Stoicisms Ancient and Modern by Tony (A.A.) Long

Each year, after the Stoicon conference, we ask the speakers and workshop leaders to provide transcripts or summaries of their presentations, so that our readership can enjoy some of the same opportunities for learning as the conference attendees.  This year, I am particularly pleased to be able to start that series with the talk given by our keynote speaker, who generously provided the full transcript of his talk in advance! – G. Sadler, Editor

 

Hello everyone! This is my first Stoicon – my first encounter with people who are seriously committed to living a modern version of ancient Stoicism day by day.   It’s great to be here and to have the opportunity of sharing some Stoic thoughts with you. I am truly amazed and delighted at how this event and “Modern Stoicism” have caught fire, helpfully touching so many lives.   The stories and observations in Patrick Ussher’s Stoicism Today collections are inspirational.  They are a terrific testimony to the adaptability of ancient Stoic teaching to contemporary conditions and predicaments.

This event would have been unimaginable when I began to study ancient Stoicism more than fifty years ago. My interest in the Stoics at that time was entirely academic.  I had fallen in love with philosophy as a schoolboy. Within a few years, thanks to a sequence of happy accidents, I found myself teaching classics and ancient philosophy at the distant University of Otago in New Zealand.  One of my first assignments was a graduate class on Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations; this work is our best surviving source for the ancient Stoics’ theory of emotion (a topic now brilliantly discussed by Margaret Graver, who spoke at last year’s Stoicon in Toronto, and of great interest to many of you).  As I wondered what to do as a long-term research project, I received the following advice from David Furley, a fine scholar and teacher of mine at UCL: “You should study Stoicism because it is (at the date of 1964) the most neglected of all the ancient schools of philosophy”.

How so?  Had people back then stopped reading Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius. These authors were being read occasionally and unsystematically, but it was not neglect of them that Furley had urged me to repair.   The Roman Stoics’ philosophical doctrines derive entirely from theories first elaborated in the Athenian Stoa some 300 and more years before.  It was that – the teaching of those remarkable Greek-speaking immigrants to Athens, Zeno, Cleanthes, and Chrysippus – that Furley meant by describing Stoicism as the school most in need of recovery. The recondite and haphazard conditions of survival were one reason for scholars’ neglecting the founding fathers of Stoicism. But other and much deeper things were responsible, making your Stoicon inconceivable fifty years ago.

One factor was the widespread British and American belief around 1950 that early Stoicism was of no interest as academic philosophy.  That belief has proven to be hopelessly incorrect; in ethics and in logic the ancient Stoics were way ahead of the game.    Much more than scholarly prejudice, however, was and still is at stake.  Outside universities as well, Stoicism had become the Cinderella of ancient philosophy. The once famous works of Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius – the very books that have captured your attention – were completely out of fashion in the middle years of the twentieth century. Far from being taken seriously as a timelessly practical guide to life, Roman Stoicism was widely reputed to exhibit “monumental moralizing dullness” (Gerard Watson’s expression in 1966).  What we are now experiencing, in the current Stoic revival, is a really extraordinary paradigm shift.  The Roman Stoics and Greek Stoicism have become one of the hottest things both in philosophy and in popular culture.

How and why has this happened?  No one fifty years ago was talking about “philosophies of life” especially in the no-nonsense UK (recall he show “No sex please, we’re British”), or talking about Stoicism as therapy or mind training. Writers who paved the way for “Stoicism Today,” including Hadot and Foucault in France, Stockdale, Nussbaum, and Irvine in the US, Robertson in the UK and Canada, were not even a blip on the horizon.   All those years ago none of our Stoic focus as academics was practical.  We loved to analyze Stoic ethics, physics and logic, but simply as wonderful and intriguing intellectual constructions.  It was extremely exciting to be at the forefront of recovering ancient Stoic philosophy.  Working, as I also did at the time, on Epicureanism and Scepticism, I was sometimes asked which one of the three schools I fancied for myself.  Please don’t be shocked at my flippant reply: “I am a stoic lower case (!)in the morning when I write, a sceptic in the afternoon when I teach, and an epicurean in the evening when I have fun.”

Some forty years ago, at the end of the Soviet era, I met a Hungarian journalist who told me that {I quote} “Stoicism (meaning the ancient Stoa) is the philosophy for our time”.  Like Lipsius in the year 1600 or so, the journalist meant that inner freedom, equanimity, and self-mastery are especially meaningful and urgent when the external world has become fraught or turbulent or you have actually lost political freedom.  At the time I encountered the Hungarian, it was still reasonable for a Brit or an American to view our own social and political world with a fair degree of optimism, to think by and large that things were getting better; at least that was my mind-set.  Today (O tempora, O mores) I have come to share the Hungarian’s view that Stoicism is also the philosophy for my time.  So I can completely sympathize with those of you who have come to that same realization.  I have also as a teacher and author lived with Epictetus (even lecturing on him to prisoners in San Quentin Gaol), so now I constantly ask myself: What would Epictetus say to me at this moment?

There are, of course, many (lower case) stoicisms, and many ways of approaching ancient (upper case) Stoicism.  Lower case stoicism was not invented by Zeno, when he began teaching in the Athenian Stoa 2300 years ago.   Making the best of things, sticking to a goal through thick and thin, drawing on inner resources of mind and will, prizing excellence of character  – these had been Greek values long before.  Homer’s “much-enduring and resourceful” Odysseus was an honorary Stoic hero, while Socrates, whom Zeno was primarily inspired by (and who populates the pages of Epictetus), died a hundred years before the foundation of the Stoic school.   Or from our own times, take the lower case stoicism of Irving Berlin’s great song: “I got the sun in the morning and the moon at night.  Got no money in the bank, got no mansion, got no yacht, still I’m happy with what I got”.

As for upper case or official ancient Stoicism, it had many voices, as you know from your focus on the Roman Stoic philosophers. We have Seneca’s polished rhetoric and caustic wit, Epictetus’s dialogical brilliance and wake-up calls, and the moving and stalwart meditations of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius.  All three are quite individual in their style and appeal.  To these three voices we can go back in time for distinctive upper case Stoic voices. I think of Cicero’s eloquent treatment of practical ethics in his De officiis, one of the first books to be printed in 1465, with its theories drawn closely from a work by the Stoic Panaetius.   I think of Cleanthes’ great Hymn to Zeus. And I think of Chrysippus’s rousing paeon to the natural and immutable law of right reason.

Many ancient Stoic voices then, and many variations of tone and emphasis. They encourage us to express and enact Stoicism in our own way. They don’t presume that any of their readers could be close to becoming a sage, a perfectly Stoic person.  Ancient Stoicism was a philosophy of progress, leaving each individual to try to make the best of themselves according to their own personalities, aptitudes, and real life situations.

Yet, the ancient upper case Stoics, allowing for their individuality and circumstances, all sang the same basic tune.  Don’t be misled by the notion I sometimes read in modern writers that ancient Stoicism was thoroughly eclectic, letting you pick out choice bits and discard the rest. Greek and Roman Stoics were in complete agreement about three reciprocal doctrinal principles: (1) the rational and providential structure of the universe, (2) the special status, responsibilities and challenges of being human (endowed with reason), and (3) our innate potentiality and goal – to live well together in all circumstances. Those common principles were underwritten by three big ideas that I have chosen to focus on here in the following order: the beauty of virtue and its sufficiency for happiness; social utility; and cosmic connectedness.

Virtue as Beauty and Sufficiency for Happiness

We are all familiar with the ancient Stoics’ claim that virtues of character (prudence, courage, justice, and moderation) are central to a flourishing human life.  You can read in some modern accounts of ancient Stoicism that virtue is the “highest” good.  Actually, no! That proposition fits Plato and Aristotle, not Stoicism. Plato and Aristotle admitted lower level goods – goods of the body (health and fitness etc.) and goods of external circumstances (wealth and reputation etc.). The Stoics disagreed. So-called lower –level goods are naturally attractive and necessary for our sheer, physical existence, they said; but they are not absolutely essential to our moment-by-moment lives as rational and autonomous agents.

