Category Archives: STOICON & Stoic Week

Do people commit evil out of ignorance?

Alcibiades and Socrates

[The text below refers to my presentation at Stoicon 2017 in Toronto. The full set of slides can be downloaded here.]

Epictetus wrote: “For if one shows this, a man will retire from his error of himself; but as long as you do not succeed in showing this, you need not wonder if he persists in his error, for he acts because he has an impression that he is right.” (Discourses, II.26) It is a striking reminder of just how forgiving and non judgmental Stoic philosophy is. When people do something wrong we ought to try to correct, not judge them, because they act under the mistaken belief that they are actually doing the right thing.

The notion is Socratic in nature, and it is found, for instance, in this famous phrase, which Diogenes Laertius attributes to the most famous Athenian philosopher: “There is only one good, knowledge, and only one evil, ignorance.” (Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers, II.31) But surely this can’t be right. Socrates, and Epictetus, cannot possibly mean that knowledge is the only good, and especially that ignorance is the only evil.

If one looks carefully, though, the two words translated respectively as “knowledge” and “ignorance” are episteme and amathia. Episteme means more than just knowledge, especially factual knowledge. It means understanding. And amathia is not really ignorance, it is closer to un-wisdom, the opposite of sophia (as in philosophia, love of wisdom). So what Socrates and Epictetus maintain here is that the best someone can do is to achieve understanding of how things work (and therefore of how to act in life), while the worst is being unwise, and therefore engage in actions that one mistakenly, as it turns out, thinks are right.

In the Platonic dialogue entitled Alcibiades Major, we get an even better idea of what Socrates means, within the specific context of politics. He is chatting with the future Athenian general Alcibiades, who is his friend, student, and former lover. Alcibiades is a fascinating figure (one of these days I’m going to write a book about him), who was instrumental in Athens’ fatal decision to attack Syracuse during the Peloponnesian war (though, in fairness, he was relieved of command by his fickle fellow citizens before the expedition got started). Alcibiades then defected first to the Spartans and later to the Persians, before returning once again to Athens. He was killed in Phrygia by Spartan assassins: when he saw himself surrounded by enemies he rushed at them with a dagger in his hand, and fell struck by a shower of arrows.

Anyway, here is a bit of the rather frank dialogue between Socrates and his famous pupil:

SOCRATES: But if you are bewildered, is it not clear from what has gone before that you are not only ignorant of the greatest things, but while not knowing them you think that you do?

ALCIBIADES: I am afraid so.

SOCRATES: Alack then, Alcibiades, for the plight you are in! I shrink indeed from giving it a name, but still, as we are alone, let me speak out. You are wedded to stupidity, my fine friend, of the vilest kind; you are impeached of this by your own words, out of your own mouth; and this, it seems, is why you dash into politics before you have been educated. And you are not alone in this plight, but you share it with most of those who manage our city’s affairs, except just a few, and perhaps your guardian, Pericles.

Socrates is telling his friend that he is unwise, not ignorant. Alcibiades was a highly intelligent and educated man, and yet his lack of wisdom turned out to be disastrous for him personally and for Athens more generally. Countless politicians since, up to and including current occupants of the highest political offices in the Unites States, European countries, and elsewhere are suffering from the same malady as Alcibiades, and a proper response on our part should probably also begin with “Alack!”

Back to the Stoics. Epictetus uses an interesting example to get his point across his students, that of Medea, the mythological tragic figure at the center of a famous play by Euripides (and a later one by none other than Seneca). As is well known, Medea helped Jason steal the fabled Golden Fleece from her native land, in the process betraying her father and killing her brother. She did it for love and also to escape her “barbarian” country and come to civilized Greece (remember, the play was written by a Greek). One of the intriguing characteristics of the piece is that it can be (and has been) read either as a tale of misogyny and xenophobia (Medea is a woman and a barbarian) or as a proto-feminist story of a woman’s struggle in a patriarchal society.

Medea is eventually abandoned by Jason, and she kills her own (and Jason’s) children in desperation, for spite and revenge. Euripides has Medea say: “I know full well what ills I mean to do, But passion overpowers what counsel bids me.” Again, this is not ignorance in the usual sense, it is amathia. She knows that what she is about to do is horrible, but in her current state of mind she can’t think of a better way to make the unbearable pain of her existence go away. (Incidentally, Seneca’s version of the tragedy is significantly more sympathetic to Medea than Euripides’.)

