Stoicism and the Irish by Frank Ó’hÁinle

As a quick introduction, my name is Frank Ó’hÁinle and I am a twenty-one-year-old Irish law student. Throughout the course of this piece I would just like to share my own personal experience of Stoicism with you all, as well as examining the application of this ancient Greek philosophy to the Irish generally in terms of their predisposition towards melancholy and despondency.

In particular the opening paragraphs will focus upon the indomitable Irish spirit in terms of their outlook towards the uncontrollable circumstances that were imposed upon them throughout history, with the latter paragraphs focusing on the melancholic aspect of the Irish psyche particularly a predisposition towards focusing on the negative experiences which happen to us all. Hopefully you enjoy my piece and it sparks an interest in the application of Stoic philosophy to your own lives.

I “discovered” Stoicism at the age of nineteen following my first year of my undergraduate degree. The Summer after first year is what I would consider up until this point to be the nadir of my fortunes, for a multitude of reasons. Several things had not gone my way and despite considering myself to be quite a tough individual, I had reached a point where I was feeling down and out. I struggled to come to grips with this despondency and subsequently was unable to push through this relative low point in my life. I do not find a need to discuss the individual concerns as you could substitute them for any other multitude of factors and still find Stoicism applicable. A primary practice of Stoicism is to avoid overly focusing on the circumstances one finds themselves in if they are outside of their control, as such an in-depth discussion of these prior issues of mine may well prove to be counterproductive.

As per Marcus Aurelius writing in the Meditations:

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.

An avid fan of history, with Ancient Rome being a particular area of interest for me, I returned to the last good emperor Marcus Aurelius and was shocked to find that he had produced an absolute masterpiece in the quiet moments of his life. In between running the known world, Marcus had found the time to express in harrowing heart wrenching detail his own struggles and how he had found the strength within himself not only to persevere, but also to make the world he had found himself in a better place in the process.

Delving into this work I found answers to questions I had never dared to ask and a way in which I could rebuild myself into the man I had once thought I was but had now discovered that I could not have been further from becoming. Taking this full Summer to rebuild and reorient myself with who I wanted to be, and casting away all that, had held me back in the past. This was by no means easy but taking each day as it came I found myself becoming a Stoic, I was now able to accept the locus of control along with the concepts of Amor Fati and Memento Mori, these concepts at this point have been written about at length by far more skilled authors than myself, so I will not fill out my piece with unnecessary descriptions of them.

As well as Roman history, I am also a devout follower of the wonderful trials and tribulations that make up my own heritage as an Irish man. Having read of Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, Cato and many other Stoics in the past I began to draw comparisons between these great men of antiquity and their teachings, with those of a more Gaelic origin. Taking for example the general unwillingness of the Irish to ever break and accept the culture of the English, despite seven centuries of subjugation, I could witness the Stoic’s unwillingness to allow external factors beyond their control to overly affect them.

An Górta mór or “the Famine” as it is referred to in most textbooks, involved the death of one million Irish people by means of starvation, malnourishment, cold and illness, while one million more of them were forced to emigrate in order to survive. In a span of some four years, one quarter of the population was now gone from the island never to return.

During this time of suffering and loss, the British authorities set up soup kitchens where, if an Irishman renounced their Catholic faith (along with much of their identity) and took on the Protestant faith (with the equivalent English identity), then they would be fed. Yet the Irish identity persisted regardless, as many refused instead accepting their circumstances in the way of Amor Fati.

Rather than looking for an easy escape from their struggles which would necessitate an immense compromise of their ideals and very conception of who they are, the Gaels instead persisted embracing what had come their way and ensuring their very cultural identity would survive. This is most reflected in the writings of Epictetus who himself would have to learn to embrace the life of a slave and the trials and tribulations that came with it throughout his life, “He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.”

Yet it is in the fate of Joseph Plunkett that I see the greatest of Irish Stoics. Suffering with tuberculosis, Joseph was effectively given a terminal diagnosis. Yet unknown to his physician who had given this diagnosis, Plunkett was a part of a revolutionary bid – to win Ireland’s independence or to give their lives in the attempt. With the Rising set to occur on Easter of the year 1916, Joseph Plunkett left his sickbed along with the love of his life and their unborn child, knowing full well he would not return.

During the events of Easter week Plunkett contributed in his own way, despite his illness making an active combat role impossible he aided in the organisation and planning of the Rising, right up until his illness left him forced to spend the dying days of the revolution bedridden. His very presence and fortitude in ensuring he did what was required of him, inspired the men to continue to resist despite the overwhelming odds facing them. With the fires mounting in Dublin the decision to surrender was taken and at the mercy of the British authorities it was decided to make an example of the leaders of this insurrection, among them Joseph Plunkett.

Following on from this, the leaders of the Rising were executed daily each meeting their fate unwilling to bend to what they viewed as tyranny. Saddest among these deaths were those of James Connolly and the aforementioned Plunkett. Connolly, a socialist born in Scotland to Irish parents and a former British soldier, saw what the scourge of Empire was forcing upon the Irish people and sought to sever the link between the two countries regardless of what the personal cost may be.  Mortally injured during the Rising having taken on the primary command of the Irish armed forces, Connolly would have died without intervention in the coming days, yet he was executed by firing squad while tied to a chair.

Plunkett’s demise has however, since been immortalised in the poignancy of the song Grace. Before it came time to face down the firing squad, Joseph Mary Plunkett was allowed to marry the love of his life Grace Gifford in order to legitimize their unborn child. With a Stoic calm in the mould of Seneca meeting his demise in front of the Roman centurion sent to ensure his death, Plunkett bade his newlywed wife farewell mere moments before he did the same to his life.

Like the Stoics, Plunkett attached no great significance to his death. He had lived his life as well as he could and contributed to something greater than himself as his memory and that of his compatriots would allow the spark of Irish freedom to ignite and six years later attain its ultimate goal, a free and independent state. Plunkett and Connolly, like many Irish rebels before them, understood that living well was the key determining factor to dying well. As is reflected in the words of Seneca the Younger, “Life is like a play: it’s not the length, but the excellence of the acting that matters.”

So far, my article has focused upon one aspect of the Irish psyche, that of its courage and ability to endure, yet its other hemisphere betrays these Stoic values to a degree. To quote G.K. Chesterton in his description of the Irish, “The great Gaels of Ireland are the men that God made mad, For all their wars are merry, and all their songs are sad.”

Another core aspect of the Irish people generally, which has been noticed not only by those visiting our shores but by the more introspective among us, is that we tend towards feelings of melancholy and despondency. Such an aspect of our nationwide consciousness draws a stark contrast to the above element of endurance and also much of what it means to be a Stoic. This is further evidenced by the works of some of our greatest writers and poets, with the likes of William Butler Yeats devoting much time to elaboration upon the topic. This leaves the Gaels in a rather odd position of naturally displaying the key determining factor of the ancient philosophy, while on the other hand displaying the emotional element which it is designed to overcome.

I have noticed this even in myself, despite my time studying and learning from the Stoics while also applying their teachings, I find unexpected and severe feelings of sadness overcoming me at the strangest of times. In response I tend towards sad music and short moments of introversion, despite my overtly extroverted personality. I have noticed this behaviour in friends and family members also.

One need only turn on a broadcast of the news for the day and despite there being twenty-six positive headlines, one of my family or friends will focus upon the one negative part of the broadcast. As further evidence of this, a recent study in Ireland has revealed that in parts of the country, radio listeners spike when lists of the deceased are read out over the air. Of course, it must be noted that this is a generalisation, and not all of us maintain this inner sadness and inability to avoid focusing upon the negative aspects of our lives, yet as of the present it remains a pervading element of our society. One which has shown a degree of prevalence in the cultural expressions of the Irish people, whether it be through means of music or that of our artists and storytellers, much of it speaks to that darker element of our way of thinking.

To return to the G.K. Chesterton quote, it would seem that when focused upon a goal and in the middle of that battle, the ordinary Irish person throughout our history has been able to maintain a Stoic resilience and ability not only to endure but to thrive despite everything which has attempted to break them. Yet when devoid of this purpose, we tend towards this form of melancholy which seems singularly unique to the Gaels. In a modern world, however, such overarching goals have now been replaced by a culture of individuality. As such, this willingness to endure and fight for what it is we held to be right has been overcome by the more negative half of our national identity. I found myself falling into this trap, aged nineteen, and was fortunate enough that my love of the past led me towards a mentor of Aurelius’ ilk, yet not all of us are as fortunate despite Stoicism’s resurgence.

