Perspectives: Stoicism on 'Why You Should Never Make a Promise'

This is a guest article, by Rohan Healey, author of Greeks to Geeks: Practical Stoicism in the 21st CenturyIn this article, Rohan discusses the value of Stoic ideas for understanding the difference between making a ‘promise’, and making an ‘agreement’. Rohan also has a blog, which you can read here.

 Why You Should Never Make a Promise

One of the most important aspects of the Stoic Philosophy of ancient Greece and Rome was the importance of distinguishing between what is within our power and what is not. And once distinguished, the idea is to concern ourselves only with what we do control and to stop worrying about what we don’t. However you do not need to be a philosophy professor to see the benefits of thinking this way, all you need is a little common sense. When we make a promise to another human being we are essentially saying that we can control that which is actually outside of our power to control. If I were to organise a date and I say “I’ll see you at 2pm on Tuesday, this time I promise!” I am telling you that I have the power to be there at that time regardless of outside circumstances, this of course is a lie. Now let’s say that Tuesday comes around, I’m on my way to the date but there is a traffic accident some way up the road and I get stuck in traffic while the emergency services do their thing.

Continue reading “Perspectives: Stoicism on 'Why You Should Never Make a Promise'”

Complete the Stoic Attitudes Scale Online

You can now complete a test version of the Stoic Attitudes Scale online.

Looks like there’s a problem with this cutting off the rightmost “strongly agree” option when displayed on this page but you can do the survey on Polldaddy via the button below:

Take the Stoic Attitudes Survey

Stoic Attitudes Scale

Stoic Attitudes Self-Rating Scale, a set of questions based on Stoic philosophy, which you can use to rate your level of agreement with Stoic doctrines.

Stoic Attitudes and Behaviours Self-Rating Scale (SABSS)

Enchiridion(Version for preliminary testing only!)

Copyright © Donald Robertson, 2013. All rights reserved.

NB: Your feedback is much appreciated, especially on whether the questions make sense to you, and whether you feel they adequately assess (self-rated) attitudes that would be consistent with a classical Stoic philosophy of life.

Introduction. This scale is still under development. The initial version is designed to help arrive at a consensus on items (questions/statements) that accurately and comprehensively define a classical Stoic philosophical outlook. There’s also a section for basic Stoic practices or cognitive and behavioural strategies. In some cases a balance has to be struck between fidelity to the ancient tradition and making the statements comprehensible to a modern research participant. This scale is initially being developed with a view to using it in correlational research to establish the extent to which existing Stoic attitudes, among students of Stoicism or the general population, correlate with established measures of psychological resilience, emotional wellbeing, etc. (There are currently no reverse-scored questions, although these may be incorporated at a later date.)

Rate how strongly you agree with each of the statements below using this scale:

  1. Strongly disagree / 2. Disagree / 3. Neither agree nor disagree / 4. Agree / 5. Strongly agree

Overall Self-Rating of Stoicism

“I would describe myself as someone who believes in and tries to follow the Stoic philosophy founded by Zeno of Citium.”

Stoic Beliefs & Attitudes

  1. “The goal of human life is to attain personal happiness and fulfilment.”

  2. “I seek to achieve happiness by living in harmony with my own nature and the world around me.”

  3. “When we accept what happens to us, insofar as it’s outside of our control, life goes smoothly and it’s easier to remain calm.”

  4. “Virtue, or excelling in terms of our moral reasoning, is the only true good in life and vice the only true evil.”

  5. “I like to think of all things in the universe as being parts of a unified whole.”

  6. “I think all virtues are fundamentally one and the same thing, different forms of practical wisdom.”

  7. “The material world is in constant change, as things gradually turn into their opposites.”

  8. “All material things are transient.”

  9. “We shouldn’t be surprised by any misfortune because we know various things befall other people in life.”

  10. “Virtue consists in perfecting our essential nature as rational and social beings.”

  11. “Moral goodness is all that’s required to have a good life.”

  12. “Health, wealth, reputation, and other ‘external’ things can never contribute to genuine happiness and fulfilment in life.”

  13. “The most important human virtues are prudence, justice, courage, and moderation.”

  14. “Peace of mind comes from abandoning fears and desires about things outside our control.”

  15. “Virtue consists in perfecting our rational nature, through cultivating wisdom.”