Here is how Epictetus comments on Medea: “Here the very gratification of passion and the vengeance she takes on her husband she believes to be more to her profit than saving her children. … Why then are you indignant with her, because, unhappy woman, she is deluded on the greatest matters and is transformed from a human being into a serpent? Why do you not rather pity her — if so it may be? As we pity the blind and the lame, so should we pity those who are blinded and lamed in their most sovereign faculties.” (Discourses, I.28)

This, of course, is the crux of the discipline of assent: “What is the reason that we assent to a thing? Because it seems to us that it is so. It is impossible that we shall assent to that which seems not to be. Why? Because this is the nature of the mind — to agree to what is true, and disagree with what is false, and withhold judgment on what is doubtful. … Feel now, if you can, that it is night. It is impossible. Put away the feeling that it is day. It is impossible. … When a man assents, then, to what is false, know that he had no wish to assent to the false: ‘for no soul is robbed of the truth with its own consent,’ as Plato says, but the false seemed to him true.” (Discourses, I.28)

Contemporary philosopher Hannah Arendt hit on something similar when she described the horrors of Nazi Germany, after covering the famous Eichmann trial in Jerusalem for The New Yorker. My friend Amy Valladares translated for me from the German parts of the last interview Arendt gave, where she elaborated on the concept in terms that are reminiscent of both Socrates and Epictetus:

“There’s something really outrageous [empörend = shocking, revolting] about this stupidity. … Eichmann was perfectly intelligent, but in this respect he had this sort of stupidity [dummheit = irrationality, senselessness]. It was this stupidity that was so outrageous. And that was what I actually meant by banality.”

Another contemporary philosopher, Glenn Hughes, uses a similar concept, again in the context of Nazi Germany, talking about “intelligent stupidity” (not an oxymoron!): “Intelligent stupidity is no mental illness, yet it is most lethal; a dangerous disease of the mind that endangers life itself. [The danger lies] not in an inability to understand but in a refusal to understand, [and] any healing or reversal of it will not occur through rational argumentation, through a greater accumulation of data and knowledge, or through experiencing new and different feelings.” Instead, intelligent stupidity is a “spiritual sickness,” and in need of a spiritual cure. (From “Ignorance vs. Stupidity,” by Sherwood Belangia; the essay begins with the bit of Socratic dialogue transcribed above.)

Amathia, is the root of “intelligent stupidity,” or “ignorance” in the Socratic sense, the opposite of sophia, i.e., wisdom. The “cure,” then, is philosophy. But not the academic sort that a number of clever people engage in today, more as a kind of intellectual game than anything else. I’m talking about real, practical philosophy.

As a faculty in a philosophy department, I’m often asked by students and parents: why study philosophy? Epictetus had the answer, and it is connected to the need to avoid amathia, to cure ourselves from our spiritual sickness:

“This is the defense that we must plead with parents who are angered at their children studying philosophy: ‘Suppose I am in error, my father, and ignorant of what is fitting and proper for me. If, then, this cannot be taught or learnt, why do you reproach me? If it can be taught, teach me, and, if you cannot, let me learn from those who say that they know. For what think you? That I fall into evil and fail to do well because I wish to?’” (Discourses I.28)

What do we gain by curing ourselves of amathia, and moreover by recognizing that people who do bad things are not “evil,” but rather sick? A lot, as it turns out. We get what Epictetus promises his students that they will achieve by practicing and internalizing the precepts of Stoic philosophy, and particularly the dichotomy of control:

“Now the things within our power are by nature free, unrestricted, unhindered; but those beyond our power are weak, dependent, restricted, alien. Remember, then, that if you attribute freedom to things by nature dependent and take what belongs to others for your own, you will be hindered, you will lament, you will be disturbed, you will find fault both with gods and men. … But if you take for your own only that which is your own and view what belongs to others just as it really is, then no one will ever compel you, no one will restrict you; you will find fault with no one, you will accuse no one, you will do nothing against your will; no one will hurt you, you will not have an enemy, nor will you suffer any harm.” (Enchiridion I.3)

That is why Stoic philosophy is both other- and self-forgiving. The Stoic understands that everyone who is not a Sage (and that’s pretty much everyone) suffers from different degrees of amathia. We are all partially blind and lame. By all means, let us restrain the Medeas of the world from killing innocent children, and more importantly the many Alcibiadeses, who have the power to affect the lives of millions, from doing too much damage. But let us also remind ourselves that these are spiritually sick people. They need help, and deserve our pity.


Notes on Stoicon 2017

Don Robertson opens Stoicon 2017

The 2017 edition of Stoicon — the largest assemblage of Stoic practitioners in the world — took place in Toronto on the 14th of October, hosted by Don Robertson, one of the principal movers and shakers of modern Stoicism. While Greg Sadler is curating a series of detailed posts about what happened there, I will comment briefly here on the talks that made up the morning session, as well as on the keynote. The afternoon is usually devoted to parallel workshops, and obviously I could attend only one of them, by Don himself. I will not cover the afternoon here, nor will I give an account of my own talk, on “How to be a Stoic: do people commit evil out of ignorance?,” because I will publish a separate post devoted to it. (Sneak preview of the slides here.)

