Book Review: Meditations on Self-Discipline and Failure by William Ferraiolo

William Ferraiolo Book CoverWilliam Ferraiolo was kind enough to send me a copy of his recent book Meditations on Self-Discipline and Failure: Stoic Exercises for Mental Fitness to review back in December 2016.  So I have to begin by apologizing for the fact that it’s taken me so long to get around to writing about it.  (I’ve just been catching up with a backlog of books I had to review.)

Ferraiolo is a professor of philosophy at San Joaquin Delta College in Stockton, California.  This book consists of 30 passages which I’d describe as being written in a style resembling The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, and often dealing with similar Stoic themes.  There’s a lot of sound advice in here about applying Stoic principles to daily life.  In some ways, I think it leans a bit more toward Cynicism than Stoicism, and indeed Ferraiolo’s previous book was entitled Cynical Maxims and Marginalia (2007).

It’s a difficult book to review in some ways because one of the major recurring themes is the author’s own emotional struggle and inner turmoil.  Given the ambiguous nature of many of these passages, I think it’s better to quote more than I would normally from the text and let the author’s words speak for themselves.  For example:

You have never been terribly confident about your psychological stability either. The Sword of Damocles has hovered over your head since long before you understood the reference. Somehow, you have not yet broken down—not quite all the way. It seems that you are faring reasonably well. This is not to suggest that there is anything impressive about you, but only to note the very common cruelty with which the world afflicts us all. Your time will come, of course. For all you know, it may come long before you actually expire. Try not to get too comfortable. You have no idea when, where, or in what manner the bottom will drop out.

He also describes his anxiety surrounding sleep, how it often only comes to him with significant difficulty, as his mind becomes flooded with imaginary conversations at night.  Elsewhere he appears to describe his struggle to cope with worry and generalized anxiety:

Are you afraid? Do you fear illness? This is irrational. Do what you can to control your diet, exercise, and hygiene (both physical and psychological). […] Do you, on the other hand, fear the future and its contingencies? If so, there seems a simple solution, does there not? Either take that way out, or face the future like an adult, with reason and fortitude. Shake off your dread and get to work. Do not waste your life in pointless worry and anxiety. Do not become a bleeding ulcer.

He seems to lean toward the view that the emotional problems he’s facing may be caused by a “biochemical imbalance or abnormality” that he must learn to live with:

What is keeping you awake at night? It cannot be any form of material need. Most of the human race has never had access to the comforts that you take for granted. Looking around you, it is clear that you want for nothing—yet, you manage to feel ill at ease somehow. Perhaps you are subject to some biochemical “imbalance” or abnormality that renders you especially susceptible to anxiety and distress. If so, what do you intend to do about it? The condition is not likely to be remedied by one discreet exertion of will. The problem may well be inside of you. Your brain may be defective. Thus, if your condition proves to be innate or congenital (though you do not know this to be the case), your only option is to endure, assiduously increase your tolerance of this form of discomfort and, gradually, improve your resistance to the ill effects of this disordered neuro-chemical condition.

In other places, he worries what will happen should medication become unavailable to him at some point in the future.

You have long suspected that daily rituals of civility and reflexive dependence upon modern conveniences has made you softer than you ought to be. You also know that you carry a vestigial dysfunction in your head. The well-functioning limbic system seems not to have made its way fully into your ancestry. Descended from lizards, you are. Medications may be necessary, for the time being, but their future availability cannot be assured. Should a disruption of distribution systems occur, you must be prepared to proceed without pharmaceutical assistance. You must develop means of psychological sustenance that will remain readily available, come what may. Cultivate mental rectitude. There are methods.

This candour about the problems he’s facing makes it a very stimulating read and so I think people facing similar psychological issues will find it particularly interesting.  (Probably not for therapy clients suffering from GAD, OCD, depression, or health anxiety, though, for the reasons explained below.)  So I would recommend it as a general self-improvement guide, although there are a handful of caveats I do need to attach.

Anti-Psychiatry?

The first is that near the beginning, in the Introduction, the author writes:

The psychiatrists are doing pretty well for themselves, but their patients seem about as fouled up after “getting help” as they were before.

That seems like the author is making an over-generalization, perhaps based on his own negative experience.  However, in reality, it’s not true that every patient is “as fouled up” after getting psychiatric help as they were before.  What about all the ones who actually benefit?  I felt the need to comment on this, from my perspective as a cognitive-behavioural psychotherapist because it would potentially be a breach of the professional codes of ethics of a mental health professional to make a misleading claim like that in a book.  It’s true that Ferraiolo doesn’t work in that field so he’s free to make this statement.  However, I still feel that it’s unwise to write something in a self-help context that could potentially discourage individuals with mental health problems from seeking professional diagnosis and treatment. Unfortunately, people suffering from psychological problems are often all too easily discouraged from seeking help.

Let me be clear: there are indeed many problems in the field of psychiatry.  Some psychiatrists are incompetent or don’t care about their clients.  There are many clients who aren’t helped and some may even become worse.  However, the vast majority of people working in mental health whom I’ve met over the years – not only psychiatrists but also nurses, social workers, counsellors, therapists, etc. – seemed to me to be ordinary men and women who have chosen to spend their lives in a very challenging field, sincerely trying to help others.

Some people, it’s true, don’t benefit from psychiatry or psychotherapy.  However, most patients do improve and for some “high risk” individuals obtaining psychiatric help is actually a life or death matter.  Psychiatrists work with self-harming and suicidal patients every day and do their best to manage risk and care for their well-being, which may often be a fairly stressful and thankless task.  By profession, therefore, I’m very wary of authors over-stating criticisms that could potentially deter someone who needs psychiatric help from seeking it.  I’m sure that’s not really Ferraiolo’s intention.  As we’ve seen, he says that, for him, “medications may be necessary, for the time being” and expresses concern about the supply ending, which surely implies that despite what he said above he’s currently being helped by a psychiatric prescription.  (Assuming he’s referring to psychiatric medication, although the passage is slightly ambiguous.)  However, if there’s a second edition of this book, I’d urge him, whether or not he retains his criticisms of psychiatry, to acknowledge that some individuals may benefit from obtaining psychiatric help and should not feel put off doing so.   Ferraiolo is committed to a rational philosophy, which should lead him to be more cautious and present a balanced account of psychiatry.   That would be one that acknowledges both its good and bad sides but encourages people who are suffering, especially those at high risk, to seek professional help rather than go it alone.

