Report from STOICON 2015 — part I

STOICONI just returned from STOICON 2015, a gathering of people interested in learning about, as well as practicing, Stoicism. This is the third such event in as many years, the last two organized by the delightful Jules Evans. (It turns out, incidentally, that STOICON 2016 will be hosted by yours truly, in New York, on 15 October. Mark your calendars!)

The event featured a number of talks in the morning, followed by two series of parallel workshop sessions for smaller groups of people, concluding with a plenary keynote lecture. In this installment I will share my notes and thoughts about the morning session, moving to the first workshop I attended in part II, the second workshop in part III, and the keynote in the last installment. All of this material will be online by the end of this week.

The first talk of the program was my own. Jules asked me to recount I became interested in Stoicism, a task that I turned into a brief introduction to the family of virtue ethics philosophies, as well as a discussion of the difference between them and the other two major approaches to ethics, deontology and utilitarianism. You can see the slides I used here, and I’m told the video of that as well as the other talks will be available online soon.

The speaker following me was Bill Irvine, a delightful person, whose book, A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, has highly influenced my perception of modern Stoicism, and which I have discussed at length on this blog (e.g., here, here, and here).

Bill began by remarking that human life is fundamentally social: nobody is going to be happy on a deserted island. But other people are often annoying and have a tendency to get on our nerves. (It is also possible that they think the same about us…) Accordingly, Stoicism is both a philosophy of social love and concern (e.g., the virtue of Justice, the Discipline of Action), and one that teaches us how to deal with other people in constructive ways. As Marcus put it: “Men exist for the sake of one another. Teach them then, or bear with them” (Meditations VIII.59).

A fundamental precept of Stoicism — Irvine reminded us —  is the dichotomy of control. This leads to a different attitude toward events compared to what most people have: for instance in the case of a competition the goal becomes not to win (since it is outside your control), but to perform at your best (which is under your control).

Stoicism is about preparing oneself for the vicissitudes of life. One way to do that is to engage in exercises of self-discomfort to harden yourself to the possibility of negative circumstances. When something negative happens Stoics don’t moan and play the victim. They respond instead with a “little burst of enthusiasm.” In a sense, the Stoic is like a fireman who has trained for years but has never been tested in action. When the test does come, he is going to be apprehensive to see whether his training is going to pay off, but at the same time is excited and energized at finally getting a chance to take on the problem in the best way he can.

Irvine himself got to Stoicism via a period of personal crisis. He explored Zen Buddhism and compared it to Stoicism for a book project, with a full expectation of later on pursuing the former. He instead ended up adopting the latter, because it resonated much better with his personality and outlook on life. As it turns out, Bill said, there are lots of “congenital Stoics,” that is, people who naturally adopt a Stoic-like attitude even without being aware of the theoretical background provided by Stoicism.

He told the story of a common air travel mishap (canceled flight, night in hotel, new flight early on the following day), which he took as a minor Stoic practice test. When he was finally flying back home he noticed that many of the other passengers were complaining, outdoing each other to feel miserable or angry, while he was focusing on the marvel of flying home thousands of feet above the earth, with food, drinks, and a functional toilet nearby… A sense of humor and an attitude of self-deprecation are two of the fundamental tools in the Stoic bag of tricks. Hard to get angry or feel humiliated if you deploy such tools.

The biggest Stoic test, of course, is one’s own senescence and eventually death. Can you retain your tranquillity, as well as an attitude of happiness about your life despite natural decline in your physical and mental abilities?

Some people fill their last days with regrets, but that’s not the Stoic way, said Irvine. Among other things, a Stoic is going to be busy making sure that both his financial and especially his social affairs are in good standing, so that he doesn’t leave other people in uncomfortable or burdened situations after his death. Also, he is going to make sure that his friends know how valuable their friendship has been to him.

Next up was Jules Evans, the organizer of STOICON 2015. He interviewed on stage celebrity mentalist (and practicing Stoic) Derren Brown, who has recently done a show based on Stoicism. He got into it by reading Seneca, which he said simply clicked with his personality.

As a celebrity, he told us, there are good things about his life (being on tv, making a good living), but also negative ones (being stalked). Stoicism reminds his that neither are what makes him happy or unhappy. Indeed, it is not about being “happy” in the common sense of the word, but about how to live “largely,” that is, meaningfully.

Brown reminded us of an interesting variation on a common Stoic metaphor: to convey their attitude about life’s problems, the Stoics often used the analogy of a rock, steady in the face of adversity. But Martha Nussbaum proposed a variant based on the idea of a porous rock, through which things wash away without altering the fundamental structure.

Jules then asked Derren, as a mentalist, if the Stoics overestimate the degree of rationality of which humans are capable. He replied that the Stoic language may strike us as overly rational, but that their ideas have much deeper roots, as is the case for similar ideas from other cultural traditions, like Buddhism, which also lend themselves to superficial misinterpretations.

