How to Practice Epictetus’ Disciplines for a Good Life by Massimo Pigliucci & Gregory Lopez

Stoicism is a practical philosophy. That means that the theory is not to be considered for its own sake, but only insofar as it aids practice. Then again, practice without theoretical guidance not a philosophy would make! Which is why at the latest Stoicon, in Athens, one of us (Massimo) ran a workshop based on some exercises we developed together and published in our A Handbook for New Stoics (The Experiment, published in the UK as Live Like a Stoic, Penguin). Three of these exercises, one from each of Epictetus famous three disciplines, are detailed below. If you wish, you can download exercise-specific sheets from the publisher’s web site, to help you in your practice.

Each exercise has the same basic structure: it begins with a hypothetical vignette illustrating a potential real life situation. We then look at a pertinent quote from one of the ancient Stoics, which inspires the exercise. The theoretical context of the quote is explained, and then the actual exercise — meant to be carried out for at least a week — is presented. We hope this will be useful for your daily practices!

Discipline of Desire & Aversion: Discover what’s really in your control, and what’s not

It’s easy to think that we have control over our lives when things are going the way we want. But what happens when we experience uncertainty? Consider Alice, who faces this question at her job. Her quarterly performance review is coming up, and though she’s been doing well, a familiar anxiety floods her body as negative what-if scenarios cross her mind. Could learning more about what’s really in her control help Alice? What effect would that have on her psyche?

Of all existing things some are in our power, and others are not in our power. In our power are thought, impulse, will to get and will to avoid, and, in a word, everything which is our own doing. Things not in our power include the body, property, reputation, office, and, in a word, everything which is not our own doing.

Epictetus, Enchiridion, 1

Epictetus’s words may be more familiar to you in the form of the famous Serenity Prayer adopted by a number of twelve-step programs:

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

The prayer was written by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in 1934, but it reflects wisdom that is common to Jewish, Christian, and Buddhist traditions, and of course to Stoicism. Indeed, the underlying concept is central to Stoic practice and is often referred to as the “dichotomy of control.” Epictetus begins the Enchiridion — his manual on Stoicism — with it, and it is one of the most cited Stoic sayings, having countless applications in daily life.

Let us first understand exactly what Epictetus means by his words. He is dividing the world into two big chunks: the set of things under our (complete) control and the set of things not (completely) under our control.

The basic idea is that it is imperative to use our mental energy to focus on what is under our complete control, while regarding everything else as indifferent. For those things that are not under our complete control, it isn’t that we stop caring about them, but rather that we come to a deep understanding that we cannot guarantee that these indifferent things will turn out the way we wish them to. The way we come to this understanding is through constant practice. This practice is the path toward ataraxia, the Greek word meaning serenity. We become serene by training ourselves to only want what is completely in our control — so in a very real sense, we’ll be serene because we always get what we want! This is the promise of the Discipline of Desire.

Taking a closer look at Epictetus’s categories, what does he say is in our control, and what is not? Under our control, according to him, are “thought, impulse, will to get and will to avoid, and, in a word, everything which is our own doing.” We need to be careful here, because these English words don’t necessarily carry the same connotations as their original Greek counterparts. Moreover, modern Stoics (such as ourselves!) may want to take into account advances in the cognitive sciences that were not available to Epictetus, and so we may arrive at a somewhat modified list of what truly is under our control. To understand what Epictetus is getting at, let’s break down the process further, starting with “thoughts” since it is listed first (for good reason).

“Thought” here is the English translation of hypolepsis, literally “grasping under” or “taking up.” More figuratively, this means “judgment” or “opinion” (similar to scooping up an idea or viewpoint — you’re grabbing under it to grasp or cradle it). These can be types of thoughts, and are not necessarily fully conscious ones. Epictetus may have listed “thought” first as it’s the first step in how we upset ourselves: we judge things to be inherently good or bad. Sometimes these judgments are explicit (e.g., thinking to yourself That guy’s a moron!). But they don’t have to be. For example, if you get angry at a person, you are implicitly judging the person’s actions as bad, even if the words “that person is doing a bad thing” never cross your mind.

Next comes “impulse” (horme in Greek). This is an impulse to act, but not necessarily in a base or automatic way (what we may think of as impulsive). Pulling your hand away from a hot stove and screaming is not an impulse in the way Epictetus uses the term. Instead, impulses come about from the first step of “thought” or “judgment.” If you judge something to be good, you’ll want it. If you judge it to be bad, you’ll want to avoid it. Impulses are then urges to act based on value judgments.

From thought (the judgment) and impulse (the desire to act) comes the “will to get and to avoid.” We decide if it is worth spending the energy, time, and money. For example, we consider these expenses when buying a brand-new car, reflecting the value judgment that possessing it is a good thing. Then we go about and make complex plans to acquire the new car. So our complex, conscious actions come about from value judgments and impulses to act.

Epictetus claims that all three of these things (thoughts, impulses, and the will to avoid and to get) are ultimately under our control. It is no accident that these three areas of complete control correspond to Epictetus’s three disciplines: you work with thoughts in the Discipline of Assent, impulses in the Discipline of Action, and the will to avoid and to get in the Discipline of Desire. In this way, Stoic practice trains you to master all areas of what in theory you can control. That’s Stoic training in a nutshell.

Just because these things are in your control doesn’t mean that they aren’t sometimes influenced by external factors (such as other people’s opinions) or by internal ones (such as your physical sensations or more automatic urges, like a craving for a snack). But, ultimately, they are under your control because you can make a conscious decision to ignore your cravings or to override the opinions of others when it comes to your own choices.

What about the sort of things that Epictetus says are not under our control? They include “the body, property, reputation, office, and, in a word, everything which is not our own doing.” This is a very large set that essentially comprises all things external to our conscious mind. Our body can get sick despite our best efforts at taking care of it; we may lose our property because of accident or theft; our reputation may be ruined due to circumstances we cannot influence; and we may lose our job through no fault of our own.

You may object that the sort of things we just mentioned are, however, under our partial control. They are not similar to, say, the weather, about which we can truly do nothing at all. Of course, Epictetus knew this! What he is saying here is akin to a “best bet argument”: if you bet your peace of mind on things not completely in your control, you’re willingly forfeiting part of your happiness to random chance.

This exercise will help you explore the dichotomy of control. Take time now to choose when you’ll do the exercise each day for the rest of the week. Try to place the exercise toward the end of the day. You can plan to do it at a specific time (e.g., at 9:00 pm) or after an activity you do every day (e.g., brushing your teeth at night).

Sit down at this time Monday through Saturday of this week and choose something that happened that day to write about. It can be anything from seeing a friend for lunch to a meeting at work. We suggest that you choose an event that wasn’t too emotionally upsetting, which could make the exercise more difficult, and you’re just starting out! List what aspects of the event were completely in your control and which weren’t. It may help to add some quick reasons why the thing was or wasn’t in your complete control.

If you have trouble with the exercise, you can use Epictetus’s suggestions of separating out value judgments, impulses, and what you wished to avoid or obtain, as things under your complete control. You can also try separating aspects of the event by “internal” factors (thoughts, desires, wishes) and “external” factors (results), since we can mostly control what goes on inside our heads, and much of what we can’t control happens in the outside world. Don’t feel shackled to these categories. Part of the goal of this exercise is to see whether Epictetus’s suggestions hold true to your experience. Perhaps you’ll find he was correct, and perhaps not.

By doing this exercise daily, looking at specific events in your life, you’ll start to internalize what is really under your complete control and what isn’t. This exercise will also give you a clearer picture of what exactly you should focus your desires and aversions on to achieve peace of mind.

On the seventh day of the week, after you’ve practiced exploring the dichotomy of control, set a timer for 5 to 10 minutes and write your impressions down. Was this exercise useful to you? How? Did you discover anything about yourself or your world? Did you find it useless? Is there any way you could tweak your approach to make it easier or more useful in the future?

Discipline of Action: Cut Out Busyness

Many of us live in a culture where being busy is a badge of pride. Having full days means you get things done. This signals that you’re a productive member of society and value hard work. However, being busy has its downsides. Consider Liam, who lives a productive professional and family life. His days are always packed. He often has to turn down spending quality time with friends, and also loses out on time for himself. While the Stoics valued making the most of your time, can taking things on be taken too far?

     “You will hear many of those who are burdened by great prosperity cry out at times in the midst of their throngs of clients, or their pleadings in court, or their other glorious miseries: ‘I have no chance to live.’ Of course you have no chance! All those who summon you to themselves, turn you away from your own self. . . . Check off, I say, and review the days of your life; you will see that very few, and those [that are] the refuse . . . have been left for you. . . . Everyone hurries his life on and suffers from a yearning for the future and a weariness of the present. But he who bestows all of his time on his own needs, who plans out every day as if it were his last, neither longs for nor fears the morrow.” (Seneca, On the Shortness of Life, 7)

Time is the only thing that, once loaned, can never be paid back, and therefore the one resource we really need to be careful to apportion wisely. Seneca was writing two millennia ago, but he may as well have been speaking in the twenty-first century: our lives are becoming ever busier, but not necessarily more meaningful. The first question a Stoic would ask of someone who is too busy is whether they have their priorities straight. Are we paying sufficient attention to what is most important in our lives, or are we being distracted by inconsequential or downright destructive pursuits? The second issue is one of quality versus quantity, as we moderns would put it. While the phrase “quality time” is more than a bit overused, it gets to the idea that we cram too much into our days, which is not a good recipe for life, or even to get those things done. There is empirical evidence that beyond a certain threshold, more hours spent on a task can actually be deleterious. The reason is simple: human beings need rest and a variety of stimuli in order to keep their minds focused.

There are two other aspects of busyness that Seneca focuses on and that are worth mentioning. The first is that there are few days left, and those are the “refuse,” that is, the lowest quality ones. Seneca is referring to people who have lived long enough that they begin to sense the final stretch. Looking back at their lives, they realize that their time has not been used well. We certainly don’t want to get to that stage only to find that we’re out of time, do we?

Second, we should plan each one of our days as if it were our last. This is another example of Stoic motivation: awareness of death gives value to life. Imagine for a moment if today really were your last day. We bet you would spend it very differently, focusing on things that are important to you, not on trivialities. Of course, you don’t know which day will be your last, or how much time you may have ahead of you, so you should feel the same sense of urgency every day.

Don’t fret about the future, and don’t regret the past. The future hasn’t come yet, and the past is outside of your control. It is the present that demands your attention — a demand that requires you to make important decisions about how you are going to spend this day, and every day, in the moment.

The Discipline of Action can be as much about culling useless actions as it is about cultivating virtuous ones. With this exercise, we encourage you to “check off your days” in order to see if there are any actions that should be cut.

Take some time each night to review how you spent your day, and whether your activities satisfied two factors: they served “your own needs,” that is, helped build character, and they were truly important.

At the end of each day, write up to three activities you did and ask yourself if doing them helped preserve or build your character and whether they were important. Would you still do them, or something like them, if you knew your life were to end soon? The things you list can be short and trivial (e.g., browsing social media, having a beer, or texting a family member) or long and significant (e.g., working on a major project or running a marathon). A mix of both types of activities will be useful, since those that only take a few minutes can add up to huge chunks of time over a lifetime!

The Discipline of Action is ultimately about one goal: to act intentionally to become a better person. This exercise allows you to see how many of your current actions help you in this pursuit. With this in mind, you can make more informed, deliberate decisions about how to act, in order to improve as a person.

