The Locus of Meaning by Dan Hayes

In the search for Human flourishing (eudaimonia), meaning or significance is a necessary component. Meaning is what makes you who you are, what story you tell yourself about yourself. People find meaning in many forms: people, philosophy, religion, work, money, experiences, among others. The problem is that many people find their meaning in things they have no control over. They define themselves by their wealth, their jobs, their possessions or relationships.

If a person defines their meaning based upon things they have no control over then when they lose that thing that defines their meaning, they themselves become undefined. They lose the motivating factor in their story of self. Meaning, therefore needs to emerge from the self, and not from an external. One should then define their meaning in the context of one’s thoughts and actions, your knowledge, desire, aversion and motivation. In short the seat of meaning should reside within the realm of control.

Our Meaning should propel us through life and comfort us when the eventual setback hits us. Our meaning should never be able to be taken from us. Our meaning informs our agency in the world. Our meaning needs to be broad in order to fit into the many roles we must take during our life.

We all will fill the role of learners, doers, and teachers in our lives. All these roles equal and necessary in life and our meaning should be able to feed into each one of these roles. Our meaning must not be static or brittle. We may have it shift over time, to fit the dynamic of our lives. One may find their meaning shifting from a builder to a nurturer over time and this is fine as long as you can shift the material manifestation of your meaning from one subject to another.

If one understands levels of abstraction, one can find the proper level where to place one’s meaning. Abstraction is used in science where the primitives of one discipline are explained by another. For example Atomic Theory describes the atoms and all their primitive parts, electron, proton, neutron, orbitals etc. Chemistry is one abstraction level up. Its primitives are the atoms themselves. It uses those atoms to build chemicals. Going up a level of abstraction again Biology uses chemicals as building blocks for living organisms. Cell walls are made up of lipids, chemicals lined up in sheets, and our DNA just very long sequences of nucleotides, just more chemicals.

There are three major places that one can place their meaning in the levels of inner and outer life. At the most base level we have that of the inner self, defined by one’s reason and faculty of choice. A level of inner thought and contemplation before any action with the outside world.

Abstracting up to the middle level and we have our roles and duties within the community of rational beings. Here in the middle we have general duty based categories such as caregiver, builder, protector, organizer.

Going up once more and we have the manifestation of those roles. This manifestation are one’s job, one’s wealth, ones relationships, whatever is the physical output of that role. One can work toward improving their faculty of choice, but in order to live in accordance with nature we must interact with our fellow human beings. We fulfill that interaction with our duties, roles and their manifestations. If we keep our meaning in the middle level it matters not which form its physical manifests takes. The base and middle levels are within the realm of control. The highest level of abstraction is not.

If one is a builder then if matters not if any and all of your creations are destroyed or go to ruin. It is not in your power to preserve earthly things, but it is in your power to do the action of building. Your purpose is to build and create, be you a workman or engineer, tinkerer or architect, designer or craftsman. Nothing should stop you from being your meaning. You should be able to transfer the subject of your meaning, to a multitude of things and never lament when those things cease to be.

Your next project is little more than a hovel – then build it the best you can. Take as much care for this hovel as you would the project of a lavash house. If it is your meaning and duty to be a builder than build everything you can with excellence (arete). This building is done – good, move on to the next one. Do not boast of the building as if it is your own. It is an indifferent. One need to look no farther than the ruins of once great civilizations and remember the words of Percy Shelley’s “Ozymandias” to see how fleeting that is. Instead, if you are to say anything at all, say that “I have done the best work I could.” and leave it as that.

This city has been razed to the ground. Do not lament for that which is lost. There are people here now that need you. Do your duty and build for your fellow man, they need shelter from the elements now more than ever. Infuse your meaning into that which is your duty. You are not the building, nor the employee, nor the proprietor. The building can fall, you can lose your job, your company can fold. None of these events can take your meaning from you as long as you don’t put your meaning in these things. Fortify yourself by placing your meaning firmly within the realm of that which you control.

One day a builder will find that through circumstances outside his control he can no longer directly build. This is no problem, for as long as the mind is sound the builder can move to becoming a teacher or mentor who builds the builder. His meaning is retained even though his duty has changed. He should feel no resentment, but instead embrace the change with equanimity. The meaning  flows like water into the vessel of the situation at hand.

On the other hand if his duty is to shift his meaning from one calling to another then the new meaning should also be self-defined within the world of the realm of control. Say now you have become an artist. Go forth and be the best artist that you can and fulfill your duty. If you become famous for your sculpture or paintings, or just have a regular job working to make art for marketing that matters not. Both can be good provided you act with excellence in your new meaning as an artist. You are not your art, you are your action. Pour your meaning into the action of work.

The existentialist philosophers sparred with this issue and came to varied conclusions. Albert Camus asserted that there is no meaning and that any attempt to assert meaning would only result in disaster. Here I disagree and am closer to Sartre’s position of “existence precedes essence,” i.e. that we create our own meaning and that there is no external meaning. That the meaning one has must be self defined. I assert that in order to maintain that meaning, the meaning has to be within one’s control. That in refinement to Sartre’s position, not only do we create our meaning but that a eudaimonic meaning must reside in the subset all possible locuses of meaning that are fully within one’s own control.

Of the things that are most correlated with a satisfying and meaningful life, one is contributing to something greater than yourself.  These projects are personal, where you can see them having an effect on society, that provide peak challenging experiences, and will matter to more than just you.2 These projects could be a job or charity work or some sort of political organization, and they all lie outside the sphere of choice.

In order to gain the benefits of these projects without the potential of distress from their external nature we should abstract the location of the meaning we gain from them. If one places their meaning in the project itself, then it can be taking away from you, or the project can fail. Instead abstract up a layer and instead place your meaning in the work of moving a project forward. If your charity organization folds, then you can look at it as meaningful work that was done and that you can do more meaningful work with another charity.  If your preferred political candidate fails, then work to promote another one for the next election. The outcome of the project does not matter, derive your meaning form your actions to promote a project.

When one looks at the research by Dr John T. Cacioppo and others, it indicates loneliness in older adults results in nearly doubling their mortality risk. They better define Loneliness as “perceived isolation and . . . more accurately defined as the distressing feeling that accompanies discrepancies between one’s desired and actual social relationships.” 1 If one moves their location of their desired social relationship away from an individual and towards a category, then one can change the location of the meaning one derives from specific relationships.

To be defined as the wife or husband of another results in an existence reliant on their spouse for meaning.  Here one has placed their meaning in an external. One’s meaning is dependent on the health and opinions of someone else, not on anything one controls. A Stoic can still love their spouse, but would be wise to define their meaning in this regard as not so specific. Rather make your meaning to be a dutiful and loving spouse, or go up a level of abstraction to define your meaning as love and care for others. This change in relationship desire removes the discrepancy of loneliness. Then when one passes on, as we all will eventually, we don’t lose our meaning as well. Keep your meaning to the level of abstraction that remains within your realm of control and reap the health benefits.

Finally those who place their meaning in money are truly lost. Not only is money an external but an external which has no objective value. It only has value due to our inter-subjective reality, i.e. it only has value due to our collective agreement that it has value. It is a second order external, it is outside our control and it is dependent on others collective subjective agreement about it.  At least first order externals like our bodies are only dependent on the physical world. A second order external is furthest from our control.

Those without meaning are like a ship out of harbor, beset by a storm. They are lost and in danger -in danger of being defined by others’ desires for them. In the storm they are at the mercy of the gust and waves, throwing them to and fro without direction of their own. The storms are jobs, money, relationships and any other other definition of meaning that on may take that can be taken away from them. If one has meaning that is dependent upon the self alone then they create a harbor against the worst storms and a harness for the storms that are advantageous and in harmony with your meaning.

Dan Hayes  is a Stoic Prokoptôn, a VR Software Developer, and a Landlord, seeking calm within the storm of life through wisdom.

1. Luo, Y.,  Hawkley, L. C., Waite, L. J., Cacioppo, J. T. (2012). Loneliness, health, and mortality in old age: A national longitudinal study. Social Science & Medicine, 74, 907-914.

2. Martos T et al., “Life Goals and Well-Being: Does Financial Status Matter? Evidence from a Representative Hungarian Sample.” Soc. Indic. Res. 105, 561–8 (2012)

A Stoic Approach to Divorce and Child Separation by Stewart Slater

Nowadays, around half of all marriages end in divorce. The exact number varies from country to country and time to time, but having risen over the post-war era, it has broadly plateaued at a permanently high level.

Like many things, divorce exists on a spectrum. For every couple who adopt the Gwyneth Paltrow / Chris Martin model of “conscious uncoupling” and stay involved in each others’ lives, there is another which re-enacts the Michael Douglas / Kathleen Turner film The War of the Roses.

Things are more complex when children are involved and for every couple who manage to “co-parent” successfully, there is another where one parent is cut out of the children’s lives.

My divorce was the latter and I was that parent.

The settlement allowed me to send cards and presents to my children 4 times a year but there was no corresponding obligation on them. The situation continued for a couple of years until I learned that my children had moved school. Then I learned they had moved house.

I re-engaged my divorce lawyer, who in turn hired a detective. He found no trace of them but some hearsay evidence they had moved abroad to one of two countries.

The matter was turned over to the government, who, using the well established protocols for these situations, got in contact with the government of one of the other states. Finally, they were able to confirm that my children did actually live there.

Unfortunately, these things take time and my children were located just after my daughter’s 16th birthday and 16 is the age when child abduction law ceases to apply. So, while I have gained an idea of where my children are, I have also lost my ability to do anything to get them back. I may be able to establish some contact with my son, who is younger, but I have, probably, lost my daughter.

I developed an interest in Stoicism before my divorce and I’ve found it an enormous help during it. While I sincerely hope that no-one has to go through a similar experience, below are the 4 Stoic approaches that I’ve found the most useful.

1. The Dichotomy of Control

We are responsible for some things, while there are others for which we cannot be held responsible.

Epictetus, Enchiridion, 1.1.

An obvious place to start. One of the core doctrines of Stoicism is to focus on what you control, and not to worry about what you do not. Epictetus in the passage following the above talks about judgement, impulse, desire, aversion and our mental faculties being in the former camp, while the latter consists of our bodies, material possessions, reputation and status.

A good example of his approach comes in book 4, chapter 1 of The Discourses where he writes in section 73:

Whoever told you ‘Walking is your irrevocable privilege’? I only said the will to walk could not be obstructed. Where the use of the body and its cooperation are concerned, you’ve long been told that that isn’t your responsibility.

If we do not control our own bodies and actions, then, a fortiori, we do not control those of others. Unfortunately, a divorce case, particularly involving children, involves a lot of other people. There’s one’s soon-to-be-ex spouse, one’s children, lawyers, a judge and any experts the court may choose to consult. One of them at least, will not have your best interests at heart. All of them have other things going on in their lives which may be more important to them than your case. They may well reach conclusions which strike you as illogical and ill-founded. And there is nothing you can do about it. The decision in the case will not be yours.

All you can do is choose the best lawyer you can, tell your side of the story to the best of your ability, try to rebut the other side’s arguments where possible and to cooperate with the process as far as you are able. After that, the matter is out of your hands. Accepting this is a key part of process. Ultimately, you do not control the outcome. In coaching parlance, all you can do is focus on the process and make sure you do your best.

As Epictetus says in The Discourses II.5.28ff:

Your job then is to appear before the court, say what you have to say and then make the best of the situation. Then the judge declares you guilty. ‘I wish you well, judge. I did my part, you can decide if you did yours.’ Because the judge runs a risk too, don’t forget.

2. “The Olympics have started”

There’s a Buddhist proverb which states that the 3 best teachers are failure, heartbreak and empty pockets. And divorce certainly offers all three. However, one of the tropes of Stoicism is that crises offer the chance to test oneself and improve one’s character. As we know, the philosophy has an intensely practical nature prizing action in the real world over “book-learning”.

‘Take the treatise On Impulse and see how well I’ve read it’ Idiot. It’s not that I’m after, I want to know how you put impulse and repulsion into practice, and desire and avoidance as well.

Epictetus, Discourses, I.4.14

Unfortunately, many of the virtues are only really called into action in unpleasant circumstances. We cannot show courage unless there is something to fear. Accepting a pleasant circumstance is much easier than accepting an unpleasant one. It is at difficult times that we have the most opportunity to learn and improve ourselves.

…Faced with pain, you will discover the power of endurance. If you are insulted, you will discover patience. In time, you will grow to be confident that there is not a single impression that you will not have the moral means to tolerate.

Epictetus, Enchiridion, 10

Divorce throws up many unpleasant circumstances, but that offers many opportunities to improve one’s character. Different parts of the process might call on different virtues and it helps to see each new event as a chance to work on a particular area. As Marcus Aurelius asks:

What is this which is now making its impression on me?…What virtue is needed to meet it- gentleness, for example or courage, truthfulness, loyalty, simplicity, self-sufficiency and so on?

Meditations III.11.2

Seeing divorce in that light serves to lighten the pain, and one can think that while one will come out of the experience poorer in many (indifferent) ways, one can also leave it a better person than one started. By seeing it as a training course in life’s gym, one can imbue the experience with positive meaning as it offers gains as well as the obvious losses.