One of the things Derren likes about Stoicism is that it reacquaint us with the concept of death, something with which most cultures at most times in human history have lived closely, but from which modern Western society has distanced itself in a rather artificial way.

Will Stoicism “go main stream” or is it always going to be a niche thing, asked Evans? For Brown things are changing rapidly, with more people becoming aware of Stoicism. He sees a lot of room for growth because people seem to be looking for new models, new ways to make sense of their life.

The next speaker was Don Robertson, another highly influential author for me, since I read his Stoicism and the Art of Happiness – Ancient Tips For Modern Challenges. And his lovely Scottish accent didn’t hurt either! Achieving tranquility, Don reminded us, is indeed one of the goals of Stoicism, but the philosophy is really about a set of values. Marcus, for instance, says that as a Stoic the way to cheer yourself up is to contemplate virtue. He invites us to think of all the cool people we know: chances are they are virtuous ones.

Robertson also briefly commented on the issue of anger and other emotions, suggesting that clearly anger isn’t necessary to motivate people to do socially relevant things (e.g., Gandhi, MLK), and that Stoics do recognize a role for positive emotions in their system. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine how a Stoic could even practice virtues like temperance and courage if he didn’t feel strong emotions that he is trying to redirect toward the common good.

Stoics, contra popular lore, very much have a sense of humor, Don reminded us. Chrysippus, the second head of the Stoa, is even said to have died of laughter at one of his own jokes, on donkeys…

The main topic of Robertson’s talk was the relationship between Stoicism and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT, he is a practitioner of the latter). He immediately emphasized that they are not the same thing: CBT is a therapy, Stoicism is a philosophy, so the latter is much broader than the former by definition. But it is true that Stoicism is the most “therapeutic” of ancient philosophies, and it is also the case that several of the founders of both CBT and logo-therapy (e.g., Albert Ellis and Viktor Frankl) explicitly took inspiration from Stoicism.

Vincent Deary, the last speaker of the morning session, was invited as a friendly critic of Stoicism. He organized his talk around what he termed three questions to modern Stoics.

First question: do we underestimate anger? He brought up an example from an elderly woman he interviewed for a project related to the common phenomenon of fear of falling, especially in aged, frail adults. She realized she had fear of falling after her husband died and she was left to navigate the world on her own. Nonetheless, she keeps traveling internationally, thus apparently overcoming her fear. When asked to explain this apparent contradiction, the woman said that she derived her motivation to travel from her rage at how her husband’s end of life had been mismanaged by the hospital in which he died.

I’m not convinced by this and similar examples. To begin with, recall Robertson’s point above that one does not need anger in order to be motivated to improve things, for oneself or for the world. Moreover, Deary took the elderly woman’s description of her emotion at face value: anger. But what motivated her may have been more akin to a sense of injustice that needs to be resisted and compensated for, or reacted against. In general, I think (with Seneca) that anger is always a destructive emotion, while a righteous rebellion against injustice is both positive and productive.

Second question: do we overvalue thinking? Stoics place a large bet on the idea of cognitive mediation of and control over our own thoughts. Vincent connected this to cybernetics and the idea of thinking as computing, which he clearly thought is misleading. By contrast, he argued, Aristotle emphasized the role of the body, an idea that may have anticipated the modern concept of embodied cognition. In the Aristotelian scenario, then, the emphasis shifts to the power of habit and away from what the Stoics called “the ruling faculty.”

But, again, it seems to me that this is another forced dichotomy, and not a problem for the Stoics, who were themselves big on training by consciously working on their habits. Accordingly, we find Epictetus and Marcus constantly exhorting others or themselves to get into the habit of acting virtuously, not to mention Musonius Rufus argument, in Lectures 7, that practice is more important than theory for a philosopher.

Deary also brought up the current approach, increasingly used by governments and corporations, of changing the “choice architecture” we are exposed to in an effort to nudge people toward, say, healthier choices of foods by altering the way they are displayed in stores. Besides the fact that the whole nudging approach feels creepily Orwellian and should probably be resisted, one can readily concede the empirical point that many people do give in to immediate gratification at the expense of what is good for them in the long run. But the Stoics were also aware of this, which is why they emphasized cultivating mindfulness, again by way of constant training.

Third question: are we overburdening individuals by crediting them with too much power over their lot? The idea here is that insisting on resilience implies discounting or downplaying the necessity of actually changing things that are wrong with our society, essentially ending up blaming the victims.

You will not be surprised to find out that this too strikes me as a simplistically dichotomous view of Stoicism, as it discounts the whole virtue of justice and its associated Discipline of Action. That Discipline is both clearly distinct from, and complementary to, the Discipline of Desire, which is connected to the virtues of courage and temperance. Epictetus’ phrase in Enchiridion 8, “Don’t hope that events will turn out the way you want, welcome events in whichever way they happen,” cannot be taken in isolation from the rest of his teachings, or of those of the other Stoics, on penalty of producing a one-sided, misleading characterization of what Stoicism is all about.

Nonetheless, I do think it was great to have Vincent give that talk at STOICON, as it is always good to have one’s assumptions and reasoning challenged in a civil and intelligent fashion.