Having done much research into the topic of the Irish psyche and history, I would highlight it as a case study of an area in which the benefits of Stoicism can be seen by all. In my own life I have been able to remove an obsession upon controlling my life and its ultimate course, whether I will be wealthy or married with children in the coming years is beyond my control along with an innumerable myriad of other possibilities. My happiness is no longer contingent upon such uncontrollable external factors, but rather upon who it is I decide to be day by day and the impact I have on those around me.

In accepting this I have found strength where once there was doubt and uncertainty, while I came to find my way of living a better life through Stoicism at a relatively young age, I would like all of you to note that it is never too late to change your outlook on life and in doing so to become the best version of yourself possible. It will be an uphill battle every step of the way, yet as was evidenced above in embracing our better selves we not only improve our own lives but also those of the ones around us whether wittingly or not.

My own story provides an example of this as I still have to consciously work on myself day by day in order to avoid returning to the pitfalls which hampered me pre-Stoicism. Whether it is my nightly ritual of finding three things which I can be thankful for throughout my day and three things which although they were initially perceived as negative experiences in that same day can be looked at as blessings in disguise, if I allow my perception of them to be altered.

There are countless other small exercises which I practice throughout my regular day and I would hope to write a further article describing in greater detail how I practice Stoicism on a daily basis in order to aim for personal mastery. Yet as my friends and family will attest, I have become a better more capable friend, son, nephew etc., whose impact upon those around has been a positive one for having embraced the life of a Stoic and all that such a way of being pertains to.

While we can’t all be revolutionary heroes who usher in a new era for an entire people, we can contribute in ways which help to improve a universal whole the consequences of which through the invariable ripple effect can never truly be calculated. Embrace what is good in who you are and work to improve that which holds you back, whether it be a melancholy ingrained in you from a young age or some other unhealthy behaviour or habit which has thus far held you back. In particular, Epictetus elaborates best upon such an outlook on life, “First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do.” As a result, you never know you may end up changing the world in the process and leaving it a better place for you having come through this way.

Frank Ó’hÁinle is a final year law and history student, currently studying in the University of Limerick. He is an aspiring author, who attempts to achieve some degree of balance between the practice of Stoicism in his every day life, writing, work as a bartender and at some stage perhaps his actual undergraduate degree. You can contact him here

Would you like to speak at Stoicon-x Athens?

Do you have some interesting ideas about Stoicism? Do you like talking? We’re looking for people who want to give short talks at Stoicon-x Athens. Stoicon-x is the mini-conference that runs on Sunday, following Saturday’s main Stoicon conference. It’s usually attended by about a hundred people.


Lightning Talks

  • Stoicon-x takes place on Sunday 6th October in Cotsen Hall, the American School of Classical Studies in Athens.
  • Anyone can put their name forward, although we only have ten slots available.
  • Speakers will be given five minutes each to deliver a presentation on Stoicism, without slides.
  • All speakers will be offered free tickets for both Stoicon and Stoicon-x in return for volunteering to give a presentation.
  • You’ll have to cover your own expenses, including flight and accommodation.

For more details on Stoicon-x Athens see the event listing on EventBrite. Contact Piotr Stankiewicz for more information on lightning talks or to put your name on the list.

Imperfection and the Stoic by John Kluempers

The researcher and author Brené Brown does not call herself a Stoic or describe herself as being stoic. Nevertheless, when I read her book, I find parallels on how she relates to her work on courage, shame, and imperfection in leading a good life, and how the stoic seeks eudaimonia, or a good life.

If you don’t know Brené Brown, I suggest you watch her TED talk (here) on vulnerability, which still belongs to one of the most viewed talks on the conference platform. On her own website, Brown calls herself a research professor of the University of Houston, where she holds the Huffington-Brené Brown Endowed Chair and has spent the past two decades studying courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy. One of her early books is The Gifts of Imperfection.

In it, she takes the reader through a journey on how we can get past the negative feelings that appear when we compare ourselves to others—and possibly worse, comparing ourselves to the expectations of society. On the journey, Brown leaves 10 so-called guideposts. Each one of the guideposts is a gremlin that prevents each one of us from living what she calls Wholeheartedly (her capital ‘W’). Stoics would use the term eudaimonically. I find that each one of the 10 guideposts has a bit of Stoic philosophy. Here are the guideposts:

  1. Letting Go of What People Think: Authenticity
  2. Letting Go of Perfectionism: Self-compassion
  3. Letting Go of Numbing and Powerlessness: Resilient Spirit
  4. Letting Go of Scarcity and Fear of the Dark: Gratitude and Joy
  5. Letting Go of the Need of Certainty: Intuition and Trusting Faith
  6. Letting Go of Comparison: Creativity
  7. Letting Go of Exhaustion as a Status Symbol and Productivity as Self-worth
  8. Letting Go of Anxiety as a Lifestyle: Cultivating Calm and Stillness
  9. Letting Go of Self-doubt and “Supposed To”: Meaningful Work
  10. Letting Go of Cool and “Always in Control”: Laughter, Song, and Dance

I will now take you guidepost by guidepost to find stoic thoughts and philosophy that are buried in the meaningful writing of Brené Brown. By no means am I trying to one-up her work. Our modern lives are more hectic, stressful, and anxiety-provoking than ever (doesn’t every generation say that?) and everyone is seeking new ways to manage and even rule over the stress and strain. I look to make the connection between what she has so magnificently discovered and described for more than a decade and how stoics (and even non-stoics) could use it to lead better, healthier, and more joyful lives. Or eudaimonic lives in the parlance of stoicism.

Guidepost 1: Cultivating Authenticity: Letting Go of What People Think.

Brené Brown’s first guidepost demands from us to be truer to ourselves. Not to hold back from opening up to those who are closest to us: spouses, siblings, parents, children, good friends. When we reveal ourselves at the right moments, we will find joy and satisfaction.

She uses the term authenticity and describes it as a quality that we are either born with or not, but as something that we must practice, “a conscious choice of how we want to live” (p. 49). Brown continues that we are authentic on some days and not on others. Importantly, we act authentic in front of some people and less so in front of others. Based on her research, she came up with the following definition:

Authenticity is the daily practice of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we are.” In more detail, she sketches being authentic as being courageous enough to be imperfect, recognizing that all struggle with the vulnerability of being authentic (and hence, imperfect), and connecting with others best when we believe that we are enough

p. 50

When we are being our true selves, those who know us might be confused, she writes. Questions like, “What if I think I’m enough, but others don’t?” or “What if I let my imperfect self be seen and known, and nobody likes what they see?” Brown stresses that this act of authenticity is audacious—and might meet with rejection by people close to us. In order to lead a Wholehearted life, we meet with resistance. People will find it strange, unusual, even scary and will want us to return to the way we were before. Do we want this?

The price of giving too much value to those opinions, and after all, that is what they are, can make us experience the following: anxiety, depression, eating disorders, addiction, rage, blame, resentment, and inexplicable grief (p. 51). We have no control over what others think about us and how they would like us to be. We should be on our guard. Otherwise, we will go back to being miserable. This desire to be accepted by others is very much a part of human nature. But is it what we really want?

These questions and concerns about being authentic very much coincide with the Stoic school of philosophy. Giving people control over how we should be and act leads primarily to unhappiness. With this first guidepost as a starting point, I would like to show what Stoicism can do for you. For those not already familiar with Stoicism, I will over the course of this article introduce important pillars of thought from the school.

In Stoicism, there are a few primary maxims that we learn early. One is the dichotomy of control. The Stoic teacher Epictetus (or Arrian, one of his students who recorded Epictetus’ lectures) felt this to be a pillar of Stoicism that both his Discourses and Enchridion open with it. “Some things are within our power, while others are not.” Connecting this to Brown’s first guidepost, she recognizes something that any modern Stoic learns early: We do not have control over what others think of us.

