (New York, NY: Routledge, 2013).

[6] Cited in Lutz, 38.

[7] Epictetus, The Handbook of Epictetus, Nicholas P. White, ed., (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Co., 1983), 13.

[8] Because of how I benefited from it, I must credit it and direct readers to Dr. Sadler’s YouTube video Epictetus on Solitude or Forlornness for an excellent summary of this topic: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VMqtn3pQ1Ts.

[9] Epictetus: Discourses Books III–IV, The Encheiridion, trans. W. A. Oldfather (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), Dis. Book III: chapter xiii, p. 87.

[10] Stephanie Caciopio, Angela Grippo, Sarah London, Luc Gossens, & John Cacioppo, Loneliness: Clinical Import and Interventions, Perspectives on Psychological Sciences, 2015, Vol. 10(2), p. 242.

[11] Ibid, Encheiridion, para. 3, p. 487.

[12] Nicholas White, ed., Handbook of Epictetus, para. 11, (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 1983), 14.

[13] Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press), 305.

Kevin Vost, Psy.D., is the author of over a dozen books including The Porch and the Cross: Ancient Stoic Wisdom for Modern Christian Living (Angelico Press, 2016) and The Catholic Guide to Loneliness: How Science and Faith Can Help Us Understand It, Grow From It, and Conquer It (Sophia Institute Press, 2017).

Symposium: What is Modern Stoicism?

In Stoic forums, meetups, events, and online media, a question persistently arises: just what is Modern Stoicism?  As the editor of Stoicism Today, and a participant in multiple online and face-to-face communities focused upon Stoicism, I see a number of different – and sometimes incompatible – answers getting proposed to this question.

It struck me that although these certainly aren’t the only people who have interesting and well-thought-out answers to this question, it could be very useful for our readers to have the members of the Modern Stoicism team weigh in on the matter.  So I proposed a sort of virtual symposium to the Modern Stoicism team, focused precisely on that question, but expanding it a bit, to include

  • what they think modern Stoicism means
  • what modern Stoicism includes
  • what (if anything) it excludes
  • how it differs from “traditional Stoicism” (if one thinks it does)
  • and anything else relevant I might have left out about the topic.

Below you’ll see a set of seven excellent responses from the Modern Stoicism Team.  You’ll notice that they are not all in lock-step agreement on every single point, feature, or issue – and we should hardly expect them to be!  After all, there were some interesting divergences and disagreements within the Stoic school as it developed over the course of centuries, and across multiple cultures, during antiquity.

I know that I myself have enjoyed reading, reflecting upon, and rereading these contributions by my colleagues.  I hope that they prove to be stimulating, illuminating, and even challenging for you, the readers of Stoicism Today.  I don’t imagine even for a moment that this will be the end of the discussion – in fact, I suspect that this very piece may be looked at in years to come as the official starting point of a larger and longer conversation within the worldwide modern Stoic community.

So, with no further ado, here are those seven sets of reflections upon the topic by the members of the Modern Stoicism team:

Christopher Gill

Like some others writing on this topic, I do not see modern Stoicism as fundamentally different from ancient Stoicism – there is just ‘Stoicism’, which we, obviously, view from our own modern standpoint. As in the ancient world, different writers and thinkers emphasized different sides of Stoicism, so too do modern writers on Stoicism. However, certain teachings were seen as core distinctive Stoic doctrines in antiquity and I think we would do well to regard them in this way, if we are to get the most out of Stoicism.

Here I pick out three distinctive Stoic themes, which were regarded as crucial in antiquity and which can have great value for us too.

One is a very strong belief in personal agency, which rests on the claim that the basis for happiness or the good life depends on us. In fact, this claim is shared by other ancient philosophies; but the distinctive Stoic version of this claim depends on the idea that happiness derives solely from virtue and not from other so-called good things. This is coupled with the idea that all human beings are naturally capable of developing virtue. Some modern thinkers (including Kant, Sartre and Nietzsche) lay great stress on personal agency; but I think the Stoic way of grounding this claim remains cogent.

A second striking Stoic theme is stress on our nature as social as well as rational animals, naturally inclined to care for others as well as ourselves. This care for others extends in principle to all human beings as such (regarded as our relatives or fellow-citizens of the world). I think the Stoic way of thinking about our relations to others offers a good alternative to some modern ways of regarding this (for instance, in terms of the contrast between egoism and altruism), and that the idea of the brotherhood of humanity has a powerful resonance in the modern ‘globalised’ world.

The third theme is that human beings form an integral part of nature as a whole, and that our ethical life is compatible with our existence as an integral part of nature. This theme is the most challenging for moderns, because our world-view is very different from theirs. However, several modern thinkers also maintain that our beliefs about ethics should be compatible with our understanding of nature – at least of human nature. The Stoic version of this theory is sophisticated and instructive, even if we begin from a different picture of the world. Also, the Stoic belief that human beings form an integral part of nature as a whole is highly suggestive for reasons that the ancient Stoics did not have. This derives from the great damage moderns have done to the natural environment and the obligation we have to do all we can to repair this. The Stoics were not in the same position as us in this respect; but their view of human beings as an integral part of nature can help us to recognise this obligation.

So ‘Stoicism’ can take in a new significance in the modern world; but it is one that derives from going back to ancient Stoic ideas and thinking out afresh their meaning for us.

Donald Robertson

I use the term “modern Stoic” to refer to anyone who’s into Stoicism and hasn’t been dead for several hundred years.  (I guess strictly-speaking the m should be lower case because it’s not really a proper noun, except in the name of our organization.)  We could, and sometimes do, just say “Stoicism” when talking about the same thing.  However, people sometimes tend to assume you’re referring to ancient Stoicism when you do that, so it’s necessary at times to qualify it if you’re specifically talking about contemporary uses of Stoicism.

I don’t think there’s any doctrinal difference between ancient/traditional Stoicism and modern Stoicism because “modern Stoicism” doesn’t really exist except as a loose term for everyone who’s currently interested in the subject.  That definitely includes both religious and non-religious Stoics, academics and laypersons, etc.  Our Modern Stoicism conferences and courses are deliberately inclusive and open to everyone – they’re not limited to any sub-groups with particular beliefs or interests.  In particular, I think it’s necessary to refute the misconception I sometimes come across online that “modern Stoicism” might refer specifically to atheist/agnostic approaches to Stoicism.  It’s just a blanket term for everyone, we have many “religious” Stoics, of all kinds, in our groups, courses, and conferences.

We’ve deliberately gone out of our way to embrace diversity and encourage people of different philosophical orientations to engage with our work on Stoicism.  For example, we’ve had several excellent speakers on Stoicism and religion at our Stoicon conferences.  Modern Stoicism is for everyone and attempting to drive a wedge through the community would, IMHO, be a terrible idea.  We don’t need splits or schisms.  We can and should all be working together to understand Stoicism and consider its relevance to modern life.  Some people adapt or modify Stoicism considerably; others keep very close to the ancient sources.  However, they’re all in the same boat.  Modern Stoicism is just Stoicism, being studied by people in the modern world.

One fairly trivial difference I would perhaps note is that today there are tens of thousands of people, that we know about, who are into Stoicism.  In the ancient world, it’s likely to have been a more select group of students.  So unless we want to use the tongue-twister of always referring to “Modern students of Stoicism” every time we mention them, for simplicity, we tend to refer to them collectively just as “Stoics” or “Modern Stoics”, although a lot of them are perhaps just people who have read The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, and felt a deep connection with it, but don’t know much more about Stoicism beyond that.  So there is inevitably a need to use the term in a diluted sense to refer to a larger group of people but that’s bound to happen because otherwise it just becomes unnecessarily long-winded trying to talk about them.

Piotr Stankiewicz

Modern Stoicism is a system of thought and conduct for living a happy life. This happiness is achieved, as I take it, by continuous employment and enjoyment of one’s agency. In this regard, modern Stoicism mirrors its ancient counterpart, though terminology may differ.

And yet, the relationship between modern and ancient Stoicism is neither clear nor settled. Some of us hold that a major overhaul of the ancient thought is required so that it fits the present‑day circumstances and conceptual framework. Some hold that no such transformation is needed. I find myself in the former position.

Whenever I think of it I usually refer to one of the opening passages of Lawrence Becker’s A New Stoicism. I like to call it the manifesto of reinterpretation. The gist of is this. “It is interesting to try to imagine what might have happened if Stoicism had had a continuous twenty-three-hundred-year history; if Stoics had had to confront Bacon and Descartes, Newton and Locke, Hobbes and Bentham, Hume and Kant, Darwin and Marx.” This is precisely what interests me most.

