Donald Robertson will also be hosting a free “coffee and Stoicism” meeting on Friday 27th September at 1pm in the Vascobelo coffee shop, inside the Scheltema book store, in Amsterdam. Everyone is welcome…
Over the past few years, mindfulness
meditation has grown and grown in popularity. Though connections between
Stoicism and mindfulness have been made, mindfulness meditation as a practice
has yet to find a consistent home in Stoic practice.
There’s a historical reason for this: the
historical Stoic philosophers didn’t advocate for mindfulness meditations.
Though they recognized the value of mindfulness, using mindfulness
meditation as tool isn’t something any of the key figures spoke of. This, of
course, does not mean that it cannot fit within a contemporary Stoic life.
Today, we’re lucky to take advantage of cognitive innovations that the
historical figures didn’t have access to. Moreover, as we’ll see the main idea
behind mindfulness meditation meshes well with Stoic thought.
In this piece, I’ll show what adding
mindfulness meditation to the Stoic toolkit could look like. I’ll start by
explaining what it is. I’ll then explain how mindfulness meditation serves as a
gym for the core Stoic disciplines.
First, what is mindfulness meditation?
Mindfulness meditation is fundamentally about
cultivating nonjudgmental awareness. There are two parts then, nonjudgement and
awareness. Awareness concerns our ability to perceive what is here, right now.
Whether what is here is a thought or a sensation, we can perceive it.
Nonjudgement refers to the ability to experience the sensation or thought
without making unnecessary value judgements and seeing the world through those
value judgements. Noticing and correcting mistaken value judgements is familiar
to Stoics. Many thoughts we have are simply distort reality and are false. In
the language of cognitive behavioral therapy, they are cognitive distortions.
A more subtle way we wield unnecessary value
judgements is by projecting them into world. In the language of acceptance and
commitment therapy, we become cognitively “cognitively fused” with the thought.
A thought is cognitively fused when the content of the thought and it’s emotion
fuse together such that both no longer feel like a mental construct, but
instead appear to be an objective fact. Thoughts are fused when we forget that
they are thoughts and instead see them as part of the world. A classic example
of this is being caught up in passionate anger. When we are passionately angry,
at say, another person, we see the world through the logic of the anger. It
seems obvious to us that the other person acted unjustly and that they deserve
blame — anyone who thinks otherwise is thinking incorrectly. When we are
angry, these appear to be objective facts about the world.
Nonjudgemental awareness is about stepping
back from such thoughts and seeing them as they are, thoughts that may or may
not be true. It is about cultivating the ability to defuse from thoughts and
sensations and just be aware of them. Put another way, meditation is just about
being aware of whatever is going on and being able to be calm. With meditation
we’re able to experience the reality that we are not our thoughts, we are not
The connection to Stoicism is clear. Consider
Seneca’s well known line on anxiety:
we suffer more often in imagination than in reality.
Or Marcus Aurelius:
Today I escaped anxiety. Or no, I discarded it, because it was within me, in my own perceptions — not outside.
Marcus Aurelius is describing the process of
cognitive defusion. He notes that at one time he was cognitively fused with
anxious thoughts, but realized that the thoughts were not apart of the
objective world. They were merely thoughts.
Through mindfulness meditation one can get
better at this skill. In this way, mindfulness meditation is as a gym for
practicing the core Stoic disciplines.
Ok, so what does the typical mindfulness
meditation session look like? Here’s a simple set of instructions:
Find a quiet place to sit for a few minutes. Consider setting a timer for 5-20 minutes.
Take a few deep breaths and close your eyes.
Bring to mind why you are meditating. What is the purpose of meditating now?
Bring to mind what you expect to happen. What do you think will happen while meditating?
Bring to mind any potential distractions. Note that they’re there and remind yourself to return to meditating when you get caught up in them.
Commit to following through. You have a reason for meditating, give it your full attention for the next few moments.
When you’re ready, bring your attention to the breath. Notice where it feels the strongest.
Just watch the breath if you can.
If you get distracted, notice that you became distracted, and return your attention to the breath. Becoming distracted is part of the process.