The philosopher and Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius states it slightly differently in his Meditations:

If you suffer distress because of some external cause, it is not the thing itself that troubles you, but your judgment about it, and it is within your power to cancel that judgment at any moment

Meditations 8.47

2. Cultivating Self-Compassion: Letting Go of Perfectionism.

The prokopton, or practicing Stoic, is necessarily imperfect. The sage is a model to live up to. For the Stoics, Socrates fits the bill of being a sage. Quite possibly the Sage. He was a man who lived virtuously. The virtuous person perfectly incorporates the cardinal virtues of wisdom, courage, moderation, and justice. For Socrates and the Stoics these virtues came first and foremost in leading a good life because when practiced in the best way possible, we will fulfil all four. Socrates (and historical figures like Buddha and Jesus Christ and I’m sure others from religions I’m less familiar with) did just this. With his persistent questioning, he wanted to lead others to recognize their imperfections—and according to Plato’s testimony, Socrates even would discover his own shortcomings.

Why should we find our deficits?

Brown writes that “[p]erfectionism is, at its core, about trying to earn approval and acceptance” (p. 56). But at what cost does it come if we seek the praise and liking of those around us—and even of those we don’t know? When “What will they think?” drives our actions and behaviors. The Stoics warn exactly against this and the dichotomy of control exists to remind us of this. If we act in virtuous ways, then the thoughts, opinions, and judgments of others are unimportant because in virtue, we are doing that which is only good.

The difficult part is that we will constantly face situations where we make difficult decisions, often at the spur of the moment. Perfection is not possible, only a guidepost, using Brown’s terminology, that can lead us to make the best possible decision. A Stoic sage will be able to practice all four virtues listed above. All at the same time. We honestly can’t do that but we seek to practice all four as often as possible and in as many cases as possible so that our lives are eudaimonic.

3. Cultivating a Resilient Spirit: Letting Go of Numbing and Powerlessness.

One objection people frequently throw at Stoicism is being exactly that: stoic. A cold-hearted, emotionless machine. You might notice the small difference here. The first time it’s capitalized and the second time not. Stoicism does not demand or even desire people to suppress their emotions, the so-called stiff upper lip. This is being stoic with a small ‘s’. Emotions are a part of the human experience. There are good emotions with happiness and joy at the forefront. There are also bad emotions, such as anger, sadness, fear, anxiety, etc. It is interesting that the list of perceived bad emotions is much greater.

It has been shown that humans magnify bad things and events while we tend to underplay the celebratory ones. After all, for much of human existence on Earth, dangers such as predators, illness, drought, etc. have far outweighed the parties, like killing a large animal to secure the existence of family. Even in ancient Greece and Rome, the possibility of a sudden death was by no means minimal even if the Romans did much to lower mortality rates in the regions they conquered and ruled, as seen here.

We react to negative and stressful situations in many ways, but they are almost all learned behaviors. Brown brings up the point that we fall into all kinds of addictive behavior when confronted with challenging emotions. There are the usual suspects: alcohol and drugs. But there are many more: shopping, eating, smoking, gambling, gossiping, working, just to name a few. Addictive behavior stems from stress and unease about something. It temporarily numbs the dark, as Brown puts it. It is only temporary, however.

The Stoic virtue of temperance, or moderation, reminds us to avoid excess. Not only should we avoid excessive pleasure, we should also temper the negative emotions and keep in mind that the effects of what we are judging to be bad will not last long. This is a core principle of Stoicism in dealing with difficult situations. Cognitive distancing, which is common in cognitive behavioral therapy, is one such way. Both Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius espoused it by saying: “It is not events that upset us but our judgments about events” (Enchiridion, 5). We should keep this in mind so that when confronted with painful, stressful or other challenging situations, we don’t revert to automatic mechanisms and habits that do nothing to ease the discomfort and more likely exacerbate it.

4. Cultivating Gratitude and Joy: Letting Go of Scarcity and Fear of the Dark.

Brené Brown brings a very important lesson to the table at this guidepost. In order to be joyful, we must be thankful FIRST. In her interviews with people who were joyful, she discovered three powerful patterns, as she described them (pp. 77-8):

  • People who described themselves as leading joyful lives, without exception, actively practiced gratitude. And they attributed their joyfulness to their gratitude practices.
  • The persons described both joy and gratitude as spiritual practices. These practices inextricably were linked to the belief of human interconnectedness and a power greater than us.
  • People were quick to point out the differences between happiness and joy. Happiness was attributable to circumstances [outside of their control] and joy was a spiritual way of engaging with the world that’s connected to practicing gratitude.

The Stoics recognized this in similar ways. Epictetus portrayed it with his broken jug anecdote.

With regard to everything that is a source of delight to you, or is useful to you, or of which you are fond, remember to keep telling yourself what kind of thing it is, starting with the most insignificant. If you’re fond of a jug, say, ‘This is a jug that I’m fond of,’ and then, if it gets broken, you won’t be upset. If you kiss your child or your wife, say to yourself that it is a human being that you’re kissing; and then, if one of them should die, you won’t be upset.

Handbook, 3

When I read this the first time, I thought to myself: How can I equate losing a jug with me losing my child or wife? There is a grave discrepancy between the two! If my child were to die today, I believe I would first be in shock. I might become very angry or grieve terribly long. I might drown that sorrow with alcohol as a way to numb the pain or anger.

The reason why we may resort to numbing is that we don’t recognize many things we should be grateful for. When Epictetus speaks of us losing a jug, it can be relatively easy to say, I can handle that. When in the next sentence, he adds that we should react with similar equanimity should our child or wife die before we see them again, that bit is harder to swallow. What point does Epictetus want to make when he juxtaposes earthenware to close family?

What he wants to do is indicate that we should practice more gratitude. We should celebrate every moment that we have with our family, friends, and even, as perverse as it might sound, the possessions we own. To the Stoic, these are all indifferents, and in this case, preferred indifferents. Yes, we can (and should) enjoy them. We can take pleasure in them. But their existence in our lives does not lie directly in our power. Epictetus reminds us that the ephemeral nature of existence is just that, a part of nature.

Even more importantly, we should remind ourselves that in leading a good life, it is up to us to remember to appreciate those preferred indifferents—and give thanks for them on a regular basis. This is what the subjects in Brown’s interviews do consistently. The reward is leading, in her terms, a more joyful life. A mistake many people make, she adds, is waiting for joy to come before expressing gratitude.

The Stoics followed a similar line of thinking. Show gratitude for what you have at the end of each day. Many therapies request patients to take the time, usually at the end of the day, to journal. Epictetus also asks us to review all things we did during the day and grade it mentally. The grading can be as simple as thumbs up or thumbs down (or somewhere in between) or you can give grades or ratings. Did you help a friend out? Pat yourself on the back. Were you quick tempered with a colleague? Remind yourself next time to pause before reacting.

The ancient Roman Stoics kept this in mind with the practice of premeditation malorum, or visualizing the bad. This works in two ways. By foreseeing the bad, we actually decrease our fear of it. Cognitive behavior therapy works on this precept. “What’s the worst that can happen to me when I give a presentation? Might I embarrass myself? And what if I do? People forget about it fairly quickly.”

The other side of the premeditation malorum coin is that we appreciate more what we have and all the bad things that don’t happen to us.

5. Cultivating Intuition and Trusting Faith: Letting Go of the Need for Certainty.

The endless amount of information at our disposal in modern times can be seductive. There is practically an answer to every problem, dilemma, crisis under the sun. At least we believe that most of the time. Google and co. will provide us with the best possible response or solution. For some things this is certainly true: a math equation, a trivia question, a history question, etc.

Yet search engines and the Internet can’t answer with any certainty questions about our future, at least not yet. Which job should we accept? Which car should we buy? Which school is best for our children? We pore over the data. We analyze it. We use due diligence. Only to feel even more uncertain. Lots of research (here and here for a small sample) has shown that our gut feelings, hunches, or a sixth sense often lead to good decisions. Science has only in the last two decades or so started examining intuition more closely. And understanding it.

Brené Brown points out that intuitions are an amalgam of mental processes. It is not just a random choice. The brain observes something, scans its files, and matches the observation with existing memories, knowledge, and experiences. Once it puts together a series of matches, we get a ‘gut feeling’ about what we’ve observed and how to proceed—without a long deliberation process. Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahnemann’s distinction between Slow and Fast Thinking is similar.