The single greatest challenge to us, modern Stoics, is – in my view – our interpretation of ancient Stoic naturalism. I have serious doubts whether “nature” and the principle of following it can be ethically relevant today. Particularly the confrontation with Darwin and Marx is challenging to the traditional view. From Darwin we learn the lack of purpose in the natural world, while from Marx we learn that human nature is much more malleable than we previously thought. All told, I detect a degree of confusion or redundancy here. One possible interpretation is Becker’s idea of translating “following nature” into “following facts.” This is sound and promising, but doesn’t solve everything still.

Turning now to the specifics, I found, paradoxically, that the particulars of modern Stoicism can be well spelled out through rejecting certain stereotypes and misconceptions. In my other works I’ve coined phrases “conservative misinterpretation” and “ascetic misinterpretation.” The former one relates to the widespread (but wrong!) idea that a modern Stoic needs to be of necessity conservative politically and/or that she needs to live a detached life of low achievement. This is something I staunchly oppose. The ascetic misinterpretation, in turn, represents another popular and wrong idea that a Stoic has to abstain from the ordinary joys of food and drink, alcohol, rock&roll all the funs and games of human life. The truth is: she doesn’t have to. Of course, a Stoic focuses on strengthening and cherishing her virtue and moral character, but, importantly, this doesn’t necessarily translate to any simplified stereotype of a monk-like life. A modern Stoic has a wide variety of political and private choices available. Almost all walks of life are on the table. She can be a philosopher or a poet, a doctor or a soldier, a stand-up comedian or an IT specialist, an entrepreneur or a social reformer. And politically she can be almost anyone… within reason of course.

This is just a scrap of my views on modern Stoicism and I’ve already used up the agreed-upon word-count. Let me just say then, that I’m perfectly aware that these are “views my own,” as they say on Twitter. Others will disagree and there is virtue in disagreement. It’s a major perk of Stoicism that we are aware of the differences and that we don’t shoot for any enforced unity. We need a debate, not a monolithic church. Or, at least, this is what I think we need.

Massimo Pigliucci

Ludwig Wittgenstein taught us that no interestingly complex concept can be reduced to a small set of necessary and jointly sufficient conditions in order to be precisely defined. His example was that of “games.” Try and see if you can come up with a compact definition of what a game is and include every activity that normally falls into that category, while at the same time excluding everything else. It’s impossible. For every criterion you can think of (it’s done for fun!, it has rules, it’s a competition) there will be exceptions both ways: some games will fail to satisfy the criterion (solitaire is not competitive), while some non-games will meet that same criterion (your job may be competitive, but that doesn’t make it a game). Even so, Wittgenstein argued, we know what does and does not count as a game, though we can have meaningful discussions about borderline cases (war “games”?).

I believe something like that applies to the distinction between Ancient and Modern Stoicism, with one important caveat to be discussed shortly. There is what Wittgenstein called a “family resemblance” between the two versions of Stoicism, meaning that they sort of look alike and yet are not the same, like a daughter and her mother.

Unlike other philosophical traditions, say Buddhism, Stoicism has not evolved continuously: its development was “interrupted” by the rise of Christianity, and although Stoic ideas have influenced plenty of philosophers since (including many Christian ones), we pretty much jumped from the 2nd to the 20th century with little in between (except for the brief interlude of Renaissance “Neo-Stoicism”). The world we live in now is in some respects very different from that of the ancient Greco-Romans (they didn’t have internet and social networks!), though in other respects it’s pretty much the same (Seneca, in a letter to Lucilius, complains of unbearable noise coming from the street, which made it difficult for him to write — I can relate).

There are, accordingly, a number of notions from Ancient Stoicism that I think are negotiable for Modern Stoics. The idea of the universe as a living organism characterized by diffuse intelligence (the Logos), for instance, with its corollary of pantheism and the concept of a “providence” that, though very different from the Christian concept, still sets things in the best possible way at a cosmic scale. I think that a Modern Stoic can be a pantheist, a theist, an agnostic, or an atheist, and still arrive at a reasonable reconstruction of what the Logos means (elemental consciousness, the word of God, the logical structure of the laws of nature).

Much of Stoic “physics,” of course, has been superseded by modern science, and it won’t do for us to cling to notions that are contradicted by the advancements in human knowledge of the last 18 centuries. We know a lot more than Posidonius and Seneca on eclipses and comets. Fortunately, the details of Stoic physics underdetermine the important bit, Stoic ethics.

Even Stoic logic, as groundbreaking as it was at the time, and as influential as was until the 19th century, has been surpassed by its modern counterpart, especially if we don’t limit ourselves to formal logic, but broaden the scope of the field in the way the ancient meant, to include every aspect of human reasoning (and hence cognitive science, applied psychology, even neuroscience).

Politically, some Stoics were what we would call “conservatives” (Cato the Younger), others were pragmatists (Marcus Aurelius), and some were “progressive” by the standard of the time (Musonius Rufus, who advocated teaching philosophy to women). So Modern Stoics may also come from pretty much across the political, not just the theological, spectrum. (There are some exceptions: I’m pretty sure racism is not a Stoic value, for instance.)

All of the above said, one could reasonably ask whether “Stoicism” is then such a flexible concept that pretty much anything, or almost anything goes. I don’t think so, and here comes the aforementioned caveat, the exception to a Wittgensteinian view of the relationship between Ancient and Modern Stoicism. If there was one thing I would have to pick that I believe defines the core of Stoicism, and without which it begins to make little sense to call oneself a Stoic, is the primacy of virtue over externals (or “preferred indifferents”). “Happiness,” meaning eudaimonia, the life worth living, for a Stoic means a life of as much moral integrity as one is able to muster. Everything else, including material things, and even relations, is secondary. Not in the sense that it is to be discarded (we are not Cynics!), but in the sense that it can never be traded off with virtue. Why? Because we want to live according to nature, which especially in a modern context just means to take seriously the two fundamental characteristics of humanity: we are social animals capable of reason. So, as Marcus puts it “Do what is necessary, and whatever the reason of a social animal naturally requires, and as it requires” (Meditations IV.24).

Tim LeBon

In many ways Modern Stoicism is similar to ancient Stoicism:

  • Both advocate a virtue ethics in which flourishing is achieved by living like an excellent human being rather then, for example, trying to maximise happiness or follow a set of rules.
  • Both deem virtue as necessary and sufficient for flourishing. Whilst some other virtue ethics such as Aristotle’s argue that some external goods (such as friends, health and wealth) are necessary for flourishing, for both ancient and modern Stoics, external goods are “nice to haves” but not essential.
  • Like Ancient Stoicism, Modern Stoicism has a particular emphasis on wisdom as the foundational virtue. The distinction between what we can control and what is cannot control is a crucial part of wisdom.
  • Both are practical philosophies, designed to help us live well rather than just provide theoretical understanding.
  • There are also some important differences

To begin with the most obvious point , Modern Stoicism uses English (mainly) rather than ancient Greek or Latin. This is not an entirely trivial point since language undoubtedly affects our sense of key concepts such as virtue and emotion. Similarly Modern Stoicism is conducted largely through means of communication unavailable to the ancients – such as social media, the internet and audio recordings.

Modern Stoicism focuses mostly on the big Three Roman Stoics – Epictetus, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius and their interest in ethics and what we would call psychology more than for example ancient Greek Stoics like Zeno or Chrysippus and other areas of interest to ancient Stoics such as Stoic physics, cosmology and logic.

Some modern Stoics try to update Stoicism to take into account contemporary scientific knowledge. This includes neuroscience, psychology and the use of modern research methods.

It would however be a mistake to see Modern Stoicism as a homogenous group Some Modern Stoics see their role as faithfully bringing the ideas of the ancient Stoics to a modern audience in an accessible manner, interpreting the ancient thinkers in a way that makes their ideas most appealing and logical. Others wish to develop a “new Stoicism” which may well contradict some ancient Stoic ideas such as “The cosmos is a wise living thing”. They may replace a dichotomy of control with a trichotomy of control. A third wing of Modern Stoics take a strong interest in Stoic ideas and practices without necessarily endorsing all of its doctrines, such as virtue being sufficient as well as necessary for flourishing. This third group may not identify themselves as Stoics but are nevertheless keen to incorporate some Stoic ideas into a practical philosophical and psychological system and practice.

The beginnings of “Modern Stoicism” could be traced to a number of events, including no doubt books written by Irvine, Robertson and Becker. My own introduction to Modern Stoicism began when I was invited to a seminar at the University of Exeter by Professor Chris Gill back in 2012. We were a small group, with low expectations and little idea that “Modern Stoicism” would capture anyone’s imagination.

In my view a key part of Modern Stoicism’s success so far has been its non-doctrinaire approach. Philosophers and psychotherapists have been invited to write articles and talk at conferences because they have something interesting and, hopefully, constructive to say about Stoicism, whichever “wing” of Modern Stoicism they would identify with. I like to think of Modern Stoicism as a meadow full of many beautiful but different flowers. Let them all bloom.

