Town Mouse comic strip based on the forthcoming book How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius
William 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.
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.
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)
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.
Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT) is the main precursor of modern cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT). (Or the earliest form of CBT, depending on how you look at it.) It was developed in the late 1950s by Albert Ellis, who subsequently wrote dozens of books on the subject. Ellis had a forceful and engaging personality. In addition to writing textbooks for therapists he wrote some very popular self-help books for a wider audience. He also happens to have referred more often to Stoicism than any other famous figure in the history of psychotherapy. (The now almost forgotten Paul Dubois perhaps comes a close second.) My own background is in philosophy and CBT, so the relationship between REBT and Stoicism particularly interests me.
In Ellis’ first major publication on what would later become known as REBT, he wrote that its central principle “was originally discovered and stated by the ancient Stoic philosophers”. He meant the REBT principle that emotional disturbances, and associated symptoms, are not caused by external events, as people tend to assume, but mainly by our beliefs and attitudes about such events. Ellis would often teach this principle to therapy clients by showing them a famous quote from the Stoic Handbook of Epictetus: “It’s not events that upset us but our judgments about events.” However, many more references to Stoicism can be found scattered throughout Ellis’ writings. Indeed, even when he makes no explicit mention of Stoicism, traces of its signature ideas can arguably be found in other aspects of REBT theory and practice.
I’ve always felt therefore that Ellis was, quite possibly, more influenced by Stoic philosophy than he actually realized. Perhaps because he read the Stoics quite early in life, as a teenager, he underestimated the extent to which their writings may have inspired various ideas he developed many years later as part of REBT. My first book on Stoicism, The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (2010), reviews the parallels between Stoicism and REBT in depth, both in terms of theory and technique. So I won’t be providing another broad survey like that in this short article. Rather I’ll focus on what I think are some notable similarities between the fundamental principles of both Stoicism and REBT.
Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy: A Newcomer’s Guide
Walter Matweychuk is an REBT expert who is also very knowledgeable about Stoicism. Walter gave a talk about their relationship at Stoicon 2017 the international conference for Modern Stoicism. He recently published a neat little introduction to REBT called Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy: A Newcomer’s Guide (2017). It’s co-authored by Prof. Windy Dryden, a prolific author on REBT and, by my reckoning, the most famous psychotherapist in the UK. Their book is a concise account of REBT for complete newcomers. So it provides a great way for those who are interested in Stoic philosophy to begin learning more about REBT, and I believe they’ll soon grasp the obvious relevance of Ellis’ psychotherapeutic approach to Stoicism.
It starts, naturally enough, by introducing the famous “ABC Model” developed by Ellis. This provides a very simple way to illustrate the difference between healthy (rational) and unhealthy (irrational) ways of responding to any given situation.
A: Activation, meaning you find yourself in a situation or facing certain events about which you draw various inferences
B: Beliefs, you respond by imposing your underlying beliefs on the situation, in this case rigid, irrational demands
C: Consequences, you experience various consequences, particularly emotional distress, but also thoughts and behaviours
A: I’m giving a presentation at work and someone frowns, so I infer that they think I’m boring
B: I have the inflexible and irrational belief that everyone must find me interesting and if they don’t it’s absolutely awful and unbearable
C: As a consequence, I feel depressed and maybe drink alcohol and distract myself to cope
However, not everyone faced with the same activating event (A) will experience the same emotional consequences (C). Some individuals might have a more healthy and adaptive response. Why? Because they have more flexible and rational underlying beliefs (B), akin to preferences rather than rigid demands. This simple model is the foundation stone on which REBT is built. It’s therefore normally taught to clients during the initial orientation (“socialization”) phase of treatment. In more technical terms, it’s used to teach clients a simplified “cognitive” theory of emotion, in which the pivotal elements are their own beliefs (cognitions).
However, when the majority of clients arrive for their first therapy session they tend to talk and think as though certain situations (A) lead directly to emotional distress (C). “She criticized me and that made me feel depressed”, for example. They’re usually missing the cognitive link in the middle, the irrational beliefs (B) that really explain why they’re responding the way that they do. (“People absolutely must not criticize me, because if they do it’s unbearably awful.”) At first, people often try avoiding or changing the activating event (A), or suppressing the disturbing emotional consequences (C). However, REBT posits that in most cases the healthiest long-term strategy is to identify the rigid, irrational beliefs that create the emotional response, dispute them, and replace them with flexible, rational beliefs instead.
Ellis always saw his approach as being, in a sense, philosophical because it targets very fundamental beliefs. Indeed, often it could be described as an attempt to transform our underlying “philosophy of life” by disputing irrational beliefs and adopting more rational ones instead. Socrates was arguably the first person to really introduce the notion that rationally disputing our beliefs about what’s good or bad could be construed both as doing philosophy and also as a sort of psychological therapy. He liked to quote Homer, saying that it was the business of philosophy, not to speculate about the heavens, as previous thinkers had done, but to investigate “Whatso’er is good or evil in a house”, by asking questions of practical significance to our daily lives. It was the Stoics, though, who really developed this therapeutic aspect of Socratic philosophy the most.
The ancient Stoics actually had a similar three-stage model to Ellis but their emphasis was slightly different. For instance, Epictetus describes this process:
A: There’s an event, such as being caught in a storm at sea, that automatically triggers certain reflexive emotional reactions (propatheiai) and automatic thoughts (phantasiai), such as feelings of anxiety and seasickness, etc.
B: We respond with the belief, or rather value judgement (hupolepsis), that what is happening is intrinsically bad and harmful to our very nature
C: Our initial thoughts and feelings then escalate into a full-blown irrational desires or emotions (called “passions”) and we become excessively upset about the situation
For Stoics, it’s therefore a specific kind of value judgement that’s the root cause of emotional disturbance, and certain behavioural problems in life. For simplicity, we could describe it as judging things outside of our direct control to be strongly good or bad. However, they actually based their therapeutic approach on a more subtle qualitative distinction between two different types of value judgement: one which causes distress and one which does not. They had to introduce jargon to express this, making a distinction between judging something to be supremely “good” (agathos) or “bad” (kakia) versus merely assigning a lighter kind of value (axia) to it for the purposes of planning future actions.
The Stoics believed that only our own character should be judged supremely “good” or “bad”, making these terms synonymous with “virtue” and “vice” respectively. Everything external to our character or acts of will is at best lightly “preferred” or “dispreferred”, advantageous or disadvantageous, but not truly “good” or “bad” in this strong sense. We can articulate this distinction between something being “good” versus merely “preferred” in several ways because the Stoics employed several definitions of the “good” and a variety of arguments to support their theory. One is that the “good”, in this key technical sense, is synonymous with what is truly beneficial for us, and the “bad” with what is genuinely harmful.
We may rationally value some external things over others, such as preferring wealth over poverty, as long as we don’t actually confuse the value of such things with our supreme good or what is ultimately beneficial for us in life. Money might be useful or advantageous, according to the Stoics, but it’s not really the goal of life. Likewise, poverty might be a disadvantage that we prefer to avoid but in itself it doesn’t necessarily ruin our life. Assigning so much value to external advantages such as wealth or status, as if they were a “life or death matter”, is a recipe for neurosis, and the Stoics believed that it was also the root cause of certain vices, i.e., of immoral or antisocial behaviour and even crimes. In their view, external advantages like having wealth, good looks, or friends, merely gives us more opportunity or control over external events in life. Whether that’s ultimately good or bad, though, depends on how we use it. Political tyrants have immense wealth and power but, observed the ancient Stoics, that merely gives them more opportunity to exercise folly and vice. We go wrong, the Stoics say, when we’re duped into believing that fame, wealth, and other external advantages in life, are somehow more important than wisdom and virtue.
There’s another interesting way of expressing the Stoic qualitative distinction between what is supremely good (or beneficial) and the lighter value placed on externals such as health, wealth, and reputation. They believed that unhealthy passions (desires and emotions) are not only irrational but also excessive. They overreach themselves by demanding that they get what they want despite the fact that their aim is to get (or avoid) external things beyond our direct control. Nothing, say the Stoics, is truly under our direct control except our own will, or our ability to choose one thing over another (prohairesis). It’s therefore madness, or simply irrational and unphilosophical, to desire things in this demanding way.
‘What is it, Passion, that you want? Tell me this.’
‘What I want, Reason? To do everything I want.’
‘A royal wish; but tell me it again.’
‘Whatever I desire I want to happen.’ – Cleanthes
That’ll be an irrational, rigid type of demand then. By contrast, the philosophical attitude aspired to by Stoicism would require embracing the fact that our desires can always be thwarted by external events. Epictetus actually tells his Stoic students that there’s only one thing that they should rigidly demand in life, that they refrain from voluntarily engaging in vice, because that’s always, by definition, within their power to accomplish.
