'Explaining Epictetus on Love and Friendships: A Stoic Paradox' by Greg Sadler

Explaining Epictetus on Love and Friendships: A Stoic Paradox

by Greg Sadler

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Practically every time I’ve taught Stoic philosophy — whether in an Ancient Philosophy class, or more often in an Ethics or an Introduction to Philosophy class — among other texts, I’ve assigned my students Epictetus’ Enchiridion, literally, his “Handbook” — a selection of passages compiled from the much longer set of his Discourses, those hopefully being more or less representative sample of Epictetus’ oral teachings, recorded by one of his pupils and friends.  Invariably, perhaps because it is early on in the text, so it catches the eye of a reader not yet wearied, section three catches their attention, or at least the end line of it.

With regard to whatever objects give you delight, are useful, or are deeply loved, remember to tell yourself of what general nature they are, beginning from the most insignificant things. If, for example, you are fond of a specific ceramic cup, remind yourself that it is only ceramic cups in general of which you are fond. Then, if it breaks, you will not be disturbed. If you kiss your child, or your wife, say that you only kiss things which are human, and thus you will not be disturbed if either of them dies.

To many — including myself — this seems so harsh a sentiment, rigidly consistent, but somehow unduly, unforgivably harsh.  This is a point where, I think, many people, repulsed, conclude that Stoicism is definitely not for them.  If it means abandoning the affection one feels ought to circulate within the family, between wife and husband, parent and child, then perhaps the perfectly free, untroubled, fully rational life that Stoicism holds out as a model is purchased at too high a cost.

Epictetus’ actual position is caricatured in the last line of that section — or rather in our inferences from it — but one would only know that by reading one’s way into his Discourses, rather than by confronting that passage with another chosen from the Enchiridion.  That fact may tell us something important about what was regarded as most important to communicate, to have ready at hand to remind oneself, to meditate upon — what selections made it into the shorter and much more widely read work.

But as it turns out, Epictetus very clearly does think that affection for spouses, children, even for friends or one’s country, is a component of the fully Stoic life — both as part of what the ideal of having one’s moral purpose in accordance with nature demands, and as something that befits our roles, our personae, and the offices and duties aligned with them.

First, though, consider a bit of his wisdom about costs, choices, commitments, and comprehensive ways of understanding and ordering one’s life:

To the rational animal only is the irrational intolerable; but that which is rational is tolerable. . . .  In short, if we observe, we shall find that the animal man is pained by nothing so much as by that which is irrational; and, on the contrary, attracted to nothing so much as to that which is rational.

But the rational and the irrational appear such in a different way to different persons, just as the good and the bad, the profitable and the unprofitable. . . . But in order to determine the rational and the irrational, we use not only the of external things, but we consider also what is appropriate to each person. For to one man it is consistent with reason to hold a chamber pot for another, and to look to this only, that if he does not hold it, he will receive stripes, and he will not receive his food: but if he shall hold the pot, he will not suffer anything hard or disagreeable. But to another man not only does the holding of a chamber pot appear intolerable for himself, but intolerable also for him to allow another to do this office for him.

If, then, you ask me whether you should hold the chamber pot or not, I shall say to you that the receiving of food is worth more than the not receiving of it, and the being scourged is a greater indignity than not being scourged; so that if you measure your interests by these things, go and hold the chamber pot. “But this,” you say, “would not be worthy of me.” Well, then, it is you who must introduce this consideration into the inquiry, not I; for it is you who know yourself, how much you are worth to yourself, and at what price you sell yourself; for men sell themselves at various prices.

So, one might reason, the price of contentment, the cost of employing my rational faculty or faculties to progressively make my own self, my way of life, my circumstances and relationships more and more fully in line with reason — for none of us start out entirely rational — is that I disentangle myself from whatever natural affections I’ve come to feel.

There certainly is a common image out there of Stoicism that interprets that philosophy, that deliberate mode of existence, along such lines.  A Stoic of that sort effectively withdraws his or her desires and aversions, fears and hopes, loves and hatreds, into him or herself, withdrawing from social or even familial bonds.

But, could that really be the good life, the more rational life, the life in which human beings are most fulfilled?  Epictetus himself doesn’t think so.   As a matter of fact, he addresses the issue of familial affection (philostorgia) at length in one of what might be called his “chew-someone-out discourses.  One of the people who came to consult him confesses:

I am so wretched about my children that lately, when my little daughter was sick and was supposed to be in danger, I could not endure to stay with her, but I left home till a person sent me news that she had recovered.

Epictetus asks him in response:

Well then do you think that you acted right?

And when the father attempts to excuse himself by saying that he acted naturally, he follows up:

But convince me of this that you acted naturally, and I will convince you that everything which takes place according to nature takes place rightly.

The father tries the tack of saying that most fathers behave similarly, to which Epictetus responds:

I do not deny that: but the matter about which we are inquiring is whether such behavior is right; for in respect to this matter we must say that tumours also come for the good of the body, because they do come; and generally we must say that to do wrong is natural, because nearly all or at least most of us do wrong.

Several different senses of the term “natural” are in play here.  The father means by “natural” what most people — good or bad — tend to do.  One can also in this case speak of “natural” affection, concern, or fears towards or for one’s own child.  Then, there is the sense of “natural” as what ought to be the case, what would be most human, most rational, what would lead to or represent full development of a person.

Epictetus leads the man through dialogical question and answer to a point of realization:

Does affection to those of your family appear to you to be according to nature and to be good?

Well, is such affection natural and good, and is a thing consistent with reason not good?

Is then that which is consistent with reason in contradiction with affection?

You are right, for if it is otherwise, it is necessary that one of the contradictions being according to nature, the other must be contrary to nature. Is it not so?

Whatever, then, we shall discover to be at the same time affectionate and also consistent with reason, this we confidently declare to be right and good.

Well then to leave your sick child and to go away is not reasonable, and I suppose that you will not say that it is. . .  

This conclusion itself is an important achievement.  To fail to behave in an affectionate manner, along the lines that, even if one does not feel the appropriate emotion, one ought to act, one would be expected to act . . . to fail in that respect is actually to depart from the Stoic path.  In fact, one ought to feel affection — even though that does lay one in for possible loss, fear, trouble, when one’s child falls ill, or even dies.

Epictetus then continues the line of questioning.  He wants to know whether the father’s action is consistent with feeling affection towards his daughter, an emotional attachment which renders him vulnerable precisely because of the equal vulnerability of the one for whom he cares.

Did you, then, since you had an affectionate disposition to your child, do right when you ran off and left her; and has the mother no affection for the child?

Ought, then, the mother also to have left her, or ought she not?

And the nurse, does she love her?  Ought, then, she also to have left her?

And the pedagogue, does he not love her?  Ought, then, he also to have deserted her? and so should the child have been left alone and without help on account of the great affection of you, the parents, and of those about her, or should she have died in the hands of those who neither loved her nor cared for her?

Now this is unfair and unreasonable, not to allow those who have equal affection with yourself to do what you think to be proper for yourself to do because you have affection. It is absurd. Come then, if you were sick, would you wish your relations to be so affectionate, and all the rest, children and wife, as to leave you alone and deserted?

And would you wish to be so loved by your own that through their excessive affection you would always be left alone in sickness? or for this reason would you rather pray, if it were possible, to be loved by your enemies and deserted by them? But if this is so, it results that your behavior was not at all an affectionate act.

This highlights a critical point, passed over quickly above.  If it is not correct — at least in the case of Epictetus — to say that the Stoics regarded every emotion, every feeling, every affection as bad, it would be equally incorrect, or perhaps even more incorrect to swing to the opposite extreme and claim that every emotion or affection is therefore good.

A measure, a criteria, a sort of weighing and assessing is needed — one teased out by considering what being in accordance with nature really looks like — and Epictetus brings this concerned but off-base father to realize the irrationality of his own emotions, or, more properly, his response, what he does with and from his emotions.

This is far from an isolated or singular discussion, and Epictetus raises and explores similar issues, having to do with affection, familial or otherwise — in ways that display a much more favorable attitude towards such bonds than the first passage might seem to suggest — in many other portions of the Discourses.

Consider then that line again:

If you kiss your child, or your wife, say that you only kiss things which are human, and thus you will not be disturbed if either of them dies. 

Epictetus is not telling us: hold yourself back from your spouse, your child — or by extension, your parent, your friend, your family-member, your comrade, your lover, your companion, even your pet.

He is not counseling a cold prudence that calculates affection in the coin of probable loss, and therefore is never really there, present to the other, bonding with her or him.