Gregory Lopez

I’m personally influenced by the later Wittgenstein; what “modern Stoicism” means depends on the language game being played at the time and in the situation in which it’s being used. I could stipulate a definition, but that would bring its own problems to the fore. Any stipulated definition that provides necessary and sufficient conditions for “modern Stoicism” will break if pushed too hard, will never be agreed upon by all people, and will not really resemble how the term’s used in all cases. So I won’t be addressing the question of what “modern Stoicism” means since I don’t think it’s addressable.

What I can address is the direction I’d prefer the Modern Stoicism organization to take: I believe it should help people learn about and practice Stoicism in the modern world. Pretty straightforward.

But what’s Stoicism? Who is and isn’t a Stoic? If you’re plagued by these questions, I would caution you to examine the kind of language game you’re playing, as it’s likely one of exclusion. That can be useful in some situations. But in many others, it’s either a waste of time if the inquiry yields no actionable fruit, or against Hierocles’ take on oikeiôsis if it’s meant to separate who’s in the cool kids club from who isn’t.

I’d prefer that the Modern Stoicism organization “collect the circles to one center”, to borrow Hierocles’ phrasing. So if you’re interested in Stoicism, hop on board and enjoy the ride.

William Irvine

Ancient Stoicism is often characterized as a collection of views regarding logic, physics, and ethics. Stoic logic concerned itself with sound argumentation, physics with the way the world works, and ethics with having a good life. We need to keep in mind, though, that there were rival philosophies that concerned themselves with these topics. Furthermore, Ancient Stoicism was by no means a monolithic doctrine. As soon as Zeno of Citium gained followers, differing interpretations of the philosophy started to emerge. And as the audience for Stoicism changed, so did the philosophy. In particular, Stoicism’s move from Greece to Rome was accompanied by a major shift in emphasis: the Romans placed a higher value on attaining and then retaining tranquility than the Greeks had.

Modern Stoicism has likewise been influenced by the world in which it is practiced. It has turned the study of physics mostly over to natural scientists, turned the study of logic over to logicians, and focused its attention on ethics. Along these lines, it has developed, refined, and propagated psychological strategies for preserving our tranquility in this rough-and-tumble world.

Successful employment of these strategies, however, requires a willingness to take responsibility for one’s mental state, and this is something that many of today’s young adults are unwilling to do. They have been encouraged to think of themselves not as targets of injustice but as victims, and they are therefore quick to adopt a “victim mentality” that is likely to make them miserable. It is conceivable that Modern Stoicism will be able to transform these individuals. There is also a chance, though, that they will instead transform Modern Stoicism into a doctrine that, because it ignores the role we play in our own well-being, will be incapable of preserving the tranquility that the Ancient Stoics so valued. Time will tell!

You can learn more about all the members of the Modern Stoicism team here.

Live From The Painted Porch Interviews – Becker, Gill, Robertson, Lopez, Pigluicci, and Sadler

Scott Perry (the Stoic Guitarist) recently conducted a series of interviews on his Live from the Painted Porch show with one of the most influential scholars articulating a modern interpretation of Stoicism – Lawrence Becker – and with five members of the Modern Stoicism team: Chris Gill, Donald Robertson, Gregory Lopez, Massimo Pigluicci, and Greg Sadler.  The series is called “Meet The Modern Stoics”, and is now available on iTunes.

You can also watch each of the roughly  half-hour-long interviews by following the links below:

You’ll find some interesting, useful, and applicable discussions of key ideas of Stoic philosophy in these interviews.  Among a range of many other topics covered, Scott Perry also brings his conversation-partners to focus on Stoicism’s relevance for creative people, their disciplines, and their ongoing work.

Stoicism and Suicide by Justin Vacula

What should a proper response be to existing in a world which contains innumerable amounts of suffering including hardship, loss, and disappointment? Should one commit suicide to escape from significant disturbances to everyday living?

I’ll explore passages in Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic relating to the topic of suicide which can encourage people to find the will to live by working to improve by taking action; enduring suffering; having a sense of gratitude; having hope for the future; reflecting on past accomplishments; accepting elements of chance and inevitability in life; being mindful of thoughts and emotions to have insight motivated toward change; preparing for hardships; being strong and brave; considering the impact suicide can have on others; and finding meaning in life.

Seneca, in his letters, repeats a theme of taking action to get oneself in order – to not significantly postpone or procrastinate ignoring that which can be remedied lest the problem get worse and eventually become overwhelming. Stoic writers, although they acknowledge personal change can be difficult and significant change may not happen in a short period of time, are optimistic about individuals’ capacity – perhaps aided with the help of others – to improve.

It’s important to note that if one has significant thoughts about suicide and/or has attempted suicide that help is available. People can take action by seeking counseling services, calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, seeking information online, talking with others, and working to improve the current situation. In his letter titled ‘On the Futility of Planning Ahead’ Seneca writes

Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s account every day. The greatest flaw in life is that it is always imperfect, and that a certain part of it is postponed.

That life is imperfect – this is something we ought to come to terms with; we do not live in utopias. Seneca compares life life to a journey, that although there will be inevitable mishaps along the way, we can work to re-calibrate ourselves even if straying from a set path. Although there are some elements of life we may not like, we must not forget positive elements we can be grateful for.

Seneca writes about having a sense of gratitude in his letter titled ‘On Consolation to the Bereaved.’ He writes:

many men fail to count up how manifold their gains have been, how great their rejoicings.

In this passage, Seneca addresses someone who lost a friend noting that there have been many good things about the friendship including memories that live on and that one should be grateful for past gains. We can be grateful, too, for positives in the present looking at the whole picture rather than just focusing on some concerns. Perhaps we can look at our own lives as Seneca looks at the situation of a mourner. Although some things have changed and there may be feelings of despair and grief now, we can note the positives from the past and present. Seneca writes:

People set a narrow limit to their enjoyments if they take pleasure only in the present; both the future and the past serve for our delight.

The future indeed can serve for our delight and contain some hope.

Seneca, in his letter ‘On the Futility of Planning Ahead,’ talks about how the future, especially the far future, is uncertain. Perhaps we may think that our lives may be horrible at the moment and that there is no hope for change or reason for optimism, but this cannot be the case – there can be change and hope, a better station of life in coming years, weeks, or even days. Perhaps there are times, too, earlier in our lives, in which we faced significant despair but overcame suffering and had new opportunities and new hope even though we thought our struggle was hopeless and recovery was impossible. Although we might believe there is no hope for change, we should really challenge this line of thought given the uncertainty of the future and past examples of overcoming difficult times. Seneca writes,

For what disturbance can result from the changes and the instability of chance, if you are sure in the face of that which is unsure?

Simply put, we can’t be certain of a bleak future when the future is uncertain and out of our grasps.

One can embrace a sense of radical acceptance and mindfulness to accept that which has happened in the past knowing that, although we can learn from and reflect on the past, we cannot change what has happened. We can also accept emotions we are feeling and thoughts we are experiencing in the present while being aware of them. Without awareness and deliberation we may become simply reactive, impulsive, and not seek to improve ourselves or seek help from others. Rather than simply complaining or lamenting, especially about things we cannot change or have little to no control over, we can accept and work how to better react to events which may be associated with suicidal thoughts.

We shouldn’t deny our emotions or try to be emotionless, but rather analyze our thoughts and emotions working to respond more appropriately and productively to our woes in life instead of catastrophizing and compounding our troubles – we can accept what we are thinking and feeling. Seneca writes in his letter titled ‘On Consolation to the Bereaved’ addressing a mourner:

Tears fall, no matter how we try to check them, and by being shed they ease the soul. What, then, shall we do? Let us allow them to fall, but let us not command them do so; let us according as emotion floods our eyes, but not as mere imitation shall demand. Let us, indeed, add nothing to natural grief, not augment it by following the example of others.

It’s possible to extend our sense of suffering, to add to our despair, but surely this is not a helpful direction to move toward. Question why you might be feeling what you are feeling and work to improve yourself. After all, different people respond differently to different events, so surely it’s not the event or thought itself which causes the feeling, but rather one’s response to the event – it’s in our power, the Stoics would say, to alter our judgments, our impressions, the way we think about things. Seneca writes, “accept in an unruffled spirit that which is inevitable.” This noble and difficult goal is surely one which can help us bear hardships.

This unruffled spirit, bearing suffering and prevailing, is discussed in Seneca’s letter titled ‘On the Fickleness of Fortune’ in which Seneca repeats themes of uncertainty toward the future, anticipating hardships, and thoughts about having a strong resilient character. He writes several inspirational lines, models of a Stoic sage we can work toward emulating.

A bad man makes everything bad – even things which had come with the appearance of what is best, but the upright and honest man corrects the wrongs for fortune, and softens hardship and bitterness because he knows how to endure them; he likewise accepts prosperity with appreciation and moderation, and stands up against trouble with steadiness and courage.

Again we also see themes of gratitude, acceptance, not making our personal problems worse, and careful behavior in this passage.