The opening salvo was by Don, on the general topic of an introduction to Stoicism. This was a good refresher of the basics, especially for people relatively new to the philosophy. He began with Zeno and his influential teacher, the Cynic Crates of Thebes, moving to an overview of Marcus’ Meditations and a brief discussion of the four cardinal virtues of practical wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance. Don highlighted the difference between Stoicism (the philosophy) and stoicism (the modern attitude of going through life with a stiff upper lip), so that people were less likely to confuse the two. He then finished with his own forte, the influence of Stoicism on modern Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. (For much more, see here.)

The second talk of the morning session was by Chuck Chakrapani, an alumnus of my own Stoic Summer School in Rome. Chuck sought to define a sort of Stoic minimalism, i.e., getting at the very basics of the philosophy as it may look to an outsider trying to understand it. One of his key quotes was from Viktor Frankl, the founder of logotherapy (which takes the name from the Logos):

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

Chuck proceeded to give his analysis of the concept of God in Stoicism, arriving at the (reasonable!) conclusion that God simply is living rationally, and discussed Chris Gill’s definition of virtue:

“Virtue is a form of expertise or skill, knowledge of how to live well in every way, a form of knowledge that shapes the whole personality and life.”

Next up was Ronald Pies, who addressed the audience on the relationship among Stoicism, Judaism, and Buddhism. He began with a brief discussion of possible historical influences of these philosophies on each other, for instance via the alleged indirect connection provided by the travels in India of the Skeptic Pyrrho, as a member of Alexander the Great’s retinue. (See this controversial book for more.) The meat of the talk, to which I cannot possibly do justice here, was a list of eight common features shared by the three philosophies, on topics that included tact, empathy, and compassion; joyfulness, gratitude, and pleasure; cosmology and temporality; the afterlife; and free will and determinism. I hope the Modern Stoicism site will soon publish the full account of Ronald’s presentation.

Unfortunately, I do not have notes on the talk by Sharon Lebell, entitled “Living the Best Possible Life: Epictetus’ Rx for Clarity, Ease, and Serenity.” That is simply because my “notes” from the event are in the form of photos of slides (I was the unofficial Twitter of the event), and Sharon’s presentation was entirely in the oral tradition. Check out her book, though, The Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness, and Effectiveness.

The next to the last morning talk was delivered by Walter Matweychuk (an alumnus of the Stoic Camp New York I co-run with my friend Greg Lopez), on Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy in the words of Epictetus. Walter highlighted the fact that REBT borrowed heavily from Stoicism, and that its founder, Albert Ellis, always said that his therapy was an amalgam of ancient and modern philosophy. He then set out some characteristics of unhealthy emotions: they are essentially self-defeating, interfere with living well with what one cannot change, undermine our efforts to improve things, may lead to excessive (e.g., aggressive) behaviors, often trigger avoidance or escape behavior (such as the use of alcohol), and prevent us from experiencing some degree of happiness in the face of adversity we cannot avoid.

Walter argued that REBT is both a philosophy and a therapy, a position with which I disagree. I do acknowledge the strong philosophical bases of rational emotive behavior therapy, but a therapy is usually meant to address specific issues (e.g., phobias, depression) and only be remedial. A philosophy, by contrast, doesn’t do as well in those situations, but provides us with a compass, or a general framework, for an entire life. The two approaches, then, are complementary (as I argued here), and I am a bit skeptical of all-in-one packages.

The last talk was one of my favorite, by William Stephens, on phobias, terrorism, and Stoic fearlessness. A significant message from William’s presentation was that the Stoics were absolutely right that we should question our “impressions” before assenting to them, as we often have highly distorted perceptions of reality, which can lead to disastrous actions. Just look at the following slide from his talk, for instance, and see for your self if you should really be worried about terrorism, or if the US should be spending billions in anti-terrorism measures and not, say, on the prevention and cure of heart disease.

A similar slide compared the number of deaths from terrorism to those due to gun violence in the US, from 2001 to 2014. The two lines are essentially flat (i.e., they show little change over time, though deaths by gun violence have actually increased slightly). Therefore, the latest figures for the year 2014 are representative: they stand, respectively, at 32 and 33,599. Again, which one should we worry about, or take serious action to correct?

