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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

O  O  O  O  O

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

O      O      O      O      O

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the following text as quickly as possible:

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

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

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

Thank you very much for your time and attention.

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

Stoicon Is On! And Stoic Week Starts Monday!

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

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

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

Stoic Week Starts Monday!

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

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

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

Stoicon-X and Stoic Week Events

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

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

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

Stoicon-X Events

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Additional Events During Stoic Week

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Groups and Institutions Working Through Stoic Week Together

Los Angeles Stoicsmore information here

Praetoria Stoicsmore information here

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

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

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

Here is the press release for Stoic Week.

Enroll in the Stoic Week Course!

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

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

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

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

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

Call For Stoic Week Events

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

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

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

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

Meditation for Stoics by Caleb Ontiveros

Over the past few years, mindfulness meditation has grown and grown in popularity. Though connections between Stoicism and mindfulness have been made, mindfulness meditation as a practice has yet to find a consistent home in Stoic practice.

There’s a historical reason for this: the historical Stoic philosophers didn’t advocate for mindfulness meditations. Though they recognized the value of mindfulness, using mindfulness meditation as tool isn’t something any of the key figures spoke of. This, of course, does not mean that it cannot fit within a contemporary Stoic life. Today, we’re lucky to take advantage of cognitive innovations that the historical figures didn’t have access to. Moreover, as we’ll see the main idea behind mindfulness meditation meshes well with Stoic thought.

In this piece, I’ll show what adding mindfulness meditation to the Stoic toolkit could look like. I’ll start by explaining what it is. I’ll then explain how mindfulness meditation serves as a gym for the core Stoic disciplines.

First, what is mindfulness meditation?

Mindfulness meditation is fundamentally about cultivating nonjudgmental awareness. There are two parts then, nonjudgement and awareness. Awareness concerns our ability to perceive what is here, right now. Whether what is here is a thought or a sensation, we can perceive it. Nonjudgement refers to the ability to experience the sensation or thought without making unnecessary value judgements and seeing the world through those value judgements. Noticing and correcting mistaken value judgements is familiar to Stoics. Many thoughts we have are simply distort reality and are false. In the language of cognitive behavioral therapy, they are cognitive distortions.

A more subtle way we wield unnecessary value judgements is by projecting them into world. In the language of acceptance and commitment therapy, we become cognitively “cognitively fused” with the thought. A thought is cognitively fused when the content of the thought and it’s emotion fuse together such that both no longer feel like a mental construct, but instead appear to be an objective fact. Thoughts are fused when we forget that they are thoughts and instead see them as part of the world. A classic example of this is being caught up in passionate anger. When we are passionately angry, at say, another person, we see the world through the logic of the anger. It seems obvious to us that the other person acted unjustly and that they deserve blame — anyone who thinks otherwise is thinking incorrectly. When we are angry, these appear to be objective facts about the world.

Nonjudgemental awareness is about stepping back from such thoughts and seeing them as they are, thoughts that may or may not be true. It is about cultivating the ability to defuse from thoughts and sensations and just be aware of them. Put another way, meditation is just about being aware of whatever is going on and being able to be calm. With meditation we’re able to experience the reality that we are not our thoughts, we are not our sensations.

The connection to Stoicism is clear. Consider Seneca’s well known line on anxiety:

we suffer more often in imagination than in reality.

Or Marcus Aurelius:

Today I escaped anxiety. Or no, I discarded it, because it was within me, in my own perceptions — not outside.

Marcus Aurelius is describing the process of cognitive defusion. He notes that at one time he was cognitively fused with anxious thoughts, but realized that the thoughts were not apart of the objective world. They were merely thoughts.

Through mindfulness meditation one can get better at this skill. In this way, mindfulness meditation is as a gym for practicing the core Stoic disciplines.

Ok, so what does the typical mindfulness meditation session look like? Here’s a simple set of instructions:

  • Find a quiet place to sit for a few minutes. Consider setting a timer for 5-20 minutes.
  • Take a few deep breaths and close your eyes.
  • Bring to mind why you are meditating. What is the purpose of meditating now?
  • Bring to mind what you expect to happen. What do you think will happen while meditating?
  • Bring to mind any potential distractions. Note that they’re there and remind yourself to return to meditating when you get caught up in them.
  • Commit to following through. You have a reason for meditating, give it your full attention for the next few moments.
  • When you’re ready, bring your attention to the breath. Notice where it feels the strongest.
  • Just watch the breath if you can.
  • If you get distracted, notice that you became distracted, and return your attention to the breath. Becoming distracted is part of the process.
  • Continue watching the breath and returning to it whenever you become distracted.
  • When the time is up, take a few deep breaths and open your eyes.

You can try this on your own or with guidance. There are many courses or apps you can use, you can try the app I’ve created, Stoa, a meditation and journal app built around Stoic teachings, though there are other good options as well (I’m a fan of John Yates’ work and Sam Harris’ program). A short five to ten minute meditation may fit nicely within many morning and evening routines.

How does meditation fit within a Stoic thought more broadly?

Stoic exercises, and other therapeutic exercises generally, can be divided into the cognitive and non-cognitive. A cognitive exercise involves thinking verbally and conceptually. For example, the Stoic practice of praemeditatio malorum is a contemplative meditation. In this practice, one may imagine ways that one’s day could go wrong and devise plans to ensure that one is psychologically and practically prepared. Another cognitive Stoic practices involves simulating a role model or sage. One can imagine how the role model would act in our place or what advice the role model would give us. Both of these contemplative exercises involve explicit and verbal thought.