How might we soften hardship? Surely Seneca’s letter titled ‘On Facing Hardships’ is a good starting point with which to gain perspective. Seneca talks more about inevitability in life and acceptance comparing life to a journey and a battle which includes some struggle we should even embrace in some cases. We can’t have life in a cafe without struggle and shouldn’t prefer it, Seneca thinks, but we can work to mitigate our despair, our worries, and our suffering. We can also display heroism and bravery in overcoming adversity. Here are some passages from Seneca writing to his friend Lucilius:

I shall pay up all my taxes willingly. Now all the things which cause us to groan or recoil are part of the tax of life – things, my dear Lucilius, which you should never hope and never seek to escape.

A long life includes all these troubles, just as a long journey includes dust and mud and rain.

And life, Lucillius, is really a battle. For this reason those who are tossed about at sea, who proceed uphill and downhill over toilsome crags and heights, who go on campaigns that bring the greatest danger, are heroes and front rank fighters; but persons who live in rotten luxury and ease while others toil are mere turtle-doves safe only because men despise them.

So, life will contain hardships, one may say, but how can we cope with those which spring upon us without warning? We can be suddenly devastated. Perhaps sudden unexpected events, those we didn’t prepare for, are linked to thoughts about suicide. Maybe a death of a loved one, a dissolution of a relationship, past trauma, reactions to an event – well, the past has passed and things outside of our control have happened. Perhaps, though, we can better prepare for the future in realizing chance can take its toll for the worst. We can learn lessons from the past and work to rebuild and strengthen ourselves.

Seneca wrote a letter titled ‘A Lesson to be Drawn From the Burning of Lyons’ in which he discusses a sudden fire which devastated an entire peaceful, prosperous, beautiful colony – there was no warning or opportunity to stop the fire whereas in other cases, fires have only damaged parts of valued places and people could have prevented destruction. He writes:

it is the unexpected that puts the heaviest load upon us. Strangeness adds to the weight of calamities, and every mortal feels the greater pain as a result which also brings surprise. Therefore, nothing ought to be unexpected by us. Our minds should be sent forward in advance to meet all problems, and we should consider, not what is wont to happen, but what can happen.

Surely being prepared will help us deal with hardships not if they arrive, but when they arrive. We shouldn’t have extreme anxiety about the future, especially thinking our present despair will last forever and even get worse as I discussed earlier, but rather than accept, anticipate, and better cope. After all, Seneca writes, hardship can emerge at any time – all are afflicted

No time is exempt; in the midst of our very pleasures there spring up causes of suffering. War arises in midst of peace, and that which we depended upon for protection is transformed into a cause of fear; friend becomes enemy; ally becomes foeman. The summer calm is stirred into sudden storms, wilder than the storms of winter.

Life and calm is fragile, Seneca calls to our attention, but we can work to keep ourselves together and have a steadfast mind which will allow us to weather the storms of life. Another quote on this line of thought, this accepting and preparing for an uncertain life and an uncertain future, is found in Seneca’s letter titled ‘On Liberal and Vocational Studies.’ Seneca writes:

I, for my part, do not know what is to be, but I do know what may come to be. I shall have no misgivings in this matter; I await the future in its entirety; and if there is any abatement in its severity, I make the most of it.

So, we accept that life, although it has many positive elements, will also have elements we do not like. We can respond by being brave.

Seneca writes about bravery in his letter titled ‘On the natural fear of death.’ He writes,

How can brave endurance of death by anything else than glorious, and fit to rank among the greatest accomplishments of the human mind

and

When truth is at stake, we must act more frankly; and when fear is to be combated we must act more bravely.

On Seneca’s view it can even be an act of bravery just to live although of course, we should work toward not just any life, but rather strive for a fulfilled life as Seneca mentions throughout his letters with his focus on the quality of life. We can think, too, about how others would mourn our tragic loss of life should we commit suicide. Seneca writes in his letter titled ‘On the Healing Power of the Mind’ talking about enduring an illness in his younger years:

I have often entertained the impulse of ending my life then and there; but the thought of my kind old father kept me back. For I reflected, not how bravely I had the power to die, but how little power he had to bear bravely the loss of me. And so I commanded myself to live. For sometimes it is an act of bravery even to live.

Shall we endure suffering, even if we can accept it as inevitable, something outside of our control, and even if we can better respond to events so we don’t plunge into utter hopeless despair? Is it worth the hassle? I wrote about having gratitude for the positives in life, but what about finding meaning – surely this can be an antidote to despair? Perhaps we can find meaning in helping others, bringing a smile to others’ faces, helping others to find joy in life through evaluating our own skills and talents, asking ourselves what roles we can play in life – how we can manifest virtue and contribute to society.

Seneca writes about helping others in his letter titled ‘On the Usefulness of Basic Principles.’

What a little thing it is not to harm one whom you ought to help! It is indeed worthy of great praise, when man treats man with kindness! […] let our hands be ready for all that needs to be helped, Let this verse be in your heart and on your lips: I am a man; and nothing in a man’s lot do I seem foreign to me. Let us possess things in common; for birth is ours in common. Our relations with one another are like a stone arch, which would collapse if the stones did not mutually support each other, and which is upheld in this very way.

Perhaps you can find motivation for living in recognizing your kinship with others and not only making their lives more tolerable, more fulfilled, but also improving yourself in the process for benefiting others is a type of reward. As Seneca writes in his letter titled ‘On Benefits.’

There is not a man who, when he has benefited his neighbor, has not benefited himself […] the wages of a good deed is to have done it.

Maybe through your chosen profession, volunteering, even talking to friends or family in need – even in difficult personal circumstances – there can be a light in the darkness, reasons to live and to find meaning. Maybe balance in life, not putting all of your time and effort into one thing or one person – depending on that for your happiness, but rather depending on yourself, working toward contentment, and appreciating the help of others – multiple people and things can offer us benefits. Maybe some leisure can help too – we can be entertained, entertain, and even learn in the process through engaging in a hobby, finding something new to do, exercising, playing a musical instrument, reading, and watching television shows or movies…the possibilities are vast.

To recap, we can find the will to live by working to improve ourselves by taking action; enduring suffering; having a sense of gratitude; having hope for the future; reflecting on past accomplishments; accepting elements of chance and inevitability in life; being mindful of thoughts and emotions to have insight motivated toward change; preparing for hardships; being strong and brave; considering the impact suicide can have on others; and finding meaning in life.

Justin Vacula produces content about Stoic Philosophy; serves as co-organizer and spokesperson for the Northeastern Pennsylvania (NEPA) Freethought Society; and hosts monthly Stoic Philosophy discussion groups for the Humanist Association of Greater Philadelphia. He is pursuing a degree in Marywood University’s graduate-level Mental Health Counseling program. To find out more about his activities and his podcast, visit his website.

Upcoming Stoicon-x Events In 2017

At present, there are three confirmed Stoicon-X events coming up worldwide during or around Stoic Week (mid-October).  Not only are they in different countries, but they are on different continents as well.

The idea behind Stoicon-X is that, for those people who can’t make it to the main Stoicon conference (this year, in Toronto – tickets are still available), there could be smaller regional conferences or events, featuring speakers and workshops for those who want to learn more about Stoicism and its contemporary applications.  Like the main conference, these are a great place to meet and have conversations with fellow modern Stoics.

For those who might be interested in planning and hosting a Stoicon-X, we have developed a set of very useful and thorough guidelines – you can download them here.  Stoicon-X events don’t have to be all that large  – they can feature just a few talks, workshops, or other activites – the key is that they are well-organized for their participants.

Right now, there are three main upcoming Stoicon-X conferences that have been brought to our attention.  If you are planning or hosting one, and don’t see it here, please contact Greg Sadler, and he will make sure that your Stoicon-X gets into our comprehensive listings of events for this year.

Stoicon-X Brisbane, Australia – October 7, 10:30 AM- 3:15 PM.  This event will take place at the Mitchelton Library, 37 Heliopolis Parade, Mitchelton QLD 4053, Australia. Tickets available here.

Stoicon-X Toronto, Canada – October 15, 9:30 AM – 1:30 PM.  This will take place at Room # TRS1-109 (7th floor), Ted Rogers School of Management, 55 Dundas Street West, Toronto, Ontario.  Tickets available here.

Stoicon-X London, Great Britain – Date, Time and Location TBA at this point.  More information will be forthcoming in future posts.

Stoicism and Auschwitz by Piotr Stankiewicz

The general question that the modern take on Stoicism faces is – by definition – how can Stoicism be applied and useful in our own time?  A question which immediately follows is about if and how Stoicism should be adjusted to the specificity of our own times. My position in this regard is clear. We shouldn’t copy and paste the teaching of the ancients. Doing so would be counterproductive, or even naive. Also, my guess is that the Stoic Founding Fathers themselves wouldn’t have applauded it either. My position is that we need to add our own thought to the system. We need to think how the Stoic ideas can be translated into the conceptual framework of our own time and we need to consider how Stoicism should respond to the challenges of our times.