He is emphasizing that we ought not imagine things — and likewise people — to be otherwise than they are, even if that fantasizing helps stave off the awareness that everything could be taken away at any time, the anxiety that this realization can produce or reveal.  We should look reality in the face, but also look our loved ones in the face in doing so, lovingly if we can, or affectionately at the least — to look at them as human, in the way a human ought to.

 

This post was originally published in Orexis Dianoētikē, Dr. Sadler’s main blog.

Gregory Sadler is a philosophy professor, speaker, ethics educator, and philosophical counselor.  He also directs the Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences for the Global Center for Advanced Studies, and is the president and cofounder of ReasonIO, a company devoted to putting philosophy into practice.  He produces popular YouTube videos on philosophy, and his main academic channel recently passed 24,000 subscribers and 2.3 million views.

'How to Set Stoic Goals' by Rob Thompson

How to Set Stoic Goals

by Rob Thompson

Should we place less emphasis on goals? Rob puts forth the case for just that. Sourced here.
Should we place less emphasis on goals? Rob puts forth the case for just that. Sourced here.

For many years goals fixated me. I’ve long been a planner and a goal setter. In the past, I’d set a goal or three for the year, and then sub-goals for each month. Then I’d figure out what action steps to take each week and each day, and try to focus my day on those steps. Unfortunately, it never, ever works out this neatly. You all know this.

I’ve been learning a different way over the last few years. It’s a radical shift in thinking and doing, to a freer-flowing mode of being. I’ve realized two things:

  1. Goals (wanting to improve) are not consistent with contentment (being happy with where you are).
  2. Goals are not necessary (I thought they were for a long time, but they’re not).

To illustrate these points, take a typical day:

I wake and have a goal to exercise for a fixed period of time. Some days I hit my goal and I allow myself to feel good as I drive to work. If I woke later than planned and didn’t hit my exercise goal, I drove to work feeling bad. Once in my car, I have a goal to get to my job by a certain time. At work, goal achievement links to every activity. After work I go to the supermarket. I have a goal of buying everything on my shopping list. Across the whole day I try to walk far and long enough to hit a 10 000 step goal. I try to get eight hours sleep. In other words, I’m attempting to hit a goal even when I’m not conscious! During my evening meditation, I reflect back and decide if the day was a success or not. Areas for improvement revolve around the question, did I meet all of my goals or not?

So it’s fair to say that almost every activity we do has a purpose, a goal in mind. Do you define success as achieving similar goals? But what would happen if we gave up on goals? Could you still be a success? What would a life without goals be like?

Realise this: We often think goals are necessary to achieve something, but in reality they’re not.

Goals, as I define them, are something that has a set outcome … but why is that outcome the only good outcome? There are many, many great outcomes, and having a focus on one is too limiting.

Goals are completely made up, with not a lot of information about what will happen in the future as we work on them. We invent them, out of some fantasy of how we want the future to go, but in truth they’re not realistic. And we can’t predict or control how the future will go, so setting goals is a useless activity.

Without any specific goals you have to work out what success means for you, then ask if this definition is acceptable or not. What’s the point in chasing a goal, if when you get there you realise that it wasn’t what you wanted in the first place?

What does success look like?

I’ve realised that there are lots of ways of deciding what success looks like without goals. For example, if you want to run a marathon in less than 4 hours and cross the finish line in 3:59 you can say you were successful. Or you could say you were successful if you completed a marathon, the time being irrelevant. Or success could be that you tried to complete a marathon, regardless of if you finish or not. In all these scenarios you’ve tried your best, and whatever happens you’ve been a success. What more can you do than your best? Celebrate this effort, you deserve it.

If success for you is setting a goal and then achieving it, despite what life throws at you, then prepare yourself to deal with the negative feelings if you don’t perform to your desired level. On the other hand, if success is about doing your best then you will never fail and you can be happy with what you have done. By adopting this approach then you can deal with the uncertainty of life. Oliver Burkeman writes in his book, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking:

What motivates our investment in goals and planning for the future, much of the time, isn’t any sober recognition of the virtues of preparation and looking ahead. Rather, it’s something much more emotional: how deeply uncomfortable we are made by feelings of uncertainty. Faced with the anxiety of not knowing what the future holds, we invest ever more fiercely in our preferred vision of that future — not because it will help us achieve it, but because it helps rid us of feelings of uncertainty in the present.

The Stoic Reserve Clause

So goals are attempts to deal with the discomfort of uncertainty. Why not embrace this uncertainty instead? To the Stoics acknowledging uncertainty became known as a “reserve clause” (exceptio). They combined intention and action together. From Seneca:

The Sage does not change his decision, if everything remains entirely what it was when he took it …. Elsewhere, however, he undertakes everything “with a reserve clause” … in his most steadfast decisions, he allows for uncertain events.

The safest policy is rarely to tempt [Fortune], though to keep her always in mind and to trust her in nothing. Thus: “I shall sail unless something happens”; and “I shall become praetor unless something prevents me”, and “My business will be successful unless something interferes”. That is why we say that nothing happens to a wise man against his expectations.

Marcus advises us:

Do not disturb yourself by picturing your life as a whole; do not assemble in your mind the many and varied troubles which have some to you in the past and will come again in the future.

Also:

Try to move men by persuasion; yet act against their will if the principles of justice so direct. But if someone uses force to obstruct you, then take a different line; resign yourself without a pang, and turn the obstacle into an opportunity for the exercise of some other virtue. Your attempt was always subject to reservations, remember; you were not aiming at the impossible. At what, then? Simply at making the attempt itself. In this you succeeded; and with that the object of your existence is attained.

The Stoic understands that there are events outside of his control which affect actions and intentions. Even when you do things exactly right, it’s not ideal. Here’s why: you are limited in your actions. When you don’t feel like doing something, you have to force yourself to do it. Your path is chosen, so you don’t have room to explore new territory. You have to follow the plan, even when you’re passionate about something else.

Some goal systems are more flexible, but nothing is as flexible as having no goals. Define success before you start on any activity and also work out what success will mean to you. There are choices. Success can be meeting the targets set, or effort, or both.

So how does it work? Well, to be honest, there’s no one way. But it goes a little something like this:

There are shades of grey and different levels and stages of success. Learn to accept that because you have made an effort this is more important than criticising yourself for not reaching total success. Once you do this then you can wake every day and feel a sense of gratitude. Grateful that you’re alive.

Then ask, “What do I feel like doing today?” At this point there are no constraints, but the question is important.

Start working on an activity you’re excited about, have fun doing it. Is that thing you’re doing a destination, a goal? Well, in some ways, yes, but it’s not fixed. There’s no set plan, and the destination doesn’t matter as much as the process, the journey.

An understandable mistake is to focus on results instead of the journey that achieves the results. The more time you spend in the journey itself, the more beneficial the results. The more time you spend focused on the results, the more negative the results.

As time passes you might shift as you go, depending on the flow of ideas. Working with others who might have ideas you didn’t foresee, on things that happen along the way. You couldn’t have predicted these things when you got started. So you have to adapt — no plan can predict all this, no goal would be adequate to the task.

You might even completely shift, if something new comes up, if a new opportunity presents itself. You let go of your idea of what today was going to be, because these ideas of what should be are lightly held. They mean nothing; the important thing is the flow.

No destination or goal matters if they are all good. Each step along the way, then, becomes the destination, and is exactly where you should be. Goals are a big illusion that our society believes in. You learn to be flexible instead of fixed. Learn to be good at change and uncertainty, instead of fearing it. And try your best while acknowledging what is outside of your control. If you can do this then there is no failure.

When we fixate on goals, we shut ourselves off to new opportunities that open up in different directions. These are opportunities that we couldn’t have foreseen when we started out. But because we’re fixated on the goal, we don’t allow ourselves to go in this new direction.

When we fail to reach this fantasy outcome (which is often), we feel bad. But if we let go of the fantasy, we can just enjoy the work.

When we fixate on achieving a future outcome, we are not looking at where we are, nor are we happy with where we are. We can’t be, because we are looking at the future goal, and this is what motivates us (not enjoying the moment).

When we have a future-oriented mindset, it doesn’t end if/when we achieve the goal. We achieve the goal, then immediately look to the next goal.

Always remember: the journey is all. The destination is beside the point.

A good traveller has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving – Lao Tzu

How do you measure success? Do you use the reserve clause idea? Are you a goal setter, or not?  Please leave a comment below.