Epictetus called the first stage of training in Stoicism the “Discipline of Desire and Aversion”, which he says is the most urgent for his students to master. It’s basically the Stoic therapy of the passions. He says it boils down to the doctrine that irrational passions are fundamentally due either to being thwarted in getting what we desire or in getting what we seek to avoid in life (Discourses, 3.2). The frustration of certain desires, he says, is necessarily the cause of emotional disturbance, genuine misfortune, sorrow, lamentation, and even envy. He’s clearly talking about a particular type of desire that’s intolerant of being thwarted or remaining unfulfilled. He addresses this demanding quality of unhealthy desires at the very beginning of the Stoic Handbook:
Remember that [this type of] desire contains in it the profession (hope) of obtaining that which you desire; and the profession (hope) in aversion (turning from a thing) is that you will not fall into that which you attempt to avoid: and he who fails in his desire is unfortunate; and he who falls into that which he would avoid, is unhappy. If then you attempt to avoid only the things contrary to nature which are within your power, you will not be involved in any of the things which you would avoid. But if you [rigidly] attempt to avoid disease or death or poverty, you will be unhappy. Take away then aversion from all things which are not in our power, and transfer it to the things contrary to nature [i.e., irrational and unhealthy] which are in our power. (Handbook, 2)
Nevertheless, he adds that his students are to refrain from passionately desiring wisdom and virtue for the time being, in this strong sense, because that would be setting their sights too high at the beginning of their education in philosophy. He concludes by explaining that instead of employing this demanding, passionate form of desire and aversion his students should instead employ a light preference in selecting one external goal over another.
Moreover, Epictetus ends this passage by saying that even when pursuing things lightly in this way, Stoics should also remember to do so “with exceptions”. The meaning of this is usually lost in translation but he’s actually using a Stoic technical term: hupexhairesis. This is often translated as “with a reserve clause”. It means something very specific: undertaking our actions while calmly accepting that they might be thwarted. In plain English, the Stoic reserve clause is like saying: “I want to do xyz but if I don’t succeed, that’s not the end of the world.” Sometimes the “reserve clause” is expressed by qualifying desires and intentions with the clause: “if nothing prevents me”, “Fate permitting” or “God Willing”. Epictetus and other Stoics would also imagine specific setbacks thwarting their desires, which they practised accepting with equanimity and indifference. It seems to me that the addition of the “reserve clause” might be compared to what REBT means by holding “flexible” as opposed to “rigid” beliefs about what we want in life. It’s the subtle knack of being able to say “I want this but if I don’t get it – so what? – it’s not the end of the world” rather than “I must have this!”
REBT likewise shows clients that their irrational beliefs (B), in the form of rigid demands, are the key to their problem and that’s what the therapy focuses on helping them to change.
Note that failing to gain what we value is insufficient for emotional disturbance. REBT does not target unfulfilled values; rather it targets rigid attitudes that suggest the values we have absolutely must be fulfilled. Flexible attitudes specify a preference for what is valued and explicitly negate a demand for it. (p. 16)
For example, they might turn the rigid demand “I absolutely must succeed in valued areas of my life” into the flexible preference “I would prefer to succeed in valued areas of my life but do not have to do so.” In REBT it’s assumed that the strength of a desire alone isn’t what makes it into a rigid demand but nevertheless very strong desires are more likely to mutate into rigid demands. This distinction can be compared to the one made thousands of years earlier by the Stoics: between the sort of excessive desires or aversions that inevitably cause emotional disturbance when frustrated and the sort of light preferences that seamlessly adapt themselves to being thwarted.
REBT also distinguishes between three domains in which people hold such beliefs: about themselves, other people, or life in general. Stoicism actually employed exactly the same distinction. The early Stoics apparently began by employing a twofold distinction between internal and external nature, or ourselves versus the rest of the world. (This is probably the origin of Epictetus’ famous “dichotomy of control”, which distinguishes what is up to us, our own actions, from everything else.) However, at least by the time of Marcus Aurelius, this had evolved into a threefold distinction between ourselves, the rest of humankind, and the universe (or nature) as a whole.
This newcomer’s guide also covers three common “extreme attitudes”, which REBT believes are derived from rigid demands.
- Extreme awfulizing
- Discomfort intolerance
- Extreme devaluation
These also have parallels in the Stoic literature, although for the Stoics, as we’ve seen, the root cause of suffering is the belief that external things, which are not entirely up to us, are supremely good or bad. Sometimes, to be fair, it’s difficult to separate these sort of toxic attitudes as they’re very closely intertwined. For that reason, the difference in emphasis between Stoic therapy and REBT is arguably less significant than what they have in common. Both approaches agree that broadly-speaking a nexus of irrational, evaluative, demanding beliefs are at the core of our emotional distress.
REBT holds that extreme “awfulizing” attitudes often derive from rigid demands. For example, if I believe “People must treat me with respect” then as a consequence I may also have an extreme attitude that says “It’s awful when people don’t treat me with respect.” What’s meant by “awful” is defined as:
- Nothing could conceivably be worse in terms of this situation
- It’s worse than what we’d normally think of as 100% bad – it’s off the scale
- Absolutely no good can be derived from something as intrinsically bad as this
- There’s no way to transcend something this awful by responding constructively to it
The opposing attitude in REBT consists of asserting that the situation may be bad but it’s not awful, e.g., “It’s bad when I don’t succeed in valued areas of my life but it’s not awful”. We might also say “I don’t like it but it’s not the end of the world.”
As we’ve seen, the Stoics view rigid, irrational desires as the corollary of irrational value judgments. The two things are basically synonymous. What Ellis meant by awfulizing can be compared to what the Stoics meant by someone judging an external event to be supremely “bad” and “harmful”, in their special technical sense. This involves the belief that some external misfortune is so bad that it harms our fundamental interests, striking at the very core of our being. The Stoics believe this attributes a form of extreme “badness” to external events that they simply cannot possess: only the corruption of our own character, by folly and vice, can actually ruin our lives in this way.
To paraphrase one of their metaphors: imagine a set of scales with folly and vice on one side. No matter how many external misfortunes we pile up on the other side, it should never be enough to tip the scales. The form of “badness” attributable to external misfortune, no matter how severe, is inherently inferior and qualitatively different from the sort of “badness” possessed by our own descent into inner wretchedness. In plain English, both Stoicism and REBT agree that much of our emotional disturbance is caused by the belief that apparent misfortunes in life are not only “bad”, in the ordinary sense, but terrible or awful in an exaggerated and disproportionate sense. It’s right off the scale, in fact, and the Stoics would say that’s because it makes the error of conflating two different sorts of value.
REBT believes that many problems are due to the belief that discomfort is unbearable, which causes people to feel overwhelmed and give up prematurely when perseverance is required. Tolerance of discomfort happens to be essential to most psychotherapy, though. For example, treatment for many forms of anxiety requires repeatedly confronting our fears, which is impossible without a willingness to accept and tolerate a certain amount of emotional discomfort. Put crudely, we usually have to be willing to step outside of our comfort zone in order to achieve significant changes. In fact, discomfort intolerance can be a severe handicap in many areas of life. When we tell ourselves “I can’t bear it”, we’re usually wrong. It’s often just fear or laziness speaking. We can bear a lot more than we tend to assume.
The Stoics remind themselves of this quite frequently. One of the recurring themes in The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius is the claim that we are, by nature, capable of bearing more discomfort than we realize. For example, Marcus tells himself not to overwhelm his mind with exaggerated worries but to divide troubling events into small parts and focus on one aspect at a time. I call this the Stoic technique of “Depreciation by Analysis.” When we calmly ask ourselves “What is there about this particular aspect that’s actually unbearable?” we come to realize how absurd that question is because there’s almost always a way to cope.
Do not disturb yourself by picturing your life as a whole; do not assemble in your mind the many and varied troubles which have come to you in the past and will come again in the future, but ask yourself with regard to every present difficulty: ‘What is there in this that is unbearable and beyond endurance?’ You would be ashamed to confess it! And then remind yourself that it is not the future or what has passed that afflicts you, but always the present, and the power of this is much diminished if you take it in isolation and call your mind to task if it thinks that it cannot stand up to it when taken on its own. (Meditations, 8.36)
By focusing on the here and now, and one aspect at a time of a larger situation, Stoics learn to cope with even the most challenging misfortunes in life. Marcus, like other Stoics, also frequently asks himself what “virtue” or coping ability nature has given him that he could use to deal with the situation he faces. This is related to the Stoic emphasis on studying role models and learning coping strategies from them, which Marcus does extensively in Book One of The Meditations. One way of increasing our appraisal of our ability to cope with adversity and tolerate discomfort is by reminding ourselves how other people have managed to cope with similar situations.