If we are to be authentically or upper case Stoics I think we must accept this stark distinction between goodness and other values, difficult though it is.  (Is it compatible with the philanthropy and communitarianism on which ancient Stoics laid such stress?  Keep that question in mind, but let’s interrogate the doctrine concerning the attribution of goodness to nothing but virtue.) The ancient Stoics were adamant that virtue is not the highest good; it is the only good.  Far from being a quibble, as this thesis may sound on first acquaintance, it was a point of huge contention between Stoics and their philosophical rivals.  It was also the point that most decisively marked the Stoics’ philosophical identity and made them special.

As Epictetus states so trenchantly in the first sentences of the Manual, bodily and external things are “not up to us”, meaning things we are totally in charge of and capable of bringing about.  There are no bodily and external goods in Stoicism; there are only mental and moral goods. Epictetus distinguishes between the things “up to us” (our mental and moral life) and the things “not up to us” (our bodies and external states of affairs).

This distinction may be our single most important legacy from ancient Stoicism. It makes us, our individual selves, not good luck or good fortune, primarily responsible for our happiness and unhappiness. It restricts human goodness to excellence of mind, motivation, intention, character, and will – the things that are up to us; and it also restricts badness, correspondingly, to things that are up to us: namely, deficiencies of mind, motivation, character and will.   Things not up to us – such as health, wealth, family, country – these are all areas in which Stoics are required to exert themselves by acting as effectively and beneficially as possible. [More on this crucial point, in due course.] But the success we should naturally aim at in these areas, and which we would naturally like to achieve for ourselves and for others, is not “up to us”.  Success depends on other things besides our individual minds and motivations and plans (such things as our physical health and strength, the people around us, impersonal circumstances, and accidents). Therefore successful achievement is not itself a good, a credit or benefit to us as individual agents.

The Greek Stoics expressed the restriction of goodness to virtue in the striking words monon to kalon agathon, literally: “Only what is beautiful is good”.  How are we to understand these words?  What has beauty to do with goodness, happiness, and the virtues of character? Were the Stoics saying that they could or should try to win beauty competitions?  If the competition were for ethical beauty, then absolutely yes!  According to the ancient Stoics goodness and beauty are logically equivalent.  This means that you cannot have one of them without the other.  Beauty and goodness are mutually implicated and connected.  Does that tight bond make beauty and goodness synonymous?  Not in the least. Each term retains its distinct meaning, according to the Stoics’ lexicon. Goodness signifies optimal function, benefit, acting supremely well. Beauty signifies perfect balance and symmetry, completeness, nothing out of place, sheen or resplendence.

Ethics and aesthetics are inextricable from one another in these thoughts.  Epictetus as usual stated the point most memorably: “As a human being, you are not flesh or hair, but prohairesis (will, choice, decision, or intention); if you get that beautiful, then you will be beautiful” (3.1.40).  His word kalos, as the context makes clear, should be translated by “beautiful”, not by a less striking word like honorable or fine.  Stoic virtue is beautiful because it is perfect (“has all the numbers”); and it is beneficial because it necessarily and always benefits the doer and the object of one’s doing.  Each individual virtue is in sync with all the others. You cannot, according to ancient Stoicism, have one virtue without having the rest as well, be courageous, for instance, and not also be fair minded, balanced, and prudent.   The Stoics’ justice, courage, temperance, and prudence beautify their actions, and in beautifying their actions the virtues benefit those whom they affect.  How exactly do they “beautify”?

The core idea connecting goodness and beauty is harmony.  Harmony  was to the fore when the early Stoics formulated their goal of life as “living in agreement” (homologoumenos), “not being conflicted”. The agreement, they said, was with nature (physis), and the terms of the agreement were twofold: first, to be in harmony with one’s identity as a rational being, and second, to be in harmony with external nature or the way things happen by the processes of physics and biology.

I have moved in my words from goodness and benefit to beauty and harmony, but remember that these terms all refer to the same thing, namely virtue and virtuous action.  Moreover the Stoic word for harmony, homologia, also means agreement in the political sense of a treaty or compact.  The Stoic cosmos was not a mechanistic system composed of lifeless elements but a vast organism animated and activated and structured by the rational force that they called Zeus or divinity.  In advocating harmony with external nature, the Stoics envisioned the divinely animated and activated world as their home in an extended sense or their community, and not only their home or community but also their guardian.

Living in harmony with nature was not just a metaphor for coping with the accidents of fortune; it was endorsing the natural course of life from birth to death as a compact or contract that we implicitly undertake with the world’s causal processes and the basic facts of life. The compact, as Seneca says, included mortality among its terms, or having a foot, as Epictetus says, that will sometimes get muddy.  The compact required that we submit willingly to the natural/inevitable course of events, accepting that there is always a role for us to play beautifully (kalos, Epictetus’s word again) in the world’s economy.

Zeno found evidence of divine providence in the world’s outstanding beauty (eximia pulchritudo), in Cicero’s translation of his words.  The statement does not mean that the cosmos is beautiful in every part and detail, but that the beauty and harmony the cosmos does exhibit overall is superb and evidence of a divine artist’s handiwork.  In their moral aesthetics – the identity of human beauty and goodness – the ancient Stoics took themselves to have an analogue and model in the beauty and beneficence of external nature.  There are numerous passages to this effect that you doubtless know in Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus.

The beauty of virtue has largely disappeared from our colloquial discourse, and it doesn’t seem to be emphasized by modern stoics.  It needs to be brought back not only to modern stoicism but also to ethics as such.  The beauty of prohairesis, as Epictetus envisioned it, takes human goodness to be glamorous, as it were, admirable and choiceworthy because it displays human identity at its best.  The virtues, according to Stoic doctrine, were not introverted or self-regarding qualities but visible to observation.  Nothing in the least is narcissistic about the virtues’ beauty. Their context and scope were intended to be socially beneficial through and through.

We will understand this social dimension if we remove from ancient Stoicism, as modern Stoics are successfully doing, the old connotations of lower case stoic apathy and repression.  Stoic philosophy from the outset, unlike its Epicurean rival, was socially and politically engaged.  It was designed for action in the world and, at the limit, for exemplifying something splendid.  That is why Socrates and Cato, in their very different ways were exemplary.   Seneca served for years as an imperial adviser, Epictetus trained young men who would enter public or military service, and Marcus Aurelius was emperor.  When Cicero at the end of his life inveighed against Julius Caesar and Mark Antony (vainly pleading for the continuance of the Roman Republic and against one-man rule) he turned to upper case Stoicism, writing it into De officiis, which he dedicated to his feckless son.

It is true, of course, that patient acceptance and emotional fortitude are prominent values in some of our ancient Stoic literature, and they are understandably popular in Stoicism Today. You can be splendid or beautiful as a Stoic in prison or hospital or on your deathbed or on refraining from anger. Given the human condition and “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” the consolatory and therapeutic application of Stoicism was and remains absolutely right, proper, and authentic.  The point I want to get across here is that action, not resignation, least of all self-absorption, was the original driver of the Stoic movement.  According to Stoic doctrine, the wise man will engage in public life if the opportunity arises.  In the order of preferential lives, being a monarch ranked first, second came statesman, and professor only third.

Times change, and I leave it to you to figure out how a modern Stoic would or should be an activist.  “Ought”, as philosophers say, implies “can”.  Epictetus advised his students to make such decisions on the basis of clear-headed self-assessment of their strengths and weaknesses: “If you are Agamemon, then lead the host”, and I could imagine him going on, “If you are Thersites, then be a stand-up comic”.  We have to figure out the specific role that we can play best and beautifully, but no ancient Stoic would want to be a solitary or a hermit. The general point Epictetus makes, bringing us back to the beauty of virtuous action, is not to settle for being merely ordinary: “Whatever you encounter that is painful or pleasant or popular or unpopular, keep in mind that now is the contest, and here right now are the Olympic games, and that postponement is no longer an option, and that your progress is saved or ruined by a single day and a single action”.  These are fighting words, applicable to all imaginable experiences.