Stoicism asks its practitioners also to use due diligence. Reason makes humans stand out from all other creatures on Earth. We should use our brains, our cognitive abilities, to analyze and make the best possible decisions under the circumstances. The Roman orator Cicero, who was sympathetic to Stoic ideas and philosophy, illustrated the uncertainty that surrounds the outcomes of decisions once they have been made to that of an archer. She chooses a certain target; she lifts the bow and takes aim; she pulls back the string; she releases the arrow. Once the arrow is flying, however, it is no longer in her control where it strikes. A gust of wind may blow it off target. The target (an animal, for example) may move out of the way. Cicero rightly concluded, “the actual hitting of the mark [is] to be chosen but not to be desired.” “Not desired,” you ask? Yes, because the archer has done all in her power to hit the target but must be ready to accept if the arrow does not hit the mark.

Prepare well, do your homework—then just do it! to quote a sporting apparel company. At some point we have no control and must be ready to accept what fate has in store.

6. Cultivating Creativity: Letting Go of Comparison.

Brené Brown notes that when we excessively make comparisons—not only to others but also to ourselves, we automatically find ourselves in a situation of insufficiency. We never have enough. We are never good enough.

The Stoics were on to this too. In general, we only see and experience impressions of how others are doing. We see others with better cars, nicer homes, more loving spouses. Yet we don’t know by any means if they are actually better off than we are. Money, reputation, and love are to the Stoics indifferents that can have good and bad qualities. The only chief good that a human can possess is virtue. Socrates drove this point home and the Stoics, too.

Virtue is, as Massimo Pigliucci summarizes in his book How to be a Stoic, the only thing that is valuable under all circumstances. Everything else is an indifferent and can be either good and bad, or in the parlance of Stoicism, preferred or dispreferred. It is fine to accrue wealth, but if in accruing it, a multibillionaire slashes thousands of jobs, then she is hardly acting virtuously. Money is a vice in that case. The same is true for love. If we act “lovingly” to gain acceptance, for example, you are using love as a means to an end. The outcome of such behavior is also uncertain. The person whose acceptance you try to win may spurn your attempts anyway, or he withholds the love that he may have returned because he sees through the veiled attempt.

The Stoic says we shouldn’t compare ourselves to others. Our impressions may mislead or misinform us. Therefore, practice the four virtues: practical wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation on yourself—and only on yourself.

7. Cultivating Play and Rest: Letting Go of Exhaustion as a Status Symbol and Productivity as Self-worth.

 In modern times, productivity is the measuring stick par excellence. At the workplace; on the athletics field or in the gym; at school. We are being measured against standards that demand we always work. In creating those standards, we often had little input, if any at all. They are imposed on us and we impose them on each following generation.

In guidepost 2, we learned that taking time out is necessary. Even more necessary is taking time out to play and rest. Many mammal species play as part of upbringing. We see puppies, lion and bear cubs, dolphin calves, and monkey and ape species playing as part of childhood—and sometimes beyond. Playing is learning to do adult things (hunt, for example) and be social in a family or clan.

For millions and millions of people, working for the sake of work is a status symbol. We must be busy, or at least look like we are busy. Otherwise someone could overtake us. We respond to the price of believing that someone might get to the finish line (which one we should ask) first by working more and sacrificing most often sufficient sleep. Many studies reveal the deep value and necessity of getting enough sleep. In his New York Times bestseller Why We Sleep, Matthew Walker shows in great detail the benefits of a good slumber.

But not only sleep is critical. In this guidepost, Brené Brown refers to studies that show the importance of play. In his book Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul (here is his TED talk on it) Dr. Stuart Brown (no relation to Brené) explains how play actually shapes our brain and helps us become more social creatures.

The Stoics see play also as part of the human experience. The second head of the Stoa, Cleanthes, was a pugilist. Up to young adulthood, Marcus Aurelius, participated in all kinds of sporting activities while being raised. It is necessary to do this, otherwise we may hit a wall sooner or later. Our health may deteriorate, or our social life may suffer. Or both.

8. Cultivating Calm and Stillness: Letting Go of Anxiety as a Lifestyle.

Anxiety is a curse. Disquietude impacts our mental and physical health. The definition of anxiety in simple terms is to worry about the outcome of an upcoming event. We want something, be it a prize, recognition, or compliments. Yet these are outside of our control, as Epictetus reminds us:

When I see someone in a state of anxiety, I say, ‘What is it that he wants?’ For unless he wanted something that was not within his power, how could he still be anxious? That is why a lyre-player feels no anxiety when singing on his own, but becomes anxious when he enters the theatre, even if he has a fine voice and plays his instrument well. For he wants not only to sing well, but also to win the approval of his audience, and that is something beyond his control.

Discourses 2.13

The dichotomy of control shines its light yet again. We will always want to perform well, but the reactions of the audience are beyond our control. We prepare for the situation. We practice. We stay calm—think of the archer! Emotionally-charged situations are inevitable. Reduce anxiety by remaining calm, breathing, and remembering the reactions of the others is beyond your control.

9. Cultivating Meaningful Work: Letting Go of Self-Doubt and “Supposed to”.

A Stoic life requires a few simple things from the prokopton. Live virtuously, for virtue is the highest good—and all else is indifferent. In addition, we should follow Nature. We should do all we can to lead a life that will make the world a better place. Lastly, yes, you guessed it, we should remember the dichotomy of control.

In this guidepost, Brené Brown points out something that haunts most anyone who has self-perception (and that means about anybody beyond the age of 7 or 8): expectations. It begins in the family where parents, siblings, and relatives believe we should act a certain way and do certain things. “Boys play sports,” and “Girls should look pretty,” are typical examples heard in families in many homes. Some of those expectations have changed in families in the last few decades, but family members aren’t the only ones with expectations. Society and culture also drive this (and many similar ones) message home. At times very overtly, but usually those whispers are spoken in more subtle tones.

Eventually, these external expectations become internalized. We tell ourselves stories of what is appropriate, what is possible, what is taboo. Such stories prevent us from pursuing the life that would have true meaning for ourselves: starting a job or career we always wanted to do, pursue a hobby, volunteer. Brené Brown discovered a few things that happen when we pursue meaningful work. The work or activity may face scrutiny. The opinions of others, even insults, lie outside of our control. The decision to pursue an alternative job may not be greeted with enthusiastic support, but the price of not doing so will be disquietude and dissatisfaction. Brown recommends acknowledging those so-called “gremlins” to remove the mystique and power of the fear they create. The Stoics would concur fully with this approach because it will help reduce or eliminate the self-doubts and the “supposed to’s” coming from within and without. When this happens, we will lead more flourishing lives.

10. Cultivating Laughter, Song, and Dance: Letting Go of Being Cool and “Always in Control”.

The Stoics understand that humans naturally seek pleasure. This is fine and good because it is an indifferent, preferably a preferred one. As long as it doesn’t get in the way of virtue. This means that we enjoy fun, games, sports, and arts in healthy doses. Indeed, Seneca promotes such behavior for more reserved personalities.

Games will be beneficial; for pleasure in moderation relaxes the mind and gives in balance. The more damp and drier natures, also the cold [i.e., detached, aloof, equivocal personalities] are in no danger from anger, but they must beware the more sluggish faults—fear, moroseness, discouragement, and suspicion. And so, such natures have need of encouragement and indulgence and the summons to cheerfulness

Seneca, On Anger, 2.20.4

Brown refers to something that is innately human. Laughter, song, and dance have one common thread. “[They] create emotional and spiritual connection; they remind us of the one thing that truly matters when we are searching for comfort, celebration, inspiration, or healing: We are not alone” (Brown, Gifts of Imperfection, p. 118).

We are not alone. We naturally seek social connections. We can pursue positive collective behaviors (which by its nature means not following mob rule mentality, e.g., what is prevalent on the Internet), Brown writes that, “[w]e want to be able to control what other people think about us so that we can feel good enough” (Gifts of Imperfection, p. 121). What is described as teenage behavior often continues into adult years. Particularly when our own children are present. They find it embarrassing when we dance at a party or sing karaoke. As much as we love our children, we shouldn’t let that stop us from dancing or singing.

This is even more reason to do it. In the eyes of highly self-conscious teenagers, we should use this as an opportunity to talk about it afterwards, use it as a teaching moment. When we show our vulnerability that leaves the impression on impressionable younger people that it is acceptable to laugh, dance, and sing.