Devaluation and Acceptance
REBT holds that a great deal of emotional disturbance is caused by beliefs rigidly deprecating oneself, other people, or life in general. This is typical in clinical depression but it can manifest in many other types of emotional problem as well. These extreme attitudes are interpreted as derivatives of rigid demands. For example, someone who rigidly believes “You must not ignore me” may conclude “You are a bad person if you do ignore me.” The essence of this attitude is a global rating of negative value. Something is judged to be bad as a whole, whereas in reality most things have a mixture of positive and negative qualities. It’s a form, therefore, of over-generalization. REBT recommends that these attitudes should be replaced with more flexible ones that actively refrain from attaching a global negative rating to oneself, other people, or life in general. Even better, we should learn to accept ourselves and others unconditionally even if we object to specific attitudes or behaviours.
This sort of extreme negative evaluation is similar to what the Stoics mean by judging externals, including life as a whole or other individuals, to be bad in the strong sense described above. Epictetus actually says that when you fail to distinguish between things that are up to you and things that are not, and invest too much importance on the latter, as a consequence “you will lament, you will be disturbed, you will blame both gods and men”, i.e., railing against life in general (Handbook, 1). The Stoics repeatedly warn us not to indulge in judging other people to be “good” or “bad” in the strong sense they’re concerned with, similar to a global rating of value.
Epictetus says that someone who is uneducated in philosophy blames other people, someone who is partially educated blames himself, and someone who has completed his education blames neither himself nor others (Handbook, 5). Human nature is fundamentally something sacred to the Stoics because, despite our flaws, our very nature contains the seeds of wisdom and virtue, the potential for good. Rather than condemning themselves others in this global deprecating sense, therefore, the Stoics encourage us to view our many passions and vices as, ultimately, being irrational mistakes made by beings that are fundamentally capable of doing good as well as evil.
There are many more comparisons we could make between REBT and Stoicism. For example, one of the methods of Socratic disputation employed in REBT, known as “functional disputation”, involves evaluating the consequences, emotional and otherwise, of holding rational versus irrational beliefs. That’s very similar to one of the most common methods cited by the Stoics, which involved comparing the consequences of living rationally versus those of being ruled by unhealthy passions, i.e., desires and emotions based on irrational beliefs. The Stoics often allude to this through the shorthand method of stating the paradox that irrational fears typically do us more harm than the things of which we’re afraid – highlighting the harmful consequences of irrational beliefs. Anger, they say, does us more harm than the person with whom we’re angry ever could, because it poisons our very character with temporary madness.
I’ve only been able to touch briefly on some similarities between REBT and Stoicism here. So I’ve focused on some of the key similarities in their conceptualization of emotional disturbance because that’s of absolutely fundamental importance, underlying as it does most of the other concepts and techniques employed in both approaches. As I mentioned at the beginning, my book The Philosophy of CBT attempts to provide a fairly comprehensive overview of the similar concepts and techniques found in REBT and Stoicism. So, in particular, if you’re interested in looking at the practical therapeutic techniques that go with the theory described above that would be worth reading.
However, this newcomer’s guide by Matweychuk and Dryden explains the core techniques of REBT more thoroughly, in plain English, in a way that I think will be of interest to those studying Stoic philosophy. For anyone looking for a quick introduction to REBT, it’s perfect in that respect because it’s very concise and yet covers the key concepts of the approach very well.
NB: See my video below for a discussion of the twelve practical techniques listed at the end of this book.
Cleanthes, the second head of the Stoic school, once said that while its philosophical doctrines may well be contrary to popular opinion they are surely not contrary to reason. He was speaking of “paradox”, which literally means contrary to opinion in Greek. Stoic philosophy, like the philosophy of Socrates, was known in the ancient world both for its famous paradoxes and for its rigorous appeal to reason. It’s worth clearing up from the outset that the word “stoicism” (lower case) denotes a personality trait, having a stiff upper lip, whereas “Stoicism” (capitalized) is an entire school of Greek philosophy. The relationship between these two things is pretty tenuous, although they’re often mistakenly conflated. Stoicism was meant to shake things up by challenging its followers to swim against the tide and embrace a moral worldview radically at odds with the values implicitly accepted by the majority of ordinary people. In doing so, it explicitly cast itself as a form of psychological therapy (therapeia) and self-improvement. It’s experienced a resurgence in popularity in recent decades because its emphasis on “philosophy as a way of life” appeals to a growing number of people as an alternative to Christianity and other religions. However, Stoicism is a philosophy not a religion. Its conclusions were based solely on reason rather than faith, tradition, or revelation. Massimo Pigliucci’s How to be a Stoic provides a restatement of Stoic philosophy and practices that takes the form of a self-help guide but one that attempts to update Stoicism in terms of a contemporary scientific worldview.
Pigliucci is professor of philosophy at City College of New York but he also holds PhDs in genetics and evolutionary biology. He credits his background in both philosophy and science as explaining the desire to find a rational philosophy of life and worldview that, in turn, led him to ancient virtue ethics and eventually to Stoicism. He says he was raised a Catholic but abandoned belief in Christianity as a teenager and like many others today was left looking for something else to replace religion as a guide to life. Pigliucci found that Stoicism satisfied the same needs as religion in that it could provide him with a practical philosophy of life. However, it was also fundamentally rational and science-friendly. The Stoics were materialists who believed in a God that was synonymous with Nature, a forerunner of the philosopher’s God of Spinoza and subsequently Einstein. Pigliucci found this appealing as a scientist because it allows us to find a place for spirituality, alongside reason, and without any form of superstition. The final thing that drew him to Stoicism was the way it directly engages with the existential problem of our own mortality. The Stoics neither reassure us with the promise of an afterlife nor simply turn away from the problem and ignore it, burying their heads in the sand. “A man cannot live well”, said Seneca, “if he knows not how to die well.” Having recently turned fifty, Pigliucci found himself, midway upon life’s journey, re-evaluating things and turning to Stoic philosophy as a way of coming to terms with the crude fact of his own mortality. He found himself in agreement with the core tenets of Stoicism but was also reassured that as a rational philosophy it was open to revision in areas where modern science or philosophy has made progress. So he states quite frankly “I have decided to commit to Stoicism as a philosophy of life”.
The book opens with an account of Pigliucci’s personal journey. It describes how, faced with a bewildering array of religions and philosophies to help us make sense of life, he chose to become a Stoic. He immediately explains, for readers unfamiliar with the philosophy, that this does not mean being unemotional like Mr. Spock from Star Trek. Stoics have feelings too. They just seek to reduce the hold unhealthy and irrational ones have over the mind and to replace them with more healthy and rational ones. One of its central practical components is the habit of distinguishing rationally between what is under our direct control and what is not in any given situations, especially ones that might be expected to upset us. Stoics learn to take more responsibility for their own thoughts and actions not to accept the reality that other things in life are not entirely under their control. Ancient Greek philosophy refers to the state of mind someone has when they fulfil their potential and live in accord with reason as “virtue” (arete). That word can sound overly pompous and moralizing to some modern readers but it can also be translated using the slightly broader term “excellence”. Pigliucci says he was drawn to Stoicism because of its emphasis on trying to flourish by living rationally and virtuously. He emphasizes from the outset that although Stoicism involves cultivating a special kind of indifference (apatheia) and acceptance toward external events, beyond our direct control, that does not make it passive or apathetic, in the modern sense of the word. The very thing that attracted him most was the way it attempts to square this circle by combining emotional acceptance with a commitment to positive action in the world. He does readers a service by making these simple points in the opening pages because it’s a common misconception that Stoics are unemotional and passive or disinterested in external events. Nothing could be further from the truth, though. Pigliucci was raised in Rome and says that since high school, where he studied Greek and Roman history and philosophy, he had an awareness of Stoicism as part of his cultural heritage. Many other people who “discover” Stoicism today have a kind of deja vu experience as they notice its ideas seem strangely familiar. Traces of its influence crop up throughout Western art and literature. In some ways, Stoicism is also the great grandaddy of the modern field of self-improvement.
Pigliucci is a member, along with me, of the multidisciplinary team that run a non-profit philanthropic organization called Modern Stoicism. Each year, Modern Stoicism puts on a free online course called Stoic Week, which helps people to try out different Stoic practices each day. It’s grown rapidly over the last five years and last Fall about seven thousand people from all around the world took part. Pigliucci cites this as one of several pieces of evidence pointing toward the conclusion that Stoicism is suddenly gathering popularity again. He rightly stresses that the data collected from Stoic Week and other research projects are tentative. These are merely pilot studies, nevertheless they consistently provide evidence that following Stoic practices can have a beneficial effect on mood and life satisfaction, as shown by results from established psychological measures.