Rob Thompson lives in Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK. A couple of years ago he realised that he had fewer years ahead of him than behind him. This forced him to reflect on the meaning in his life. He started to question just what matters. In coming to terms with “himself” he realised that a large body of work could help. After some reading and reflection he found Stoic philosophy to make most sense. He maintains a blog, Prokopton.com which sets out to use this ancient wisdom in a practical way. By writing on Prokopton.com he hopes to keep himself accountable. He want to track his progress, construct a coherent world-view and give something back to wider community.

'What Would a Stoic Do? Twitter Edition' by Massimo Pigliucci

What Would a Stoic Do? Twitter Edition

by Massimo Pigliucci

Editor’s Note: This piece comes from Massimo’s blog, How To Be A Stoic, and he has kindly let us post it here. 

TwitterI’m starting a new occasional series, entitled What Would a Stoic Do? The idea is to explore, based on actual (as opposed to hypothetical) situations, what the best Stoic response might be to things that happen in everyday life. Some of the examples will be drawn from my own experience, others from friends’ and relatives’, still more, perhaps, from the news.

The idea is that Stoicism is a living philosophy with practical value, not just a theoretical exercise, or a devout reading of ancient authors. As much as I enjoy the theory, as well as the readings, it seems like the point is to get down and dirty with real life, so here we go. Obviously, I very much welcome readers’ suggestions, as I certainly don’t consider myself an oracle (ah!) on what proper Stoic behavior would be under given circumstances. I’m here to learn.

“If from the moment they get up in the morning they adhere to their ideals, eating and bathing like a person of integrity, putting their principles into practice in every situation they face – the way a runner does when he applies the principles of running, or a singer those of musicianship – that is where you will see true progress embodied, and find someone who has not wasted their time making the journey here from home.” (Epictetus, Discourses I, 4.20)

The first episode of this new series concerns Twitter, the popular social network on whose platform interactions among users are limited to 140 characters at a time. I have been using it since March 2010. So far, I have tweeted 20,200 times, have 11,700 followers, and follow 13 people.

Those stats are a reflection of how I use Twitter: i) as a way to alert people to my own work, or to work by people I think should be read more widely; and ii) to keep up with news in my own areas of interest (I follow a number of philosophers and philosophical organizations).

By its very nature, Twitter is most definitely not suited to discussions. While it is an interesting challenge to be able to come up with something clever and engaging to say in less than 140 characters, there simply is no way that sort of exchange, even prolonged, lends itself to anything thoughtful or insightful. Twitter, in other words, is a great platform to let people know about certain things, but a horrible one to engage in discussions about those very things. (Other social networks do not have that sort of limitation, especially Facebook and Google+, though even there it quickly comes down to just how much time one has or is willing to spend in order to talk to hundreds, or thousands, of strangers across the world, rather than getting on with one’s own life and business.)

I wrote all the above to provide some context and explain why I rarely answer people on Twitter, and usually do so only in response to specific questions concerning additional sources they are seeking. But occasionally I do engage in “twiscussions” (I believe this is a neologism, you’ve heard it here first!). And I usually regret it.

One such case occurred recently, after I sent out a link concerning a petition from a number of academics to world leaders, aimed at having the latter take the issue of global warming more seriously. (The petition was started by my colleague Lawrence Torcello, at the Rochester Institute of Technology.)

Predictably (this sort of thing has happened before), I received a relatively high number of negative, and in some cases downright nasty, comments from climate change “skeptics.” And that’s where things become delicate.

First off, it is easy, all too easy, to get upset or angry (at being called nasty names in public). Second, one is at a loss as how to respond properly (or whether to respond at all, or block some people, or “mute” others, and so on). Third, one gets discouraged by being reminded once more that even mainstream science and a rather mild open letter can be vehemently rejected out of hand by people who are otherwise intelligent and articulate about other topics.

What is a Stoic to do? Let us begin with the first problem: upset feelings, offense or anger. As Marcus, Epictetus and Seneca say a number of times (I’m paraphrasing here), get over yourself. If the insult where hurled at a rock, would a rock be worse off for it? No, it would continue to be a rock (which, admittedly, isn’t that exciting). The point is that negative opinions expressed by others need to be considered objectively, because they might have a valid point of criticism, but not subjectively, i.e., as “insults,” “offenses” and the like. Of course, we are all humans, not Sages, so we cannot avoid immediate emotions. (Actually, even the Sages can’t, since they too are human beings, they just know better how to react to those emotions.) The obvious counsel here, therefore, is to create a space between you and your emotions — say, by getting up and walking away from the keyboard for a few minutes — until you have regained enough self control to inquire about the emotion in question and decide whether you want to give it “assent,” as the Stoics say, or not. This, I’m sure the reader knows, is much harder to do in practice than it sounds like, because social networking lends itself to immediate engagement, usually with regretful outcomes. Still, it seems like the Stoic thing to do (or to attempt to do, at the least).

“Remember that it is we who torment, we who make difficulties for ourselves – that is, our opinions do. What, for instance, does it mean to be insulted? Stand by a rock and insult it, and what have you accomplished? If someone responds to insult like a rock, what has the abuser gained with his invective?” (Epictetus, Discourses I, 25.28-29)

Second, how to respond properly. I think a Stoic here would have to reflect on what is the purpose of engaging others on Twitter, given the special characteristics of the medium. As I said above, my purpose is to alert people to interesting material, not to change their minds about any specific topic (for that I write books and blog posts). Seen that way, twiscussions are beside the point, and since they are more likely than not to generate ill feelings, they should probably be avoided altogether. Again, this is easier said than done, partly because the instinct of a teacher is to converse with people, and partly because we all think we know better than our antagonists, and if they just listened to us for a minute… What I try to do — if I absolutely feel like engaging — is to bring up a couple of points that my interlocutor may not have considered, and then explain that Twitter is just not a proper platform for involved conversations and bow out. But I should probably simply establish a policy of never answer a Tweet, even though there is a risk of coming across as rude or close minded. (Hmm, perhaps from now on I could simply respond with a link to this post, or would that be too self-conceited?)

Finally, how to deal with the feeling of discouragement at what one sees in response to one’s Tweet? Here again I think Stoic advise is very clear: we are responsible (at best, according to modern cognitive science) for our own opinions, not for those of others. The first part means that I need to listen carefully to what others are saying about my own opinions, because I may, of course, be wrong on certain issues. The second part means that I ought to internalize my goals, as Irvine nicely puts it in his A Guide to the Good Life: again, my aim isn’t to change other people’s minds, but rather to put forth the best material available for public consumption. Whether others read and learn from such material, it is up to them, not me.

“We are responsible for some things, while there are others for which we cannot be held responsible.” (Epictetus, Enchiridion 1.1)

Prof. Pigliucci has a Doctorate in Genetics from the University of Ferrara (Italy), a PhD in Evolutionary Biology from the University of Connecticut, and a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Tennessee. He had done post-doctoral research in evolutionary ecology at Brown University and is currently K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at City College and Professor of Philosophy at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His research interests include the philosophy of biology, the relationship between science and philosophy and the nature of pseudoscience. He has been elected fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science “for fundamental studies of genotype by environmental interactions and for public defense of evolutionary biology from pseudoscientific attack.”

In the area of public outreach, Prof. Pigliucci has published in Philosophy Now and The Philosopher’s Magazine, among others. He edits Scientia Salon web magazine and co-hosts the Rationally Speaking podcast.

'How Stoicism Helped me Overcome Depression' by Andrew Overby

How Stoicism Helped me Overcome Depression

by Andrew Overby

Light at the end of the tunnel. Sourced here.
Light at the end of the tunnel. Sourced here.

We all start out wanting to change the world. Depressives hold onto this impulse longer than most, I think, and thus when the inevitable realization comes that we cannot, it hits home all the harder.

The realization that we are but players on the world stage and not its prime architect is one of those momentous but possibly subtle shifts in conscious awareness that separates some aspects of youth from adulthood, such an effect does it have. This is maybe one of the first intellectual brushes with human limitations.

Those prone to perfectionism and to dreaming big can be strongly affected. To simultaneously be a daylong dreamer and to know that one’s dreams of changing the world—by leveraging the force of one’s perceived destiny or willpower—are extremely unlikely to be borne out is to invite depressive thinking for a visit.

To some degree, this is my story. At 24, my adult life so far has consisted in some measure of making the circuit around the pull of this immense truth. I really have yet to reconcile the real world with the one I envision and the place in it I would wish for myself.

More than most, depressives would benefit from the words of prominent Stoics like the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius or like the former slave Epictetus. With his dichotomy of control in mind, we can keep before our mind’s eye that only some certain things are under our power to influence and others are beyond our ability to control. (In fact, I think the trichotomy of control introduced by William B. Irvine in A Guide to the Good Life is even better, with the addition of a third category in the middle for things we have some amount of control over). We must evaluate what control we have and learn to take comfort in letting go of that which we can’t influence.