Continue watching the breath and returning to it whenever you become distracted.
When the time is up, take a few deep breaths and open your eyes.
You can try this on your own or with guidance. There are many courses or apps you can use, you can try the app I’ve created, Stoa, a meditation and journal app built around Stoic teachings, though there are other good options as well (I’m a fan of John Yates’ work and Sam Harris’ program). A short five to ten minute meditation may fit nicely within many morning and evening routines.
How does meditation fit within a Stoic thought
Stoic exercises, and other therapeutic exercises generally, can be divided into the cognitive and non-cognitive. A cognitive exercise involves thinking verbally and conceptually. For example, the Stoic practice of praemeditatio malorum is a contemplative meditation. In this practice, one may imagine ways that one’s day could go wrong and devise plans to ensure that one is psychologically and practically prepared. Another cognitive Stoic practices involves simulating a role model or sage. One can imagine how the role model would act in our place or what advice the role model would give us. Both of these contemplative exercises involve explicit and verbal thought.
Another kind of exercise is non-conceptual,
non-verbal. This kind of exercise can be useful for reprogramming our automatic
reactions to the world. Mindfulness in meditation falls in this bucket. In
mindfulness meditation, one cultivates nonjudgemental awareness. The ability to
focus on one’s thoughts or sensations in a tranquil way. In this practice, the
focus is not on an activity like planning or conversation, but instead is on
simply watching one’s mind.
Both of these kinds of exercises are valuable.
Consider Victor Frankl’s well known line:
Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
Both of these exercises can take advantage of
that space. Whether it’s an explicit reminder to live in accord with one’s
values or mindfully moving your attention to what matters.
Let’s make the connection between the Stoic disciplines more explicit. Following Pierre Hadot, I think of the three disciplines of Stoicism as desire, judgment, and action. The discipline of desire concerns relegating your desire to what is under your control. The discipline of judgement concerns seeing the world accurately without making unnecessary value judgements. Finally, the discipline of action concerns acting virtuously.
One can think of mindfulness meditation as a
gym for practicing each of these disciplines in a non-cognitive way. Here’s an example for each discipline.
Consider the discipline of desire. This
discipline concerns mastering desire and aversion. Through meditation, we can
better realize how many of our initial impressions are not under our control.
And we can notice how our initial impressions trigger aversions or desires —
and then reprogram these triggers. For example, as we focus on the breath, we
will inevitably find our attention wandering. No matter how hard one tries to
focus on the breath, eventually your attention will wander! That this will
happen is out of our control. Although it may be natural to respond with
disappointment or frustration upon noticing that we’ve become distracted, we
can instead deliberately return our attention to the breath. In this way we can
practice not being averse to our what is out of our control (distraction) and
taking advantage of what is under our control (moving our attention to the
breath). Instead of spiraling into further disappointment or frustration, we
can simply notice that we became distracted and return to the breath.
This is a familiar pattern in our life. We react to an event negatively and let that event serve as a trigger to further negative thoughts and interactions. For example, we may respond to something a friend or partner said with frustration and we may respond in kind. We all know how these interactions go. Instead of doing this, we can note the frustration (which occurred automatically) and freely return our attention to the task at hand.
The discipline of judgement is all about
seeing the world accurately. We add so many stories to the world, many of which
are inaccurate or cause us suffering. For example, consider pain. While
meditating, one will often experience pain. Meditation doesn’t cause pain, but
the fact is that sitting straight for 10 or so minutes can become
uncomfortable. When this happens it often feels like the pain will last
forever. Consider the words of Epicurus (as quoted by Marcus Aurelius):
Pain is never unbearable or unending, so you can remember these limits and not add to them in your imagination.
The thought that the pain will last forever is
an illusion. It’s cognitive fusion at it’s worse. The experience of pain
sometimes seems to be what the world is all about. But this simply isn’t
accurate. When we meditate we can notice that there is pain and practice
distancing ourselves from it. Simply viewing the pain as it is, a temporary
experience, nothing more.
Finally, consider the discipline of action.