Seneca finds the right words about whether we should be concerned that we embarrass or shame ourselves: Who is not aware that nothing thought to be good or bad looks the same to the sage as it does to everyone else? He pays no mind to what others consider shameful or wretched; he does not walk with the crowd; just as the planets make their way against the wheel of heaven, he proceeds contrary to the opinion of the world. (On the Constancy of the Wise Man, 14.3-4).

The Stoics and Stoicism tell us to ‘follow nature’ for doing so means we act virtuously. Since we are all for the most part not sages that automatically know how to act in every situation, it’s wise to also to look at what might be holding us back. This is why the work of Brené Brown has great value to me. We imperfect human beings will remain so and by tackling how our imperfections are hindering us from leading more fulfilling lives, that takes us one closer to being sages.

John Kluempers works with PhD candidates and college students in Germany. He helps them prepare for their careers when they attend conferences, i.e., hones their presentation skills and gives them advice on networking in academic contexts. Together with a small group of Stoics in western Germany, he’d like to find more Germans who would find the advantages of stoic eudaimonia.

Stoicon-X Events this Fall

The big Stoicon conference is taking place this year in Athens on Saturday, October 5, and it promises to be an excellent opportunity to attend talks and workshops by a number of authors, speakers, and practitioners in the Modern Stoic movement, and to connect up with other people equally interested in Stoic philosophy and practice.

Stoic Week starts the following Monday, October 7 and runs to the following Sunday, October 12. As has been the case every year prior, there will be a number of local Stoic Week events all over the world – and we’ll be listing them here in Stoicism Today (so if you’ve got one planned, make sure you contact me and provide the information)

Those are all great opportunities for learning more about Stoicism and participating in the worldwide modern Stoic community. But there is another kind of conference that you might be interested in as well – STOICON-X conferences. Along lines similar to the big TED and the smaller TED-X events, Stoicon-X conferences offer an opportunity for local Stoic groups to organize events similar to Stoicon itself, but on smaller scale, all over the world.

At this point, it looks like there are seven Stoicon-X events being planned, some of which have more planning, preparation, and scheduling done than others. There will be more information forthcoming in the next two months as we lead up to Stoicon, Stoic Week, and the Stoicon-X events, but here is what we have so far.

  • Sunday, September 8 – Stoicon-X Toronto (organized by Peter Limberg)
  • Thursday, September 19 – Stoicon-X New York (organized by Massimo Pigliucci and Greg Lopez)
  • Saturday, October 12 (during Stoic Week) – Stoicon-X Moscow (organized by Stas Naranovich)
  • Saturday, October 12 (during Stoic Week) – Stoicon-X London (organized by John Sellars)
  • Saturday, October 12 (during Stoic Week) – Stoicon-X Milwaukee (organized by Andi Sciacca and Greg Sadler)
  • Saturday, October 26 – Stoicon-X San Francisco (organized by James Kostecka)
  • TBD – Stoicon-X Madrid (organized by Kellys Andreína Rodríguez)


Stoicon-X Toronto

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

Stoicon-X New York

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

Stoicon-X Moscow

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

Stoicon-X London

This event will be hosted at the Senate House, Bloomsbury. The details are still TBD, and will be forthcoming here in Stoicism Today, once they are available. For more information, you can contact the organizer. UPDATE: Tickets now available via Eventbrite.

Stoicon-X Milwaukee

This event runs from 10 AM to 3 PM, and at present features Kevin Vost, Dan Hayes, Andi Sciacca, and Greg Sadler. It will also involve a set of 3-5 minute “lightning-round” talks. It is hosted at the Central Milwaukee Library, and is a free event. More information will be forthcoming in the near future, and will be provided in a mid-week post. For more information, you can email me.

Stoicon-X San Francisco

At this point, most of the details for this event are TBD, but they will be provided as they become available. It will be hosted at a local library. For more information, you can contact the organizer.

Stoicon-X Madrid

Likewise, details for this event are TBD at this time, but will also be provided here in Stoicism Today as they become available. For more information, you can contact the organizer.

So if you’re interested in any of these local events, mark the date on your calendar, and get ready to get your Stoic-on!


Stoicon 2019-Athens: Interviews With the Organizers

Over the last few years, we have held the annual Stoicon conference in London, New York, and Toronto. This year, Stoicon is planned to take place in the city where the philosophy was born – Athens! That’s precisely where the founder, Zeno of Citium, had his fortunate shipwreck, read about Socrates in a bookseller’s stall, studied with Crates the Cynic (among others), and then went on to teach at the Stoa Poikile (the “painted porch”).

If you’re thinking about attending this historic Stoicon – coming up Saturday, October 5 – here’s the event information and the ticket link. There is also a Facebook event for Stoicon 2019. Keep in mind that there is also a Stoicon-X the next day in Athens as well (information here).

As editor of Stoicism Today, I compiled a list of email interview questions for Donald Robertson, Alkistis Agio, and Christopher Gill. Their responses below are intended to give our readers a much fuller conception of what this important annual conference involves, both in general, and specifically this year.

1. Why does Stoicon matter?  Why is it important to have a conference like this?

Donald: There’s no other event like this.  It’s the largest gathering of modern Stoics in the world and therefore has some of the subject’s leading authors and experts in attendance.  It’s a chance to really feel connected with other Stoics, to learn more about the subject, explore different perspectives, and also, in this case, to visit the birthplace of the philosophy.

Alkistis: In my view, Stoicon matters because it is important to bring our community together, to meet each other face to face on a regular basis.It’s not enough to read each other’s books and to comment under each other’s posts; meeting in person allows us to interact on a deeper human level.To feel the warmth and friendliness of each other, as in “phil-adelphia”, brotherly-sisterly love.We are a family and it is the most natural thing in the world to want to be close to one another on a regular basis.Stoicon is a celebration of our way of thinking and way of life, the values we share; Ethos, Arete, Agape…Also, the event may also attract attention of more people to Stoicism that can benefit them too.

Chris: It is a unique opportunity to meet people from all over the world interesting in applying Stoic ideas and insights in their life and to hear talks by experts of various kinds and take part in workshops on aspects of life and current concern that matter greatly.

2. What can people attending Stoicon expect?  What will they get out of participating in it?

Chris: To judge from previous Stoicon events – an atmosphere of great enthusiasm and engagement – talks on real life issues drawing on Stoic philosophical ideas but conveyed in a way that is accessible to all – and workshops, Q &A after talks ,and social time when you can share your views and concerns.

Donald: There are talks and workshops from experts on Stoicism.  We encourage speakers to adopt a practical focus and we try to have something for everyone by inviting speakers from different walks of life, from the military, academia, popular psychology, psychotherapy, teaching spirituality, etc.  There will also be lots of extra events this year because of the special location we’ve chosen.  The city of Athens has a lot to do and see for those interested in Greek philosophy, of course.

Alkistis: Expect to be inspired. Expect to remember this experience for the rest of your life, as one of the best decisions you ever made.

3. What are you particularly looking forward to about Stoicon 2019? Why that in particular?

Alkistis: I am looking forward to making new friends that may last a lifetime. I am looking forward to sharing my insider’s view of Athens and Greece. I am looking forward to sharing about my book, THE STOIC CEO. I am looking forward to learning about Stoicism from other points of view, from some of the most knowledgeable people in the world. I am looking forward to profound dialogues and discussions about things that matter to us.

Chris: Stoicon 2019 is unique in being held in Athens, home of the original Stoic philosophy and other great Greek philosophies, and also a beautiful and inspiring city with history all round you. Some  new speakers from around the world and new topics for workshops. Topics include Stoicism and community, environment, military life, psychotherapy, inner control and attending to yourself and other suggestive themes. 

Donald: I think it’s a great opportunity for people to absorb the atmosphere in Athens.  You can climb up the hill to the Acropolis, look down on the ruins of the agora, the city centre of ancient Athens, and compare that view to Marcus Aurelius’ description, for example, of the view from above.  You can visit the remains of the Theatre of Dionysius where Aristophanes’ satirical play The Clouds was performed and Socrates, seated among the audience, reputedly stood up so that everyone could see who they were laughing at.  You can visit the Areopagus where we’re told St. Paul addressed gathered Stoic and Epicurean philosophers and the Lyceum where Aristotle founded his school – however, the Sophists, Socrates, and later even the Stoic Chrysippus also reputedly taught there.  Some people might even want to travel a few hours outside Athens to the ruins of Delphi in the mountains, where according to legend the Pythia pronounced that no man was wiser than Socrates. 