This is exactly somewhere Stoic thinking can come in: Like those involved in the now-famous Quantified Self movement and who daily measure galvanic skin response, sleep patterns, diet, steps walked per day, among many possible metrics to score their own physical state, those able to with depressive tendencies or other negatively affecting mental health conditions need to monitor themselves.

This type of acknowledgement of what is ours to hold in our sovereign hands in contrast to those many things we cannot control at all seems to me like one area of Stoic practice that is rich with lessons for depressives—or anyone at all wanting to experience a bit more tranquility in daily life.

I have always read widely and in high school, having a passing familiarity with the well-known proper nouns of Western culture, I knew vaguely who the Stoics were. (I was impressionably taken with the fact that many prominent individuals had adopted at least parts of Stoicism for themselves—or at least had the desire to be seen in that light). I remember visiting the Clinton Library in Arkansas and hearing of the former president’s reverence for Marcus Aurelius’Meditations. It has sat in the back of my mind since those years.

More recently, I began exploring the Stoics’ wisdom in a more significant way, seeking to understand their beliefs and see what could be applied to my own life, which has included depression and the resulting missed opportunities and long-term underperformance that come with it. I had heard of comparisons with Buddhism and was eager to know more. I came across several books written for a general audience. Once I started reading, I was intrigued.

Here was a philosophy that tried to rationalize life, that did not seek to eliminate emotion or attachment but to instill a deep-seated appreciation for these by cultivating a kind of detached regard. It disregarded mass consumerism and the mad acquisition of new products simply to satisfy an urge for perpetual novelty. It has high regard for the entire human community, all of whose members makes up the cosmopolis to which the Stoics belong.

These philosophers emphasize duty and virtue, teaching practitioners to put themselves to their best use as rationally capable human beings as well as to seek excellence in the situations in life they find themselves in, whatever they might be—whether in, say, excelling in ruling an empire or excelling in teaching a classroom full of students. They urge equanimity in the face of life’s challenges. For my personality type and in light of my life experiences, Stoic thinking seems rather natural.

Turning Depression Into An Asset

If the test of Stoic thinking and ethics is how they are put into practice, then let me elaborate on a few practices that might prove valuable to others.

Actually, I think many who have dealt with depression or other mental health concerns will find themselves quite receptive to the contents of Stoicism. For them, and for anyone at all who’s interested in delving into fundamental insights into human psychology, it’s just a matter of hearing about the Stoics in an age that has largely relegated them to the sidelines.

Depressed people are rather self-aware; in fact, they are too self-aware, and too negatively so, often deriding themselves for small infractions of their own idealized standards, putting themselves down for not being perfect even in a world they recognize as being full of imperfections and human capital squandered.

Part of depression is fixating on failures in the past, ruminating continually on past events or circumstances and even drawing a kind of negative confidence from them. This type of thinking is antithetical to good outcomes at the present time, at least the vast majority of the time. It causes failure in the present, building a feedback loop whose hunger cannot be easily filled. One failure builds atop another, and now another.

Stoic thinking can help by teaching willing students how to separate past from present in the mind. To return to Epictetus’dichotomy of control, the past is something over which we have no control. We must learn how to mindfully control how we peer backward into the past and how to only do on our own terms when it may prove useful.

Depressives may also gain comfort by appreciating the Stoic injunction to treat adversity as a training ground for mental capacity and for resilience—generally speaking, for life. Focusing on what our response can be instead of what is happening to us, what is being done to us, what we cannot influence or have control over is the step needing to be taken by all individuals, depressed or otherwise, who wish to maintain a healthier balance in their daily living.

Enabled by Stoic habits, a depressive can turn this overly critical self-awareness into a strength. Having a clear-eyed vision of things as they really are (without losing tranquility) is quite an asset. Seeing reality rather than confirming only what we wish to see is a skill others would have to acquire. What’s known as “depressive realism”is a rough-cut diamond waiting to be fashioned into the glowing jewel that is a well-developed sense of resilience, one that can more easily withstand the slings and arrows of adverse circumstances.

Stoic empowerment extends to include both professional and personal concerns. It seems to me those with depression are less likely to be hypocritical than those who are not nor have been, as well as perhaps being less likely to tell lies. This is purely a subjective opinion, but being compelled to lay bare the emotional foundations of one’s mental state is going to produce more empathy, and be far less conducive to deceit or deception. In short, a depressed person is more likely to express honesty and empathy.

Empathy, for Stoics, is fundamental. With exercises like Hierocles’ Circle, expanding the realm of one’s concern outward from oneself to family, city, country, and then the world, and a commitment to acting in the public interest or taking part in public affairs, Stoicism prove itself like depression in the sense that integral to its patterns is a highly developed sense of empathy.

If empathy can be boiled down to a reasonable appreciation for the plight of another that goes deeper than surface-level social platitudes, then those with depression will naturally prove themselves capable in this manner. For others, the best way for a person to develop this empathetic skill-set might be with Stoic exercises. When it comes to emotional intelligence and empathizing, I think depressive actually have something others can learn from.  Where lessons await, however, is in empathizing without losing a level head, using emotion as a vital component of reason without ever subverting it.

This relates not to changing external events or happenings, but our responses to them. Changing the state of mind a person is in can be difficult (when it can be done), but realizing that it is only a representation of something rather than the thing itself can be a relief. Remembering that reactions differ from actual reality is vital.

Good habits can be a great help in maintaining mental health. Adapting to follow the best habits possible right now is an excellent step, allowing time for small steps to build up. Adaptation is powerful, and depressives are better suited for adapting than we often believe ourselves to be.

When depressing or frustrating thoughts come to mind, the thought substitution technique might work. This means turning an unhelpful thought into one more helpful at the time. A thought about a past event or a memory about an old acquaintance that proves troubling can be turned to something more constructive with mental discipline and practice. Perhaps an unhelpful urge to focus on something negative can be made into a trigger for a taking a positive action. Many have used memories like childhood bullying or some kind of past anguish to spur themselves onward to achieve goals as adults; this seems like a potentially helpful route for those seeking to align depressing history with Stoic virtue.

A very valuable Stoic practice is that of negative visualization. This exercise is about visualizing all the bad things that could happen, all the things that could go wrong, every wound that might be reopened, every point of vulnerability, every secret exposed to sunlight, every mistake turned into a major faux pas. For a depressed person, this might feel more like putting names to faces seen before, I think, than an entirely new experience. I imagine many others would find this exercise somewhat morbid, but I suspect many depressives would appreciate it.

The second component I would add to the negative visualization exercise is its counterpoint: gratitude. Imagine feeling grateful everyday. This is an excellent habit. Before sleeping, think about the day’s events, or something more permanent. Consider those who have prepared the way and laid the groundwork. This exercise is very useful.

Humility is also a valuable aspect of Stoic thinking. Being plain in appearance or diet is a mark of humility. Depressed people often feel they have been humbled, but there is value in translating that into a general, pervasive sense of modesty, when possible.

Remembering one’s own smallness in the larger context of the universe and all living things within it can be useful for alleviating some anxiety by providing some of the mental distancing from an immediate reaction or stressful situation that Stoic habits are meant to instill.

The final exercise I would offer is the headline rule: This practice is imagining one’s actions being displayed in the headline of a newspaper—presumably, one that everyone reads. It is simple, and easy to conceptualize. This is like the spotlight effect—except pretend that everyone truly is going to be watching and discussing. If something would not look good on the front page of a newspaper, it might not be a virtuous action.

What all of the above ultimately come down to is making active choices. At best, passivity is neutral—if it does not actually worsen or prolong matters. This is not always possible, yet engaging in some series of actions—really, making a series of choices—is all a person can reasonably try to hold himself or herself responsible for. If there is anything that Stoics can teach those with mental health concerns, it is that employing reason can lift some of the burden.


References & Recommendations:

Hadas, M., The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca: Essays and Letters. W.W. Norton & Company, 1968.

Evans, Jules. Philosophy For Life and Other Dangerous Situations: Ancient Philosophy for Modern Problems. New World Library, 2012.

Irvine, William B., A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. Oxford University Press, 2009.

Ussher, Patrick. (eds.), Stoicism Today: Selected Writings Volume One. 2014


Apart from time in New York City, where he attended university, and elsewhere, Andrew Overby has lived mostly in his native Texas. He spends his time thinking about technology, politics, and psychology. As a personal project, he’s reinventing the commonplace book for modern readers eager for deeper dialogue with the authors and wisdom they find most meaningful.