Some meditation traditions implicitly overlook this step. Because it is
important to act with purpose, it’s important to meditate with purpose.
That’s why it’s so important to set a purpose
before meditating, as one does above. And it’s important to commit to following
through, even when it becomes uncomfortable. Meditation is often a joyous
thing, but one can also experience mental and physical discomforts while
meditating. When you persevere when this happens, you’re reinforcing your
identity of being a reflective person who acts with purpose and who follows
through. This crucial ingredient for the Stoic virtues.
There are many other explicit connections one
can make between a meditation practice and the Stoic disciplines, but to my
mind the above are some of the most important.
I’m not arguing that mindfulness meditation should be adopted by every Stoic. No practice is suitable for all people. But I would advocate that many experiment with it. It’s an excellent practice that has benefited millions of people. And, importantly, it’s an excellent way to practice the core Stoic disciplines. It’s useful for seeing the world clearly, calmly, and acting with purpose.
Caleb Ontiverosis the founder of Stoa. He received his MA in philosophy from the University of Notre Dame and has worked at several startups. You can find him on Twitter or athis website.
This year Stoic Week is taking place from the 7th to the 13th October 2019.
Stoic Week is a global online experiment trying to see if people can benefit from following the ancient philosophy of Stoicism. Since its inception in 2012, over 20,000 people have signed up and so far the results have been consistently positive – people do benefit from ‘living like a Stoic’. This is your opportunity to experience some of those benefits too.
The course is free and online, attracting participants from all over the world. There is a series of questionnaires to complete in advance, guided advice for each day of the week, and a second set of questionnaires at the end.
For some background information and reports from previous years in the media, visit:
Each year the organizers of Stoic Week also put on public events to coincide with the week. In 2019 the main event, Stoicon, will take place in Athens, on the 5th October. A series of smaller Stoicon-x events will take place at locations all over the world. Further information about all these events can be found on the Modern Stoicism website.
Stoic Week and Stoicon events are run by Modern Stoicism, a not-for-profit organization set up by a group of academics and psychotherapists.
So, what is Stoicism? Here are some key Stoic ideas:
Acknowledge that you can’t control much of what goes on in your life.
See that your emotions are the product of how you think about the world.
Accept that bad things are bound to happen to you from time to time, just as they do to everyone else.
See yourself as part of a larger whole, not an isolated individual; part of the human race, part of Nature.
Think of everything you have as not your own, but simply on loan, that one day will be taken back.
How do we make progress as Stoics? After we accept the theoretical tenets of Stoic philosophy, how do we put them into practice, day in and day out? I think these are all pressing questions for anyone who identifies as a Stoic and truly wishes to live in accordance with nature. And yet, not only is it difficult to follow the Stoic path, sometimes it’s even difficult to know what that path is. We’ve lost both the ancient institutions of philosophy (in which the school’s philosophical way of life was transmitted directly from master to student) and most of the original literature, as well. I’m guessing not many of us have ever seen another person living a Stoic life—we are pretty much winging it as we go along. We do the best we can with what we have. But I keep wondering what the process of ethical development really looks like, both on a day-to-day basis and over a lifetime.
That’s why I’ve been looking into Confucianism. Like Stoicism, Confucianism is an ancient wisdom tradition with a focus on virtue, ethical development, humanitarian care for others, attention to the present moment, and the ideal of the sage. Like Stoicism, many key Confucian ideas are based on a theory of human nature and have a practical or therapeutic intent. But unlike Stoicism, Confucianism has been a revered and living tradition in Asia for 2,500 years, where it still continues to influence millions (billions?) of lives today. A wealth of Confucian thought has been passed down over the generations, and it has responded to and been informed by competing philosophies such as Daoism and Buddhism. In some important ways, therefore, Confucianism stands in for something we modern Stoics can only dream of: an ancient system of virtue ethics that has flourished at the heart of a remarkably rich culture for thousands of years.