Finally, a few words on our keynote speaker, Margaret Graver, who talked about the dispassionate life, comparing the Stoics, the Cynics and the Epicureans in that regard. (I will soon begin a series of commentaries on Graver’s book, Stoicism and Emotion, stay tuned…)

Take the Cynics, for instance. Their positive ideals included toughness, strength, self-control, self-sufficiency, and speaking one’s mind. Even if one does not sympathize with the actual Cynic life style (as I don’t, for instance), it’s hard not to admire those principles, as the Stoics themselves, and particularly Epictetus certainly did (see Discourses III.22, On the Cynic calling). Interestingly, Margaret also pointed out that some “Stoic” techniques, such as the premeditatio malorum, were in fact known far earlier than the time Zeno of Citium landed in Athens. Here is, for instance, the version found in Euripides:

She then proceed to discuss the famous Epicurean tetrapharmakos (the four-fold remedy against anxiety and existential dread), as found in a papyrus from Herculaneum, the city that was destroyed together with Pompeii by an eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE:

* God is nothing to fear
* death is not felt
* the good is easily acquired
* the terrible is easily borne

The last part of her talk concerned the Stoic treatment of emotions, and it included a quote from Seneca that deserves to be better known, as an antidote to the common stereotype of the Stoics as emotionless individuals:

“There are things that strike the wise person even if they do not overthrow him, such as physical pain, loss of a limb, loss of friends and children, and during wartime the calamity of his fatherland in flames. I do not deny that the wise person feels these, for we do not endow him with the hardness of a stone or of iron. To endure without feeling what you endure is not virtue at all.” (On the Constancy of the Wise, X.4)

Indeed, as Margaret reminded us, the Stoic Sage will experience the three broad categories of positive emotions (eupatheiai): joy (enjoyment, cheerfulness, good spirits), wish (good intent, welcoming, cherishing, love), caution (moral shame, reverence). But his life will be free of the unhealthy passions (pathos), such as fear, anger and hatred. Now that is something to strive for.

STOICON ’16: the largest gathering of Stoics, ever


What STOICON ’16 looked like

STOICON ’16 just ended in New York City, and according to one of our speakers, Bill Irvine, it was the largest gathering of Stoics, ever: 331 attendees. It was, more importantly, an amazing opportunity to meet and mingle with people from different parts of the world who are interested in, or regularly practice, Stoicism as a philosophy of life. All the talks, and one of the workshops, will soon be available as video on YouTube (stay tuned for announcements!), but let me give you a flavor of what happened this past Saturday in the Big Apple, just to whet your appetite.

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STOICON ’16: Larry Becker

Larry BeckerAnd here it is, the last of our weekly entries in this limited series of posts leading up to the STOICON 2016 conference, scheduled in New York City for 15 October. (More info? Here. Tickets? Here. Looking for cheap accommodation with a fellow Stoic? Here.) The idea is to briefly feature each of the scheduled speakers for our talks and workshops so that people can better appreciate some of the leading figures behind the Modern Stoicism movement (is that what it is?), as well as give their reasoned assent to the impression that this is a conference well worth attending…

This dulcis in fundo entry is dedicated to Larry Becker, the author of A New Stoicism, whom I have recently interviewed for this blog (here, here, here and here; see also the category reserved for him, currently with 13 entries).

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STOICON ’16: Gabriele Galluzzo

galluzzoWe have arrived at the next to the last of our weekly entries in this limited series of posts leading up to the STOICON 2016 conference, scheduled in New York City for 15 October. (More info? Here. Tickets? Here. Looking for cheap accommodation with a fellow Stoic? Here.) The idea is to briefly feature each of the scheduled speakers for our talks and workshops so that people can better appreciate some of the leading figures behind the Modern Stoicism movement (is that what it is?), as well as give their reasoned assent to the impression that this is a conference well worth attending…

It’s the turn of Gabriele Galluzzo, a Lecturer in Ancient Philosophy
In the Department of Classics and Ancient History at theUniversity of Exeter, UK.

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STOICON ’16: Don Robertson

156529_10152744795625164_378564046_nWe continue our weekly entry in this limited series of posts leading up to the STOICON 2016 conference, scheduled in New York City for 15 October. (More info? Here. Tickets? Here. Looking for cheap accommodation with a fellow Stoic? Here.) The idea is to briefly feature each of the scheduled speakers for our talks and workshops so that people can better appreciate some of the leading figures behind the Modern Stoicism movement (is that what it is?), as well as give their reasoned assent to the impression that this is a conference well worth attending…

The featured speaker today is Don Robertson, a cognitive-behavioural psychotherapist, trainer, and author who specialises in the treatment of anxiety and the use of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and clinical hypnotherapy. He is the author of many articles on philosophy and psychotherapy in professional journals, as well as a number of books.

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STOICON ’16: Tim LeBon

Tim LeBonHere is our weekly entry in this limited series of posts leading up to the STOICON 2016 conference, scheduled in New York City for 15 October. (More info? Here. Tickets? Here. Looking for cheap accommodation with a fellow Stoic? Here.) The idea is to briefly feature each of the scheduled speakers for our talks and workshops so that people can better appreciate some of the leading figures behind the Modern Stoicism movement (is that what it is?), as well as give their reasoned assent to the impression that this is a conference well worth attending…

It’s Tim LeBon’s turn! Tim is an experienced and accredited cognitive behavioral (CBT) therapist, psychotherapist, life coach, philosophical counsellor, author, and tutor in private practice in Central London.

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