Piotr Stankiewicz (University of Warsaw) joined the Modern Stoicism organization team last year. He recently provided an interview that will help the readership of Stoicism Today get to know him and his longstanding involvement in Stoicism better.
Q: How would you introduce yourself and your work to our readers?
A: I’m an author, lecturer and philosopher based in Warsaw, Poland. In 2014 I published a Polish book on Stoicism which did quite well. I teach part-time at the University of Warsaw and do a number of other things, Stoicism-oriented and not. For a couple of years already I’ve been running for a Stoic site on Facebook (in Polish), which has served to gather and organize a community around the Stoic ideas.
Q: When and how did you first become interested in Stoicism?
A: Back in 2006. Roughly speaking, I was trying to put my life in order and it turned out that the best way to do that was to arrange my thinking along Stoic lines. The curious thing is how swiftly the personal aspect turned into an academic and professional interest. Finally, I ended up getting a Ph.D. in philosophy, focusing on the Stoics, but more importantly, I quickly realized that I can add my two cents to the heated and open debate on modern Stoicism. I realized that my process of absorbing Stoicism needn’t to be mine only. I sat down to describe all of it – and this is how my mentioned book emerged.
Q: How could you describe your views on Stoicism?
A: In the most general terms, I would say that we, the modern Stoics, mustn’t escape from responsibility. Our venerated predecessors, the ancient Stoics, outlined the general scope of Stoic teaching, but within these limits, we need to have significant liberty in how exactly we apply it to our life. Stoicism presents us with wonderful tools and devices, but it doesn’t give exact solutions tailored for each and everyone of us. Stoicism can be useful to us all, but it doesn’t offer a universal, one-size-fits-all answer. It’s our own responsibility to grab the Stoic apparatus and shape our own lives. Also, we need to keep in mind that, as Lawrence Becker puts it in his A New Stoicism, “the diversity of possible stoic lives – and the lives of stoic sages – is very great.” Indeed, there is sizable latitude here. And it’s up to us to decide which one of the available Stoic paths we pick. This is also how we get into modern Stoicism. This is where the pluralism and personal liberties of our time come to the fore.
Q: Could you say some more about this modern take?
A: It’s indeed one of the cornerstones of my understanding of Stoicism. I’m not particularly interested in the classicist’s, pale-fingers study of Stoicism. It is important, surely, but as for me, since day one I’ve assumed a fully present-day point of view. It’s something that we might roughly call the “paradigm of reinterpretation.” It’s also drawn from Becker, who put forwards the idea that we, the modern Stoics, shouldn’t engage in following the ancients blindly and reading them verbatim, but that we should instead try to translate the Stoic ideas into the present language and today’s conceptual framework. This is exactly my motto. In this regard I belong not to Orthodox, but rather to Reform or Modern Stoicism.
Q: And how would you describe the specificity of your approach?
A: I’m tempted (unstoically!) to start with a bit of a controversy and say this: I have a problem with the Stoic appeal to nature. With the idea of “following nature” I mean. I think that in the 21st century it confuses more than it clarifies and that we should desist from using it in teaching Stoicism.
Q: Indeed, this is a bit of a surprise coming from a Stoic. Could you elaborate a bit more?
A: I think there is no need to go over in detail what the ancient Stoics’ view on nature was. In brief: we need to follow nature, we need to live consistently with it. Nature is by definition good. Whatever is in harmony with it – is good. In other words, the traditional interpretation of Stoic ethics was that we need to find out what coheres with nature and then adjust ourselves to it. This picture is pretty clear I think. And this is exactly what my concern is: that is just a bit too neat and too simple. It’s the 21st century and talking about generic “following nature” doesn’t explain much ethically. It’s misleading, or, at the very least, it’s quite redundant. If we talk about it, we don’t really know what we are talking about.
Picture this. Someone comes up and says, “hey, we need to follow nature.” “Cool,” comes the reply, “but what do you mean specifically?” And this is only when the real conversation starts. In other words, floating the slogan of “following nature” and hiding under the umbrella idea that we should do what nature commands us to do, all of this doesn’t get us anywhere. What matters – are the specifics behind it.
Another point is that the very understanding of “nature” is much more obscure today than it used to be in antiquity. The impression I get from my studies of ancient Stoics is that the concept of “nature” was quite self-evident for them. It didn’t require much definition and explanation, it was something understandable per se. And it worked well in the ancient world (supposedly). The problem is that in our world, in the 21st century, the meaning of “nature” is anything but clear. We just don’t really know what we are talking about. Not to mention that on the social, political and technological levels “nature” today is much more malleable than it used to be in antiquity. If one gets an artificial limb, does it cohere with nature? And what about a C-section? And how about wearing glasses, not to mention using computers to even do this interview? This kind of issues are all relevant here.
Hence, overt focus on “consistency with nature” may be highly misleading. And that’s why I’m reluctant to this idea. But, just to be clear, I don’t think that the idea of “following nature” should be negated, or trashed. I rather think that it should be skipped.
Q: And where do we land once we decide to skip nature?
A: For Becker, for example, “consistency with nature” means mainly “consistency with facts.” It means that we acknowledge the facts, that we don’t deny them. It means that we accept the facts on the ground, the ways of the world and, in general, how things work. And this is exactly the avenue I would go.
The next step is of course the question about how and where we learn the facts. I hold on to the quite old-school answer here, that, basically, we learn the facts from science and art. The latter may be a bit tricky, but the former is quite plain. Science teaches us how the world works and we, as Stoics, mustn’t oppose that. Thus, we will be happy to vaccinate our children. We won’t deny the Moon landing. Also, we will be eager to use iPhones, internet and whatever future technology comes about. In a word, going unscientific and anti-technological is also going unstoic.