General Observations

Now, I would have added this concern as a footnote to my review, but I’ve chosen to address it first for the following reason.  It seemed to me to foreshadow a more general concern that I have about the rest of the book: what I’d describe as a pronounced and strongly negative (cognitive) bias on the part of the author.  The overall tone seems to me to come across as much more harsh or cynical (small c) than most Stoic philosophy. There’s also considerable emphasis on the virtue of self-discipline but less about social virtues like kindness and tolerance toward others, or about natural affection, as we find in ancient Stoicism.  (Recently, some people have started to call this approach “Broicism”.)  As Socrates points out in the Phaedo, though: What virtue is there in courage or self-discipline if they’re used for the wrong reasons?  The lowest criminals, perhaps the “terrorists” Ferraiolo talks about, may exercise far more courage and self-discipline than he does.  The Stoics believed all the virtues were one and inseparable, in part, because courage and self-discipline without wisdom and justice are not virtuous.  In fact, they’re just another form of vice in disguise.  There’s more to Stoicism, in other words, than just being a tough guy.  Perhaps the easiest way to remind people of this is to draw their attention to the fact that Christian ethics appears to have been influenced in this regard by Stoicism:

It cannot, then, be said that “loving one’s neighbour as oneself” is a specifically Christian invention. Rather, it could be maintained that the motivation of Stoic love is the same as that of Christian love. […] Even the love of one’s enemies is not lacking in Stoicism. (Hadot, 1998, p. 231)

However, the whole “love thy neighbour” and social dimension of virtue in Stoicism is arguably sidelined in Ferraiolo’s book.  Instead of attempts to cultivate goodwill toward others we get a lot of the author ruminating about his feelings of cynicism and hostility.  Ferraiolo’s main preoccupation is his own inner struggle whereas, for example, Marcus Aurelius has far more to say about social virtue, exercising tolerance and forgiveness, and his profound sense of kinship with the rest of humanity.  Anger, for Marcus and other Stoics, is a toxic passion and symptomatic of a deeper sense of alienation from the rest of humanity.  There are probably about a hundred passages we could cite from The Meditations alone to illustrate this.  However, a good starting point seems to me to be the opening passage of Book Two.  In a sense, this is the real beginning of the book because it’s widely believed that Book One was written later and placed at the front as a kind of prelude to the exercises and contemplations that follow.  It’s also one of Marcus’ best-known and most widely-quoted sayings:

Say to yourself at the start of the day, I shall meet with meddling, ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, and unsociable people. They are subject to all these defects because they have no knowledge of good and bad. But I, who have observed the nature of the good, and seen that it is the right; and of the bad, and seen that it is the wrong; and of the wrongdoer himself, and seen that his nature is akin to my own—not because he is of the same blood and seed, but because he shares as I do in mind and thus in a portion of the divine—I, then, can neither be harmed by these people, nor become angry with one who is akin to me, nor can I hate him, for we have come into being to work together, like feet, hands, eyelids, or the two rows of teeth in our upper and lower jaws. To work against one another is therefore contrary to nature; and to be angry with another person and turn away from him is surely to work against him. (Meditations, 2.1)

To be Stoic, in other words, is to grasp that the nature of the good entails one’s fundamental sense of kinship with others, even wrongdoers, as opposed to becoming angry and feeling alienated from them.  However, Ferraiolo seems to me to dwell on the sort of thinking exhibited in the first sentence here – anticipating men’s flaws – and largely to ignore the deep sense of kinship and natural affection for mankind emphasized in the second part of this passage, and throughout the rest of Stoic philosophy in general. As a consequence, what comes across as a philosophical attitude toward other people’s vices in Marcus Aurelius comes across in this book, arguably, as the basis of a fundamentally more negative and cynical outlook, in which there seems to be little or no place for kindness, compassion, or fellowship with mankind. The feelings of anger and resentment toward others, which Marcus views as weakness and seeks to replace with love and friendship, pervade Ferraiolo’s version of Stoicism, and at times, as we’ll see, he gives the impression that anger and violence are being celebrated as if they’re signs of strength rather than weakness.

However, Ferraiolo is very candid in describing his inner rage, anxiety, and even darker feelings.  That level of self-disclosure is to his credit.  Nevertheless, it’s frequently unclear whether he’s describing a struggle against those tendencies or actually endorsing and indulging in the cynical, hostile beliefs associated with them.  Put simply, this seems to me to be a very angry book.  Ferraiolo often uses quite harsh language to criticize himself.  People with whom he finds himself at odds are discounted out of hand, and labelled as (in his words) “imbeciles”, “nitwits”, “blockheads”, “idiots”, “intellectual deficients”, “buffoons”, “liars”, “charlatans”, etc.  There’s a lot of cynicism (small c) not only about psychiatry but about politics and society in general, which he labels “pathetic”, “corrupt”, and “disgusting”, etc.  So not only is this expressed in much harsher language than Marcus Aurelius but there’s not much kindness or empathy there to compensate for it.   Ferraiolo’s philosophy of life doesn’t look like Stoicism as Seneca knew it either:

No school has more goodness and gentleness; none has more love for human beings, nor more attention to the common good. (Seneca, On Clemency, 3.3)

There’s nothing about that in this book.  What we get instead is the author repeatedly fantasizing about inflicting “brutal” physical violence on other people, something that feels quite alien to the values, and the spirit, of the Stoic philosophy described by Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and others.  Moreover, according to the Stoics, the person we ultimately harm the most through such hostile tendencies is ourselves.  “Our soul does violence to itself when it turns away from any other person or moves against him with the intention of causing him harm, as is the case with those who lose their temper” (Meditations, 2.16).

Conflicting Attitudes & Coping Strategies

How serious is Ferraiolo, though?  It’s hard to be certain because at one point he actually tells us that he takes “perverse satisfaction” in alienating and offending others by saying shocking things that he doesn’t necessarily believe.

What kind of person struggles so mightily just to behave in a fashion that others find barely tolerable? The questioning and second-guessing of your words and deeds seems nearly ceaseless. How many mornings will you wake up and try to discern whether you have, or have not, needlessly alienated someone due to the previous evening’s conversation? Admit that you take a perverse satisfaction in saying things that most people would prefer not to hear. You enjoy writing things that confound the reader. You often seek to be misunderstood, or understood only partially. Why this impulse to shock and push the limits of civility? Why the frequent resort to sarcasm, irony, and double entendre? Perhaps it is a manifestation of insecurity. Perhaps you find it comforting to hide behind semantic trickery. You have no good excuse for that. Grow up. Say what you mean, but do not speak for the purpose of meanness.

So it’s often hard to tell if his more extreme comments throughout the book fall into this category of “hiding behind semantic trickery”, designed to shock the reader, or if we’re to take the author at his word.  In particular, there’s a basic conflict that runs throughout the whole book between the struggle he says he’s engaged in to refrain from cynicism and negativity and the fact that he, often in the same breath, seems to be indulging those very traits.  The line is often blurred therefore between the wisdom he’s trying to impart and the very attitudes that he’s struggling against.  Having confessed that part of this struggle is against his persistent urge to mislead others by trying to shock them he leaves the reader unsure what to make of the rest of the book, particularly the harsher and more violent themes.  Of course, people, such as Internet trolls, who compulsively try to scandalize others achieve their goal far less often than they like to assume.  In my experience, their victims are more likely to be left feeling slightly bemused by their behaviour and perhaps even sorry for them.  To his credit, though, Ferraiolo is honest about this sarcasm and verbal trickery, his regret over the social alienation it causes him, and his “mighty” struggle against it.  Like the boy who cried wolf, though, once he’s admitted that he’s frequently overwhelmed by the powerful urge to deceive and provoke others, it’s difficult to know whether or not he’s being honest throughout the rest of the book or just trolling us.  (It’s also like the Cretan Liar paradox: “Honestly, I’m a liar!” – do you trust him or not?)

Nevertheless, often he expresses a sincere desire to overcome the cynical and contemptuous aspects of his own personality, which appear to underlie this compulsion:

Always afford others the fairest hearing that you can manage. Avoid contempt as far as is, for you, possible—and work diligently on expanding your forbearance in this area. Do not “smirk” internally when those with whom you initially disagree explain their point of view. You are no less fallible than they are

Elsewhere he also acknowledges that his anger sometimes gets out of control and has led to problems:

Your temper has gotten the better of you once again, has it not? Imbecile! Ape! It makes no difference that you were provoked by a liar, or by a corrupt cheat, or by a pompous windbag. The failure is yours—again!