4. What is distinctively new about Stoicon this year?

Alkistis: Stoics from all over the world will come to Greece. 
It’ s a milestone, a historical event. This is unprecedented, it’s moving when you think about it…Imagine walking the same streets, under the same sky, drinking Greek wine and philosophizing as Socrates did…The venue Cotsen Hall, with it’s beautiful gardens and surrounding neoclassical buildings like the Gennadios Libraryrich with history, is probably the most inspiring venue so far for Stoicon.Every Stoic should be there for this celebration!

Donald: The location is obviously much more steeped in history this year.  We’ve also therefore been able to add many extra events such as small tours and additional talks in the city of Athens.  

5. Travel to and from Stoicon often affords people a chance to practice Stoicism. How does Stoicism help people travel well?

Donald: Seneca says that the wise man (or woman) sets off on every journey with the intention “I will travel to Athens”, or wherever, “if nothing prevents it”, employing the Stoic reserve clause.  Stoicism teaches us to reconcile determined action, in the service of wisdom and justice, with calm acceptance when things don’t turn out according to our plans or desires.

Chris: Two useful Stoics tips on travel: wishing ‘with reservation’ – e.g. ‘I want to arrive – if nothing prevents me’ or ‘I want to arrive on time – if nothing prevents me’ (this reservation can take off a lot of pressure) and playing your own specific role in life: remember you are the passenger not the driver or pilot – your role is to be a good passenger, calm and relaxed and helpful to others whatever the situation – it is not your job to pilot the plane, to run the catering, to drive the bus…

Alkistis: The obstacle is the way; S**t happens, and it’s a great opportunity to exercise ‘ataraxia’, to grow and learn through everything.To practice the wisdom of inner freedom.

6. Who is Stoicon for? Would it be of benefit  for someone who doesn’t know much about Stoicism?

Chris: Who would benefit from Stoicon? Anyone – for first-timers it is accessible and open and not ‘cliquey’ – but for those who are already involved in Stoic practice there is a chance to develop your ideas and share them with others.

Donald: Yes, we encourage all speakers to assume that many of the attendees will be new to the subject, although others may be experts themselves.  So ideally they’ll accommodate newbies but also say some things that will be of interest to those who are well-read in the literature of Stoicism.  We also try to begin with a quick introduction to help bring newcomers up to speed.  And the range of speakers from different backgrounds helps to ensure that even the most experienced students of the subject should find something new in the different perspectives represented.

Alkistis: Absolutely! I would recommend this event to anyone who is sincerely interested in learning about, ‘How To Be Free’, ‘How To Find Fulfillment’, ‘How To Live Well’.

7. What sorts of benefits are there for people to studying Stoic philosophy?

Alkistis: I can only speak for myself; Stoicism has helped me to overcome toxic habits like dramatizing, to be more honest with myself and others, and to experience freedom more often.Also, I like meeting people who share similar values.  

Chris: Stoicism offers a broad and deep framework for living – developed over 5 centuries in the ancient world and also reflected on by modern thinkers and writers. Not just a superficial quick-fix or how to – guide to life – but something that can offer a framework for addressing the big questions we all face – what is happiness, what is the purpose of life, how can I face my own death and that of those I love, why should I concern myself with other people or foreigners or the environment? Stoicism has long been valued for promoting resilience but also has great value in helping people to frame a positive, thoughtful and constructive attitude to living.

Donald: Studying Stoicism gives people a sense of direction and meaning in life, and a method for reflecting upon and examining events philosophically.  It also provides a surprisingly extensive armamentarium of psychological techniques which can contribute to building emotional resilience.

8. We’ve had Stoicon conferences now in London, Toronto, and New York. Now we’re meeting in Athens. What other locations do you think would be great for a future Stoicon?

Alkistis: I would love for it to happen in Rome too!

Donald: Rome would be an obvious choice.  I also think that an event on the West coast of the USA or Canada, perhaps in Vancouver, might be an option.  Another good location would be Vienna, in Austria, because it’s situated beside the huge archaeological park at Carnuntum, where Marcus Aurelius reputedly wrote (at east part of) The Meditations.  

9. We ask this every year: have we reached, or are we approaching “peak Stoicism”?

Donald: I don’t think so.  Stoic Week keeps growing bigger each year and that’s a good index.  Stoicism communities around the world, and online, continue to grow.  There are more and more books on Stoicism from new authors coming out all the time.  Facebook’s data show that over 1.5 million people say in their profiles that Marcus Aurelius is one of their favourite authors.  We’ve barely scraped the surface of the huge potential audience that exists for Stoic philosophy.

Chris: No – think how many people in the world would benefit from the kind of insights that Stoicism can offer – and how many people are very troubled by the way things are going and wanting to find a framework to deal with their own lives and  life around them.

Alkistis: No, of course not; Stoicism is flourishing, and changing lives everywhere. 

Press Release – Stoicon-X Toronto

We will be running a longer and fuller post about all of the Stoicon-X events happening worldwide this Fall two Saturdays from now. In the meantime, here is the press release for one of the Stoicon-X conferences, coming up on September 8, in Toronto, Canada.


Stoicism is a highly practical ancient Greek philosophy. It is meant to be put into action and is not designed for those who prefer to stay on the armchair. Founded in Athens in the early 3rd century BC, it has captivated minds throughout history, and recently has experienced a revival. In 2013, Forbes magazine stated that modern Stoic thought “holds fascinating promise for business and government leaders tackling global problems.”

Thanks to the likes of Christopher Gill, Donald Robertson, and Jules Evans, the Modern Stoic movement has discovered itself. We have found the others

However, a question remains: How should Stoics practice? This answer has not been decidedly settled.  We are now in the process of discovering and developing ways to practice both individually and collectively. 

At this year’s Stoicon-X conference, the largest Stoic community in the world is hosting a conversation on practice. We have invited business leaders, psychologists, and philosophers to discuss how Stoics can practice philosophy as a way of life. This conference will play an important part in the development of shared practices for Stoicism. It could be the first step towards Modern Stoic thought becoming collectively embodied. 

Talks include: 

“HOW TO BE A STOIC WHEN YOU DON’T KNOW HOW” by Chuck Chakrapani. Editor of THE STOIC magazine. Author of “Unshakable Freedom: Ancient Stoic Secrets Applied to Modern Life”

“THE VIEW FROM ABOVE: A TRANSFORMATION OF PERSPECTIVAL AND PARTICIPATORY KNOWING” by John Vervaeke. Lecturer at the University of Toronto. Author of “Zombies in Western Culture: A Twenty-First Century Crisis”

“HOW TO PRACTICE LIKE A ROMAN EMPEROR” by Donald Robertson. Cognitive Psychotherapist. Author of “How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius”

“HOW TO THRIVE IN A WORLD OUT OF YOUR CONTROL, ONE PRACTICAL EXERCISE AT A TIME” by Massimo Pigliucci, Professor of Philosophy at CUNY-City College. Author of “How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life”

For more information about Stoicon-X go to If you have any questions and/or would like to help out email Peter Limberg at peterlimberg @ gmail dot com. 

Stoicism in Tech: Coping with Criticism by Adam Piercey

Marcus Aurelius faced much criticism throughout his life, both as a man and as Emperor of Rome. For example, the Historia Augusta says:

Some maintain — and held it a fault — that he was insincere and not as guileless as he seemed, indeed not as guileless as either [Antoninus] Pius or [Lucius] Verus had been. Others accused him of encouraging the arrogance of the court by keeping his friends from general social intercourse and from banquets.

In Meditations 10.36 he even says that he expects to have many people standing by his deathbed who will be glad when he’s gone because their values conflict so deeply with his own. Indeed, in 175 AD he had to put down a civil war instigated by the usurper Avidius Cassius, supported by a small faction of senators critical of Marcus’ rule.

However, Marcus welcomed criticism.

If anyone can give me good reason to think that I am going astray in my thoughts or my actions, I will gladly change my ways. For I seek the truth, which has never caused harm to anyone; no, the person who is harmed is one who persists in his self-deception and ignorance.