After spending a week cataloguing your actions throughout the day, take some time to reflect on them. Review your notes from the week, then write about any trends you’ve noticed. Did you discover any recurring activities that aren’t fulfilling, and don’t improve your character, or help you carry out your responsibilities? Did you discover some actions that you’d like to keep, or do more frequently?

Discipline of Assent: Analyze Anger

We are told that we should pause before acting when we are angry. But while pausing is a useful first step to cope with anger, it’s only the first step. What should one do after pausing? Zhang Wei chose a cognitive approach. When he found himself getting angry at his son for misbehaving, he paused and then used this exercise to assess the situation more logically.

The greatest remedy for anger is delay; beg anger to grant you this at the first, not in order that it may pardon the offense, but that it may form a right judgment about it. If it delays, it will come to an end. Do not attempt to quell it all at once, for its first impulses are fierce; by plucking away its parts we shall remove the whole. . . . Some offenses we ourselves witness: in these cases let us examine the disposition and purpose of the offender. Perhaps he is a child; let us pardon his youth, he knows not whether he is doing wrong. Or he is a father; he has either rendered such great services, as to have won the right even to wrong us, or perhaps this very act which offends us is his chief merit. . . . Suppose that it is a disease or a misfortune; it will take less effect upon you if you bear it quietly. . . . Is it a good man who has wronged you? Do not believe it. Is it a bad one? Do not be surprised at this; he will pay to someone else the penalty which he owes to you — indeed, by his sin he has already punished himself.

Seneca, On Anger, 2.29–30

Seneca picks up the theme of pausing while angry, arguing that delay is, in fact, our chief defense against anger. Do not try to dominate anger, as it escalates quickly and easily overcomes reason in the heat of the moment. Counterintuitively, avoidance, not confrontation, is the winning strategy. Seneca then goes further by advising us to pick apart the causes of our anger; to examine them calmly and carefully, as if on an operating table (but not while you are angry). You need to consider who or what is the cause of your anger. It makes no sense to be angry at a child, for example, since they are incapable of using reason correctly. The better response is to patiently teach them how to behave more reasonably. Perhaps it’s an adult who is causing offense, maybe your own father. In that case be tolerant of his misstep, because he has done so much for you in the past. Or maybe he is right in what he is saying and you should be listening and learning, rather than going off in a huff.

What if you are angry at an inanimate object, or a natural phenomenon, such as a disease? What sense is there in that? Is getting upset and yelling at your computer going to make it apologize to you and stop glitching? We bet that your reaction is more likely to make things worse, not to mention make you look foolish. Diseases and other calamities are part of life, and, again, attacking them isn’t going to help you; you’ll simply feel worse than you might otherwise. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to fix your computer or cure the disease. On the contrary, reacting calmly and reasonably is far more likely to help you accomplish those goals than outbursts of rage.

Seneca adds two important concepts for our consideration: not only should you not be surprised that some people do unethical things, but take comfort that they will likely get what’s due to them. And in acting unethically, they are already hurting themselves. The first superficially sounds similar to the Stoic version of karma: Logos keeps track of people’s deeds, and in the long run balances out the ledger. Is Seneca somehow saying that we should put faith in karma? We don’t think so.

More likely, Seneca is deploying the Stoic notion that human beings are inclined to virtue by nature, or, as we moderns would put it, we evolved a tendency toward prosocial behavior. This means that most people will object, and sometimes react, to wrongdoing. So, the person who is hurting you today is likely (at least statistically) to get his due at some point in the future. This implies that virtuous behavior is a good bet for flourishing, which is an argument that some modern virtue ethicists, such as Rosalind Hurthouse, make as well.

The second claim, that the wrongdoer is actually hurting himself, derives from the Stoic notion that virtue is the only true good because it is the only thing that can only be used for good. It follows that vice is the only true evil, while everything else is a preferred or dispreferred indifferent. We also know from the dichotomy of control that our judgments of what is good and bad are entirely up to us. So the man that Seneca describes is doing wrong of his own volition, and, as a result is staining his soul or his character, depending on your perspective. This is the worst thing someone could do, according to Stoic philosophy. The joke is on the one who is doing wrong by you. There’s no reason to get upset.

With this exercise you will practice pausing when angry, but also take things one step further: recognize where your anger is pointed, and then counter the anger by analyzing it rationally. You can try this on paper for the first few days of a week, but we encourage you to do this on the fly if you’re able.

Seneca gives a few common objects of anger along with ways to rebut them. To warm up, identify objects of anger and possible rebuttals. Writing your analysis and rebuttals out on paper may help you get the hang of things, but with repeated practice you’ll be able to do this even better in your head.

Now that you’ve warmed up, here is the technique to practice whenever you feel the stirrings of anger:

  • Pause, using whatever method works best for you.
  • Name the object of your anger.
  • Rehearse and meditate upon a rebuttal for the causes of your anger.

Feel free to revisit your rebuttals in your head over the course of a week. It may help to mentally rehearse some possible rebuttals to angry thoughts when you have the time and inclination.

This exercise tackles the root cause of anger: our thoughts. Remember, the Stoics believed that it’s our own thoughts that cause our anger, and our thoughts happen rapidly. With enough practice, the stirrings of our anger will turn less and less frequently into full-blown passion.

_____

Excerpted from A Handbook for New Stoics: How to Thrive in a World Out of Your Control © Massimo Pigliucci and Gregory Lopez, 2019. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, The Experiment. Available wherever books are sold.

Greg Lopez is a practicing secular Buddhist and Stoic, founder and facilitator of the New York City Stoics meetup, co-host of Stoic Camp New York, Director of Membership for The Stoic Fellowship, and co-organizer of Stoicon 2016. He also runs a nonprofit that uses cognitive behavioral therapy, which is what led to his interest in Stoicism. His professional and academic background is in pharmacy and basic science. His other interests include psychology, statistics, philosophy, and swing dancing.

Massimo Pigliucci is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. His books include How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life (Basic Books) and the second edition of Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk (University of Chicago Press). He blogs at FigsInWinter.

Introducing The Aurelius Foundation by John Sellars

At Stoicon-X in London last October we had a short presentation introducing The Aurelius Foundation, a new non-profit organization led by Justin Stead. I first met Justin around six months earlier, when he attended a weekend course on Stoicism led by Christopher Gill and myself. Justin was already well versed in Stoicism and had been developing the idea for the foundation for a while. Since then, Justin and I have met up a number of times to progress things further, culminating in his presentation at Stoicon-x. In the presentation Justin outlined his vision for this new venture:

  • The VISION of the Aurelius Foundation is to increase awareness and to share the principles of Stoic philosophy based on the four cardinal virtues of Wisdom, Justice, Temperance and Courage in the pursuit of happiness.
  • The foundation endeavours to share this philosophy to help young people consider how they might plan their journey through life and support their considerations of how to live a life that contributes to the greater good.
  • The foundation is dedicated to youth and youth development through the education of higher principles and values of stoic philosophy to bring positive and constructive change through their life contributions to improve upon the many challenges in the world today.

Justin’s presentation generated lots of interest and discussion, and the whole thing was all the more intriguing because there wasn’t any further information available at that point. Well, now there is. It now has a website up and running at https://www.aureliusfoundation.com where people can sign up for regular updates.

More importantly, the foundation’s first event is now planned for Friday 6th March in London. This event will be an opportunity for people to learn more about the basic ideas behind Stoicism and to hear from people who apply Stoicism in a variety of personal and business contexts – from professional sport to prisons to business and finance. (I’ll be presenting in the morning, setting out the central ideas in Stoic ethics and talking about Marcus Aurelius.)

The goal of the event is to offer guidance and support for people at the outset of their adult and professional lives in the 18 to 30 age group. It hopes to bring together university students, recent graduates, and young entrepreneurs in order to foster useful networks for the future. If you fall into this age group, or know someone who does, then this might be of interest.

The all-day event – completely free – will be in central London (W1). Refreshments will be provided throughout the day. In order to register for a place, visit https://www.aureliusfoundation.com/events/lets-talk-stoicism

The Stoic – February 2020

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

The theme of this issue is ‘Stoic Every Moment’. Contributors include many prominent modern Stoics: Donald Robertson, Sharon Lebell, Kai Whiting, Meredith Kunz, Flora Bernard, Jonas Salzgeber, Jeff Rout, and Chuck Chakrapani. If you’d like to check it out, or to subscribe, you can click here

FEBURARY 2020 ISSUE CONTENTS

  • CHUCK CHAKRAPANI. Being a Stoic Every Moment of the Day                
  • DONALD ROBERTSON. The Golden Rule of Stoicism                                                                    
  • MEREDITH A. KUNZ. A Stoic Cyclist: When People Behave Badly on the Road                 
  • JONAS SALZGEBER. Play Your Given Roles Well                                                                            
  • KAI WHITING. Stoicism and the Pursuit of Happiness                                                      
  • SHARON LEBELL. Stoic response: Caring for the  Community                                           
  • FLORA BERNARD. Being Grateful for What we Learned From Others                                  
  • JEFF ROUT. Cultivating True Friendships            

Stoicism for Something Bad by Mary Braun

John (not his real name, details changed) hates his job. He is healthy and comes in every few months to talk about getting off his anti-depressant. He thinks his boss is a jerk who makes him do demeaning things that should really be the job of the newer people on the team. He makes more than he thinks he could anywhere else because he’s been at this job a long time. Maybe, he thinks, his boss is trying to make him quit so he can be replaced with a cheaper, younger new hire. He wants to quit his job. He doesn’t want to take a decrease in income. Quit. Stay. Quit. Stay. He explains both points to me every time he comes in.

He’s so depressed he doesn’t do much besides watch TV when he comes home from work. He doesn’t mountain bike, which he used to love and he’s made no progress on that genealogy project he’s been talking about for a decade. He’s stuck. Clearly, the meds aren’t working sufficiently for him. We’ve changed them a couple times and that makes no difference. He’s tried therapy with three different therapists and that doesn’t seem to help. This is the type of patient to whom I suggest Stoicism.

Stoicism is not medicine, and I am reluctant to suggest it to anyone who seems to have an active medical issue. The idea of my patient going to the emergency room for treatment that I could have given them in the office if I hadn’t been too busy suggesting they give Stoicism a try is appalling. I’m a doctor, not a philosopher. I am competent to diagnose pneumonia, but am I competent to suggest or teach philosophy?

On the other hand, I think Stoicism works and would help a patient like John. Is it compassionate to withhold it? Just like, I don’t need to be a surgeon to diagnose appendicitis, I don’t need to be a philosopher to diagnose “needing a life philosophy.” But, if I’ve diagnosed his problem as “needing a life philosophy,” suggested he start exploring life philosophies, and then another doctor makes him better by giving him a pill that I could have prescribed, would he be justified to be upset with me?

A doctor’s business is care of the body, and my official title is “health care provider.” We can define “health” as broadly as we like, but I do not think it can be expanded enough to include “needing a life philosophy” and, yet, I see people who are suffering for lack of one. One of the ways I solve this problem is to have philosophy books in my exam rooms and to run late. It used to work better. Now that everyone has an iphone, I find people are more likely to be watching cat videos than taking advantage of a chance to read William Irvine for free.