The flip side to the beauty and happiness making of virtue is the ugliness of acting contrary to the norms of human nature.  The Greek word opposite to kalos is aischros, which straddles observable ugliness and lack of shame or dishonour.  Epictetus uses it, in order to challenge his students to objectify unethical actions, to see how ugly they are.  Like the modern philosopher Bernard Williams (in his book, Shame and Necessity) Epictetus prefers shame to guilt as the more effective moral sanction.  Like Williams again, Epictetus socializes our inner life by insisting that we are never alone.  Williams populates the mind with what he calls “the internalized other” as witness to potentially shameful actions.  Epictetus declares that “you are never alone” because “god and your own divinity” (meaning the voice of reason) “are within” (1.13.14), so you cannot escape their observation.  We are familiar with the notion of letting oneself down, not coming up to scratch.  Ancient Stoicism was singularly effective, psychologically spot on, by expressing ideal self-respect in terms of looking beautiful to any witness, whether external or internal, your friends and acquaintances or just yourself.

Social Utility

Ancient Stoicism, I have been saying, was designed to be a philosophy of action.  We are born for community, Marcus regularly tells himself, and Epictetus said: “we are so constituted that we can attain none of our own goods unless we contribute something to the common interest” (1.19.15).  This sounds almost like Victorian utilitarianism, the philosophy that advocated the greatest happiness of the greatest number.   Yet if, as I was explaining, Stoic goodness is confined to the beauty of virtuous action and nothing else is good or strictly “up to us,” how do we in all consistency contribute to the common interest?  Is it rational for Stoics to care about other people’s welfare, taking welfare to include health care, decent standards of living, education and so forth, none of which, according to Stoic value theory are beautiful, good, and creditable in themselves?

We need to respond to this question with a rousing affirmative if ancient stoicism is fully applicable to contemporary life.  I can answer it here with just two quotes from the ancient sources.  Here first is Chrysippus: “The wise man will engage in public discourse and conduct policy as if wealth and social esteem and health were good things” (LS 66B).  Interpret this statement as follows. Stoic politicians do not aim at moral rearmament or converting the world to Stoicism. They aim at benefiting their constituents in ways that are conducive to people’s mental and physical welfare. Health and wealth are not morally good in the special Stoic sense, but they are naturally preferable to poverty and sickness. Therefore it is morally good to make welfare a principal objective of political action – to try to benefit people in all the ways that are naturally appropriate to flourishing human life and that conform to equitable distribution of resources.

My second quote from Antipater runs thus: “We should do everything in our power continuously and undeviatingly to obtain the predominating things that accord with nature” (LS 58K).  Those things, as in the previous quote, include health, wealth, and social esteem or dignity. The quote is sometimes interpreted as if the virtuous effort were simply for oneself – striving mightily for my own health and wealth and dignity; but this makes no sense of Stoic communitarianism and philanthropy or the utility of virtuous action.

Virtuous actions in ancient Stoicism constituted happiness for the agent, but they were not self-regarding or selfish in motivation: you do not act fairly and courageously as a Stoic in order to feel good.  The joy that the virtues generated was a byproduct, not their raison d’etre. The virtues derived their beauty and goodness from the agent’s character and intentions, which were entirely internal to the mind; but their aim and orientation were external –  (1) to maximize naturally and objectively preferable states of affairs, and (2) to equip the agent to be socially effective by freeing him or her from debilitating and harmful emotions.  Ancient Stoicism, therefore, in its understanding of social utility, fits the humanitarian activism of such organizations as Doctors without Borders, Unicef, and Human Rights Watch.

Cosmic Connectedness

This socially relevant utility brings me to the third big idea of ancient Stoicism that I propose to discuss, perhaps the biggest and most challenging idea – cosmic connectedness. This idea comes up all the time in the ancient texts, sometimes by the postulate that we human beings are parts of the whole or citizens of the world, sometimes by describing us as links in the chain of fate, or even as children of God.  I have left cosmic connectedness to the last because it often appears in theological contexts that seem to some interpreters to be unhelpful and unacceptable to modern Stoics. Can we moderns, agnostic as many of us are, relate sympathetically to a philosophy whose physics are founded on fate or universal determinism, divine and omnipresent causality, cosmic teleology, and providence?

Larry Becker, author of the book A New Stoicism, has argued that modern Stoics need to reject “the notion that the natural world is a purposive system with an end or goal that practical reason directs us to follow.”  Such a notion, he says, is out of touch with modern science.  I am always worried when people speak like that because modern science is full of holes and uncertainties.  My Berkeley biological friends tell me we are still hugely unclear about the origins of life and the connections between biochemistry and consciousness. Forget about science then, for the moment, but do ancient Stoics, in Becker’s words, specify an “end or goal of the natural world as such”?

Marcus Aurelius, may seem to do so when he writes: “Everything that is harmonious for thee, O Nature, is harmonious for me” (4.23) – amor fati, as it is sometimes called.  But Stoic philosophers do not typically assign a goal to nature as such, to global nature as if it were a super entity in itself.  The goals of nature, in typical Stoic understanding of the expression, are the optimal functioning of the living beings that populate the planet– the fertility and fruits of crops, the healthy behaviour of animals according to their species, and the deployment of human reason in ways appropriate to oneself and one’s company – ways that pay due attention to understanding oneself and one’s mental impressions. Our goal as human beings is not to identify nature’s goal (the world spirit, as Hegel would say, or the thoughts of God) but to live in agreement with our own human nature and our own external circumstances.  We are not meant to second guess the natural world’s goals, to play catch up, as it were with God’s business, but to “live according to experience of natural events” (Chrysippus’s expression) – which means applying ourselves to the world in the beautiful and useful ways that I have already outlined.

Because the Stoic world is a fully determinate structure –a closed system of causes and effects where nothing is simply random or by chance – every external situation that we face could not be otherwise than it is.  Stoic  fate amounts to saying: “This is what it was bound to be for me at this time and place – breaking my leg, getting offered this job”, etc. But fate is not assigned to me independently of who I am and what I do.  We co-determine our fate by the decisions that we take and by the responses we give to our circumstances. Our past, up to the last second, is settled, and therefore no grounds for rational regret or congratulation; but our future will depend crucially on how we decide to act – the one thing that is fully and uniquely up to us, and that Stoics take God/ Nature to have delegated to us as individual persons.

I am, as I say, a bit wary when people tell me that ancient Stoicism is scientifically hopeless.  It seems to me to be pretty good in regard to the science that we need for living in agreement with nature day by day.  Forget about God or providence, if you like; but consider the inter-dependence and connectedness of ecological systems, the problems we (not fate or God) are causing by global warming and environmental degradation; consider the prevalence of disasters from human error and from lack of planning or forethought (e.g. Hurricane Karina). We are biologically and vitally interconnected by breath, and light, and heat, and water and vegetation.

The planet would be much better off and we would be much better off if we acknowledged and cherished these natural blessings.  When Epictetus urges his students to give thanks to providence and acknowledge divine agency, he starts by remarking on the interconnectedness of earth and sky, seasonal change, the sun’s rising and setting, and living bodies’ dependence on these things.  As a modern Stoic you don’t need to credit Nature with divinity and providence, but if you are inclined to do so, take a walk in the country and read Wordsworth’s great poem The Excursion, for instance:

One adequate support
for the calamities of mortal life
exists – one only; an assured belief
that the procession of our fate, howe’er sad or disturbed, is ordered
by a Being
of infinite benevolence and power; whose everlasting purposes  embrace
all accidents, converting them to good.

Or read Mark Garvey’s lovely essay in Stoicism Today, vol. 1, p. 60:

If you are one who finds God talk troubling, all you need to muster, in order to benefit from Epictetus’s advice, is some level of appreciation for finding  yourself in a cosmos you did not create and in which you are given, along with your share of trouble and strife, bountiful opportunities for wonder     and joy.

So let’s talk about Stoic virtue as beauty, Stoic utility as social welfare, and Stoic cosmic connectedness as living wisely according to experience of natural events.

Tony (A.A.) Long  is Professor of the Graduate School, Chancellor’s Professor Emeritus of Classics, and Irving G. Stone Professor Emeritus of Literature at the University of California – Berkeley.  His writings on Hellenistic philosophy have made significant contributions to the field for over half a century.  His latest books are How to be Free; An Ancient Guide to the Stoic Life (2018), Greek Models of Mind and Self  (2015), and the translation (with Margaret Graver) of Seneca’s Letters on Ethics To Lucilius (2015)

Stoic Week Begins on Monday!