What is Stoicism?
Stoicism is a school of ancient Greek philosophy, founded at Athens by a Phoenician merchant called Zeno of Citium around 301 BC. For many years, Zeno had studied different schools of Athenian philosophy before founding his own. He’d embraced the austere lifestyle of a Cynic philosopher as well as studying in the Platonic Academy and with the dialecticians of the less well-known Megarian School. The Cynics and Platonists were often contrasted insofar as the former embraced a simple but extremely demanding approach to philosophy as a way of life whereas the latter were somewhat more, well, “academic” and scholarly. Zeno’s Stoicism tried to bring together the best of both traditions. Whereas the Cynics eschewed bookish studies, Zeno introduced a threefold curriculum for his Stoic students encompassing Ethics, Physics and Logic. However, like the Cynics, the Stoics remained wary of study or debate that did not serve the fundamental goal of life, defined as “living in agreement with nature”. As Pigliucci explains, this didn’t mean hugging trees but rather fulfilling our natural potential as animals gifted with language and reason. For Stoics this ultimately equates to living in accord with virtue, and the love of wisdom. The Cynics had taught the austere view that everything except virtue should be seen as indifferent whereas the Platonists had recognized a variety of things as contributing to the good life. Zeno adopted a compromise position by arguing that though virtue is the only true good, other things in life naturally have some value albeit of an inferior sort.
In 155 BC, the head of the Stoic school at that time, Diogenes of Babylon, went from Athens to Rome on an ambassadorial trip, along with two other philosophers. While he was there he also lectured on philosophy, introducing Stoicism to the Roman Republic, where it quickly took root as it resonated with traditional Roman values. Over the following centuries many influential Roman statesmen became associated with Stoicism. The last famous Stoic we hear about is the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, whose Meditations survives today. From Zeno to Marcus, therefore, the history of the Stoic school as a living tradition spanned nearly five centuries, before it was gradually eclipsed by Neoplatonism and then by Christianity. Pigliucci begins by surveying the history of the school for those unfamiliar with the subject, although the main focus of his book is how Stoicism can be reprised in the modern world by providing us with a modern-day philosophy of life compatible with the current scientific worldview. He weaves his account of Stoic theory and practice into anecdotes drawn from his own life experiences, showing how the philosophy can be applied to everyday challenges.
Pigliucci was a relative newcomer to Stoicism when he began writing this book so he takes the famous Roman Stoic Epictetus as his guide along the way. Like Epictetus, he divides Stoicism into the three “disciplines” of desire, action, and assent. The main part of the book is divided into three sections. These deal respectively with training in mastering our desires and emotions, organizing our actions around a coherent moral goal, and learning to withhold our assent from initial misleading impressions.
The Discipline of Desire
Epictetus believed that we should learn to master our own fears and desires before focusing on the more theoretical aspects of Stoic philosophy. Pigliucci describes this discipline of desire as knowing “what it is proper to want or not want”. He therefore begins with the Stoic doctrine expressed in the opening sentence of Epictetus’ Handbook: some things are up to us whereas other things are not. The whole practice of Stoic philosophy, at least in Epictetus, revolves around this fundamental distinction between our own voluntary actions and everything else, i.e., what we do and what happens to us. Many people today are familiar with this aspect of Stoicism from the Serenity Prayer made famous by Alcoholics Anonymous: “God, grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, and Wisdom to know the difference.” Pigliucci stumbled across this prayer himself in the Kurt Vonnegut novel Slaughterhouse Five. It’s one of the central tenets of Stoicism that we should take greater responsibility for our own voluntary thoughts and actions while emotionally accepting the fact that other things are beyond our direct control. Bearing that simple distinction in mind has tremendous benefits in terms of building emotional resilience. However, people sometimes confuse it with an attitude of passive resignation, which it is certainly not. The Stoics explained this paradox through the metaphor of an archer who places great importance on the way he draws his bow, takes aim, and releases the arrow. However, once he’s done his part, he accepts that whether or not he actually hits his target is something ultimately in the hands of fate. It could move, for example, or a gust of wind could blow his arrow off course. The Stoic archer accepts this from the outset and although he has an external goal, or target, he focuses his will only on doing what’s under his control to the best of his ability, while accepting both external success and failure with equanimity. Pigliucci discusses how this kind of thinking helped him to cope with the stress of being surrounded by angry crowds on the streets of Istanbul following the failed 2016 military coup d’état against the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Pigliucci next appeals to modern biological science to explain the Stoic definition of the goal of life, “living in accord with nature”. This was meant as a call to fulfil our human potential as inherently social creatures, capable of reason. He argues that it’s a serious mistake for modern scientists and philosophers to reject the concept of human nature. Although Darwinism dealt a deathblow to the assumption that humans are somehow essentially unique compared to other animals nevertheless, Pigliucci argues, our capacity for complex grammar and reasoning is special enough to justify speaking about it as a defining characteristic of human nature. The Stoics also argue that although nature has given us instincts, like those of other animals, we’re capable of reflecting on whether we actually want to act in accord with them or not. Children with chickenpox feel a desperate urge to scratch their itching blisters. However, if they’re old enough to understand then reason is capable of stepping in and telling them that’s a bad idea and that their natural instinct should be resisted. That’s why the Stoics called reason the “master faculty” and believed that we had a duty to protect and cultivate our ability to apply it in daily life. Their goal was to learn the art of living wisely. However, they believed that human nature is both rational, meaning capable of reason, and social. Human infants are born relatively defenceless compared with those of other mammals. We have evolved a powerful parental instinct toward our offspring, which the Stoics called “natural affection”. They believed that when this pro-social aspect of human nature is developed in accord with reason it becomes the basis of social virtues such as justice, fairness, and kindness. Pigliucci explains that the Stoics believed reason guides us to extend this natural familial affection to others on the basis of their humanity, and capacity for reason. Stoics learn to care about humanity in progressively widening circles through a process called oikeiosis, which is notoriously tricky to translate but means something along the lines of metaphorically bringing others into our household. This leads to the famous ethical cosmopolitanism of the Stoics, who viewed themselves, like Socrates and the Cynics before them, as citizens of the whole world, and the rest of humanity are their fellow-citizens. This moral vision preceded the Christian notion of the “brotherhood of man” by four centuries.
Epictetus also said that external things are indifferent but how we handle them is not. The Stoics compared the way we deal with even the most serious life events to playing a ball game: death, bereavement, exile, poverty, etc. It’s not the thing itself that really matters, in other words, but the way we choose to deal with it. That’s what they mean by virtue. The ball is relatively worthless, in itself, but the game consists in handling it well. However, as we’ve seen, some external things are naturally “preferred” over others, according to Stoic ethics. Pigliucci explains the tricky Stoic concept of the value (axia) assigned to “indifferent” things by comparing it to the concept of “lexicographic preference” in modern economics. People are willing to trade money for a holiday because they place them both on the same lexicographic level but you probably wouldn’t trade your daughter for any amount of money or holidays. For the Stoics, health is preferred to sickness, wealth is preferred to poverty, and life is preferred to death, but wisdom and virtue should never be sacrificed in exchange for any of these external things because their value is of an entirely different order.
The discipline of desire is believed to be related to Stoic Physics and theology. The Stoics were basically pantheists and some aspects of their theology are unappealing to modern readers. The majority of modern Stoics, perhaps surprisingly, are atheists or agnostics. However, Pigliucci argues that Stoicism makes room for both religious believers and unbelievers. The founders of Stoicism leaned heavily on the Argument from Design, which holds that because the universe, in all its complexity, looks like it was planned by some divine craftsman it therefore must have been. Fewer people are persuaded by that argument today because Darwin’s theory of natural selection provides a plausible explanation for the diversity of animal life, which is simpler insofar as its based largely upon observable physical phenomena. Modern astrophysics likewise explains cosmological phenomena without reference to a divine creator. However, most modern Stoics find its central principles to be justifiable without reference to theology. Indeed, the ancient Stoics actually appeal quite seldom to the existence of God in the philosophical arguments they provided for their ethical doctrines. Moreover, they employed an argument based on agnosticism known as “God or atoms” to show that whether one believes in divine Providence or that the universe is created by the random collision of atoms, either way the core doctrines of Stoicism would still be justifiable. Marcus Aurelius actually refers to this ten times in the Meditations but Seneca and Epictetus also mention it in passing so it’s acknowledged by all three of the main Stoics whose works survive today. As far as we know, all of the ancient Stoics believed in God, and placed great value on piety, although they nevertheless disagreed about many important aspects of theology. What matters from a modern perspective is that Stoicism is, and always has been, flexible enough to accomodate atheists and agnostics as well as pantheists. It’s a philosophy, at the end of the day, and not a religion.