Another of the ways I solve this problem is to preface anything I say about Stoicism by saying, “I am telling you this, not as your doctor, but as a fellow suffering human being.” These are my credentials for philosophy teaching. Sometimes life sucks and I’ve had to cope, too.

I have to prioritize what we are going to talk about with every patient. It is rare that I get to things like would you like a shingles vaccine and even rarer that I get to “wear your seatbelt.” I feel that I cannot help my patients with their existential issues until all of their physical issues have been addressed and yet sometimes the existential issues are driving the physical issues.

If I have a patient who is not healthy physically, I feel obliged to spend all of our precious time together talking about traditional medical topics. By coming to see me, my patient has declared in which realm they think their problem lies. If their teeth were troubling them, they’d see a dentist. If their soul was troubling them, a chaplain. At least in theory, if my patients were seeking a life philosophy, they would be at the philosopher’s office. Since they have come to a doctor’s office, we talk about their body, not philosophical issues.

Because of this, the rare healthy may get an inoculation of Stoicism from me. The unhealthy, who would benefit more from it, do not. The patient who would benefit the very most from a discussion of Stoicism rarely gets even a homeopathic dose of it from me. He (or she) is one who has recently been diagnosed with Something Bad. Having Something Bad means that now one probably knows what is going to kill one and using Google, one can easily find how long before 50% of the patients with one’s very own diagnosis die. Examples of Something Bad are: acute leukemia, metastatic colon cancer, severe COPD, or Lewy Body Dementia. There are plenty of others. A diagnosis of Something Bad challenges one’s life philosophy like little else.

Having your philosophical techniques honed before your doctor says “I don’t like the feel of this lymph node,” or “Let’s get a biopsy of that shadow on your chest xray” works better than scrambling around while you’re waiting, at home, awake at 2 am, for the results. If you haven’t gotten your diagnosis of Something Bad (yet), let’s stop wasting time! If however, you have recently been told you have Something Bad, do not despair. These techniques are just what one doctor wishes she could order and they will start helping you immediately.

The Dichotomy of Control

A common starting place for Stoic reading is Epictetus’ Enchiridion which opens with “Some things are in our control and others not.” Because there are two options, it is called the dichotomy of control: thing are under one’s control or they are not under one’s control.

Having Something Bad is not under one’s control. Some Bad Diagnoses have risk factors which are under our control: smoking, sun tanning, or excessive drinking, for example. However, which person with the risk factor gets the disease and which doesn’t is not under our control. Every smoker, regardless of their level of smoking knows a smoker who smoked more and died at an old age from something completely unrelated to smoking. “It’s not fair. How come they didn’t get lung cancer and I did?” Every cardiac patient who eats well and jogs daily also knows a dozen obese people much older than him who have not exercised since their youth and who do not have cancer. Certainly, there are risk factors, but who gets a particular Bad Diagnosis and when is a matter that is not under our control.

Bill Irvine uses the idea of a trichotomy of control (some things are partially under my control). I happen not to find this extra division helpful, but some people do. I would grant that sometimes having Something Bad is sometimes partially under my control, but certainly not fully. Whether or not I smoke is under my control, but whether or not I get lung cancer, regardless of how much I smoked, is not.

I observe that people who remember that getting their Bad Diagnosis is out of their control tend to do better. “Getting lung cancer was out of my control. I have it. The more energy I waste in thinking about why I got lung cancer, the less I will have available for figuring out what to do about it.”

When I consider my own history, I can feel very upset that my mother died at 39. Why did she get such a bad diagnosis? On the other hand, I can recall that I have taken care of children with cancer who died before graduating from high school. Why was she spared this fate, a precondition for my very existence?

An exercise that I find helpful is to turn “Why me?” around into “Why not me?” Whenever I wonder “Why me? Why did my mother die when I was seven?” I can challenge myself with “When my mother died is out of my control. Why was I lucky enough to have my mom for seven years? Plenty of women die in childbirth. This was equally out of my control.”

Gratitude

A very easy step from “Why not me?” is to gratitude. Continuing the personal example above, I am grateful my mom was alive for my first seven years.

If you wonder how important the classical Stoics thought gratitude was, read the first book of Meditations. Marcus lists people and situations he is grateful about. This goes on for page after page. 

I do find that patients who are more grateful are happier. There is research supporting this that you can google easily.

If you have just gotten a Bad Diagnosis and wants to start developing a gratitude practice, consider what getting your diagnosis exactly a year ago would have meant for you. Consider what getting it during an earlier season of your life would have been like. It may come easily to you to be grateful that you did not get your diagnosis as you were helping plan your child’s wedding last year. Perhaps you will simply feel gratitude for the ensuing year of everyday experiences you have had and the bigger store of wisdom and coping skills you have attained.

Another easy way to identify things you are grateful for is to consider the things you will be saddest to let go of whenever you die. Those are, in all likelihood, things you are grateful to have now.

Fasting, Taking Cold Showers, and Other Tough-Guy Techniques

The Stoics, and especially their philosophical cousins the Cynics, emphasized trials of doing without various niceties of life to help one recognize how few the true needs are. They would fast for a while or eat only lentils, sleep on the ground, or do without servants. One would be able to recognize that, while a soft bed is comfy, it’s not at all required. Gratitude for that soft bed would come more naturally. Whether or not you sleep on whatever bed you have is completely under your control, unlike your Bad Diagnosis. The practices build on each other naturally.

Having practice with what is essential and what is not can be helpful when one is called upon to make medical decisions. The treatment of Something Bad may require one to reclassify some bodily functions from essential to non-essential. It can be surprising to learn which of the things you thought you required prior to getting your diagnosis is actually nice, but not necessary. Your disease may ask you “what is life without the nicety of a functioning anal sphincter?” And you will have to answer in order to choose your treatment path.

You will have to make decisions in coping with Something Bad. Some doctors disagree with me, but I think it is helpful to notice when there is a choice to be made and to be explicit that one has made a choice. If you have a diagnosis of Something Bad, you have likely made some choices already. Most people with Something Bad have chosen to work up their symptoms. Some people with incredibly severe symptoms prefer not to know more and do not take the steps you may have taken to get your diagnosis. Or maybe you opted to have a mammogram. Not everyone does. Chances are good you’ve made a number of choices already. Chances are good you have many, many more choices yet to make.

Patients will frequently come to me and say, “I have no choice. The oncologist says I have to do this medication or surgery or radiation treatment.” Nothing could be further from the truth. You do have a choice! You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do! It’s your body! What the cancer doctor is saying is that if you do this treatment, it will give you an increased likelihood of living longer, or better. You are deciding (or are allowing the cancer doctor to decide for you) that the nuisance, pain, discomfort, nausea, whatever of this treatment are worth the likely benefit. Because you are making this choice, you really are in control. You are not in control of what benefit you actually get from the treatment or how bad the side effects are for you, but it’s your decision to do the treatment.

My observation is that people who realize that they made a choice are less disturbed by their symptoms. Yes, I have not been able to eat for three days, but that is a side effect of this chemo. I chose this chemo knowing it would be tough because it would give me a better chance of living longer.

Some people decide that the potential to live longer is not worth the loss of function it would require. Some people decide that it is. Having been the one to make that decision for themselves, however, makes the suffering which ensues from whichever choice they have made much more tolerable. The Stoic practice of finding out how much one can do without can help inform these decisions. Sometimes how little one needs to be happy is a shock.

Once I took care of a young woman who would die soon if she didn’t accept being fed through her veins. She and her husband had owned a restaurant together. Eating and drinking had been such an important part of her life that she was not sure that life would hold any meaning if it continued beyond the point where she could eat and drink. She said no. Her husband begged her to try, however, so she did. The next time I saw her, she was beaming. “It is so intimate to have him hook me up every night and give me what I need. I love it. It has brought us closer.” She lived another very happy, very intimate six months.

Something Bad will demand that you consider what delicacies of life are actually essential. It may be that you will determine that life without functioning bowels or bladder or eating or walking or seeing is actually perfectly acceptable. Or it may be that you will decide such a life is not acceptable. 

Stoics may take cold showers, but patients with Something Bad are cutting to the bone. They often discover that very basic things healthy people consider essentials are actually niceties.

Premeditatio Malorum

People often identify Premeditatio Malorum as the distinctive Stoic practice. The Stoic imagines their fear (my cancer will progress) in as great a detail as they can tolerate (I will be unable to control my bowels, I’ll have to use a bag, I’ll be too weak to take care of it myself, my family will have to do it for me, I’ll be so embarrassed) and then considers this state in light of their basic virtue (will I still be able to be wise, just, courageous, and equanimous in this state? Clearly, I would be.

The opportunities to practice these virtues would be multiplied, not diminished. Thus my basic value is not decreased.) Not all patients would view the maintenance of virtue as the thing that keeps their life worth living, but the question one asks can be adapted for what is important to the individual doing the exercise. The practice remains very valuable if one remembers to do the whole practice and doesn’t allow one’s self to start in the middle or get side tracked before the conclusion.

This first step is not a Stoic step. Starting here will allow you to adapt the exercise for your own belief system, if it is a non-Stoic belief system. If one is a Stoic, one believes that virtue is the only good. Being virtuous is what gives one’s life meaning. If one does not believe this, the work starts here. The beginning step is to figure out what one’s deepest hope is, or possibly what one feels one specifically offers to the universe. For some people this can be accessed as what gives their life meaning. If I were doing this practice by myself, I might write the answers down on an index card. These deep issues are where you’re going ultimately. If this seems like too abstract an idea for your life, keep reading anyway. Give me a chance to bring it down to the concrete and accessible. We’ll get there. I have helped people with all kinds of belief systems with this exercise. I bet you’ll find it helpful, too.

The thing about having Something Bad is that you know Bad Things are coming. You are quite likely to die from Something Bad and in fairly short order. This fact—death is in sight—sits at the back of the mind of every patient with Something Bad. Every patient I’ve ever met does the “identify your fear” part of Premeditatio Malorum instinctively. Going the next step and determining that their virtue, or whatever gives their life meaning, would not be affected by the losses they are imagining is what makes this practice special. Doing the middle steps only can get people into trouble and the patients that I see who are having the hardest time are often those who get stuck, wandering in the fear part of this practice.

If I happen upon a patient who is suffering because they have started down this path and gotten lost, I will spend the time with them to get them unstuck, even if it means I will be running late for the patients who come after them. This is very important work to do. Patients who are stuck here have imagined the thing they are most afraid of in great detail. I ask them to look at it and listen to what they say. Starting with the first step “what makes life meaningful to you?” would be greeted with derision or possibly anger. But that is what I am trying to figure out with the hurting person in front of me.

People will often tell me things like, “I worry how my kids will grow up without me to watch over them.” (Their worry might be can my kids grow up well without me? or it might be how will my kids survive the viciousness of the world? or it might be will my kids feel the abandonment of my death so acutely that they will be unable to trust others in the future?) Sometimes I hear “I don’t want to burden my loved ones with cleaning me up when I can’t control my bowels any more.” (Their question is something like “Will my family still love me if I am helpless or disgusting?” Or it might be “Do people love me only because I am strong and independent?”) I try to explore these things to learn what is the deepest belief or wish. Oftentimes, the patient cannot put words to it themself. I take my best stab at what it might be and then wander around with them until by a change in their demeanor I can tell we’re close.