'The Grey Garden: On the Stoic Use of Material Goods' by Sherman J. Clark

The Grey Garden: On the Stoic Use of Material Goods

by Sherman J. Clark

As here. Sourced here.
Sourced here.

Imagine that you live with many others in a dreary grey garden surrounded by a high stone wall. You and the others live there permanently. This is your world. You know or suspect that there is larger world outside your wall; but since you can never leave the garden, pragmatic members of your community do not give it much thought.

Fortunately, the drab dullness of your world is relieved by the presence of many brightly-painted wooded boxes. Some are blue, some red, some with elaborate multi-colored patterns. Naturally, these bright boxes have become objects of desire in the grey garden. People compete for them, display them, measure status by their accumulation, and become experts on the relative aesthetic merits of differently-colored boxes.

You do not have much interest in brightly-colored boxes, really; but since they seem to be the best or only thing going, you stave off melancholy by trying to get in the spirit. Why be a wet blanket? Perhaps you call them “preferred indifferents” and try to take whatever pale hollow pleasure can come from bright empty things. Besides, that is how people reckon success in your world; and no one wants to be a failure. Perhaps you are able even to develop or display some worthwhile virtues through how carefully or cleverly you collect and arrange your boxes—much as Epictetus suggested one can make use of an otherwise-pointless game of ball. You remain aware, however, that they are still just empty boxes; and you wish there were something more. Your grim and walled-in world seems to you “weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable.” But you are a modern Stoic pragmatist, not a moody Danish prince; so you carry on, finding what meaning and pleasure you can in your grey garden and its bright boxes.

Then you discover something. If you carry two or three boxes—any two or three—over by the garden wall and stack them on each other, you can stand on them. And if you stand on them, you can see over the wall. And what you see there takes your breath away.

Much more beautiful. Sourced here.
Sourced here.

Over the wall you see an astonishing world of rich complexity and beauty, next to which your painted boxes pale in comparison. The sight of that remarkable larger world fills you with the deep and deeply-human pleasure of awareness and understanding. New and wonderful things are revealed to you every day, offering a rich and never-ending spectacle of layered depth and order. And you begin to appreciate as well how your small grey garden fits into the larger world and is part of an exquisite pattern—beyond your ken, but beautiful. You know you will never see or comprehend all of it—and that you will thus never grow weary of what you see.

You no longer need to stave off melancholy. And you certainly no longer care about or even give a thought to the rewards or honors that your world offers to those who collect the most or brightest boxes. All you want or need are a few sturdy ones, any color will do, because you now know what they are good for—what even empty things can sometimes help you see.

Sherman J. Clark is a Professor of Law at The University of Michigan Law School

'Honesty in Business – A Stoic Experiment' by Jacob Henricson

Honesty in Business – A Stoic Experiment

by Jacob Henricson

Honesty in Business. Sourced here.
Honesty in Business. Sourced here.

One day I decided to stop lying. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve never been a big liar before in my life, but I decided to – to the best of my abilities – not lie at all. I defined some borderline case rules for myself, for example, it is ok to avoid or withhold the truth, when the effects of telling it would be harmful for myself or someone else (do I look pretty in this dress?), but not to tell a direct lie, however small.

The impetus for this drastic measure came out of my interest in leading a stoic life. I started off recently, about a year ago, when my attention was caught by the simple Epictetus quote:

”Men are disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions which they form concerning things.”

That lead me to read many of the classics, and several ”stoic revival”-books, such as Jules Evans ”Philosophy for Life”. Above all, for the example on hand, I devoured ”Thoughts of a philosophic fighter pilot”, by James B Stockdale. James was shot down during the Vietnam war and endured torture for eight years before returning home a celebrated hero. He had read Epictetus before being shot down and later credited stoic philosophy for his endurance during those years. One lesson I took away from his book was this: guilt was leverage for the torturers. If you were guilty and they knew it, they would use that guilt to extract something from you. As James expressed it:

”The point, then, is to do nothing shameful, nothing unworthy of yourself. Because if you do, and you are in any way honorable, it will haunt you and corrode your will. These are simple but very true, very powerful, very important facts.”

Fast forward to my regular life. I live in Sweden and have made a career in security and risk management in companies such as Ericsson and PwC. I have been in the huff and puff of top level corporate politics for more than ten years. While not being under the power of torturers, there are similarities. I have seen good people lose their footing and morals as they climb the slippery slopes to the top. I have seen good people corrupted by money and power to the point where they can no longer distinguish between their self interest and those of their fellow humans or even the company they work for.

You would think that making a lot of money and having a lot of power makes you less vulnerable and more independent. In my experience the exact opposite usually happens. As your income and prestige grows, you develop more expensive tastes. A small house is no longer enough. Wine at a low price suddenly becomes undrinkable. Before you know it you have become dependent on an income which is much higher than what you would get from most other jobs. I’ve heard it called ”the golden cage”. And as research from among others Daniel Kahneman shows, it is much more painful to step down from a privileged position than it is enjoyable to climb up. You are trapped. Epictetus again expressed it best:

‘And who is your master? Whoever has authority over anything that you’re anxious to gain or avoid.’

All of a sudden your boss, your shareholders, your customers become more important than those closest to you: your spouse, your children, your parents. They will have to wait in line because you have to please the people that control your income and your social status. But why did you climb to the top in the first place? For me, and I think for many others, it was a combination between having an exciting challenge at work, and providing for my family. But if I was asked what was most important to me, I would say my family. I think most people would.

That dependence can make you do things you rather wouldn’t have. We have all seen examples in media of top executives who have misused their power for personal gain.  But even lower down the chain you are often pressured to stand behind things you do not believe in. For example, your budget is cut in half while you are still expected to deliver the same result. You know that it will put unreasonable pressure on your staff and you do not stand behind it. So what do you do? Most managers will challenge the decision, but few are ready to back up their challenges with concrete action (such as resigning) and will ultimately bow to the decision and embrace it as their own (because anything else would be unacceptable in the hierarchy of things). Sometimes this goes to extremes, when the corporate culture is broken. The case that most clearly comes to mind is Enron.

When you have lied, you are part of a system you deplore. You can no longer blame your boss or your colleagues for the way things turn out. You cannot say that you were ”forced” to do it, because nobody can force you to do anything, and besides, that never sounds very good in media. You have to live with your own guilt, and that makes you more susceptible to future pressure.

So, here my ”no-lies-policy” comes into play. I decided to try it out to see if it would work and if it would change anything. As a summary of the ”experiment” I can say that it has made my life more cumbersome short term as I have to think through my answers carefully. Instead of saying ”I can’t join the dinner tonight because I’m not feeling well”, I have to take the time to explain that I need some time with my wife and kids, or that I simply do not feel up to it, in a friendly way. But by and by, it has proven to be a fantastic way of getting respect and sleeping well at night. I do not have to keep track of what I said to whom, and I am never afraid of being called out with a white lie.

The true test of my policy was when I resigned from my job, but was asked to keep it secret for three weeks. I could not even tell my closest friends at work and had to resort to enigmatic smiles when asked about future prospects. It was tough, but ultimately I felt better having both kept my word and spoken the truth (or at least not lied).

And above all, I’ve met with respect. Sometimes I have been more blunt to people than I would have before, but in the end it seems that the people around me value me more as a ”man of my word”, meaning that I will not always have an opinion, but when I do, they know that it is truthful, and straight from my heart. And that has made me decide to make the experiment permanent, and recommend it to everybody else in the world.

To end: a quote I picked up from Reddit, it was written as grafitti on an abandoned house:

‘Speak the truth, even if your voice shakes’

Jacob Henricson, CEO and Partner, Fronesis

Jacob Henricson is a speaker and advisor on a range of topics including risk management, cybersecurity, organizations and crisis management. Jacob also tinkers with stoicism, parenting and humor but is in no respect an expert in those areas.

'Troubled Students, Troubled Times, Stoic Solutions?' by Mark Harding

Troubled Students, Troubled Times, Stoic Solutions?

by Mark Harding

It's not easy for anyone. Sourced here.
It’s not easy for anyone. Sourced here.

I was introduced to Stoicism while studying classics in high school and university many years ago, and became interested in it again recently as a way to help  the many highly anxious students in the high school where I teach deal with  self-imposed standards of academic excellence and the high expectations of their parents. Over the past several years, and this year especially,  a number of our students have reported significant psychological distress (and this reportedly is a global phenomenon) and sometimes have been hospitalized as a result. When considering their stories, it is clear that not only the pressure to obtain admission to a Tier One academic institution is part of the problem, but so is the broader environment of economic uncertainty, international terrorism, and  the threat of climate change.