There is little doubt that Auschwitz and its legacy is one of these challenges. Auschwitz, which is both a singular event and a symbol of Auschwitz itself, Kolyma, Rwanda, and all other horrors of the 20th century, may be seen as a turning point in human history but also in the history of ethics. There is no denying that Auschwitz has profoundly changed the way we think. The questions of how it was possible, why it happened and – above all – what moral obligation it imposes on us are among the key questions of our time.

Interestingly, these questions are untouched in the present discourse on Stoicism. In my opinion this is a very serious shortcoming. If we want Stoicism to be a comprehensive system of modern living, if we want it to be truly relevant and fully up-to-date, then we just don’t have the luxury of not having a stance on this matter. We can’t pretend that it doesn’t pose a problem to Stoicism. It does, in a fourfold way at least.

First of all, according to the very basics of Stoic ethics, all people other than myself fall into the “not within my power” bracket. This is clear and unequivocal. Whatever exists and happens in the world can be categorized as either “within my power” (like my thoughts, values, life goals, my preferences and tendencies, my imagination and the story I tell myself about myself and about the world) or “not within our power” (like virtually all else, i.e. whatever happens beyond my mind, all physical objects, all other living beings, the phenomena of society, history and weather). That said, the core Stoic principle is to focus on the former and not bothered by the latter. Clean and simple.

The problem is that all fellow human beings, all of our family, friends and strangers are undoubtedly “not within my power” and thus we need to be indifferent to them. We shouldn’t hold that their well-being or lack thereof is in any way good or bad. Their life, health and happiness is not within our power, hence we needn’t be concerned about them. And this, certainly, constitutes the first chapter of the problem. Just consider it: this train of thought brings us directly to the conclusion that whatever happened to a prisoner of Auschwitz, it wasn’t evil since it didn’t concern our own moral virtue. And there is no need to explain why such a statement is hard to swallow for the 21st-century sensibility.

Second, in the traditional interpretation of Stoicism there is a certain tone of harshness, which sounds disturbing in the world after Auschwitz. For instance, let take a look at a passage from Epictetus (Discourses, I.28). “Wars and factions and deaths of many men and destructions of cities? […] Why, what is there great in the death of many oxen and many sheep and the burning and destruction of many nests of swallows or storks? ‒ Is there any similarity between this and that? ‒ A great similarity. Men’s bodies perished in the one case, and bodies of oxen and sheep in the other. Petty dwellings of men were burned, and so were nests of storks. What is there great or dreadful about that?”

Now, let’s imagine that someone applies this “stork argument” to Auschwitz. Suggesting that “there is nothing dreadful” about what happened there because it’s just “men’s bodies perished” just as “bodies of oxen and sheep” is beyond any acceptable ethical discourse. And it holds, basically, for any other genocide or war of recent memory. Think about the war in Syria, the freshest of the sadly never-ending stream of pertaining examples. Do we really want to say that there is “nothing dreadful” in it, that “destruction of cities” and “dwellings of men being burned” are nothing else than “storks’ nests destroyed”? This reasoning is difficult to hold. It just don’t fit anymore in the way we think of ethics.

Third, another vital point of the Stoic teaching is that, in brief, adversities are challenges. In other words, it is a requirement of the Stoic ethics that all the mishaps, misfortunes and tragedies of human life should be treated like challenges, or even opportunities to practice virtue. In other words, whatever blows and arrows fortune throws at us, they aren’t actually blows and arrows, but rather softballs to exercise Stoic abilities. “All […] adversities [a Stoic] counts mere training,” says Seneca (On Providence, 2.2). Or, in the words of Epictetus, “[Make use of a difficulty] as an athlete makes use of a [sparring partner] to wrestle with” (Discourses, I.24).

This all sounds nice and neat, it seems to make perfect sense. And yet, again, the problem begins when we apply this line of thought to Auschwitz. The idea that the grounds of the camp were “mere training,” or that genocide is a fine sparring partner “to wrestle with,” seems off limits for the contemporary ethical thinking. To make it plain: imagine a TV studio in which a moral philosopher schools a Holocaust survivor: “you just should have become a Stoic and you would have been OK! And actually, you should be glad that you were imprisoned in Auschwitz, since this was a top-notch opportunity to practice your resilience.” This is downright unthinkable. And not even that. Notice that even a slight change in the title of this piece, turning it from “Stoicism after Auschwitz” to “Stoicism in Auschwitz” would be problematic.

Fourth and finally, there is the cosmic problem, so to speak. We need to remember that in the original view of the ancient Stoics the world, to put it concisely, was well organized and rational. It wasn’t random, chaotic or evil. It was purposeful and carefully organized towards good. The ancient Stoics admitted of course that evil things happened all the time, but, importantly, they all happened for a reason. All the flaws of reality were in there for purpose. They actually increased the grand total value of the world. As the famous metaphor went, the pains and inconveniences of life were just like occasional clumsy lines in a script. They are required for the harmony and completion of the whole work. When we take a larger look, the picture always turns out good.

But there is no good picture that Auschwitz is a part of! Whatever bigger image Auschwitz is a part of, it is indelibly and perennially stained. There is no “greater good” that could justify Auschwitz, or, in a stronger version, there is no conceivable amount of good that could – even theoretically – outweigh what happened there. From our modern point of view Auschwitz is the radical, cosmic evil, that cannot be rationally incorporated into any universal harmony. And the interpretation that it was actually a part of some “plan” and a necessary step towards some higher goal is plainly unacceptable.


How we, the Stoics, can respond to these problems? What sort of reinterpretation, maybe even a transformation of the Stoic doctrine is needed? Do we need a more emphatic version of Stoicism? Is it necessary to drop some part of the harsh traditional Stoic rhetoric and arguments? Do we require a milder strategy in teaching it, one which avoids pushing others too much about what the should and shouldn’t do? Should we consider letting go of the teleological view of the universe, just as Lawrence Becker proposes? Or maybe some combination of these is required?

I don’t know have the answers to these questions right now. Yet, I’m certain that the discussed problems constitute the key, defining challenges to our modern attempts to revive Stoicism. We need to address them. If, of course, we want Stoicism to be a serious, viable option and if we want to go forward and develop the doctrine.

 

Piotr Stankiewicz, Ph.D. is a lecturer affiliated with the University of Warsaw in Poland, and the author of a bestselling Polish handbook of Stoicism (“Sztuka życia według stoików”).  He is currently working on making his Stoic books available in English. In the meanwhile he advances Stoic and non-Stoic agendas in his native Polish.

Hadot’s “Active” Stoic Exercises by Anitra Russell

In this post I will explore the importance of spiritual exercises in Stoicism, what the French philosopher Pierre Hadot meant by “active” spiritual exercises, and the origin of these active exercises: Stoicism’s “three disciplines,” which Epictetus laid out in his Enchiridion and Discourses. I will ultimately suggest specific Enchiridion passages that the modern practitioner of Stoicism might incorporate into daily, “active” exercises in order to progress in these three disciplines.

Supplementing Stoic Precepts with Concrete Practices

Ancient philosophies such as Stoicism stressed autarkeia – independence and inner freedom, or as Pierre Hadot writes, “that state in which the ego depends only upon itself.” He goes on to say that

we find in all philosophical schools the same awareness of the power of the human self to free itself from everything which is alien to it.

 Implicit in this wording is the acknowledgment that humans are typically enslaved by things that are by nature alien to us. To return to themselves, the Stoics put their philosophy into practice by means of daily exercises. According to Hadot,

all spiritual exercises are, fundamentally, a return to the self, in which the self is liberated from the state of alienation into which it has been plunged by worries, passions, and desires.

The ancient Stoics believed that philosophy is not merely to be learned, but lived. As Hadot writes in What is Ancient Philosophy?

According to the Stoic Epictetus, [some people] talk about the art of living like human beings, instead of living like human beings themselves . . . as Seneca put it, they turn true love of wisdom (philosophia) into love of words (philologia).

 Likewise, Musonius Rufus cautioned against “sophists” who “inflate themselves [with] a multitude of theories” and of so-called philosophers who are “decadent and soft.” He said young people no longer need to absorb all of these “theories that truly are enough to consume a man’s life.” Epictetus also complained about those of us who

never carr[y] out our reading or our writing in such a way that, when it comes to action, we could use the representations we receive in a way consonant with nature; instead, we are content . . . when we can analyze syllogisms and examine hypothetical arguments.

In contrast, philosophy was meant to be more than just a set of theories, but rather “a method for training people to live and to look at the world in a new way.”