3. The Role of Father

It is well established in behavioral economics that humans have an asymmetric approach to gains and losses. Countless experiments have shown that we would far rather give up an opportunity for gain to avoid a loss rather accept a potential loss as the price for an almost certain profit. Unfortunately, divorce involves a lot of losses

As well as the material factors, one also loses a role. One is no longer a spouse and the role (if it be such) of “ex-spouse” depends almost exclusively on the circumstances regarding the split. In my own case, not seeing my children also seemed to remove my role as a father. But is this really true?

At one level, certainly not. Whatever the current situation, nothing changes my genetic link to my children. But looking at it in that, purely biological light, seems unsatisfactory as it effectively equates fatherhood with sperm donation, and I think we would see the two in slightly different lights. But a more expansive definition such as “a male who brings up a child” seems flawed as well. A prisoner of war, for example, is not involved in raising their child, but we wouldn’t say that they stop being a parent during their incarceration.

Epictetus deals with parenthood in chapter 11 of Book 1 of The Discourses. There, he talks to a man who felt unable to stay with his sick daughter and describes his behavior as not a rational act” (Discourses, I.11.20)

Now, any definition of a role in terms of the actions it involves will fall foul of the Dichotomy of Control. As noted above, there are circumstances in which one will not be able to fulfill them. So, the role of fatherhood must be couched in terms of intentions and desires. A father is someone who, for example, wants the best for his children and endeavours to bring it about. It is in this second part that the father whom Epictetus meets fails because, by giving in to his worry, he acts in such a way as to reduce his ability to help and support his child.

This might seem a de minimis version of fatherhood and one might wonder if Hierocles’ Circle does not lay a similar burden on us towards everyone, not just our offspring. However, I think 2 points can be made in reply. Firstly, the Stoics obviously placed family relationships in a special position. The chapter referred to above is entitled Concerning Family Affection where he states:

Whatever is rational will not be in conflict with family affection Epictetus,

Discourses, I.11.18

In this, he seems to be following Musonius Rufus who writes in his lecture “What is the chief end of marriage?” :

He said that the chief end of marriage is uniting to live together and have children [i.e. form a family unit]

Musonius Rufus, Lectures XIII.A.1

Further, while we may, as human beings have an obligation to all other people, it is not clear that it is the same as that owed to our families. If I fail to buy my children a birthday present, I am probably a bad father. If I don’t buy a birthday present for every child in my town, it is not clear that I am, therefore, a bad person.

So, if fatherhood consists of trying to do one’s best for one’s genetic offspring, the change divorce has brought me is not a loss of my role, it is rather a change in the way I can fulfil it. Our performance of a role must be considered along with the realistic options we have at any point in time. It must take cognizance of our practical situation. For example, consider a father whose child is studying the Greeks. If he is well-off, he might take her to Athens on holiday, and spend a week seeing the Acropolis, the Agora and the museums to make sure she learns all she can about them. The next year, she studies the Romans, but in the intervening period, through no fault of his own, her father has lost his job, and his resources are more straitened. Instead of a holiday to Rome, maybe all he can do is take her to the local museum to see some relics. In the second year, he is doing less for his daughter, but he has not thereby become a worse father. He is still doing all he can, given the circumstances of his life.

My own situation means that I cannot do many of the things we traditionally associate with fatherhood. However, it does not stop me acting as a father. I can still endeavour to keep in touch with my children’s education, for example. I can still intervene with those in authority when I think it is to their advantage to do so. I can bear their interests at the forefront of my mind, even in matters of which they will be unaware and may never learn about. To misquote Dean Acheson, I may have lost my children, but I have not yet lost my role.

4. Praemeditatio Malorum

The previous sections have dealt with approaches to the problem, ways of thinking about it which have helped me accept the situation. In this last part, I will deal with a practice to help reduce distress.

Praemeditatio malorum or “the visualisation of evils” is a standard part of the Stoic therapeutic arsenal, consisting of intentionally imagining a situation which one fears or wishes to avoid. The idea is that by repeated consideration of an event, one habituates oneself to it, thereby reducing the distress it causes. If the event never materialises, then one has at least reduced one’s fear of it while if it does, not only should it cause one less distress, but by having rehearsed it beforehand, one should also be able to react better, if for no other reason than that it will not be a shock.

Not seeing my children is obviously a continual situation, rather than a single event, so is hard to visualise. I decided, therefore, to visualise dying on my own, having never seen them since we parted. As I was lying there, not feeling too good about things, I realised that, even in that extreme circumstance, I still had the opportunity to be virtuous. I could die well, with courage.

And if I could be virtuous then, then I could be virtuous at any time, no matter what was happening which I find a very comforting thought. As Stoics, we’re supposed to aim for virtue and no external circumstance whether it be divorce, loss or hardship can stop us unless we allow it. As Marcus asks:

Can there be anything then, in this happening which prevents you from being just, high-minded, self-controlled, intelligent, judicious, truthful, honourable and free – or any other of those attributes who combination is the fulfilment of man’s proper nature?

Meditations, IV.49.2

And the answer is always, “No”.

Stewart Slater lives in the UK. He has a degree in Classics and has been a practising Stoic for several years

Stoic Reflections From The Gym (part 1) by Greg Sadler

In recent years, we have had a number of well-written and informative pieces discussing Stoicism and physical exercise or sport here in Stoicism Today.  These include pieces like:

One might wonder then:  Why another piece on the topic.  Hasn’t everything relevant already been said about the application of Stoic philosophy to matters athletic, sporty, or exercise-related in those excellent pieces here, as well as in myriad other pieces (ranging much more widely in quality) elsewhere? After all, once Stoicism became a hot topic – guaranteed to garner eyeballs on the internet – posts applying Stoicism to these matters of the body have practically exploded in number, popularity, and readership. Why write more of that sort of stuff, given how much of it is out there already?

Then again, perhaps a different sort of post would be better.  There’s always room for pieces narrating and sharing one’s own story, by way of inspiration and personal example.  After all, Stoicism is a philosophy of practice and that means that it applies to particular individuals, who live out and experiment with Stoicism’s general teachings.  Or maybe a more exegetical post tallying up and interpreting the many references to training, working out, and athletic contests could be of interest?

This post will be something a bit different. While it includes some brief discussion about what classic Stoics had to say about exercise, athletics, and the body, and a good bit of personal narrative, the goal is to provide something more broadly useful.  The audience I have in mind is less a high-performance athlete engaging and perhaps even competing in physical skills or sports.  It’s not even the person who already has exercise as a central component of his or her lifestyle.  It’s directed less towards readers in their teens and twenties – those years many of us look back on as ages of better bodily health which we may have taken for granted – and more aimed at an audience either approaching, solidly within, or past middle age.  That’s not to say that it might not be useful or of interest for the types of readers I’ve mentioned.

The reflections that follow stem from my own experiences, insights, and reflections having to do with exercise.  These are filtered  through Stoic philosophy and practices, which I have relied upon over roughly the last year-and-a half of workouts at the gym we belong to (the Wisconsin Athletic Club, with a number of locations here in the Milwaukee area).  My wife and I struggled for years to reincorporate consistent exercise into our busy lives.  When dealing with heavy workloads, health challenges, and a slew of family matters, it becomes easy to sketch out plans for getting back into shape. It is equally easy to sign up for a gym membership, and perhaps even to go a few times.  To stick with exercise, week after week, that’s considerably tougher.  For me, reincorporating exercise in middle age turned out to be much more difficult and demanding than it was in my youth.

My workouts at the gym are pretty straightforward and unambitious.  Some days, I make a circuit of 14-16 exercises using weights machines, generally doing three sets of 12-15 repetitions on each.  That takes me anywhere from 1 hour, if I’m really moving, to 90 minutes.  Other days, I put in an hour of cardiovascular exercise – 20 minutes on an elliptical, 20 minutes on a rowing machine, 10 minutes on a side-stepper, and 10 minutes on an inclined treadmill.  Those workouts, supplemented by daily walking and occasional hikes, are as much as I can fit in, and I find them sufficiently challenging to be entirely uninterested in adding anything along lines of advice well-meaning people frequently suggest.

During those workouts, I find myself with plenty of time to reflect and ruminate. Since I study, teach, and produce content about Stoicism, ideas and issues from that discipline are often in my thought.  Being at the gym also provides me with a lot of occasions to put Stoic philosophy into practice. I find myself having to deal with impressions, judgements, lines of thinking, emotions, desires, aversions, and my own habits. The fact that I have classic Stoic passages, principles, and practices ready at hand when I face these matters is, on the one hand, a sign that I am indeed making progress.  The fact that I still routinely need to use those is, on the other hand, a sign that I have a lot more progress to make.  

The reflections that follow may be useful for others who would like to bring Stoicism to bear on their own challenges in starting and sticking with regular physical exercise.  I suspect that, given the challenges they stem from these reflections may be pertinent to other domains of life as well.  In order to keep this piece to a reasonable length, I’ll discuss two of those sets of reflections today.  In the coming week, I will add a few shorter follow-up pieces about yet other reflections.

Considering the Body As Indifferent

Classical Stoic thinkers employ many analogies likening the training of the mind with that of physical exercise and discipline.  What did they think about training the body itself?  One might think that they are of two minds about this.  For example, you notice Epictetus asserting in Enchiridion 41 that one sign of an poorly developed person is spending much time on matters of the body.  These include eating and drinking, but also engaging in exercise (gumnazesthai). 

Seneca cautions Lucilius along these lines in Letter 15.

It is foolish. . . and unbefitting an educated man to busy oneself with exercising the muscles, broadening the shoulders, and strengthening the torso. . . . .Those who are obsessed with such a regimen incur many discomforts.

He does not suggest ignoring physical exercise, but rather placing it within a proper framework.

There are ways of exercising that are easy and quick, that give the body a workout without taking up too much time. . .  running, and arm movements with various weights, and jumping. . . Choose whatever you like and make it easy by practice.  But whatever you do, return quickly from the body to the mind and exercise that, night and day.

Within classical Stoic philosophy, there is a clear, consistent, and uncompromising viewpoint on the human body.  Those who focus upon it exclusively or even primarily are deeply mistaken, and whatever they may temporarily achieve or attain through the body, they are inevitably passing up any chance at real happiness, because they are closing themselves off to developing what really matters, and what we really do have some measure of control over.  This is our mind, and in particular the nexus at its core that Stoics call by various names (picking out distinctive functions):  the governing faculty, the rational faculty, the faculty of choice or will (prohairesis).  Prioritizing and valuing physical exercise for its own sake, or for the sake of ends it leads to as a means (being strong and tough, attaining a certain look or body type, becoming more physically attractive, competing with others, etc.) is not inherently or absolutely incompatible with developing and exercising one’s mental and moral capacities, but for many people it turns out to be so in their specific cases.

Strictly speaking, the body is what the Stoics classify as an “indifferent,” something that lacks intrinsic moral value, for good or for bad.  This is not to say that as an indifferent it lacks value altogether, but it does not have the same sort of positive or negative value as things that are genuine goods or bads.  In their teachings and advice, Stoics provided numerous examples of things that fit under this umbrella term of the indifferent.  Wealth and poverty, honor and disgrace, positions and powers or being a “nobody” – these are all commonplace examples.

Interestingly, if you look at many of the things that Stoics call “indifferents,” they pertain to the body in one way or another.  Life or death, sickness or health, pleasure or pain, strength or weakness, attractiveness or ugliness – the body is not just one thing that is an indifferent, but rather a nexus of all sorts of indifferents. Quite a few of these are interconnected with each other.  If we look at matters of the body along these Stoic lines, what do we make of hitting the gym then?  Doesn’t whether we go or don’t go – or whether we exercise hard or slack off – also become just a set of choices that bear upon indifferents, so that really, they don’t matter very much (or perhaps at all)?  In the grand scheme of things, does it matter at all if I do all of the repetitions in a set?  Does it matter if I skip one of the weights exercises on any given day, or just row for 15 minutes rather than 20? 

For Stoics, recognizing that things concerning the body are indifferents doesn’t lead them to think that how we approach them, how we deal with them, the decisions me make about them is itself something indifferent.  There is the entire dimension of “use” (khresis), about which Epictetus tells us:

Materials are indifferent, but the use that we make of them is not a matter of indifference.  . . . Are externals to be used carelessly?  Not at all.  This is again to the moral purpose an evil and thus unnatural to it.  They must be used carefully, because their use is not a matter of indifference, and at the same time with steadfastness and peace of mind, because the matter is indifferent

Discourses 2.5

In this discourse, Epictetus likens the conduct of one’s life to playing a game with a ball.  The ball itself is an indifferent, but the way one choses to play is up to one, and does have positive or negative moral significance.  One might look at one’s body in a similar light.  Whether one chooses to exercise or not, one can experience pain, bad health, weakness, obesity, and ultimately death.  In fact, as I often remind my students, you can get and maintain yourself in peak physical shape and get hit by a stray bus as you cross the street, or succumb to some unexpected pandemic.  In many ways the body and its many connected indifferents is really outside the scope of our control.  And yet, we can make prudent use of our bodies by engaging in regular physical exercise. We are responsible to some extent for the shape our bodies are in, and what we choose to do about that.

As a middle aged man, for whom physical exercise never comes as easily or effortlessly as I remember it did in my earlier decades, I have to remind myself that it is up to me what I do with this rather out of condition meat-machine I have been assigned.  In my own case, I also have to keep in mind that the current state of my body is a result of not making the right uses of it in terms of exercise in the past, but that it is possible in the present to choose, to commit, to “use” better.  Whether or not the parts of some  machine of metal, plastic, and rubber get moved in this way or that by my bodily effort – that is definitely something indifferent.  Whether or not my muscles, bones, circulatory system benefit in minor incremental manners from the physical activity I devote time to – that’s also indifferent.  But what I decide to do with this body that I have – that is something up to me, something that is not indifferent. 