However, previous generations endured the Great Depression and fought in the Second World War, fretted through the Cuban Missile Crisis, and lived through the Cold War with the ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation. There appears to be no record of large numbers of that generation folding emotionally under those pressures. In fact, the reaction in several of those instances was a broadly-based political mobilization of young people  The Occupy movement notwithstanding, one is tempted to conclude that the current generation is soft and disengaged compared to previous generations, but the youth of any day have always been going to hell in a handcart from the greybeard’s perspective. Nevertheless, in discussions with my colleagues over the past few years, we have noticed a  tendency for students more quickly to “pack it in” when the going gets tough.  They are more reluctant to take on challenges than students even in the recent past  and  they are also more risk-averse as a group than previous cohorts were.

One aspect of the problem is that they are educated in an environment  where, because education is a right,  success is considered to be a right, as well. Persistence in the face of adversity is advised but ultimately not required and leads to a mentality where equality of opportunity becomes confused with equality of outcome, producing a child who  believes that he or she will be successful in every undertaking–  all  aspirations  met,  all  dreams fulfilled.

This leads to better attendance in class and better retention rates in school generally, but also  in the end, produces adult citizens who, like Tyler Durden in Fight Club, were told they were going to be millionaires, movie gods, and rock stars–and now, realizing that is untrue, are “very, very pissed off.”

None of this is the fault of the student. Their only sin is to believe what many  adults, in love with psychobabble, tell them. “You can be anything you want to be”, a lovely sentiment found in one form or another in guidance offices and classrooms, most readily comes to mind as a cliche that may do more harm than good in the long run. Helicopter parenting, emotional protection from unpleasant reality, and other vicissitudes of modern family life may  be part of the picture, as well.

So, looking for a practical way to help these kids develop a philosophy rather than a pathology when the rejection letter from Harvard comes or when they are not voted Most Valuable Player or are not selected as Prom Queen, I turned to Stoicism, less the metaphysics, for its position of rational pessimism.  As unpleasant as that phrase might sound to those whose default position is to be “rah-rah” cheerleading everything our young people say and do, I think it offers our students a greater possibility of happiness now and in the future, and in extreme circumstances may even save lives. What follows are a few vignettes from my experience.

CONTROL

I announced the test date and then came the question:

“Sir, do you have any hints about what  the essay topic will be ?”

“Yes.”

“Can you give us one?”

“No.”

Earlier in the year, that little comic routine got some laughter; now Beatrice just looked down at her desk in anguish. I felt a pang of guilt because I didn’t want to appear insensitive or flippant. Beatrice had actually done very well on all the tests up to this point. However, her results seldom satisfied her and she was a frequent visitor to my office, looking for tips on how to do even better.

Beatrice, if she were a psychiatric patient, would probably be described as one of the “worried well:” individuals who are, in general, coping with life’s demands but who never feel at ease or comfortable or satisfied. Her anxiety about the test question betrays what I believe is one of the central problems of the anxious, high-achieving student–a concern about what has not happened yet rather than a focus on what one can do now..

Such  students are so driven to do well that they forget that the content of the test is out of their control. Unless the students are very lucky, the test will present some material that they did not understand or remember perfectly–too many variables are involved for it to be otherwise. A teacher must remind these students (who are often so bright that they do not encounter any academic adversity until the senior years of high school or the first year of university) that only the preparation for the test is in their control. This sounds obvious to the teacher, but it is not always obvious to a student.  They often look for some magic formula that will ensure perfection.

I have told Beatrice and students like her to think of it reasonably: if you have done well on the other tests, you will probably do well on this one. Have you studied thoroughly and at regular intervals? Have you focused especially on the material where you are weak? Have you been respecting your body and mind with good nutrition and adequate sleep? Then, on the morning of the test, can you honestly say you have done your best? And have you thought ahead to the worst possible combination of material on the test and considered how you would deal with it if it were to appear? Then you have done what is in your control. You have created the opportunity for success on the test. The questions on the test are out of your control and may be more difficult than you expected.Some kind of failure is inevitable, but at least you have prepared yourself to the best of you ability.

I do not know if Beatrice took this message to heart, but it was the best advice I could give her.

EQUANIMITY

Melissa was so upset she was shaking. She sat in the guidance counselor`s office unable to speak. Already a painfully shy girl, she had just completed an important, lengthy presentation which she found almost unbearable to do and was convinced she had failed. She had done a satisfactory presentation for me earlier in the year and, although she was nervous, she got through it without a breakdown. The crucial difference this time was the value of the presentation for her overall course grade. That pressure resulted in a complete loss of composure.

How does the teacher help a student whose sense of self-worth rests on a grade? The current academic environment is not much help with its fierce competition for admission to the best universities. Telling students that, in the long run, their talent will be evident no matter where they go to school and therefore admission to one of the top schools doesn’t matter will probably be of no comfort, because at this moment it does matter very deeply to them. On the one hand, we want them to strive for the best and avoid complacency; on the other hand, we need them to develop a rational sense of their chances of meeting their goals.

My thinking is that perspective–through a knowledge of other people’s experience, famous or otherwise, who faced similar adversity–can help students in this situation. Changed thinking can lead to controlled emotions, which can lead to equanimity in the face of future trouble. Although I have not yet had a chance to talk  to Melissa about this problem, if I do have the chance I will probably point out that the schools she is interested in attending admit about one in one thousand applicants. Should she give up? No, because the application process is still in her control–the admission decision is not. Thousands of highly talented people are  turned away from these institutions every year and, nevertheless, do tremendous things with their lives. Indeed, only one of the CEOs of the top ten Fortune 500 companies went to an Ivy League school, not to mention the pillars of the high-tech sector who were admitted to such schools and left them before graduation to pursue more creative and, one might argue, important accomplishments. Am I filling her with false optimism that her brilliance will win the day, no matter what? No, I am pointing out that anyone’s life is full of variables beyond one’s control, and sometimes things work out and life is pleasant, and other times they don’t and life is hard.

Would advocating a mindset of ‘rational pessimism’ destroy the dreams of a student such as Melissa? I do not believe so. Once again, the teacher has a  duty to encourage students to pursue their cherished aspirations combined with an equally important duty to cultivate a rational and critical way of thinking. In the Meditations, Marcus reminds himself that every day he will face the arrogant, the devious, the unsocial, and so on, and thereby prepares himself to be composed during the day. A similar inventory for a student looking to the future might be realizing she will enter a school not of her first choice, assignments of doubtful value, and mediocre instructors. However, these adversities also create the conditions for developing personal excellence and resilience in an unpredictable, possibly chaotic environment..

COURAGE

As he was leaving the room, Anthony made an obscene gesture and a petulant remark to a classmate. The classmate had made some slightly mocking but otherwise benign comment that Anthony inflated into a major attack. This was not the first time Anthony had behaved inappropriately when under pressure in class and the remark, combined with Anthony’s state of sleep-deprivation, triggered an emotional meltdown. I  had many discussions with Anthony over a few years regarding his plans for the future, and his plans were very grand. Entrepreneurship, investment banking,  and diplomacy (among others) were all possibilities for him. Through his results on the SAT and Advanced Placement exams, he had shown that he had the academic and cognitive abilities at least to be considered by several top twenty universities and, even if he were not admitted to one of those, would find his way no matter where he went to school. As he studied for his SAT’s, he often came to chat with me about his misgivings, especially when comparing himself to other highly-qualified students from years gone by. At those times I was careful to point out to him, ‘Those people are 70% water, just like you’.

I know that remark may sound facile, but I was trying to tell him that success on these exams is not a superhuman feat, although it can often seem as remote to a student as winning an Olympic gold medal. However, Anthony faced a deeper and more poignant problem: could he maintain his courage to follow through with all this extensive testing, knowing that he probably will not achieve his dream of being accepted to an Ivy League school? Anthony displayed much confidence as a scholar: he was an excellent parliamentary debater, he was well-read, and he had good capacity for critical thinking. However, that was all  in the context of a fairly small school where only a few of his peers demonstrated similar gifts and, therefore, he did not face much competition. Could he risk the blow to his ego of playing in the big leagues, facing competition from very clever people from all around the world?

Once he confided in me that education had been the most important thing to him, ever since he was little. He has taught himself several languages, plays several different musical instruments, and is a budding poet. Comparing what interested him to what interested me at the same age (rock and roll, sports, girls) made me feel like a philistine, and also made me feel that it would be a grave injustice if he failed to fulfill his ambitions. He then asked me if I thought success was purely a product of hard work.