This reminds me of someone spanking a wailing toddler hard and repeatedly screaming at them to “Stop crying!”  It’s not going to work, for obvious reasons.  Angrily denouncing yourself like this and putting yourself down for losing your temper is definitely not good therapy or self-help.  It’s what therapists call a maladaptive coping strategy.  As you might guess, when clients do that too much it tends to just make them feel more depressed and angry.  So they criticize themselves even more harshly, and become stuck in a vicious cycle.

You might as well bang your head against a wall to cure a headache, right?  Ferraiolo, though, continues to angrily berate himself about his anger-management issues:

Once again, your temper has gotten the better of you, has it not? You are like a shrew combined with a snake. What excuse are you prepared to offer this time? Someone made a derogatory comment about you? Oh, poor baby. Someone made noise with a face other than your own. Is this “too much” for you? Their words are none of your business. Everyone is free to speak as they wish. If they choose to disparage you, how does this justify an outburst of emotion? There is nothing sacrosanct about you. You are not special! Your name, your reputation, and your (overly delicate) sensibilities are irrational objects of concern. Can you not bear up under the onslaught of words? Weakling. Taking “offense” (whatever that means) is just another form of feebleness. Go soak your head.

In cognitive therapy, when a client says something like this, the therapist might ask them if that’s how they’d speak to a loved one who was experiencing the same problems.  How would that way of coping with losing your temper work out in the long run?

At times, to his credit, Ferraiolo recognizes that his inner rage could skew his judgement:

The bile within you rises from your gut and seems to pervade your entire body. Your brain appears not to be immune from the influence of this ubiquitous bile of yours. This response is neither unnatural nor is it among the worst imaginable vices. It is, however, irrational and detrimental to your central purpose. The principle around which you allegedly organize your mental life is not well served by this tendency. It is unwise to allow an impulse or involuntary visceral response to take hold and drive your behavior or your train of thought. Indeed, you are obligated to suppress and ultimately expurgate this reflexive revulsion. Think with your brain, not with your spleen.

Once again, though, if his only solution is to “suppress” his reflexive sense of anger and disgust that may not work out so well in the long run.  There’s a large volume of psychological research that shows emotional suppression tends to backfire, especially with very strong feelings like these.  Cognitive therapists normally find that clients who arrive in their consulting room have been trying to do this for years and one of the first tasks of therapy is often to help them stop using emotional suppression as a coping strategy.   It’s usually fine to suppress mild feelings but with strong emotions it’s not recommended for a number of reasons.  One is that the harder people try to suppress feelings the more attention they end up allocating to them, which typically makes them become excessively self-focused and tends to amplify the same unhealthy feelings in the future.  Suppression also interferes with natural emotional processing and can prevent people from working on the underlying attitudes and beliefs that are the real cause of the feelings.  I need to stress that because while Ferraiolo is describing his own inner struggle, he’s doing so in a self-help book and, despite his caveats at the beginning, could also be taken as modelling or implicitly recommending these strategies to his readers, and it might not be a healthy example to set in many cases.

Again, to his credit, at one point the author acknowledges the importance of empathic understanding:

Empathy is a valuable inclination of character and well worth cultivating. It affords insight into the causes and consequences of our psychological tendencies and behavioral inclinations. Accurately predicting general responses to events is useful in dealing with friend and foe alike. It is also indispensable for determining the likelihood of future occurrences of significant social scale. You cannot have much of an idea of how people are going to behave unless you have a reasonably judicious understanding of their motivations, desires, and aversions. Your purpose is not to govern, or even to influence, anyone to behave this way or that. Your purpose is to prepare for contingencies arising from events that you perceive on the horizon. You need to understand what drives most people to behave as they do. Understand others without becoming what you behold. When the time is right, do what you must. Do not hesitate due to sentimentality or empathy.

This is an isolated remark, though, and as is often the case, it seems to clash with his behaviour throughout the rest of the book where he speaks of others very unempathically and dismissively as “imbeciles”, and so on.  Labelling people, over and over again, as idiots isn’t usually a sign that you’ve taken very much time to understand where they’re coming from.  At least it doesn’t come across that way to me.

Overall, he seems to view his underlying attitude toward people in general as one of contempt, although he recognizes that this is not healthy.

You have occasion to experience contempt for other people— almost certainly more often than is healthy. In most cases, this attitude is both unwise and unwarranted. Consider how much more frequently you experience contempt for yourself, and for your many flaws. Is this attitude equally unwise and unwarranted? If so, you clearly overindulge to your own detriment. If not, what is it about you that warrants excess disdain? Can it be that your contempt attaches to the human condition in general, or to the all too common maladies and dysfunctions to which it is susceptible? That might explain why your scorn alights upon your own character more often than those of all others put together. You have far more frequent experience of your own pathologies, stupidities, and weaknesses, than you do with the similar faults of others. Perhaps you are getting a bit sick and tired of yourself. Is this really so surprising? You have spent your entire life irritating yourself with your whining, whimpering, petty anxieties, and incessant busy-bodying. Can you not leave yourself alone for a moment?

The Stoics have a tradition of confessing their own character flaws a bit like this but the difference it that they place much more emphasis on changing them whereas Ferraiolo often seems, as he writes, to be actively indulging in his cynicism and contempt toward others.

So although he seems to recognize that this fundamental “contempt for other people” and his harsh criticisms are unhealthy rather than directly challenge those attitudes he continues to express them throughout the book.  For example, here again he stops to acknowledge that he’s judging other people “too harshly” but nevertheless goes on to call them “pigs” in the next breath, having already labelled them as “imbeciles”, “liars” and “blockheads”.

Attempting to reason with an imbecile or a liar is a fool’s undertaking, and nothing of value is likely to result from the effort. Why then do you persist in this quixotic endeavor? Why do you keep presenting arguments and evidence to those who have conclusively demonstrated their lack of interest in the truth, or in honesty? Misplaced hope is hardly a legitimate excuse. How much inductive evidence must you compile before you finally admit that this project is as near to hopelessness as you will find this side of the grave? Every moment spent in the company of a blockhead is a moment wasted in a futile enterprise. Do not judge the imbecile too harshly, but do not continue to waste your limited time and energy trying to teach pigs to play the piano. Just let them be pigs. They cannot help it. Neither can you be better than you are.

So the note of concern about criticizing others too harshly ends up coming across as insincere or at least very self-contradictory, in the context of his other remarks.  Likewise when he warns himself against his tendency to berate others:

Do not bludgeon those around you with excessive moralizing. Your disapprobation should be reserved primarily for yourself and your own transgressions. No one wants you constantly hounding them about their every flaw and failing. If your offers of guidance are appropriate, make them clear, and make them brief, but make them also as gentle as the subject matter permits. Do not repeat yourself unnecessarily. This tends to dull the impact of your words, and also sets up needless obstacles to future communications. Very few people respond to a message delivered ad nauseam. The expression is quite apt. Repetition becomes sickening at some point. Be as hard on yourself, and as relentless with yourself, as you like. Do not subject other people to similar treatment. They are not yours to govern.

Even here, though, he encourages himself to continue engaging relentlessly in harsh self-criticism.  In my experience, though, the aggressive attitudes people exhibit toward themselves often become mirrored in the attitudes they exhibit toward other people.  It’s difficult to keep these things compartmentalized.  The better solution for most people is to learn to find a healthy balance of assertiveness and compassion in general, i.e., both toward themselves and other people.  A good teacher or therapist is very seldom one who’s relentlessly harsh.  As we’ll see, often this way of coping can often backfire and make the problem worse.