Stoics find it helpful to realize that they will still be able to be virtuous even if their worst fear comes to pass. Christians could gain comfort from premeditatio malorum by recalling that they can still love Jesus even if their worst fears come to pass. Often there is a deeply held belief like “If I were a good mother, I would find a way to keep from dying,” that is causing pain. It can be tough to find, but doing this work will help ultimately.

The final step in premeditatio malorum is to consider what impact on one’s deepest hope is caused by the fears that one is ruminating upon. For the woman who believes “if I were a good mother, I’d find a way to keep from dying,” I would concentrate on helping her find ways to be a good mother after her death (writing letters or other means of posthumous communication, perhaps). For the person who is worried about who will help guide their children after their death, we might identify people who could help and figure out if giving her children this list or talking to the potential helpers or some other action would be most helpful. For the person who wondered if he’d be loved in his weakened state, we’d consider times that others were loved when they were weak, perhaps, or possibly an open conversation with the patient’s family about what her he was likely to need, what they thought they would be able to do that their abilities have nothing to do with their love for him, and where else they might get help would likely ensue.

After we have identified the painful belief, visited the worst fear in great detail, figured out what is essential to do, figured out that we have control over at this point and made some plans to do those things, I circle back and try to help the patient see that the thing they were most in fear of is not a threat. Usually they have figured this out for themselves already.

Call Things After Their True Natures

One of the funny places in the Meditations is where Marcus describes sex as friction followed by mucous. The technique of describing things prosaically can be helpful when one has Something Bad. “A single cell has decided its chances are better if it goes it alone,” “They’ll put a little tube into my kidney that will poke out my back and drain my urine directly into a bag,” “I’m done breastfeeding babies, so those parts have outlived their utility.”

Meditate on Your Mortality

Stoicism emphasizes the reality that we are all well on our way to death. Really meditating on this requires a certain amount of courage as well as imagination for the average person. A Bad Diagnosis sets one’s imagination on fire and provides the courage needed to get started. It is much easier to always be aware of the fact that I am dying if I know there is only a fifty percent chance I’ll be alive in five years. Prioritizing one’s life as though one is going to be dead soon tends to produce decisions oriented towards the deeper desires. Remembering that one will be dead soon tends to cause one to consider how one will be remembered by loved ones after one’s death. Acting in a way that seems likely to cause good memories in the future is also likely to cause a better today. Thus, the person with the Bad Diagnosis benefits from regarding their imminent death.

Different people have different hopes for the time around their death. I hope yours is as easy and as meaning filled as you would like it to be. My observation is that these practices help when you get a Bad Diagnosis. And, what is Life but a universally fatal condition? What diagnosis could be worse than Life? Our Bad Diagnosis is coming soon enough. Let’s get practicing.

Mary Braun, MD is a primary care physician in rural New Hampshire specializing in internal medicine and palliative care. In childhood, Mary began practicing an intuitive form of Stoicism to cope with being orphaned. She discovered Stoic philosophy in middle age. She applies ideas from Stoicism not only for her own life but also to help her patients.

Are Stoics Less Angry than Other People? Stoic Week 2019 Report (part 2) by Tim LeBon

One main activity of the Modern Stoicism organization is carrying out research on the impact of adopting Stoic practices, perspectives, and principles on those who do so.  Every year we run the Stoic Week online class, and we also gather valuable data through the surveys before and after participants engage in the class.  Tim LeBon is our lead quantitative researcher, and he does invaluable service in compiling and interpreting the data collected, producing a set of Stoic Week Reports.  This is the second report for 2019, which you can download a copy of (with all of the appendices) by clicking here.

Introduction

A strong positive relationship between Stoicism and well-being has been well documented in previous Stoic Week reports.  This article analyses the findings from analysing questionnaires from the start of Stoic week 2019, and will report on whether this relationship has been maintained. In 2019 we obtained additional information about the relationship between Stoicism and anger, as measured by the Anger Disorder Scale (ADS-S). A second innovation this year was the introduction of another iteration of  the Stoic Attitudes and Behaviours Scale (SABS v5.0). This report will indicate which of the 60 items of the new SABS scale are the most and least associated with life satisfaction, flourishing, positive and negative emotions and with anger – in other words, which items appear to be the most active ingredients of Stoicism in these respects. The other reports in this series will discuss the effect of taking part in Stoic Week (part 3) and summarise participant feedback and suggest future directions of research (part 4). Details about the scales used are given in the Appendices of this report.

What Were My Scores Like Compared to the Average?

If you took part in Stoic Week, you will have been given average scores at the start of the week for other participants at the start of a previous Stoic Week for some of the measures. But we didn’t have the scores for Stoic Week 2019 then (obviously!), and we didn’t have comparative scores for the Anger Scale or for the new SABS scale. So, here you are. How do you compare with the average score?

  • Life Satisfaction (SWL)        23
  • Emotions (SPANE)             5
  • Flourish                                 43
  • Anger (ADS-S)                     34
  • Stoicism (SABS 5.0)             300

The New SABS Scale

Stoic Week 2019 saw the introduction of SABS 5.0, a 60-item questionnaire described in Appendix A. This scale builds on the work done with the invaluable work Ray DiGiuseppe and others to eliminate items with inferior psychometric properties. We are also working towards validating the SABS 5.0 and providing sub-scales (for example “Stoic Worldview” and “Values awareness and Stoic mindfulness”. As the work on subscales is still provisional, it will be reported at a later date.  

Stoicism and Anger

Theoretically, we would expect Stoic attitude to help with anger management. We would anticipate that Stoics would not just act in a less angry way, they would also get angry less often than non-Stoics because non-Stoics often get angry at things beyond their control.

Previous Stoic Week research results have indeed suggested a strong inverse relationship between Stoicism and anger. However, this has relied on the single anger item question in the SPANE questionnaire. Since anger management is potentially an important benefit of practising Stoicism, the relationship between Stoicism and anger warranted further investigation. Consequently, this year we asked participants to fill in a validated anger questionnaire, the 18-item ADS-S (see Appendix B) to understand the relationship between Stoicism and anger when anger is measured in a more robust manner and which also separates out the degree to which people feel anger, the degree to which they feel vengeful, and the extent to which they act angrily. Table 1 below gives the results.

Anger overall  (ADS-S) Anger-In (ADS-S subscale 1) Anger Vengeance (ADS-S subscale 2) Anger Reactivity (ADS-S subscale S) Anger single item (SPANE)
-.44 -.45 -.31 -.35 -.32

Table 1: Correlation and Stoicism and Anger at the start of Stoic Week 2019 (1725 participants)

The more sophisticated measure of anger provided by the ADS-S than the single scale item in the SPANE gives a significantly stronger relationship between Stoicism and a lack of anger (.44 compared to .32). The ADS-S divides anger into 3 subscales. Subscale 1, the anger-in scale, represents the degree to which people are likely to feel anger and repress, or not express their anger. Stoics are particularly less likely to do this (.45 correlation), putting a lie to the notion that Stoics repress feelings (the “stiff upper lip”). Stoics are also likely to be less vengeful (subscale 2) and less reactive with their anger (subscale 3). It will be interesting to see how the scales and subscales change when people try to practice Stoicism in Stoic Week. We would predict a reduction in anger and in particular, a large reduction in subscale 1 (anger-in).

Stoicism and Well-Being

We can tell how Stoic someone is by their score on the SABS 5.0. By measuring their well-being at the same time, we can determine the extent to which Stoicism is associated with well-being.

  Flourishing Emotions (SPANE) Life Satisfaction (SWL)
STOIC ATTITUDES AND BEHAVIOURS 2019: 0.64
2018: 0.54 2017: 0.47
2019: 0.59 2018: 0.45 2017: 0.43 2019: 0.50 2018: 0.39 2017: 0.36

Table 2 Overall association of Stoic Attitudes and Behaviours with various scales (2019 Stoic Week compared to 2018 and 2017 Stoic Weeks)

As table 2 shows, Stoicism is associated to  a very high degree of Flourishing and a balance of positive over emotions and (to a slightly lesser degree) satisfaction with life. Over the years as we have worked to improve the SABs, the correlation coefficients are somewhat higher using the new SABS 5.0.

Stoicism and Emotions

We can also see which emotions are most associated with Stoicism. The trends found in previous years continue to be supported. Stoicism is not just associated with not feeling bad, it is also strongly associated with feeling contented and positive.

Emotion 2019 2018 2017 2016
Negative -.47 -0.35 -0.36 -0.29
Bad -.42 -0.31 -0.32 -0.28
Unpleasant -.39 -0.29 -0.27 -0.24
Sad -.38 -0.26 -0.28 -0.26
Angry -.32 -0.24 -0.27 -0.24
Afraid -.34 -0.24 -0.23 -0.26
Contented .49 0.36 0.33 0.35
Positive .49 0.36 0.32 0.31
Happy .43 0.35 0.29 0.28
Good .47 0.34 0.32 0.32
Pleasant .41 0.34 0.32 0.3
Joyful .41 0.32 0.28 0.26

Once again, as we have continued to revise and improve the SAB the correlation coefficients with the various measures emotions have increased.

Table 3: Correlation of SABS 5.0 scores and emotions as measured in SPANE

Degree of Stoicism and Well-being

The above findings lend considerable support to the view that Stoicism is associated with higher degrees of well-being and less anger. But how much difference does it make? We attempted to tease this out by looking at the differences in well-being for those who are the most and least Stoic. This is shown in table 4 below.

  Participant Scores
Ranking on the SABS 5.0 Life Satisfaction Emotions Anger Flourishing Stoicism
Top 10% 28 14 26 50 371
Top quarter 27 11 28 49 351
Top half 26 9 31 47 331
Average 23 5 34 43 300
Bottom half 21 2 37 39 269
Bottom quarter 19 0 39 37 257
Bottom 10% 17 -2 41 33 235

Table 4: Difference in life satisfaction, the balance of emotions, anger, flourishing according to the degree of Stoicism (Start of Stoic Week 2019, n=1725)

Those who are the most Stoic (top 10%) are much higher in well-being and lower in anger than the those in the top 10%. One possible way to read table 4 is to say that the biggest gains are to be made with those people who are least Stoic. If someone moved from the bottom half to just average levels of Stoicism, one would anticipate quite significant gains in well-being – assuming that causation goes in the direction of being Stoic to well-being, which may not be completely founded.

Stoicism’s Most Active Ingredients

Which Stoic attitudes and beliefs are most associated with life satisfaction, flourishing, positive emotions and the absence of anger? By finding the correlation between SABS 5.0 items and each measure, it is possible to answer these questions. Tables 5 -8 below provide the answers for each scale. Note that since these associations are correlations, we cannot be sure of the direction of causation, so these findings require a certain amount of qualification.

# SABS Item Life Satisfaction Correlation
19 I spend quite a lot of time dwelling on what has gone wrong in the past.* 0.46
33 I spend quite a lot of time worrying about the future.* 0.42
26 When I have a problem, I am good at taking constructive action in a timely manner. 0.41
41 If things don’t go well for me, I can’t lead a good life.* 0.35
38 When a negative thought enters my mind, I remind myself that it is just an interpretation of the situation. 0.35
48 Even when I can’t do anything more about a problem, I still worry about it a lot.* 0.35

Table 5:  Most active Stoic ingredients of Life Satisfaction

If you wanted to look at one element of Stoicism indicative of satisfaction with life, it would be someone not dwelling on the past

# SABS Item Flourishing correlation
26 When I have a problem, I am good at taking constructive action in a timely manner. 0.54
12 I usually do the right thing. 0.46
19 I spend quite a lot of time dwelling on what has gone wrong in the past.* 0.45
22 When making an important decision I ask myself “What really matters here?” 0.44
33 I spend quite a lot of time worrying about the future.* 0.43
14  I am committed to helping humanity in general. 0.43
38 When a negative thought enters my mind, I remind myself that it is just an interpretation of the situation. 0.43

Table 6:  Most active SABS ingredients in terms of Flourishing

The single element of Stoicism indicative of flourishing is taking constructive action in a timely manner,

The absence of worrying is most associated with having a positive balance of emotions.