Q: So, we know already that you are not particularly inclined to explain modern Stoicism through “follow nature.” How would you describe it then?
A: What I cherish in Stoicism is autonomy. I regard modern Stoicism as a fully autonomous story about humans and about the world. We don’t need to rely on other big narratives about the world, let alone shackling ourselves to them. This is a deep philosophical thing, but also a pragmatic choice on how to propagate our teaching. If we flirt too much with other voices, then our own message gets watered down.
So, I’m reluctant about desperate hunt for analogies and seeking validation in other traditions and intellectual currents. The power of Stoicism comes from within, not from the fact that other discourses say the same thing. But don’t get me wrong on this one. I’m not obsessed over some sort of abstract intellectual purity. I just think that if we want to really develop the Stoic thought in the 21st century, then we need to focus on our own, not on our competitors.
Let me use some examples. There is, for instance, psychotherapy. We, the Stoics, will be happy that many of the Stoic ideas go hand in hand with what, say, CBT says. But it doesn’t mean that Stoicism holds because CBT supports or validates it. Give us science in turn. We will fully embrace it (just as I said before!), we will use it, we will vaccinate the kids… but we won’t beg the scientists for endorsement, we won’t necessarily seek scientific validation. Give us Buddhism: we gladly accept that there is lots of common ground. But does it mean that Stoicism and Buddhism somehow “prove” each other’s validity? No, it’s definitely not so. And so on and so forth.
Q: Do you think that modern Stoicism can be a remedy to the problems of the modern world?
A: Both yes and no. Stoicism is extremely helpful in putting our own, personal lives in order… but it’s not a system that provides easy and ready-made solutions to the problems of the world. Instead, it teaches and enables us how to think about these problems in an autonomous, responsible and constructive way.
I will put it this way. I don’t like when Stoicism is manipulated to provide support for an idea which comes from elsewhere. For instance, if I’m not actually thrilled by president Trump, then I need to be able to construct and present my own arguments why I don’t like him. We shouldn’t bend Stoicism to make it seem that it validates any particular position (political or other) that we happen to hold. As I said before, it’s the 21st century and the responsibility is ours. This includes that it is on us to find rational justification for whatever political values we believe in. We just shouldn’t rely on Stoicism in that. In this light, I have a problem with asking questions like “what do the Stoics think about gun control, climate change, Brexit, ISIS or president Underwood?” They all seem like a bit of stretch.
Q: If so, then let’s get back to where we began, i.e. to the personal side. How has Stoicism affected the way you live your own life?
A: It has had profound impact on me, but certainly there is also way to go. Yet, more importantly, despite all the Stoicism promotional things I do, I try not to suggest that I see myself as the greatest Stoic under the sun. I don’t walk around boasting. This would be unstoic by definition (pride comes before fall), but also, it’s ineffectual in propagating Stoicism. In my experience, the best one can do is not even “lead by example,” but rather employ some Socrates-esque style. That is, we need to inspire and encourage others to take on Stoicism… but on their own terms. This again reflects what I said about modern responsibility and pluralism of individual approaches.
This take is also reflected in the way my Polish book on Stoicism is written. In there I run kind of a seminar between the ancients authors, myself, and the reader. The book is not an ex cathedra lecture, but it’s a series of commentaries to carefully chosen excerpts from the ancients. It’s a depiction of my own struggle to interpret and apply the original Stoic teaching. And this process hopefully reiterates in the reader. Thus, by the very structure of the book I open space for interpretation and everyone’s own inquiry into what Stoicism is about.
Q: If they are open to such an inquiry, of course.
A: The decent popularity of the book testifies it works that way. But here is another thing. A friend of mine mentioned this to me once, and it has indelibly stuck in my mind. Here is the idea. Regardless of where we are headed next, it’s always highly beneficial to have a “Stoic stage” in one’s life. It will be our lasting asset, no matter if we go on and become full-blown Stoics or if our interest dwindles and we move on to something else. It’s just handy to have all these things conceptualized the Stoic way, at least once. This will be our enduring strength, our background that we can use if the need strikes.
That said, can I share one more personal experience? More around Stoicism than about it, but I guess it may be still relevant and of interest.
Q: Please do.
A: So, remember what the Stoics have to say about cosmopolitanism, about being a “citizen of the world?” In a way, I have my own experiences in this regard. Unlike most of the US- and UK‑based modern Stoics I happen to live on the cross of the English speaking and a non-English speaking world (Polish in my case). And this is a very particular position to be in, and a very interesting perspective.
It strikes me as deeply ambiguous how the intellectual and academic life is organized. On the one hand, a country like my Poland is, of course, very well connected and “in the loop.” We all live in the same digital, globalized world after all. And in this regard we are all “citizens of the world.” But on the other hand, the divisions are still very deep and the walls are high. The intellectual environments of different cultures and languages are still well separated and independent form each other. Being immersed in both, sitting on the fence, is a very specific position, both challenging and inspiring.
Q: Finally, what’s coming up next?
A: I’m currently working on the publication of my two large book-projects in English. One is a general introduction to Stoicism, in which I put forward in detail my take on Stoicism and how I see it. Along the lines I’ve tried to outlined above. The other one is an inquiry into another question that vitally interests me, i.e. into the trade-offs, or the costs of becoming a Stoic. Because, apparently, all those great Stoic benefits come at a price. But that’s a whole different story I think.
Q: Thank you for the interview.
A: Thank you and see you at the Stoicon.
Piotr Stankiewicz, Ph.D. is a lecturer affiliated with the University of Warsaw in Poland, and the author of a bestselling Polish handbook of Stoicism (“Sztuka życia według stoików”). He is currently working on making his Stoic books available in English. In the meanwhile he advances Stoic and non-Stoic agendas in his native Polish.