The Discipline of Action
Stoics were trained through the discipline of fear and desire to master their feelings, facing external misfortune without becoming upset. However, the discipline of action taught them to balance this emotional acceptance with vigorous moral action in the service of humanity, their fellow world-citizens. Pigliucci describes it as “how to behave in the world.” The word “stoicism” (lower-case S) has come to mean something like being unemotional and having a stiff upper lip, which doesn’t even do justice to the discipline of desire. However, it really falls short when it comes to the rest of Stoicism (capital S) as we’ll see.
Stoicism is all about virtue. Pigliucci explains this by referring to the importance of improving our character. For example, before he gained his freedom, Epictetus was a slave owned by the Emperor Nero’s secretary. He lived through the madness, corruption and tyranny of Nero. He also witnessed the Stoic Opposition to Nero, the criticism and resistance toward him and other autocratic rulers from principled republican Stoics, who were frequently exiled or even executed for speaking truth to power. Epictetus told his students anecdotes about several of these Roman Stoic heroes, who he appealed to as moral exemplars and role models. Pigliucci, while acknowledging that no role models can be perfect, refers to modern-day examples of principled individuals such as Malala Yousafzai. He also mentions the psychological research on virtues carried out by Martin Seligman, Christopher Peterson, and their colleagues, which shows a surprising amount of consistency in the values of different individuals around the world in this regard. Their model incorporates the four “cardinal virtues” of Socratic philosophy: wisdom, justice, courage and temperance. This fourfold model provides Stoics with a broad template for understanding the character traits that define human excellence.
Another of the Socratic paradoxes embraced by the Stoics is that no-one does evil knowingly, or willingly. Pigliucci explains this tricky concept by introducing a very crucial word: amathia. It denotes a form of moral ignorance, the opposite of genuine wisdom. Someone can be very intelligent yet still exhibit moral ignorance or amathia. The Stoics liked to point to Euripides’ Medea as an example. However, Pigliucci draws upon Hannah Arendt’s concept of the “banality of evil” to show modern readers how it’s possible for ordinary people to do evil things through moral stupidity. Arendt coined the phrase while covering for The New Yorker the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi lieutenant-colonel and one of the organizers of the Holocaust. Like Socrates and the Stoics before her, Arendt argued that the evil of such men consists in a kind of moral ignorance or thoughtlessness. Eichmann wasn’t evil in his own eyes; he genuinely believed he was just “doing his job”. Whereas Christian forgiveness depends on faith, Stoicism achieves something similar by interpreting all evil as due to moral ignorance. As a consequence, Stoics place more emphasis on reforming those who do wrong rather than punishing them for the sake of retribution.
The role of positive role models in Stoicism is further explored by introducing readers to one of the most important examples of a modern-day Stoic: James Stockdale. Stockdale was a US Navy fighter pilot shot down over North Vietnam at the start of the war. He’d been introduced to Stoicism at college and as he ejected over enemy territory the thought flashed through his mind that he was leaving his world and entering the world of Epictetus. He spent over seven years as a prisoner of war in the so-called Hanoi Hilton where he was repeatedly tortured and found himself making more and more use of ancient Stoicism as a coping strategy. After the war Stockdale wrote and lectured about Stoicism and his experiences in Vietnam. Pigliucci sets his example beside that of Cato of Utica, the great Stoic hero of the Roman republic, who opposed Julius Caesar’s rise to power.
He then turns to a discussion of how Stoicism has helped people more recently to cope with disability and mental illness. Larry Becker, a retired professor of philosophy, is the author of a highly-regarded academic book on Stoic ethics. He’s been suffering for decades from the effects of polio but Stoic philosophy has helped him to cope with some severe physical limitations. His strategy focuses on the need to reclaim our agency, focus on our abilities, develop a life plan, and strive for internal harmony. He also cautions us to beware of brick walls and to know when to quit. Pigliucci likewise provides examples of two more contemporary individuals who have used Stoicism to help them cope with clinical depression and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) respectively.
The Discipline of Assent
The disciplines of desire and action deal with our feelings and behaviour. The discipline of assent, however, is about our thoughts. It teaches us to suspend value judgements in response to our initial impressions and how to apply reason to evaluate them instead. Pigliucci describes it as “how to react to situations”. Stoics believe that by coming to terms with our own mortality and learning to adopt a philosophical attitude toward it, we overcome many other fears in life. Zeno of Citium, the founder of the school, opted to die by the traditional method of euthanasia, refusing food, when he was very elderly and concluded his health was too poor to continue. Pigliucci notes the value that Stoic perspectives on death have in relation to modern questions surrounding the ethics of euthanasia and assisted suicide.
There are many other aspects of life, though, where our initial reactions can be unhelpful. When Epictetus’ iron lamp was stolen from outside his home he told his students about it and used it as an example of something to be shrugged off with indifference. Pigliucci compares this to his experience of being pickpocketed on the subway in Rome. His initial impression was one of shock and anger, naturally, but Stoicism had taught him how to take a step back from these automatic impressions. He told himself instead that what happened to him was not under his direct control but how he chose to respond was, and it was no longer worth getting angry about. In relation to anxiety, Epictetus says that we should always consider how it’s typically fuelled by placing too much importance on things beyond of our direct control. He also taught that the wise man is prepared to endure solitude without complaint as sometimes being a natural part of life.
This leads into Pigliucci’s discussion of love and friendship. The Stoic wise man prefers to have good friends but doesn’t absolutely need them. It’s more important to be capable of acting like a friend, something under our control, than to have lots of friends, something that’s partly in the hands of fate. For ancient Greeks, the line between friendship and love was more blurred than we tend to assume today, and the Stoics, indeed, viewed friendship as a kind of love. A good friend is a good person, someone whose character we admire and values we share. Perhaps one of the most highly valued externals, from a Stoic perspective.
Pigliucci concludes by describing a dozen valuable Stoic exercises:
- Examine your impressions, checking whether they place too much value on external things outside your direct control.
- Remind yourself of the impermanence of things.
- The reserve clause, which means adding the caveat “fate permitting” to every planned action.
- How can I use virtue here and now?
- Pause and take a deep breath, waiting for strong emotions to abate naturally rather than acting rashly when we’re upset.
- Other-ize, getting beyond personalization by considering how we’d feel about our misfortunes if they befell another person.
- Speak little and well – the Stoics were known for speaking “laconically”, like Spartans.
- Choose your company well.
- Respond to insults with humour.
- Don’t speak too much about yourself.
- Speak without judging, just stick to the facts and remain objective.
- Reflect on your day, by reviewing events each evening in a constructive and dispassionate manner, looking for areas in which you can improve.
I would suggest some people might benefit from reading these first before starting the book.
Pigliucci is an important voice in the modern Stoicism movement. Instead of lecturing readers on academic philosophy he’s chosen to provide them with a practical guide to living like a Stoic in the real world. He shows that Stoicism can provide a philosophy of life consistent with a modern scientific worldview, and with atheism or agnosticism as well as different forms of religion. He provides many vivid examples of everyday situations in which Stoic philosophy was found helpful in his own life. He also draws upon many examples from the lives of other individuals to make his point that adopting Stoic attitudes and behaviours can contribute to a more fulfilled and emotionally resilient way of living. For that reason, I think that both newcomers and people who are familiar with the philosophy will potentially obtain something of value from reading this book. The Stoics believed that the wise man is naturally drawn to writing books that help other people and they would surely see How to be a Stoic as a fitting attempt to reprise their timeless wisdom for the 21st century.
Karen Duffy, or “Duff”, was kind enough to send me a review copy of her new book Backbone: Living With Chronic Pain Without Turning Into One (2017) because it contains a chapter on Stoicism. It’s a book about developing a backbone, and a sense of humour, and not allowing chronic pain or illness to get you down.
I wish I could write like Duff. Her style is witty banter and yet there’s a profound message of hope in there as well as the wisdom of experience. I postponed reading Backbone for about eight months because I was “too busy”. When I finally got round to it, I read it in a single evening and thoroughly enjoyed it. (I’ve already sneaked the PDF to some of my friends!) Duff has an autoimmune disorder called sarcoidosis of the central nervous system. It’s not very nice. She’s had to learn to cope with a lot of health issues, as well as severe chronic pain. She talks about how it was as though “old age” hit her in her early thirties in the form of chronic illness. She’s tough, though, and full of gratitude for life. Duff’s pretty into Stoicism already, and maybe I’m biased, but I reckon she could be even more Stoic than she realizes.