The Stoics prescribed the use of “exercises” to strengthen and internalize our intellectual understanding of Stoic precepts, so that we are prepared to meet a range of misfortunes, whether minor irritations or serious adversities, with equanimity. It is not mere selfishness that makes us want to glide through life unperturbed. Consider how difficult it is to help someone–whether by physically lending a hand, volunteering your time, or listening to someone vent when they are suffering–when you yourself are weighed down with troubles. Stoicism provides a foundation for an ever-shifting terrain, thus enabling us to meet life’s inevitable setbacks more effectively. In turn, we can use this strength and stability to be more present in the world and to be better prepared to support those we love.

Hadot’s “Active” Stoic Exercises: Self-mastery, Accomplishment of Duties, and Indifference to Indifferent Things

Hadot describes several types of “spiritual exercises,” including the more well-known morning and evening meditations–in which you look ahead at the day to come, or reflect on the day that has passed, and consider how you either will, or did, follow Stoic teachings and pursue a sage-like path. He also discusses premeditatio malorum, in which you imagine misfortunes that could befall you and think about how you will meet them with strength and grace, as they are “indifferent,” are not up to us, and are therefore not evils.

Hadot goes on to mention, briefly, “active” Stoic exercises, including “self-mastery, accomplishment of duties, and indifference to indifferent things.”And, while Hadot does not elaborate in this essay on the background or origin of those exercises, he does describe them as “practical exercises, intended to create habits.” As it turns out, Hadot’s three types of active exercises correspond perfectly to Epictetus’ three areas of Stoic practice, known in Stoic commentary as the “three disciplines.”

In an essay on Marcus Aurelius, Hadot writes that Epictetus -“in Marcus Aurelius’ day, the greatest authority in questions of Stoicism”-noted three areas in which things “depend on us,” borrowing language from the famous dichotomy in Book One of the Enchiridion, stating that some things depend on us, and other things do not. According to Epictetus, “What depends on us are value-judgments, inclinations to act, desires, aversions, and, in a word, everything that is our doing.”

As Hadot writes

What depends upon us is the acts of our own soul, because we are able freely to choose them. . . . Among the acts of the soul which do depend on us, some correspond to the area of judgment and assent, others to the area of desire, and, finally, still others correspond to the area of inclinations to action.

 Of Hadot’s active exercises, then, self-mastery refers to desire, accomplishment of duties corresponds to action, and indifference to indifferent things refers to the proper use of judgment and assent.

Self-mastery (enkrateia)

Hadot stresses that to achieve self-mastery, one has to pare down one’s desires and aspirations drastically and limit them solely to moral virtue, which is the only thing that is “up to us.” Likewise, our aversions should be pared down to moral evil. Anything beyond these two spheres is not up to us, and to worry about it is therefore a waste of our time.

From ancient sources we see additional nuances of self-mastery. Diogenes Laertius describes the Stoic Zeno as a paragon of self-mastery and of the autarkeia or self-sufficiency described above. Zeno was known for his “frugality, contentment with poverty [and] detachment in social behavior.” An epigram by Zenodotus described Zeno as an inventor of self-sufficiency (autarkeia) who gave up wealth and founded a school that would be the “mother of fearless liberty.”

A. A. Long notes that Zeno lived in the public eye, but

in a manner which displays his indifference to the conventional marks of success and his profound satisfaction with what others would call asceticism.

 Long writes that enkrateia is not exactly the same thing as ataraxia (an untroubled state of mind), but nevertheless “all three Hellenistic movements posit an ideal of tranquility, for the attainment of which the essential condition is rational control of one’s desires.”

Although the emphasis for Zeno appeared to have been on renouncing material goods, there are a plethora of things in life that we could wish for that money cannot buy. Hadot describes “such desiderata as wealth and health” as not depending on us, and thus things that can make people unnecessarily unhappy when they are not present in life. It is true that health may depend on economic status, but even people with the most expensive health insurance get sick, and sometimes with little recourse.

Sometimes I find myself wanting peace and quiet so that I can read a book. This costs nothing, but it is still a desire to which I am at times overly attached. Another personal example is that I would like my child to act a certain way, e.g., respectfully and deferentially to dear old mom. Again, this is not a material good, but it is a desire, and it puts me at the mercy of a five-year-old who, while charming in many ways, does not always – or in fact ever – put my desires first.

Instead of working backward and subtracting things from a typical, non-Stoic way of viewing what is “necessary” or simply desirable in life -money, health, status, a romantic relationship, a quiet room, an abnormally sweet child – we need to brush it all aside and start with the bare minimum, and add to that. Moral virtue is all we should desire if we wish to achieve self-mastery. On the other side of the coin, moral evil is all we should seek to avoid. Difficult? Yes. Requiring superhuman abilities? Probably.

Indeed, Long observed that just as modern anthropology views people’s interests and needs as “largely social constructs,” the Hellenistic philosophies’ emphasis on austerity and self-renunciation amounted to “an invitation to enter an alternative world and acquire a new self.” He therefore describes Stoicism and other sects as “paradoxical,” but in the original etymological meaning of the word, namely, that they are “incongruous with commonplace beliefs [doxa].”

“Acquiring a new self” is certainly not something people, then or now, routinely do or even consider doing. It is a paradox in the sense that it is a teaching that it is completely out of step with common beliefs. People are entwined with their desires and identify with them strongly, hence their grave disappointment when things do not turn out as they wish. To acquire a new self would necessitate leaving the old one behind, abandoning the hopes, dreams and desires accumulated over many years.

Similarly, Hadot describes Stoicism and the other Hellenistic schools as requiring “a kind of self-duplication in which the ‘I’ refuses to be conflated with its desires and appetites, takes up a distance from the objects of its desires, and becomes aware of its power to become detached from them. It thus rises from a partial and particular vision to a universal perspective, be it that of Nature or that of the Spirit.” Instead of a completely new self, this seems more akin to a radically pared-down self, divorced from its desires and wedded instead to a cosmic viewpoint.

Hadot’s notion of a self “conflated” with its desires pinpoints the problem for us moderns. We have grown to believe that our desires are a part of us, an extension of our identity. (Witness the proliferation of “bucket list” broadcasts on social media.) Ridding ourselves of them feels like a loss of identity. And yet, it is only by accepting that we can stand alone, self-sufficient, wanting nothing but to be good people, that we free ourselves of dependence on things outside of us, whether money, social status, health, people who do what we want them to do, or whatever we else we have let ourselves believe we “need” to be happy.

The Enchiridion provides useful guidance on self-mastery, accomplishment of duties, and indifference to indifferent things. The self-mastery passages below can aid in fostering autarkeia. Per the first passage, if the company you are in does not affect your behavior, it means you are growing in self-sufficiency, and what the ancient Stoics described as a “steadfast disposition.” The remaining three remind us that the mind should be our primary concern. Desire for delicious food, luxurious accommodations, or fine clothing is seldom satisfied, but rather seems to grow the more we have those things. Keeping pleasure in perspective is crucial. Pleasure does not further your progress toward goodness, and is too often dependent upon outside stimuli. Pleasure can leave as quickly as it came, and one ought not attach oneself to such ephemera.

Self-Mastery Exercise Passages

“Lay down from this moment a certain character and pattern of behavior for yourself, which you are to preserve both when you’re alone and when you’re with others.” (Enchiridion, 33.1)

“In things relating to the body, take only as much as your bare need requires . . . exclude everything that is for show or luxury.” (33.7)

“It is a sign of a lack of natural aptitude to spend much time on things relating to the body . . . . No, these things should be done in passing, and you should devote undivided attention to your mind.” (41)

“When you receive an impression of some pleasure, take care not to get carried away by it, as with impressions in general; but rather, make it wait for you, and allow yourself some slight delay.” (34)

Accomplishment of duties (kathekonta)

Accomplishment of duties differs from the other two active exercises in that it ultimately depends on other people. It is key to recall the distinction between what depends on us and what does not, and to recognize that as we carry out our duties to others, what is up to us is our moral intention as we do it. The result of our efforts – how they are received, whether our relationship with the other person improves, whether their expectations are even higher in the future – this is not up to us.

Newcomers to Stoicism are sometimes surprised by the social element of the philosophy, having thought instead that it was about repressing the emotions and withdrawing from the world to minimize suffering. Such an approach, however, would not enable us to live in accordance with our nature, which is that of a rational human being who has obligations depending on the part we play: citizen, friend, parent, spouse. As Marcus Aurelius wrote:

For we are made for cooperation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth. To act against one another then is contrary to nature; and it is acting against one another to be vexed and to turn away.

 Seneca similarly tells us:

No school has more goodness and gentleness; none has more love for mankind or is more devoted to the common good. The goal which it assigns to us is to be useful, to help others, and to take care, not only of ourselves, but of everyone in general and of each person in particular.

