What, you say? Stoic comedy? Isn’t that almost the definition of an oxymoron? Not for Melbourne-based comedian Michael Connell it isn’t! I was first made aware of Michael when he did this funny bit for a past edition of Stoic Week, and I’ve been in touch with him ever since, even giving him some feedback (from the philosophical, not comedic, side of things) on his Stoic-related routines.
Well, now his brand new all-Stoic special has been released on YouTube, and I’d like to present some of the highlights and invite people to check out the full 31′ of it. I will make a concerted effort not to spoil his jokes, of course.
Near the beginning of the show he tells his audience that he is having a hard time convincing people that he is happy. They think: this guy is poor, single, not very famous. How can he possibly be happy? Well, because of his practice of Stoicism, of course. Michael then proceeds to humorously explain about the usefulness of philosophy (he has a degree in it), distinguishing the modern, theory-heavy version from the more practical ancient Greco-Roman stuff. “The Stoics didn’t do philosophy like we did philosophy at my university”…
After (funnily) explaining the Socratic method, Michael launches into a Stoicism 101 lesson, beginning of course with the basic idea that the Stoics wanted to address why so many people are so dramatically affected — controlled even — by negative emotions. Many would say that this is because things often don’t go our way, and that that, in turn, is because a lot of things are outside of our control.
And of course, Michael reality agrees, but turns things around and explains that the recognition and internalization of precisely that dichotomy (some things we control, others we do not) is at the heart of Stoic philosophy, certainly in the Epictetian version of it.
He goes on — again, comedically — to explain the concept of agreeing or disagreeing with one’s own thoughts, i.e., the Stoic idea of assenting or withdrawing assent from one’s impressions. Since, Michael continues, thoughts and emotions are interconnected (as shown by the efficacy of modern cognitive behavioral therapies), then it also follows that assenting or not to our judgments in turn affects the very emotions that so disturb us in the first place. In other words, changing how you think changes how you feel. (When you watch the show, pay particular attention to his explanation of why a delayed train is not what makes you angry, around minute 21.)
Around 24′ Michael makes another interesting point, concerning the logical impossibility of being rationally upset at something. He again uses (delayed) trains to make his point. I’m beginning to guess that city trains in Melbourne have a tendency to run late… (Not that that ever happens in New York, of course.)
Near the end of the show he nicely builds up to the idea that most people are unhappy because they convinced themselves that they absolutely have to have something (whatever it happens to be) in order to be happy. But that, as the Stoics pointed out, is a recipe for disaster, pretty much guaranteed to bring about unhappiness.
Looks to me from the special like Michael is a quintessential prokopton, someone who makes progress in Stoicism, but with a sense of humor. Epictetus would have approved.