Her basic attitude that “happiness is a byproduct of being useful”, that it comes from what we give rather than what we get, is pure Stoicism. It’s our own actions that lead to personal fulfilment not just the chance events that happen to befall us in life. She’s of the “you make your own luck” school of thought, which is totally derived from Stoicism as well. “What is bad fortune? Opinion.” (Epictetus, Discourses, 3.3). Duff says that it seems to her that things turn out for the best when we try to make the best of our situation. Epictetus calls this philosophy of life the magic wand of Hermes. According to legend, it has the power to turn anything it touches into gold. What he means is that if we have the right attitude we can flourish even in adversity, by showing our resilience, and turning bad fortune into good. “I believe”, says Duff, “that when we face obstacles and adversity in our lives we have an opportunity to strengthen our courage.” She’s clearly talking from experience so I think we should listen…
One of the many unexpected things I learned from this book is that hockey may be the most Stoic game. Apparently there’s an “embellishment penalty” for players who take a dive and fake injuries on the ice. If there’s one thing the Stoics like to tell us it’s that we only make things worse by complaining too much about our suffering. It just adds another layer to our misery. As Paul Dubois, a famous Stoic-influenced psychotherapist everyone’s now forgotten about, liked to say: “He who knows how to suffer suffers less.” (Obscure therapy reference #1.) That could pretty much be Duff’s slogan as well. She describes her illness as, in some ways, a gift. Not a gift she’d have picked out for herself but she’s found an upside in discovering her own backbone, or inner resilience. Her advice that pain is inevitable but suffering is optional is (you guessed it) also pure Stoic.
When I read Duff’s remark “I believe that we are never too sick or too old to set another goal”, for some reason it reminded me of one of my favourite passages from ancient philosophy, found at the very start of Plato’s Republic. It’s a conversation between Socrates and a venerable old man, a wealthy immigrant living in Athens, called Cephalus. I first read it as a teenager and it just stuck in my mind. Socrates says that as life is a journey, he thinks it’s only sensible to ask those who have gone before us what the territory ahead is like: is it rough or smooth going? Cephalus gives him a surprising answer. First he explains that just as birds of a feather flock together so, he finds, old men like each other’s company. He hears all his friends complaining about old age, and their various aches and pains on a regular basis, and if you listened to them you’d think it’s a terrible curse. But Cephalus says they’re all wrong.
He says that what matters is your attitude and that if you’re the sort of person who complains about old age then he reckons you probably complained almost as much in your youth when the going was easier anyway. He looks on the positive side of things. As he gets older he’s lost his sex drive but that’s okay because it’s one less thing to worry about. He quotes Sophocles’ saying that it’s like being unshackled from a madman. In fact, Cephalus says that as he’s grown older he feels like he’s been gradually unshackled from several madmen. He looks at young people and feels that they spend a lot of time and energy chasing after things that just don’t matter to him anymore and worrying about superficial concerns that one day they’ll forget about. He can’t travel much anymore because he’s frail but he finds that he obtains more pleasure from conversation than he ever did in the past.
This is all prelude to the Stoics. Epictetus said “It’s not things that upset us but our judgements about them” and not a lot of people know this but he immediately follows it by saying that death can’t be terrible because if it were everyone would be scared of it whereas Socrates viewed it with noble indifference. Epictetus probably learned this strategy from reading about Socrates. Does something upset you? (Yes!) Does everyone else feel upset about it or do some people view it differently and cope better? (I guess so.) Well, in that case, could it be that it’s not the thing itself that’s upsetting but your way of looking at it?
In the conversation in the Republic the roles are reversed for some reason and it’s Socrates who’s learning this from Cephalus. What’s nice about this discussion is that he’s not entirely convinced, though. You see Cephalus owned a huge factory producing weapons and armour and so he was a wealthy businessman. Come now, says Socrates, surely people will think that’s easy for you to say because you’ve got loads of cash. Cephalus is very relaxed. He replies with a story. The Athenian general Themistocles, who had accomplished great things and won tremendous acclaim, once met a rude man from the relatively small and undistinguished Greek Island of Seriphos, who wanted to take him down a peg or two. The Seraphean remarked rather cynically that Themistocles was only famous because he had the good fortune to be born in Athens (the big smoke) and so he had a head start in life. “True,” replied Themistocles, “but if I had been born in Seriphos and you in Athens, neither of us would have achieved anything.” Touche! Cephalus brought up this anecdote to make the analogous point that wealth, though an advantage, only goes so far in making life more comfortable. At the end of the day, you need the right attitude as well. He’s already implied the same thing earlier when talking about the advantages of youth and good health. Someone with a negative attitude often won’t be happy even with all the advantages money, youth, and health bring. Cephalus admits that poverty, old age, and sickness are obviously disadvantages. However, even when faced with these challenges, a truly wise man, with the right attitude toward life, can perhaps flourish in his own way and find a degree of happiness. As I was reading Backbone, it occured to me that Duff might like that story too. (So that’s my feeble excuse for a massive digression!)
Anyway, how did she actually get into Stoicism in the first place? Well, one of her friends pointed out a bust of Marcus Aurelius to her in the garden of Sylvester Manor, an 18th century house on Shelter Island, in New York. Not to be outdone, Duff decided she better find out who this guy was and brushed up on her knowledge of ancient Greece and Rome, including Stoic philosophy. Now she carries a copy of The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius in her purse and reads from it every day. As she puts it, it was actually her competitiveness and a kind of intellectual envy that inspired her to get into Stoicism. As she learned more about Stoicism, though, she realized that, ironically, it’s a philosophy that teaches us to value improvements in our own character (virtue) and indifference toward these sort of comparisons with other people (externals). She plunged into Stoicism in any case because it was obviously very relevant to the challenges she was facing in life.
She went from reading Marcus to Epictetus whose endurance of chronic pain and disability she admired. Epictetus was lame and according to one account this was because, as a slave, his master cruelly snapped his leg. It’s surprising how many people find Epictetus relatable because of his gammy leg – it may explain why he comes over a bit cranky sometimes. Duff took from him the doctrine that none of us are free unless we master ourselves. She’d already taken up the challenge of mastering herself, particularly how she coped with pain and illness. Stoicism added some validation perhaps and she says it gave her a way to rise above the suffering of her body while focusing instead on the care of her soul.
Duff says she was very receptive to the core idea of Stoic philosophy, which she correctly sees as being that happiness, or fulfilment, comes largely from within, from our own way of thinking. Epictetus actually attributes this maxim to none other than Zeus himself: “If you want any good, get it from yourself.” Duff rightly views Stoicism as a practical philosophy emphasizing discipline and duty, something which complements her own values. She says, “The Stoics inspired me to meet the everyday challenges of my life and showed me how to deal with inevitable losses, disappointments, and grief… I find Stoicism a great resource that fills me with resilience and vigour.” Chronic pain can become a teacher and she learned that trying to control her pain, when she couldn’t, sometimes just backfired by making it more intense. A certain type of acceptance can be a pathway to emotional resilience in coping with chronic pain and illness, as the Stoics taught. She therefore follows Marcus Aurelius’ advice to reject any sense of injury to herself, despite the physical limitations imposed by her illness. There are a whole repertoire of pain management techniques tucked away in Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, from special ways of accepting the sensation to learning to forego unnecessary complaining, which the Stoics believed often only made things worse. One of the most fundamental things Stoicism teaches, though, is a particular way of looking at pain as being neither good nor bad but “indifferent”, which can help us accept that it’s there and get on with our lives. When we’re able to stop hating our pain and struggling with it internally, we often suffer less, which is a kind of paradox really.
Today we talk about grasping a nettle – if you do it confidently, without hesitating, you’re less likely to get stung. The Cynic philosophers, who were the forerunners of the Stoics, had a whole barrage of similar metaphors for accepting pain and hardship. They talk about our pain being like a pack of wild dogs threatening us. If we panic and try to run they’ll just chase us down and we’ll literally end up a dog’s breakfast – that’s just what they’re waiting for us to do. The wise man turns to face them, looking at them calmly and confidently, which hopefully causes them to back away. (At least according to the Cynics!) They also compare it to grabbing a snake. The nervous person who tries to pick it up by the tip of its tail or the middle will get himself bitten. An ancient snake handler would go straight for the scary end, grabbing it confidently behind its head to avoid being bitten. Their point is that if we voluntarily face our pain, and accept it, we’ll often suffer less than if we try to struggle or avoid it. Someone who tries to stamp out a fire gingerly is more likely to get burned, they say, than someone who just tramples on it confidently. And then they’ve got another one about a timid boxer who backs away and ends up getting more of a beating than if he’d moved toward his opponent, and had the confidence to fight more aggressively. Therapists today often say that coping with pain is like standing up to a bully. We have to stop running away and trying to hide from him, although that might seem scary at first. We might get hurt, it might be painful at first, but in the long-run we’ll often suffer less by standing our ground and facing what’s threatening us, actively accepting the reality of things like pain and illness. That seems to be what Duff is saying in Backbone as well.