I’m just beginning my study of Confucianism, but it’s not hard to see its similarities to Stoicism. I believe we can round out our understanding of Stoic ethical development by learning how Confucians see things. Just to be clear, I’m not claiming that any Confucian and Stoic concepts are identical, or that Confucius’ conception of virtue is necessarily related to Zeno’s or Epictetus’ understanding of virtue. The two philosophies are completely independent of one another, and there are significant differences between the two that we need to keep in mind. (For example, their conceptions of virtue have different historical bases and different emphases.) Nevertheless, I’ve found that as a modern person who is trying to reconstruct habits of virtue in my own life, learning about another virtue-centered tradition has helped me better understand the process of ethical development. Greek philosophy does not have a monopoly on virtue, so why shouldn’t we learn as much as we can from other traditions?
Obviously, in this brief essay I will not have space to do justice to the richness of Confucianism, or to really offer a proper comparison between Confucian and Stoic concepts. I will just barely scratch the surface by focusing on two areas that have enhanced my thinking on ethical development: the sprouts of virtue and the unity of knowledge and action.
The Sprouts of Virtue
The first idea comes from Mengzi (391-308 B.C.E.), a philosopher who lived soon after Confucius (551-479 B.C.E.) and fleshed out several principles that Confucius had alluded to but not clearly explained. For one thing, Confucius taught virtue and wisdom but did not clarify his views on human nature: why doesn’t everyone become virtuous? Is human nature inherently good or inherently bad? Different philosophers in the Confucian tradition put forward various and opposing answers to these questions over the next two thousand years.
Mengzi, who is often considered the second sage of Confucianism, believed that human nature is inherently good, and that everyone has the “sprouts of virtue” within them. People do not always realize their potential for virtue if the sprouts are not properly tended. Factors such as a bad environment could cause the sprouts of virtue to wither, but more often it is “pernicious doctrines” and “lack of individual effort” that cause people not to reach their full moral potential.
For this reason, Mengzi insisted that we engage in active reflection about our behavior and our ethical context. It is through this reflection that we learn to extend our innate capacity for virtue outward into our lives. Modern Confucian scholar Bryan Van Norden describes the process like this:
“All of us will have righteous or benevolent reactions to certain paradigmatic situations. We feel love for our parents, which is a manifestation of benevolence…However, there are other situations in which we do not have these reactions, even though they are in the same ‘category.’ For example, a person who would find it shameful to have an illicit affair might think nothing of lying to his ruler to achieve some political benefit. ‘Reflection’ is a process by which we identify the relevant similarities between those cases in which we already have the appropriate reactions and those cases in which we do not yet react appropriately. This guides our emotions so that we come to feel similarly about the cases.”
There is a famous story about how Mengzi guided the ethical development of a king by helping him to cultivate the sprouts of virtue in his nature. The king once took pity on an ox that was being led to slaughter because the animal was frightened and bellowing; the king ordered the ox to be spared. Mengzi used this opportunity to point out the king’s budding sense of benevolence, and how he could cultivate and extend this same sense of benevolence to his human subjects. In the same way, we can all reflect on those times we have acted virtuously, and our sense of joy and pride in our actions will spur us on to more virtuous action. As Mengzi said, “If one delights in them then they grow. If they grow then how can they be stopped?”
Anyone familiar with Stoic philosophy will notice the parallels between Mengzi’s sprouts of virtue and the seeds of virtue discussed by Stoics like Seneca and Musonius Rufus. Musonius, like Mengzi, also had a quite optimistic view of human nature; he tells us, “There is an inborn capacity in the human being’s soul for proper living and the seed of virtue exists in each one of us.”
But what I really like about Mengzi’s thought is his idea of extending our nascent virtue to a wider and wider range of contexts. Rather than trying to conquer a part of ourselves that is in conflict with virtue, we simply concentrate on what is already virtuous within us and apply it more and more broadly. This approach also seems to complement the idea of outwardly expanding concentric circles that we find in Hierocles’ description of oikeiosis: we expand what is already within us. We do so (it seems to me) through a cyclical process of enjoying and taking pride in our past virtuous actions, reflecting on how we can apply those same positive behaviors to new contexts, and then taking pride in our new virtuous actions.