Recognizing The Gym As Shared Space

One main way in which I make use of Stoic philosophy at the gym stems from a tendency that I have, and admit with some embarrassment, but which I suspect many people can easily relate to.  Nearly all of the exercises that I do at the gym are on machines.  Either they are weights machines or they are machines set up for cardio.  Like many gym-goers, I have my established routines for how I cycle through using each machine in turn.  I like to start my weight circuit with the rowing machine, then the pulldown, then the shoulder press, and so on.  I start my cardio workout on one of the elliptical machines, and then move on to a rowing machine.  There is no reason that the exercises that I do need to go in any particular order.  It’s just a matter of habits that I have generated for myself over time.

Here’s what I find myself experiencing, still far too often, but also find some remedies for in Stoic philosophy.  It is a set of needless and unproductive thoughts and associated emotions that arise within a particular context. These reveal some of my own assumptions as well, judgements that I am working to erode over time, because they are selfish, irrational, and harmful.  In a strict sense, considered in light of Stoic philosophy, they are also vicious – specifically foolish and unjust – and setting them down in print makes this pretty clear.  I have to go through a similar evaluative process when I identify them and bring them up for review in my own mind, usually as I’m laboring away at a physical exercise.

I will be on the machine that I’m currently using, laboring away at whatever exercise that machine is set up for, and I already have my eye on another machine – the one that comes next in my usual sequence.  If someone else is using it, and I am getting close to finishing with my current machine, I find myself feeling emotions like annoyance, anxiousness, and impatience, often directed at that person on the other machine.  It’s worse if there is some seeming legitimacy to those feelings – for example, when you see a person taking what appears to be an inordinately long time to knock out their sets, spending the intervals between dawdling on their phone.

Notice what I did just there, by using the term “dawdling”.  In Stoic terms, that’s a judgement or opinion (doxa or dogma, to use Epictetus’ terms) which might indeed be quite true, but which could also be false.  I’m assuming something, or most likely, quite a lot of things, in making that judgement.  It’s also a way in which I’m giving assent to what Stoics call an appearance or impression (phantasia), namely the impression that the person on the other machine is wasting time doing something unimportant on their phone, rather than getting on with the workout they ought to be engaging in, if they’re on that machine.  Practicing Stoicism means identifying when one is engaging in this sort of unfounded judgement-making, when one is reacting automatically or unconsciously to appearances, rather than taking a pause to test them.  It could be that the person is on their phone for good reason.  Perhaps they got an important text, or an email came through that has to be attended to.  Maybe they use an app to track their exercises. 

Let’s say that the person in question really is wasting time, watching videos on YouTube about something trivial and totally unconnected with exercise.  Let’s say that he or she is caught up in that, losing track of how much time is passing in between their sets.  Why should that be upsetting to me?  I rarely know any of the people I am sharing the gym space with. Nearly all of us have headphones in.  How is it any of my business whether that other person gets a good workout in?  It brings to mind Epictetus’ warning:

Somebody is hasty about bathing; do not say he bathes badly, but that he is hasty about bathing.  Someone drinks a great deal of wine; do not say that he drinks badly, but that he drinks a great deal.  For until you have decided what judgement prompts him, how do you know what he is doing is bad?  And thus the final result will not be that you receive convincing impressions of some things, but give your assent to other things.

Enchiridion 45  

What other people do at the gym is really their own business.  So why then do I find myself having these responses – before I am even finished with my own exercise – to another person using the machine I intend to use next?  My desire is already stretching out into the near future to the thing I plan to use next.  It’s not unlike a person who already has a plate in front of him, with a dish he hasn’t finished yet, looking over at the next dish he wants to eat, and getting upset seeing other people eating it.  There’s something profoundly foolish about that, and even more so in the gym.  Someone else might eat all the deserts while I’m polishing off my main course.  But nobody is taking away my possibility of using an exercise machine by sitting on it.  I just have to be patient, and sooner or later the machine will be free.

When I examine my own thoughts about these matters, in the situation, what I realize is going on is that I have desires, emotions, and thoughts that from a Stoic perspective could use some serious work.  Human beings do tend to have a natural self-centeredness, not just in terms of what we desire and what we value, but also in the assumptions we make and the lines of reasoning we follow out, and I am no exception.  I have to remind myself in these situations that I am the one who is allowing myself to become upset by assenting to impressions I have of the situation, by failing to reflect upon what might or might not be the case, by investing my desires into things I have no control over, by making faulty assumptions about what ought to be the case, and by inconsistently acting as if I am – if not the center of the universe – at least the center of the gym.

Whether or not I do my exercises in the more or less arbitrary sequence that I have settled into is really unimportant.  The only thing that gives it some glamour of significance is my own desire to do my exercises in that order.  They can be shuffled around and no real harm will come to me.  The weights aren’t going to be less heavy if I do the leg press last instead of in the middle of my workout.  The rowing machine will function the same if I get on it at the end as well.  Nobody is hindering or preventing me from exercising by doing their own workout.

Marcus Aurelius constantly reminds himself – and Epictetus and Seneca frequently teach – that we are all parts of greater wholes, systems whose components can cooperate and harmonize with each other in productive ways, or oppose each other and create conflicts.  I’m not claiming that somehow the Wisconsin Athletic Club is an organization in which all of us members are working together for some common goal.  But what it does provide is indeed a space that we all share and have to take turns in.  It may sound quite silly, but I have to remind myself of the fact that I’m definitely not the only person there to get a workout, and that it’s irrational for me to be mentally laying claim on a machine that someone else is using, when I’m still using another machine – one that yet another person might also be waiting to use.

Through catching my own thought and emotional processes, recalling relevant Stoic teachings, and deliberately steering myself onto a path informed by those, I’ve noticed a difference over time.  I still do find myself falling into this dynamic of worry over being able to move right from the machine I’m currently using to the one that comes next in my workout routine – and I’m not happy to admit a foible like that – but it does happen less often.  And when it does arise, the emotional responses feel less intense and do not last as long.  The thought processes are more tractable to being brought in line with better practical reasoning.  And that is a sign that I’m making progress in developing what the Stoics call the ruling faculty of my mind, getting it too into better condition through appropriate and consistent exercise.

 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 has created over 100 videos on Stoic philosophy, regularly speaks and provides workshops on Stoicism, and is currently working on several book projects

Modern Stoicism Expert Panel Posts – Stoicism, Pain, and Illness

Over the last several months, we here in the Modern Stoicism organization have published several posts about one of the perks for our Patreon supporters – discussions by our panel of experts on Stoicism on selected topics. We’ve been publishing the full set of contributions to the panel in the Patreon site, and one of the experts’ contribution in a short mid-week post here. This time around, we’re doing something a little different. Down below, you’ll find the full panel discussion on the topic of “Stoicism, Pain, and Illness”

Before that, there’s two other matters to bring to your attention – just in case you missed them when we posted about them earlier this year.

First, here are the two earlier posts on other important topics

Second, if you’d like to suggest a passage or topic for our expert panel to consider, we now have a link set up for that – Suggest a Quote or Topic for Discussion

And now, with no further ado, on to the expert panel for May. Here’s the question: What insights does Stoicism provide to help us cope with Pain and Illness?

Chuck Chakrapani

Stoicism treats pain and illness as something that relates to your body. Your body nothing to do with the ‘true you’ which is your rational mind, your will. The mind is temporarily housed in the body, like a traveller in a hotel room. Pain and illness that affect the body have little to do with your mind which is forever unfettered and free.

Sickness is an impediment to the body, but not to the will, unless itself pleases. Lameness is an impediment to the leg, but not to the will; and say this to yourself with regard to everything that happens. For you will find it to be an impediment to something else, but not truly to yourself.

Epictetus, Enchiridion 9

Pain and illness affect you only when you identify yourself with your body rather than your rational mind or will. While Epicurus argued all pain is bearable, the Stoics believed that the real you never suffer pain or illness. It is this lack of identification with the body that made them immune – not only to pain and illness but to death itself.

Massimo Pigliucci

There is, I assure you, a place for virtue even upon a bed of sickness. It is not only the sword and the battle-line that prove the soul alert and unconquered by fear; a man can display bravery even when wrapped in his bed-clothes.

Seneca, Letters to Lucilius, LXXVIII.21

Stoicism is a philosophy of life, not a magic wand. So if someone thinks that adopting a Stoic outlook means that he will suddenly be free of pain and illness, they should think again. And of course the same could be said for someone embracing Buddhism, or Christianity, or any other framework to live one’s life.

The fact is that it is not in our power to avoid pain and illness. But as Seneca says in the quote above, it very much is in our power to react virtuously to such circumstances. Indeed, the entire 72nd letter to Lucilius is concerned with this topic, and is excellent reading for any student of Stoicism.

Most importantly, I think, we need not to allow ourselves to use our illness as an excuse to be rude or unkind toward others, particularly those who are actually taking care of us. It’s more common than you think: a friend of mine has worked in a clinic for the terminally ill, and told me that they have a chronic staff shortage due to high turnover, which is caused in part by the fact that the caretakers are subjected to constant abuse by the people they assist. Even dying is an opportunity to show kindness to our fellow human beings. As Seneca puts it in the same letter:

There are times when just continuing to live is a courageous action.

Letters, LXXVIII.2

Greg Sadler

Many of us suffer from pain and illness, some more often than others, and Stoicism can help us not only to endure these conditions, but also to reframe our approaches to them, so that we can realize them not to be the catastrophes that they readily appear to us.  Of course, it isn’t so simple as just reading some Stoic texts, or repeating “bear and forbear” like a mantra – there are no quick fixes.  But Stoicism offers us powerful tools for analysis of what really troubles us, and for changing the ways we look at those matters.

One aspect that adds additional suffering to those enduring pain and illness is a set of evaluative assumptions that often accompany those conditions.  These have to do with one’s value as a person.  And this dynamic extends much more broadly to other circumstances that we typically view as negative, for example, poverty, as Epictetus points out in Discourses 3.26. He asks the person who fears poverty what it is that they really feel fear over.  One of the answers that his probing analysis reveals has to do with a loss or lessening of social status.

Is that shameful to you which is not your own act? Of which you are not the cause? Which has happened to you by accident, like a fever or the head-ache? If your parents were poor, or left others their heirs, or though living, do not assist you, are these things shameful for you?

It is quite common for those who suffer from pain, or illness, or poverty to get an additional troubling condition foisted upon them by society and its members.  It’s very easy for people who are dealing with these sorts of matters to be looked down up, treated as less than a person, even by their own caregivers.  In this Discourse, Epictetus not only suggests that we ought to determine what really is shameful – which has to do only with what we choose and do, not with what happens to us – but that we even push back against other people’s judgements about our value and what it derives from.  

All too often, those who suffer from chronic pain or illness get the message that there is not only something wrong with their body – and that’s true – but that, because of that, there is something wrong with them – and that inference is false.  It is easy and understandable for a person who is suffering, and consistently getting those sorts of messages, to internalize them, and then create more suffering for themselves by repeating them to themselves.  Stoic philosophy and practice can help undo the damage caused by that dynamic, and restore some measure of psychological health in the process.

Tim LeBon

Stoicism can be a great help to those suffering from illness and pain.  As a CBT-therapist working in the NHS in the UK with people suffering from “long-term conditions” I regularly incorporate what I call “Serenity Prayer Stoicism” into my work.
When people have long-term illnesses or pain, they can be helped by thinking carefully about what they can and  what they cant control.  For instance, 

  • “I can’t control the fact that I have this condition but I can control how I respond to it”
  • “I can no longer gain pleasure and meaning in the way that I did, but that doesnt mean I can’t do so in other ways”
  • “I can’t control the fact that I will experience some pain. but by “pacing” my activities to the right level I can influence how much pain I am in”

These can all be incredibly helpful Stoic ideas which  can be incorporated into standard CBT.  Working as a therapist, it is ethically problematic to try to persuade people to change their value system, which is what one would need to do if one were to ask people to fully embrace Stoicism fully.

In other contexts than therapy, if   people do agree that virtue  is what matters most in life, then clearly this can help enormously in coping with illness and pain, Feeling good now becomes at best a preferred indifferent, and so pain and illness are not an obstacle to eudaimonia. Indeed, being ill and in painprovide new opportunities to exhibit the virtues. One can show courage in how one deals with pain, self-control in not complaining or not over-doing things, justice in being a good role model for people with your condition and wisdom in prioritising the virtues and in focussing on what you can control.

When about to be captured by enemy forces, James Stockdale, author of Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot, and Courage under Fire  famously whispered to himself “I’m entering the world of Epictetus”.. When ill or in pain, we could all benefit from engaging whole-heartedly with Stoicism.

Again, if you’d like to support all the work we do, as the Modern Stoicism organization, consider becoming a monthly Patreon supporter!

Freelancing, Stress and Stoicism by Andrew Munro

The gig economy, talent economy, independent professionals, interims, locums  and freelancers – the media seems obsessed with the supposed evils and potential advantages of this brave new world. But, is it real, is it happier and what lessons could Stoicism have for adventurers in this new land?