Stoic Week 2018 begins on Monday 1st October so if you haven’t already registered to take part, this is your last chance.

Nearly 7,000 people from all around the world have already enrolled in advance so we’re hopeful that we’re on track to exceed our previous year’s numbers yet again.  Stoic Week has been running annually since 2012 and we estimate roughly 15,000 people have taken part to date.

The course is free of charge and takes seven days to complete.  Everyone is welcome.  For more information visit our main e-learning site:

We look forward to seeing you there!

Stoicon Today and Stoic Week To Follow!

Today marks the seventh annual Stoicon – the world’s largest gathering of modern people interested in understanding and applying the ancient philosophy of Stoicism! It brings together academics, practicing psychotherapists, professionals of other sorts, and people of all walks of life in an intense one-day set of talks, workshops, and conversations, capped off each year by a longer talk by an author who has made major contributions to the understanding of Stoicism  (this year, it is Anthony Long).

If you couldn’t make it to Stoicon in London this year, never fear!  We’ll be videorecording some of the talks and workshops and posting those as they become available.  We’ll also be publishing transcripts and summaries here in Stoicism Today over the coming months, starting with Professor Long’s keynote address.

Here are the talks and workshops – and the people providing them – at Stoicon this year.

  • A Welcome to the Conference by John Sellars
  • Report on Stoic Week by Tim LeBon
  • Imagining the Worst: Strategies of Visualisation in Seneca’s Letters by Catharine Edwards
  • Stoicism and Sustainable Development by Kai Whiting
  • How Buddhist is Stoicism? by Antonia Macaro
  • Marcus Aurelius: How to Think Like a Roman Emperor by Donald Robertson
  • How Seneca Can Help you Manage Anger and Frustration by Tim LeBon
  • The Stoic Heart: Stoicism and Partnered Relationships by Greg Sadler and Andi Sciacca
  • The Proper Application of Preconceptions: Curing “the Cause of All Human Ills” by Greg Lopez
  • Stoic Rationality in an Irrational World by Walter Matweychuk
  • Happiness, Stoic and Aristotelian by  Chris Gill and Gabriele Galluzo
  • Lessons in Stoic Leadership from Seneca by Liz Gloyn
  • A Stoic Approach to Travel and Tourism by William Stephens
  • Comparing Stoicism to Minimalism: Two Paths to Virtue by Dan Lampert
  • Two Great Misinterpretations of Stoicism: Ascetic and Conservative by Piotr Stankiewicz

And of course, our keynote address, Stoicisms Ancient and Modern by Anthony Long!

Stoic Week follows almost immediately after Stoicon, and runs from Monday, October 1 to Sunday, October 7.  If you haven’t already enrolled in the Stoic Week online class, here’s the link to do so.  It’s free, and it’s a great way to “Live Like A Stoic” (the original title, back in 2012).

There are also local events happening all over the world that you might be able to participate in, depending on where you live.  Here is our listing of them so far:

Upcoming Stoicon-X Events Worldwide

Thursday and Friday, October 4 & 5- Bonn, Germany – Stoic Camp Bonn.  Hosted by Dr. Markus Rüther and Ralph Kurz at the University of Bonn.  Come for a set of talks, workshops, and discussions.  Email Dr. Markus Rüther or Ralph Kurz  or go here for more information.

Sunday, October 14, 2:00-4:00 PM – San Lorenzo, USA – StoiconX Bay Area – Information Day, includes an introduction to Stoic philosophy and for an opportunity to learn about The International Stoic Fellowship, showcasing local groups including San Francisco-Berkeley, Fremont and Sunnyvale. Location is the San Lorenzo Library, Learning Center.  For more details, go to their meetup site

Sunday October 21, 1:00-5:00 PM -Worcester, USA – StoiconX New England.  Includes an overview of Stoicism, 5-minute “Lightning Speeches” and discussions, readings from Stoics, and a host of discussions. Location is 90 Main St. Worcester, MA 01608, and cost is $10 per person. To purchase tickets or get more information, go here

Sunday, October 28, 10:00 AM-5:00 PM – Brisbane, Australia – StoiconX Brisbane – A full day of events, including an interview with Massimo Pigliucci, presentations by Alex Magee, Allan Hare, Brian Pringle, Peter Oram, Shannon Murray, and Lars Andersson.  For more details, go to their meetup site.

There may be additional Stoicon-X events in other locations.  We’ll add them to the list as soon as we have full information about them.

Upcoming Stoic Week Events WorldWide

Saturday September 29, 1:30 PM – Seattle, USA – the Seattle Analytic Philosophy Club has invited Thomas Opryszek to give a talk on Stoicism in Action and Stoic Week 2018.  Location is the  Seattle Public Library, Northgate Branch.  For more information, see their meetup site.

Sunday, September 30, 4:00 PM – New York City, USA – the New York City Stoics and the Stoic School of Life will be hosting Dr. Massimo Pigliucci,  discussing Stoic practice, to celebrate the upcoming Stoic Week.  Location is 550 Madison Avenue, New York City.  For more information, see their meetup site.

Monday, October 1, 7:00 PM – Orlando, USA – The Orlando Stoics will be hosting an “Open House Monday” at the Panera Bread Cafe, 296 E. Michigan Street, Orlando FL  32806.  For more information, see their meetup site.

Tuesday, October 2, 6:00 PM – Denver, USA – The Denver Stoics will be hosting a meeting, “Stoic Week: The Big Picture and How to Practice” at Coffee at the Point.  More information available here

Tuesday, October 2, 6:00 PM – Edinburgh, Scotland – Scotland Stoics are meeting  for a discussion of key messages for Stoic week and for a brief review and feedback on Stoicon.  Location is Monbodos, Bread Street, Edinburgh. More information available here.

Tuesday, October 2, 6:30 PM – Greeley, USA – The Department of Philosophy at the University of Northern Colorado will host a guest lecture and discussion by Evan Oakley in  Ross Hall 1040.  For more information, email Nancy Matchett.

Wednesday, October 3, 7:30 PM – Chicago, USA – The New Acropolis Chicago will be hosting a workshop, “Can You Trust Your Feelings?  Mastering Your Emotions”.  More information and tickets available here.

Thursday, October 4, 7:30 PM – Chicago, USA – The New Acropolis Chicago will host another workshop, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want? – The Stoic art of Contentment”.  More information and tickets available here.

Friday, October 5, 7:30 PM – Chicago, USA – The New Acropolis Chicago will host a third workshop,”Stoic Love – Stoic Guidelines for Successful Relationships”.  More information and tickets available here.

Friday, October 5, 8:00 PM -Poços de Caldas, Brazil -The Poços de Caldas Stoics will he hosting a “A Night with the Heroes” at Rua Paraibuna, 21 – São Benedito – Poços de Caldas.  More information and tickets available here.

Saturday, October 6, 8:00 AM – Winnipeg, Canada – Stoicism Winnipeg will be hosting a discussion of Stoic Week at the Forks Market at a booth close to the Fools & Horses coffee bar. More information is available here.

Saturday, October 6, 3:30 PM – Milwaukee, USA – The MKE Stoic Fellowship and SOPHIA-MKE are sponsoring a talk by Gregory Sadler, “Stoic Philosophy and the Value of Money”, at the central branch of the Milwaukee Public Library.  More information and tickets available here.

Saturday, October 6, 9:00 PM – Orlando, USA – the Orlando Stoics will be hosting a “Stoics Night Out” at the Universal City Walk, 6000 Universal Blvd, Orlando, FL 32819. For more information, see their meetup site.

If you’re planning an event, email me with the details, and we’ll add it to our list and to the post right before Stoic Week.

Groups, Institutions, and Organizations Meeting In Stoic Week

Here are the groups, organizations, and institutions that will be meeting at least once to participate together in the Stoic Week class together:

Stoic Week Discussion Group: London, UK – organized by Bryce Peterson, meeting daily 1-6 October in Bloombury.   A survey is available to determine what times people would like to meet.  Time and location TBD at this point.