  16. “Practical wisdom mainly entails knowledge of what is good, bad, and indifferent in life.”

  17. “The fear of death is more harmful to the good life than death itself.”

  18. “Things beyond our control neither help nor harm our ability to flourish and be fulfilled in life.”

  19. “Emotional suffering is based on irrational judgments that place excessive value on external things.”

  20. “The only things truly under our control in life are our judgments and acts of will.”

Stoic Behaviours & Strategies

  1. “I like to contemplate what a perfectly wise and good person would do when faced with various misfortunes in life.”

  2. “We should wish that other people attain wisdom and flourish, fate permitting, while accepting that it is ultimately outside of our control.”

  3. “It’s important to anticipate future misfortunes and to rehearse rising above them.”

  4. “I often contemplate the smallness and transience of human life in relation to the totality of space and time.”

  5. “Virtue requires effort in the form of continual attention to our judgments and actions.”

  6. “It’s natural and healthy to be grounded in the present moment.”

  7. “I try to live simply and with moderation.”

  8. “When a disturbing thought enters my mind the first thing I do is remind myself it’s just an impression and not the thing it claims to represent.”

  9. “I regularly contemplate the inevitability of my own death in order to come to terms with my mortality.”

  10. “I routinely examine my own actions and evaluate what I did well, what badly, and what I omitted to do.”

Perspectives: Philosophical Therapy as Preventive Psychological Medicine

Christopher Gill, Professor of Ancient Thought at the University of Exeter, shares his views on the function of philosophical therapy in antiquity.

‘What contribution was made to the treatment of mental illness in antiquity by philosophical essays on the therapy of emotions? To what extent can we – moderns – recognize in these essays a credible response to mental illness? In this discussion, I explore both these questions, in the belief that each of these lines of enquiry may illuminate each other. A key point, bearing on both questions, is the suggestion that the philosophical essays were intended to function as a psychological analogue for ancient medical regimen, or what we call ‘life-style management’ or ‘preventive medicine’. I begin by developing this suggestion in general terms before relating this idea to the emergence of a distinct genre or body of writings on the therapy of the emotions in the Hellenistic and Roman Imperial periods. Next, I analyse the core strategy of this kind of philosophical therapy, identifying four key recurrent themes. I illustrate this schema, referring especially to Galen’s newly found essay, Avoiding Distress, taken as representing a Platonic-Aristotelian approach, on the one hand, and to Seneca’s On Peace of Mind, representing the Stoic approach, on the other. I then return to the idea that such works are designed to function as preventive psychological medicine, and ask whether they embody an approach to psychological health-care that we could find useful under modern conditions.’

Report on Stoic Week 2012 now available – 10 things we learnt from Stoic week

We’ve now had time to look at all the questionnaires you’ve filled in and the results make some interesting reading.  You can read the full report here.

Below  is a quick summary, which answers the questions posed in an earlier post.

For those with a very short amount of time for this, a one sentence management summary of the findings is

Extremely promising, interesting results, much scope for further , more focussed research

N.B. Please read the limitations of the research section of the full report before quoting from  this post or the report. Although the findings are very promising, further research is required before more definitive conclusions can be drawn.
10 Things we know now as a result of Exeter Stoic week that we didn’t know before
1) Participating in Stoic week led to approximately a 10% increase on a number of well-validated and widely used measures of well-being.
2) Participants felt both that the one week had increased their knowledge of Stoicism considerably and also expressed a thirst for more knowledge about Stoicism
3) Some Stoic exercises are much more popular and perceived as much more useful than others
4) Stoicism (as experienced in Stoic week) appears to be much more effective at reducing distress than it does at facilitating positive emotions.
5) Stoicism (as experienced in Stoic week) appears to help with some aspects of life satisfaction more than others.
6) Stoicism (as experienced in Stoic week) appears to help with some aspects of flourishing more than others.
7) Stoicism (as experienced in Stoic week) appears to help with reducing some negative emotions more than others.

8) Many participants perceived that Stoic week had helped them roughly equally with various areas of their lives including relationships, becoming a better person and becoming wiser.
9) The detailed “Overall Experience of Stoic week” questionnaire provided us with participants’ experiences of a whole range of topics including :

a. Demographics
b. Satisfaction with Stoic week
c. Use of social media
d. How participants would like to take their own experience forward
e. Feedback on the booklet
10) Whilst there are significant Limitations in the methodology and scope the of research so far, there is reason to think that further more focused research would be worthwhile.