 Hadot writes:

To find a basis for this theory of ‘duties,’ the Stoics return to their fundamental intuition: that of the living being’s instinctive, original accord with itself, which expresses the deepest will of nature. Living beings have an innate tendency to preserve themselves and to repel that which threatens their integrity. When human reason appears, natural instinct becomes reflective, reasoned choice: something is chosen because it responds to the natural tendencies, such as the love of life and of children, or love for one’s fellow citizens, which is based on the instinct of sociability.

The three disciplines–desire, action, and assent–overlap, as I will discuss further in the next section. To abnegate or rise above one’s own desires can be helpful as one embarks on carrying out duties to others. If we are too self-absorbed and focused on getting what we want, it impedes ethical growth. If we are spending all of our time in the office in hopes of getting a lucrative promotion, it is not likely we will be able to help a friend. If we are traveling the world checking items off of our bucket list, we may miss a phone call from an ailing parent.

The following passages from Enchiridion together form an overview of various facets of the Stoic obligation to be dutiful servants of others. One facet is that our role is not chosen, but assigned. This may strike us as constrictive, but it is simply reality. Naturally, we did not choose to be the child of our parents; that role was assigned. Our roles as citizens are also – usually – determined at birth. If we are parents, that general role is sometimes chosen, sometimes not; at any rate, if we decide to bear offspring, we do not know who that child will be. Our role as parent of this particular child is assigned. Since that is the case, it is fruitless to equivocate on our responsibilities in these roles: As the second passage notes, the social relationship is the measure of appropriate actions. We want to be the best child, citizen, parent we can be–even when it is difficult. The last passage reminds us that the ultimate outcome is beyond our control.

Accomplishment of Duties Passages

“Remember that you’re an actor in a play, which will be as the author chooses, short if he wants it to be short, and long if he wants it to be long. If he wants you to play the part of a beggar, act even that part with all your skill; and likewise if you’re playing a cripple, an official, or a private citizen. For that is your business, to act the role that is assigned to you as well as you can; but it is another’s part to select that role.” (Enchiridion, 17)

“Appropriate actions are measured on the whole by our social relationships. . . . ‘My brother is wronging me.’ Very well, maintain the relation that you have towards him; don’t look to what he is doing, but to what you must do if you are to keep your choice in harmony with nature.” (30)

“If anyone wants to be free, then, let him neither want anything nor seek to avoid anything that is under the control of others; or else he is bound to be a slave.” (14)

Indifference to Indifferent Things

This exercise is the one that relies most on our capacity for rationality, and which is most aligned with the Stoic topos of logic. Hadot describes logic as “the mastery of inner discourse.” By keeping a close watch on that inner discourse, we can see whether our logic is erroneous and thus conducive to emotional disturbances. The crux of this exercise is exactly as Marcus Aurelius described it in 11.16 of the Meditations:

One soul finds within itself the power to live a perfectly happy life, if we can remain indifferent towards indifferent things.

 Hadot describes this as an “interior” exercise, as opposed to self-mastery and accomplishment of duties, which are more focused on the world outside of our minds.

It is useful, since we are discussing logic and, by extension, wisdom, to look at that virtually unattainable yet nonetheless instructive ideal: the Stoic sage. Hadot quotes French philosopher Bernard Groethuysen, who emphasizes the sage’s relation to the cosmos:

The consciousness he has of the world is something particular to the sage. Only the sage never ceases to have the whole constantly present to his mind, never forgets the world, thinks and acts in relation to the cosmos. . . . The sage is part of the world; he is cosmic. He does not let himself be distracted from the world, or detached from the cosmic whole. . . . The figure of the sage and the representation of the world form, as it were, an indissoluble unity.

Once you re-orient yourself, you realize the universe is vast, is not a one-man show, and contains an infinite number of moving parts among which we should “make no difference” – Hadot’s clarification of the concept of “indifferents” in Stoicism. Indifference to indifferents does not mean closing yourself off emotionally from anything that might cause pain, and in the process leading a small, isolated life. On the contrary, by examining our inner discourse logically, in the context of this vast backdrop, we grow nearer to our ideal, the sage whose life is marked by ataraxia and autarkeia.

Along with an expanded view of the environment in which one lives, indifference to indifferent things encourages a refined focus on the one thing that is not indifferent: our moral intention. Hadot stresses that this “engages human beings to modify themselves and their attitude with regard to the world.” There is some overlap between this exercise and self-mastery because we focus only on the things that we can control and are important, so that we can achieve greater self-sufficiency. Indifference to indifferent things also meshes with accomplishment of duties; as we focus on the things we can accomplish in this life, we may turn our gaze to others and see opportunities to exercise our virtue there–and practicing indifference to indifferent things means we are not discouraged by the outcome of our attempts to help others.

The following passages should help us to clarify our thinking when logic eludes us and negative emotions take over.

Indifference to Indifferent Things Passages

Remove your aversion, then, from everything that is not within our power, and transfer it to what is contrary to nature among those things that are within our power. (Enchiridion, 2.2)

Don’t seek that all that comes about should come about as you wish, but wish that everything that comes about should come about just as it does, and then you’ll have a calm and happy life. (8)

Practice, then, from the very beginning to say to every disagreeable impression, ‘You’re an impression and not at all what you appear to be.’ (1.5)

With regard to everything that happens to you, remember to look inside yourself and see what capacity you have to enable you to deal with it. . . . And if you get into the habit of following this course, you won’t get swept away by your impressions. (10)

Conclusion

It is a pitfall of Stoicism that in attempting to understand the elaborate taxonomy of topoi, disciplines, cardinal virtues, and so on, we might forget to put philosophy into practice. I myself have found that getting lost in an abstract world of concepts that originated thousands of years ago can be an attractive antidote when one has overdosed on social media and “fake news.” It is by putting Stoicism into practice via philosophical exercises, however, that we resist the temptation to become sophists ourselves, who have lost sight of the transformative, ethical purpose of Stoicism: to lead virtuous lives and live up to our potential as rational humans and citizens of the world. Pierre Hadot and other modern commentators are invaluable in that they have read between the lines of the ancients’ teachings to distill plausible exercises that we can use today. By reflecting every day on the themes animating these teachings, we inch toward wisdom and tranquility.

Anitra Russell studied classical languages and literature in high school and at university and has recently renewed her studies. She blogs about Stoicism at astoicremedy.com.

Confessions of a Stoic Hypochondriac: Stoicism And Major Surgery by Alexander Ott

I’ve been dying since the age of 8. I’ve died from leprosy, AIDS, brain tumors, cholera, TB, rabies (at least four times), the plague, and many other oft-mortal afflictions I have since forgotten. Amazingly, from all these, I have recovered. Further, I’ve been going blind for years, but still miraculously see—albeit with assistance of pretty strong glasses. I am—or perhaps was—a full-blown hypochondriac.

You can imagine, then, when my primary care physician identified a heart murmur (caused by a leaky heart valve) in a regular physical when I was 31—meltdown time. Add in some suspect family history of heart issues, and now I clearly had something medically verifiable to worry about!

And so it went—sometimes better, sometimes worse—for about 15 years, with regular, rather terrifying trips to the cardiologist for an echocardiogram to ensure that the heart valve wasn’t getting worse, necessitating surgery. Until about three years ago, that is, when my uncle introduced me to Stoicism. This ancient Greek and Roman philosophy of life fundamentally reoriented my perspective on my condition in particular and on my life more broadly. It ultimately helped me make it through what I consider the three stages of my health “event”; let’s call them:

  1. Bad news coming? Prepare for it.
  2. Open-Heart surgery: Why worry?
  3. Surgery is done: I made it, right? 

Bad news coming? Prepare for it.

I scheduled my regular echocardiogram for 3 pm on Thursday, November 10, 2016. Instead of my usual approach to the echo, trying to pretend it’s not happening, I decided to use Stoic philosophy to prepare. Having immersed myself for the past three years in the thoughts and practices of the ancient Stoics—Epictetus, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius—as well as those of modern interpreters such as Donald Robertson, Ryan Holiday, and Pierre Hadot, this seemed an ideal opportunity to confront my life-long existential fears.

In preparation for the echo appointment and the possible bad news I would receive, I practiced the premeditatio malorum, the anticipation or premeditation of adversity. The Stoic concept here is that anticipating a difficult scenario allows one to better handle it when the scenario or something similar to it occurs. As the Roman Stoic and Statesman Seneca noted: “He robs present ills of their power who has perceived their coming beforehand.” This notion is borne out by research on similar approaches in cognitive behavioral therapy—which itself has origins in Stoic thought (see Donald Robertson’s Stoicism and the Art of Happiness).

Approximately once every other day in the three weeks leading up to the appointment, I would close my eyes on the train ride home from work (don’t try this if you drive to/from work) and engaged in a very specific premeditatio malorum: imagining receiving bad news from the cardiologist. This “imagining” took the form of a 10-15 minute meditation in which I would picture myself arriving at the cardiologist’s office, doing the echocardiogram, talking to the cardiologist, and receiving the news that I would need open heart surgery or that my problem was so severe that it was inoperable. (I know this sounds really uplifting, but bear with me!) While this wasn’t a particularly pleasant imagining, becoming accustomed to the negative news prepared me well for the actual “bad news” event.