Harsher Words, Violence & Aggression

Despite the fact that Ferraiolo sometimes acknowledges his tendency to condemn “too harshly”, he continues to use very harsh language throughout to describe other people, himself, and society in general.  I’ve given quite a lot of examples above but they are merely the tip of the iceberg.  The rhetoric escalates quite dramatically in other parts of the book.  So again, I’m going to have to quote more than normal to illustrate the point and to avoid misrepresenting what the author’s saying.  I’ll let him speak in his own words.

Because there are so many passages like those quoted earlier, the overall tone of the book definitely comes across as being quite angry.  Quite often, though, this actually crosses the line from angry feelings into the contemplation of aggressive and frequently quite violent behaviour.  For example, Ferraiolo acknowledges having spontaneous thoughts and urges to “imperil [himself] needlessly” or “harm the innocent for no reason”:

Have you not contemplated stepping out into the void off of a mountain ridge path, or steering into oncoming traffic, or calling out obscenities at some somber ritual? You should take no pride in any of that, but you must admit to having these experiences. What is this strange urge to do what ought not to be done, to imperil yourself needlessly, or to harm the innocent for no reason other than the illogic and willfulness of doing so?

It may surprise some readers to learn that those are examples of very common and completely natural automatic thoughts, shared by the vast majority of people.  Surveys conducted by psychologists have shown that most people have spontaneous violent or antisocial thoughts but just ignore them and aren’t troubled by them.  However, individuals with certain types of mental health problem may become highly preoccupied with them, in which case they may become obsessions.  Sometimes, Ferraiolo appears to be saying that he struggles against these violent urges to harm himself or someone else.  However, at other times he seems to positively revel in fantasies of a graphically violent nature.

Indeed, he repeatedly imagines using “brutal” physical violence, as he puts it, against other people, or even killing those he perceives as a threat to his family or culture.  Sometimes he appears to be thinking of specific individuals.  At other times he seems to envisage the catastrophic breakdown of American society and having to defend his culture against an unnamed mass of enemies, perhaps related to his  worry about “mass immigration” and “terrorists”.  He muses to himself that the “collapse of your nation appears to be irreversible”, American culture is “bent on suicide” and can only be saved if it’s “shaken out of its moribund haze”.  But he says there’s no visible sign of that happening.  Instead, the USA is a “imploding” and “self-immolating” nation.  As I’ve mentioned earlier, these are very sweeping negative statements.  It’s easy to imagine someone else describing the same events in more sobre and less emotive language, in a more rational and balanced way.  This is an example of what cognitive therapists call “catastrophizing”.  The Stoics, by contrast, tend to decatastrophize their thinking by training themselves to view such events from different perspectives, and describing them in more objective matter-of-fact language.  However, Ferraiolo’s philosophy often sounds more like “the end is nigh!” – it’s our future viewed through the lens of alarmism rather than Stoicism.

Perhaps as a result of catastrophizing, Ferraiolo often dwells on the feeling that he needs to be prepared to use the most extreme measures, “brutal” physical violence as he puts it, against those he perceives as threatening him or his family:

Violence is not always avoidable without resort to cowardice, or without shirking your responsibility to protect the innocent in your charge. When it is necessary, strike without hesitation or compunction. Strike to incapacitate as quickly as possible, and terminate the threat with brutal decisiveness. Be always prepared and always armed with appropriate means. Decisions made under duress are subject to dysfunction, and the mind and body tend to respond poorly to sudden danger. Make the most fundamental decisions before the critical moment arises. Act with urgency. Brutality may be called for. If so, be brutal. Kill if necessary. This is to be avoided if any viable alternative is available. If none presents itself, however, strike to kill. Sentimentality has no proper function in response to a clear and present danger. Be the wolf, not the sheep.

“Decisions made under duress are subject to dysfunction”, for sure, but perhaps even more so are decisions based on catastrophic thinking, having been fomented in a state of chronic fear and anger.  Or put another way, when people are continually talking about their feelings of contempt for other people and their violent urges in such strong language, well, their decisions are bound to be affected by that, especially those made in the heat of the moment.

In another passage, he goes a step further and actually imagines himself becoming “brutality incarnate”.  These and other references to a “bestial” and “savage” element in his nature that lies hidden, “smouldering beneath the surface”, waiting for an opportunity to be unleashed, reminded me of the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

Do your best to learn the most effective methods, and to master the most reliable weapons, to be deployed in defense of your family, yourself, and innocents under your care. It is not permissible to leave this responsibility to anyone else, or any government agency. The police will arrive in time to scrape your carcass off of the pavement. They are not really designed for the prevention of violent crime. You never know where or when the critical situation may arise. Be always prepared to become protector and defender—in less than the blink of an eye. Become brutality incarnate if necessary. Do not deny this element of your nature. You have always been aware of what smolders beneath your façade of civility. The matter is not for public consumption, but you must be able to access the bestial element within you, should the moment present itself. Control it, but do not hesitate to let slip the savage if the time comes. He will, unfortunately, prove a handy fellow.

Perhaps he’s right, of course.  Maybe the sort of people he’s talking about are pure evil and deserve to be destroyed.  Of course, the danger with this type of thinking lies in someone using “the most reliable weapons” and unleashing “brutality incarnate” against the wrong person: someone they mistakenly perceive to be an enemy, rather than a genuine enemy.  Nevertheless, Ferraiolo seem more than happy to imagine himself being someone else’s judge, jury, and executioner.  I assume these remarks are completely hypothetical.  Nevertheless, My wholehearted advice would be that given what he’s actually stated throughout the book about his inner conflict, struggle with rage, and violent urges, he should be extremely wary unless those feelings cloud his judgement and lead him to harm the wrong person one day.  To be frank, I don’t believe anyone reading this book would  feel confident in the author’s ability to exercise sound judgement regarding the use of physical violence against others.

Moreover, in addition to the problem of rage clouding his judgement, Ferraiolo says that he tends to experience “wrath” and to “enjoy the suffering” of the “large category” of people for whom he has contempt:

Your unhealthy and irrational inclinations do not seem to abate readily. How easily you are given to wrath, selfishness, and enjoyment of the suffering of those for whom you have contempt. This last is a rather large category, is it not? Like a malignancy, you return to these vicious habits of thought, even after you thought they had been excised, thereby polluting your character and reinforcing precisely what you allegedly hope to expunge. Do you really wish to cleanse yourself of these flaws? If so, why do you persist in their reinvigoration? It seems that it can only be depravity or weakness. Perhaps it is both. Do not excuse yourself in this matter, but redouble your efforts to make something decent of yourself. Remain vigilant where sickness of the psyche is concerned. Surely, you recognize that the greatest and most recalcitrant enemy lies within your own heart and mind. Waiver [sic.] in this, and you invite desolation.

In this passage, once again, he clearly speaks of struggling against these feelings.  However, as always, elsewhere he contradicts this by seeming to positively indulge in similar attitudes.  So the struggle is inconsistent: sometimes these violent and aggressive attitudes are being suppressed, other times, as we’ve seen, it sounds more like they’re being relished.

I think most people would agree that someone wrestling with these sort of feelings should probably not be contemplating whether they are  justified in inflicting brutal physical violence on others or preparing to use “the most reliable weapons” to kill anyone, even hypothetically.  Again, to his credit, Ferraiolo has the courage to wonder whether he might be as “degenerate” as the very people in society with whom he’s disgusted:

You may, as it were, turn away from this increasingly filthy culture and the reprobates who dominate it. First, be sure that you are not composed of the same degenerate character as they are. How certain are you concerning this last issue? Was that a slight chill up your spine just now? There is, after all, a degenerate in nearly every mirror.

