Stoic Camp New York 2015, the first and hopefully not the last of its kind (fate permitting) was a resounding success. My friend Greg Lopez, who runs the New York City Stoics meetup, and I guided twelve people interested in learning Stoicism for three full days in the beautiful setting of Stony Point, NY, on the Hudson River.
We had a full schedule, beginning on the first evening with a discussion of why one might want to adopt, or develop, a philosophy of life (not necessarily Stoicism), followed by an overview of Stoic philosophy. From the beginning, we encouraged our students to keep notes, and in particular to build their own “handbook” (inspired by Epictetus’ Enchiridion, of course), where they would write down Stoic quotes they found particularly inspiring. We also advised them to keep a daily journal (modeled after Marcus’ Meditations), writing down their thoughts about the challenges of the day and how they handled them.
The first full day of Camp started with a morning session introducing Stoicism in a bit more detail, using ancient sources. We began with a discussion of Plato’s Euthydemus, where Socrates debates two Sophists and argues that wisdom is the Chief Good — an idea the Stoics took as foundational to their own philosophy. We then moved to book III of Cicero’s De Finibus Bonorum et Malorum, which presents the Stoic system in a dialogue between Cicero himself and Cato the Younger. Finally, we examined the presentation of Stoicism found in Diogenes Laertius’ Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers.
In the afternoon of the first full day we got down to the task of tackling Stoicism head on. We started with readings and a discussion on the Discipline of Desire and its connection with Stoic “physics,” alternating passages from Epictetus’ Enchiridion and Marcus’ Meditations.
The same pattern was repeated on the morning of the second full day, this time exploring the Discipline of Action and its relation to Stoic ethics. We also debated practical aspects of Action, in particular when it comes to how to deal with other people — a subject about which both Epictetus and Marcus have a lot to say!
The afternoon and evening where devoted to the Discipline of Assent and its relation to Stoic logic, followed by another practical session on Stoic mindfulness. Here Greg, who is actually a practicing Buddhist with a keen interest in Stoicism, was very helpful in explaining the differences between Stoic and Buddhist “mindfulness.” Although Buddhists have evolved a variety of approaches to mindfulness, and a number of meditation practices, the most basic difference, according to Greg, is that the Stoic approach is “analytic,” meaning that it focuses on verbal-logical analysis of problems, while the Buddhist one is anti-analytic, meaning that it focuses instead on the phenomenology of conscious experience.
The last (half) day began with a guided meditation at sunrise (see photo), in the spirit of the ancient Pythagoreans, according to Marcus:
“The Pythagoreans bid us in the morning look to the heavens that we may be reminded of those bodies that continually do the same things and in the same manner perform their work, and also be reminded of their purity and nudity. For there is no veil over a star.” (Meditations, XI.27)
We then reconvened after breakfast for a summary and discussion of a number of Stoic techniques that participants could take home for further practice. I list them here, together with the proper references, again either from the Enchiridion or from the Meditations:
- Reminders (Enchiridion 3, 11)
- Otherize (Enchiridion 26)
- Renunciation (Meditations V.15)
- View from above (Meditations VII.48, IX.32, XII.24 third exercise)
- Reserve Clause (Meditations IV.1, V.20, VI.50, VIII.41, XI.37)
- Why am I doing this? (Meditations IV.2, VIII.2)
- Speak little and well (Enchiridion 33.2)
- Chose your company well (Enchiridion 33.6)
- Respond to insults win humor (Enchiridion 33.9)
- Don’t speak too much about yourself (Enchiridion 33.14)
- Speak without judging (Enchiridion 45)
- Morning meditation on others (Meditations II.1, X.13)
- Take another’s perspective (Meditations VII.26, IX.34)
- How did s/he not sin? (Meditations IX.38)
- When offended… (Meditations II.18)
- Examine impressions (Enchiridion 1.5)
- How can I use virtue here? (Enchiridion 10)
- Decomposition exercise (Meditations 6.13, 11.2, 11.16)
- Rebutting thoughts (Meditations 11.19)
- Pause (Enchiridion 20)
- Decomposing an impression (Meditations III.11, VIII.11, XII.10)
- Acknowledging others’ virtues (Meditations I, VI.48)
- Keep athand principles (Meditations III.13, IV.3, V.16, VII.2)
- Keep change and death in mind (Meditations X.11, X.18, X.19, X.29, XII
How did people react to Stoic Camp? The initial, informal feedback was highly positive, but we actually followed up with a detailed anonymous survey to allow participants to express their opinions on a number of aspects of the experience. Here are the highlights (at the time of writing, 10 responses out of 12 participants):
How enjoyable did you find Stoic Camp NY 2015? 100% answered Very enjoyable.
How useful did you find Stoic Camp NY 2015? 100% answered Extremely useful.
What did you think about the amount of reading assigned? Here 70% answered Just right, 20% Too much – give less next time (slackers!), and 10% Too little – I would have like to have read more.
What did you think about the sources that were chosen? 50% said Great and 50% Good.
Did you find the exercise of copying passages that resonated with you into your notebook to be useful? 70% Yes, I found it useful, 20% No, because I didn’t understand we should re-copy passages into a notebook. I did highlight key passages, though, and 10% No – I tried it but it didn’t seem useful or didn’t have enough time.
Did you find debating with yourself in a Stoic manner in your notebook to be useful? 60% said I did it at Camp and found it useful, 30% I didn’t find much need to do it at Camp since I didn’t have many troubling thoughts to debate, but I plan to do it now because it sounds useful, and 10% I didn’t and probably won’t do it because I still don’t understand the material well enough to debate myself Stoically.
Did you find the “homework” mini-essays summarizing the three disciplines and topoi in your own words to be useful? 90% said I did them and found them useful, 10% said I didn’t do them, but I wish I did.
Did you find the in-session mini-essays to be useful on the whole? 100% answered I did them and found them to be useful.
Did you find the morning sunrise session on Sunday to be a good experience for you? 70% Yes, 10% No, 10% I didn’t attend, but wish I did, and 10% I didn’t attend, and am fine with the fact that I didn’t.
And finally: Would you attend Stoic Camp NY 2016 if it occurs? 60% said Yes, but only if we covered new material and concepts, 40% said Yes, even if it mostly repeats the material – I’m sure I could learn more from the same materials and enjoy a repeat experience!
Will there be a Stoic Camp NY 2016? Hopefully, fate permitting, and assuming that Greg and I can find the time to organize it. Meanwhile, a full handbook for the Camp, with all pertinent readings and some notes, is available for download here.