33 I spend quite a lot of time worrying about the future.* 0.56
19 I spend quite a lot of time dwelling on what has gone wrong in the past.* 0.56
48 Even when I can’t do anything more about a problem I still worry about it a lot.* 0.52
38 When a negative thought enters my mind, I remind myself that it is just an interpretation of the situation. 0.43
41 If things don’t go well for me, I can’t lead a good life.* 0.42

Table 7:  Most active SABS ingredients in terms of emotions

# SABS Item Anger
19 I spend quite a lot of time dwelling on what has gone wrong in the past.* -0.46
33 I spend quite a lot of time worrying about the future.* -0.42
48 Even when I can’t do anything more about a problem, I still worry about it a lot.* -0.41
41 If things don’t go well for me, I can’t lead a good life.* -0.34
38 When a negative thought enters my mind, I remind myself that it is just an interpretation of the situation. -0.34
26 When I have a problem, I am good at taking constructive action in a timely manner. -0.33
15 I treat everyone fairly. -0.32

Table 8:  Most active SABS ingredients in terms of emotions

Dwelling on the past is most associated with anger.

 

Conclusions

These findings are particularly significant as they indicate the association of degrees of Stoicism with other qualities such as life satisfaction and anger. A key finding is that Stoicism is not associated with repressing anger and so it puts a lie to the “stiff upper lip” notion. It also gives participants comparative scores for SABS 5.0 and the anger scale, which were not available at the time they took part in Stoic Week

 They are taken from a large sample (1765 participants) of varying demographics and allegiance to Stoicism. They are however, a self-selecting sample and more likely to be allied to Stoicism than the general public. Moreover, since they are correlational they do not indicate the direction of causation. The next report in the series will provide information about how these measures change after participants have taken part in Stoic 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.

Finding Your Inner GPS -How I Found Mine The Hard Way by Alkistis Agio

Each year, the Modern Stoicism organization organizes the main Stoicon conference, and helps to promote local Stoicon-X events. Over the last several years, we have developed a tradition here at Stoicism Today of publishing as many of the talks and workshops from Stoicon and Stoicon-Xs as blog posts, in order to allow our readership who were unable to attend these conferences the benefit of those speakers’ expertise. We continue this year’s sequence of posts with one by Stoicon 2019 co-organizer Alkistis Agio, which follows below

Socrates…It seems that every story about Greek philosophy starts with him. He taught that:

No man can lead others, who cannot lead himself.

Think about it, it’s true: How can you lead others, if you can’t lead yourself ? How do you expect others to follow you if you haven’t decided where you want to go?

So where do you begin? The answer has always been one – Self-Leadership. Self-Leadership means having:

  • A developed sense of who you are, where you’re going, and what you are willing to do to get there, as well as…
  • The ability to influence yourself and others, in order to achieve your goals. 

Self-Leadership is probably the most important skill you can ever develop as a person and as a professional and it mainly involves our emotional intelligence. 

The importance of self-leadership, has been taught since the beginning of history, when the ancient Greek sages recited The Odyssey, the story of a sailor setting out on a journey. The sailor, Odysseus, yearns to reach his homeland. His goal is clear, but he has no control over the elements. The winds and the sea are not in his power. He has only his attitude and his skills with the sails, adapting them to the changing conditions, keeping his course, remaining calm when a storm hits and leading his team with virtue and ethos. This story represents the inner battle that is to be won, since the external battle is not fully in our control. 

“The first and greatest victory is to conquer yourself; to be conquered by yourself is of all things most shameful and vile.” – Plato

In a moment, I will reveal to you the most powerful method in the world for self-leadership, based on ancient Greek philosophy. But first, I would like to share some of my journey with you. I promise, I will be mercifully brief. 

As I look back on my childhood, I can clearly see that I was introduced to Greek philosophy by my father. From a young age, instead of fairy tales like Cinderella, my father would read us bedtime stories from Aesop’s Fables, the Iliad and the Odyssey. 

Fast-forward to when I am about 22 years old. I am working at an international British bank in Athens. On the outside, I seem to ‘have it all’; an executive position with a good salary, luxury travels and friends in ‘high places’. On the inside, I feel frustrated and anxious about my career path. Why? Because I’ve chosen banking mainly to please my father, the CEO of a major bank in Greece. Whenever I express my deep interest in psychology and philosophy, he taps me on the shoulder and says, “My dear daughter it’s fine to read psychology and philosophy books but life is very harsh and you should keep your safe, practical job no matter what….”

Ignoring my inner truth, I stay on, feeling trapped like a hamster on a treadmill; I am unmotivated and it begins to show in a series of humiliating mistakes arising from my negligence. 

All these mistakes reach a climax one day; I’m called in to do an important presentation in front of the board of directors, for which I’m not prepared. My performance is so bad, I am so ashamed, that at the end of that day, I face my deepest fears and hand in my resignation.

Did things get better after that? Of course not. They got much worse. I had a dramatic argument with my father, who expressed his anger, disappointment and conviction that I was making a grave mistake in letting go of a promising career. He ousted me from his house, saying what amounted to“Tan I Epi Tas” (the ancient Spartan motto, ‘Return as a victor or upon your shield’). Looking back at that moment though, I believe that it was the best lesson my father could have taught me. He cut me loose and I had to stand on my own and look at my life in harsh, unforgiving terms. I was deeply shaken, but determined to go my own way. Without a plan, I left Greece with my meager savings and backpacked through Asia Minor and Europe.

Soon, my money ran out and I had to find work in various low-income jobs like waitressing, temping, yoga, etc. I even tried creating my own businesses, but these ventures left me in debt. I lived with constant fear & anxiety about money & my future. I had no purpose and no direction. It got so bad that finally, I couldn’t take it any more – I decided to return home, to Greece, with my head down, face my father and ask for help and forgiveness. 

Then, as I was on my way to get my return plane-ticket, I met a woman on the bus, who was working at a top leadership-training company teaching communication skills. By a freak of luck, she was leaving her position and looking for a replacement. I told her my story and she hired me on-the-spot! 

It was a breakthrough for me. I loved my job, & people told me that I was very good at it. Not only that – the founder, Dale Carnegie, was an ardent admirer of Greek philosophy. In his famous world-wide bestseller “How To Win Friends & Influence People”, he devotes a whole chapter to Socrates, openly admitting that he borrowed his ideas from the Master of Greek philosophy: 

“The ideas I stand for are not mine. I borrowed them from Socrates….” – Dale Carnegie 

I had finally found my rightful place in life. A place where I could be happy & thrive. Now, why did I just share all of this story with you? Because it’s a great example of what you should never do. I was lucky. Making such dramatic changes in your life without having a clue as to where you are headed and what you want, and without any proper tools to help you along the way, is foolish, ineffective and can even be down right dangerous. It’s like getting in your car without a destination or a GPS and then just driving off… A cliff, usually. 

What if I told you though, that there is a type of GPS that can help get you to a place of thriving, happiness and freedom? A GPS inspired by the works of Socrates and Aristotle. As mentioned above, through my work in leadership training, that I was introduced to the works of the ancient Greek philosophers. 

They were eye-opening. One in particular stood out to me – Aristotle’s timeless manual on the Art of Persuasion: “The Rhetoric”. In it, Aristotle explains that there are three basic ‘traits’ an orator, a leader, anyone like you and me, must develop in order to influence and persuade others

  1. Ethos, which addresses the truth, credibility and integrity of the speaker.  
  2. Pathos, which addresses their emotional intelligence and use of imagination. 
  3. Logos, which addresses the logic, reason and common sense of their arguments. 

Over two millennia after he wrote it, Aristotle’s system is still the cornerstone of modern leadership skills training;His system on influence, is taught in MBA programs at top universities like   Harvard, Stanford, Columbia, Yale and INSEAD. It is through Aristotle that  the world’s top CEOs are initiated into the priceless ‘Art of Influence and Persuasion’.

For over twenty years now I have been teaching seminars about these principles of Aristotle to professionals all over the world, to help them to improve their influence and persuasion skills. And during these seminars, it began to dawn on me that these three great principles of Aristotle, go far beyond “How to Make Friends and Influence people…”, as Dale Carnegie would put it. 

To me, there is a deeper – more essential dimension to be discovered through these three principles; like a treasure hidden in plain sight. What’s the treasure? Ethos, Pathos, Logos can serve as a golden ‘compass’ or G.P.S. for navigating through life’s perpetual challenges with stoic calm and certainty. By applying them, we can attain Self-Leadership, and take charge of ourself and our life.

This realization of the inner GPS gave me a solid foundation on which to build my life and practice. And more importantly, this was the “Shield” that I returned home with, to my father, who I had missed so much after my ten year ‘odyssey’.

The ALKISTIS Method as explained in my book THE STOIC CEO is the first-ever method of self-leadership development that effectively integrates the modern scientific, evidence-based techniques of neuro-coaching with the ageless wisdom of ancient Greek philosophy. (Especially Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and the Stoic school.)

Applied in practice, The ALKISTIS Method® leads to calm, confident, self-leadership, for both personal happiness and professional excellence, which the ancient Greeks called “Aristeia”.

I sincerely hope that you too will be inspired to become the outstanding person you are, on your journey to your Ithaca*.  (*Island-Kingdom in Homer’s, The Odyssey)

Alkistis Agio is a speaker, author, leadership trainer and coach with over 20 years experience in working with professionals to transform fear, frustration, anger and anxiety into calm, confident self-leadership.

Lest We Forget, to Live: Albert Camus and Stoicism by Matthew Sharpe

Today marks sixty years since Albert Camus’s death in a car crash, aged 46.  New information sourced from KGB archives suggests that the Algerian-French author, philosopher, dramatist and activist was assassinated on Soviet orders.  If we know why the Nobel-Prize winning author of The Outsider, The Myth of Sisyphus, The Plague and The Rebel died, however, Camus’s own philosophy of life is less widely appreciated. 

Due to the phenomenal success of The Outsider and The Myth of Sisyphus, published under the German occupation of Paris (1940-44), Camus was quickly touted an “existentialist” or “prophet of the absurd”.  Yet Camus always rejected both labels.  He would repeat that his formative philosophical and literary influences were the Greek poets and philosophers, hearkening back to his formative years in Algeria studying under Jean Grenier.  Camus would also point to the decisive importance for him of his own experiences growing up poor but surrounded by sunlight; and as a young footballer whose youthful idylls were cut short when he was diagnosed with Tuberculosis at 17, and told by his physician that he may have only one week to live.