I really like Mengzi’s progressive, reflective, and encouraging approach to ethical development. It’s one that I think can help beginners as they get started on the path to virtue and can help all of us as we try for a deeper application of virtue in our lives.
The Unity of Knowledge and Action
Another Confucian idea that has influenced my understanding of ethical development is Wang Yangming’s theory of the unity of knowledge and action. Wang Yangming (1472-1529 C.E.) lived considerably later than Mengzi and was part of a revival movement known as Neoconfucianism. In the two thousand years that separated Wang from Mengzi and Confucius, Confucianism in China had faced serious competition from Buddhism and Daoism. Neoconfucians, therefore, were influenced by and forced to respond to Buddhist and Daoist ideas. Instead of focusing on the slow cultivation of virtue, as Mengzi had, many Neoconfucians sought to reach an enlightened state by eliminating selfish desires from their minds. They emphasized constant vigilance over one’s mind as a way to root out selfish thoughts and recover our original, pristine mental condition. Here is Wang’s description of the vigilance required to purify our minds:
“This effort must be carried out continuously. Like eradicating robbers and thieves, one must resolve to wipe them out completely…One must resolve to pluck out and cast away the root of the sickness, so that it can never arise again. Only then may one begin to feel at ease. One must, at all times, be like a cat catching mice—with eyes intently watching and ears intently listening. As soon as a single [selfish] thought begins to stir, one must conquer it and cast it out. Act as if you were cutting a nail in two or slicing through iron. Do not indulge or accommodate it in any way. Do not harbor it, and do not allow it to escape.”
This approach is intriguingly similar to the Stoic conception of prosoche, particularly as taught by Epictetus. And like Epictetus, Wang Yangming was a very inspiring teacher and moral therapist; in fact, he explicitly compared his instruction to medicine, declaring that he cured each student’s specific spiritual malady.
Where Wang has helped me move forward in my own ethical understanding, however, is through his proposal that “knowledge is the beginning of action and action the completion of knowledge.” He believed that knowledge and action are simply on different ends of a single continuum. But not just any kind of knowledge will work; it must be real knowledge. Real knowledge is distinct from ordinary knowledge because is based on personal experience and touches all levels of the mind, including cognition and emotions. People may fail to act appropriately if they have merely ordinary knowledge about a situation. In contrast, once someone has real knowledge, they will always act appropriately:
“Real knowledge embraces both proper cognitive and affective aspects. In cases requiring moral action, one not only knows what to do but finds oneself properly motivated to do so. In genuine cases of real knowledge, an agent simply spontaneously moves toward the proper end. Those who possess such knowledge cannot help but act in accordance with it; this is what separates them from most of us, who possess only ordinary knowledge.”
I think this offers a satisfactory explanation of why people often act against their better judgment, and it makes wonderful sense in light of Stoic moral theory–with some modifications. Given the Stoic conception of impressions and assent, we could say that our judgments hold the power Wang Yangming ascribes to real knowledge. Judgment is so powerful that our actions will automatically follow from our judgments. When we have an impression, either we assent to something or we don’t. If we assent—that is, if we really, actually believe this is what we should do—we will automatically do it. It’s not possible to truly assent to a proposition and then fail to act on that assent. If that happens, then we haven’t fully assented in the first place.
The unity of judgment and action helped me realize that if my thoughts and actions do not align with my espoused principles, there can only be one thing to blame: my judgments. If we get our judgments right, we will get everything else right, too. Once you understand this, you understand why we must take such great care with our judgments. Everything else falls into place when we have and apply real knowledge of what is good, bad, and indifferent.
I hope you’ll agree with me that the Confucius, Mengzi, and Wang Yangming offer some delicious food for thought for Stoics. In Confucianism we find a long, rich, living tradition of ethical cultivation that emphasizes internal attention, appropriate actions, caring for other people, living in the present moment, and finding contentment in everyday life. Obviously, I’ve barely scratched the surface here, and there are many other points of convergence between Confucian and Stoic theories, as well as some significant areas of divergence. Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting that studying Confucianism will tell us anything about how the ancient Stoics practiced their philosophy, but rather that it can inform our conception of a philosophical way of life moving forward into the 21st century. As we all make a sincere effort toward virtue, we should welcome guidance from the sages of another accomplished, ancient, and influential tradition.