However, perhaps surprisingly, these recurring doubts about his own character and motives don’t stop him from repeatedly describing scenarios, or indulging in fantasies, in which he feels completely justified in using weapons and brutal violence to harm others.  He looks in the mirror and gets these chills up his spine but, for some reason, it doesn’t alter his desire to learn “the most effective methods, and to master the most reliable weapons” to kill people.  My advice would be that he should seek help dealing with these underlying issues and take a time-out from the violent fantasies and preparations for war.

Anger and violence are a toxic combination because, as the Stoics pointed out long ago, anger is temporary madness.  People do stupid things every day because they’re angry.  Modern psychological research confirms that strong emotions like anger do indeed bias our judgement to a shocking extent, and cause us to do foolish and sometimes dangerous things.  That’s how innocent people get hurt.

Sometimes the enemies he imagines himself pitilessly “butchering” are described as “terrorists”.  He believes that the people he labels “terrorists” are not really human beings but “mere things, masquerading as persons” so killing them, he believes, is not like killing real people.  (That’s not something a Stoic would ever have said.)

When blood is already being spilled, and more is forthcoming, do not kid yourself that all butchery is equal. Killing terrorists is not evil. They have jettisoned their humanity, and removed themselves from what Kant called “the kingdom of ends.” They are mere things, masquerading as persons. Pitiless brutality is their lot.

The problem with this, once again, is that of mislabelling.  (Not the only problem, to be sure, but perhaps the simplest one to address.)  Even if we agreed that genuine terrorists forfeit their right to life, Ferraiolo seems to have put himself, once more, in the position of their judge, jury, and executioner.  What gives him that right, though?  How can we trust his judgement, or character, when he throughout the book he keeps questioning it himself?  Again, I assume these scenarios are completely hypothetical, although he does appear to state that he’s actually preparing himself for them.

Indeed, at other points he refers not to hypothetical terrorists but to situations that sound closer to home.  These appear to be squabbles with neighbours whom he considers to have somehow encroached on the “good health” of his own family by adopting a “dissolute” lifestyle:

If your neighbor chooses a dissolute life, this is none of your business. Your neighbor’s life was never delivered into your hands. Let him be. If, however, the neighbor’s lifestyle begins to encroach upon your family’s safety or good health, then address the issue swiftly and unambiguously. Be utterly clear about your concerns, and about the proposed remedy. Half measures will only stave off the inevitable for a short while (if that). Make it clear that you are both willing and able to rip out the threat, roots and all, if it must come to that. If this means the deterioration of good neighborly relations, so be it. You have nothing to gain through association with those who cannot be counted on to at least attempt neighborly decency. Never allow the miscreant to rule your home turf.

He doesn’t spell out what he means by no “half-measures” and “ripping out the threat” in his neighbourhood but it does sounds like he’s contemplating the use, once again, of physical violence. We’re pretty far removed here from the Stoic principle of “love of one’s neighbour” (Meditations, 11.1).  Lest we forget, this is how the ancient Stoics actually talk about conflict with their neighbours:

It is impossible to cut a branch from the branch to which it is attached unless you cut it from the tree as a whole;* and likewise, a human being cut off from a single one of his fellows has dropped out of the community as a whole. Now in the case of the branch, someone else cuts it off, but a human being cuts himself off from his neighbour of his own accord, when he comes to hate him and turns his back on him; and he fails to see that by doing this, he has cut himself off from society as a whole.  (Meditations, 11.8)

Given what he’s said about his struggle with inner rage, though, and contempt for other people, how can he be certain that his use of physical violence is actually justified?  How confident is he that he’s not going to harm an innocent person when he’s in this frame of mind?  Given the emotional problems he’s described, is he really the best judge of what constitutes a “dissolute” neighbour and whether they deserve to be “ripped out”?  Who are the these people he’s raging against anyway?

In a couple of places, Ferraiolo appears to blame “unassimilable” migrants for his anxiety about the collapse of American society:

Mass migration seems almost designed to make life unlivable for the native inhabitants of the nations on the receiving end. No culture can absorb the unassimilable in their millions, and remain what it once had been. Yes, but what is all of that to you? Can you forestall any of this by the sheer force of your will? If so, get to it! If not, why allow yourself to be distracted from the task of self-rectification? Society will either fly apart, or it will not. Take notice of events, prepare for a future without law, order, or easy access to necessities—and then get back to the real work. Attend to material affairs so that you can turn your attention back inward where it belongs. Do not weep for your dying society. It was never built to last.

I’m a first-generation immigrant living in Canada.  Just like Canada, America was founded through “mass immigration”.  Ferraiolo’s ancestors presumably included migrants.  The current US President, like most of the population, is descended from foreign immigrants.  Most prosperous countries have evolved over the centuries, through immigration.  There’s no mention here of any positive aspect to immigration, though.  Just the catastrophic fear that a mass of unassimilable migrants threaten to render life “unlivable” for people like the author.  A rational philosophical attitude, I think it’s fair to say, would recognize both the good and bad aspects of immigration.  However, much like his early remark about psychiatry, we only get the negative, so you can’t help but get the impression that negative bias is colouring his feelings in general.  If he stopped to articulate things in a more balanced way, taking in different aspects of the situation, wouldn’t he inevitably end up experiencing more moderate feelings rather than the anxiety and rage he seems to be continually struggling against?

Some of his thoughts have an apocalyptic character to them.  There’s a “scent of blood in the air”.  He feels called to prepare for some impending external catastrophe:

Something draws ever nearer. You are not certain exactly what it is, or when it shall arrive, but you detect signs of it all across a horizon that closes in, that constricts and darkens, that rumbles vaguely in this direction a little louder each day. It does not seem to have the character of your own mortality [sic.]. That is an inevitability you have long recognized, and long since ceased to fear with any sincerity. Whatever it is that draws near, it is not properly to be feared (no external circumstance is), but it demands your notice, and it bids you to prepare—for what, you do not know. It will not be forestalled much longer. There are blackening skies, gathering clouds, and a scent of blood in the air. You find it baffling that so few seem to perceive its approach. You are no prophet, after all. What then are you to make of this? Is this a morbid strain in your character? Are most others simply loath to acknowledge this darkness at the edge of their perception? Perhaps it is a bit of both. In any case, the truth will become apparent sooner or later. By that time, of course, it may well be too late to do anything about it.

Given everything else that he’s said, my advice would be that he carefully weighs up whether this premonition is more likely to be a reflection of his own mood or of external reality.

A collapse has begun, and you do not know how precipitous or calamitous it will be. Perhaps something will emerge from the wreckage. Perhaps the wasteland awaits. You cannot know. Control the supply of necessities for your family, and marshal resources wisely. This is no time for unnecessary engagements or entanglements. It is too late for collective efforts to produce any useful outcome. Cultural self-immolation is well underway. Stand away from the flames.

He could be right of course.  I don’t live in his neighbourhood so I don’t know what he sees around him every day.  Then again, it could just be catastrophizing that’s fuelled by the sort of negative thinking patterns that he’s been describing struggling against throughout the book.

The Wolves and the Sheep

Part of this apocalyptic vision of the world involves Ferraiolo’s assumption that society is neatly divided into “wolves” and “sheep”.

In the final analysis, it may be that some people just are, so to speak, “wolves,” and others are just “sheep.” Is it wrong for wolves to feed upon sheep? If so, what is a wolf to do?

The wolves prey upon the helpless, bleating sheep.   What else could they do?  Unless of course he’s wrong, this is just an arbitrary metaphor, reality is more complex, and society isn’t actually polarized between wolves and sheep.  What if maybe we actually get to choose whether we act like wolves or sheep?