She also says that her appreciation of Stoicism led her to develop a “pantheon of heroes”, individuals whose resilience in the face of adversity she’s inspired by and who have become her role models in life. She says they’re carved into her own personal Mount Rushmore. They include Peg Leg Bates, a one-legged tap dancer from the 1920s. Studying role-models who exemplify strength of character and resilience is a major technique in (wait for it) Stoic philosophy as well.
She emphasizes the importance of friendship which is not only good psychology, for building resilience, but it’s also a major theme in Greek philosophy. Socrates loved nothing more than bragging about his skill as a matchmaker of friends and he was adept at reconciling friends and family members who’d fallen out after a quarrel. He said some really cool things about friendship. The son of one of his wealthy companions was worried about making friends and he knew that Socrates had loads of friends from all walks of life so I think he was sneakily trying to get himself introduced to some of them. Socrates, in his usual style, gets a dialogue going about what qualities we should look for in our ideal friends. Seems pretty banal at first. But in typical Socrates-style he’s got a hidden agenda, and he plans to turn the whole conversation on its head. He explains that he’d be delighted to introduce the lad to all the best people in Athens and he knows the secret – he’ll just heap praise on him in their presence. There’s a catch, though, Socrates wants him to promise he’ll actually do all the things he’s just described the ideal friend doing because then he won’t be lying when praising him as someone who would make a great friend. That makes the boy hesitate. Socrates says there are only two parts to this process. Introducing him around Athens is the easy part and anyone should be delighted to do that once they see he’s such a great guy. That’s the only part the boy’s worried about but he needn’t be. The real problem is actually making himself a good friend to begin with, the sort anyone would want to have, and he admits that’s something he’s not really thought about enough. So he goes off to work on himself a bit more. Like most people facing most problems, he’d kind of got the whole thing back to front. Socrates is also trying to get him to realize that his goal shouldn’t just be appearing like a good friend but actually being one.
Duff quotes Aristotle’s saying “A friend is a second self”, literally an alter ego. (Alter ego est amicus.) That saying was also attributed to Zeno, the founder of Stoicism – maybe something the Stoics and Aristotle agreed on. Many of the other quotes and sayings are consistent with Stoicism even if that’s not where they came from. Duff quotes C.S. Lewis saying “Don’t let your happiness depend on something you may lose.” That’s Stoicism central. Epictetus said we should avoid becoming overly-attached to external things and let nothing cleave to us or grow on us that might cause us emotional pain when it is torn away (Discourses, 4.1). That doesn’t mean that Stoics don’t love just that they’re prepared in advance to endure the losses inevitable in life. Duff also talks about how people say things like “I’m not good at this. I’m so upset about your illness, I can’t handle it.” That jumped out at me incidentally because there’s a Discourse of Epictetus where he grills some poor guy who’s been talking just like that about his sick daughter. Epictetus shows him how absurd this is. I’ve been wondering how many people actually say things like that but it sounds like Duff’s met a few so they do exist.
As you can tell, Duff’s a connoisseur of fine quotes. I’ve never heard this one from Mark Twain: “The fear of death follows the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.” That really resonated with me, though. Duff’s learned not to be cowed by suffering and her book reminded me of Vespasian’s saying that an emperor should die standing, i.e., never give in. (“Die with your boots on”, I think, is the American version.) She’s also a bit of an etymology geek, noting that the word “disaster” comes from Greek, via Latin, and originally meant “bad star”, or as Shakespeare would say “ill-starred”. It’s a stroke of bad luck. Well I’ll see her “disaster” and raise her one “tragedy”, which comes from the Greek meaning “goat song”. We’re not sure if it was originally a song about a goat with a particularly tragic life or if the highly-contested prize for the most tragic song at Greek festivals was originally a splendid goat. Anyway, when wallowing in tragedy, I find it helps to remember this fact because it’s puzzling enough to serve as a convenient distraction.
Duff says that what matters isn’t that you live, or survive another day, but rather it’s how you live. The Stoics would say that the goal isn’t just to live but to live well, i.e., wisely. I think her book will probably help a lot of people who are suffering to live through it a bit more wisely. Her voice really comes through loud and clear. It’s easy to write books that everyone sort of likes because they’re bland and inoffensive. This book’s a lot more in your face, and that’s a good thing. It reminded me a little bit of Andrew Salter, the guy who invented assertiveness training. (Obscure therapy reference #2.) Duff concludes the whole thing by saying: “I have a serious illness, but I don’t have to take it seriously. I have found an upside in having my life turned upside down. I have learned acceptance and resilience and have created a whole new life. In short, I grew a backbone.”
NB: See my video below for a discussion of the twelve practical techniques listed at the end of this book.
Massimo Pigliucci is an important voice in the modern Stoicism movement. Instead of lecturing readers on academic philosophy he’s chosen to provide them with a practical guide to living like a Stoic in the real world. He shows that Stoicism can provide a philosophy of life consistent with a modern scientific worldview, and with atheism or agnosticism as well as different forms of religion. He provides many vivid examples of everyday situations in which Stoic philosophy was found helpful in his own life. He also draws upon many examples from the lives of other individuals to make his point that adopting Stoic attitudes and behaviours can contribute to a more fulfilled and emotionally resilient way of living. For that reason, I think that both newcomers and people who are familiar with the philosophy will potentially obtain something of value from reading this book.
The main part is divided into three sections. These deal respectively with training in mastering our desires and emotions, organizing our actions around a coherent moral goal, and learning to withhold our assent from initial misleading impressions. Pigliucci concludes by describing a list of a dozen Stoic exercises:
- Examine your impressions, checking whether they place too much value on external things outside your direct control.
- Remind yourself of the impermanence of things.
- The reserve clause, which means adding the caveat “fate permitting” to every planned action.
- How can I use virtue here and now?
- Pause and take a deep breath, waiting for strong emotions to abate naturally rather than acting rashly when we’re upset.
- Other-ize, getting beyond personalization by considering how we’d feel about our misfortunes if they befell another person.
- Speak little and well – the Stoics were known for speaking “laconically”, like Spartans.
- Choose your company well.
- Respond to insults with humour.
- Don’t speak too much about yourself.
- Speak without judging, just stick to the facts and remain objective.
- Reflect on your day, by reviewing events each evening in a constructive and dispassionate manner, looking for areas in which you can improve.
I would suggest some people might actually benefit from reading these first.
The Stoics believed that the wise man is naturally drawn to writing books that help other people and they would surely see How to be a Stoic as a fitting attempt to reprise their timeless wisdom for the 21st century.
People sometimes ask what books on Stoicism to read next after they’ve read the “Big Three”: Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius.
Of course, opinions are going to vary about this. There are lots of things we could suggest reading. Setting aside modern books on the subject, though, these are the first six I normally recommend…
Diogenes Laertius’ Lives and Opinions
You don’t need to read the whole book. The long chapter on Zeno contains a summary of early Stoic teachings. However, you may want to read the whole of books six (Cynicism) and seven (Stoicism). This contains second or third hand information summarized from earlier texts in the 3rd century AD by a biographer who wasn’t himself a Stoic or even a philosopher. Nevertheless it remains one of our most important sources for information on the teachings of the early Greek Stoic school.
The Lectures of Musonius Rufus
Musonius was the teacher of Epictetus and reputedly the most important philosopher of his lifetime. He was the mentor of key members of the Stoic Opposition. A collection of his lectures and several fragments still survive today, which are similar in some ways to the teachings of Epictetus. If you like Epictetus, you should certainly read this, although it’s really an essential source for anyone interested in Stoicism.
Xenophon’s Memorabilia of Socrates
Our other major source for information on Socrates, beside Plato. Xenophon paints a simpler and more Stoic picture of Socrates’ philosophy. It was reputedly hearing a reading of Book Two that inspired Zeno to become a philosopher and ultimately to found the Stoic School. That part of the Memorabilia contains Socrates’ version of a famous oration by the Sophist Prodicus, called The Choice of Hercules, which was designed as an exhortation for young men to embrace philosophy as a way of life and places considerable emphasis on self-mastery. Xenophon’s version of Socrates is more concerned with the virtue of self-discipline and it’s easy to see this as an important influence on Stoicism.