Meditations, 6.21

We know that Marcus was not an autocrat but frequently sought guidance from his generals, teachers, and senators. In accord with his Stoic principles, he encouraged honesty and “plain speaking” (parrhesia) at court. Decisions about his life and his rule therefore led to discussion, dialogue, and often criticism.

The world of technology and its development has many similar challenges. Design, development, prototyping and testing all take a great deal of time and effort, and throughout these you will come to key interaction points like the peer review: a time where the goal is to show your work, invite feedback and discuss your solution. Peer reviews offer an opportunity to learn from your coworkers about the efficacy of your approach. In software development, this takes the shape of code reviews. Your code is put on display and your peers are invited to review everything from structure to syntax, as well as the actual content of your code. This can be a harrowing time for any developer, whether you are a junior or even a principal architect. Whenever there are reviews there is feedback – which can lead to conflict.

Accustom yourself not to be disregarding of what someone else has to say: as far as possible enter into the mind of the speaker.

Meditations, 6.53

Software code is very personal and, just like writing prose, can show many traits of the developer writing it. Preferences towards structure, syntax, commenting styles and favorite symbology show as patterns for how someone develops their code. A person’s time and effort are also important to remember: this is work that someone has taken the time to think about, design, develop, write and now put up for review. Personal feelings towards ownership, correctness of their solution and ego can begin to cause friction in the code review process for many developers. Simple comments from peers like “there is a spelling error here”, or questions like “why did you choose this approach” can be difficult to hear – especially in any volume. So, how do we use Stoicism to handle these situations better as developers

Interpreting Feedback

When a man has done you any wrong, immediately consider on the basis of what opinion about good or evil he did wrong.

Meditations, 7.26

One of Marcus Aurelius’ most important strategies, described in The Meditations, derives from the key Socratic-Stoic concept: “Nobody does wrong willingly.” This speaks to the fact that your peers must be doing what they think is right and speaking from a place of good intentions when providing commentary on your code. Ultimately, the power of interpretation is important to identify here – you have that power. It is entirely up to you whether you interpret these comments as positive or negative, coming from a place of ill-will or good intentions, and you can start your decision-making process from this strategic point.

As Marcus says, you should: “immediately consider on the basis of what opinion about good or evil he did wrong.” If you choose to view the feedback as constructive and positive, then you can learn and proceed. The Stoics believed that we should welcome criticism in this spirit, and that our role is to make the best use of criticism. If you begin any feedback experience with the mindset that it comes from a place of good intentions, there is a significant opportunity to learn and grow.

Questions About Your Work

That if they are doing the right thing here then there is no need for us to be annoyed. If not the right thing then it is clearly involuntary and through ignorance.

Meditations, 11.18

Questions are a vital part of the development process, and can lead to some profound discoveries in terms of solutions, efficiencies and innovation. When someone begins to ask questions about code you have put up for review, it can be common to experience trepidation. Ego gets involved during this process easily, because people want to show that they are competent, and that they are of value to their peers, management and organization. Questions are a vital part of the development process though and can lead to some profound discoveries in terms of solutions, efficiencies and innovation. So, how do we approach these questions to ensure a positive collaboration and experience during this process?

Marcus Aurelius believed that we become less upset when we remember that everyone is flawed, ourselves included. Seeing people as capable of insight but imperfect and fallible allows us to accept criticism from them in a more balanced way, neither taking it too much to heart nor dismissing it out of hand. This lets us open the floor to commentary from others with the mindset that: “If they didn’t understand what I meant with my code, it must be because they didn’t know my intention.” Here we can see an application where if someone’s view is incorrect: “…then it is clearly involuntary and through ignorance.”

Both approaches have clear links to the Stoic virtue of Justice and kinship with all of humanity, and in order to take this one step further you can begin to say to yourself: “In either situation, I am going to take the time to talk to my peer and discuss solutions.” With this approach, we can hope to turn this situation into a positive one, which not only removes our own ego but also introduces a key aspect of the development process into the environment: collaboration.

Code reviews are just one of the many kinds of peer reviews that persons working in the tech development, engineering and design world must face in their careers. It can be difficult for any developer to have to face the judgement of their peers, team and management, and with development being so intrinsically personal there is no doubt that these experiences have every opportunity to become negative ones. When we take a step back from the situation and begin to understand the intent, and the possibilities of the peer review process, there is a definite opportunity for these circumstances to become positive and productive parts of the development process.

Now, what happens when you are reviewing someone else’s code? How should you approach that?

Giving Your Own Feedback

Reviewing someone else’s code can be fraught with its own challenges though: inadvertent rudeness, dismissive behavior, domineering or even destructive attitudes are all possibilities when it comes to environments where you are asked to provide feedback to a person. How can we approach this process differently in order to prevent these situations?

You have no assurance that they are doing wrong at all, for the motives of man’s actions are not always what they seem. There is generally much to learn before any judgement can be pronounced with certainty on another’s doings.

Meditations, 11.18

As a reviewer of code, one of the first things you are going to check for is the efficacy of someone’s solution; Does it work? Does it solve the problem? These questions generally lead to the next question: “How would I have solved this problem?”. This discussion is not saying that this is an incorrect investigation style, however when one approaches the code review process from this angle, many times the next logical step is to say: “Why did they do it this way?” or even: “I don’t agree with this approach”.

Before leaping to any conclusions, remember that there can be many different approaches to developing code which still provide valid solutions. and it is best to avoid situations where you downplay the efficacy of a solution simply because it is different. Why is the approach different? What efficiencies or improvements might there be in an approach like this? These are both great questions to ask and highlight the fact that you have no assurances that there Is any wrongdoing here at all – quite the contrary, this could be a rather innovative solution! Before you pass any judgement, take the time to learn about why the person went in this direction, whether this is a valid solution, and whether there is truly anything wrong here.

…but your advice must not be ironic or critical. It should be affectionate, with no hurt feelings, not a lecture or a demonstration to impress others, but the way you would talk to someone by himself irrespective of company.

Meditations, 11.18

What happens if you do find a legitimate issue in someone’s code? How do you approach the situation in a constructive manner? One of the key practices for any developer to follow is understanding that everyone on the team is purposefully trying to do the right thing. If you then approach your feedback to that person with the mindset of “I am here to help, and I want to help you”, your points are going to be received better. Tone is always going to be important, and you should focus on a positive tone, but you should also focus on structuring your feedback in a way that provides the person being reviewed with an understanding of good intentions. You are not attempting to belittle, berate or undermine this person’s work, you are trying to help. This quote from Marcus also highlights something which many developers struggle with when providing code review feedback – the demonstration of one’s own knowledge.

High-tech, high-pressure environments inevitably lead to some form of competition between co-workers; people want to show that they are of value to both their team and the organization, and this can lead to a negative atmosphere within a feedback process. It is easy to flex one’s technical knowledge during this code review process, especially if you are a veteran developer and are an expert in the development of a project. What needs to be at the forefront here, is that the priority for any developer is good product, not simply the thought of being correct. Proving that you are right and acting in a way that is detrimental to the review process is ultimately self-defeating, removing the mindset of a development team away from good product, and towards just being right.

That’s why the Stoics described their ideal as cosmopolitanism, or being “citizens of the universe” – a phrase attributed to both Socrates and Diogenes the Cynic. Stoic ethics involves cultivating a this natural affection toward other people in accord with virtues like justice, fairness and kindness.

Donald Robertson, How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, pg.41

Peer reviews are a never-ending process whenever we are working in engineering, development, design or research. As much as there is difficulty when having one’s own work reviewed, there is even more added difficulty when you are the one doing the reviewing. Feedback that you might give has the potential to support or discourage someone’s development style, and ensuring that you are on the positive end of that spectrum is not always going to be easy. Focusing on the mindset that someone is first trying to do the right thing, that you need to make sure that you understand their approach before making a judgement, and that your advice should be of a helpful tone is a great start towards that goal.

Adam Piercey is an Engineering Technologist living in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. He is currently in senior management in the world of biometric security, and has previously worked in the green energy and medical device industries. Adam has been implementing Stoic practice into his career for the last 5 years, and is a member of a small Stoic community calling themselves The Stoic Avengers, in Toronto.

Sunday 25th: Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT) 2018

Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT) 2018 is now enrolling and due to start on Sunday 25th November, when enrollment will close.  Every year we get people contacting us to say they missed the enrollment window so please don’t miss out!