I hemmed and hawed around that one, it being one of the convenient lies we casually tell students to keep them motivated. He stared at me and would not let me off the hook.  Finally, I had to tell him honestly that hard work does not always pay off. In fact, more often than not, in highly competitive fields such as sports, the arts, and academics, the majority of hard-working people do not fulfill their dreams. From my own experience, I confessed to him that I am one of a multitude of doctoral dropouts–people who started but never completed their Ph.D. I also pointed out that in Canada,  97% of new doctoral graduates will not get a tenured position in a university. I could see he was crestfallen and I wished I could erase the previous five minutes of conversation. He picked up his study guides and excused himself.

A few days later Anthony was hospitalized, having made some threats of self-harm. He was observed and assessed and released a short time later, deemed unlikely to hurt himself. Cynically, some thought his behaviour was an attention-seeking device. I reserved judgment. But was I to blame because I did not repeat the “hard work will get you where you want to go” lie?  I hope not. If the worst had happened and he had taken his life, would my failure of sunny optimism have been part of his motivation to end it all? What is obvious to me now is that Anthony was not yet secure enough in himself  to face the prospect of dashed dreams with “stoic resilience.” How can we effectively  educate students like Anthony that recovering from failure is actually more important (and  more frequent in life) than achieving success, when so much of the broader society through mass and social media makes wild success seem normal and rubs your face in it in the form of cars you will never own, vacations you will never take, and beauty you will never have.
I don’t have an answer for that yet, but I am working on it.

Mark Harding teaches in the Advanced Placement Program at York Memorial Collegiate Institute in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  He has also taught at York University (Toronto) and Simon Fraser University (Burnaby, British Columbia). At present, he teaches English, Psychology, and the Seminar course of the new College Board AP Capstone Diploma Program.

'Stoicism When Technology Fails: Ancient Steps for a Modern Path' by James Gill

Stoicism When Technology Fails: Ancient Steps for a Modern Path

by James Gill

Advice on how to avoid such fits as this. Sourced here.
Advice on how to avoid such fits as this. Sourced here.

Every spring millions of Americans eagerly await March madness.  It is appropriate nomenclature for a practice that pits 64 of the top ranked college basketball teams against each other in a four conference single elimination bracket.  This year, I looked forward to a little friendly competition between friends and family and urged those that I love to fill out brackets with me.  In the midst of trying to organize something enjoyable, I experienced silly and childish negative emotions because the people that used technology the most somehow couldn’t remember their passwords for required email accounts, the printer that reliably churns out a sheet for everyone in my Bible study group every Sunday suddenly went on the fritz, and I felt the weight of being our pool commissioner most keenly when I realized that everyone around me had a better device than I did for completing the task at hand.  It occurred to me that Stoicism’s applicability crosses time and cultural barriers to serve as a guide for how we should correctly interact with technology and each other.

Seneca described anger as “an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.”  This statement’s universal wisdom can be recognized by all, so why do we all lose our minds when dealing with technology?  It is because anger is the product of surprise and personal injury.  It is the unique combination of both of these things that causes uncontrollable fits of blind rage.  A few moments of negative visualization can be very helpful in the elimination of the former substrate for our anger equation.  If we take five minutes each day to meditate on the very worst things that can happen, we have immunized our minds and equipped them to deal with reality.  Optimism is a trap that urges us to expect the best possible outcome.  Unfortunately, life (and especially life that involves technology) is rife with the unexpected.  Also, realizing that it is your perception that injury has occurred that is causing your anger is helpful in elimination of the second substrate.  Marcus Aurelius said, “Reject your sense of injury and the injury itself disappears.”

Anxiety is the result of trying to control that which is not in our control.  Fate has decided what will befall you on any given day.  Unaffected relief from worry awaits when you realize that the external events of your life cannot dictate whether or not you are happy.  If a deadline is quickly approaching and fate has it in store for your printer to stop working moments before you need to place a document into the hands of someone important to you, realize that the events preceding your seeming imminent failure were not in your control.  You didn’t choose for the printer to stop working.  It is equally as true that the perceptions of other people are not in your control.  Epictetus said, “There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power or our will.”

Keeping up with the Joneses has been launched into a new era with technology.  It is no longer just the perfect house, car, job, or family that people feel societal pressure to obtain.  Now social standing is also dependent upon devices and their accessories as much as anything else material and visible.  The slippery slope is that technology expires almost as quickly as it’s released, leaving those with the worst cases of avarice in debt and constantly wanting.  So how can the itch be scratched, so to speak?  Epictetus offers this:  “He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.”  The most effective way to appreciate the things that you have is to try to get by without them.  Sending someone a letter through the mail to be grateful for the speed of email or leaving your phone at home to acknowledge the convenience of immediate access to information can be more effective for your material satisfaction than making a new purchase.

The tutelage of men that lived thousands of years ago is still applicable and advisable in the compartments of our lives that define our era as modern.  Technology’s purpose is to make our lives better and easier, and in many ways it does.  It also offers a uniquely challenging environment in which to practice the attainment of virtue through Stoic philosophy.  We can connect instantly with people halfway across the globe, making neighbors out of people that never would have spoken.  We have access to all the information in all the world’s libraries at our fingertips, making the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom accessible to all regardless of physical location or social position.  Whether we are Facebooking, emailing, blogging, constructing a presentation, or filling out a bracket, the ultimate goal is to connect with people.  If used for virtuous purposes, technology can aid us in practicing the tenants of Stoicism; chiefly the idea that everyone is a manifestation of the divine and should be treated as such.  Through daily practice of these tenants, when my laptop doesn’t work according to its nature, I can still work according to mine.

James Gill holds two degrees in religion and leads a small church plant in East Tennessee where he encourages others in compassionate and simple living. James works with children and enjoys hiking, gardening, and reading and old time Americana music.

'Falling into Stoicism' by Mark Leggett

Falling into Stoicism

by Mark Leggett

Leggett2

“Do not dread death or pain- but rather dread the fear of death or pain”- Epictetus

Last year I read my first book on stoicism. One aspect that appealed to me was that those principles written about over 2000 years ago are still relevant today and can be experienced by normal people in their daily lives. In this article would like to relate an incident that occurred to me 16 years ago after which I ‘discovered’ some of the truths written about by the Stoics.

I had walked and run in the hills all my adult life but in 1998 was new to winter mountaineering. I had decided to climb Ben Macdui, Britain’s second highest mountain in February. In contrast to Ben Nevis (Britain’s highest mountain) which is only a mile or so from the town of Fort William, Ben Macdui stands in the centre of a vast wilderness known as the Cairngorm Mountains. I started my hike from the car park at Linn of Dee near Braemar one Saturday afternoon and camped overnight at Derry Lodge- a disused hunting lodge set in a small pinewood. I was disappointed to find it was raining at this low level.

The next morning I rose and packed away my soggy tent and made my way through the trees and then through the open moor of Glen Derry, soon I was above the snow line. Turning left I climbed to the Hutchison Memorial Hut. The small bothy (editor’s note: a ‘bothy’ is a small shelter) was occupied and filled by a German tourist who had loads of kit spread over every surface; snow shoes, crampons, ice axe, walking poles, tent, sleeping bag, stove- he had everything. I chatted for a few minutes then carried on climbing up to towards Loch Etchachan. The significance of this was that the German might have been the last person to see me alive.

The weather got steadily worse as I climbed; thick snow underfoot and high winds. It was bitterly cold. Loch Etchachan was frozen over and covered with snow.

After many years hiking in hills I knew I was not a natural navigator but I could use a map and compass. I followed the frozen stream bed that fed into Loch Etchachan until it petered out then continued on a compass bearing for the summit.

'A map of the area in which Mark escaped death, and the route he took.
‘A map of the area in which Mark escaped death, and the route he took.

As I climbed the mountain the wind whipped the snow up into a fog until I was in a complete white out. A white out is similar to total darkness (an uncommon experience in our modern world where there is almost always some ambient light) only in a white out everything is white rather than black. The sky is white, the ground (covered in snow) is white and everything in between is white. Wherever you look its white – no horizon, no features, just white. Without any contrast or graduation in tone for the brain to use to detect distance or form one is effectively blind.

I religiously kept to my compass bearing and trudged blindly upwards. It took a while in the wind and snow carrying a heavy pack but eventually I was pleased to encounter the remains of a building – four low walls of dry stone half buried in the snow- that I remembered from previous ascents during the summer. I knew that this ruin was only a few hundred yards from the summit.