This is actually an age-old political metaphor, which goes back to the Stoics and to some extent all the way back to Socrates, the Sophists, and beyond.  However, I found Ferraiolo’s way of talking about it puzzling.  Normally philosophers equate the wolves with political tyrants or individuals who are cruel and exploit others.  As Boethius wrote: “You could say that someone who robs with violence and burns with greed is like a wolf.”  The whole idea derives from ancient commentaries on the story of Circe in Homer’s Odyssey.  Circe was an enchantress.  When Odysseus’ crew arrived at her secluded mansion they indulged greedily in a feast laid before them and were magically transformed into pigs.  Her previous victims had become lions and, indeed, wolves.  This was widely interpreted as an allegory for the way in which our character is transformed by strong desires and emotions, until we become a caricature of ourselves, more like an animal than a rational human being.

Plato, and later the Stoics, adopted this metaphor.  For the Stoics there were two main personality types: one resembling domesticated animals, like sheep and cattle, and the other wild animals, like wolves and lions.  We become like sheep or cattle when we’re ruled by pleasure, and our lives revolve around greed and hedonism.  We become like lions or wolves when we’re ruled by anger, and we’re alienated from other people or contemptuous of them.  Epictetus tells his Stoic students to be neither as “silly” as sheep nor as “savage” as wolves.  The Stoic goal of life is to rise above these passions and be ruled by reason, like a philosopher.

It were no slight attainment, could we merely fulfil what the nature of man implies. For what is man? A rational and mortal being. Well; from what are we distinguished by reason? From wild beasts. From what else? From sheep, and the like. (Epictetus, Discourses)

When we abandon reason and allow ourselves to be ruled by irrational passions, such as anger, we degrade our souls, according to the Stoics, into something less than human.

By means of this kinship with the flesh some of us, deviating towards it, become like: wolves, faithless, and treacherous, and mischievous; others, like lions, wild and savage and untamed; but most of us foxes, and other worse animals. For what else is a slanderous and ill-natured man but a fox, or something yet more wretched and mean? Watch and take heed, then, that you do not sink thus low. (Epictetus, Discourses)

The philosopher doesn’t normally identify himself with either the role of a wolf, a predator on society, or that of a gormless sheep, with its head buried in its fodder.  Marcus Aurelius likewise says he should aspire to be the sort of man who “makes himself neither a tyrant nor slave to anyone” (4.31).

Ferraiolo sometimes reprimands himself for worrying that he’s actually a sheep:

You begin to wonder if you really are more wolf than sheep. This is not a good sign. Wolves show no indication of similar self-doubt.

However, in several other places he seems to fantasize about becoming a predatory wolf himself:

You are well aware that wolves roam the quiet countryside. You know what the wolves want. There is more than just a little of the wolf in you, is there not? You know how predators choose their prey. Teach those who are willing to listen how to avoid looking like lambs waiting to be taken to the slaughter. No plan is perfectly reliable, and anyone can fall victim at just about any time and place. Do not use this as an excuse for laziness in the arenas of planning and preparation. If necessary, you may have to become a wolf yourself. Can you unleash that predatory spirit at will? If not, learn how to do so. The need will, almost certainly, arise.

At one point he just straight-up tells himself: “Be the wolf, not the sheep.”  This is the moral opposite of Stoicism.  For the Stoics, indeed, this aggressive, predatory attitude toward those who are more vulnerable would  exemplify not strength but moral weakness. The image that automatically popped into my mind while I was reading these passages was of some young guy who has to look in the mirror before he leaves the house going: “Who’s the wolf?  I’m the wolf!  I’m the big bad wolf… Grrrrrrr!“, trying to convince himself he’s a wolf not a sheep.

Perhaps this is, or should be, so obvious it almost goes without saying but why can’t we just be human beings?  Because it’s too difficult?  Diogenes the Cynic went around with a lamp in broad daylight looking for a man because he couldn’t find one anywhere.  It’s not easy taking full responsible for thinking rationally and living accordingly.  It’s a lot easier to lapse into following our instincts or primitive feelings.  But it’s a rational human being that Stoics aspire to be, not a wild animal.  Marcus says that the strength of real men, the sort of men that most people really admire at the end of the day, doesn’t consist in anger and aggression but in the ability to rise above it and show calm and gentleness toward others instead (11.18).  He’s dead right about that.

Marcus also says that nothing is more “odious” than the hypocrisy of a wolf who pretends to be friends with lambs, while preying upon them (11.15).  He means that we should aspire to overcome the cruelty in our nature so that we can be open and sincere with other people.  Indeed, the animal the Stoics most admired was not the wolf but the bull, who uses his horns to protect the weaker members of his herd from predatory lions.  (Some people may not be aware that bulls can toss lions on their horns and kill them.) Maybe Ferraiolo comes closer to this when he’s talking about protecting his family, but he goes off in the opposite direction in these passages where he fantasizes about being a wolf preying on lambs.  The bull represents the value placed by Stoics on kinship and courage which is virtuous because it’s in the service of something noble: protecting the weak.  The “courage” of the metaphorical wolf, by contrast, who preys on the weak, would actually be nothing more than cowardice in disguise.

A Stoic Response

The introductory sequence to one of the skits in Sacha Baron Cohen’s Who is America? depicts a caricature of a “self-hating” liberal activist who we’re told has been “cycling through our fractured nation listening respectfully without prejudice to Republicans… with the hope of changing their racist and childish views, to try and heal the divide.”

It’s poking fun, of course, at the character’s lack of insight into his own judgemental stance and hostile  prejudices.  Over and over again, in this book, though, Ferraiolo sounds like he’s doing more or less the same thing by berating himself for his impulse to angrily belittle all the people he labels as “imbeciles”, “windbags”, etc.  For example, the passage I quoted above:

Your temper has gotten the better of you once again, has it not? Imbecile! Ape! It makes no difference that you were provoked by a liar, or by a corrupt cheat, or by a pompous windbag. The failure is yours—again!

It seems obvious to say that he’s got that back to front, though.  As long as he continues to use a barrage of derogatory terms to describe people he doesn’t agree with then he’s bound to feel angry and react negatively to them.  He’s poisoned the well right from the outset, just like Sacha Baron Cohen’s caricature who’s trying to make nice and “heal the divide” with people he labels from the outset as “ignorant racists”.  In a sense it’s hypocritical, or at least self-contradictory.  It’s one step removed from saying: “I’m going to stop having so many negative feelings toward this fucking bastard!

It’s a psychological strategy doomed to failure from the very get-go.  So I’m going to stick my neck out and hypothesize that this is one of the main reasons for the inner struggle with feelings of anger and frustration that this author repeatedly describes.  If you talk about people in an angry way, and ruminate about violence, you’re bound to feel angry.  If you talk about yourself in an angry and harsh way you’re likely to feel depressed.

Reading this book reminded me of something that therapists often do during the initial orientation (“socialization”) phase of treatment.  Most people are very reluctant to admit that what they’re doing might be causing their problem, even if the connection seems fairly obvious.  People who suffer from insomnia often drink lots of coffee “because I feel really tired the next day and it’s the only way I can stay awake”.  The therapist might say, “Well, if I drank fifteen cups of coffee every day, I would imagine that I’d probably start to have problems sleeping as well, don’t you think?”  That basic principle holds true for most problems in therapy.  For instance, therapists might ask depressed clients to draw up a list of activities they used to enjoy but don’t do anymore.  (Depression is often associated with social withdrawal and loss of interest in pleasurable activities.)  The therapist might casually observe, “I suppose if I made a list of all the activities I enjoy and I stopped doing most of them, after I while I might start to feel kind of depressed, do you think?”