SMRT is a FREE four-week course provided by Modern Stoicism, a nonprofit organization run by a multidisciplinary team of volunteers.  It’s an intensive skills training approach to Stoicism.  Visit the website for more information.

Click the button below to enroll now or to learn more…

So far 2,544 people have registered in advance so we’re aiming to reach three thousand by Sunday.  We’ve been running SMRT since 2014 and it keeps on growing into a bigger event each year.  Last year we had about 1,800 participants so we’ve already gone way beyond that number this time round.

Set a reminder for the introductory live webinar:


Announcing Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT) 2017

Article announcing Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT) 2017 with details of live webinar sessions, etc.

Marcus TV GifEnrolment is now open for the Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT) 2017 online course.  This is a free eLearning course, which Donald Robertson has been running once or twice each year for Modern Stoicism since 2014.  You can access the preliminary area now and the four weeks of the course will officially begin on Sunday 16th July, when enrolment will close.  This year over 500 people enrolled within the first 48 hours after it was announced on social media.  Around 650 people are now enrolled and we anticipate that will have increased to nearly 1,000 by the course start date.

SMRT was designed as an alternative to Stoic Week, which is more intensive, and lasts for weeks rather than one.  It was modelled on training methods for other psychological skills, such as treatment protocols for clinical trials on cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT).  It is not a general introduction to Stoicism.  If that’s what you’re after try Stoic Week first.  However, if you want a “deep dive” into core Stoic psychological skills then SMRT may be just what you’ve been looking for!

Or follow this link: Enrol on Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training.

In the first year, over 500 people took part in SMRT and data was collected from participants, using the Stoic Attitudes and Behaviours Scale (SABS) and a battery of validated outcome measures of the kind used in research on CBT and positive psychology.  You can download a PDF of our report here showing the findings in detail:

SMRT Report

We were actually quite taken aback by the findings.   They are consistent with the data we’ve collected from Stoic Week participants over the years and we’d expect four weeks of intensive training to produce bigger improvements than one week.  However, the results from SMRT were more impressive than we had anticipated.   Improvements were found on the Satisfaction with Life Scale (27%), scale of positive emotions (SPANE_P, 16%), scale of negative emotions (SPANE_N, ­22.7%),
and Flourishing Scale (17%).  These changes were almost double the size of those found in Stoic Week.

This year SMRT will be essentially the same except that we’re hoping to include four live webinars, hosted by the course creator and facilitator, Donald Robertson.  Donald will be reviewing the materials for the week, providing tips, and answering questions you post in the the live chat area.  Don’t worry if you miss one of the webinars, though.  They’re not absolutely essential and you’ll be able to access them later to replay a recording.

Donald recently did a 20 minute Facebook Live session about Modern Stoicism in general, touching on Stoicon, Stoicon-x, Stoic Week and SMRT.  This Wednesday at 2pm Eastern Time, you’re invited to join him for a “pilot” webinar session using YouTube Live.  You can follow the link below right now to set up a reminder for yourself on the YouTube page.

YouTube Live Session

Donald will be testing the software out by giving a brief overview of SMRT and answering some of your questions about the course live on video.  A recording of this session will also be made available afterwards.

Interview with Greg Sadler

Interview with Greg Sadler about his interest in Stoicism.

Gregory SadlerDr. Sadler will be one of the speakers at the Stoicon 2017 Stoicism Conference in Toronto, on October 14th.Gregory Sadler is the Editor of Stoicism Today and the president of ReasonIO. His popular philosophy-focused YouTube channels contain over 100 video lectures on Stoic philosophy.

How would you introduce yourself and your work to our readers?

I’m a guy who keeps pretty busy! I’m the current editor of Stoicism Today, a member of Modern Stoicism, and the co-organizer of the MKE Stoic Fellowship. All of those are volunteer positions, so I earn my living with my company ReasonIO, engaging in philosophical counseling, online teaching, public speaking, tutorials, and consulting. Through the Institute for Priority Thinking, I do ethics training and executive coaching. I also produce YouTube videos on a variety of philosophical thinkers and texts. After about a decade as a professor, I left the academy to do philosophy in more public, practical, and professional settings, but I still keep professionally active, by publishing and presenting in my field.

How do you currently make use of Stoicism in your work?

At times quite openly, and at other times, smuggling it in! When I’m training corporate clients in, for example, understanding and dealing with anger, they’re much less interested in where the ideas came from, and much more interested in what’s effective and applicable. Stoicism figures heavily into my work as a philosophical counselor, and I incorporate Stoic philosophy into a considerable portion of my public speaking, and teaching. I should mention, though, that rather than being exclusively a Stoic, I’m what you call an “eclectic” (much like Cicero), or if you like, a “pluralist”. I integrate and draw upon multiple approaches – Stoic, Aristotelian, (later) Platonist, even dialectical and existentialist – within my work.

When and how did you first become interested in Stoicism?

A long ways back, but at first only superficially. I’d say that I was attracted to some Stoic ideas – without knowing where they came from – back in my high school and Army days. And then I encountered Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and some modern treatments of Stoic ideas as an undergraduate philosophy major. But it was really only in my graduate studies that I’d say I really began to understand and appreciate Stoic philosophy’s scope, depth, applicability, and systematic nature. That happened through getting my hands on a copy of Epictetus’ Discourses. I got a second major spur to seriously studying Stoicism, once I became a professor, with my ongoing work on treatments of anger, emotion, and rationality.

What’s the most important aspect of Stoicism to you?

That is a hard one for me to answer. Stoicism really is a systematic philosophy, and in my view – here a lot of people will say I’m dead wrong! – there isn’t just one single doctrine that is the most central. That said, if I had to pick one thing that I personally find most interesting about Stoicism, for me it would be a notion that we find most explicitly developed in Epictetus. It’s what he calls prohairesis, and what we often translate as “faculty of choice” or “moral purpose”, or (a bit misleadingly) “will”. This is the very core of the human person, and it is what we are working on – using itself to work on itself – when we are engaging in the kind of self-improvement Stoicism suggests we focus on.

In what ways do you think Stoicism still matters today?

The very number of people who are interested in Stoicism at present – and who stick with it over time – should tell us something! People from all walks of life and with all sorts of backgrounds are finding aspects of Stoic philosophy incredibly helpful or liberating when applied to their own lives. It’s one thing for academics and other professional practitioners to be interested in a philosophical approach, or even to apply it in their lives and talk about it with each other. It’s something entirely different when a philosophy from two millennia back has something to say to a much wider audience in our present-day culture.

How has Stoicism affected the way you live your life?

Not as much as it ought to have, or I’d have liked it to have! Oh – you were asking “How?”, not “How much?” I’d say that it has helped me place matters into perspective – with things that I do still sometimes let myself get quite affected by, more than I’d like. Getting angry, for instance: I do a lot of work on anger, and that was originally motivated by wanting to better understand and deal with my own feelings, responses, habits, and assumptions.

What’s one of your favourite Stoic quotations and why?

It’s one from Epictetus’ Enchiridion:

“When you are about to put your hand to some undertaking, remind yourself what sort of undertaking it is.”

We have a choice, but it is one that we have to make over and over again. What do we allow our desires and aversions to focus upon? For the Stoic, the way Epictetus puts it, it is keeping our prohairesis in accordance with nature. If we can stick with that – which isn’t easy, I’ll admit! – we’re going to be all right.

What advice would you give someone wanted to learn more about Stoicism?

I’m a big believer in going to the original sources. There is a lot of excellent “secondary” literature on Stoicism available, most of which has been written in the last three decades. I’ve also produced a number of videos on Stoic thought – and have plans to create hundreds more – but that’s more or less like secondary literature as well. There’s nothing like actually reading the “big three” – Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius – and seeing for oneself what they taught and thought firsthand. You could add what we have of Musonius Rufus and Hierocles, and the very informative presentations of Stoic thought by Diogenes Laertes and Cicero.

Do you have anything else that you wanted to mention while we have the chance?

Indeed I do! I think it’s quite astounding how quickly modern Stoicism has developed into a worldwide community of practice, connected up with each other in large part through the internet. It’s truly inspiring just to witness how many people have found Stoic philosophy to be useful to incorporate within their own lives. I’m also very pleased to to get to play my small part in the larger mission of the Modern Stoicism organization. I think there’s great things ahead for decades to come, and I’m looking forward to seeing what shape those take.