We continue our series of interviews with the speakers for the upcoming virtual STOICON, which will be taking place virtually this year on October 17. Here is the link where you can register and view the schedule of events. Our next interview is with Greg Lopez
How would you introduce yourself and your work to our readers?
I’m the founder of the New York City Stoics, co-founder and board member of The Stoic Fellowship, co-facilitator of Stoic Camp New York, co-author of A Handbook for New Stoics, and am on the Modern Stoicism team.
How do you currently make use of Stoicism in your work?
That depends on what you mean by the question! Stoicism and philosophy is not my main jam. I’m currently a lead editor for Examine.com, a website that provides unbiased information about the evidence base for nutrition and supplementation. I also do some data science work and run online experiments for Spark Wave to improve people’s psychological well being. So, if the question’s about my day jobs, I make use of Stoicism as a personal practice to stay focused while attempting to help others.
But if the question’s about my Stoicism-specific work, I’d say that I have a few main goals. One is to help myself learn Stoicism by facilitating the New York City Stoics practice and reading groups. My main reason for starting the NYC Stoics in 2013 wasn’t because I knew much about Stoicism, but because I knew I’d learn better if I had to facilitate a group on it!
Another reason I started the NYC Stoics is that I find in-person interaction to be rewarding, and I wanted to meet more people who were into Stoicism. This idea influenced my decision to co-found The Stoic Fellowship with James Kostecka and Nick Guggenbuehl. The main goal of The Stoic Fellowship is to help Stoic groups around the world grow and connect with each other.
The final way I use Stoicism in my Stoic-related work is to try to make it more practical, practicable, and clear. That’s the aim of the projects I’ve worked on with my friend and collaborator, Massimo Pigliucci: Stoic Camp New York and A Handbook for New Stoics.
When and how did you first become interested in Stoicism?
Over a decade ago, I started volunteering for, and ultimately became president of, an organization that taught techniques from one of the first forms of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) — Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT). There, I learned that Stoicism heavily influenced REBT and CBT, and became interested in learning more about it. After some more exploration, I found out that people were looking to practice Stoicism in the modern world, such as The New Stoa and The International Stoic Forum. While I found these groups edifying and interesting, I had more of an interest in learning and talking with other aspiring Stoics in person, which led me to start the NYC Stoics.
What’s the most important aspect of Stoicism to you?
Epictetus’ Discipline of Action. Too many people think that Stoicism’s a life hack to improve resilience and feel better. In Epictetus’ three-phase training system, that’s only the first step, though! The big reason Epictetus cares about reducing people’s passions (the subset of emotions that hamper reasoning) isn’t that they feel bad, and I doubt he’d want Stoicism to foster resilience in a vacuum (who wants a world filled with resilient assholes?). Instead, the reason to temper one’s passions is to become a better human being. Passions get in the way of that by pushing reason to the side and making us not truly care about other people. By tempering passions, Epictetus would claim you literally become more human. The only reason to become more resilient in Stoicism is to pave the way for becoming a better human being.
In what ways do you think Stoicism still matters today?
I think having a philosophy of life is really important for most, if not all, people. Thus, the primary way Stoicism matters today is as a philosophy of life.
As Bill Irvine eloquently explains in his introduction to A Guide to the Good Life, if you don’t have a philosophy of life, “there is a danger that you will mislive—that despite all your activity, despite all the pleasant diversions you might have enjoyed while alive, you will end up living a bad life.”
There are many philosophies of life, and I’m not sure I agree with the underlying premise of many Hellenistic philosophies that there’s a single “right” way to live based on living according to nature and pursuing The One Supreme Good. But I do agree with the notion that having a somewhat coherent philosophy of life is pretty important.
How has Stoicism affected the way you live your life?
In two ways, both associated with Epictetus’ Discipline of Action. The first is that it encourages me to be more helpful to other people and take more action in the world than I may otherwise. This matters to me because I buy the Stoic argument that humans do best when we try to cooperate. Second, it helps me remember that I share the flaws I see in other people, which helps me focus more on improving myself rather than judging others.
What’s one of your favourite Stoic quotations and why?
A quote from Seneca from Letter 71 since it nicely summarizes my thoughts on why a philosophy of life is essential, and sometimes helps me take the bigger picture into account: “The reason we make mistakes is because we all consider the parts of life, but never life as a whole… When someone does not know what harbor they are aiming for, no wind is the right wind.”
What advice would you give someone who wanted to learn more about Stoicism?
Marcus and Epictetus’ Handbook are common starting places for many people since they want to read the original texts, and those two works have lots of pithy, quotable lines. But because they’re so pithy, they’re also easily misunderstood. I suggest starting with a strong modern summary instead. That way, you can dive into the primary texts with a bit more understanding of Stoicism as a broad, coherent philosophy of life as opposed to a set of catchy quotes and easy life hacks.
Also, Stoicism is currently the “default” Hellenistic philosophy for many people since it’s the one talked about the most. If you’re interested in Stoicism because you’re attracted to practical life philosophies, I encourage you to “shop around” a bit by looking at other philosophies of life. By reading a bit more widely to start with, you’ll learn some interesting things about Stoicism (for instance, there’s some evidence in Book 3 of Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations that the Stoics didn’t invent the famous premeditation of adversity exercise, but it may have actually been the hedonistic Cyrenaics!) and also get a better understanding of what different philosophies of life work. While Hellenistic philosophies themselves have a lot to offer, looking at modern philosophies like existentialism and older ones like the various forms of Buddhism may also be of interest.
But as a final tip: once you read enough, choose one philosophy and actually practice it. Reading a bunch of texts without actually trying to practice their espoused philosophies could make your ship of life rudderless.
Do you have anything else that you wanted to mention while we have the chance?
If you want to reach out to me, the best way is through my barebones personal website. You could also follow me on Twitter or reach out to me on LinkedIn, but I’m not active on social media, partly due to social media aversion. As a Stoic exercise, I’m aiming to be a bit more active on social media, so if I announce it publicly, maybe I’ll actually be more motivated to do so!