Freelancing – The Figures

Freelancing, as a model of work, is growing. Of course, there have always been independent workers, from casual bar staff to your local, independent plumber, but a decade of empowering technology has made it much simpler for would-be independents and clients to connect.

In the US, there are now between 40 and 48 million independent workers (between 25 and 30 per cent of the US workforce, depending on the survey).

In the UK (calculated on a different basis), there are around 4 million self-employed solo workers, around 13 per cent of the workforce.

Those are substantial figures and on the increase all across the world.

Is it a happier life? For most, freelancing is a positive career choice (not employment of last resort). Research, like this recent report from FlexJobs, regularly reflects freelancers’ positive outlook.

The report found that:

  • 92% of freelancers said the freelance lifestyle was important to them
  • 63% said freelancing had a “positive impact” [on their lifestyle]
  • 60% said freelancing has helped them become healthier
  • 66% said they are less stressed as a freelancer.

In general, then, we independents are a happy bunch.Sometimes though, it doesn’t feel less stressed. There always seems to be some time-money tension; inevitably you’re worrying about one or the other.

Training? You won’t take the time when you’re busy, but you won’t spend the money when you’re quiet. Holidays? You can’t get free when there’s work to do, but you feel guilty when your project pipeline’s a bit limp and saggy. And then there are sales calls to make, debts to manage and bills to pay. Oh, and difficult client to manage, too.

Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus are two of the most popular Stoic philosophers. Marcus was an emperor, Epictetus a slave. As a freelancer, you can feel like either or both … often on the same day.

What, then, can a 2,000-year old philosophy offer this new world of work?Stoicism emphasizes personal responsibility and self-discipline. In many ways, it’s perfectly aligned to those on an independent journey as “Me Inc.”

Here are five areas where applying a little Stoic perspective can lighten your daily burden.

1.  Don’t stress about what you can’t control

As an independent, it’s all down to you. There’s no corporate comfort-blanket of admin, finance or marketing support; no holiday pay, sick pay or health insurance. You’re on your own. But that doesn’t mean you have to own everything. Some things, simply, are beyond your control.

One of the core tenets of Stoic thinking is the observation that, as Epictetus says, “some things are within our power, while others are not.”[i]

And he warns:

If you regard that which … is not your own as being your own, you’ll have cause to lament, you’ll have a troubled mind and you’ll find fault with both gods and human beings[ii]

Worrying about things you can’t change just increases your overall stress levels. Let them go.

If you’re prone to worry, like a dog with a bone, try listing all your concerns on paper, then mark each as within or outwith your control. Make a positive decision to let go of the things you can’t control. Put your mental energies towards the things you can: the quality of your work, meeting deadlines etc.

2.  Choose how you respond to events

Email, phone, SMS and social media. Someone always wants an answer. And, everything is always changing. The ground moves, the unexpected happens.

Often, as a freelancer, you feel the need to respond to everything, immediately. The customer, after all, is king. You don’t want anyone to think you can’t cope or that you’re not interested.

When something happens unexpectedly, there is a tendency to respond immediately. But, the knee-jerk reaction isn’t always the right reaction. When we react instinctively, we can manufacture our own outrage and offence.

As Epictetus tell us:

It isn’t the things themselves that disturb people, but the judgements that they form about them [iii]

In other words, mind the gap between any stimulus and your response to it.

Without realising, we too often “choose” to get stressed by an unanswered email, a late purchase order, an ill-informed comment or off-the-cuff feedback. Take a moment. Pause. Choose a better response. Realise that the client’s slow reply is not likely to be a personal insult. A delayed purchase order is more often down to bureaucracy than a change of heart. After all your big-company client isn’t as agile as a freelancer. That’s one of the reasons they hired you.

Agility is valuable, but stubborn independence is not. Being freelance doesn’t need to mean being alone. You can respond with time and with help:

Think it no shame to be helped. Your business is to do your appointed duty, like a soldier in the breach. How, then, if you are lame, and unable to scale the battlements yourself, but could do it if you had the aid of a comrade?[iv]

3.  Keep a sense of perspective

When you work on your own, wholly responsible for your success or failure, events can become magnified in your mind. Everything can seem of monumental significance. It can be difficult to keep some headspace, to keep things in their proper proportions.

But remember, even a missed deadline is seldom cataclysmic.

As the most powerful man on earth, the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius,  observed:

In the universe Asia and Europe are but two small corners, all oceans’ water a drop, [Mount] Athos a puny lump of earth, the vastness of time a pin’s point in eternity.[v]

Stoic philosophy can be very grounding. Marcus returns time and time again to humanity’s minute and fleeting spot in time and space.

The first rule,” he writes, “is to keep an untroubled spirit; for all things must bow to Nature’s law, and soon enough you must vanish into nothingness, like Hadrian and Augustus.[vi]

In other words, get over yourself. What can seem calamitous in the wee, small, sleepless hours is often somewhat less significant in the cool, morning air.

Remember the Steely Dan song:

When the demon is at your door
In the morning it won’t be there no more.[vii]

Step outside for some oxygen, some sunlight, some space and some coffee.

4.  Enjoy the moment

Enjoy the moment, enjoy the ride. It’s much too easy to dwell on what we should have done yesterday and what we need to do tomorrow. It’s very much a human failing, as Roman philosopher Seneca observes,

Animals in the wild flee the dangers they see and are tranquil once they have escaped; we, though, are tormented both by what is to come and what has been. Often, our goods do us harm: memory recalls the stab of fear; foresight anticipates it. No one is made wretched merely by the present.[viii]

It can easily be a freelancer’s failing, too: How did I do? Did I do enough? Will they like what I sent? How do I get more business? What happens when this project is over? Planning is good, but fretting is pointless.“If you lay hands on today,” Seneca tells us, “you will find you are less dependent on tomorrow. While you delay, life speeds on by.”[ix]

Marcus agrees:

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

Stoic thinking isn’t fatalistic, but it is deeply pragmatic.

And, nature too

Stoics are very aware of humanity’s integral place in Nature and of its beauty. It’s a perspective that feels perfectly aligned with our current eco-aware times.

I love this passage from Marcus:

“When a loaf of bread, for instance, is in the oven, cracks appear in it here and there; and these flaws, though not intended in the baking, have a rightness of their own, and sharpen the appetite. Figs, again, at their ripest will also crack open. When olives are on the verge of falling, the very imminence of decay adds its peculiar beauty to the fruit.”[xi]

Very wabi-sabi.

Remember that the freedom and flexibility of the freelance lifestyle entitles you to walk bare-foot on the grass, or wander among the trees, and appreciate nature’s ever-changing beauty. Don’t forget to use your freedom to enjoy your surroundings. Live the freelance dream a little.

5.  Live with integrity

For Stoics, life’s goal is to live “in agreement with Nature”, which translates as living a virtuous life where the four cardinal virtues are: Wisdom, Courage, Justice and Temperance.  In many ways, it’s the flip-side of our first observation. You can’t control everything . . . but you can, and should, control your self: your responses, behaviours, and thoughts.

In Meditations, Marcus returns frequently to the concept of duty. That may not be surprising for a Roman emperor (and history remembers Marcus Aurelius as one of – often, the last of – the “good emperors”). His thoughts are relevant for freelancers. We stand or fall by our last project and the reputation that follows us. Therefore:

“Give your heart to the trade you have learnt, and draw refreshment from it.”[xii]

He also counsels himself:

“Hour by hour resolve firmly, like a Roman and a man, to do what comes to hand with correct and natural dignity, and with humanity, independence, and justice.”[xiii]

And, especially for stressed-out sleepyheads:

“At day’s first light have in readiness against disinclination to leave your bed, the thought that ‘I am rising for the work of man.’”[xiv]

As a freelancer, reputation is all you have. Never be tempted to compromise or surrender it for the expediency of a project.

It’s also worth noting, in these virtue-signalling times, that “integrity” doesn’t need grim-faced declarations of self-denial. Seneca had little patience with the hair-shirt brigade.“Philosophy,” he said, “demands self-restraint, not self-abnegation – and even self-restraint can comb its hair.”

Finishing Thoughts: A Stoic Guide for the Stressed?

I came to Stoicism by accident.I was browsing in the beautiful, art deco, Waterstones bookshop on Piccadilly, when I came across a table display of Penguin’s Great Ideas series. Series 1, Book 2 was Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. I started to flick through and I was hooked by its easily accessible, mostly “snackable” aphorisms. For an 1,800-year old text, it felt strikingly familiar and contemporary.

Meditations – which is many people’s first encounter with Stoic texts – has, for me, a real sense of authenticity. It was written as a note-book, not a text book. It was Marcus’ notes-to-self, never intended for publication. In it, you read him berating himself for his failures, struggling with the frustrations of his office and contemplating the nature of the world and society around him. It is intimate and applicable.

I’m no expert on Stoicism, but it’s a philosophy that sits well with me. I find it relevant and I draw on it increasingly in every day life as an independent professional. Often, the simple realisation that “this is not new, I’m not the only one” is valuable. For that alone, I think every freelancer should have a copy of Meditations ready at hand. Stick a copy in your bag or on your desk and dip into it wherever you feel the spider of stress crawl across your skin.


[i] Epictetus, Handbook / Enchiridion (1.1)

[ii] Epictetus, Handbook / Enchiridion (1.3)

[iii] Epictetus, Handbook / Enchiridion (5)

[iv] Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (7.7)

[v] Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (6.36)

[vi] Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (8.5)

[vii] Walter Becker and Donald Fagen (1974), “Any Major Dude Will Tell You”

[viii] Seneca, Moral Letters to Lucilius (5.9)

[ix] Seneca, Moral Letters to Lucilius (1.1)

[x] Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (7.8)

[xi] Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (3.1)

[xii] Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (4.31)

[xiii] Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (2.5)

[xiv] Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (5.1)

Andrew Munro is a writer and independent professional. Through Burning Pine, he helps businesses to grow by telling their stories. He blogs on topics related to work and the freelance life at The Sovereign Professional.


Stoic Therapy for Anger by Tim LeBon (part 2)

Meeting 3.    How to  Manage Anger

Lucas: Good to see you again Anthony. How did you get on?

Anthony: Good.  Here’s my reconstruction of what happened on Father’s Day.

Event/Trigger:

Robbie spilt coffee over the computer

Stage 1 – first movements towards anger (including fight or flight response and first thoughts)

Shock. Adrenalin rush, Fight response. First angry thoughts “What the ..” “What a clumsy child!.

Stage 2 – My  further thoughts and whether they resisted or intensified  anger

Definitely intensified anger. Thoughts like  “Look what he’s done to my laptop!” , “He needs to learn not to be so clumsy” and  “He should have been more careful” . I had a sense – I wouldn’t say it was a conscious thought-  that it was appropriate for me to get angry, that it was be wrong not to get angry.

Stage 3 – What happened as a result

I guess I fell over the edge of the precipice, as your Seneca puts it. Yes, I shouted at him, my wife says I looked very angry.  

Robbie was petrified, my wife was horrified, and I am mortified.

Lucas: Well done. Today we are going to look at what you could have done differently – as Stoics do in their evening review. If you get into the habit of analysing angry outburst in the evening and rehearsing how you can avoid them in the morning then you will be able to overcome your anger problem.

Anthony:  Like  a golfer practising his putting on a carpet at home, right?

Lucas: Let’s begin with the trigger, Robbie spilling coffee. Do you remember what we said about non-Stoics being too idealistic?

Anthony: Was it that I need to lower my expectations and to remember that the universe doesn’t always behave how I would like it to?

Lucas: Absolutely.  You haven’t got control over other people or the past, so its best to accept these things – even if you don’t approve of them!

Anthony: It reminds me of a song from an old Mel Brooks movie. “Hope for the Best. Expect the worst. Life is a play. We’re unrehearsed.”. I wonder if he was a Stoic!

Lucas:  There’s a lot of Stoic wisdom in a number of traditions and common sayings, like the Serenity Prayer. Actually learning helpful quotations could be really useful. “Hope for the best. Expect the worst” could be a good one to include.  You might also have a look at a famous passage from Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations.

Anthony: Sure.

Lucas:  Moving on to stage 1 of anger, what were your first movements towards anger when Robbie split the coffee?

Anthony: Shock. Adrenalin rush,  the Fight response. My first angry thoughts were something like  “What the ..” “What a clumsy child!.

Lucas: Seneca says you haven’t much direct control over these, so you shouldn’t try to stop them but you do need to notice them and put yourself on red alert for the next phase of anger.

Anthony: I think you said last time I need to be like a sentry on guard duty

Lucas: Exactly. Then at stage 2 we have your window of opportunity. One of your thoughts was “Look what he has done to my laptop?”  You need to question whether you have  really been harmed. Seneca points out that “The things which cause us such great heat are really  trifles, the sort of things that children fight and squabble over.”

Anthony: But my computer was broken!

Lucas: Your new shiny toy!

Anthony : Are you saying that I exaggerated the harm done?

Lucas: Well,  did you?

Anthony: Well, the keyboard was ruined – but I took it into work and got a replacement the next day.

Lucas: So the actual harm done was …

Anthony: Ultimately, very little.  I see what you mean.

Lucas: And even if the laptop had been ruined, how much does a laptop matter compared to the well-being of your son and your being a good parent?

Anthony: Are you  saying I need to get things into perspective?

Lucas:  Exactly – and things don’t matter as much as how we conduct ourselves in life. Seneca’s next point is that  it’s vital to judge others accurately and fairly. You intensify anger by acting as the prosecution, you resist it by making the case for the defence. Were you acting as the prosecutor or the defence attorney for Robbie?

