I 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.