Well, when I’d finished reading this book, I felt like saying: “You know, if I started calling people I don’t like imbeciles and liars and charlatans, over and over again, and began fantasizing about inflicting brutal physical violence on my enemies, I’d probably start to feel quite angry, don’t you think?”  It’s a good recipe for cooking up anger, in fact.  I don’t think that cause-effect relationship is very obvious to Ferraiolo, although it’s something he could potentially have learned from the Stoics.  I would hope that he might begin to think about whether that’s part of the problem because he makes it clear that he feels quite stuck.  Being honest about his feelings probably took a lot of courage and it’s likely to be an important step in finding a solution.

One of the reasons people don’t notice this sort of thing, although it might seem glaringly obvious to onlookers, is that they assume the cause-effect relationship runs the other way.  People say “I called him a bastard because I was so angry!” or “I kept telling myself I was a worthless weakling and an imbecile because I felt so depressed!”  And there may well be some truth to that.  Feeling upset probably does make people more inclined to make negative value judgments of this kind and to express their feelings in insults toward themselves and others.  However, it’s also true that it works the other way as well.  Using language like this, and thinking this way, is bound to affect our feelings.  We might think of it as a vicious cycle or circular relationship between aggressive or negative language and angry feelings.  People often struggle to suppress the feelings but they’re not easy to control that way.  The good news is that the other part of the cycle, the language we use, is something that’s almost entirely within our sphere of voluntary control: we can just choose to stop doing it.  That’s where our leverage is, not in direct suppression of the feelings.  As long as we notice when it’s happening, which may take a bit of practice but is definitely achievable, we can just stop ourselves from using emotive language or throwing around insults.  That’s what the Stoics would recommend.

As we’ve seen, Ferraiolo makes very extensive use of language that certainly comes across as very emotive.  Just like the Stoics before us, in modern cognitive therapy for depression, anger, or other emotional problems, one of the first things we’d often do is question the client’s use of emotive language.  If I’m always referring to other people as “bastards” or “bitches”, I’m probably going to feel angry because that’s that sort of language is basically designed to evoke strong negative emotions.  So if I’m not careful, I become a victim of my own emotive rhetoric.  When we call people names we’re usually judging them negatively and when we do that we’ll usually feel angry or depressed or anxious, etc.

The Stoics were wise to this and realized that one of the foundations of their approach would have to be the suspension of strong value judgements.  They called this phantasia kataleptike, a mental representation of events, and other people, that grasps reality in a completely rational and objective manner.  Pierre Hadot translated this term “objective representation”.  It literally means “an impression that grips”, which Zeno symbolized by clenching his fist.  We could also say it’s about “having a firm grip on reality” by not projecting our values onto things and allowing our emotions to distort our thinking.  So although the Stoics may sometimes use emotive rhetoric they generally avoid it and try to describe things in a more matter-of-fact way.  It strikes me that Ferraiolo’s doing the opposite, though.  There’s a clear rhetorical effect caused by all the references to his frustration with other people and society in general and the harsh words he has for them, as well as for himself.

Like Socrates and the Stoics, Ferraiolo recognizes that the goal of philosophy is to purify our minds of hypocrisy and inconsistency.

Competing, and sometimes conflicting, purposes or interests make for a muddled and untrustworthy character. How is anyone supposed to take you at your word, or entrust to you any significant responsibility, if you allow your goals to drift, or to become caught up in periodic flights of fancy? Keep the rules that govern your behavior simple and reliable. In this way, you will make yourself dependable and trustworthy.

However, as we’ve seen, throughout most of the book he displays an ongoing struggle between his angry feelings and a more balanced, reasonable, way of relating to himself, other people, and society in general.  He takes that cynical, or what he calls “contemptuous”, attitude toward other people and uses it against himself, beating himself over the head with a stick in order to instil self-discipline.  However, modern therapists have found evidence that when people do that they often make their problems worse.  When we’re angry or depressed it’s often much more effective to speak to ourselves more gently and compassionately, although we can still be assertive.  As I mentioned above: no good therapist would speak to vulnerable clients in a scathing and contemptuous manner.  Ferraiolo is trying to act as his own therapist, using a club as his main tool, though.

You failed again yesterday. Is there a single day of your life that you have lived entirely in accordance with the principles and values that you espouse, both publicly and within the confines of your own consciousness? When was the last time you practiced what you preached for more than a few moments? Your hypocrisy is deep and abiding, is it not? Without adherence to maxims founded in reason, virtue, and sincerity, you know that your life will devolve into wretchedness and ignominy. You have seen the unprincipled life up close. You have watched the wake of destruction it leaves both within and without. You have beheld the malformations of character, the moral disfigurement, and the self-abasement that ensue when decency is jettisoned, or subordinated to licentious self-indulgence. Do you fear any condition more than dishonor, dissolution, and degeneracy? No one could tell as much by observing your behavior. These fates all await you should you stray far or long from the proper path. Perhaps your greatest fear is that you are not up to the rigors of the righteous life. Perhaps this fear is well warranted. Do you know that this course is not too difficult for you? There is, it seems, only one way to find out. Get moving.

Although sometimes they also sound harsh in their self-criticism, the Stoics were well aware that our communication, even when speaking plainly, needs to be appropriate to be effective, and often that requires tact and gentleness.  Seneca describes the Stoic attitude to self-criticism as more gentle and forgiving:

I make use of this privilege, and daily plead my cause before myself: when the lamp is taken out of my sight, and my wife, who knows my habit, has ceased to talk, I pass the whole day in review before myself, and repeat all that I have said and done: I conceal nothing from myself, and omit nothing: for why should I be afraid of any of my shortcomings, when it is in my power to say, “I pardon you this time: see that you never do that anymore? In that dispute you spoke too contentiously: do not for the future argue with ignorant people: those who have never been taught are unwilling to learn. You reprimanded that man with more freedom than you ought, and consequently you have offended him instead of amending his ways: in dealing with other cases of the kind, you should look carefully, not only to the truth of what you say, but also whether the person to whom you speak can bear to be told the truth.” A good man delights in receiving advice: all the worst men are the most impatient of guidance.  (Seneca, On Anger)

That’s an example of the Stoic way to do self-therapy.  Read it again because this passage happens to deal with virtually identical issues to some of those in Ferraiolo’s book but it obviously does so in a completely different manner.  The content of Seneca’s admonitions is not only gentle but also quite specific and constructive in nature.  He begins by gently pardoning himself for the mistake and then calmly tells himself what to do differently next time, rather than just berating himself for being an imbecile.  Seneca also happens to be advising himself to be more gentle in admoniting other people.  It’s one of the “virtues” of Stoic rhetoric that our communication should be both honest and appropriate to the other person.  There’s no point speaking plainly if it doesn’t actually help anyone.  Any idiot can blurt out the truth, or criticize other people, the difficult thing is to say it in a way that can actually benefit them.