One needn’t be a Stoic to appreciate what a profound effect this latter experience had on Camus.  The young man himself turned at this moment of crisis to Stoicism, reading Epictetus in the hospital as he convalesced.[i]  Years later, confronting one of the many adversities that defined his life, he would cite Marcus Aurelius as a source of strength in his Notebooks:

‘Wherever it is possible to live, it is possible to live well.’ ‘What prevents a work being completed becomes the work itself.’ ‘What bars our way makes us travel along it.’

It is too much to say that Camus was a Stoic.  Perhaps a neo- or para- Stoic is closer to the mark.[ii]  It is anyway little known that Camus was one of the small number of 20th century philosophers of note to have been directly influenced by the ancient Graeco-Roman philosophy.  At the same time, many of Camus’ own independently-developed ideas read as uncannily familiar and sympathetic to students of the Porch. 

It is this little-remarked philosophical affinity that I want to explore here.

The Absurd and the Benign Indifference of Nature

Since Camus is so widely known for the idea of the absurd, we begin with this idea.   People suppose Camus’s idea of the absurd to be an expression of chic Parisian despair at the godless meaninglessness of human life.  Hence, they see his philosophy as wholly inconsistent with any ancient or premodern view of the world.

For Camus, though, the idea of the absurd involves the confrontation between our limited understanding and desire for unity and control, with a world which resists total human comprehension, in which innocents suffer, and in which death is an inevitable reality.  The natural world seems not to have been created wholly to serve human goals, Camus contends.  But this does not speak against a recognition of its larger worth and order. 

On the contrary, Camus sees our sense of natural beauty as one of the ways in which people experience the absurd.  Faced with a breathtaking landscape, Camus argues, the “inhuman” dimension of nature reveals itself to our contemplative regard.  It is a matter of what his character Meursault calls nature’s “benign indifference,” facing imminent execution in The Outsider and gazing up at the stars.  When we are moved by natural beauty, Camus writes, “the world evades us because it becomes itself again.”  We now see it shorn of the “illusory meanings” with which our all-too-human preoccupations have clothed it; not as meaningless, but as operating according to its own logics (or Logos), greater and other than our petty concerns.[iii]  

The very word “indifference”, so central to Camus’s thought, sounds very familiar to a Stoic audience.  Stoics know that to hold that external things are “indifferent” in terms of their ability to “make us happy” (or “unhappy”) in no way licenses any kind of solipsistic or misanthropic withdrawal from engagement with the world.  When one understands the larger order of nature, Marcus Aurelius claims, on the contrary, one can see beauty in the smallest things, like the broken crusts of baking bread or the gaping jaws of a wild beast.  As Camus concurs, we are awakened to such beauty precisely when we cease to refer everything back to our own egos, but view them with a certain disinterestedness.  “It is legitimate to glory in the diversity and quantity of experience,” Camus maintained, “only if one is completely disinterested in the object of one’s desires.”

Poverty, Sunshine, and Tuberculosis

As we mentioned above, Camus would always maintain that the bases of his philosophy lay more in his own specific experiences than in his formal education.[iv]  Camus’ father died in the trenches in 1914, when Albert was only one.  He was raised by his largely silent but devoted mother and his grandmother, in the sweltering heat of the poorest quartiers of French Algiers.  Albert was the first of his family to go to high school, let alone university.

In truly Stoic fashion, however, Camus credited his childhood poverty with shaping his conceptions of happiness, life, and philosophy.  Growing up poor, Camus claimed, enabled him to look down upon the riches that others envy and struggle for, as if these were the real bases of a good life.  It made him see, as Epictetus would concur, that such goods are at most preferable to have or attain, and that their very absence can be a source of inner wealth. 

“For me,” Camus echoes the old Stoic paradoxes, “the greatest luxury has coincided with a certain bareness”.  When it is inner strength or virtue that is at issue, “the under-worker at the Post office can be the equivalent of the conqueror”, in his eyes.  “What could a man want that is better than poverty?,” Camus asks his readers, quite seriously: “I do not say misery, any more than I mean the work without hope of the modern proletarian. But I do not see that one could desire more than poverty with an active leisure.”

The other experience which shaped the “royal privilege” (as Camus calls it) of this neo-Stoic disinterestedness towards external things is his lived experience of the imminence of death, because of the tuberculosis that continually dogged him throughout his short life.  In a remarkable fragment from his Notebooks, Camus writes of a memento mori few of us, preferably, will have to entertain:

The sensation of death which from now on is so familiar to me … to have a foreboding of death simply at the sight of a pocket handkerchief filled with blood is to be effortlessly plunged back into time in the most breathtaking manner: it is the terror of becoming [italics added].

Once we understand Camus’ sense that he could quite literallydie at almost any moment, we comprehend the urgency of his repeated stress upon the importance of memento mori throughout his work, most famously in the idea of “absurd freedom” in The Myth of Sisyphus.  “There is only one liberty: in coming to terms with death,” Camus reflects in his Notebooks, evoking Seneca’s famous maxim: “the person who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave.” 

But isn’t it a paradox for Camus to think that coming to terms with this inevitability is key to feeling truly free?, someone may ask.  If it is, it is again a very Stoic kind of paradox.  For Camus agrees with the Stoics that the “liberty” here is an inner affair.  It comes from being free from worry about what after all cannot be controlled, our mortality, instead focusing on what we can alter or affect.  As Camus enjoins himself in his Notebooks, always with his tuberculosis in mind: “The degradation involved in all forms of suffering. One must not give into emptiness. Try to conquer and ‘fulfil’ time. Time—don’t waste it.” Or again: “Don’t forget: illness and the decay it brings. There is not a minute to lose—which is perhaps the opposite of ‘we must hurry’.” 

Self-Writing, Forgetfulness, and Paying Attention

Perhaps the most remarkable contrast between Camus’ neo-Stoicism and the academic, theoretical philosophy predominant in his (and our) times, lies in how Camus, like the Stoics, conceived of philosophy as an ongoing exercise in learning how better to live, and to die.  The most remarkable source of testimony we have to Camus’ philosophical practice and self-conception is his extant Notebooks.[v]

The work of philosophy, for Camus as for the Stoics, involves trying constantly to have at hand (procheiron) one’s key ideas, faced with the challenges of existence.  “The primary faculty of man is forgetfulness,” Camus laments.  The force of habit and our immersion in a thousand distractions lulls the eye of our minds to sleep.  The wonder of beauty, the fugacity of time, the unique value and dignity of others—all of these realities are easily “crowded out” by the demands and vexations of everyday life: “… as everything finally becomes a matter of habit, we can be certain that [even] great thoughts and great actions … become insignificant …”  However, as a Camusian note from 1950 remarks, “with a strong memory, you can create a precocious experience.”[vi]  What is at stake in this philosophical cultivation of memory is a kind of ascetism, albeit one pursued in the name of self-fulfilment, not monastic self-denial:

One single, unchanging subject for meditation. Reject everything else. Work continuously, at a definite time, with no falling off, etc. (Moral training and asceticism too). A single moment of weakness and everything collapses, both practice and theory.

Camus calls the ideal mode of mindful awareness such an asceticism can create “lucidity” (lucidité) or “clear-sightedness” (clairvoyance).  And again, the way Camus describes its features sound familiar to modern practitioners of Stoicism. 

Firstly, there is a cultivated attention to the present moment: “a continued presence of self with self . . . not happiness, but awareness”, as Camus says: “the present and the succession of presents before a constantly conscious soul . . .” Happiness itself, Camus remarks, is “a long patience.”

Secondly, there is a sense of life as a gift, one meriting that gratitude writ so large in book I of Marcus’s Meditations, wherein the philosopher-emperor patiently recalls and thanks each person who benefited him in his formative years.  So too, Camus will come to value above all a simple solidarity with others as amongst life’s greatest goods, given the realities of suffering, death, political polarisation and hatred:  “now I have learned to expect less of [people] than they can give—a silent companionship. And their emotions, their friendship and noble gestures keep their full miraculous value in my eyes: wholly the fruit of grace.” 

It is with such thoughts in view that we see why at the time of Camus’ death, he was working on a cycle of works led by The First Man exploring the different dimensions of love.

Memento Vivere

The 60th anniversary of Camus’ death falls at the beginning of another year, 2020, destined to be marked by division and acrimony.  The solidarity between peoples which Camus dreamed of, a secular “kingdom of man” or cosmopolis, seems every bit as idealistic now as it did when he envisaged it in the 1940s.  Different political actors have, and will continue, to claim Camus as one of their own, from conservatives to liberals and socialists: eloquent tribute to the power of his post-war political thinking and example.  Other voices blame Camus for his failure to secure a civilian truce in the Algerian conflict, and his continuing inability to accept the need for the complete end of French Algeria, with resettlement of the pied noirs in continental France. 

What we have aimed at here is to show how Camus, as well as a political thinker and actor, was also a philosopher in the ancient mould who conceived and tried to live an examined life profoundly close to, and influenced by, the model of the ancient Stoics: one characterised by inner discipline, attention to the present moment, openness to natural beauty, indifference towards externals, awareness of the limitations of human understanding and the inevitability of death, and a profound sense of sympathetic solidarity with others.  This side of our political divisions, as Stoics or just as human beings, different readers can still find wisdom in Camus’s philosophy of life, as well as his thought and example, sixty years after his premature passing. 

So, let me close in Camus’s own words, exhorting himself Stoically in his Notebooks in what became his final years, in words which can equally be read as exhortations to us all: 

Remain close to the reality of beings and things. Return as often as possible to personal happiness … Recover energy—as the central force. Recognise the need for enemies. Love that they exist … Recover the greatest strength, not to dominate but to give.   


[i] For a list of Camus’ references to the Stoics, see “Annex” in François Bousquet, Méditerranéen , Camus L ‘Ancien (Paris: Éditions Naaman, 1977), 112–113; on Camus’ reading of Epictetus in hospital, see the same text, page 35.

[ii] In what follows, we will opt for “neo-Stoic”, given the use of this term to describe earlier modern thinkers like Justus Lipsius who adapted Stoic principles whilst trying to reconcile them with other, independently-developed convictions and positions.

[iii] Readers unfamiliar with his work are referred particularly “Nuptials at Tipasa” (in Lyrical and Critical Essays, trans. P. Thody (New York: Vintage, 1970), as he describes visiting Roman ruins in Algeria with a lover and bathing in the Mediterranean.  This piece, and Camus’ lyrical essays more widely, contain some of Camus’ most beautiful prose.  Tellingly, in his 1936 thesis on Christian Metaphysics and Neoplatonism, it is again Marcus Aurelius who Camus cites to encapsulate the Greek attitude to existence with which he always identifies his own thought:

“Hellenism implies that man can be self-sufficient and that he has within himself the means to explain the universe and destiny … The line of their hills, or the run of a young man on a beach, provided them with the whole secret of the world.  Their gospel said: our Kingdom is of this world.  Think of Marcus Aurelius’s: ‘Everything is fitting for me, O Cosmos, which fits your purpose’.”

[iv] Camus’ lasting inability to “fit in” with the Parisian intellectual elites after 1941 looks back to his origins as a pied noir Algerian-Frenchman from the colonies.  Sartre would raise this background against him in their spectacular public falling out after Camus’ 1951 anti-Stalinist work The Rebel

[v] Commentators have wondered what to do with these fragmentary and aphoristic reflections, because so much of them is given over not to theoretical or literary developments, but to Camus’ own philosophical practice of trying to actualise, in life, his philosophical principles, just as Marcus Aurelius had done in his Meditations

[vi] Camus responds in the imperative, echoing Marcus Aurelius’s many injunctions to himself in his Meditations to “remember!”: “Cultivate one’s memory, immediately.”