The Colorado Springs Stoa, USA – organized by David Emery, meeting several times over the course of Stoic Week at Peak Place, Colorado Springs.  More information available here.

University of Northern Colorado, USA – organized by Nancy Matchett, meeting on campus. For more information, email Nancy Matchett

Houston Stoics, USA – organized by Andrew Sauls, meeting on Tuesday, October 2nd.  For more information, email Andrew Sauls or check their Facebook page.

Vancouver Stoics, Canada – organized by J.B. Bell, meeting Wednesday, October 3 to discuss Stoic Week.  For more information, check their meetup page.

Aims Community College -partnering with the University of Northern Colorado, meeting several times in Stoic Week at UNC with members of the Philosophy Club.  For more information, contact Bridgette Peterson  or Evan Oakley

Praetoria Stoics, South Africa – organized by Leon Stander, they will be meeting virtually and in person through Stoic Week.  For more information, go to their Facebook page

Steps into Stoicism by Igor Novokreshchenov

Leading up to Stoic Week this year – which runs from Monday, October 1 to Sunday, October 7 – we are publishing a series of shorter weekday posts, focused on the theme of “Happiness”.  Are you interested in writing a 300-600 word post, well-informed by Stoicism, on that topic? Email your draft to me, the editor of Stoicism Today.  We have posts running up to Stoic Week, but if we get more in, we’ll run additional short posts during Stoic Week as well.  And now, Oliver’s post!

 

Bertolt Brecht said about himself that he was a Marxist before he actually became acquainted with Marxism. In a similar way, I was a Stoic before I read a single line from Seneca or Epictetus.

The beauty of philosophy is that everyone discovers it naturally, through the very process of living. There are Phenomenologists and Existentialists who never heard of Heidegger or Sartre; Platonists who have only a vague idea of who Plato was; Pragmatists who could not care less about Dewey; and so on. Each one arrives at the school most suited to their character as shaped by their experience.

Into the Stoa Poikile one arrives via the path of reasoned disposition. Philosophers use reason for a wide variety of purposes, but only the Stoics advocate it as the primary means to vanquish tears, experience joy, and attain virtue – and with it, happiness, or, rather, “good-spiritness”, the eudaimonia.

Virtue is an antiquated concept. It brings to mind images of medieval chivalry and exalted Christian devotion. But before knight- and sainthood -became its memes, in the time when the Roman eagle spread its wings from Britain to Syria, virtue was synonymous with the nobility of character. And one’s character is revealed in everyday action.

Stoics do not really believe in episodic heroism, one-time feats.  Such episodes are incidental, hence, no true experience can be sourced from them. Everyday life, on the other hand, offers endless opportunities. Laziness, boredom, procrastination, anxiety, anger, depression, meaninglessness – we all have experienced some of it, and know how hard they are to fight. But Stoics teach that we need not fight: we need to reason. Otherwise we can as well end up beating ourselves on the head: these are our emotions, but they need not be in control over us.

And that’s the first step. Isn’t it ridiculous, says Epictetus, that our emotions from our own heads enslave us? Shouldn’t we recognise them as our emotions – and nothing more? That we aren’t compelled to re-live them again and again?

“But the circumstances make us feel it!”, many will argue. True enough, circumstances are often bigger than us, we can’t master them. But aren’t we big enough for ourselves to manage? Even when a situation is disturbing or outright terrible, we can’t fail to notice that we are still not entirely in the grip of emotion, that there is a part of us that remains observant, and therefore calm – the part of reason. Even in the most discouraging of circumstances we remain free to choose which one to endorse. That is the unassailable inner citadel of which Marcus Aurelius spoke.

When we understand it and accept it, we make the second step.

Having one’s own inner fortress with walls that no one can breach is comforting. One is tempted to remain within. But part of us is still unsatisfied. We sense that something is not right, that our joy is incomplete. From the ramparts we observe our fellow humans suffer, and we feel sorry for them. We realize that no man is an island or, as Seneca put it, that our society is an arch where each stone is meant to support another.

Once again, we are faced with a choice: forever remain under siege, or venture out. But choosing to remain means subjecting ourselves to the pangs of guilt over our cowardice. The paradox of freedom: the deeper one understands, the fewer the options become. Stoics explain that that is because we are intrinsically altruistic, that ethics is inseparable from reason.

And that is where we make the third step, of duty to humankind, and complete our induction.

From here onwards, as Seneca explained in his 30th letter to Lucilius, we’re expected to live our own Stoical lives. Liberated from the tyranny of circumstances and emotions, we can endeavour to be what we should: humane individuals, caring, compassionate, and steadfast against the odds.

Free, and eudaimonic about it.

Igor Novokreshchenov is a social anthropologist, community development worker and homeless activist based in London. 

 

“Happiness – Is It a Birthright?” by Oliver Harper

Leading up to Stoic Week this year – which runs from Monday, October 1 to Sunday, October 7 – we are publishing a series of shorter weekday posts, focused on the theme of “Happiness”.  Are you interested in writing a 300-600 word post, well-informed by Stoicism, on that topic? Email your draft to me, the editor of Stoicism Today.  We have posts running up to Stoic Week, but if we get more in, we’ll run additional short posts during Stoic Week as well.  And now, Oliver’s post!

 

Thomas Jefferson espoused in the Declaration of Independence that happiness is an unalienable right and indigenous endowment warranted to all citizens. This expectation is a striving for most of humanity.

Seneca the ancient Stoic states that there can be “no happiness without constancy and prudence.”  How as individuals do we navigate this natural right to be happy? According to Stoicism, it demands having Stoic dogmata, principles that supports the sorting of phantasiai, which are sense impressions that emanate from within and without.

Happiness, therefore within the philosophy of stoicism is a byproduct of virtuous choices but to harness it as a virtue requires an incorruptible and indestructible ability to discipline oneself through a regimen of practical knowledge and reasoning.  Not an easy task for the faint at heart or the impressionable mind. The cultivated inner fortress developed is a refuge for the stoic against the ubiquitous unsorted sense impressions that can torpedo the virtuous pursuit of happiness.

Can the common man be happy?  Is happiness a possibility for the practicing Stoic or must we advance to the level of a Sage to be happy?  Happiness in the worldview of Stoicism is deemed a pattern of life, a style of being, and an existential trajectory that betrays the universal implications of Thomas Jefferson’s constitutional decree. Marcus Aurelius sees it as a distinctive set of disciplines that transforms the stoic “into another life” where the individual inner discourse, insights, and patterns of being are unified.

Seneca in his wisdom maintains that human happiness is founded on wisdom and virtue; the former being:

that right understanding, a faculty of discerning good from evil, what is to be chosen and what to reject, right judgment and the latter, that perfect good which is a compliment of a happy life, the only immortal thing that belongs to immortality; the knowledge both of others and itself; an invincible greatness of mind, not to elevated nor dejected with good or fortune.

These attributes are not stumbled on but acquired through a resolute mind disciplined in thought and deed, deeds done not because of ostentation or public opinion but of conscience.  Happiness cannot be outsourced and when lived on one’s own terms may constitute the good life.

In the ancient text of Proverbs, it states that “wisdom is the principal thing” and we need to get it, which suggests that when we live consistent with our values and deliberate before deciding we can make choices that resonate with sound reason. In Stoicism, wisdom is the sine qua non for happiness because it is an internal operational paradigm that governs the faculties with constancy and prudence and manifested without passion but with reasoned deliberations and congruity of actions.

In the pursuit of our unalienable right to happiness, it seems that a philosophy of life is mandated, an operational lifestyle that depends less on external things while incorporating wisdom and virtue as foundational tenets to guide us to a fuller expression of ourselves as we navigate life’s obstacles and sense impressions. A philosophy of life is a serum against the infectious implications of life’s unintended consequences.

Personally, I share the view that virtue and wisdom can place you on a path towards happiness, and each day as I row gently down the stream of life I indulge in rituals at dawn and at dusks that comfort and guides me to affirm and accept life’s beauties and infirmities. I have come to learn that my happiness is my responsibility and to enjoy its momentary experiences will be contingent on my choices.