Anthony: Definitely the prosecutor.

Lucas: What might you have said  had you been defending him?

Anthony:  “He did not intend to damage my computer. He meant well”.

Lucas: “Brilliant. Seneca also says something that is really appropriate to your case. “If is a child, let us pardon his youth.”.

Anthony: That’s true, I was forgetting he is only six. What’s Seneca’s next piece of advice?

Lucas: We must also remind ourselves that we are all hasty and careless, we all are untrustworthy, we all have many faults. Seneca says “What room is there for anger? Everything ought either to move us to tears or to laughter. There is only one route to peace of mind  and that is to agree to forgive one another.”

Anthony: Yes. I suppose it would help me to remember that I am not so perfect either.

Lucas:  Once again Seneca has a good line “We have other people’s faults right before our eyes,  and  our own behind our backs.”

Anthony: I need to remember that. It would make thing to have on the front and back of a T Shirt!

Lucas:  Here’s another idea that would have helped on Father’s Day.  Are we here to help or harm each other?  As a father, how do you see your role, to help or harm?

Anthony: Definitely to help.

Lucas:  Seneca says in it’s useful to imagine your whole family as being an extension of yourself – like your own hands and feet. Would you want to harm your own limbs or help them?

Anthony: Help them

Lucas: So do the same to your family and indeed the whole of mankind. Treat them with the same care you would parts of your own body.

Anthony: So I need to imagine that when I shout at them I feel the pain that they do?

Lucas: Yes, that’s  a good way of putting it. The final idea you might find helpful – and I’ve left it till last because it’s rather left-field – is best introduced by telling you about a story about Socrates.

Anthony: Sounds intriguing…

Lucas: One day Socrates was going for  a walk and was suddenly struck by someone he had offended. Do you know how he responded?

Anthony: I’m assuming he didn’t get angry. But how did he manage that, surely his Fight and Flight response would have kicked in?

Lucas: I’m sure it did, but Socrates was famous behaving in an exemplary manner even under provocation. Socrates just laughed off the whole thing, saying that it was a pity a man could not tell when he ought to wear his helmet when out walking!

Anthony: That’s not the first response that would have come to me…

Lucas:  But with practice most things can be turned into jest, and then anger is diffused into something more gentle. How could you have made light of your computer being incapacitated?

Anthony (after a moment’s thought):  I could have said “That’s one way of stopping me from working today!”

Lucas: And if you had, what would have been the impact?

Anthony: Everyone would have had a much better day.

Lucas:  Exactly. So your task this work  is to learn all these Stoic rebuttals to angry thoughts so they can be ready to hand next time you need them

Anthony: Does Seneca have any tips about what to do when I get to stage 3 of anger?

Lucas: Seneca says that the greatest remedy for full-blown, stage 3 anger is delay. There’s not much reasoning with yourself when in a rage – the best you can hope to do postpone doing anything too harmful.

Anthony: So I should have bit my tongue, counted to 10 before saying anything and then damage limitation …

Lucas: Yes. But remember the best answer is to make sure you don’t get to stage 3. That’s the priority. I’m going to give you a list of unhelpful thoughts and their rebuttals. I’d like you to learn them – there may a short test!

Secondly, keep a log of when there has been an anger trigger and note down how you reacted, using our framework about the 3 stages.

Anthony: OK, is there a particular way you want me to record things.?

Lucas: Yes, here’s a template:-

Lucas: Now let’s fill it in together  for Father’s Day.

(10 minutes later, they have produced the following by Lucas asking Anthony a series of questions)

Stage What Happened What I would do differently next time (if anything)
Trigger: Event that triggers anger Father’s Day, Robbie spilt coffee over my computer Accept that I don’t have control over events. Lower my expectations about things going my way.
Stage 1 of anger First movements towards anger Fight or flight reaction and starting to think angry thoughts I felt surprised, an adrenalin rush, an urge to hit him Be on guard for these signs and put myself on red alert for further angry thoughts
Stage 2 of anger: Response to the first movements. Can resist or intensify initial angry thoughts I intensified anger by labelling Robbie as stupid and clumsy. Assumed that anger was appropriate so I could teach him a lesson and he wouldn’t do it again Remind myself that anger is not the answer. He didn’t intend to damage my computer. He isn’t stupid. We all do silly things sometimes. Try to act more like a loving father than Caligula or Vedius Pollio!   Say to myself “At least I wont have to work today!”
Stage 3 of anger Thinking and behaving and feeling, depending on what happened at stage 2 Shouted and him, ruined the day Hopefully don’t get to this stage, but if I do count to 10 (or more) and delay my response. Probably best to leave the room.

Lucas: What do you think about that?

Anthony: Great – but it’s going to be harder to put it into practice.

Lucas: Indeed. Do you ski?

Anthony: Yes, I go down black runs, the rest of the family usually take the easier blue runs ….

Lucas: Right, well what we have done is like going on a blue run. It takes skill, but it’s not the hardest challenge.

Anthony: And I suppose doing it in real time is more like a red or black run?

Lucas: Precisely.  So for now, you need more blue run practice. Read the list of rebuttals every day and keep a log of when you’ve got angry and how you could have resisted anger better, in the same format as the table above.

Anthony: OK, see you next week, coach!

Meeting 4.  Becoming a virtuoso in the Art of Living

Lucas: Good to see you again, Anthony. How did you get on with the anger log?

Anthony: Good, only one instance to report, and I think I handled that fairly well.

Anthony gets out his anger log

Stage What Happened Stoic Advice (and whether I took it!)
Trigger: Event that triggers anger Very busy at work.  People kept interrupting me.  My wife rang me saying that the internet at home wasn’t working Accept that I don’t have control over events. Lower my expectations about things going my way. Not sure I have quite internalised this yet.
Stage 1 of anger First movements towards anger Fight or flight reaction and starting to think angry thoughts I felt irritated and tense First thoughts “Why is she ringing me now?” Be on guard for these signs and put myself on red alert for further angry thoughts I think I probably need to develop more Stoic Mindfulness as I didn’t catch this very early  
Stage 2 of anger: Response to the first movements. Can resist or intensify initial angry thoughts Intensifying anger thoughts 1)I shouldn’t be interrupted         2)She should know I’m busy       3)She should know these things herself         4) I need to get angry to stop her doing this       Alternatives that resist anger 1)Remind myself to lower my expectations – the universe doesn’t always behave as I want it to! 2) Case for the defence! How can she know I am particularly busy now?   3) I remembered the talk about other people being like parts of our body. We are here to help each other. Why not help her?     4) If I get angry she will get angry back. I need to rise above being angry.   I managed some of these at the time, enough for me to end up resisting angry.
Stage 3 of anger Thinking and behaving and feeling, depending on what happened at stage 2 I didn’t fall off the precipice. I talked my anger down, realising that although I couldn’t control people interrupting me, I could control my reaction. I helped her – turned out she had to reboot the wifi router at home – and was proud I did it calmly. At other times I would still have ended up giving the same advice, but we would both have got upset.  

Lucas: Great work, Anthony. So what do you think we can learn from that?

Anthony: That I can control my anger if I try. That I still have work to do to lower my expectations and notice that I am starting to get angry. That if I do rise above anger then things work out better.

Lucas: Excellent. I think you are ready for the next lesson, which is  the long-awaited, much heralded  “How to be a virtuoso at living, how to develop the virtues”

Anthony: Becoming a virtuoso at living, I like the sound of that.

Lucas: The basic idea is the virtues are qualities we need to live well, given the human condition. We have desires, which can sometimes lead us  into temptation. We have fears, which can sometimes lead us to cowardice and we live in communities which means that we have to decide how to treat others well. But we also have reason, our ability to think and act rationally  – and also to think and act foolishly. The qualities we need to cultivate to live well given our capacity for temptation, fear, selfishness and folly are self-control, courage, justice and wisdom respectively. There are the four main or cardinal virtues – there are also many other important virtues all of which are related to these main four virtues – for example compassion is part of justice, patience part of self-control and discretion is part of wisdom. Does that make sense?

Anthony: Yes, but what has all this got to do with anger?

Lucas:  The virtues provide a much better alternative to anger. The more you cultivate the virtues, the less you will need anger and the less attractive it will be as an option.

Anthony: How?

Lucas: You recall  saying  that you  didn’t want to be a doormat? Well, if you develop virtues, you certainly won’t be  a doormat. What virtues can help you stand up for yourself?

Anthony: Courage? Wisdom?

Lucas: And you want to fight  injustices – what virtues do you need there?

Anthony: Justice of course. Courage and wisdom as well.

Lucas: And if you need to overcome first movements towards anger and a wish to punish others, what virtues do you need then?

Anthony: Self-control, justice and wisdom again.

Lucas: Finally we spoke about  how we set ourselves up for anger by failing to realise that we can’t control other people or events, by having too idealistic expectations. What virtue do we call this understanding?

Anthony: Wisdom?

Lucas: Spot on. You may have noticed that wisdom was required in every single example. For Stoics, wisdom is the most important virtue. Some Stoics even argued that wisdom and virtue were the same thing.

Anthony: So was I being fully virtuous in the office when my wife rang me this week?

Lucas: Let’s think about it together. Did you have the wisdom to lower your expectations and not expect everything to go your way?

Anthony: No, that’s something I need to work on.

Lucas: Did you have the self-control to manage your first movements towards anger?

Anthony: Yes, just about.

Lucas: So I will ask you to develop Stoic Mindfulness by being on the look-out for feeling tense and starting to think angry thoughts. Did you show justice?

Anthony: Yes, I helped her.

Lucas: How did you manage that?

Anthony: I think by putting myself in her shoes and asking how I would like to be treated – a bit like you were saying about imagining my family as part of my own body.

Lucas: Good  – and was courage relevant in this case?

Anthony: Not in this case – but I would have needed it to apologise if I had lost my temper!

Lucas: Fantastic. Here’s this week’s crib sheet summarising the Stoic VirtuesA

Lucas:  So here’s what I would like you to do this week.  As well as looking at the crib sheet,  every morning, carry out a rehearsal of how you might deal with potential adversities. Think of what might go wrong, what might be the early signs of anger, and how you might refute the angry thoughts and then apply the virtues. For example,  next time you could imagine yourself starting to get angry when someone disagrees with you, remember which rebuttals apply and then think about how to practice self-control. wisdom, courage and  justice. You might glance in your diary before you start and envisage potential problems, such as trains being late or encountering difficult people.

Anthony: So I need to approach life like boxers sparring before a  fight.

Lucas: Yes, and  if you feel that it’s unnecessary, remember that even emperor’s did exactly this. This is the passage from Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations  I was telling you about.

“When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own – not of the same blood and birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him. We were born to work together like feet, hands and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are unnatural.”

Anthony: That will raise a smile on my morning commute.

Lucas: Good. Then during the day time look out for first movements to anger – developing Stoic Mindfulness and logging any examples of you getting  angry or overcoming anger in the anger log like you did this week. Actually, please you add to the log ideas about how you would exhibit the virtues in each situation as well?

Anthony: OK

Lucas: Then in the  evening meditation, review your day and think about how you have responded to possible anger triggers, again thinking about whether you responded with wisdom, self-control, courage and justice.  Praise yourself when you have done well. If you have done less well, then reflect on what you can learn to help you do better next time

Anthony: Just like chess-player analyse their games afterwards.

Lucas: Exactly. We are approaching this enterprise as if you were entering the Olympic Games for anger management.

Anthony: Let’s see if I win a gold medal! See you next week.

Meeting 5  A Stoic Daily Regimen

Lucas: Good afternoon, Anthony, how has your week been?

Anthony: Great – no angry outbursts and my wife told me that I am a changed man. I even shared my joke about being a reformed Caligula with her. So I think this may be our last meeting.

Lucas: That’s fantastic news. We will conclude today then with a Stoic Daily Regimen – what you need to do to keep up the progress and become a gold medallist at beating anger. But there’s one important part of Seneca’s On Anger that we haven’t covered -what we might call lifestyle advice. Interested?

Anthony: Most of what Seneca  said has proved useful, so let’s hear it.

Lucas: Seneca’s first lifestyle tip is to make sure you don’t take on too much. These days we would talk about a good life-work balance and about the importance of delegating tasks. Seneca says “In order, therefore, that the mind may be at peace, it ought not to be hurried hither and thither, nor, as I said before, wearied by labour at great matters, or matters whose attainment is beyond its strength.”

Anthony: I could probably do with more holidays and less late nights at the office. Oh, and my wife is always telling me to stop using my phone for work in the evening and weekends.

Lucas: So what can you change?

Anthony: No phone on Sundays or after 1000pm.

Lucas:  Seneca also advises us to find ways to relax and to pay attention to our diet. He says. “Pythagoras used to calm his troubled spirit by playing upon the lyre … Green is good for wearied eyes.”

Anthony: I’m not sure about the lyre, but I find going for a run in the evening relaxes me

Lucas: How often could you go for a run each week?

Anthony: Maybe 3 times – better than the once every 2 weeks I do now.

Lucas:  Seneca also advises us to choose our company wisely. He says “We should live with the quietest and easiest-tempered persons, not with anxious or with sullen ones: for our own habits are copied from those with whom we associate”

Anthony: Sounds like we should have had him on the panel when we were recruiting!

Lucas: These days many people find social media very unrelaxing too.

