Dr. Chakrapani will be one of the speakers at the Stoicon 2017 Stoicism Conference in Toronto, on October 14th.
Q: How would you introduce yourself and your work to our readers?
I am a psychologist by training, and a data scientist by profession. I don’t approach Stoicism as a scholar, expert or philosopher, but as a student. A student sitting in the back row of Epictetus’ lectures, trying to figure what he is saying and (if it made sense), how to apply it to my own life. My view of Stoicism is that it contains some profound insights which, if applied to our everyday life, can change it for the better. And in short order.
My work (besides to my day job) currently centers on making the Stoic writings accessible to anyone interested in them. My book Unshakable Freedom shows how Stoicism can be applied to your life, no matter who you are or what you do. The Good Life Handbook is a slightly rearranged plain English version of Enchiridion. The current blog series Discourses in Plain English re-expresses Epictetus’ Discourses in modern English. For the past year or so, I have been devoting 20 to 30 hours a week to reading and writing about Stoicism.
Q: How do you currently make use of Stoicism in your work?
This is a simple question. The way you do anything is the way you do everything. If I clearly see that “it is useless to worry about things over which I have no control” it applies equally to whether I get into a traffic jam or whether my presentation is received poorly by my colleagues. It is as useless to worry about a promotion that you did not get as it is to worry about a steak you already overcooked. Once you internalize some profound passages of Stoicism such as Marcus Aurelius’
“Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness – all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil. But for my part I have long perceived the nature of good…” (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations II.1)
it often short circuits your frustration when you find someone annoying, unjust, or unfair. From my perspective, the principles apply equally to your work and to the other parts of your life.
Q: When and how did you first become interested in Stoicism?
I have been involved in Stoic thought practically all my life. When I was still a nerdy high school kid, I picked up a book by Marcus Aurelius To Himself, also called Meditations. Marcus Aurelius seems to have a special appeal to people who, like him, governed countries – America’s Bill Clinton, Prussia’s Frederick the Great, China’s Wen Jiabao – to name a few. The version I read was also a translation by a governor of a country – C. Rajagopalachari, the last Governor General of India. To me, Meditations was just an emperor’s thoughts which I found interesting. Several years later, I picked up a copy of Enchiridion. I still didn’t know much about Stoicism and didn’t connect it to Marcus. Later still, I came across Discourses, and for the first time, realized that they all refer to the same philosophical system, Stoicism. Subsequently, I tried to understand it as system of philosophic thought.
Q: What’s the most important aspect of Stoicism to you?
The opening sentence of the Enchiridion.
“Some things are in our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, our reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not our own doing.” (Epictetus, Enchiridion I.1. Robin Hard’s translation.)
To me, this is the sword of wisdom that cuts through so much of our cluttered and confused thinking. For years I struggled with Niebuhr’s serenity prayer:
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change things I can, And wisdom to know the difference.”
I don’t know about others, but for me, “wisdom to know the difference,” wasn’t easy to come by. Epictetus defined it to me.
Add to this the Marcus Aurelius quote I referred to earlier, and now we know the words and behavior of others don’t bind us either. All that is left for us is to enjoy the festival of life.
These two passages contain more practical wisdom than one hundred self-help books. Don’t worry about things you have no control over and don’t be reactive to what others say or do. That’s it. If you fully internalize the meaning of these two passages, I believe your life will change dramatically for the better.
Q: In what ways do you think Stoicism still matters today?
Stoicism is timeless. When I read Epictetus, for example, I cannot help but wonder, “How is it that the same philosophy appealed to the least and the most powerful men living at about the same time? How is it that the thoughts of a slave, who lived two thousand years ago far removed in every respect from the world we live in today, resonate with me, are relevant to me, and make my days better?” We are psychologically the same. The form changes but the matter remains.
So, it is not question of whether Stoicism matters today. I don’t believe there ever was a time when it did not matter. There were only times when people thought it did not matter.
Q: How has Stoicism affected the way you live your life?
Sometimes I describe myself as a “Stoic minimalist.” I don’t practice Stoicism as such but use a few principles of Stoicism that have the potential to change one’s life. I already mentioned two. There are two more.
“Don’t grow peevish about trivialities: Vinegar is bad, it’s sharp; the honey is bad, it upsets my constitution; I didn’t like the vegetables.” (Epictetus, Discourses, IV.4.25. Robert Dobbin’s translation)
The final one comes from these two quotes:
“I have to die. If it is now, well then I die now; if later, then now I will take my lunch, since the hour for lunch has arrived – and dying I will tend to later,” and
“You will be able to view each and every day as a festival.”
(Epictetus, Discourses I.1.32 & IV.4.46. Robin Hard’s translation)
As a Stoic minimalist, I just try to remember these four thoughts when I face any friction.
- Is this under my control or am I simply spinning my wheels?
- Am I reacting to someone without exercising my choice to act the way I want?
- Am I getting peevish about trivialities?
- Am I enjoying the festival of life that’s right in front of me?
Sure enough, things get better. I don’t always remember, and I don’t always succeed. But I remember enough and succeed enough that I can say that my life is far better because of that.
I am content to employ a few basic principles which, when practiced consistently enough, elevates the quality of my life and makes my life run smoothly. Maybe not all the time, but something like 90% of the time. And that is good enough for me.
Q: What’s one of your favourite Stoic quotations and why?
I am glad you asked, because Stoic philosophers, especially Epictetus, are so eloquent, there can’t be just one. My favorite is this by Epictetus:
“I have this purpose: To complete you, to free you from restraint, compulsion, hindrance, to make you free, prosperous and happy…and you are here to practice these things.” (Discourses II.19.29).
This is a breathtaking promise. It is audacious, uncompromising, unconditional, and unequivocal. Why is this my favorite? Not just because it is bold, but because Epictetus stood by it and never went back on that promise as long as he lived.
Q: What advice would you give someone wanted to learn more about Stoicism?
My advice would of course be biased. It would depend on why someone wants to learn about Stoicism. If they want to increase their general knowledge, I would perhaps refer them to someone like Massimo Pigliucci or Greg Sadler or Donald Robertson, who are far better qualified than I. But if advice-seekers want to better their lives, I would advise them to read something simple like the Enchiridion and reflect on the passages that particularly appeal to them. Apply them to their lives and internalize the principle. They don’t have to rush immediately to read Discourses, Meditations or Epistulae Morales There is time enough for that. A few profundities make one’s life far better than tons of trivialities.
Q: Do you have anything else that you wanted to mention while we have the chance?
I sometimes wonder if people make it more complicated than it need be to reap the benefits of Stoic thought. Isn’t it simple enough just to follow what makes sense to us, test it to see if it works? If it does, why does anything else matter? Why check if there is a god or not? Or even if you are virtuous or not? Maybe I am missing something. I don’t know.
Chuck Chakrapani is the founder of The Stoic Gym and the author of Unshakable Freedom, A Fortunate Storm, and The Good Life Handbook