Happiness ultimately is probable for us all if we are willing to employ our faculties to navigate the minefield of self- imposed obstacles armed with a practical philosophy in Stoicism.

 

Oliver Harper is the Executive Director for National Foster Care Agency, and the author of Parenting Proverbs for Instructional Living and Time: A Traveler’s Companion: Strategies To A Meaningful Life.  His new publication Life’s Blind Side: A Selection of Antidotes from Stoic Philosophy, is appearing in 2019

Press Release: Stoic Week 2018

On October 1, 2018, the seventh annual Stoic Week takes place and Modern Stoicism are inviting people in the UK and from around the rest of the world to participate and learn how to live like a Stoic for a week.

The idea behind the week is to give people an opportunity to see whether Stoic philosophy can help them live a more fulfilling life today.

In order to achieve this, a free online course with step by step exercises and audio meditations has been created and anyone wishing to take part can sign up here.

Enroll on Stoic Week 2018

Participants will be provided with wellbeing questionnaires before and after the seven days, so they can measure their progress.

The Stoic Week Handbook consists of seven chapters, one for each day of the week.

It gives people the opportunity to join thousands of other participants around the world as they learn to apply Stoic concepts and techniques in their daily lives.

The week uses the teachings of the three well-known philosophers, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca and Epictetus.  Each year the event adopts a new theme.  This year the theme is “Living Happily”.

What is a happy life? It is peacefulness and lasting tranquillity, the sources of which are a great spirit and a steady determination to hold fast to good decisions. How does one arrive at these things? By recognizing the truth in all its completeness, by maintaining order, moderation and appropriateness in one’s actions, by having a will which is always well-intentioned and generous, focused on reason and never deviating from it, as lovable as it is admirable. Seneca, Letters, 92.3

Last year, more than 7,000 took part in the online course during Stoic Week and on September 29th, a special event called Stoicon will be happening in London, and will be attended by people from around the world.

Participants are encouraged to schedule their own Stoic Week events and share that information with Greg Sadler, the editor of Stoicism Today, which publicizes Stoic Week events worldwide.  Here is a listing of Stoic Week events and Stoicon-X events happening around the world.

Find out more about Stoic Week and Stoicism Today by following Modern Stoicism on Twitter.   To support Modern Stoicism via donation, visit their Patreon page.

Members of the Modern Stoicism organization are available to discuss Stoic philosophy, Stoic Week, and other related topics via interviews, lectures, and other appearances.   Media Inquiries about the Stoicon conference are best directed to Donald Robertson. Those about  Stoicism Today are best directed to Greg Sadler. You can find the full roster of the Modern Stoicism
team on the main website.

Download Stoic Week 2018 Press Release as a PDF.

Unwavering Happiness by Logan Vallandingham

Leading up to Stoic Week this year – which runs from Monday, October 1 to Sunday, October 7 – we are publishing a series of shorter weekday posts, focused on the theme of “Happiness”.  Since we’ve had so many submissions, we’re running one of them in place of our longer Saturday post this weekend

 Are you interested in writing a 300-600 word post, well-informed by Stoicism, on that topic? Email your draft to me, the editor of Stoicism Today.  We have posts running up to Stoic Week, but if we get more in, we’ll run additional short posts during Stoic Week as well.  And now, Logan’s post!

 

We all yearn for happiness. However, happiness sometimes seems to come and go, with the tides or with the wind. We might be happy because of an upcoming event, like going to the movies or out on a date. It might also come in the form of some radical changes in our lives, such as moving to a new home or starting a new job. Of course, these give us excitement and energy. A sense of eagerness. Yet, this fleeting happiness attributed to such external events really does not compare to the stable and steadfast deep internal happiness one experiences from living in accordance to nature.

“Let us therefore inquire, not what is most commonly done, but what is best for us to do” – Seneca, Of a Happy Life, Book 2

Waking up each morning, knowing that our actions and intentions will be virtuous and consist of no ill repute, gives us the foundation on which to move forward and enjoy every moment of the day. We must act the way we wish to act. This alignment of actions with our own moral compass gives a sense of calm not available to us from anything else. No longer worried we will be “found out,” or angry that someone treated us in a certain way. No, rather, we are happy that all life has to offer during our moment here on this earth comes to us and comes to pass. The experiences enrich our lives, and teach us new skills and wisdom along the way.

The drop of life that has been given to the select few of us here on earth is such a precious gift. It is utter nonsense to throw it away in an immoral lifestyle filled with remorse, stress, anger and contempt. Let us rather build our lives on solid ground, a firm foundation in the virtues. Thus, regardless of what situations may be placed before us, we have already chosen the ability to have our lives filled with true unwavering happiness.

 

Logan Vallandingham is a PhD candidate in Health Care Logistics in Trondheim, Norway. He is currently learning about and trying to apply Stoicism in both his professional and private life. He also has ambitions of starting a Stoic community in Trondheim.

Some Senecan Realism About Happiness by Paul Stanley

Leading up to Stoic Week this year – which runs from Monday, October 1 to Sunday, October 7 – we are publishing a series of shorter weekday posts, focused on the theme of “Happiness”.  Are you interested in writing a 300-600 word post, well-informed by Stoicism, on that topic? Email your draft to me, the editor of Stoicism Today.  We have posts running up to Stoic Week, but if we get more in, we’ll run additional short posts during Stoic Week as well.  And now, Paul’s post!

When you were first learning to write at school, did your teachers steer you away from the adjective “nice”? Mine did. “Try to find a better word!” they said. “Don’t just say that on your holidays you went to a nice farm, and ate some nice ice cream, and saw a nice goat, and had a nice day. Try to find some other words.”

For “nice” you could substitute any number of jack-of-all-trades words: “great”, “awesome”, “enjoyable”. “Happy” risks being one of those words. We sort of understand what it means, and it generally seems like it must be a good thing. But it’s a slippery word, and because it means so much it also means very little.

In everyday thinking, happiness is associated with a variety of positive emotional states (pleasure, joy, contentment, laughter) and the absence of others (pain, depression, tears). And those states are associated with things that happen in the world: the things that make me happy or sad. The “happy ending” means a wedding; a funeral makes a “sad ending”.

Stoic thought calls this a trap. After all, the “happy ending” is not an ending. After the marriage, what? Well, after the marriage, at some point, illness, misfortune and – yes – in the end, the funeral. As Seneca puts it (Letter 59):

In everyday speech we say that we derive great joy if someone close to us becomes a consul or gets married or if his wife has a child. But these are not really joyous, but often the start of future sorrow.

It is in this sense that Stoics “believe pleasure is a problem”, as Seneca puts it. If we think of happiness this way, we can’t be happy for long. If we chase emotionally pleasurable states we are in a bind, because this sort of positive emotion is like an ice-cube in the sun: it always melts.

We can get off the roller-coaster if we stop understanding happiness as a pleasurable emotion kindled by external events, and aim instead for a sort of calm maintained from within. When Seneca says, later in the same letter, that the wise person is “full of joy, happy, and calm, untroubled” he is not imagining an odd emotional cocktail which combines joy (in the sense of pleasurable excitement) with calm. Instead, he is proposing that viable happiness is calm, not just an emotional high that depends on particular events, achievements, or emotions.

Perhaps that is true happiness? Seneca seems to think so, since he contrasts it with the “false joy”. But I’m not sure that true and false are the right words here. The important point is that calm happiness is maintainable, whereas – thanks to the “facts of life” – the see-sawing emotional highs that depend on external events needs must be intermittent and temporary. The only sort of happiness that we can reasonably rely on is the sort that comes from learning to approach the various things that are bound to happen to us in such a way that we can be inconcussus (the word I have translated as “untroubled” above, but which could also be translated as “not shaken” or “not knocked sideways”).

Of course, how we cultivate the attitudes and reactions that will enable us to achieve this (truly) happy state is another question. But it’s important to know where we should be headed.

Paul Stanley is an English lawyer who has been increasingly drawn to stoicism over the past two years, largely through this blog. He first read Seneca when studying Latin at school, but has only gradually come to see that he is more than a sanctimonious Roman aristocrat, and that our humanity can build bridges to distant antiquity which can still support the weight of our experience.