To find out a lot more detail, download the full report on Stoic week here.

and your favourite Stoic Exercise is …. The Retrospective Evening Meditation

The  Stoic Exercise deemed most useful, averaging  a 4.3 star rating (out of five) is             

The Retrospective Evening Meditation

This is the description from the Stoic Booklet  (p. 13)

Mentally review the whole of the preceding day three times from beginning to end,
and even the days before if necessary.
1.1. What done amiss? Ask yourself what mistakes you made and condemn (not yourself
but) what actions you did badly; do so in a moderate and rational manner.
1.2. What done? Ask yourself what virtue, i.e., what strength or wisdom you showed,
and sincerely praise yourself for what you did well.
1.3. What left undone? Ask yourself what could be done better, i.e., what you should do
instead next time if a similar situation occurs.

This exercise also proved to be the most popular of the Stoic exercises in the booklet. Why not try it tonight?

Continue reading “and your favourite Stoic Exercise is …. The Retrospective Evening Meditation”

Your favourite Stoic Exercises 2) The View From Above

The second most useful Stoic Exercise averaging  a 4.2 star rating (out of five) was the View from Above

This is the description from the Stoic Booklet 

Key text: Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 7.48.

 ‘A fine reflection from Plato. One who would converse about human beings should look on all things earthly as though from some point far above, upon herds,

armies, and agriculture, marriages and divorces, births and deaths, the clamour of law courts, deserted wastes, alien peoples of every kind, festivals, lamentations, and
markets, this intermixture of everything and ordered combination of opposites.’

The Exercise:

The ‘View from Above’ is a guided visualization which is aimed at
instilling a sense of the ‘bigger picture’, and of understanding your role in wider
community of humankind. Continue reading “Your favourite Stoic Exercises 2) The View From Above”

Your favourite Stoic Exercises 3) Mindfulness of the Ruling Faculty (prosoche)

One of the most aspects of Stoic week were the Stoic exercises. Many of these were adapted from Epictetus’s Enchiridion  by Donald Robertson, whose has a new book on Stoicism out next year.

So which Stoic exercises proved most useful and most popular. The votes are now in, and over the next few days we will reveal the answers.

Deemed third most useful was Mindfulness of the Ruling Faculty (Prosoche) which averaged  a 4.1 star rating (out of five)

This is the description from the Stoic Booklet

 Mindfulness of the Ruling Faculty (prosoche). Identify with your essential
nature as a rational being, and learn to prize wisdom and the other virtues as the chief
good in life. Continue reading “Your favourite Stoic Exercises 3) Mindfulness of the Ruling Faculty (prosoche)”

Ten things we might learn from Stoic Week

The answers are all in and there’s a lot of interesting responses to the Stoic Week questionnaires . The results will be posted on this site soon  can now be read here. As a taster and teaser, here are some of the questions to which we hope Stoic Week will provide answers.

  1. Did participating in Stoic week lead to a change  in well-being?

2) Did participants increase their knowledge of Stoicism? Do they want to learn more about Stoicism?

3) Were some Stoic exercises more popular and more useful than others? If so which ones were perceived as being the best?
4) Is Stoicism (as experienced in Stoic week) more effective at reducing distress or facilitating positive emotions. Or does it do both equally?

5) Does Stoicism help with some aspects of life satisfaction (such as accepting what has happened) much more than others? If so, which ones?

6) Does Stoicism help with some aspects of flourishing (such as meaning and purpose) much more than others.? If so, which ones can it help most with?
7) Does Stoicism help with reducing some negative emotions (such as anger)  more than others. If so, which ones?

8) Did Stoic Week  help people improve relationships, become a better person or becoming wiser? What other benefits did participants notice?

9) What was it like to be part of Stoic Week?

  • How satisfied were participants with Stoic week?
  • How did participants use social media?
  • How would participants like to take their own experience forward ?
  • How did participants find the booklet?
  • How did participants find the web site?

10) Would further research be worthwhile? What are the most interesting possibilities that could be part of Stoic fortnight in 2013?