Additionally, in the meditation I constantly kept the fundamental Stoic notion in front of my mind: certain things are in our control, and others are not. And Stoics consider those things not in our control to be “indifferent.” In the Stoic view, they should not bear upon our sense of peace and tranquility because we cannot control them. Matters including the body—such as whether my heart is malfunctioning—are clearly beyond my direct control. However, what I can control, through training and practice, is how I react mentally to those things beyond my direct control. As Shakespeare’s Hamlet noted, in a very Stoic phrase, “Nothing is good or bad but thinking makes it so.” Or, as the Stoic teacher Epictetus put it: “It is not things themselves that upset us but our judgements about these things.”

I’m happy to report that, given my preparation, receiving the “news” from the cardiologist that I would need open-heart surgery was nearly an anti-climax. I expected it. Even the candor and bluntness from my cardiologist about my situation was more amusing than disturbing. It was almost like watching a movie I had seen many times before—it had lost its emotional punch.

Open-Heart surgery: Why worry?

After discussing the echocardiogram results with multiple cardiologists—essential due diligence—it was clear that surgery was the best courses of action to repair or replace the leaky valve sooner rather than later. Waiting for it to develop into a geyser was medically inadvisable, shall we say. The good news was that the likelihood of a successful repair or, if needed, replacement of the valve was very high. The bad news was that it was open-heart surgery. As in, they cut you open, stop your heart, cut around in it, restart said stopped heart, and close you back up. For a hypochondriac, even a newly Stoic one, yikes!

I settled upon two approaches to the impending surgery. The first was to embrace the Stoic concept of “hic et nunc”—the here and now. That is, an intense focusing—a mindfulness really—on the immediate moment. The Stoics believed that one of the challenges of humanity is its ability to ruminate on the past and anticipate the future.

As Seneca noted:

Wild beasts run away from dangers when they see them. Once they have escaped, they are free of anxiety. But we are tormented by both the future and the past.

Roman emperor and Stoic Marcus Aurelius admonished himself to

Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.

Instead of getting lost in worry over the future surgery, I did my best to enjoy and live in the moment—appreciating the beauty and wonder of all the things around me, from my own ability to walk, talk, and see, to the company of colleagues, friends, and loved ones. If anything, my ability to do this successfully was amplified by the upcoming surgery as I was able to more easily appreciate the things around me.

At certain times, though, such as during a morning or evening meditation, I did consider the upcoming surgery—after all, Stoicism does ask us to prepare for challenges. We are not to live in ignorance of challenges that will arise, but we are to prepare rationally and within the context of what we can control and not control. What, then, was the Stoic attitude I took toward the upcoming operation? Acceptance—it is what it is. As the Stoic teacher Epictetus exhorted his students: “make the best of what is in our power, and take the rest as it naturally happens.” Once it was clear that surgery was the logical approach, the only thing to do was to accept it as simply necessary. Those things we cannot control we should accept as a natural part of existence.

Ah, but what if I died because of the surgery? While this wasn’t likely, it wasn’t impossible either. Having the operation was a whole lot more dangerous than my average day, after all. The doctors seemed quite confident, but, then again, it wasn’t their heart that was getting stopped, cut up, and restarted. Not only that, but if I didn’t die from surgery, surely I will die at some point (we all do—sorry to be a downer!). As Epictetus noted: “I am not eternal, but a human being; a part of the whole, as an hour is of the day. Like an hour I must come and, like an hour, pass away.” While I cannot claim to have overcome this existential challenge, I was able to wrestle with the issue without too much fear. One approach I took was to appreciate that there are far worse ways to die than on the operating table—after all, you are out cold and unaware of what is occurring. As I went into surgery early on March 22, this thought provided some comfort.

Surgery is done: I made it, right?

I wake up with a start; I have tubes coming out of everywhere and my arms are strapped down. Breathing tube, chest tube, catheter, etc. My wife is talking to me—nurses, machines, beeping. I motion for something to write on and scrawl something about the breathing tube and when it might come out. My wife says that it’s coming out soon, but the nurse needs a doctor’s approval. I write, “I can take it out—I’m a doctor,” and then I sign it. That makes her laugh: I’m a doctor of education—not an MD—so while I might be able to theorize about an educational problem, I’m not exactly qualified to remove anyone’s breathing tube, never mind my own. Well, at least my sense of humor is intact.

Two main issues arose while recovering in the hospital: First, the loss of independence and control. Second, the fear that something bad was going to happen—some sort of complication. I did better with the first issue than the second, but Stoicism was helpful for both.

Being in recovery from major surgery means a radical loss of control of bodily things. You can’t even go to the bathroom on your own. Thankfully, Stoicism is perfectly aligned for this sort of challenge. As already mentioned, Stoics view things outside the mind as fundamentally not in our (full) control. This applies to all the things that happen to us—those things in the hands of Fortune—as well as the bodily matters over which we exercise only partial control. This acceptance of loss of control is an essential way to remain content and tranquil when in what otherwise would be a frustrating situation. Epictetus exhorted his students as follows:

Being educated [in stoic philosophy] is precisely learning to will each thing just as it happens.

The Stoics often advocated going beyond acceptance of external events. One should embrace the situation as you find it thrust upon you, for it exists as it is at the instant it is occurring and so it cannot be otherwise. As Seneca said:

A good person dyes events with his own color… and turns whatever happens to his own benefit.

How, then, to turn this event to my own benefit? The flip side of your lack of bodily autonomy after surgery is your dependence on others—in particular, the nurses, technicians, and other health care professionals whose job it is to help you get better. In these exceptional human beings a wonderful Stoic opportunity presents itself. Stoicism, in contrast with the stereotype of a “stoic” person, encourages us to engage fully with other people, for they share a spark of the divine in their ability to reason. As our brothers and sisters, according to Marcus Aurelius:

We were born to work together like feet, hands, and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower.

Seneca notes of Stoicism that

No school has more goodness and gentleness; none has more love for human beings, nor more attention to the common good.

I’m naturally an outgoing person, very engaged with those I meet. But I made a special effort to be so in the hospital—as much as possible treating each person as an individual, thanking them for the work they do, and being upbeat and optimistic about whatever somewhat unpleasant thing they needed to do to me next—poking me with needles, waking me up at 3 am to take my blood pressure, making me eat hospital food. The good cheer I gave out was returned to me many, many times over, not only by the staff but simply by my own actions. As Marcus Aurelius asked:

How then can you grow tired of helping others when by doing so you help yourself?

The most difficult part of recovery was the implicit existential threat—amplified by the incessant beeping of the monitors to which I was connected. Two days after surgery, I developed atrial fibrillation (“AFib”), which is the heart beating rapidly and out of sync—mine was moving at 130 beats per minute. AFib is common enough after open-heart surgery, but that didn’t make it any less scary. To deal with this unexpected challenge, I returned to Stoic meditations, in particular, one known as the “view from above.”

This meditation involves imagining yourself leaving your body and floating up above it, slowly moving up to a perspective far above the earth. In doing this, you picture yourself surveying all around you and seeing how small you are in the broader scheme of existence—just one soul and one life among billions, all inhabiting a planet that, from a distance, looks to be just a “pale blue dot” in the words of astronomer Carl Sagan. This meditation helped me put my life in perspective, as only one among many, part of a broader whole. True, it, too, will end; if not now, then in 10, 20, or 30 years. Acceptance of this fact can help one live a fuller life, while we have one to live. Contemporary Stoic author Ryan Holiday notes, “Reminding ourselves each day that we will die helps us treat our time as a gift.”

I’m happy to report that I’m home now as I write this, with surgery three weeks in the past, feeling quite well. AFib is now under control, thanks to a well-calibrated “Zap!” from a defibrillator last week. My wife says my heart has got the beat now, thankfully! I am extraordinarily thankful to all those who helped me get through this—from an incredibly skillful surgeon, caring and talented doctors, nurses, and other health care workers to loving and supportive family, friends, and co-workers. I am also thankful for an ancient philosophy called Stoicism, which is as powerful at addressing the human condition today as it was in Ancient Greece and Rome.

Would I still consider myself a hypochondriac? Perhaps at times, but one far better equipped to deal with life’s challenges. I have found that this experience, and my reaction to it in a Stoic context, has changed my perspective on life in a fundamental way, undermining the fear at the root of hypochondria. I am hopeful that this article can help others discover ways to overcome their personal challenges—both real and imagined!

 

Dr. Alexander Ott is associate dean of academic affairs at Bronx Community College of the City University of New York. He holds an undergraduate degree in philosophy from SUNY Geneseo and a master of arts and doctor of education degrees from Fordham University. Dr. Ott has been studying and practicing Stoicism for three years.