A Blazing Fire by Evan Oakley

Leading up to Stoic Week this year – which runs from Monday, October 1 to Sunday, October 7 – we are publishing a series of shorter weekday posts, focused on the theme of “Happiness”.  Are you interested in writing a 300-600 word post, well-informed by Stoicism, on that topic?  Email your draft to me, the editor of Stoicism Today.  And now, Evan’s post!

 

Everything suits me that suits your designs, O my universe.” (Meditations 4.23)

To accept whole-heartedly all that life presents one with, not just the positive, but the difficult and distressing, is the essence of amor fati: love of fate.

When first encountering this concept, so counter-intuitive to what I often thought and felt about my life and the lives of others, it annoyed me. Reading about “human greatness” in Nietzsche was one thing, his style is evocative, but I didn’t take it seriously.  Later coming across it in the plain speaking Epictetus, who I did take seriously, I woke up a bit:

Don’t demand that things happen as you wish, but wish that they happen as they do happen, and you will go on well. (Enchiridion, 8).

However, when I say “woke up,” I don’t mean in a good way—in fact, I scoffed. It seemed tautological, “like what you get, and you’ll get what you like.” A meme for rubes. But I woke up in the sense that I remembered and couldn’t let it go.  Later, when reading Meditations, the concept’s recurring appearance was hard to miss. I began to feel convicted by the idea. Reading Marcus’ pep talks to himself, and sensing the nobility of his vision, I admitted that I wasn’t and hadn’t been accepting, let alone loving and leaning into, what the universe had dished out. I resented much of it. And because of this, I was missing out on . . . everything.

This was no epiphany, it was a long time coming, and I had to absorb a lot more of Stoicism before the idea took root. There kept springing to mind the dismal turns in my own life, and I needed only to think of those I knew who had lost children or who had been victimized as children. Love that?   

Even today I think amor fati is one of those concepts that Epictetus would counsel shutting the hell up about, especially if talking with those who are suffering or not of a philosophical bent. It is a concept tailor-made for his maxim, “Don’t explain your philosophy. Embody it.”

Amor fati is a discipline for my own life, not an advice to deploy on others.

Amor fati, for me, is a correction and orientation, especially in days of duress. At the core of it is gratitude. It transfigures my experience of both present and past. Far from making me passive, it helps remove impediments to action—fear, anxiety, resentment, recede when I adopt something more than just resignation to events. The grief and quiet desperation that Thoreau remarked on is diminished. The potential for happiness increases.

But to be frank, it is no box of chocolates: it requires me to consciously adopt more courage than I actually have. Too often, I begrudge the exercise of saying, Okay, love this. I hate it like I hate a cold shower, sometimes. I grouse, Well here it is, gratitude, O Universe, you bitch. But like a cold shower, if I manage it, I will then make my damn bed and face the day with more comportment, and maybe, sometimes, even be glad when I step out the door and really feel the sun. For a moment. Bit by bit reclaiming moments of joy that would have been lost without it.  And I am now alert to those of whom it can be said:

A blazing fire makes flame and brightness out of everything that is thrown into it. -Meditations

 

Evan Oakley lives in Colorado, where he makes 20 minute brownies in 10 minutes, participates in full contact origami, and writes Petrarchan sonnets. He is a father, disability advocate for HearStrong, and Chair of English at Aims Community College. 

The Creative Stoic – An Artist’s Adventures with Marcus Aurelius by Scott Perry

It’s in looking back and reflecting that one’s life journey is sorted and makes sense. Marcus Aurelius knew this. The entire first book of Meditations is a review of the people that shaped him. A process in which he expresses sincere gratitude to family, friends, colleagues, and teachers.

What is creativity?  Creativity is a fundamental human impulse. Along with our capacity for reason and social instinct, it’s a defining characteristic of the human animal. Creativity is the simple human act of bringing something forth into the world that did not heretofore exist. You employ your creative inclination every time you send a message, prepare a meal, make a mess, or make amends.

What Is Stoicism?

Stoicism is an ancient philosophy of life that, like any worthwhile metaphysical pursuit, answers the questions, “What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be happy? And, how can I be more of both?”

Stoics suggest that our rational and social nature are defining human traits and that developing and employing both cultivate excellence of character. They believe that virtue is all that is required to live a good life. Stoics further assert that clarity of what is and what is not within our control is essential to maintaining our sense of happiness.

Regarding life’s inevitable challenges and misfortunes, the Stoics suggest that if we employ ourselves purposefully where we have influence and do so for the common good, we can maintain a sense of flourishing even as we accept what fate bestows.

But, what the heck does Stoicism have to do with creativity? It’s where the art of living converges with the creative process. Stoicism encourages me to be a more purposeful and flourishing creative and creativity helps me approach the meaning of life with a greater sense of craft and appreciation.

Marcus Aurelius sums it up succinctly and eloquently:

Love the humble art you have learned and take rest in it. Pass through the remainder of your days as one who wholeheartedly entrusts all possessions to the gods, making yourself neither a tyrant nor a slave to any person. – Meditations, 4.31

Marcus, of course, is referring to the art of living. The responsibility of being a human being, and an individual, in service to our fellow human beings through the roles we play and the work we do. This is the path to equanimity, tranquility, and happiness through all of life’s challenges and celebrations.

In this art of living, we all possess the capacity to cultivate and encourage this “smoothly flowing life.”

At every hour, give your full concentration… to carrying out the task at hand with a scrupulous and unaffected dignity and affectionate concern for others and freedom and justice, and give yourself space from other concerns… You see how few things you need to be able to live a smoothly flowing life. – Meditations, 2.5

And creativity is one of the primary human motivations we can employ toward this end.

Marcus was my introduction to Stoicism, the philosophy that informs and influences my life and my work as a creative. Marcus’ delivers the virtues and values of Stoicism through metaphor and an aesthetic perspective that resonates especially deep with creatives. What follows are thoughts and reflections about my journey thus far as a creative and a “student” of Marcus.

My  Journey Begins

My adventures in Stoicism began in a 7th grade Latin class where I was introduced to Marcus through translating passages from Meditations from Latin to English from my textbook (although Marcus originally wrote them in Greek). Encouraging my interest, my teacher gave me his copy of Meditations. I read and reread it until the book was tattered.

At the time, I didn’t know I was reading a definitive ancient Stoic text. I just loved the way Marcus spoke to himself. It was the same way I talked to myself. This is one thing purposeful work can do, it can connect people disconnected by time and place.

Another interest that developed at this time was playing guitar. In this adventure, I failed to meet a worthwhile guide until I went to college. However, once I connected with this teacher, I was “ruined.” Music frequently “interrupted” my studies and eventually my career as an academic.

Upon graduating, I taught at a few private schools you’ve probably heard of and tried my hand at sales and restauranteuring. But soon, I went all the way to “the dark side.” I became a professional musician. Again, Marcus spoke to me.

Everything, a horse, a vine, is created for some duty. For what task, then, were you yourself created? A man’s true delight is to do the things he was made for. – Meditations, 8.19

The Stoics speak of the four roles or personae. Cicero writes of it in On Duties. We are simultaneously living as human beings, individuals, members of society, and the role we choose for ourselves. I’d found my purpose. My calling. Or at least my calling for the moment. A vocation as a performing musician was work at the intersection of my values and talents that enhanced the lives of others.

The Stoic Guitarist 

Making a living as a guitarist is not for the faint of heart, but earning a living equal to that of your average academic was a pretty low bar to meet. I managed to build and sustain a music career while holding on to the woman of my dreams and raising two happy and healthy boys.

Fame and fortune eluded me. But that was not the point. I was happy to make a living doing work that was fulfilling. After all, Marcus reminds:

Does anything genuinely beautiful need supplementing? No more than justice does – or truth, or kindness, or humility. Are any of those improved by being praised? Or damaged by contempt? Is an emerald suddenly flawed if no one admires it? – Meditations, 4.20

To explore and develop my craft and be able to share my work with others. To serve the song, the audience, and my collaborators on stage. This was reward enough.

There were, of course, plenty of challenges. Disreputable club owners, irresponsible bandmates, indifferent audiences, nights traveling long distances for short money, and worse. But Marcus taught me to mitigate the impact of these misfortunes on my equanimity.