The summit was a wild inhospitable place. The trig point was completely encrusted in horizontal windblown icicles. It was extremely cold and blowing a gale. I didn’t stay long; no leisurely munching of sandwiches and admiring the view on this day!

I turned round and started my descent. All I had to do was reverse my compass bearing until I found the top of the frozen stream, follow that down to the frozen loch and then I would be safe. Buoyed up by my successful navigation on the way up, and having timed my ascent so I knew approximately how long it would take to get back to the stream, I was confident I would be ok.

However it all hinged on finding the top of the frozen stream which started as a mere depression in the snow. I had not considered how difficult (i.e. impossible) it would be to find this in white out conditions. If you look at a map of the area you will see that a change of direction is required at the stream because if one continues in a straight line there are some precipitous cliffs ahead. I descended until I was close to the point where I would have to turn, but became confused because I seemed to be climbing a mild incline. I say seemed to because in the white out conditions it was impossible to be sure, my legs were telling me from the increased effort that I might be climbing but apart from the compass in my hand I could see nothing.

Then I fell forward into the whiteness.

At first I thought that I might have tripped on a buried rock, or perhaps there was a small hole or dip in the snow, but when I carried on falling I knew what I had done. I had walked off the edge of the cliffs of Coire Sputan Dearg.

People asked me afterwards if I had fallen through a cornice of overhanging snow. Well I didn’t, I simply walked off a cliff because I couldn’t see the edge. I only fell for a second or two before slamming into the steep cliff side, bouncing, falling and bouncing again. I had seen these cliffs in the summer, I knew their height and steepness, I knew I was dead. This sounds dramatic, and obviously I didn’t die or I couldn’t be writing this, but at the time there was absolutely no doubt in my mind that I was about to die. It was NOT like being in front of a firing squad as the soldiers load there weapons ,hoping for a last minute reprieve, it was like being in front of a firing squad and hearing the command FIRE !, done deal ,no way out, end of story.

“Cease to hope…..and you will cease to fear. Widely different (as fear and hope are) the two of them march in unison like a prisoner and the escort he is handcuffed to.  “   Seneca

I am not a brave person, and several times in my life I have got myself into scrapes in the hills and scared myself witless. I don’t like taking risks and would even describe myself as a timid person. Rock climbing for example is not my thing; it is far too dangerous and scary. However on this occasion I felt no fear. I was looking death in the face and my only emotion was regret that it was all about to end. I believe that if I had fallen but ended up clinging to a cliff edge by my fingertips, with the possibility of survival or death, I would have been terrified. But because I thought death was inevitable I was not afraid.

“It’s not what happens to you but how you react that matters” Epictetus

I bounced and somersaulted through the air several more times before finding myself spread-eagled on a steep snow slope. By amazing good fortune I had fallen in the one area where the cliffs are less steep. When I realised I was alive I felt tremendous relief and elation , my back was hurting, my face was damaged and I was alone half way down a cliff in the Cairngorms miles away from anywhere, but I was alive. I could feel liquid running down my face. It was clear rather than bloody and I soon found I had no vision in my right eye, maybe the eyeball had burst? No matter -I was alive ! Hours later I found out that my eye was ok but the right side of my face had swollen up clamping my eyelids shut so I could see nothing out of that eye.

I don’t know how far I fell or how close to death I actually was. I know people have died falling from smaller cliffs and others have survived far greater drops. For me the two relevant factors were the absolute certainty that I was about to die followed very quickly by the miracle of my survival.

I tried to climb back up the cliff, but soon gave up as it was too steep and I had lost my ice axe in the fall. So I descended down to the valley – not easy on the steep terrain and icy snow with no axe and only one good eye.  Lower down I floundered my way through deep snow to Glen Luibeg.  Soon it got dark and it took a long while but eventually I reached my car at Linn of Dee and drove back to Braemar. There after scaring the people in the village shop with my swollen and bruised face I wound up in the police station where the village Bobby, who was also in the mountain rescue team, gave me a coffee and got the local G.P to examine me. The doctor managed to prise my eyelids apart and it was then that I found that my right eye was intact. He suggested that I spent the night in Braemar and that he had another look at me in the morning.

When going to the hills alone I always leave details of my intended route with a friend or my parents and phone them when I am back in civilization. So I went to the telephone box and called my friend and told her that I had had a fall but that I was alright. I found a ridiculously cheap room in the local hotel and got some food. The room had a television which at that time I didn’t have at home , so it was a great treat to watch TV , I also had  a bottle of whisky ( not ideal given the danger of concussion- but I was celebrating my survival ) so all in all it was a very pleasant evening.

When I got home the next day my friend told me what a terrible evening she had had, I was perplexed and asked her to explain. She told me that she had been very worried and upset after hearing about my fall and it had ruined an evening she had planned with friends. In contrast, I -the supposed traumatised victim-  had a great time !

“If you are distressed by anything external the pain is not due to the thing itself but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment”. Marcus Aurelius

My face healed quite quickly although my right eyelid still droops when I’m tired, my back took months to come right, but apart from that I survived the incident unscathed. Overall it was a positive experience; I discovered that death is not necessarily a terrifying event but that it is the fear of death that is terrifying. By luck, on this occasion my opinion of the events was coloured by the seeming inevitability of my death and then my lucky survival. I learnt that day that it is not external events that cause mental anguish but one’s attitude to those events- and that is something that is in one’s own control. If I had been badly injured or permanently disabled by my fall I admit I might have been left with a different outlook but I think I would still have felt that overwhelming sense of joy when I discovered that I was not dead. It could so easily have been different.

Had I experienced fear or anguish I might have consequently had nightmares about falling and suffered post-traumatic stress. I might have never returned to the hills again. None of these occurred.

“It is not death that a man should fear. But he should fear never beginning to live.”

Instead that trip was the start of a love affair with the Cairngorms. Since then I have spent many carefree days wandering the tops in summer and winter. I learnt to navigate with more precision even in a white out (by counting steps to estimate distance). Some of the happiest times of my life have been on Ben Macdui and the surrounding peaks .I met my wife in the hills and a shared love of mountains help cement our relationship.

Of course I have a healthy respect for the dangers of hillwalking and running especially in the winter, and I definitely do not think that I’m invincible. In fact I do often contemplate death when in the hills especially after seeing a friend collapse and die on a mountain despite the desperate attempts of myself and others to revive him .I try to remember day to day how fortunate I am to have survived my fall and that all my life since then has been a bonus. I hope that when I do eventually meet my death I will be able to leave this world without fear or regret and without leaving behind too much hurt and pain. On that day on Ben Macdui I was doubly lucky , not only did I survive but I learnt a valuable Stoic principle. This was not through prior knowledge of the philosophy or through personal wisdom but sheer serendipity.

“When you arise in the morning, think of what a privilege it is to be alive, to think, to enjoy, to love.”  Marcus Aurelius

Mark Leggett is a veterinary surgeon  living on the west coast of Scotland. His passions are ultrarunning, mountains, and watercolour painting. He writes a blog. Mark did the artwork in this piece himself.

Release of Stoizismus Heute: Eine Antike Philosophie Für Die Moderne Zeit!

I’m delighted to announce that the Stoicism Today book has just been released in German, translated by Bea Pires-Stadler. German readers of the blog can help spread the word about the book, available in kindle and paperback, by sharing it on social media.

Stoizismus Heute
Stoizismus Heute

The book is available on Amazon here, for €4.36.

Von stoischer Ethik zu Emotionen, von stoischen Bürgermeistern und Achtsamkeit zu praktischer Philosophie, Elternschaft, Psychotherapie und Gefängnissen, von Star Trek und Sokrates zu stoischen Rechtsanwälten, Literatur und dem Leben im Allgemeinen, dieses Buch vereint eine umfassende Sammlung von Reflexionen zu Möglichkeiten der stoischen Lebensweise in der heutigen Zeit. Sie finden Ratschläge zur Bewältigung von Widrigkeiten, Reflexionen zum Glück und guten Leben und eindrucksvolle persönliche Zeugnisse der Umsetzung des Stoizismus in die Praxis. Sie lesen aber auch über die Zusammenhänge zwischen Stoizismus und Psychotherapie, Stoizismus und Achtsamkeitsmeditation und die unerwarteten Orte, an denen der Stoizismus in der modernen Kultur erscheinen kann. Dieses Buch ist sowohl für Akademiker als auch Nicht-Akademiker von Interesse und stellt die vielfältigen Möglichkeiten dar, wie die 2.300 Jahre alte Philosophie als Lebensstil für die Anliegen und Bedürfnisse der heutigen Zeit relevant bleibt.