Another kind of exercise is non-conceptual, non-verbal. This kind of exercise can be useful for reprogramming our automatic reactions to the world. Mindfulness in meditation falls in this bucket. In mindfulness meditation, one cultivates nonjudgemental awareness. The ability to focus on one’s thoughts or sensations in a tranquil way. In this practice, the focus is not on an activity like planning or conversation, but instead is on simply watching one’s mind.

Both of these kinds of exercises are valuable. Consider Victor Frankl’s well known line:

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

Both of these exercises can take advantage of that space. Whether it’s an explicit reminder to live in accord with one’s values or mindfully moving your attention to what matters.

Let’s make the connection between the Stoic disciplines more explicit. Following Pierre Hadot, I think of the three disciplines of Stoicism as desire, judgment, and action. The discipline of desire concerns relegating your desire to what is under your control. The discipline of judgement concerns seeing the world accurately without making unnecessary value judgements. Finally, the discipline of action concerns acting virtuously.

One can think of mindfulness meditation as a gym for practicing each of these disciplines in a non-cognitive way. Here’s an example for each discipline.

Consider the discipline of desire. This discipline concerns mastering desire and aversion. Through meditation, we can better realize how many of our initial impressions are not under our control. And we can notice how our initial impressions trigger aversions or desires — and then reprogram these triggers. For example, as we focus on the breath, we will inevitably find our attention wandering. No matter how hard one tries to focus on the breath, eventually your attention will wander! That this will happen is out of our control. Although it may be natural to respond with disappointment or frustration upon noticing that we’ve become distracted, we can instead deliberately return our attention to the breath. In this way we can practice not being averse to our what is out of our control (distraction) and taking advantage of what is under our control (moving our attention to the breath). Instead of spiraling into further disappointment or frustration, we can simply notice that we became distracted and return to the breath.

This is a familiar pattern in our life. We react to an event negatively and let that event serve as a trigger to further negative thoughts and interactions. For example, we may respond to something a friend or partner said with frustration and we may respond in kind. We all know how these interactions go. Instead of doing this, we can note the frustration (which occurred automatically) and freely return our attention to the task at hand.

The discipline of judgement is all about seeing the world accurately. We add so many stories to the world, many of which are inaccurate or cause us suffering. For example, consider pain. While meditating, one will often experience pain. Meditation doesn’t cause pain, but the fact is that sitting straight for 10 or so minutes can become uncomfortable. When this happens it often feels like the pain will last forever. Consider the words of Epicurus (as quoted by Marcus Aurelius):

Pain is never unbearable or unending, so you can remember these limits and not add to them in your imagination.

The thought that the pain will last forever is an illusion. It’s cognitive fusion at it’s worse. The experience of pain sometimes seems to be what the world is all about. But this simply isn’t accurate. When we meditate we can notice that there is pain and practice distancing ourselves from it. Simply viewing the pain as it is, a temporary experience, nothing more.

Finally, consider the discipline of action. Some meditation traditions implicitly overlook this step. Because it is important to act with purpose, it’s important to meditate with purpose.

That’s why it’s so important to set a purpose before meditating, as one does above. And it’s important to commit to following through, even when it becomes uncomfortable. Meditation is often a joyous thing, but one can also experience mental and physical discomforts while meditating. When you persevere when this happens, you’re reinforcing your identity of being a reflective person who acts with purpose and who follows through. This crucial ingredient for the Stoic virtues.

There are many other explicit connections one can make between a meditation practice and the Stoic disciplines, but to my mind the above are some of the most important.

I’m not arguing that mindfulness meditation should be adopted by every Stoic. No practice is suitable for all people. But I would advocate that many experiment with it. It’s an excellent practice that has benefited millions of people. And, importantly, it’s an excellent way to practice the core Stoic disciplines. It’s useful for seeing the world clearly, calmly, and acting with purpose.

Caleb Ontiveros is the founder of Stoa. He received his MA in philosophy from the University of Notre Dame and has worked at several startups. You can find him on Twitter or at his website.

Ethical Development in Stoicism and Confucianism by Brittany Polat

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

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

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

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

The Sprouts of Virtue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Unity of Knowledge and Action

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading

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

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

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

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

The Stoic: September 2019

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

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

A close up of a sign

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SEPTEMBER 2019 ISSUE: CONTENTS

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

Meta-Interview with Donald Robertson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Donald: There are two:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marcus Aurelius

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

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

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

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

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

Stay tuned for next month’s discussion!

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

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

Stoic Week 2019

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

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

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

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

Stoicon-X Events

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

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

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

STOICON-X TORONTO

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

STOICON-X NEW YORK

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

Stoicon-X New England

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

Stoicon-X Athens

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

STOICON-X MOSCOW

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

STOICON-X LONDON

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

STOICON-X MILWAUKEE

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

STOICON-X SAN FRANCISCO

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

Stoicon 2019 Athens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making and Maintaining Time For Exercise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Returning To An Abandoned Routine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enchiridion, ch. 44

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

Some Final Thoughts Keeping The Body In Perspective

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

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

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

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

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

Enchiridion, ch. 51

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

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

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

Letter 66

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

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

Letter 66

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

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