The thing ordained for you – teach yourself to be at one with those. And the people who share them with you – treat them with love. With real love. – Meditations, 6.30

It is easy to become bitter and jaded at any level of the music business’ pecking order. I certainly experienced instances of falling into these unhealthy states. But over and over again Marcus pulled me out with this reminder. The work was the reward. The work as a musician, sure. But also the task of being a human being striving for excellence through loving others and serving them through my work.

Receive without pride, let go without attachment. – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 8.33

Marcus helped me approach my musical craft and career with greater intention and gratitude. Becoming a professional music maker is not work I have to do, its work I get to do. And for a long time, it was the work I felt I was meant to do.

Mindfully engaging with my craft, remaining present, and focusing on the reasons for my work rather than attaching myself to external rewards and results. These practices helped me navigate the ups and downs of a career in music while maintaining a love for the work, a sense of wonder and curiosity, and a desire to excel and experience a feeling of prosperity and even abundance.

The Stoic Creative 

Around my fiftieth birthday, I found myself returning to Marcus’ Meditations frequently. More aware than ever before that my days are numbered, I felt the urge to make whatever was left count.

Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now, take what’s left and live it properly. – Meditations, 7.56

I felt I’d shined a light, but felt I could shine brighter, with more purpose, and with a more significant impact.

To see the nature of a sunbeam, look at light as it falls through a narrow opening into a dark room. It extends in a straight line, striking any solid object that stands in its way and blocks the space beyond it. There it remains—not vanishing, or falling away.

That’s what the outpouring—the diffusion—of thought should be like: not emptied out, but extended. And not striking at obstacles with fury and violence, or falling away before them, but holding its ground and illuminating what receives it.

What doesn’t transmit light creates its own darkness. –Meditations, 8.57

My career as a performing musician and guitar teacher felt like it had been “a good run,” but increasingly, it also felt like a race I was ready to abandon. But what was next?

Our sons grown and gone, my wife and I sold the farm where we raised them and moved to town. I built up my lesson studio practice and dialed back on gigging. I began thinking about the what the next thing might be, and the words of Seneca kept ringing in my ears.

What ought to be done must be learned by one who does it. – Seneca, Moral Letters to Lucilius, Letter 18

These words informed my next steps. I enrolled in Seth Godin’s altMBA program. Through it, several epiphanies came to me and I re-acquainted myself with my love for writing. I blogged my way to some clarity about a book idea and during another Godin workshop, The Marketing Seminar (TMS), I wrote and published The Stoic Creative.

The Stoic Creative is a book about where the art of living collides with the creative process. It’s based on the assertion that struggling creatives are driven by passion and thriving artists are driven by purpose. TSC shares concepts and tools based on Stoic principles and practices to help creatives elevate to artists by sharing work that matters with those that need it.

Toward this end, TSC shares many quotes from the ancient Stoic literature such as this one from Marcus Aurelius.

First, do nothing inconsiderately or without a purpose. Second, make your acts refer to nothing else but a social end. – Meditations, 12.20

We have our duties to pursue and fulfill as human beings, individuals, and members of society. But it is in the roles we choose for ourselves that we can enhance ourselves and those we connect with. Employing our creative capacity with intention provides us the opportunity to act as artists in the way we live.

This can, of course, be facilitated by heeding this admonition from Marcus’ favorite Stoic teacher, Epictetus.

Progress is not achieved by luck or accident, but by working on yourself daily.  – Epictetus, Discourses, Book 3

Seth Godin, the altMBA coaches, and the altMBA alumni community became my teachers, guides, and fellow travelers. I developed a daily writing practice. More important, I published this work on my blog and in an unofficial altMBA alumni publication called It’s Your Turn.

In addition to becoming a better writer and teacher, my work with Seth Godin and other collaborators helped me see the wisdom of some of  Marcus’ most pointed advice.

Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one. – Meditations, 10.16

Learning, personal development, study, these enterprises are all well and good in and of themselves, but it’s in the doing and sharing that transformation occurs. The process of the altMBA and the work I launched thereafter, along with my continued Stoic practice, helped direct the shift I sought. I began moving from work as a musician and guitar teacher to that of an influencer and change agent in the creative sphere.

And my adventures in aligning my creative impulse with my love of Stoic philosophy are far from over.

Creative On Purpose

My book met with enough success to encourage me to further develop this new enterprise. My experience in the altMBA and TMS led to an influential mastermind group and a coaching position working alongside Seth Godin and several other impressive leaders in The Marketing Seminar.

I’m still developing my potential and delivering on my promise as a creative and teacher. I seek more connection and collaboration through meaningful endeavors. And daily, Marcus reminds me:

People exist for one another. You can instruct or endure them. – Meditations, 8.59

All of us teach. It is woven into our role as both human beings and members of society. We influence and instruct through our words and deeds. If we do so with an empathetic motivation, a clear and beneficial intention, and a generous aspiration, we elevate our teaching to artistry and initiate a transformation that elevates and enhances those with whom we engage.

Toward this end. I recently launched Creative On Purpose, an online “home” and gathering spot for those wishing to cultivate excellence through work that matters. Work done with and for others to enhance the lives of those it touches.

The Journey Continues

Throughout the ages, thoughtful human beings have sought to answer these questions. “What does it mean to be human?” “What does it mean to be happy?” And, “How can I be more of both?”

Marcus Aurelius found answers in Stoic philosophy which asserts that what distinguishes us from other living things is our capacity for reason and our social nature. For the Stoics, happiness depends on our ability to control our impulses, adopt a courageous posture, serve the common good, and cultivate wisdom.

Marcus found the path through the three disciplines of perception, action, and will.

Everywhere, at each moment, you have the option: to accept this event with humility, to treat this person as he should be treated, to approach this thought with care. So that nothing irrational creeps in. – Meditations, 7.54

In engaging our creative capacity in any enterprise worthy of our time and talents, we would do well to heed Marcus’ personal entreaty. Developing our will and accepting what comes from our work in our current situation. Taking action that is aligned with our values and those of who we seek to serve through our work. While we frame our perception intentionally and rationally.

Although it has an aspiration, creativity occurs in the present moment. Again, Marcus advises us to follow the three disciplines.

All you need are these – certainty of judgment in the present moment; action for the common good in the present moment; and an attitude of gratitude in the present moment for anything that comes your way. – Meditations, 6.52

In addition to presence, generosity, and acceptance, creativity is enhanced by focus and prioritizing. Struggling or suffering creatives are led about by their whims and passions. Thriving creatives advance their craft as artists and as human beings by “pruning” distractions and the unnecessary from the task at hand.

“If you seek tranquillity, do less.” Or (more accurately) do what’s essential – what the logos of a social being requires, and in the requisite way. Which brings a double satisfaction: to do less, better.

Because most of what we say and do is not essential. If you can eliminate it, you‘ll have more time and more tranquillity. Ask yourself at every moment, ‘Is this necessary?’” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.24

The peace of mind and a general sense of prosperity brought about by mindfully remaining in the “here and now” is enhanced if we also embrace our work and the art of living with a sense of curiosity, gratitude,  and wonder. Marcus, arguably the most powerful man of his day, fought against self-corruption by cultivating this mindset.

“Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them.” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 7.47

Confidence and certainty undermine our creative capacity, which relies on curiosity and the courage. To create is to embrace the unknown and the possibility of failure. Curiosity and courage help us face these, and other challenges without abdicating our happiness or equanimity.

Stoicism promises that we can experience a greater sense of flourishing, tranquility, prosperity, and overall well-being in any situation or circumstance. Creativity is the tool we all possess that helps us fulfill this promise by being creative on purpose.

I’d like to thank my friend Chris Gill, Emeritus Professor of Ancient Thought at Exeter University (and a Modern Stoicism team member). Chris generously shared his time and expertise with me in an hour-long chat about Stoicism, Marcus, and creativity to help me with this piece.

Scott Perry is a husband, father, teacher, and musician from Floyd, VA. In addition to his work at Creative On Purpose, Scott is a coach in Seth Godin’s The Marketing Seminar. Scott’s book, The Stoic Creative, is available on Amazon.