Matt Sharpe teaches philosophy at Deakin University, Australia.  He is presently completing a book on the history of the idea of philosophy as a way of life, and is cotranslator of Pierre Hadot’s Selected Essays: Philosophy as Practice (Bloomsbury, 2020-in press).

The Stoic – January 2020

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

Contributors include many prominent modern Stoics: Donald Robertson, Sharon Lebell, Kai Whiting, Meredith Kunz, Flora Bernard, Jonas Salzgeber and Chuck Chakrapani. If you’d like to check it out, or to subscribe, you can click here.

Stoic Week 2019 Demographics Report by Tim LeBon

Stoic Week 2019 took place in October. We hope you enjoyed it and found it helpful.  This is the first in a series of articles exploring what we can learn from all the questionnaires many of you filled in for this year’s Stoic Week (Thank you!).  Today we will look at who took part. It’s the type of information journalists often ask, so it’s written in the form of Q & A, with the statistics relegated to tables at the end of the article.

Q:  How many people took part this year?

A:  1744 people completed the questionnaires. At least 4000 people started the questions, but  it does take about 20 minutes to complete and how could we expect people to have the virtues of patience persistence before doing Stoic week.

Q:  That’s quite a lot of people . If you don’t mind me pointing this out, this is half the number taking part last year. Do you think Stoicism is running out of steam?

A: Absolutely not. The number of attendees at Stoicons, and the plethora of Stoic blogs and books suggests quite the reverse. It could be that people being interested in Stoicism now have other ways of finding out about it that they didn’t have in 2012 when the first Stoic Week took place.  It’s also true that many thousands have already taken part in Stoic Week and can access the materials whenever they like, so do not have to register again (though, we do change the materials every year, so I would suggest it is still worthwhile).  The most simple and likely explanation for reduced numbers though is that because the organisers were so busy they didn’t spend quite so much time to promoting Stoic Week this time around. So perhaps that’s a lesson for next year for all of us.

Q:  In previous years more men have taken part than women. This bucks the general pattern for personal development courses where women usually outnumber men. Is this still the case?

A: This year 60%  of participants were men and 39% women. That’s slightly more equal than last year but there is still plenty of  room for improvement  (Table 1 at the end of the article gives the full figures). You can look at this inequality in two ways. You might say that since men are in general relatively less skilful at finding resources to help with personal development, it’s great that so many find Stoicism congenial. Whilst this is true,  I  worry that many woman might  think that Stoicism is a predominantly male philosophy  and so is not for them.

I would  encourage everyone, regardless of gender, to explore Stoicism, and refer sceptics to Massimo Pigluicci’s argument  that “broicism”  is not Stoicism. To quote Massimo, “the goal of Stoicism is not to become manly (vir), but rather to excel as a human being (arête).”

Q: How old is the average Stoic Week participant?

A: Probably about 40 years of age. Participation peaks in the 36-45 age group. Over 7% of participants are over 65 which is more than you would expect if the distribution was  random

Q: Does your data support the often-touted view that you get wiser as you get older?

A:  Actually it does, as long as you see the level of Stoicism as implying wisdom! Participants’ level of Stoicism (as measured by the SABS questionnaire) increases steadily with age, and the over-65s are a bit more Stoic (2%) than the 55-65 age group. See table 2  at the end of the article for the full details.

Q: I expect most participants are from the USA, UK and Canada still?

A: Yes, that’s still the case, comprising 39%, 19% and 9% of participants respectively.  77% of all participants come from those three countries -see table 3.

Q: And are they the most Stoic in that they have the highest SABS scores?

A: No. that honour goes to Ireland, then Poland then Spain. It would be interesting to know why this is the case – the sample sizes are small (15, 10 and 19) so it could be that the people taking part just happened to be hardened Stoics.

Q:  Which are the most Stoic of the countries with a large number of participants?

A: Americans seem to be a bit more Stoic than the French, British and Canadians, but there isn’t too much in it. Table 4 gives the full details.

Q: Are most people who take part in Stoic Week newbies?

A: Yes, 69% of people are taking part the first time.

Q: You said earlier that it is worth people doing Stoic Week more than once. Can you tell me whether people have done Stoic week a number of times become more Stoic (as indicated by higher SABS scores than those who have taken part  less often).

A: Yes indeed, the degree of Stoicism increases the more times people do Stoic Week – see table 5 for the detailed statistics.

Q: I would guess that most people who do Stoic Week don’t know much about Stoicism to start with?

A: Interestingly, it’s fairly even split between those who know a fair bit and those who know very little about Stoicism – see table 6. What will be interesting will be to see how much people know about Stoicism by the end of Stoic Week, which we will discover in a later report.

Q: Are most participants already Stoic?

A: Again, it’s fairly close between those who identify as Stoic (or more Stoic than not) and those who don’t think of themselves as being very Stoic at all -see table 7. Again, it will be fascinating to see how this changes after Stoic Week.

Q: Why did people take part in Stoic week?

A: To learn about how to practice Stoicism in their life – at least that’s my interpretation of this WordCloud :-

Stoic Week 2019 Demographics: Facts and Figures

Gender 2019 Average SABS 5.0 score   2019
% of participants
2018
% of participants
2017
% of participants
2016
% of participants
Male 302 60 62 65 66
Female 298 39 37 34 33
Decline to state 283 .75 1 1 1
Other 312 .6 1 0.5

Table 1: Stoic Week 2019 Participation and SABS Score by Gender  (Percentages in this and other tables may not add up to 100% due to rounding)

Age Average SABS score 2019 2019 % of participants 2018 % of participants 2017 % of participants 2016 % of participants
Over 65 316 7 7         –
56-65 310 15 14 17 (was over 55) 13 (over 55)
46-55 305 19 20 18 17
36-45 298 23 22 22 21
26-35 296 20 23 27 25
18-25 288 15 13 15 22
Under 18 289 1 1 1 1

Table 2: Stoic Week 2019 Participation and SABS score by Age 

Country No. of Participants %
United States 669 39
United Kingdom 336 19
Canada 157 9
Australia 68 4
Germany 45 3
Netherlands 44 3
Sweden 22 1
France 21 1
New Zealand 20 1
Norway 19 1
Spain 19 1
Brazil 18 1
Ireland 15 1
South Africa 15 1
Russian Federation 13 1
Italy 12 1
India 10 1
Poland 10 1

Table 3: Stoic week 2019 Number of Participants and % of total for all countries with 10 or more participants- 

Country Degree of Stoicism (average SABS score)
Ireland 321
Poland 310
Spain 307
United States 304
France 303
South Africa 302
Netherlands 301
Brazil 300
Australia 298
United Kingdom 297
Canada 297
Sweden 293
Germany 292
Norway 291
Italy 289
New Zealand 285
India 269
Russian Federation 268

 Table 4: Stoic Week 2019 Most Stoic countries (only including countries with 10 or more participants)

Number of times participated in Stoic Weeks previously Average SABS score (degree of Stoicism)   2019 % of total participants 2018 % of total participants   2017 % of total participants 2016 % of total participants
4 or more 339 4 2 1 1
3 320 5 3 2 3
2 314 8 6 5 6
1 308 16 17 13 14
0 293 68 73 79 77

Table 5: 2019 Stoic Week – Number of times participants have taken part in previous Stoic Weeks and – SABS scores and percentages of total participants

Knowledge of Stoicism 2019 % 2018 % 2017 % 2016   %
Expert .8 .8 0.5 1
I know quite a bit but not an expert 23 19 19 16
I know a bit 41 42 41 39
Novice 25 28 30 33
None 9.5 10 9 11

Table 6:  2019 Stoic Week  – Self-assessed Knowledge of Stoicism at the beginning of the week

Identification as a Stoic 2019 % 2018 %
I consider myself to be a Stoic   10.5 11
I am more a Stoic than not a Stoic 41 38
Neutral or I don’t know 34 37
More not a Stoic than a Stoic 9 10
Definitely not a Stoic 6 6

 Table 7:  Stoic Week 2019 :  Participants identification as a Stoic at the beginning of Stoic 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.

Stoicism, Aristotle and Environmental Responsibility by Chris Gill and Gabriele Galluzzo

This post is based on the workshop on this subject given at the Athens Stoicon (Oct 5 2019). Chris Gill provides the introduction and the section on the Stoics and Gabriele Galluzzo provides the section on Aristotle. This presentation was followed by a vigorous and wide-ranging discussion.

Introduction

The environmental crisis represents the biggest challenge to humanity today – perhaps ever. There are many practical responses being made as well as strong resistance to these responses. Theorists, including philosophers, are also working out how they can help: environmental ethics is an area of current intense activity. In this workshop, we are thinking about the intellectual and ethical resources in ancient philosophy that may help thoughtful people to respond appropriately to the scale of this challenge, looking to Aristotle, the famous 4th-century philosopher and pupil of Plato, and the Stoics (early third-century BC onwards) – both of whom founded their schools in the city of Athens where this year’s Stoicon was held.

These ancient philosophers did not, of course, experience the environmental crisis that we have produced in modern times; but their ideas may still help us deal with it. We do not have to adopt all their ideas, and some of what they say may be unhelpful for this purpose; but their standpoint may still offer us new insights. Here, we are not looking at these thinkers primarily as a source of emotional resilience (Stoicism is often seen as helping to support resilience in times of crisis) or as sources of ideas about the virtues, though that is an aspect of their theory that is potentially relevant to this topic. It is especially their thinking about nature and the linkage between nature and ethics that we are most concerned with here.

We want to see if there are dimensions of their view of humanity and nature or nature and ethics that we can adopt and use as the basis for modern thinking in a way that can help us respond positively and usefully to the environmental crisis.

Aristotle and the Environment

Traditionally, Aristotle is not often associated with environmental ethics. What seems to militate against the inclusion of Aristotle in the list of environmental thinkers is his insistence on the primacy of human beings over all other creatures (both living and non-living creatures). This view, which is often called ‘anthropocentrism’, is certainly testified to by a famous passage in Aristotle’s Politics:

We may infer that, after the birth of animals, plants exist for their sake, and that the other animals exist for the sake of human beings, the tame for use and food, the wild, if not all at least the greater part of them, for food, and for the provision of clothing and various instruments. Now if nature makes nothing incomplete, and nothing in vain, the inference must be that she has made all animals for the sake of human beings.

Politics, 1.8

Although Aristotle certainly held this anthropocentric view, we should be careful not to jump to conclusions. In general, it seems wrong to claim that anthropocentrism is incompatible with a genuine concern for the environment as a whole or for forms of life other than the human. It is often claimed, for instance, that we have a moral responsibility for the wellbeing of future generations. And this responsibility entails that we should preserve our planet in the same condition as we found it, if not in a better condition.

This argument in favour of caring for the environment, which seems to be right, entirely revolves around human beings, their moral obligations and their interest (the interest, for instance, of future generations). Thus, to hold that human beings are in some way or other superior to other creatures by no means entails that we should not care for them or for the environment.

Actually, on closer inspection, we can see that there are several strands in Aristotle’s thought that could be used to support a concern for the environment and forms of life other than the human. The Politics passage might be taken to imply that animals and plants do not have any intrinsic value, but only have instrumental value to the extent that they serve the interests of human beings. But this is certainly not Aristotle’s considered view. Scholars have emphasised that there are clear traces in Aristotle of a biocentric or life-centred approach, in which the central idea is that life (all forms of life, not just human life) has intrinsic value.