6 thoughts on “Report from STOICON 2015 — part I

  1. Jaycel Adkins

    Thanks for the summary, Massimo.

    I am in the process of re-thinking the importance of offline community to one’s Stoic Practice. Can you comment on your impression of what it was like to be, even for a short time, in an offline community of persons dedicated to the practice of Stoicism?

    Do you think it is a necessary feature of an actual robust practice (not just interest in theory)?



  2. Roberto Figliè (@RFiglie)

    I have started to practice Stoicism a few months ago, following your blog first and then reading Irvine, Seneca (my favorite), Epictetus and Marcus. Unfortunately I couldn’t attend the STOICON this year, but I’m glad that you’ll host it next year and I hope I’ll be there (always fate permitting).

    I find it very intersting that there was also a critic of Stoicism among the STOICON speakers, but I wonder if better questions about Stoicism could be done? Better in the sense of more uncomfortable for practicing Stoics. I am troubled, for instance, by the link between Stoics’s ancient beliefs on physics and the discipline that derived from them, if we have new beliefs about nature thanks to modern science (maybe I have to read A New Stoicism by Becker).

    I hope you will understand despite my bad english.


  3. cmplxadsys

    I agree that modern Stoicism (along with pretty much any movement) could benefit from intelligent, friendly critique. I wasn’t at StoiCon, but from your report, I cannot really say I agree with Deary’s critiques, at least as presented here. Howerver, I do have three of my own:

    1) Does Stoicism neglect the Dionysian aspect of humanity too much? This is a critique Evans has brought up in the past, and I think it’s quite a serious and strong one. Becker addresses this briefly toward the end of A New Stoicism, and he seems to think that ancient Stoicism indeed does neglect this, making it somewhat of an incomplete philosophy
    2) Does Stoic psychology accord with our modern scientific understanding of the psyche? Specifically, the idea of situational behaviorism as well as some challenges to lasting character traits in the recent psychological literature suggest that the Stoics’ view of virtue and vice may be, if not incorrect, quite overly simplistic
    3) How much respect should we give the ancients’ views? There is a large movement of modern Stoicism (not my own strain) which believes that ancient Stoic physics holds more water than I personally do, and this is a current major debate amongst modern Stoics. For an example of what I mean, google “Society of Epictetus” who hold that believing that “The Cosmos is conscious and providential” is a requirement for entry.


  4. Massimo Post author


    “an offline community of persons dedicated to the practice of Stoicism? … Do you think it is a necessary feature of an actual robust practice (not just interest in theory)?”

    It was definitely nice to see people in person and interact in a friendly way. I don’t think it’s necessary, but it is helpful. Then again, an event once a year isn’t going to do it, but regular local meetups, like the one my friend Greg Lopez runs in New York, actually do give you a feeling of a community.


    “I am troubled, for instance, by the link between Stoics’s ancient beliefs on physics and the discipline that derived from them, if we have new beliefs about nature thanks to modern science”

    That was the topic of John Sellars’ workshop, which I will comment on tomorrow.


    “Does Stoicism neglect the Dionysian aspect of humanity too much?”

    Perhaps, though it certainly didn’t look like from the gatherings we had over beers and food… But yes, I hear you, that is definitely a good question to explore further.

    “Does Stoic psychology accord with our modern scientific understanding of the psyche?”

    I think it does more than it is given credit for. Obviously, the Stoics didn’t know anything about neural mechanisms, and they were too optimistic about the power of our “ruling faculty.” But I’m reading a nice essay by Becker on this, and will comment further later on this year.

    “For an example of what I mean, google “Society of Epictetus” who hold that believing that “The Cosmos is conscious and providential” is a requirement for entry”

    Yeah, I know about that, and I don’t like it. I have argued here (and others did at STOICON, for instance Robertson) that one definitely doesn’t need to take on board all the Stoics’ metaphysics nowadays, and moreover that Stoicism never was a religion — pace the the famous hymn to Zeus by Cleanthes (e.g., Zeno explicitly said there would be no temples in his ideal Republic).

    But one of the things I find appealing about Stoic philosophy is precisely that it is ecumenical in nature: one can interpret the Logos naturalistically or theistically and be fine. What is not fine is the attempt to exclude others, like the Society of Epictetus is apparently doing.

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  5. Alison McCone

    Hi Massimo

    Thank you for the report and your presentation on the day. I smiled frequently throughout, due to my own age-related existential crisis which led me to study philosophy and psychology (my husband chose a sports car!). I agree that Vincent Deary was an essential contributor to the occasion. I thought his concerns were valid and definitely needed to be raised. Interesting you have mentioned Viktor Frankl in your report. As a a logotherapist, I thought when Vincent was relating Emily’s story, it seemed to me she had responded to her husband’s death in a ‘meaningful’ way, not an ‘angry’ way. I’ve never been to New York so maybe Stoicon 2016 presents a perfect opportunity……..fate permitting.

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