We could cite all of the works of Plato as relevant but the dialogue that seems to have most influenced the Stoics is the Apology. The concluding sentence of Epictetus’ Handbook, for example, paraphrases from it. It provides a vivid example of Socrates’ commitment to philosophy and his courage facing execution but there’s also considerable discussion of his attitudes toward death and positive teachings about morality, which coincide very closely with later Stoic teachings. Death is neither good nor evil and it’s important to overcome our fear of dying; wisdom and virtue are the highest goods and we should never value things like wealth more highly than them. Stoic-sounding teachings can be found in many other Platonic dialogues – including the Euthydemus, Gorgias, Meno and Republic – but the Apology is the best place to start looking.
Plutarch’s Life of Cato the Younger
Cato is one of the less well-known Stoics because we don’t have any writings by him today but he was a great hero of the Roman Republic because he defied the tyrant Julius Caesar. Our best account of him comes from Plutarch’s Lives, which is a biography but contains several interesting anecdotes about his character and values, although not much philosophy. If you’re interested in Stoicism, though, you should know about Cato, and also about the Stoic Opposition, which followed later, under the principate.
Cicero’s De Finibus
Cicero was an Academic philosopher but he had studied philosophy at Athens and was exceptionally well-read on the subject and very familiar with the teachings of Stoicism. He’s also quite sympathetic toward the Stoics, though not one himself, so his writings provide one of our most important sources for early and middle Stoicism. Stoicism is mentioned, or is an influence, throughout many of his works, but the most important is undoubtedly De Finibus, which portrays Cato the Younger summarizing early Stoic ethical teachings, which Cicero compares critically with those of the Epicureans and Academics. This is our most systematic account of Stoic ethics, so it’s extremely valuable in providing a context for the more conversational and fragmented version we obtain from Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius.
It should go without saying that this is the tip of the iceberg. There are many other ancient texts of relevance to Stoicism. Xenophon’s Symposium and Apology are also very important as are all of the Platonic dialogues and many other writings by non-Stoics such as Cicero and Plutarch. There are many fragments from early Stoic texts available in several compilations. There are also less well-known Stoic texts, which still survive today, like the Greek Theology of Cornutus and the Pharsalia of Lucan. The poems of Horace also contain many Stoic influences. The Roman histories are also extremely valuable, especially in relation to understanding the life of Marcus Aurelius. My goal here isn’t to provide a survey of everything, though, just a quick introduction to the texts I normally advise people to read first, after finishing Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius.
I have a seven year old daughter and since she was born I’ve been interested in how Stoicism relates to parenting. People sometimes ask me if there’s anything “out there” on Stoicism for parents. There are a growing number of resources online so I thought it was time to do a blog post listing some of them in one place, for convenience. Please let me know of any articles or other resources that I’ve missed and I’ll try to add them to this post!
First, though, I thought I’d say a little bit about kids’ books… Poppy is only seven but we discuss philosophy a lot. She loves the Percy Jackson movies and so I’ve told her lots of stories about Greek mythology. There are lots of great kids’ books available. She particularly likes the Early Myths series by Simon Spence. Her favourite Greek legends are about Hercules and she’s heard them hundreds of times!
Talking about Greek myths led to stories about Greek philosophers. Most of the best anecdotes are about Diogenes the Cynic (not all suitable for kids!) and Socrates. There are some great kids books available on Diogenes (Poppy calls him “the Dog”) and Socrates by M.D. Usher. There’s also a great series of books for small children called Little Stoics. Poppy watches Kids YouTube and she told me one day that she wanted to make her own videos. So we started doing some book reviews. She’s done videos on Diogenes by M.D. Usher and the Little Stoics series. We’re hoping to do another soon on M.D. Usher’s Wise Guy, about Socrates.
Articles / Video / Podcasts
Here are some article from the Modern Stoicism blog Stoicism Today:
- Musonius Rufus’ Nurturing Stoic Family or Plato’s Guardian Automatons? by Leah Goldrick
- Stoic Parenting in the Age of Distraction by Meredith Kunz
- Stoic Parenting: Praise the Process by Matt Van Natta
- Stoicism for Coping with Toddlers by Chris Lowe
- Happy Families: A Stoic Guide to Family Relationships by Brittany Polat
- Stoic Parenthood: Fertile Ground for Eudaimonia by Leah Goldrick
- Video:Stoicon-x Toronto 2017 Talk on Stoicism and Parenting by Chris Lowe
Some more articles from the web:
- Stoic Parenting: Keeping Perspective by Matt Van Natta
- Cardinal Rules for Stoic Parenting by
- Parenting Advice from the Stoics by Patrick Allan
- How Stoic Parents Raise Boys to Understand their Emotions by Joshua David Stein
- Audio: Message from a Lifetime Stoic from Sunday Stoic
- Book: Living Well: An Ethics Guide for Adolescents and Adults by Andrew Piekarski contains references to Stoicism
- Video: Stoicism and Virtue in Family Culture with Brittany Polat and Leah Goldrick
One of Xenophon’s Socratic dialogues has Socrates talking to his eldest son Lamprocles about his relationship with his mother. I wrote an article analyzing the philosophical content from a Stoic perspective.
People often ask about Marcus Aurelius’ relationship with his son Commodus, so I wrote a fairly detailed article discussing this from a historical perspective.
Groups and Blogs
I wrote a book for Hodder’s popular Teach Yourself series about five years ago called Stoicism and the Art of Happiness (2013). (I tend just to call it Teach Yourself Stoicism for short.) It was a real challenge to write because I was quite constrained by the series format, which is carefully designed to help readers learn by drawing their attention to key points and providing regular summaries, etc. I wasn’t sure how people would respond to this way of presenting Stoicism as a form of self-help, drawing on modern cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) but also placing a lot of emphasis on a thorough understanding of the range of ancient Greek and Latin sources available.
Well, it seemed to work! My editor at Hodder contacted me a while back asking me to create a second revised edition of the book. I’ve been keeping notes on feedback from readers over the years so I went through the entire text making pretty extensive revisions, improving the readability, adding details, and finally including the “lost chapter” on Stoicism and death. The scheduled publication date for the second edition is around August 2018. You can now pre-order a copy but be careful to distinguish it from the first edition. The new revised edition has the ISBN numbers below:
- ISBN-10: 1473674786
- ISBN-13: 978-1473674783
Here are some links:
- Amazon US
- Amazon UK
- Hodder & Stoughton (Publisher)
- Barnes & Noble
- Book Depository
- Google Books
It will appear in the inventories of other online bookstores over time so you should be able to find it by searching for the ISBN. I’ll add more links, though, as they appear.
As always, thanks for your support,
How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius (2019) is available for in e-book, hardback, and audiobook formats. It is scheduled to be published on January 29th 2019, by St. Martin’s Press / Macmillan Publishing.
How to Think Like a Roman Emperor uses anecdotes about the life of Marcus Aurelius, drawn from Roman histories, to teach lessons about his use of Stoic philosophical precepts and psychological techniques in daily life. Each chapter focuses on a different period in Marcus’ life and a different personal development topic, relevant to modern readers. These include dealing with desire, anger, anxiety, pain, illness, sadness, loss, and coming to terms with our own mortality. I’ve drawn heavily on my own experience as a cognitive-behavioural psychotherapist to explain Stoic psychological exercises in a way that’s workable for readers today who want to use Stoicism to make practical changes in their own lives.
Amazon’s Pre-order Price Guarantee! Order now and if the Amazon.com price decreases between your order time and the end of the day of the release date, you’ll receive the lowest price (restrictions apply).
You can also pre-order How to Think Like a Roman Emperor from:
If you want to learn more, you might be interested in listening to my recent interview about Marcus Aurelius’ life and philosophy for Scott Hebert’s Stoic Mettle podcast.
I’ve already written a general introduction to Stoicism for personal improvement: Teach Yourself Stoicism (2013). There are many other good books around on Stoicism so I wanted to write something completely different.
I hope you enjoy reading my new book! Please let me know if you have any questions about it in the comments below. As always, thanks for your support!
PS. Links to the book listing on the websites of Macmillan Publishing, Amazon, GoodReads, Chapters, WorldCat, Google Books, Book Depository, Kobo, Books-a-Million, Barnes and Noble. You can also search for the book using the ISBN numbers below:
- ISBN-10: 1250196620
- ISBN-13: 978-1250196620
PPS. You can become a patron and sponsor my work on Stoicism and psychotherapy via my new Patreon page.