This approach mostly emerges in Aristotle’s physical and biological works, which are devoted to a comprehensive study of all forms of life on earth. One area of interest is the way that Aristotle understands the nature and development of living beings. Aristotle has a conception of the nature and development of living beings (and, in some sense, of the universe as a whole), which is called ‘teleology’. This is the idea that, by nature, all creatures have an end or goal to realise, which is the development and full realisation of their own nature.

Thus, all plants, as well as non-human animals and human beings, tend or strive by nature to become fully developed and well-functioning creatures. The activities that lead all creatures to develop into fully functioning beings are good; and the attainment of their nature is their goodness and excellence. As the application of categories such as goodness shows, non-human living beings are valuable, precisely because they tend and strive to achieve their own goodness. In this way, they are not only instrumental to human beings but have intrinsic value. They cannot be, therefore, ethically irrelevant.

This general line of argument can be further strengthened by looking at Aristotle’s approach to life more generally. Aristotle has a holistic approach to life and to the universe in general. When he studies the different forms of life, Aristotle considers them all together and emphasises what the different forms of life have in common (De anima, 2.1-4).

With plants, for instance, we share the capacity to take food, reproduce and interact with the environment. With non-human animals, we share, in addition to the basic capacities we share with plants, the capacity to perceive the world, to have desires and to move around to get the objects of our desires. Obviously, for Aristotle human beings have more capacities than other creatures (such as the capacity to think and speak, which implies many other ethically relevant capacities) and so they occupy the top place in the scale of nature. But the different forms of life have at least as many elements of continuity as they have of discontinuity.

Thus, Aristotle’s universe appears to constitute a system and organisation, in which the different inhabitants are necessarily interconnected and there are no radical breaks between human beings and the rest of the natural world (Metaphysics, 12.10). If this is the case, we can see how, in an Aristotelian universe, what happens in one part, layer or level of the world is relevant to, and affects, to some extent, what happens in the other parts, layers or levels. This holistic or interconnected approach invites us to think seriously about a certain number of environmental issues, such as the preservation of plant and animal species, as well as the preservation of the habitat that makes life possible.

It is not only in Aristotle’s metaphysical and scientific approach to life that we may find inspiration to place concern for nature and the environment at the centre of our ethical and political agenda. Several aspects of Aristotle’s ethical thought invite similar conclusions. Here, clearly, the perspective is quite different from the biological works; and anthropocentric considerations play a significant role in this area of Aristotle’s thought. It is clearly our happiness as human beings that is at stake in Aristotle’s ethics and the way we make use of the resources that we have. But Aristotle’s approach to these issues shows how anthropocentrism and environmental responsibility are not necessarily incompatible. A couple of examples may illustrate this general point.

Aristotle is a eudaimonist: he believes, in other words, that happiness or flourishing is the goal of human life. He also believes that happiness or flourishing mainly consists in the possession and exercise of the virtues. Human beings are happy when they perform the activities that fully express their nature, and these are, for Aristotle, virtuous actions, both practical and intellectual. One of the distinguishing marks of Aristotle’s version of virtue ethics is the insistence on virtues that relate strongly to the (modern) idea of sustainability. For instance, Aristotle believes that an amount of money is necessary for a good life, as money removes obstacles to happiness and provides security (Nicomachean Ethics, NE, 1.8, 4.1). But Aristotle strongly insists that it is only some money (and not as much money as possible) that we need to be happy (NE, 3.7-9, 4.1):

Of the art of acquisition then there is one kind which by nature is a part of the management of a household, insofar as the art of household management must either find ready to hand, or itself provide, such things necessary to life, and useful for the community of the family or state, as can be stored. They are the elements of true riches; for the amount of property which is needed for a good life is not unlimited.

Politics, 1.8

Thus, some is enough, and self-restraint in material pursuit is at centre of Aristotle’s ethical thinking. And it is this notion of ‘enoughness’, as it were, that shapes Aristotle’s ethical approach as a whole. Thus, if we consider the problem of exploitation of the planet’s resources, an Aristotelian approach would certain encourage a sustainable use of such resources and strongly discourage consuming more than is actually needed. Some resources are necessary for collective or social happiness, but an increase in resources does not correspond for Aristotle to an increase in collective happiness. It follows that we can be equally happy, and arguably even happier, by using fewer resources than we do now or by using them in a sustainable way.

Aristotle’s ethical thinking offers a second, interesting line of argument to the same conclusion. This is not a point that Aristotle explicitly makes, but it seems to follow quite naturally from his general position. Aristotle argues that the happiness of a human being must be assessed on the basis of his or her life as a whole (NE, 1.7). It is not a short or long period of time that enables someone to be called happy, but their life as a whole. In the same context, Aristotle raises the apparently weird question whether someone’s happiness may be affected by what happens after his or her death (NE, 1.10). Aristotle’s answer to the question is open-ended, but it is still interesting that he raises the question at all.

The kind of situation that Aristotle has in mind is probably this. We have a moral responsibility to educate our children well because this is part of what it means to exercise our virtue. Suppose that we fail and our children misbehave after our death, this may have consequences for our happiness because, of course, if we fail in that crucial task, we cannot be said to have lived a good life.

Now, let’s suppose that, by analogy with Aristotle’s thought, we have a similar obligation to care about future generations, and that preserving the planet in a good condition is part of this care. It follows that, if we fail to preserve the environment in a good condition for future generations, we fail in our moral obligation, and this may have consequences for the extent to which we can be said to have led a good life and thus to have been happy. In this line of argument, preserving the environment is a component of what makes us flourish as human beings and so, ultimately, of our happiness. In all these ways, then, Aristotle’s thought can provide insights that we may be able to adopt and that may help us to adopt a more sustainable way of life and set of attitudes.

Stoicism and the Environment

As with Aristotle, there are some aspects of  Stoic thinking that are not helpful to us in our present situation, including the idea that Gabriele singled out at the start of his talk: the belief that other animals, as well as plants, exist for humans to use for our purposes. This attitude (we usually call it an ‘anthropocentric’ attitude) has come today to form part of the problem that we are trying to address. However, more closely examined, the Stoic viewpoint is not so much ‘anthropocentric’ (centred on human beings as a species) but ‘logo-centric’ or ‘reason-centred. Human beings are regarded by the Stoics as especially valuable in relation to other animals because of the possession of rationality, which is also shared with the universe as a whole. This is a rather complex idea whose implications I will explore in the course of my talk and which, I think, is potentially valuable for us too.

What are the Stoic ideas that are most helpful to us in confronting the environmental crisis? One idea centres on the place of human beings in nature and the ethical implications of this place. Modern moral theories tend to be framed in terms of relationships between human beings, and are then extended (sometimes) to animals or the environment, Stoicism sees human beings as an integral part of the universe as a whole and sometimes defines the best kind of life in terms of the universe or nature as a whole.

Happiness or the best kind of life is defined, typically, as the natural life, or the life according to nature; and this means, in part, that the best kind of life is one which exhibits qualities which are also present in the universe as a whole, namely rationality or order and providential care for ourselves and others. Aristotle also sees the happy life as one that is ‘according to nature’, but he mainly stresses the idea of living according to human nature (Aristotle, NE,1.7), whereas the Stoics go further in linking human happiness with nature as a whole. In this respect, the Stoic standpoint is not, in fact, anthropocentric: for them, the universe as a whole exhibits more fully qualities that we possess to a lesser extent. This viewpoint may help to counteract the modern tendency to see human beings as in some sense separate from nature or as uniquely valuable elements within it.

Secondly, the Stoic standpoint offers a distinctive way of formulating the idea that nature is inherently or intrinsically valuable, and not just valuable to us (humans). Some modern thinkers in environmental ethics also stress the importance of this idea as a corrective to modern anthropocentrism; but the Stoics provide their own way of framing and grounding this idea. The Stoics see nature not as ethically neutral, not as just a material object or a process; they see it as embodying in a strong form good qualities which human beings can also share, though less completely.

These good qualities are two-fold; the first is rationality, which the Stoics interpret in terms of structure, order and wholeness or, overall, consistency. Secondly, according to the Stoics, nature is good because it exercises providential care, not just for human beings and other animals, but also plants, and sea and air, all of which contribute to the totality of the universe (its order or rationality) and are to that extent good.

Nature’s providential care is expressed, for instance, in the fact that all animals are naturally motivated to take care of themselves (to preserve themselves) and to take care of others of their kind (their offspring, most obviously). In human beings, this motive of care for oneself and others goes much further than with other animals because of our distinctive rationality. So this is another way in which Stoic ideas can be useful to us now: in offering new ways in which we can see nature as a whole as inherently valuable (what is sometimes described as a ‘biocentric’ viewpoint) and not valuable only because nature is useful to us humans.

Also, I think the Stoic framework can be helpful in leading us to make the kind of response in action that is called for by the environmental crisis, and to conceive this response in a positive way.  The Stoics think human beings (like other animals) have an in-built instinct to take care of themselves and others of our kind. Because of our distinctive capacity for rationality this takes a complex form, that of developing the virtues, in a way that benefits ourselves as well as those affected by our actions.

The second aspect, developing our care for others, takes two main forms: involvement in family and communal life (including political life); and also coming to see all human beings as part of a single community or family as rational and sociable animals. I think that this Stoic idea can be especially helpful for us as we try to take action that addresses the environmental crisis. We need to view our actions not just as they affect our own family and community or even nation but as they affect humanity as a whole, seen as part of our broader family of humankind or as ‘citizens of the world’ (cosmopolitans). This can help us to adopt an attitude of care for people in other parts of the world who are already experiencing more than some of us the destructive results of climate change.

I see one further possible argument, which is based on Stoic ideas, even if it is not one the Stoics themselves put forward. One could argue that the rationality that makes humans special among animals carries with it the obligation to use this capacity not just for our own benefit or for our families and community or humanity in general but also on behalf of other aspects of nature which lack this capacity, that is, other animals, plants and the natural environment more generally. Put differently, we should use our special capacity to adopt, as far as we are able, the role of providential nature in taking care of these other elements. We should do so, especially, in the light of the damage that we have ourselves already done to the world. This line of thought is not, as I say, one the Stoics adopted but it is based on Stoic themes and represents another way in which their theory can be valuable for us in forming an appropriate ethical and intellectual response to the environmental crisis.

Further readings on Aristotle:

Further readings on Stoicism:

For the Stoic worldview, see Cicero, The Nature of the Gods Book 2.

For all aspects of the topic, see:

  • A. A. Long and D. N. Sedley, The Hellenistic Philosophers, especially sections 54 (theology), 57 (development), 63 (the end and happiness)
  • John Sellars, Stoicism, ch. 5 (Stoic Ethics).

See also:

  • C. Gill, ‘Stoicism and the Environment’
  • K. Whiting, ‘Stoicism and Sustainability’, Stoicism Today
  • S. Shogry, ‘Stoic cosmopolitanism and environmental ethics’, forthcoming in the Routledge Handbook of Hellenistic Philosophy.

Chris Gill is Emeritus Professor of Ancient Thought at the University of Exeter

Gabriele Galluzzo is a Senior Lecturer in Ancient Philosophy at the University of Exeter