For this essay I have leaned extensively on two excellent books, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in the Confucian tradition:
Bryan Van Norden, Introduction to Classical Chinese Philosophy (Indianapolis, Hackett Publishing, 2011).
Philip J. Ivanhoe, Confucian Moral Self Cultivation (Indianapolis, Hackett Publishing, 2000), 2nd ed.
Also check out Eric Scott’s short but insightful blog post comparing Stoic and Confucian ethics.
A new Facebook group has been created by Alex MacLellan for discussion of research on Stoicism and related topics in psychology. We hope this will provide a way for researchers involved in this field to network and share resources. Everyone is welcome to join, as long as you have an interest in research on Stoicism.
Modern Stoicism collects research data from Stoic Week and SMRT using the SABS scale and publishes the findings each year in a free report online.
THE STOIC is a free monthly online publication of The Stoic Gym. The Modern Stoicism organization is partnering with the Stoic Gym (and if you look at the teams for both, you’ll see a good bit of overlap in membership).
Donald Robertson and I (and to be honest, the entire Modern Stoicism team!) seem to be perpetually busy people, but Donald has been still more actively engaged with the wider world, spreading the word about Stoicism, since the publication of his newest book, How To Think Like A Roman Emperor. He has given an impressive number of interviews in just the last few months.
I was remarking on this in some correspondence with him, and then thought – what if we did an interview specifically about that? Donald always has a wealth of interesting things to say to our readers. Maybe an interview about the recent interviews. . . a meta-interview, if you like. Given our schedules, we had to carry it out via email rather than voice or video recording, but I’m very pleased with the results, which follow below.
Before that, however, here’s a round-up of the interviews Donald has done lately:
Greg: Since publishing your book, How To Think Like a Roman Emperor, you’ve had more than the usual number of interviews. How many would you say you’ve done?
Donald: Ha ha! I’ve done at least fifteen, maybe closer to twenty something. (One more now, of course!) I enjoy doing interviews and interviewing other people about Stoicism. I’ve been lucky to be asked to do various things.
Greg: What is the most interesting question you’ve fielded from those interviews? If it’s hard to decide, pick a few!
Donald: Brett McKay, who hosts The Art of Manliness podcast, asked me about Stoic rhetoric and what it means, as I like to put it, to “speak wisely”, according to the Stoics. That’s an aspect of the philosophy that’s often neglected, although I think it’s quite foundational in some ways, and important also from my perspective as a cognitive therapists. The way we use language shapes our cognitions, which shape our desires and emotions.
The Stoic literature is full of references to good and bad ways of using language. Marcus Aurelius is constantly reminding himself what to say in the face of certain challenging situations in life. That includes questions he asks himself, ways of describing events, and even how he prays. The Stoics were famous for speaking concisely. We say “laconically”, after Laconia, the region of Greece where Sparta is located. Cicero actually says at one point that the Stoics talked like Spartans. They clearly valued “plain speaking” (parrhesia) like the Cynics before them but they appear to have been more willing than the likes of Diogenes of Sinope to adapt their communication to the emotional needs of the listener. Marcus, for instance, tells himself not to lecture others like a schoolmaster, or humiliate them in public, but to speak to them in a friendly and appropriate manner.
I think that’s very relevant today, e.g., where people are talking about Stoicism on the Internet and try to use it as an excuse for being abusive or trolling others. The ancient Stoics wouldn’t have considered that virtuous. It seems to me that the Stoics believed that our speech should communicate truth and wisdom in a way that’s suitable to the needs of the audience and avoids being crude or causing offence unnecessarily.
Greg: People often have misconceptions about Stoicism. What would you say are the most prevalent ones? Do you have any idea why they keep popping up?