Anthony: You are right but in my case its more reading the news that stresses me out . I think I will limit my reading the news to early in the morning and when I come home.

Lucas:  Great.  Let’s finish our work by producing a Stoic Daily Regimen for anger management

Stoic Anger Management                        Meeting 5            A Stoic Daily Regimen

  • 5 minutes reading of Stoic material for example
    • Reasons for not getting angry  (crib sheet 1)
    • The three stages of anger (crib sheet 2)
    • Unhelpful Thoughts and their Rebuttals  (crib sheet 3)
    • How to be a Virtuoso at living (crib sheet 4)
    • The Daily Stoic Regimen (this list)
    • You might like to write up a list of relevant maxims such as:-

“We are affected not by events but our interpretation of them”

 “Remember that you can’t control other people or the past”

“Expect the worst, hope for the best”

 “The sword of justice is ill-placed in the hands of the angry person”

When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly”

  • Morning Meditation –Rehearsal of dealing with potential triggers for anger with wisdom, courage, self-control and justice
  • During the day
    • Stoic Mindfulness of first movements towards anger
    • Ask yourself “What would the ideal Stoic person approach this situation”? (such as Socrates)
    • Think about what virtues are called for in this situation.
    • Find some time for relaxation, especially when stressed
    • Choose your company wisely, including social media and the internet
    • Don’t take on too much
    • Write your Stoic anger log for the day
  • Evening review. Reviewing your day, with an emphasis on any how you have dealt with triggers of potential anger.  Reflect on what you have done well, what you could have done better. 

Anthony: Can you email me that?

Lucas: Sure. Shall we set a date for a follow-up in a month?

Anthony: Yes – but if I’m doing well, can we cancel it? I will drop you an email telling you of my progress. Thank you very much, it’s been really helpful – and interesting too.

Lucas: Thank you for all your work – the gold medal will be in the post!

Postscript:                                                         

There was no need for a final session.  Anthony sent Lucas this email.

Dear Lucas.

I am writing to cancel our final planned session next week, because I really don’t think I need it. I’ve adopted the lifestyle changes and haven’t got angry for 3 weeks. I’ve made the 4 crib sheets and the daily regimen into acetates and put them in the bathroom for me to read every day.  I’d really like to thank you  for helping me and so would my wife!  You’ll be pleased to know that I’ve even bought a copy of On Anger and have started to go through it. I hope that you are paying Seneca some royalties – I now see that  you stole all of your best lines directly from him! Seriously though, many thanks and if we meet again it may be to discuss how I can apply Seneca and  Stoicism  to other aspects of my life. I’ll be in touch if and when I need your help again.

With thanks,

Anthony

Tim LeBon is the author of Wise Therapy and Achieve Your Potential with Positive Psychology. He is a philosophical life coach with a private practice in London and also an accredited CBT psychotherapist working in the NHS. He is a founder member of the Modern Stoicism team.

Stoic Therapy for Anger by Tim LeBon (part 1)

Seneca’s On Anger contains powerful arguments about both why we should be less angry and how we can curtail anger. At the London Stoicon in 2018 I presented a workshop outlining a 6 step Stoic anger management programme based on Seneca’s On Anger. You can find a pdf of the entire presentation here. Seneca was not, of course a therapist, but,  as someone who has written a book about philosophical counselling and also practices as a CBT therapist and as a philosophical life coach, the obvious question was –  what would Stoic therapy for anger look like?  What parts of On Anger would need to be emphasised?  What objections and difficulties would be most likely need to be overcome for the therapy to succeed?  How can one learn the wisdom of On Anger?

 This article describes  how I imagine such a therapy unfolding. I hope it will be useful for those who wish to work on their own anger issues and also for budding therapists or coaches who wish are interested in this approach.  

The year is 2019. Lucas, a  Stoic philosophical life coach/philosophical counsellor is about to have his first session with Anthony, who has emailed him asking him for a set of sessions on Stoic anger management.

Meeting 1:  Why  Manage Anger?

“Lucas”  is a philosophical life coach who  is trained in contemporary therapy methods such as CBT and knows about Modern Stoicism as well as ancient Stoicism.  All the details about “Anthony”  are fictional, but like many people who come for anger management he is somewhat in denial and ambivalent about change.

Lucas: Good to meet you, Anthony.  I understand from your email that you would like to work on anger management.

Anthony:  Not me, my wife!

Lucas: Your wife has an anger management problem?

Anthony: No, she says I have.  She says she will leave me if I don’t change.

Lucas:  And what do you think?

Anthony:  I think she’s exaggerating. But I’m here now, so can you help me?

Lucas:   I hope so.  The Stoics, especially Seneca in his essay On Anger, offer a lot of pertinent advice.

Anthony: That’s good news.

Lucas:  But it will take work on your side too. I envisage it will take us about 6 weekly meetings.  I’d like you to set aside time for our work, including reading relevant Stoic books, especially Seneca’s On Anger

Anthony. I’m not much of  a reader. I’m a busy man, with a company to run and a family to feed …

Lucas: A family you might lose if you don’t do something about your anger.

Anthony: You have me there.  Look, I’m not going to pretend to you that  I’m likely to be read ancient texts . But I will agree to do something between session. I have a daily  train commute. Can we find a compromise?

Lucas: Very well. After each session I will email you  some written summaries of key Stoic ideas we have discussed for you to read and digest as well as other between-session assignments. I would like you to commit to  spending at least 10 minutes every  morning working on these.

Anthony:  It’s a deal, Prof.

Lucas:  Good. To clarify, Anthony, I see my role not so much as a professor who  lectures you about Stoicism  but more like  a sports coach who helps you to change. Does that make sense?

Anthony: Sure, fire away, Prof!

Lucas: Seneca believes that anger is one of the greatest ills of humanity. He goes so far as to say that anger is temporary madness.  When angry, you  lose self-control, forget affection and friendship  and become  deaf to reason and advice. Anger conquers the warmest love. People have killed those they have loved and who would love again were they not in the midst of rage. Worse still, we injure ourselves. Angry people are like  rocks which smash on what they fall. Managing anger should be a top priority for everyone.

Anthony: Wow! Is anger really all that bad?

Lucas: Seneca gives many examples of how anger ruins lives. Perhaps the most memorable is how anger led  one Vedius Pollio to order a slave  be thrown into a pool of man-eating lampreys just because  the unfortunate slave had dropped a valuable crystal cup.  He also recounts about how many powerful men like  the Emperor Caligula murdered anyone who irritated them.

Anthony: But do you really believe that anger is such a problem for normal people in the twenty-first century?

Lucas: Anger  can transform us all into mini-Caligulas, it is a temporary madness You can read about it happening every day. The other day I saw a a story  about an ordinary Joe who was at the English seaside eating his fish and chips lunch by the beach.

Anthony: Sounds nice.

Lucas:  A cheeky seagull had the gall to try to steal a chip! Do you know happened next?

Anthony: He  tried to shoo  the bird away?

Lucas: No,  Anthony, he became so angry he battered the gull to death against a wall. The man was prosecuted for animal cruelty.  Think about it. One minute you are eating your lunch, a  minute later you are in a violent rage leading to death and disgrace.  Temporary insanity, don’t you agree?

Anthony:  In that case, for sure. But surely anger can  be a good thing, in moderation.

Lucas: That’s what Aristotle thought too. But Seneca believes that both you and he are making a big mistake. Anthony,  close your eyes for a moment and brainstorm all the reasons you can think of in favour of  anger being a good thing. All the reasons why you don’t want to give up anger.

Anthony (after a few moments thought) Anger gains me respect.  I don’t want to be a doormat. Anger gives me the energy to get off my backside.  I  want to fight injustices. I want to change people for the better. Anger gives me power. People take notice of me when I’m angry. That’s it– my anger motivates me to act and it makes other people take notice!

Lucas: Thank you, Anthony, for giving such a full answer. As it happens, Seneca gives strong arguments against each of these points. Do you want to hear what he says?

Anthony: Of course.

Lucas: Justice is important but, in one of Seneca’s most memorable phrases,  the sword of justice is ill-placed in the hands of an angry person.  Anger is in a hurry and does not give people (or seagulls) a fair trial. The type of justice provided by anger is that  of a vigilante squad – hurried, biased and extreme. We need  reason, not anger, to give each side time to plead so that the truth can be discovered.

Anthony: But something needs to be done! Should this ordinary Joe just have  smiled and  let the bird eat all his lunch? Should the slave have been allowed to break everything until there were no cups left?

Lucas: But, if we are after justice, is anger the answer? When we are angry we want to punish people, not help them. Seneca and the Stoics would say that we need to cultivate the virtues – wisdom, justice, courage and self-control – and have these to hand  when faced with life’s challenges. 

Anthony: So what would a Stoic have done with the bird?

Lucas: That’s quite a big question. I was planning us talking more about how to develop the virtues in a later conversation. Maybe he could have shown kindness, and thrown  a few chips for the bird before he used his wisdom to move elsewhere. He could certainly have benefitted from learning self-control ….

Anthony: And Vidius Pollo could have sent his slave on a  “how not to be so  clumsy course”? This Stoicism is beginning to sound a bit too idealistic. In the real world, people get angry and you just have to accept that.

Lucas: What would your wife say about that attitude?

Anthony: She wouldn’t agree.

Lucas: So business as usual isn’t an option for you. I  heard what you just said, though, Anthony, about Stoicism being too idealistic. The Stoics would  argue that in fact it is  the angry person who is being too idealistic.

Anthony: Really?

Lucas: Indeed. We get angry because we have too idealistic notions  about how the world operates. We over-optimistically think that people won’t break things and that animals won’t try to eat our lunch. If we had a more realistic view of how the world works, in particular about what we can and what we cannot control, then we would be much less prone to anger.

Anthony: But anger gives me energy, it motivates me, it makes me courageous.  Anger gives me the courage to do things I wouldn’t usually do, like standing up more for  myself and for what is right.

 Lucas:  Just like people need a drink so they can do courageous things like go to parties or ask someone out?

Anthony: Exactly.

Lucas: But have you known people who after a drink or two  do things that aren’t really wise at all, things they later regret?

Antony: Of course.

Lucas:  And isn’t the same thing true of anger. What you  need  to motivate you is  actual courage, not anger or alcohol. As Seneca says, anger does not come to assist courage, but to take its place. Put yourself in the hands of anger and you are on a precipice, a step away from catastrophe.

Anthony:  So  how do Stoics think  I gain true courage? I know!  “We will address that later ….”

Lucas: We will indeed. I sense your frustration, so let me give you a l sneak preview. Modern Stoics build into their routine a period of early morning and late evening meditation. In the morning they envisage difficulties and how they can respond virtuously to them – rehearsing wise living. In the evening they review how they have done that day in terms of acting virtuously.  In between times, they would be aware of what virtues were called for in a particular situation, perhaps by ask themselves “how would the ideal Stoic person approach this situation”?

Anthony: That sounds like a fair bit of work.

Lucas:  Think about how much time people spend working out or practising golf. Is how to be an excellent human being any less important?

Anthony: I f you are right about anger being bad, and if Stoic methods work, then it’s going to be worth the time.  But I’m not convinced yet about anger being all bad. If I give up anger, people might no longer respect me. When I walk in a room, I notice people look up with respect.

Lucas: Are you sure it’s respect?

Anthony: What do you mean?

Lucas: Everyone looked up when Caligula entered a room. But  was that respect or was it fear?

Anthony: In Caligula’s case, fear.

Lucas:  I’m sure you are right.  You fear people because they might punish you. You respect people when you admire them.  So could it be that  people fear you rather than respect you?

Anthony: I’d like to think they admire me. But is it such a bad thing if people fear you a little bit too?

Lucas: Not if you don’t mind being a mini-Caligula.

Anthony: OK, it’s respect I want, not fear.

Lucas:   And does anger really lead to respect?

Anthony: Why shouldn’t it?

Lucas: Well,  how do you feel someone is angry with you? When a driver has road rage at you?

Anthony: I think they are  being a dickhead.

Lucas:  So  you don’t respect people for being angry with you. Why should other people respect you for being angry?

Anthony:  Hmmm

There follows a period of silence …

Lucas: Anthony, you are looking very thoughtful. What’s running through your mind?

Anthony:  I’m still thinking about whether I’m a  mini-Caligula. I don’t like that idea at all.

Lucas:  No, I can see that. How can we find out whether you are like that at all?

Anthony (smiling): I don’t know, unless you follow me around all week.

Lucas: Well, it was your wife who said you needed to come here. How about asking her?

Anthony: Could do, I suppose.

Lucas:  I can understand your reluctance. No-one wants to hear uncomfortable truths. But I wonder whether we might be wasting our time here unless we hear her side of things. Can you ask her to write down for us why she insisted on you coming here and tell us both what you are like when you get angry?

Anthony: Is that really necessary?

Lucas: If I was your golf coach, would we get very far  without seeing how you actually played?

Anthony: No, you would have to see the true horror of my putting …. OK I will ask her.

Lucas: We have 5 more minutes today. Any more doubts about giving up anger?

Anthony: You are very good with words, Prof. I I will need some time to reflect on whether these arguments apply in the real world.

Lucas: Of course.  Here’s my summary for you to reflect on. I can email it to you if you like.

Anthony: Sure, that would help.

Lucas:   Here is a summary sheet for you to read on the train.

Anthony: Thanks, Prof, it’s been interesting,  I will look forward to seeing you again next week.