Marcus Aurelius says that correcting another person’s flaws is like telling them they have bad breath – it usually has to be done tactfully.  For example, Marcus says that his own Stoic teacher, Sextus of Chaeronea, came across as a very kindly man, who was patient with the unlearned, and ill-informed.  He could adapt himself to any sort of person, in fact, so that even when he was disagreeing with you, his conversation was more pleasant than any flattery.  Marcus describes him as the ideal of a Stoic teacher: full of natural affection and yet free from irrational passions, particularly anger (Meditations, 1.9).  There are many passages describing the art of gentle admonition in The Meditations.  This is how Marcus was instructed by his Stoic tutors and how he dealt with the many troublesome people he was faced with in his later life, as emperor.  The gentleness, politeness, and freedom from anger or irritation for which Marcus was renowned was part of what made him an exemplary Stoic and it came directly from his use of Stoic principles:

It is a man’s especial privilege to love even those who stumble. And this love follows as soon as you reflect that they are akin to you and that they do wrong involuntarily and through ignorance, and that within a little while both they and you will be dead; and this above all, that the man has done you no harm; for he has not made your “ruling faculty” worse than it was before. (Meditations, 7.22)

Conclusion

I enjoyed this book, although I’ve criticized it in part. I’d like people to read it.  I don’t think the sort of approach modelled here in terms of self-help is for everyone, though.  I’m pretty confident there won’t be any cognitive therapists who advise their clients with depression or generalized anxiety, etc., to copy the coping style of the author, to be completely honest.  I’m fairly certain my words of caution would be echoed by most of them.

I think the author was very courageous to self-disclose to this extent and I think that will be a huge step in his own self-improvement journey, with which I certainly wish him good luck.  As several people have responded to this article looking for more advice, I’d like to end by recommending the work of one  of the UK’s leading psychotherapy researchers, Prof. Paul Gilbert.  Gilbert developed a “third-wave” CBT approach called Compassion-Focused Therapy (CFT), drawing on developments in evolutionary psychology and neuroscience.  It attempts to directly addresses the problems reported by individuals suffering from high levels of self-criticism.  It’s still a young therapy but studies have already indicted its effectiveness for a range of psychological issues, including quite severe mental health problems.  Gilbert’s research on “compassion”, though inspired by Buddhist philosophy, perfectly complements the virtue of “kindness” (eugnômosunê) in Stoicism.

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12 thoughts on “Book Review: Meditations on Self-Discipline and Failure by William Ferraiolo”

  1. I think this is a really knowledgeable and insightful review; I have enjoyed it very much. I agree with most of Mr. Robertson´s points, and I don´t completely disagree with the few others. And yet, Mr Ferraiolo´s book gave me something very good, very powerful that I don´t find fully reflected in Mr. Robertson´s review. I believe it has something to do with his brutal honesty, the uncompromising commitment to change that Mr. Ferraiolo exudes in his approach to self-improvement. To me, it was an inspiration and, considering that 85% of Amazon´s reviewers gave it 5 stars and loaded it with praise, it seems that Mr. Ferraiolo´s book is also inspiring many other readers. I found the book particularly refreshing at a time when many of the books being published on the subject do little more than to summarise stoicism for novices. Despite its flaws, I get the feeling that Epictetus would have enjoyed this book and may have considered Mr. Ferraiolo one of his most promising modern pupils.

    In any case, I am very glad that I have read both, Mr. Ferraiolo´s book and Mr. Robertson´s review. The combination has been very formative and I am grateful to both of them.

    1. Thank you for your kind words. I am pleased you found value in my work. As for Epictetus…I think he would have refused to have anything to do with me. That’s one reason that he and Diogenes are two of my heroes. 😏

  2. It has taken me years to be able to deal with self destructive thinking. I would frequently mentally insult myself and beat myself up. A lot of that was ingrained from an abusive childhood environment. I deal them on a daily basis using the tools I learned over the years.

    CBT was very helpful on making me aware of irrational cognitive distortions that made me depressed and isolated.

    A daily journal helps me focus on what comes up daily and prevents me from accomplishing all I plan. It keeps me realistic on my expectations. This I picked up from Stoicism. I also read some Stoic passages everyday. This also helps reinforce and keep current what I learned in CBT and therapy.

    Buddhist metta- loving kindness- meditation helped me learn that I can generate these positive feeling without depending on others. This was a revelation because I did not grow up in a friendly nurturing environment. I go to group meditation several times a week to help reinforce these feelings.

    Also mindfulness meditation shows me that no matter how hard you focus, thoughts and emotions come and go. You have them and they are not you – just part of you. Just like you can’t prevent your body from catching an occasional cold; you also can’t stop your mind from having occasional disturbing thought or feelings. Unfortunately body and mind are also out of our domain of control quite often. In meditation I also learn equanimity by sitting with the disturbing thoughts and feelings and letting them kindly go without reacting. Also I isolate, so going weekly to support groups prevents me from becoming lonely, depressed and isolated.

    Hence what Donald said above wraps up a lot of what I learned over many many years.

    1. Your childhood sounds a lot like mine. I still recommend gratitude. We did not, after all, HAVE to be born at all. Keep working on yourself. Never give up. 💪👍

      Best wishes. 🙏

  3. I’m glad William Ferraiolo wrote his book, if for no other reason than to inspire Donald Robertson’s brilliant review of it. This may be the finest thing Donald has ever written. As William knows from my remarks on Amazon.com, I too read his book and my repsonse was similar to Donald’s. I found it harsh and dark, more the words of a Cynic than a Stoic. But I also expressed admiration for the consequent way William tried to put his philosophy into practice. Still, I missed something crucial, something which Donald seems to have spotted immediately and which he places at the heart of his critique: namely, how our severe self-censorship can paradoxically sabotage our attempt to live more virtuous lives. In my own philosophical journal (which I would never have the courage to publish) there is page upon page of metaphorical self-flagellation, seemingly unending cursing, castigating and condemning myself for failing to live up to my self-imposed philosophical standards. To borrow some imagery from Marcus Aurelius, reading Donald’s review was like having my ship escape a terrible storm, round the headlands, and arrive in a tranquil harbor. Is it any wonder that I have so often thought to myself, “Fuck Stoicism! It’s too hard! It demands too much of me!”? And is it also a surprise that, after such episodes, I then find it even more difficult to suppress my desire to overreact to the perceived outrageous actions of others? As Donald shows, we’ll never become better men and women if we only tolerate and forgive the failings of others; we need to tolerate and forgive our own too. Otherwise we will only slide down further along the sprial of anger, making it all the harder to escape it and, as Marcus put it, to “return to our sober senses.” Thank you, Donald, for taking the time to produce such an insightful interpretation of William’s book; and thank you William, for demonstrating such courage in revealing your own struggle to drive the tyrants out of your inner citadel.

    1. My pleasure – but I would not use the term “courage” in reference to my work. It’s largely a matter of removing clutter in my mind by spilling it onto the page. A kind of “cognitive laxative,” perhaps. Some might say that the metaphor is a little TOO apt. 🤔 😉

      1. I would still say that it takes a lot of guts to share such intimate thoughts with the world. (Something Marcus Aurelius himself doesn’t seem to have planned to do with his Meditations.) Even if it was a “laxative,” it came out in a striking form. You are a gifted writer, William, regardless of the contents of your thoughts.

  4. I’ve read Ferraiolo’s book and had identified with a lot of the struggle in it. I felt like I was reading someone trying hard to battle negative tendencies and try to level themselves. Like the author I guess I have also defaulted to cynical and harsh internal monologues – an exhausting battle …(thus the book’s title really grabbed me) and I had in the past tried to bully myself to be better… I’m on a bit of journey to come out of the fog of that war, if you will. Which is why I found your review and accompanying notes so… therapeutic! It felt like you put a great deal of effort into this review. Thanks again for your work.

  5. Thank you, Dr. Robertson, for this review of my work. It strikes me as an honest effort to be objective, fair, and helpful to potential readers – as well as to the author. 🙏

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