Donald: The most common misconception about Stoicism is that it’s just about being mentally tough or unemotional. That seems to me to be largely caused by people confusing the words “Stoicism” (capitalized) and “stoicism”. The former denotes a school of Greek philosophy, the latter is just the modern-day concept of a “stiff upper lip” coping style or personality trait. In some respects, perhaps, the Stoics were stoic but it’s really not the same thing. If being “stoic” means just concealing or suppressing our painful emotions then that’s quite opposed to what Stoicism teaches. It’s also important because “stoicism” has been the subject of a number of psychological research studies, which generally show it’s quite unhealthy, whereas Stoicism is the philosophical basis for modern cognitive therapy, and teaches much more nuanced and healthier ways of coping with our emotions.
Greg: What is the most bizarre or off-the-wall question you’ve been asked in your interviews? How did you respond to it?
Donald: I get asked sometimes who the most Stoic US president was, which is a question I usually plead the fifth on because I’m not American. (I’m Scottish but I live in Canada.) To be honest, I don’t like to evaluate modern-day political figures in terms of Stoicism except in relation to specific examples of behaviour perhaps. It’s easier to criticize politicians in terms of Stoic ethics than to use them as role models.
Greg: Are there any Stoic practices or principles that you find helpful to apply when you’re doing an interview?
Donald: If I remember rightly, the Dalai Lama once said that all you have to remember when doing public speaking (or interviews) is to do your best to try to communicate the truth honestly. I think the Stoics would agree with that – speak plainly. You’re definitely not going to please all the people all the time that way. Nevertheless, it’s always the best way to approach things. I think it’s also good to avoid strong value judgements or emotive language, or rather to be aware when you’re using this sort of language and to use it selectively and with mindfulness.
Greg: Do you find that people often mix up upper-case-S Stoicism and lower-case-s stoicism when they’re interviewing?
Donald: Sometimes. Not too often, though, because, to be honest, I often find that they’ve read some of my online articles or books beforehand and they’re starting to get the idea that Stoicism, the Greek philosophy, isn’t reducible to stoicism, just toughing it out and having a stiff upper-lip. I did have one interview recently where the interviewer’s questions seemed more like a series of criticisms of Stoicism, which I had to answer, and perhaps some of those were based more on the more widespread notion of “stoicism” as emotional suppression rather the more nuanced approach to emotions found in ancient Stoic philosophy.
Greg: Without naming names, have you ever turned down an interview because you were concerned about a particular site, podcast, etc.
Donald: No. I’ve thought about doing that, though, and perhaps came close a couple of times. Sometimes I don’t agree with the interviewer’s politics, to the extent that their views somewhat concern me, but I’ve always found it works out for the best if I talk to them anyway. I’ve handled some quite awkward questions, although I did sidestep one about politics because I felt it would have caused too much of a diversion if I’d given an honest answer live on air to the presenter.
Greg: You’ve been studying, applying, and teaching Stoicism for years and years. Is there anything new that you’ve learned or realized about Stoicism as you’ve been doing these interviews?
Donald: Yes. It’s really confirmed, first of all, that there’s a huge potential audience out there for Stoicism among people who don’t know much about it or who only having a passing acquaintance with, say, The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. People from all walks of life are drawn to Stoicism because they think it might offer a philosophy of life that could contribute to mental health and emotional resilience – and they’re right about that. People often have some reservations about Stoicism but those tend to be tied up with the common misconceptions about the subject. So when we address those, the philosophy becomes much more appealing.
People seem very relieved to discover, for instance, that the Stoics weren’t actually telling us all to suppress our emotions and that they didn’t expect us to become doormats who stay at home, passively accepting fate, instead of pursuing active lives. I also realized that the qualms many newcomers express about Stoicism today are probably much the same as the questions ancient Stoics had to tackle from their students.
Greg: What question do you wish that the interviewers would have asked but didn’t?
Donald: There are two:
Q: What are the best books to read to gain a deeper knowledge of Marcus’ life or The Meditations?
A: The short answer is that I’d recommend Hadot’s The Inner Citadel and there are several modern biographies of Marcus Aurelius but I’d recommend Anthony Birley’s over Frank McLynn’s, I think. I also think that The Earl of Shaftesbury’s Philosophical Regimen is an incredibly valuable companion to The Meditations. There are lots of other things I could recommend but that’s the short list.