Meeting 2: The Three Stages of Anger

Lucas: Greetings, Anthony, good to see you.  How have you got on with your assignments?

Anthony: Well, Prof, as the football commentators say, it was a game of two halves.

Lucas: Meaning?

Anthony: Well over the first few days I did as you asked, and read over your email crib sheet about anger being a great ill, the sword of justice being unsafe in the hands of an angry person etc.

Lucas: What did you make of it?

Anthony: It all makes sense…

Lucas: But …

Anthony: But I still wasn’t convinced that anger in moderation isn’t a possibility Sure, don’t give me a sword – or a gun! – when I’m in a rage – but what if I’m just a bit angry?  Before yesterday, I was  planning to ask you how I could cultivate anger in moderation.

Lucas: What happened yesterday?

Anthony (sighing): Well, I wasn’t looking forward to asking my wife for feedback, so I left it to the last minute. When I did ask her, I got a bit of a shock.

Lucas:  What did she say?

Anthony (gets out letter)

Dear Anthony

I am so glad that you asked me  about why I insisted you sought help for your anger problem. I’m a bit surprised you haven’t asked before. That’s part of the problem. That you don’t think you have a problem. And nobody tells you about the extent of the problem because they are all so frightened of you. Even I wasn’t brave enough to confront you before Father’s Day.

Do you remember Father’s Day? You should, it was only a month ago. How the children were so excited, that they helped to make breakfast. How Robbie insisted on helping make your toast, then taking the tray to your bedside for your breakfast in bed, even though he is only 6. Do you remember what happened next?

I did talk to you about it that evening, and what you said was  was “Robbie was clumsy like he always is and spilt coffee over my new laptop causing untold damage”. Shall I tell you your 6 year old son’s version of events?

What happened was that, on the day that Robbie was showing so much love for you, you roared and raged at him like an angry lion shouting and calling him name like  “Clumsy” “An idiot and saying “How could you be so stupid”. Do you know what he did? He went to his bedroom, sobbing – and he actually peed himself! He hasn’t done that for years. Is that the father you want to be?  Terrifying and humiliating your children? Well its not the father I want for my children. That night that I decided something needed to be done. Its one thing to hear you shout at waiters or your work subordinates, another to do it to your child. You’d crossed a red line .

So that’s why I demanded that you seek a remedy for your anger problem. I hope that you get a remedy, because if this happens again, I will make sure it does not happen a third time.

Your ever-loving wife”

Lucas: Strong words.

Anthony: Yes, but at least she is being honest. Better than her packing her bags without giving me a chance. Maybe I do turn into a mini-Caligula after all!  So today I’m thinking that I do have a problem. I do need to change. But how?

Lucas (after a moment’s reflection): You know what, Anthony, I think that Seneca’s theory about the 3 stages of anger can help  us with both your questions. It will help us understand further why the goal of moderate anger is a treacherous one, and it will also will give us a framework to start working on managing your anger. Do you want to hear about it?

Anthony: Definitely.

Lucas: Seneca believes that there are three stages of anger. In the first instance, something triggers your initial reactions.  To go back to the ordinary Joe angry seagull-killer, the seagull swooping down triggered an initial reaction of surprise and an impulse to attack the gull.

Anthony: Sounds like the fight or flight reaction.

Lucas: Exactly. But this is just the beginnings of anger –  what Seneca calls the first movements towards anger. It’s not anger proper. Animals go directly to aggressive  fight behaviour (Seneca’s third stage), but we humans have a unique capacity, the ability to reason. That operates in  stage 2 of anger. That’s when  we can choose how to respond. When we are in stage 1, Seneca likens us to  someone on the edge of a cliff.

Anthony: Doesn’t sound good.

Lucas:  Indeed not. If we intensify anger by thinking irrational angry thoughts, we will  fall off the precipice and there is little or no chance of us returning to safe ground.

Anthony:  So Seneca would say that  Caligula, Vedius Pollo and the seagull-killer all got to this third stage of anger.  What happens then?

Lucas:  The red mist has descended, we see things totally in a different light. We use reason to plan wicked actions and justify them. We still reason, but in the service of anger.

Anthony: How exactly can understanding these 3 stages help us control anger?

Lucas: Would you agree that there are some things we can control and some things we can’t control.

Anthony: I guess so.

Lucas: And which category of things is it wise to focus on, what we can control, or what we can’t control?

Anthony: We need to focus only on what we can control.

Lucas: Yet when we are angry we often try to control things over which  we have little control. In fact there’s only a short time-window in the whole anger melodrama where we have much control.

Anthony: Really?

Lucas: Well that’s go through it.  Do we have control over the trigger, the prequel to the 3 stages. For example, the bird swooping down or the slave breaking the cup. Do we have control over that?

Anthony: Not once it’s happened.

Lucas: Exactly, we have no control over the past.  As we said at our first meeting,  there are a lot of things outside of our control and many people are too optimistic in this respect. Stoics believe that the roots of anger lie in  unrealistic expectations that the world behaves as we would like it to. So we need in general to lower our expectations about the world, we need to accept that a lot of events are outside our control.

Anthony: OK.

Lucas:  What about the first stage of anger, the Fight or Flight response, how much control do we have over that?

Anthony: Not much, because it’s like a reflex, right?

Lucas: Absolutely. Modern neuroscience backs up Seneca. The first movements towards anger correspond approximately to the automatic, non-conscious workings of the amygdala We have very little, if any, direct control over it.  What about stage 3 of anger, when the red mist has descended and we have fallen off the cliff edge?

Anthony: Not much control there either.

Lucas: You are right. What about stage 2?

Anthony: Remind me – that’s when the Fight or Flight reaction has kicked in but before we get to stage 3, full-on anger?

Lucas: Yes. Seneca asserts that there exists a  brief time-window when we can and should exert control through our ability to reason well. We have a choice of whether to resist or intensify anger. Does that make sense?

Anthony: Sounds like that might be quite tricky if we are already starting to get angry …

Lucas: Yes, so we need to develop what modern Stoics call Stoic Mindfulness so we are acutely aware of the dangerous territory we are in at that moment. So if you want to beat anger, where do you need to focus your efforts?

Anthony: It must be at stage 2!

Lucas: Yes, stage 2 is where you need to be like a sentry, on guard looking out for angry thoughts and challenging them. It will also help if  at all times  – we could call this stage 0 -you cultivate a general attitude of lowering your expectations about how the world fits in with your wishes.  Any questions?

Anthony: But is it really just my angry thoughts that make me angry? Aren’t some things bound to make anyone angry?

Lucas: Suppose our ordinary Joe had said to himself “That seagull must be hungry, let’s share my lunch with him”, how do you think he would have felt then?

Anthony: Much happier!

Lucas:  Exactly. How you think affects how you feel. As  another leading Stoic, Epictetus, put it “It is not events that affect us but our interpretations of events”.  

Anthony: It seems like we have covered a lot. Can you give me a crib sheet again  for me to look at on my commute

Lucas. Sure.

Again I would like you to agree to read this summary for 10 minutes every morning and memorise it. Any questions?

Anthony: I don’t think you’ve answered my  question about anger in moderation yet.

Lucas:  Fair point. Are we  agreed that the first movements make us strongly disposed towards anger – just like a snowball falling down a mountain will gather speed so the first movements are likely to make us angry?

Anthony: Yes

Lucas: So anger by its very nature will gain momentum unless we do something to stop it.

Anthony: Are you saying that unless we put a brake on anger, it inevitably grows into immoderate anger

Lucas: Precisely. How we think affects how we feel. We will think tell ourselves things that intensifies our anger by unless we resist it. Furthermore, the Stoics have a much better option than moderate anger, namely virtue. It is through virtuous action not anger that we can truly and reliably gain respect, change people and right injustices.

Anthony: OK.

Lucas: However, Seneca does make one allowance. He says that although we shouldn’t get angry, as it’s far too risky, some people do indeed seem  only to take notice when they think someone is angry with them.

Anthony: So I wasn’t completely wrong after all!

Lucas: Seneca says that in such instances its OK to pretend to be angry. But that’s very different from getting angry in moderation.

Anthony: Well, pretending to be angry is  an interesting idea but perhaps not one that will do me much good in front of my wife at the moment!

Lucas: I am sure you are right there. I have one more piece of home practice I would like you to do. To build on the work we have started today on the 3 stages and to make it much more real and concrete for us, please can you reconstruct what happened on Father’s Day for us in this format:

Event/Trigger:

  • Stage 1 – first movements towards anger (including fight or flight response and first thoughts)
  • Stage 2 – My  further thoughts and whether they resisted or intensified  anger
  • Stage 3 – What happened as a result

Anthony: Yes, that makes sense.  Email me your crib sheet as well so I can read it on the train. See you next week!

Tim LeBon is the author of Wise Therapy and Achieve Your Potential with Positive Psychology. He is a philosophical life coach with a private practice in London and also an accredited CBT psychotherapist working in the NHS. He is a founder member of the Modern Stoicism team.

Stoicon, Stoic Week, and Stoicon-Xs 2019

Many people have been asking for details about Stoicon 2019, Stoic Week, and the smaller, local Stoicon-X events that will be taking place later on in the Fall. These sorts of matters, of course, take quite a bit of time and work to sort out – not least since Modern Stoicism is an organization staffed entirely by volunteers – so we appreciate your patience in awaiting the details. We’re happy to have quite a few details to announce at this time about all three matters. Further details will be forthcoming in the months ahead!

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. If you’d like to see some of the talks and workshops from previous years, check out the playlists in the Modern Stoicism YouTube channel.

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 have provisionally confirmed that they will be presenting. These details may be subject to change.

  • 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 will go on sale for Stoicon 2019 in Athens very soon! For now, you should follow our event page on Facebook for updates

Stoic Week 2019

Every year, generally following Stoicon, we also host an international event of much wider scope – Stoic Week – which thousands of people participate in worldwide (more and more each year). We provide an online course, with a workbook, exercises, and all sorts of other resources designed to help participants “live like a Stoic” for a week. It is also a great way to meet and interact with other people who have an interest in Stoicism, both locally and in the larger Stoic community.

This year, Stoic Week is planned to run October 7-13. As always, much closer to the date, we will have a newly revised version of the Stoic Week Handbook available for participants, and a variety of other useful resources (I might even- as I have in previous years – shoot a new sequence of videos for the upcoming Stoic Week)

During and around Stoic Week every year, 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’ll put it into the master list and the 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 2019 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 there are more and more of them each year!

We’ll have more about the Stoicon-X events closer to September and October when most of them are projected to take place. At this moment, we know about five being planned – so if you’re organizing one that’s not on the list below, get in touch and we’ll get it into the list!

We’ll have more about the Stoicon-X events closer to September and October when most of them are projected to take place. At this moment, we know about five being planned – so if you’re organizing one that’s not on the list below, get in touch and we’ll get it into the list!

Toronto, Canada – September 8, Toronto Reference Library, organized by Peter Limberg – more information to come

New York City, USA – September 19th, at the New York Society for Ethical Culture, organized by Massimo Pigliucci – information here

Athens, Greece – October 6, Cotsen Hall of the American School of Classical Studies, organized by Donald Robertson – information here

Madrid, Spain – Date and Location: TBA, organized by Kellys Rodriguez – more information to come

Milwaukee, USA – Date and Location: TBA, organized by Greg Sadler and Andi Sciacca – more information to come

So, mark your calendars for Stoicon and Stoic Week, and start thinking about any local events you might want to organize or host. We’ll have a lot more information coming your way as we get closer to the dates!

Stoicons Past – Impressions and Experiences from Those Who Went

Last week, I issued a call for people to contribute short pieces about their impressions of, and experiences from, earlier Stoicon conferences. These events have been held yearly in three main places – London, New York City, and Toronto – with Athens, Greece being added this year.

As the organizers for Stoicon 2019 in Athens get all the details sorted out and ticketing set up, I thought it might be interesting for our readership to hear from people who attended previous Stoicons. If there’s sufficient interest, we’ll put together a similar post of impressions and experiences of those who attended the smaller Stoicon-X events over the last few years as well!

(You can follow the Stoicon 2019 in Athens Facebook page.)

Piotr Stankiewicz – attended Stoicon 2016 in New York and Stoicon 2017 in Toronto – presented at Stoicon 2018 in London

Stoicon is absolutely great – I recommend it with all of my Stoic mind and all of my nonstoic heart. I attended Stoicons 2016, 2017 and 2018 and I harbor every intention to keep coming. Why? There is a plethora of reasons, but if you ask me to name one I will probably say something along the lines of: because of how people and ideas interact.

What does it even mean? Stoicism today is a global endeavor (our ancient predecessors would definitely approve, given their cosmopolitanism) so at the Stoicon you meet people from all over the globe. Sounds obvious but it’s still remarkable. The opportunity to meet in person people whose book you read, or folks you talked to online – is an opportunity you don’t want to miss.

Even in the contemporary, digital and connected world, where everything seems to be just a few clicks away, it’s still important to meet and talk face to face. Some would even say that particularly in the present world we should take care to meet in real life. More and more of our communication relies on devices, thus an actual meeting of another human becomes something to be cherished.