Q: What’s the single most important psychological practice in ancient Stoicism
A: That’s probably the one I’d describe as a form of “cognitive distancing”, which is basically encapsulated by the famous quote from Epictetus: “It’s not events that upset us but our opinions about events.” Marcus frequently refers to this as the “separation” of our mind, or opinions, from external events, as if it were a kind of psychological purification – a cognitive katharsis. I think that’s pretty foundational. Someone who hasn’t grasped the significance of that hasn’t really grasped the ABCs of Stoicism but it’s arguably quite a subtle concept.
Greg: Are there any interview questions that you’re tired of being asked and answering?
Donald: Not really. “How did you first become interested in Stoicism?” is a good question, so I don’t mind answering it, although I’m asked it over and over again so I can feel myself starting to take a deep breath before launching into the same story. I try to tell it in slightly different ways sometimes. Questions about common misconceptions of Stoicism are common but they’re important so I don’t mind answering them.
Greg: Are there any places in particular that you’d like to do an interview, that you haven’t been asked to yet?
Donald: I’m always happy to do interviews in print, in podcasts, on television or radio, etc. There are lots of places I think it would be good for me, or someone else, to do one – mainly because it would reach a different audience.
I’d like to see an interview in a publication aimed at nurses, for example. More interviews for journals and other publications aimed at psychologists and therapists. I’d like to see interviews reaching sports psychologists and coaches. I’ve been doing some things for the military recently, and have a talk coming up for the US marines, so I’d like to see more interviews that reach out to that audience. I also wrote an article recently with a former NYPD officer, about Stoicism and alcoholism – and I’d like to see more interviews and articles about Stoicism in publications that reach people recovering from addictions.
Finally, there’s a lot of interest from the business community as well – I’ve written recently about Marcus Aurelius and the leadership qualities he admired in previous Roman emperors. How to Think Like a Roman Emperor was reviewed in The Wall Street Journal and that was followed by some interest from people like Wharton business school. I’d like to see more interviews and articles, though, for entrepreneurs and leaders in the business world.
Here is a list of Donald’s recent interviews, listed by source. Click on the links to watch, listen, or read!
One of the perks for Patreon supporters of the Modern Stoicism organization are access to discussions by our panel of experts on Stoicism on selected topics. We’ve all been extraordinarily busy – as you can well imagine – so we haven’t quite managed yet to get them done on a monthly basis, but we plan to do so going forward.
This month, the passage suggested by one of our Patreon supporters is:
Constantly think of the universe as one living creature, embracing one being and soul; how all is absorbed into the one consciousness of this living creature; how it compasses all things with a single purpose, and how all things work together to cause all that comes to pass, and their wonderful web and texture.
Our panel members who weighed in this month on the topic are: Massimo Pigliucci, Christopher Gill, Greg Lopez, Chuck Chakrapani, and Tim Lebon, and their full discussion can be found here, on the Patreon site.
To give you an idea what the panel discussions comprise, here is Christopher Gill’s contribution to the discussion this month, responding to that passage from Marcus above:
The ancient Stoics saw the universe as a unified, organic entity (or animal), as Marcus describes, and one shaped by providential power. They also regarded all human beings as an integral part of the natural universe, though unusual among animals in having rationality (and being sociable in a rational way). They also believed human beings are capable of making independent, rational choices which contribute to the broader web of causes or ‘fate’.
We moderns may find it difficult to accept all these ideas, particularly the idea that the universe is a unified and providential whole. However, we have very good reasons to see ourselves as an integral part of nature’s broader pattern – we human beings have for too long seen ourselves as masters of the world and able to use it wholly for our own ends – and this has led to the environmental crisis we find ourselves in today.
We need to recover a sense of ourselves as part of nature as a whole and to live accordingly. Also we can recognise the force of the Stoic view that, as humans, we have special capacities (rationality, choice) while still forming part of the larger web of causes, and that we should do what we can to make our contribution to this larger web a positive one.