And not just people: ideas too. Stoicism has never been a monolithic church – diverse interpretations has always been in place. Diverse: i.e. contradictory sometimes, conflicting often. And this is something to learn first hand during Stoicon. Textbook stuff, hard facts, Marcus Aurelius’ biography – you can get to know all of that online. But Stoicon is the best to witness first hand that Stoicism is not just pale wisdom but a living and flourishing project. The discussion is going on. And it keeps attracting people. I’m hooked. Are you?

Lori Huica – attended Stoicon 2018 in London

I had been anticipating Stoicon 2018 in London for months, digesting as many classic Stoic fragments as I could, yet not fully knowing what the modern applications would be. After the initial feeling of awe at the magnitude of the event, I entered the large lecture hall where the agenda was introduced, chatted to some fellow attendees, listened to the introduction in utter elation, and thus began a year-long journey of internalising Stoic principles.

In spite of my attempts to do some thorough research before the event, the day proved to be full of entirely new learning opportunities, and every seminar and lecture I attended provided me with different concepts to grasp and apply. Two particularly memorable parts were a seminar on partenered relationships and a lecture on the link between Stoicism and sustainability. The former made me re-conceptualise the way I saw relationships, both philosophically and practically, whilst the latter was a refreshing take on environment-related issues and how philosophy might tackle these.

There were opportunities to network, as well as meet experts in the field, but for me what truly made Stoicon 2018 life-changing was the passion that all the people that had gathered at the Senate House that Saturday had for this way of living, this way of thinking. From newbies to veterans, every person in the room emanated fascination for the subject; it was this that translated into an urge to know more about what Stoicism entails, and so I did. I decided to join Stoic Week, to formally learn about Roman Stoicism as part of my degree and to really embody what it means to be a modern Stoic. Not only was it a life-changing event for me, but the daily lives of many are now impacted as I continue to embrace the philosophy and share it in whatever ways I can.

Randall Daut – attended Stoicon 2018 in London

Having been learning a bit about stoicism for 2-3 years, my wife and I decided to include Stoicon 2018 in a planned vacation to London. We both feel it was a worthy addition. Anthony Long’s reflections on the history of the resurgence of interest in stoicism were interesting as was his big picture of the important ideas in the philosophy. I liked learning about the results of stoic week as well. One notable finding was that “zest” or “great enthusiasm and energy” increased more than other variables during the week.

I enjoyed all the presentations, but I had special interest in Antonia Macaro’s comments on Stoicism and Buddhism, and I was intrigued by a presentation on sustainability and Stoic ethics. Unfortunately, I had to choose which of the breakout sessions to attend, but the choices were not overwhelming, and recordings are available. As a retired clinical psychologist, I enjoyed the recording of our local philosopher, Greg Sadler. The conference was well organized. I hope to attend another.

Travis Hume – attended Stoicon 2016 in New York and Stoicon 2017 in Toronto

I attended Stoicon 2017 in Toronto – my second visit to a Stoicon. I fondly remember it as a meaningful opportunity to meet with others interested in Stoicism, in addition to contemporary writers and philosophers on the subject. With each passing year, the event becomes more dynamic and engaging, with greater numbers and varieties of workshops and events; there is something suitable for anyone of any familiarity with Stoic philosophy.

I decided to go to Stoicon as part of a personal calling to learn all I could from the philosophy and others actively studying it. Each of the conversations I had at the event were meaningful, providing insight into each person’s practice and experience. The pacing and depth of each workshop and seminar was well-managed, making for constructive, fulfilling days. I easily recommend to anyone with the means to go to do so.

Mark Trumble – attended Stoicon 2017 in Toronto

Ever since I was a young boy I had wondered what the good was, and how to live it. At an early age I sought what the wisest men had said about it, so that I could have a better idea on how to live my life. This lead to the study of philosophy, both formally and informally, and this also lead to watching innumerable philosophy videos. If you watch videos on philosophy on youtube you cannot but help to run into Greg Sadler. After watching innumerable hours and taking some courses from him I decided to attend the Stoicon conference. I certainly wanted to meet him, as well as anyone else who was both knowledgeable academically, or who practically lived a good life. The lectures were useful in confirming what I knew, expanding and expounding what I I didn’t, and gave me direction in what to research and question further. While I was not turned instantaneously into a sage, it certainly made my path seem a little less solitary, and began to open new vistas of what a good life could look like.

Chuck Chakrapani – attended Stoicon 2016 in New York and Stoicon 2017 in Toronto – presented at Stoicon 2018 in London

Attending the Stoicon conference is an interesting experience. You get to meet like-minded people who live close to you and those who live thousands of miles away from you. Yet get to meet people who have been practicing Stoicism for fifty years and those who have been dabbling with Stoicism for five months. You get to meet the committed, and you get to meet the curious.

And then you have fascinating talks by scholars and practitioners. You have parallel sessions in which you can explore the topic that interests you more. And if you cannot get enough of it in one day, it is followed by Stoicon X the following day.

I have been attending Stoicon for the past three years and, for me, it is one of the most anticipated, ‘preferred indifferent’ events of the year!

We will be posting more information about Stoicon 2019 as it becomes available, so stay tuned. And if you can’t make the main Stoicon, keep an eye out for the smaller Stoicon-X events in different places all over the world (we’ll publicize information about those as well, as it becomes available).

The Stoic Heart – Stoicism and Partnered Relationships

Each year, after the Stoicon conference, we ask the speakers and workshop leaders to provide transcripts or summaries of their presentations, so that our readership can enjoy some of the same opportunities for learning as the conference attendees.  We continue that series now with this piece by myself, discussing the workshop that Andi Sciacca and I were scheduled to provide at Stoicon 2018.

My wife and partner, Andi Sciacca, and I were invited again to provide a workshop for participants at last year’s Stoicon in London. I had given workshops at the two preceding Stoicons – one on Stoicism and managing anger in 2016, and another on using Stoicism to deal with difficult people at work in 2017. That last workshop had originally been intended to have Andi and I as co-presenters, but health issues ruled out flying to Toronto for Andi, and my teaching schedule that term ruled out taking a leisurely drive up north.

Andi’s absence was unfortunate not just for me (and for her, of course – she missed the conference, and London) but also for the workshop attendees. We had designed the workshop together, drawing upon our experience and expertise in the subjects we were covering – and in some of those, putting Andi in the room more than doubles what I bring to the proverbial table. As a married couple who live, work, and study alongside each other, when we do any sort of event or presentation, there’s an interactive chemistry involved in everything we do. If you’ve seen me speak previously, and got something out of that or enjoyed it, imagine me paired up with an even more dynamic partner, and you can imagine what we anticipated that workshop to be like.

We gave co-presenting another shot in 2018, and decided to focus our workshop this time on something that we have drawn upon quite a lot in our own lives – what Stoic philosophy and practices can contribute to understanding and improving (or maybe even, if things are bad enough, saving) one’s personal relationships. About a month before Stoicon 2018, it became clear that Andi would not be able to join me in London, this time both for medical reasons and because one of us had to stay to care for an aged and well-loved family pet who was quite literally on his last legs (and for that reason, we actually gave thought and discussion to whether it might be best for me to cancel as well).

I flew out to London and gave our workshop, reading a brief note from Andi at the beginning, running along these lines:

I am glad that you are able to present the workshops and represent us both, given that I was unable to fly with you and be there myself.  You can also say that I am finding the lessons learned from studying Stoicism to be very useful in our marriage, in my ability to grow our business and develop my professional life, in my management of chronic illnesses, and in my ability to navigate daily life.

Since I recorded fairly decent video footage from the workshop – which you can watch in full by clicking here – and since the workshop is far too long to provide a transcript of, I thought that it might be interesting to provide a short summary of the workshop that I did provide, and then to include some discussion of what Andi and I had originally intended that workshop to include (as well as some additional insights on her part)

The Structure of The Workshop

Given that we were to give the workshop twice, in one-hour breakout session blocks, we set it up to start with delving into the desires, ideas, assumptions about partnered relationships – marriages, romantic relationships, dating, and the like – by spurring some short discussion between us and the audience.

Then the plan was for me to discuss two topics

  • Classic Stoic Perspectives on Partnered Relationships
  • The Expanded Scope of Modern Partnered Relationships

After that, the bulk of the workshop was devoted to Stoic Practices and Perspectives and their application to partnered relationships.

  • #1 – Dealing With Appearances
  • #2 – Applying The Dichotomy of Control
  • #3 – Determining Roles and Duties
  • #4 – Understanding Emotions
  • #5 – Virtues and Vices

We then reserved a bit of time for Q&A and Discussion. Since both of our “lecture” styles are highly dialogical, taking questions and responding to comments throughout – and occasionally riffing off into digressions or jokes before coming back on point – we anticipated that we might not have as much time for the final official “Q&A” at the end, but that we could stick around between the two sessions and after the second session for individual discussions.

This is the sort of workshop that we can – and sometimes – do in shorter (30-45 minutes) and longer (2-3 hour) formats. When it’s shorter, I spend less time on the classic Stoic perspectives and strategies to thoughtfully adapt them to our contemporary culture. And we might do just two or three of the Stoic practices and perspectives applications. Longer presentations include more of those applications, more in-depth examination of Stoic discussions of partnered relationships, and also additional elements of the workshop that Andi brings in.

So this post is a bit of a departure from the series that we usually run after each Stoicon. I’m writing not only about the workshop that I did give, but also about the workshop that I didn’t give, but Andi and I would have liked – and had intended – to provide.

What Andi Would Have Added To The Workshop

One of the aspects of the workshop that I was particularly looking forward to, but which became unfeasible in Andi’s absence was the role-playing and modeling that we had intended to incorporate into each of the Stoic practices and perspectives parts of the workshop (which would have meant reducing the number of those application parts to four). In longer versions of the workshop, we have the participants themselves engage in some structured roleplaying.

Another warm-up exercise Andi had wanted to weave into our Stoicon workshop (and which we’ve done elsewhere) involved asking the audience about common relationship pitfalls they had encountered or experienced. This would then lead in to talking about ways in which Stoicism can help us rethink the common traps and tropes that lead us right into those relationship problems. Stoic philosophy and practice not only help us understand and work on problematic dynamics in our personal relationships, Stoicism also helps us to identify and recognize these when they occur and arise.

There were several other aspects of Stoicism that Andi tends to focus upon and highlight consistently. One of these is the emphasis that Epictetus places not only upon playing one’s own part – taking on one’s roles and associated duties – but also in understanding that others have their different, often complementary parts to play. A key aspect to good – or at least improving – relationships is allowing others to take on their own roles, without attempting to control that.

Another key idea that Andi and I have discussed quite a lot together, and which takes shape in another Stoic Practices and Perspectives portion of the workshop (we were debating substituting this one for one that made it into the Stoicon 2018 format) is reminding oneself of the transiency of the life one gets to share with one’s partner. This theme comes across most starkly in Epictetus’ Enchiridion 3, a passage in which he tells us that when we kiss our spouse, we should remind ourselves that they will one day die. This point, developed also by Marcus Aurelius and Seneca, doesn’t have to be viewed as a sign of morbidity or coldness, but rather as a suggestion that we value the time we get with our partners, and the imperfect persons they (and we) remain, during that time. We’re not entitled to infinite time, even if we mistakenly assume we’re going to have it, and if we realize that the partner we expect to have years or decades with could be taken back from us at any moment, we might look at them in a different and better light.

Another insight that we often close with – and we’re still teasing this one out – is that, if a partnered relationship is going to incorporate Stoic notions of justice, friendship, oikeiosis, and human rationality as social nature, one of the things that is called for is learning how to share space respectfully. Space not only in terms of physical space, but also the space of the relationship itself. This space includes dimensions such as conversation, chores and responsibilities, decision-making, joys and sorrows, short and long-term planning, and how time spent, just to name a few. It is all too easy for couples to divvy out the domains of “yours” and “mine”, when what is needed is a sense of “ours”.

As I sat down to write this piece, I thought I’d ask Andi as well what else – beyond the note she gave me to read to the Stoicon workshop participants – she might have wanted to say to them. In the short conversation that ensued, she stressed two main points. Both were personal, but also realization I expect many readers of Stoic philosophy can relate to, and parts of these connect up to what we did discuss in the workshop as I provided it.

The first was that lessons learned from Stoicism provided her with extra tools that positively augmented the value of other modalities of self-reflection. Stoicism coupled with elements from cognitive and dialectical therapeutic approaches help one deal with long term issues that impact one’s ability to have and maintain fulfilling relationships

The second was that Stoicism provides a very useful framework for examining, understanding, and managing one’s expectations. This is critical in every domain of life, but particularly so in that intense one of partnered relationships. Stoicism provides strategies to manage everyday stressors that put at risk one’s ability to listen effectively, be empathetic, and consider the needs of others (especially one’s partner).

As a last point, opportunities afforded to discuss, reflect, and engage Stoicism do benefit us as partners, not only because we are able to participate more fully in relationships through our shared interests and the work we do, but also because they create space for conversations important potentially for the entire web of all of our relationships.

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 has created over 100 videos on Stoic philosophy, regularly speaks and provides workshops on Stoicism, and is currently working on several book projects

Andi Sciacca is relatively new to Stoic practice and is pleased to be part of the Modern Stoicism movement.  She is an ABD doctoral candidate with European Graduate School’s program in Philosophy, Art, and Critical Thought.  She has served as the director of curriculum and program design for The Food Business School and the founding director of The Culinary Institute of America’s Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning.  Andi also taught for The City University of New York, The State University of New York, Marist College, and the Bard College Prison Initiative.  She now owns an educational consulting company in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.